I’d like to share some practices for bringing your best mix forward for mastering.
A Sensible Overall Recording Level
When I’ve received 24-bit masters for Trailer Music for example, they typically arrive with a Peak level of -6dBFS. Yes, they look low in level on the screen and sit about half way or less on my VU meters but they are meant to be that way, for now. When you process a digital file with additional DSP, the file grows in word length. If the peaks were already at 0dBFS and you started tweaking, it would likely create digital ‘Overs’ and distort. Not a nice thing. Having the files arrive with just 6dB of headroom to work with is not an abundance of room, but it’s enough to safely allow for that increase.
Let’s compare digital Peak meters against VU meters and cross-reference what your ideal levels might look like on each. Let’s say for example that your DAW fed into and out of an analog console with VU meters. A steady tone played at ‘0’ VU should be calibrated through your interface or converters to display on your peak meters at roughly -18dBFS. The same is true in reverse, if you generated that -18dBFS tone inside your computer and feed it out to the console it should be sitting at ‘0’ VU.
If you took that analog mix at those reference levels and fed it into the computer, it might look a lot like those trailer music pieces with several dB of headroom left over below the digital ’0’ Peak level. This would be true also in the case of an analog recording because the headroom in a piece of analog gear and also on magnetic tape could be 18-22 dB higher than it’s ‘0’ VU operating level. Therein lies the parallel. Each method be it analog or digital have an operational ceiling that is simply labeled a bit different but accomplish much the same thing. The headroom of each format can be the same, just bear in mind that the Analog point of reference is that ‘0’ VU target and the identical Digital point of reference is -18dBFS, each having the required headroom above it’s operating level.
No Buss Processing!
The first thing to remember when prepping your mix for any mastering engineer is to realize they have boundaries in which to work, and believe it or not YOU set those boundaries. If you over-compress a mix, it cannot be uncompressed. If you over-EQ a mix, it cannot be reversed with any precision. Don’t do your mastering engineer any ‘favours’ by using your own mastering plugins on your mix because they likely have better ones and at the very least, know how to use them better. You may have mixed a dozen albums but your mastering engineer has likely mastered hundreds or even thousands of them so listen to what they ask of you. In a nutshell, create your best mix at a sensible overall recorded level but refrain from using any additional Bus processing as there’s no need to push levels here.