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10 Mistakes to Avoid When Mastering Your Own Mixes

10 Mistakes to Avoid When Mastering Your Own Mixes

When mastering your own songs, it’s important to understand that mastering is not just about your mixes. While mixing your own tracks is common, especially for mix and mastering engineers, I’m referring to mastering the songs you wrote, arranged, recorded, and mixed yourself.

From the beginning, this can be considered the first mistake, because mastering your own tracks undermines the purpose of audio mastering, which should offer a fresh perspective from a professional with experience in the field.

Audio mastering requires a specific listening environment and monitoring system. A good engineer brings not only technical expertise but also an unexpected element that can fully express the potential of your song. Mastering yourself means missing out on these benefits.

Even if you wait weeks, you’ll never have a truly fresh perspective, because you’ve been involved in every other stage of the song’s creation. Without the right tools and experience, self-mastering often leads to suboptimal results.

But let’s say you want to do this and for exactly this purpose, I wrote this guide to help you avoid common audio mastering mistakes and achieve a professional sound.

Let’s start with…

Mistake 1: Not Level Matching

One of the most critical aspects of mastering is ensuring that your tracks are level-matched. Our brains naturally perceive louder sounds as better, which can lead to misleading conclusions about the quality of your mix. When mastering, it’s crucial to compare your processed track to the original mix.

Without level matching, you might mistakenly think that your mastering process has improved the track when in reality, the perceived improvement is due to an increase in volume. This can result in misguided decisions and ultimately a subpar final product.

Mistake 2: Trying to Fix a Bad Mix

When doing everything yourself, you should be 100% happy with your mix before moving to the next stage. Mastering should bring the mix to a commercial level without altering the balance or tone. This is a challenging task, even with a good mix, especially when pushing for loud levels.

Don’t delegate fixing mix issues to the mastering stage. If you’re mixing and mastering your own work, address all problems during mixing. Don’t think, “I’ll fix that in mastering,” because no magical transformation occurs at the mastering stage.

Mastering can’t fix a bad mix, and you should ensure your mix is as perfect as possible before moving to mastering. This will help you achieve a professional, commercial-level sound without compromising the balance or tone of your original mix.

Mistake 3: Using Too Many Reference Tracks

While it’s beneficial to use reference tracks, using too many can create confusion and an unbalanced final product. Each mix is unique, and trying to combine elements from multiple references can lead to chaos.

Stick to one or two reference tracks that closely match the sound you’re aiming for. While referencing other tracks is useful, attempting to match them too closely can lead to overprocessing.

Each track is unique, and differences in production, arrangement, and instrumentation mean that a one-to-one match is unrealistic.

Professionals use reference tracks as a guide but tailor their approach to suit the individual characteristics of the track they are mastering.

Mistake 4: Mastering with Your Eyes Instead of Your Ears

Relying too much on visual tools like analyzers, frequency charts, loudness meters, and stereoscopes can detract from the most critical aspect of mastering: listening. Visual tools are helpful, but they should only supplement your auditory judgments.

In today’s world, where everything needs to be quick and easy, people often avoid the hard work required to achieve great sound. They might think that if their waveform looks like a professional’s, it must sound the same.

However, a true judgment of a good mix or master comes from listening, not just looking.

Mistake 5: Searching for a One-Size-Fits-All Mastering Chain

One of the biggest mistakes in mastering is looking for a universal mastering chain that works for every track. While having go-to tools is beneficial, it’s essential to recognize that no single setting or chain suits all songs.

Each track requires unique adjustments, and relying on versatile tools, whether analog or digital, allows for better customization. Professional sound engineers possess a deep understanding of their equipment and can tweak it to fit the specific needs of each project.

Mistake 6: Using Compressors as Limiters

Compressors and limiters serve different purposes, and confusing them can dull the dynamics of your mix. Compressors manage overall dynamics, while limiters catch peaks. Confusing compressors and limiters can dull your mix’s dynamics.

Compressors manage overall dynamics, while limiters catch peaks to prevent distortion. Use compressors for smoothing volume differences and adding punch, and limiters for precise peak control.

Properly applying each tool preserves the energy and impact of your mix!

Mistake 7: Excessive Limiting and Clipping

In the quest for loudness, many engineers overuse limiting and clipping, which can squash the dynamics and introduce distortion. A balance is crucial; too much limiting can destroy the natural dynamics and feel of a track.

Professionals understand the importance of preserving the dynamic range while achieving competitive loudness, ensuring the track remains punchy and clear without being overly compressed.

Mistake 8: Overuse of Stereo Widener Tools

Modern tools make it easy to widen the stereo field, but excessive widening can lead to a hollow and less impactful mix. Widener plugins often increase the side elements at the expense of the center, where the core elements of a track (vocals, bass, kick) reside.

Professional engineers like me use widening judiciously, maintaining the integrity and power of the central elements while enhancing the stereo image where appropriate.

Mistake 9: Adding Unnecessary Saturation

Mastering should ideally be as transparent as possible. Adding color through saturation, tape emulation, or other effects can sometimes improve a mix but should not be the default approach.

Professional engineers start with transparent tools and only add color if it enhances the track in a meaningful way, ensuring that any added character serves the music rather than detracting from it.

Mistake 10: Expecting Too Much from Mastering

Mastering can improve a mix, but it’s not a miracle worker. If your mix doesn’t translate well across different playback systems, mastering alone won’t fix this.

Having the right expectations is key. Working with a professional mastering engineer provides a reference for what mastering can achieve. This helps set realistic goals and avoids over-processing. Mastering isn’t a miracle solution, but it can significantly improve a track when done well.

Why Hire a Professional Sound Engineer?

Mastering is both an art and a science, requiring a fresh perspective, specialized tools, and an acoustically treated environment. A professional sound engineer brings:

  • Experience and Objectivity: Having worked on countless projects, professionals offer an unbiased ear and a wealth of knowledge.
  • Advanced Tools and Techniques: Access to high-end gear and software, along with the expertise to use them effectively.
  • Critical Listening Skills: The ability to detect and address subtle issues that can make or break a track.
  • Consistency and Reliability: Ensuring your music meets industry standards and sounds great across all playback systems.

While DIY mastering might seem tempting, the expertise and resources that professional sound engineers provide are invaluable. They ensure your music reaches its full potential, delivering a polished, professional sound that stands out in today’s competitive market.

In Conclusion

Mastering is a nuanced and intricate part of the music production process. Avoiding these common mistakes will help you achieve a polished, professional sound.

Whether you choose to use automatic AI mastering tools or seek out our mix and mastering services, understanding these principles will enhance your mastering workflow and the final sound quality for your music.

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