We know it's a long way to the top if you want to rock 'n' roll. Well, it may be an even longer way to the top of the mastering food chain. Mobile mastering engineer extraordinaire Glenn Schick has spent more than 20 years perfecting his craft to get to the point that he can pack his entire mastering rig into a 3-rackspace case and laptop bag and cruise off to several countries in a calendar year to live, work and play, all the while maintaining a loaded schedule of mastering top-selling hip-hop albums, Amazon Prime exclusive acoustic tracks and almost everything in between.
While you won't reach his level overnight, the tools the best professionals in the world use are available to you as well, which means you're empowered to start perfecting your own mastering technique. Schick has plenty of expert suggestions to help you on your way, and if you're not quite ready to attempt your own mastering, he's also got some great dos and don'ts for delivering your music to a mastering engineer.
1. Work in stereo and mono
"Always check your stuff in mono," Schick said. "When it sounds great in stereo, it doesn't always sound great in mono. If you hear a lot of cancellation in mono, you probably have phase coherency issues in your master, and it's really important that it sits well both in stereo and in mono."
2. Vary the playback levels
"When you're monitoring, make it a comfortable level for yourself, but also test things loud and soft too," Schick said. "Different things will stick out at those levels. Go through all three of those levels when you do every track, and you'll find certain things that will poke out at you that normally ruin a mix."
3. Don't over-compress
Schick says he uses just about all of the Plugin Alliance EQ plugins available, but especially the Maag EQ4 and the Brainworx bx_digital V2 and bx_dynEQ V2. "Those are my main workhorses everyday, and all their mastering EQs, and their non-mastering EQs," Schick said. "I'm not one of those guys who puts a compressor on everything. As a matter of fact, most of my masters don't usually have compression on them. I pull out a compressor as a rare thing, but I don't find much need for them nowadays, because everything is already compressed to death for the most part. Everybody's got 50 slots they can throw plugins on, and they throw on too many compressors. So if anything, I'm trying to get back some dynamics."
"If you're trying to re-sculpt something to have some life again, everything in mastering is small moves," Schick said. "There's not one thing you're going to put on a track that's going to suddenly fix everything. It may be a tiny bit of this EQ and a tiny bit of another EQ and a little bit of this third EQ that all have small adjustments on them. The culmination kind of feathers something into another place. But you can't just wonk the heck out of one EQ and then magic happens, unless something happens to be a really simplistic kind of fix.
"Everything with plugins is kind of like painting. You're using a splash of this and a little bit of that. Every plugin is a stroke of color. Each one adds a little bit of texture or hue, and you have to learn what each one of these tools really is capable of. Some are capable of many colors. Brainworx bx_refinement can take something from super subtle to making it sound like it's underneath a pillowcase. So how do you use that? Do you use it in the extreme or use it gently? The answer is both; it depends on what you're doing and how you want to do it. Maybe that's just one texture you throw in on your track. But it's a culmination of lots of little things."
Things to do Before the Mastering Stage
1. Pre-roll and Post-roll
"One bad thing my clients always do is they tend to cut off all their reverb tails on everything," Schick said. "Having some pre-roll and post-roll in your stuff is really important. Put space before your file and after your file. Don't chop them right on the beginning and end of the waveform."
2. Keep every element true to itself
"Every instrument and vocal has a natural state where it's comfortable," Schick said. "When you start pushing EQs and compressors and start pulling it out of its natural zone, that's when things get wonky. Keep things as close to natural as possible. Anything you've recorded should sound like what it started as. A snare drum should never be so sharp and bright that it doesn't sound like how it started. Or a vocal having all the midrange scooped out of it until it doesn't sound like that person anymore. Don't try to make a "super kick" or unnatural, weird, crazy stuff, unless you're really going for it. Don't over-process stuff.
3. Check your stereo arrangement
"Sometimes just moving something around in the stereo field will fill up space in your mix, and that's all that is needed," Schick said. "Sometimes it's as simple as asking if your arrangement is good enough for me to mix the song. What is not sitting well in the stereo field? What frequencies are hitting against each other? What is clashing? That's so important, I can't even say. Most people don't spend a lot of time with that. I hear things where the only stereo stuff in the track would be some stereo verb or echo and some drum room sound. And then the track sounds really small and thin because of that, because they didn't spend any time arranging."