Making music is easy. Mixing songs is challenging, but doable…
Sound engineering, on the other hand, is a very technical and time consuming process that not all artists excel at it.
This guide will help you prepare your tracks for the best possible LANDR master. So read on, take notes then get back to making music.
The thing about dynamics and mastering
Mixes with good dynamics sound punchier, groovier, less fatiguing, more interesting, and exciting to the ear.
Plus, a dynamic mix with lots of headroom (I’ll get to headroom in a sec) will always result in a better final master—it gives the mastering process room to work its magic.
Leaving room for dynamics in your mixes is easy. It’s all about understanding 2 important concepts during the mixing phase.
What are transients?
Transients are the attack portion of a sound. It’s what gives a snare its crack, or a kick its slap or thump.
“Transients are the lifeblood of punch and groove…”
Transients are the lifeblood of punch and groove. They’re essential if you want your music to really hit people in the chest instead of flopping over them like a wet cardboard box.
Here’s an example of a transient. Notice the nice variation between the attack (initial hit) and the decay. This variation is what makes a sound interesting to the ear.
Now here’s the same hit but slammed with compression.
Notice how there is no variation between the start of the hit and decay. NOT good.
It might mean louder, but it also means boring. Peaks and valleys in your waveform means a more interesting sound. Of course there are smart ways to use compression…
But when a hit is slammed with over-compression all that delicious variation is gone. Yuck.
What is Headroom and How Will It Help My Master?
Headroom is the physical space left in your mix for the mastering process.
Here’s a track with very little headroom. As you can see, there is very little room left for the mastering process.
Here’s the same track mixed with lots of headroom. Notice how much space is left to work with.
The waveform on the bottom still has good dynamic range without pushing the levels into the red—lots of space for the mastering process to work those interesting peaks and valleys to perfection.
How can I make enough headroom for a LANDR master?
The trick here is to record and mix at sensible levels. As a rule of thumb, keep your peak levels at around -6dB on your master fader.
Notice how the level on the master fader is peaking around -6dB
The DON’T CLIP Rule
The most common mistake is mixing too hot (in the red) and then putting a limiter on the master bus to keep things from clipping.
The problem is, a limiter might keep the overload lights from turning on, but it’s still harming your dynamics by reducing all your nice transient peaks and removing all those nice dynamics from your track.
A limiter compromises all those nice peaks and valleys that make your track interesting to the ear in the first place.
One problem we see with a lot of tracks coming into LANDR are mixes crushed with a limiter and the master fader pulled down to achieve the suggested 6dB of headroom.
This is cheating! The result will be a less than ideal final master. Why you ask?
Your master fader lowers the gain AFTER it hits the limiter, not before. So if you’re clipping, the damage has already been done before you even get to the master fader.
So What’s the Solution?
Don’t worry about making things loud at the mixing stage by adding all kinds of compression and limiting. If it’s sounding too quiet in the studio, just turn up your monitors.
Concentrate on making your mixes sound the best you can (that means a nice dynamic mix) and leave the “loudnessing” to the mastering stage.
“It doesn’t make sense to master your track and then send it off to be mastered.”
You wouldn’t cook a pizza and then cook it again right? The same thing goes for mastering. It doesn’t make sense to master your track and then send it off to be mastered.
Here’s and example of a mix with plenty of headroom:
What are the best file formats to submit to LANDR?
Always send the best possible file format for mastering. That means a WAV or AIFF.
Export your track in the same sample rate and bit depth as your session.
Don’t send an MP3 (or M4A or OGG or WMA) to be mastered.
Choosing HD WAV for your LANDR master output format is the best option. When you need MP3s or any other lossy file format for digital distribution creating them from an HD WAV ensures that all copies of your track will sound their best.
16-bit resolution is a leftover from the CD era. Today’s DAWs can handle 24-bits no problem. In fact, there’s no real reason not to record 24-bit files—they’re great for any application.
As for dither, here’s what you need to know:
- Don’t change file types unless you absolutely have to. If you tracked at 24-bit/44.1kHz, just stay there! If for some reason you need to downsample, be sure to dither during conversion.
- Save dithering for when your files are headed outside of your DAW. Dither only once—during export.
- If you’re sending your files for mastering, leave dithering out if you can export 32-bit float files. In this case, the mastering process will take care of dither for you. When you export anything other than 32-bit float, you have to dither. That includes when you bounce files that are the same bit-depth as the ones you recorded.
Check out our comprehensive guide to dither if you want to know more.
Sample Rates and mastering
Sample rate is a bit less clear. There’s lots of arguments about what’s good, bad, and ok with no clear winners.
Lots of great sounding records have been recorded at 44.1kHz.
Using higher sample rates is fine, but make sure your computer can handle the additional CPU strain. The higher the CPU, the harder your computer has to work.
If you know what your final output needs to be, make sure to work at the appropriate sample rate and avoid any unnecessary conversion steps at the end.
So now you know how to prepare for the perfect master! But just to recap:
- Use compression wisely to preserve your transients
- Keep the peak level on your master fader around -6dB
- Avoid limiting and over-compression before mastering
- Bounce your final mix in WAV or AIFF format for the best possible LANDR master
- Always use 24-bit resolution
- Leave the dithering up to LANDR if you can export 32-bit files. If not dither to your native resolution on export.
- Use HD WAV as your LANDR master format so you’re prepared for all future formatting needs