We've all heard of "Let's fix it in the mix". However, most recently I've been coming across "Oh you can do that in the mastering!" far too often.
As an engineer who covers all three areas, recording, mixing and mastering, I never rely on the next stage to fix potential problems. Some people may call this approach old-school, but I'm all about getting it right at the recording. If you feel something doesn't sound right when you're laying down tracks, work on getting it right there and then. It can be as simple as moving a microphone an inch, changing the actual mic, altering the recording chain or even swapping out the instrument.
When you deliver your multitracks to the mix engineer, they should be able to just push up the faders and get a clear idea of where the track stands. They also should not have to worry and spend valuable time on dealing with messy crossfades, bad edits and clicks and pops.
Mastering engineers often get asked to lift out the vocal, bring up the guitar, deal with the bass and so forth. And that's fair enough as long as artists understand that what we can do to a stereo mix has its limits. When you bring up the frequency range of an instrument, you're inevitably going to affect other instruments within that area at the same time. The point I'm making is that, in addition to getting it right at the recording stage, you also have to employ the same tactics when mixing your material.
If something isn't quite there with the mix, you'll need to deal with it in the mix room.
So what brought on this little mastering rant? I recently worked with an artist who was forced into a mix situation where they were never happy with the results. They were not in a position to get to the mixes they wanted so they ended up with me trying to salvage the situation.
It took everything in the mastering tool arsenal to get close to what the artist was hoping to achieve.
The approved master got there through a lot of tweaking, but this situation should never have happened. The individual components in the songs were severely compressed and the mixes in turn were hyper-compressed, resulting in a woolly, un-dynamic delivery.
Bottom line: take pride in your job at any stage of the production. If you're recording, give the mix engineer amazing multitracks to work with. If you're mixing, deliver a spotless and exciting mix for the mastering engineer to work their magic on. In the words of the amazing, three-times Grammy winning Bob Katz, the best master is the one you didn't have to do anything to.
Wes Maebe is a freelance recording, mixing, mastering and live sound engineer