Does Your Master Sound Better Than Your Mix?

By in Music Creation, Pro Mixing

The changes that happen to your mix during mastering can be both subtle and dramatic. But how can you be absolutely positive that the changes are positive or negative?

Sure you can level match your track and the references by ear or use a LUFS meter. But if you miss the mark by as little as 0.5 of a decibel it won’t be a fair comparison.

And when the changes are subtle, how are you going to be sure about which frequencies have been more compressed, or even expanded in the master? Or which frequencies have become more or less prominent in the mix? I would ask myself, ‘has this plugin increased the low end of my
track… And by how much?’

These are all the questions I was constantly asking myself when mastering my client’s work. I wanted to make sure that what I delivered back to them was a certain improvement on what they had sent me. So we at Mastering The Mix endeavoured to create a referencing plugin ‘on steroids’ that would help professionals identify the intricate differences between the mix they’re working on and the final master. After a year of research and development, we’re proud to present REFERENCE.

Creating A Fair Comparison

In your mastering session, load up an instance of REFERENCE as the final plugin on your mastering chain. REFERENCE should come after your metering plugin but before any speaker/headphone calibration software (if you use it). Drag and drop the bounce of your final mix onto the Wave Transport and set the mode to Mirror.

If your mix has more silence at the start of the track than your master, you won’t be able to jump between them seamlessly. Click the Auto Align button in REFERENCE to align your two tracks perfectly so the song plays continuously when you jump between them.

The final step is to click the Level Match button to balance the two tracks so they have the same perceived loudness. Your master will most likely be a lot louder than your mix giving you the misconception that it has a fuller bass and more clarity in the high frequencies. The Level Match button will allow you to compare the two tracks without bias, allowing you to make informed mastering decisions.

The Auto Align feature needs a small amount of data to function accurately, so we recommend playing your master from the start of the track and REFERENCE should be able to pick up all the data it needs within 3 to 10 seconds.

Comparing the Final Master to the Mix

Now that your tracks are level matched and aligned, you can begin to objectively look at how your mastering has changed the sound of the mix. Focus on the individual elements within the mix (kick, bass, vocals etc) one at a time and determine if the sound has improved or worsened.

 

Trinity Display

The Trinity Display in REFERENCE will help you quickly determine the differences between your mix and your master. The Trinity Display instantly shows you how the frequency balance, stereo spread and punch has changed.

Trying to get your mix or master to match the frequency spectrum of a reference track simply will not work. This is because there are so many variables that affect how your track sounds (such as instruments, tuning, performance, samples etc). The music won’t necessarily sound good even if your track and the reference look the same on the frequency spectrum. The Trinity Display has a unique approach to this…We use a modified version of LUFS calculations to identify how our ears perceive sonic differences between two tracks.

The white Level Lines show you how the balance of the frequencies in your Master compares to your Mix. If the Level Line is above the centre line then those frequencies are more prominent in your master. If the Level Line is below the centre line then those frequencies are less prominent in your master. This is a great way to see exactly how your mastering chain has sculpted the sound of you audio. Ctrl+Click anywhere in the Trinity Display to add more frequency bands to get a more detailed view. Ctrl+Click on a frequency band divider to remove it.

The purple Punch Dots show you how your processing has altered the dynamic range of your material. If the Punch Dots are moving towards the white Level Line then those frequencies are more compressed in the Master. If the Punch Dots are moving away from the Level Line then those frequencies are more dynamic in the Master. The brighter the dots are, the greater the difference in the dynamic range. If the dots are invisible then the dynamic range is the same in that frequency band in both the mix and the master.

The Punch Dots allow you to immediately see if you have added a lot of compression to a specific frequency band. Or even if an EQ adjustment has brought out some of the punchy elements of your mix. The Punch Dots will enlighten you to aspects of the mix your ears might have missed. It’s your job then to decide if the changes are positive or negative.

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Tom is a musician, audio engineer and entrepreneur based in London, UK. His credits include Tiesto, David Guetta, Steve Aoki, Max Vangeli and more. His studio, ‘Mastering The Mix’ released a mixing and metering plugin called LEVELS in 2016. Mastering The Mix will be releasing more innovative products in 2017.