How To Prepare A Song For Mastering The Right Way

You just finished a track and want to share it with the outside world on SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, etc. The final step is Mastering. When preparing a song to send to a mastering engineer, there are things you need to understand to ensure your song is at the highest quality. Although there are many methods in the world of mixing and mastering, following these pre-mastering tips will prepare your songs the right way and achieve better results in the end.

If you just need quick advice on exporting individual tracks in Ableton Live to send for mastering, watch this video.

Mastering Won’t Fix A Bad Mix

Using plugin presets on the Master Track in your project, or submitting the song to an “instant mastering service” online isn’t recommended. Every song has different needs and should be treated intentionally, if you want a true professional sound!

Too often, people assume if their song doesn’t sound good before sending it to the mastering engineer, he will fix their mistakes and make it better. This is NOT true. The better your song sounds before sending it to the mastering engineer, the higher quality the end result will be. (Assuming the engineer knows what he’s doing)


2 Types Of Mastering

The two common methods of mastering are referred to as STEREO and STEM.

Stereo mastering is most common. The person submitting a song will send it as one exported audio file to the engineer. The engineer will then create a chain of limiters, EQ’s, compressors, and effects onto the single audio file.

STEM mastering is a non-traditional technique that allows the mastering engineer to have more control of the mix, which often produces higher quality results. This means you export and send each track (“stem”) for the song to be mixed by the mastering engineer which actually helps in This method is more time consuming and can be more expensive, but may be worth the extra cost, especially if you’re not super confident on the mix quality before it’s mastered.


Balance Your Mix and Create Headroom

If you’ve ever wondered why your track sounds distorted while adding new instruments and effects, chances are you’re clipping (exceeding 0 dB) on the master channel or individual tracks. Always leave the master track fader at 0 dB, and adjust your speaker volume.

Before sending a song for mastering, make sure the volume on the master track in your project doesn’t exceed between -3dB to -6dB during the loudest parts of the song. Don’t put anything on your Master Track! This is the mastering engineer’s job.

Try this method to balance volume for your overall mix…

Pull down all the volume faders of each track and then turn each fader back up one-by-one until you get a well-balanced mix. Here’s a good practice to follow…

  • Start with the kick drum. Set the volume so it shows around -10 dB on the master track.
  • Next are the bass and low frequency instruments. Turn them up as needed without exceeding -3 dB on master track.
  • Next are lead instruments and vocals, followed by additional secondary instruments.
  • If you exceed -3 dB at this point, play with the track faders to find a happy balance, or highlight all the tracks together and pull them down together in unison.

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Be Cautious With “Overusing” Effects

If you’re not familiar with basic mixing techniques, consider either stem mastering or having someone mix your song for you, and then send it to a mastering engineer. It’s not uncommon to have 2 engineers involved, one engineer for mixing, and another for mastering. Do yourself a favor, don’t place random presets of plugins on instruments hoping they will sound better!

Here are general guidelines if you’re mixing your own songs, which will give your mastering engineer more flexibility, allowing for better results.

  • Compression: it’s generally better to submit a mix that is “under compressed” than “over-compressed”
  • Reverb: It’s better to use less reverb than too much. The engineer can always add more.
  • Volume/ Clipping: Check volume inputs on each track to make sure nothing is being distorted. (no red metering on the tracks! Check the devices/ plugins on the individual tracks as well.)
  • Noise: If you’ve recorded live audio instruments, solo them to make sure there’s no “popping” or weird static sounds from cables or microphones.
  • Listen in mono: As a general rule, If your song sounds good in mono, and you can hear all the instruments/ effects, your mix won’t have phase issues being played stereo, and will sound ok.

*ABLETON USERS – Try placing Ableton’s Utility device on the Master Track and set to Mono. Listening in mono will help you discover phasing issues. If it sounds good in mono, that’s a good sign.


Share Your Bit Rate and Sample Rate

You need to communicate the sample rate and bit rate of your song to the mastering engineer. (in Ableton Live see Preferences → Audio Tab) The standard Bit Rate when sending your track to the engineer is 24 bit. Common Sample Rates are either 44100 or 48000. Whatever Sample Rate you started with producing your project, keep it that same rate when exporting, just to be safe.


Reference Your Song Before Submitting

Take the extra time to properly balance your mix and clean it up before sending off for mastering. Listen to your song on 2-3 different speaker systems or headphones you’re familiar with, and car speakers are usually perfect. Compare your song to others that you enjoy in a similar genre of music. (just remember, mastered songs are always louder and better, but this will help you get your mix tighter.)

Also, using low quality Mp3 samples in your songs won’t sound better after mastering, they will often sound worse. It’s best to use high quality .wav or .aiff sample files in your music, such as if you’re doing a remix.



Getting your mix to sound great is like learning to play an instrument. It takes practice, patience, dedication, and the right tools. Once you get your song sounding quality on its own, don’t settle with any online mastering service. Find a mastering engineer with the experience you can trust that will give your music the love and attention it needs.


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