Blog by BINDUrecords.com
The mysterious distinction between mixing and mastering - and the discussion what exactly belongs where - originate in the idea of two different people working on the same song in different environments. What would be the best way to make use of these different perspectives on the mix? The industry standard way of doing things is for one engineer to finish the mix, and for the mastering engineer to fine tune the overall frequency balance and make the mix loud. In reality the self-producing artist will find him or herself in a situation where the lines between mix and master are blurred. Regardless of whether you master your own songs or have them mastered, stem-mastering can help you with problems in your mix and further increase the potential for overall improvement from mastering. Stem mastering means that the mastering engineer will receive a number of sub-groups - so called "stems" - instead of a single stereo-mixdown. That means the mastering engineer will have more possibilities in altering the sound and balance of the mix according to his wishes. It is the best way to make use of mastering-hardware specifically where the mix needs it and integrate analog summing into the process as well.
Chosing the right stems can be tricky if you are not sure how to improve your mix the best. Remember that stem mastering should not be seen as a compensation for a bad mix. If you are unhappy with your mix you should go back and fix the problems in it before you proceed to mastering, or take a look at our mixing packages if you need help. If you are happy with your mix however, think about what elements go together and what elements need seperation. I would recommend using between two and four stereo stems for mastering, grouping elements that go together sonically. Each stem can then be run through an outboard effect if needed and finaly into the mixer to adjust the final levels. Again, this is not supposed to replace leveling during mixing, but rather to make slight adjustments while already previewing the finished mastered signal. Use this example for a stem-mastering chain:
Analog Summing is an essential part of stem mastering because it allows you to master stems in a completely analog fashion, adding outboard effects to the stems along the way without adding unnecessairy conversions. In general, analog summing means that instead of letting your DAW calculate the sum of all your tracks digitally, you will send them out of your interface seperately and let a summing mixer or console do the summing and then return the finished stereo signal to your interface. Besides the outboard effects used, analog summing itself should give your mix more glue and lifeliness. Vocals for instance, tend to sit in the mix better than being mixed strictly in the box.