Mastering will not save your mix. It certainly won’t save your song. Forget it. But you knew that already. Common wisdom is that mastering will only make a good mix better.
Well, it doesn’t.
And if it does, you’ve either got problems with your mix that your mastering engineer has generously offered to smudge, or you’ve got wool in your ears. Probably both, actually.
Don’t believe the hype. Mastering isn’t about making your finished mix sound better. Not at all.
Mastering is about making your finished mix translate.
It’s about taking a mix that sounds great in your studio, and translating that into a mix that sounds great on your chosen target distribution medium (which usually means ‘everywhere’). That usually involves controlling two aspects of the sound – tone and headroom. The tone is adjusted to make the overall spectral balance comparable to other music on that medium. Unlike popular mythology, tone isn’t ‘sweetened’ in mastering (it might be during the mix though!). This tone adjustment should be as subtle and transparent as possible. The idea is to do as little damage to the creative decisions that were made in the mix. The headroom adjustment is to ensure the sound is at an appropriate level within the dynamic range limitations of the chosen medium. Obviously this usually means ‘making it louder’, but also remember that not all music needs to be crushed to the point where the character of the mix changes. Like tone adjustments, this should do as little damage to the mix as possible.
The relationship between a good mix and a good master is similar to the relationship between a good performance and a good mix. A good performance will still shine through a bad mix. Likewise, a bad performance isn’t elevated at all by a good mix. A good mix doesn’t improve any performance. It’s just a clear presentation of that performance. And it’s the same for mastering – a good master doesn’t improve the sound of the mix, it’s just a clear presentation of that mix.
Mastering can’t make a good song better. It can’t make a good mix better. And it certainly can’t make a bad one into a good one. I’ve written more about mastering here: