Aims and context.
Where is your music going to be listened to ? Different aims require different treatments. Music for hi-fi, music for streaming, music aimed at the club, or music for the cinema all have to be approached in different ways. This will have been considered during the writing, recording and production stages but the mastering takes the final step towards the intended listening situation. I have mastered quite a range of material this year with the majority being dance floor music, I don’t think you can master this kind of music on small format monitors. I have a pair of 3 way monitors which cover the full frequency range and when they are cranked up, you close your eyes, grab a warm red stripe and make the floor a bit sticky, you could easily think you were in a club. My point being obvious I think - don’t drink red stripe, drink thatchers gold in the club. Seriously though, do that, cider has healing properties. Anyway if you want your masters ready for the club, make sure the engineer has the monitors to handle it, thats far more important than having high end outboard gear. Having hardware as well as a high end, full frequency pair of monitors is even better. Even better than that, have all that in a well treated room and you’re onto a winning combination.
The majority of the mastering I do is aimed at the dance floor so a certain average level will be aimed for. This does not translate so well to the streaming platforms as they have their own limiting built in to try and make all the tracks sound close in level, so if you intend to upload to youtube or spotify please let me know and I can provide an alternative master for that.
All in one.
It’s hard to make all the decisions and getting lost in the mixing process is all to easy, especially when the ideas, sounds and mixing are all done as one thing. The standard way of making music in the past was divided in into sections - writing / recording / mixing & arranging / mastering, whereas now, especially in electronic music these processes are all done along the way, even the majority of the mastering for some artists. This is how I have always worked when producing techno - I have found it easier when I am mixing into a gentle mastering chain, just so I can hear what the track is going to sound like once it’s done. It also gives the ability to go back an forth between pre and post master which helps dig out any problems I can hear in either state. Be careful with the limiter though as if you are driving it too much you will be disappointed when you get the real masters back from the label and the levels don’t match up to your self master level, back off a bit, use the compressor to do any work that is needed but let the limiter stop the peaks but don’t apply any threshold reduction. Don’t leave the master chain on the whole time, flick between the two so you can make a balanced judgement. Then when you send to mastering take off your master processing and send your self master for a reference. I think there is all too often a lack of communication between the mastering engineer the label and the artist and I recommend cc’ing everyone in to the email thread so everything is discussed. In fact I think I will make that standard for my mastering service from now on.