“Mastering” your Film Score Cues? Please Don’t

Dave Cracked Up (Blog), Music/Audio, Opinions, Ramblings

Every now and again, I come across posts by aspiring film composers asking about “mastering” their cues:

“What should I use in my mastering processing chain?”
“How much compression and limiting should I use?”
“What do people normalize their tracks to?”

Please, just … don’t.

Unless you are delivering your music to a production library or for release as a stand-alone product, I’d strongly recommend that you do not apply any “mastering” to your music cues.

A film score cue is just ONE of the many elements to go into the final sound landscape of a films complete soundtrack. Along with the music, there are ambience/environment tracks, sound design/sound effects tracks and of course, dialogue. Except for a few instances (credits, montages, etc.), a composers music is going to be mixed with many other audio elements and, more likely than not, will have to be manipulated by the re-recording / mixing engineer quite a bit in order to fit into the overall mix. Just to give you an idea, here’s a screenshot of the music score tracks from a recent short film that I mixed:


On the music score track alone, compression, equalization, mid-side, stereo-width and reverb processing is being applied and adjusted throughout the run of the films soundtrack.

It’s not to say that NO finalization efforts should be made to your music, but try to refrain from applying any overall dynamics or drastic equalization processing. I’ve had the opportunity to wear a lot of different hats in the audio post-production realm – including mixing. As a final mixer, I look for and appreciate the score cues to be delivered with a balanced EQ curve and with as much retained dynamics as possible.

As a composer, one needs to recognize that, yes, music is a crucial emotional element in a film, but it is just one of the audio ingredients that needs to be combined to create the soundtrack. Applying “mastering” processes may enhance the sound of the music – as a standalone entity. But, you must keep in mind that music in a film is rarely presented without other audio elements. Finalization processing limits decisions for a mixing engineer and more likely than not, if you’ve “mastered’ your delivered cues, they will be kicked back to have that processing removed.