The secret to mastering is that you shouldn't be doing anything.
So, you've finished your track; you mixed it, and it sounds great. You've exported it as a stereo wave file. Now you go into your mastering session, turn it up with a limiter and then don't do anything. That's mastering. That's how I earn a living, listening to something. I just collect cash and do nothing.
You shouldn't do anything, either. If you're adding or taking away things, you've got to make sure that you're doing it for the right reasons. The secret is you don't want to do anything.
I've been really enjoying myself recently because the more I'm AB'ing stuff and taking time and listening, the less I'm doing. All I'm trying to do is finding the cue setting where I can get away with the smallest amount of EQ changes for the biggest bang for my buck.
The secret to that – another secret – is that I'm taking more time listening and less time tweaking. When I started my career, I was all about tweaking. I had all the equipment all the time, and I wanted racks and racks of equipment. But now, I've stripped down. I just go into the finer details. I just want certain bits of equipment, certain plugins, and certain settings, and I try and do as little as possible, so I could keep it as natural as possible.
I hear you saying, "What do you do when you've got a bad mix?" A bad mix is a bad mix, and there's no getting around that. Listen to it for a while and then send it back and ask them for tweaks, so you can get it back in reasonable shape. If it's got the bass all over the place and if it's really harsh, tell them. Take a little bit of that edge out of the top: you can take the guitars, EQ those a bit different. Work with the person who made the track. This makes life a lot simpler than trying loads of things to manipulate the sound.
We can go back to the source these days. We don't have to rent a big studio to pull up the mix again. It's done on someone's laptop. They can just tweak it a little bit, send it back to me, and then I can listen again, and again, and over and over then do a final tweak. That's all it is: listen a lot and tweak a little.