What’s involved in the mastering process and how to prepare your music—and yourself—for the big day
By Phil Demetro
So you’ve just spent the last few months or more putting the final touches on your new album. Recording went by without a hitch, and the mixes finally feel like you can live with them.
Are you done? Not yet—not if you want to have a professional sounding and commercially viable record to sell. Welcome to the mastering process.
This much-misunderstood stage of music production is the last chance you’ll have to enhance your tracks sonically, and to create a flowing, consistent feel that may help to separate your record from a cast of thousands. It can increase your chances of getting noticed, and there is no bigger thrill than when someone is blown away by the big sound of your record.
The purpose of this article is to help you get to and through the mastering stage unscathed and get you thinking about some important questions.
There will be a lot of varying opinions on the topic of which format to use for mixdown. The most common physical formats that get delivered to my studio at the time of this writing are CD-R/DVD-R and DAT; these are digital, readily available, and cheap. Digital mixes can come either as 2-track audio discs or as a data file, generally saved in AIFF or WAV format. Analog tape isn’t unheard of, and of course more and more people use the Internet to upload their audio files directly to me.
It seems that there are more and more records being produced entirely within the digital domain, due in part to the increasing quality and lower cost of DAWs and cool plug-in effects. If you have a choice, I recommend recording at the highest bit rate/sample rate possible for your software (e.g. 24 bits/96 kHz), as it will usually yield a more “open” sound, have a sweeter top end, and basically sound more like it did when you were laying tracks down.
This will also allow more headroom for your mastering engineer to EQ, compress, or add level if necessary. Those who are fortunate enough to have been able to track their album to analog tape also have the option (if budget allows) to mix down to a 1/4″ or 1/2″ analog tape. This can prevent unnecessary jumping between domains, which can detract from the sound quality if you’re relying on poor A/D or D/A converters.
A professional mastering facility will definitely have various analog playback machines. Best of all, your master will at last get to the digital domain—but hopefully with a much higher quality set of A/D converters than possible with a cheap digital recorder or standalone CD burner, or with an inexpensive audio interface on your PC or Mac.
A lot of clients ask me which is better: analog or digital? This is getting tougher to answer all the time. A recent R&B project came in on both 1/4″ tape and 24-bit/44.1 kHz digital audio files, and we sat and listened to each format for a really long time. We liked both! But they were different.
We agreed that the tape was smooth, murky, warm, thick, and had an airy top end. The audio files sounded cleaner, with less bottom end cloud and more presence than air.
A tape machine’s sound is usually the product of several variables that all add a certain sound: transformers, op amps, tube or solid-state electronics, bias, tape speed, etc. So the comparisons may not always be fair—even between tape machines!
I actually preferred the data files for this project, as they sounded a lot closer to the sound I would have gone after if I only had the analog tape to work with. Without having to spend as much time cleaning up the bottom end, I could just get to work. The band, producer, and I theorized that the project already had tons of “analog” vibe.
Of course, I’m not saying in any way that the files were better; they just happened to fit our criteria better that day. The point is to have a sonic philosophy for your record. Would the audio signature of either format be a welcome addition to your project?
The right mastering engineer
Buyer beware! Choosing the right mastering engineer is tough, because most mastering engineers will say they are the best person for the job and spend an hour telling you why they are better than the guy down the street. The truth is that if it’s a professional mastering house with a good reputation (service, guarantee, etc.), experienced musical engineers, and several tools to bring out the best in your project, then the chances are you’ll get something you’ll be happy with.
This is not to say that all pro mastering engineers sound alike. Each engineer will hear how a finished master should sound differently from every other one, even with the same amount of experience, tools, monitoring environment, and so on. For example, if there is an agreed problem with too much bass energy in your mixes, most mastering engineers will spot it. It’s how they choose to deal with the problem that sets one apart from the other.
Perhaps you could call local studios to find out where they send their work to be mastered. Better yet, call the local mastering studios and see what they have done recently. Look at the credits and see if you can find any correlation between the mastering engineer and what sounds best to you.
My personal (and admittedly biased) recommendation is to seek a dedicated mastering facility/studio, meaning a studio where mastering is all they do to pay their rent. I have nothing against recording studios offering affordable mastering in a far-less-than-perfect back room somewhere. But the cliché remains true: you get what you pay for.
I suspect many pro mastering studios get a large percentage of their business after an artist has already mastered a job and consequently hated the sound of their record. Sometimes this happens when the client gets a price quote they couldn’t pass up or were offered free mastering if they recorded and mixed at a particular studio. Remastering albums is a big business for pro studios, if only because there’s a lot of misinformation about the cost of pro mastering; people tend to cut corners if they think they can get away with it.
But I can speak from experience that long after the thrill of getting a great deal on mastering will be the feeling of disappointment when you have cartons of CDs sitting around that you can’t give away. Don’t fret about not being able to afford the biggest, most expensive studio around, as there a lot of younger engineers doing incredible work but charging less because they don’t yet have the “big guy” reputation!
So what’s the difference?
“Heck, I have a computer, the latest ‘tube’ plug-ins, NS-10s…why can’t I do this myself?” This attitude is the single greatest threat to professional studios of any kind. Dedicated mastering facilities have engineers who have mastered literally thousands of projects, usually on top of a lengthy apprenticeship with another name engineer/facility. They have already made the mistakes that you’ll no doubt run into if you try this yourself!
But wait, the gulf between pro and DIY gets wider. Professional studios will have custom-designed monitoring environment(s) that usually include a floating room, high-resolution speakers with minimum reflections, and elitist mastering equipment of both the digital and analog variety. Oh yes, did I mention that the environment is operated (or should I say commandeered) by an engineer who works the room 12 hours a day, 365 days a year?
So what’s the difference? The only real way is to hear for yourself and compare side-by-side. If the budget allows, try sending just one song to two different mastering studios—and perhaps try doing it yourself as well. If the budget doesn’t allow this, at least compare what you can do to what the mastering engineer can deliver. There’s no right or wrong, since this is all subjective; the object of the exercise is just to hear the difference.
Documentation is preparation!
I hate to sound like the nagging mastering guy, but it’s vital that you get in the habit of documenting your source tapes! Sure, you may tell yourself during mixdown that you’ll remember what’s on your audio folder or CD, but time has a tendency to cloud your memory. A year from now, a box of unmarked tapes will be a nightmare if you’re looking for a particular mix.
A good number of mastering houses charge by the hour. I can’t stress enough how much money you can save if you have song titles, mix versions, ID numbers, or even ABS or timecode. Time is money! Even titles on a CD-R cover, marked with a yellow hiliter, can work wonders for sorting out multiple mix versions.
If you’re working in the analog domain, indicate if the tape is 15 or 30 i.p.s. or has noise reduction. When printing tones, have them play long enough (over 30 seconds) for the engineer to adjust the tiny trim pots. 100 Hz, 400 Hz, 1 kHz, 10 kHz and 15 kHz tones should do it.
A note to the vinyl people of the world…
This is very much an article all by itself. Audiophile records exist, but mostly in the jazz and classical genres. It has been hip hop and EDM that have brought turntables out of storage and back into the hands of people who appreciate how special vinyl can sound. Unfortunately, a lot of the engineers who are recording/mixing the more “youth-centric” stuff might be unaware of the limitations of creating vinyl.
Making vinyl is not like making a 74-minute CD. The lathe is a mechanical device that doesn’t deal with 1s and 0s in a digital system. Vinyl has limitations because the disks are made with the relationship of program amplitude (level) and side (of the disk) duration in mind.
Basically, program content is everything —high peak levels, loudness, bass, sibilance, top end, phase/flange effects…these all make a difference to the way your songs will fit on a side of vinyl due to the physical space limitations. Low end content, as an example, will always have longer excursions that translate into bigger grooves that will take up precious space and use up your side a lot faster than if your music is light on bass.
This is something that younger engineers and producers must keep in mind when figuring out how long their songs are going to be or the type of sonics they are trying to get across. The name of the game for DJs in the clubs these days is loud—and long sides will simply have to be turned down in order to fit. Twelve, ten, and seven inch formats are all still made, and dub plates seem to be specifically popular with DJs.
I suggest calling a mastering house with a cutting lathe to give you more information on the optimum playing times per side as to get the maximum level yet cleanest cut possible. Good luck with this process, as it will be an education unto itself.
Fix it in the mastering? No, fix it in the mix!
Occasionally a client will bring reference CDs for me to get a “vibe” of what they’re looking for sonically. This is great because I can see what other approaches mastering guys are taking.
What’s not as great is that it’s mostly impossible to do. Different studios, artists, instrumentation, engineers, budgets, etc. all have an impact on how a project will sound. Even a masterpiece of production that was created in a home MIDI studio will not sound like it was done in a large commercial studio because there are a completely different set of variables. More so for poor mixes.
There is only so much that mastering engineers can do to pull your mix together, and unfortunately, subtlety would be out of the question—major EQ sculpting, levels, and compression would probably have to be used, and too much of anything rarely sounds good. Have an experienced engineer track and mix your project for professional results.
Likewise, it’s important to mix and mix down with a firm hold on perspective. If you’ve been mixing for 15 hours a day for weeks on end with tired ears, all the extra top end, overcompression, and splashy reverb you may be adding is for all intents and purposes irreversible at the mastering stage.
When you’re uncertain about adding reverbs, compressors, limiters, and EQ across your entire mix buss, the rule of thumb is not to do it. If you really want to add a reverb over your whole mix, then mastering can deal with this and other issues competently with exceptional equipment, fresh ears, and a new perspective.
Finally, it’s much better to start off by bringing a good mix to mastering. The mastering engineer can spend his or her time making it sound as good as possible rather than fixing problems.
Preparation from the client’s end is the largest factor that’s out of the mastering engineer’s control. Bring sources (and any backups you have made—you have made backups, right?) as well as track notes that contain concerns or elements you want to bring to the engineer’s attention (documentation again).
This is the last chance you’ll get to ask all of those questions and concerns you have before the session starts. Yes, it’s true that there really is no such thing as a dumb question, because no one (including the most experienced mastering engineers) can know about all of your project’s intimate details to the same degree you will.
Spend some time before the session experimenting with song order; listen to how weird it is hearing your favorite CD on the shuffle mode of your CD player after hearing it a certain way for so long. If you have your own DAW, it’s a good idea to experiment with different song orders to get a general idea of the song flow (complete with fade-outs). It’s psychological warfare out there in the music industry, so try a few versions; one will stick eventually.
Once the mastering engineer gets things in stride, there may be very little for you to do other than watch and listen, read, sleep or…have fun and enjoy the process. Sell a million and send me a copy!
Phil Demetro is a senior mastering engineer at Lacquer Channel Mastering in Toronto.