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Mastering FAQ

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Mastering FAQ

Post by Admin on Thu Jan 05, 2012 5:41 am

1. What is mastering?

Mastering is the final step in the recording process, where all the songs are checked for errors and the album is prepared for retail sale. This preparation can include a number of things, but usually involves some sort of additional processing (or "sweetening" as many places like to call it) in order to make songs sound clearer and better. There are a great deal of personal tricks used by various mastering engineers which in part contributes to some of the mystique surrounding their practices. Processing is almost always done on the final mixes, not individual tracks. An example of said processing would be running a song through a powerful and transparent equalizer in order to properly balance the track. Oftentimes, additional compression and limiting is applied to the final mixes in order to give them a more "commercial" sound. In addition to this extra last check processing, more mundane tasks such as properly sequencing the song orders, crossfade editing, and PQ coding takes place as here as well.

2. What do I bring to mastering? What should I expect in return?

If you plan on taking your mixes to an outside source to get them mastered, ask them what formats they accept. Most big facilities should be able to accomodate pretty much anything. The idea is that you will bring/send them your final mixes in whichever format/sample rate that you have that sounds the best. Oftentimes, the engineer will let you sit in on the session and allow you to give them your input while they work. Once the engineer is done, the ultimate goal is usually the burning of a premaster copy of your cd (along with a PQ printout for the plant) which can be sent to a CD duplication plant along with your artwork, etc. There the glass mastering takes place and your thousands or however amount of CDs should be made. Now of course, many mastering facilities are quite flexible, so if you only need mp3s of your songs or some audio restoration you wont necessarily need a premaster CD.

3. Why shouldn't I master my own material?

Mastering your own material is considered a faux-pau because in general people have no idea what the hell they are doing. Also, if you're preparing your music for a serious release, it is very important that you let someone else master your work. The standard reasons for this being that you dont have impartial ears, you have poor monitoring conditions, lesser converters and processors, and not as much experience. Mastering and mixing require different types of listening and a fresh set of EXPERIENCED ears helps a lot.

NOTE: If you do plan on sending your songs to outside mastering, do NOT:
1) Add extra compression/EQ on the final mix...let the mastering engineer do's what you're paying them for.
2) Try to do any sort of normalizing...once again let the engineer handle this, give them some headroom to work with.
If you're just trying to give your engineer an idea of how you want to sound make them a separate set of your mixes and send them along with your untouched mixes.

4. What kind of gear is used in mastering?

Without saying, the most important piece of gear used in mastering is the Engineer's ears. Nevertheless, mastering gear has to be of the highest quality in order to maintain audio integrity at all times. Some commonly used procesors in the mastering studio would be from such companies as Manley, Sontec, and Crane Song for analog and Weiss, Z-systems, and Waves (L2) for digital. Monitoring is usually done on accurate (re: expensive) full range monitoring systems in acoustically treated rooms. Room acoustics are especially important in mastering studios as mixing rooms are frequently flawed. As far as editing goes, the most commonly used DAWs used are Sonic Solutions and Sadie. Other systems such as Audio Cube, Pryamix, and Sequoia are also becoming more popular. Some cheaper programs such as Wavelab, Sonic Foundry, and Cool Edit Pro can also be used to burn cdr premasters in redbook format. It should also be noted that in up-scale mastering facilites pretty much no processing is done on the computer, rather routed through outboard gear before hitting the DAW for final editing and burning.

5. I really want to master my own material, what should I do?

If you're just working on your own songs for fun, there is absolutely no reason why you cant go ahead and try to "master" them yourself. The majority of the budget mastering tools come in the form of plugins, directx or TDM. There are a good amount of such plugins nowadays designed especially for use on final mixes and these would probably provide better results then using cheap outboard gear. As long as you dont get carried away and end up trying to use every function or processor you can get your hands on you can do a decent quality job (although it probably wont sound "professional").

6. What are the differences between recording studios and mastering studios?

There is a reason why the best mastering studios are separate from recording studios. Your typical mixing room is not optimally acoustically designed as you have big consoles and racks that get in the way and cause problems. Since mastering engineers as generally considered specialists their gear choices also tend to me much more personal then recording studios which need name brand equipment like ProTools and Genelecs to impress clients. In general you should be wary when a recording studio offers "in house mastering", because oftentimes they just throw some plugins on your songs while listening to them on the same speakers they were mixed on. Unless the studio has a separate mastering room, such "in house mastering" is probably only a marketing tool to get more business.

7. How much does mastering cost?

Mastering costs can vary greatly depending on where you go. How much they charge generally reflects their previous clientele, quality of gear, and experience. Most high end facilities will end up charging between $400-600 dollars for a mastering job taking around 4-8 hours. Most places charge by the hour, so adjust accordingly if you have a lot of material or it needs alot of work. There are cheaper places and more expensive places which dont necessarily reflect the quality you will get out of them. If you're looking around just talk to the engineer and make sure he/she knows what they're doing and what you're specific goals are.

8. How do I use __(insert effect such as EQ, compressor here) in mastering?

Use your ears! There are no set rules such as what ratio and threshold to set your compressor or what levels to set your songs at. Don't overdo anything, chances are if you hear an audible difference then you've used too much. Compare your "masters" with non-touched mixes at EQUAL volume. If you're having trouble getting started with the EQ look up one of the EQ primers floating around the web. Just use your ears and if you're monitoring system isnt very good, double check on a range of different speakers.


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