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Mastering FAQ


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  • Mastering FAQ

    Just thought I'd scrap something together to try and help...

    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 this...it'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. Some examples of such plugins would be T-racks, Izotope's Ozone, and Waves Gold and Mastering plugins. 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.

    Thats all I can think of off the top of my head...let me know if you have any other questions.

  • #2
    great post. Would have helped me a month ago but it's great nonetheless
    Member of the SG Army


    • #3
      Thanks for the post.


      • #4
        Nice one Doc...


        p.s. One other thing, why does it hurt when I pee... ?

        "(The New Testament) is a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events, and full of improvised attempts to make things come out right." Christopher Hitchens, R.I.P


        • #5
          Chlamydia perhaps? You should get that checked out


          • #6
            These FAQs are all handy but they disappear so quickly. Could we post them somewhere on HC? If not, I'm offering my site (as it's basically text and won't take up much space). This kind of stuff would be great for beginner questions that keep getting asked over and over.



            • #7
              cant say enough how important this post is. I once had a very good record squashed and mangled to **************** at the last minute by our major-label A&R rep that fancied him self a first rate masterer. Reworked it literally just a few hours before printing. uuhg! The whole first printing was a wash. The head of A&R almost fired him. The first printing was still recoupable. ouch. We got it Mark Shaleky at Capitol and he turned the frog back into a prince in four hours. OH - THE DIFFERENCE!
              "Music is pussies who don't know how to express them selves by shouting" Tracey Ullman as Sydney Cross, Celebrity Lawyer.

              58.327% of all statistics are made up on the spot.



              • #8
                Great post thanks.

                Originally posted by Rimmer
                Nice one Doc...
                p.s. One other thing, why does it hurt when I pee... ?

                You've probably got the gono cacacacacas.


                • #9
                  Can anyone tell me more about what PQ codes are?


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Stoned Zim
                    These FAQs are all handy but they disappear so quickly. Could we post them somewhere on HC? If not, I'm offering my site (as it's basically text and won't take up much space). This kind of stuff would be great for beginner questions that keep getting asked over and over.


                    The problem is that they get stale after a while and take upo valuable prime time space at the top. If you leave em all there eventually you end up with several pages of stickies. I generally leave em til I am asked to retire them. If you wish to consolidate them on a single page I would be happy to park your thread at the top so folks can jump to it from there. Peter
                    Stupidity in of itself is a fine art.


                    • #11
                      It's at http://www.excessprophets.com/faqs/mastering.htm

                      This site will be around for the forseeable future.


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by bluebass
                        Can anyone tell me more about what PQ codes are?

                        PQ Coding is basically just the proper encoding of the track IDs and information in red book form. This includes setting up start and stop IDs for each track, copy protection, preemphasis, ISRC codes (includes stuff like year and record label information), and UPC codes (which the barcodes you find on the packaging is made from). These are helped to track and identify songs when they are used in copyright and radio type situations.

                        This type of editing is what mainly separates DAWs like Protools which isnt really used by any mastering houses from more dedicated systems like Sadie and Sonic Solutions.


                        • #13
                          One important point I might like to add, is that while
                          many CD duplicators may offer in house mastering as an
                          added service. The majority of these duplicators do not
                          have the same amount of money invested in mastering
                          equipment and do not have engineers with the same
                          level of skill that a reputable independant mastering studio
                          can offer. Often duplicators will take a cookie cutter
                          approach to mastering, and will not take the time to
                          give your project the individual attention it deserves.
                          If you're really concerned with this, and have already
                          invested a gool deal of time and money making your
                          recording, please play it safe, and take your project
                          to the best mastering house you can find.
                          "Consider everything, believe nothing" Elgar.


                          • #14
                            PQ Coding is basically just the proper encoding of the track IDs and information in red book form.

                            would this be the reason why i can't get my cd's (of my music that i record and burn on my computer) to play in a lot of cd players? I mean could i use get a cd into red book form on my computer and fool cd's players into thinking that its not a burnt cd? Or would the problem be the blank cd's or the burner? Because i should have a cd ready soon (minus mastering which i'll probably of course do all myself poorly since i have a budget of $0) and there's no way that i will have money to send it away to be duplicated. Where can i find more info on PQ coding?


                            • #15
                              Hi Todd,

                              Problems with playing your cds run in different players could be the result of a number of things or a combination of them such as cheap CDR medium, faulty cd writer, and the software you're using. The ID tags and encoding involved with PQ editing probably wont solve your problem if the discs arent being read at all in certain players. Have you tried different brands of cdrs? Also make sure you're burning in the redbook format (which should be default in most software) and disc-at-once which is the standard for audio cds.

                              I just sent you an email with some other information regarding your cd so let me know if I can help.