YOU HAVE AUDIO MASTERING QUESTIONS? – WE HAVE THE ANSWERS AND TIPS

Pre-Production is the Key to a Successful Record and Communication is the Key to Satisfaction!


Get in touch with us early! We offer our ears to give you feedback on mixes at an early stage: we like to discuss your artistic needs. Let us know what your goals are and what you like, but also let us know what you don’t or didn’t like on your last production for example. We are here to assist you and help make valuable decisions early on. We are here to help you make your music shine in the way you envision. Communicate NOW, with whomever you choose for mastering! You may be surprised of the improvement this will have on your project.


Below we have listed some of the more common questions you may have:

What format should we submit for audio mastering?

Submit your mixes in production resolution. We accept all common formats from tape (even DAT) to digital files. Digital files should retain the sample-rate and bit resolution used during production, e.g. 44.1kHz sample-rate and 24-bit resolution. We can handle any sample-rate up to 384kHz and 64-bit IEEE float. Though sample-rates above 96kHz aren’t necessarily recommended, highest possible bit-depths are preferable, i.e. we prefer 24-bit files to 16-bit files. Any combination of sample-rate and bit-depth above is accepted.

You may submit your tracks and tapes by mail or simply UPLOAD your digital files to our secure server.

Do not submit data-reduced (lossy) formats such as MP3 or AAC for mastering! These are for consumption, not refinement.

We compiled a checklist “How should we prepare our mixes for mastering?” as an overall guide to follow for best results.

Should we use any mix buss processing such as limiting?

The short answer is: NO! Dynamics processing cannot be undone and limits the mastering engineers’ flexibility for best outcome (no pun intended). In fact, don’t be too concerned about the overall loudness; we’ll take care of that! We like a little headroom: concentrate on the music not the meters. If buss processing is part of your mixing style, fine. In which case we’d appreciate you submit two versions of each mix: one without mix buss processing (for us to work on), and the other with your desired mix buss processing (for us as a sonic template) to understand your intentions and what you are aiming for.

We compiled a checklist “How should we prepare our mixes for mastering?” as an overall guide to follow for best results.

How long will it take?

Turnaround may vary depending on current workload. In general you can expect your project to be mastered within a week.

We offer an Overnite Mastering™ service with a less than 24-hour turnaround at an additional charge in co-operation with our New York affiliate studio.

In general it may take some 20 minutes and up to an hour for mastering a track, including editing, sequencing, meta-tagging and rendering for digital release formats (restoration such as extensive noise removal may take longer, and may incur additional charges once requested). Releases for vinyl are not covered by the Overnite Mastering™ service and may take an additional week to complete.

What do I get as a final production master? What is a DDP?

This depends largely on the final release format:

  • CD release: we compile and upload a so-called DDP for you to approve using our free customDDP Player. A DDP is like an exact image of the CD that can be sent over the internet and used as a standard to produce a ‘glass-master’ for CD replication at the pressing plant. While we also offer physical CD listen-copies upon request, we don’t recommend using them for glass-mastering.
  • Online digital distribution: most online distributors will request 44.1kHz 16-bit wav-files to be submitted for encoding to their standards (e.g. Amazon MP3 downloads mostly at 256kbps, Spotify Premium streaming at 320kbps OGG/FLAC). Thus, we will compile and upload 44.1kHz 16-bit wav-files for those platforms. There are some HiRes distributors like HDtracks that offer lossless wav-file downloads up to 192kHz and 24-bit resolution. For these we need your specifications to match. All files will be checked to be free of inter-sample peaks for the intended codec.
  • Mastered For iTunes (MFiT): As we are Apple certified for the MFiT program we will be uploading 24-bit wav-files at production sample-rate for submission to iTunes. All files will be checked to be free of inter-sample peaks for the intended codec.
  • Vinyl release: We have our lacquers cut on the most popular Neumann VMS70 for either 7”, 10” or 12” releases. Two lacquers for A and B sides respectively are sent via mail/courier to the address you provide.
  • Master-files for cutting lacquers: If you want to have your lacquers cut elsewhere we will provide 24-bit wav-files at production sample-rate for submission to the cutting engineer.
  • DVD-A, DVD-V and BluRay releases: we can provide masters in various formats and resolutions on DDPi, MLP Lossless 2.0 Stereo, LPCM 2.0 Stereo, or DLT if needed. Please contact us for details.

How much will it cost?

We offer up to two test-masters for our “undecided” clients. See RATES for details. Mastering rates are very reasonable and on a per-track-basis, whether you attend at our studios or opt for our online services! There is a 50% down-payment due for any first-time customers before we start working on your tracks. The remainder is payable upon master approval.
We accept payment by PayPal, credit cards and bank transfer.

We like to support the independent music scene and offer attractive package deals for those on a smaller budget.

What is a ‘label copy’ and metadata?

These terms are explained HERE

Give Fans The Credit is a petition worth mentioning here: “Real music fans want to know who wrote, produced, engineered and played on their favorite tracks and all music creators deserve to be credited for their work.  Credits in the hands of fans will lead to more music discovery, as fans will want to know what other songs a songwriter wrote or a producer produced.  Help us convince digital music services to tell fans who made the music they enjoy.” Join the petition athttp://www.grammy.com/credits

Will my tracks show up in iTunes or Windows Media Player?

Upon master approval and request we will upload provided metadata such as artists’ and track names to Gracenote™ for your tracks to be recognized by most media players. Please note: this is not the same as CD-TEXT! Though we may add CD-TEXT upon request, its recognition is limited to few CD players, most commonly some car-stereos.

Give Fans The Credit is a petition worth mentioning here: “Real music fans want to know who wrote, produced, engineered and played on their favorite tracks and all music creators deserve to be credited for their work.  Credits in the hands of fans will lead to more music discovery, as fans will want to know what other songs a songwriter wrote or a producer produced.  Help us convince digital music services to tell fans who made the music they enjoy.” Join the petition athttp://www.grammy.com/credits

 

What is Mastered For iTunes (MFiT)?

MFiT is a joint effort between Apple and mastering engineers to ensure masters are void of potential clipping distortion in their proprietary iTunes Plus codec. It uses 24-bit files for the encode rather than16-bit files used by most other online distributors. The encoded AAC files sold through iTunes is very close to CD sonically .
All files will be checked to be free of inter-sample peaks for the intended codec.

What happens if I’m not happy with the audio master?

We believe, communication is the key to a successful master! Get in touch with us early, and we offer free advice and feedback on your mixes early during the mixing stage to get the best results possible. In the unlikely event that you want us to make any changes to the master, we offer one free revision of each track free of charge. We have confidence in what we do while we respect your needs!

How should we prepare our mixes for mastering?

Click HERE to download the checklist on “How should we prepare our mixes for mastering?” as an overall guide to follow for best results.

In short:

  1. IMPORTANT: Make sure you have completed our client intake form or send us a label-copy, if you have one. It contains our “road-map” necessary to start and complete your project.
  2. IMPORTANT: LABEL your mixes in correspondence with your client intake form, or send us additional information if needed to help us easily identify your source mixes. (We don’t want to bother you with questions like: ”What is the track number and title of your file labelled “mix_full_03-final?”!)
  3. Submit your mixes in production resolution
  4. Keep your maximum digital peak levels below or around -3dBfs.
  5. Keep master bus processing to a minimum, or off.
  6. Leave handles at the heads and tails of your mixes.
  7. UPLOAD your tracks, bring them to your attended mastering session or simply mail them to us

What is audio mastering?

Contrary to popular belief, mastering is a craft not an art! While you create the art it is our responsibility to make it shine in the best possible light for the public to listen to. “You paint the picture, and we Photoshop and frame it nicely to make it more presentable”. Mastering – in the traditional sense – is the task of preparing an audio source to be transferred to, and featured best on the intended release format or medium and constructing the actual medium master used for replication while realising the artist’s vision. If there are multiple tunes, we also make sure that they sound like they belong together, constructing a coherent product in terms of flow, including proper frequency and dynamic balance void of any continuity issues noticeable to the final listener so that it sounds excellent on all different consumer systems.

Many a novice confuses mixing with mastering and may expect single elements of the mix to still be individually treatable in mastering. However, in mastering we usually treat a finished mix, be it a stereo or multichannel mix for surround or 3-D audio. It is a craft of compromise where little goes a long way. Bringing up the vocals, for example, will inevitably affect other instruments in the mix. Treating individual elements is best done in production, i.e. in recording and while mixing. Stem mastering will provide more flexibility here.

Limitations of mastering

One final piece of advice: mastering cannot work magic. It adds depth, punch, clarity and volume to your mix. Mastering may hone the overall quality, but you’ll never get a poor mix to sound like a high-end production. Here re-mixing the song will almost always lead to greater satisfaction. Each step in music production requires great care and accuracy. With this in mind and some

experience, you will be able to achieve good results.

What is STEM-MASTERING?

Stem mastering will use “stems” or sub-mixes of instrument groups to provide more flexibility at the mastering stage. While we accept stems for mastering at an additional charge, we prefer just working with instrumental and a cappella stems in most cases (at NO additional charge), when only full-mixes are needed. This allows us to adjust the most relevant proportions of a popular music mix, ensuring vocal presence and intelligibility. If you need additional, alternative mixes such as TV-tracks (or half-play-backs – HPB) you may want to submit backing-vocal stems in addition to lead-vocals and instrumentals. More than two stems will incur additional charges.

What are ISRCs, MCNs and Matrix Numbers?

ISRCs are the recording equivalent to an ISBN for a book. Owners of the recording – usually record labels – can assign these “International Standard Recording Codes” to their individual recordings/mixes for which they have the mechanical rights in order to facilitate mechanical rights royalty payments. This code was standardized by the IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry), who work with creative societies (like the RIAA in the US or GEMA in Germany) across the globe to track royalties owed to them from public performance such as radio airplay. In fact, most radio stations simply will not play songs that do not have ISRCs. These codes are also required by stores like iTunes and others to market music. The codes are usually written into the metadata region of CDs and audio-files at the mastering stage.
There are many ways to obtain these codes. If you’re not in the US (https://usisrc.org/) or the UK (http://www.ppluk.com/) , then visit: http://ifpi.org/isrc for more information on how to register for codes. The code consists of 12 digits: the first two are designated to the label’s country of origin (e.g. US) the following three digits are the label code assigned by the IFPI, followed by two digits for the first year of release (e.g. ‘09’ for 2009) and five digits assigned by the label as track number ‘released that year’.

The MCN or Media Catalog Number is assigned to the product or CD. It is the barcode for the product! This is equivalent to the UPC (Universal Product Code) or EAN (European Article Number) consisting of 13 digits (0 prefix for UPS). The MCN is usually added at the CD pressing plant after the mastering stage.

A matrix number is usually intended for internal use at the record manufacturing plant, and should be of no concern to you. On vinyl records it is an inscription found in the run-out area close to the label. It is added to the master lacquer by the cutting engineer at the mastering stage to facilitate recognition of the ‘parts’ (e.g. what album, side A or side B) by the pressing plant. Album matrix numbers are often similar to their catalog number. Some mastering engineers even add their initials, this is useful in large cutting studios, but rare.

CDs also contain matrix numbers added by the pressing plant. These ‘factory codes’ are visibly inscribed near the hub of the CD.

How loud should my tracks sound after mastering?

Here’s our advice: don’t be too concerned that your tracks need to be loud.

Times and technologies have changed to where it rarely makes sense wanting your master to sound as loud as possible. It should sound as good as possible! And this often entails leaving more dynamics, sounding more organic and musical, adding to its overall longevity as a result and becoming more listenable over longer periods of time.

The only exception might be if you are shopping for a deal with a label and you want to impress the A&R at a record label. Here you may want the listener/A&R to be drawn to your CD sounding louder than the CDs by other potential artists they listen to that day, essentially fooling the listener in believing it sounds “better”.

Many of you may not know that there are new levelling techniques used at many radio, TV and internet radio stations and by media players available today that ensure playback of your music at equal average loudness without using compression. Traditionally, radio stations used complex compression techniques to level all music played at equal loudness, while making sure the transmitter was not over-modulated (not clipping). This caused a lot of louder CDs to be compressed after mastering to the extent where something that sounded big and having impact sounded small and wimpy when played on the radio. Some stations still adhere to that practice, making it a valid concern if your CD is mastered to be as loud as possible.

Luckily the modern technologies that have been developed over the last few years for radio and TV broadcast and initiated by the CALM Act are being adopted by more and more playback systems, where equal loudness is achieved by a method that involves all audio to be played having previously undergone certain standard loudness measurement techniques and having the results stored within each audio file’s metadata, that can be recognized by systems upon playback that will lower its level to a set target value: For example, iTunes’ “SoundCheck” option in their players uses a target value of -16.5LUFS that is mostly lower than todays mastered music files. This is the same target value used for iTunes radio Internet broadcast. By turning tracks down to be at equal perceived loudness as all the other tracks eliminates the need for earlier complex compression techniques that may change the fidelity of your music. Ironically, this method may produce results where heavily compressed loud masters with less dynamic range sound slightly quieter when compared to the same music when less compression has been used retaining more dynamic range, since the loud and soft passages of the music average differently. It is worth thinking about!

By all means, we’ll make your music sound as loud as possible, if this is still want you want. Just understand that it may not stand up as well against more dynamic masters when played back on modern playback systems, and most certainly not on older systems that use additional compression when playing back your music.

But don’t take our word for it, watch what mastering-engineers Greg Calbi and Ian Shepherd have to say about this.

Where can I learn more about audio mastering?

We like to support the independent music scene and offer attractive package deals for those on a smaller budget. And we encourage our clients to attend the mastering sessions where you can get a better idea of what mastering is all about. Yet, for those of you that still think they would rather master themselves, here is a little advice.

There is a reason why seasoned mix-engineers seek mastering engineers to finalize their projects: The objectivity from a fresh set of (experienced) ears should not be underestimated. I suggest you invite others to listen to your work for constructive feedback. You may be too close to the project; this can often result in overhearing something that an objective listener notices, such as an unintelligible vocal. For an album the goal is to make a set of songs sound more like they belong together.

For those interested in mastering education:

  • We offer weekend mastering seminars at our studios: Contact us for more information
  • Berklee College of Music also has an online school with a course in Audio Mastering Techniquesthat I co-wrote with my colleague Jonathan Wyner.
  • iZotope has published a Mastering Guide that is available HERE as a free PDF
  • HERE are 5 tips on what you may want to listen out for when mastering.

What is the role of a music producer?

“The broad definition of a Record Producer is someone responsible for making sure a project gets done within time and budget constraints. There are also 3 sub-types of Producers. The musician/producer, like the Neptunes or Rodney Jerkins, the engineer/producer like Jack Joseph Puig or Nigel Godrich, and the fan/producer, like Rick Rubin and Jimmy Iovine. The musician/producer usually creates all the music and often writes the songs, bringing in vocal talent to front the project. The engineer/producer will craft the sound of an existing project, often using equipment and technique to create the magic in the studio. The fan/producer may never actually touch the console, but will help choose the songs and guide the project by bringing the right people together.
I find my production style falls mainly between the engineer and the fan, but I’ll often add musical elements including string arrangements, vocals, mellotron. My function in the studio is to keep the project going, to tell an artist when a performance is not good enough, and to let them know when it is. Many artists can’t tell when they have finished, especially with endless ProTools tracks and the ability to continue to change without commitment. Someone has to say “stop” or the record never gets finished, so I can be the artist’s “reality-checker.”

A typical album production starts with me directing an artist to write 30 songs so I can choose the best 12. Day one of recording will have us listening and discussing the songs and agreeing on the list to record. I usually work with an engineer who will set up the studio the way I like it, mic-ing the entire band to play the songs live to a click. I’ll detail the drum sounds, tune the kit, move mics, adjust EQ until we are ready to record. We will record a bit of a song and discuss the sounds. I will make any additional adjustments until we are all happy and ready to go. We then record several takes of each song and I’ll give the engineer notes on what parts to comp together for the ProTools tracking masters. Then, depending on the project, I’ll have the engineer fine-edit the drum performances on the multi-track masters before continuing into overdubs.

I map out a strategy before doing overdubs, and make a plan on how to complete the project within the time given. I’ll often give the engineer the job of recording the foundation tracks, and I will come in afterwards and approve performances. I want the foundation tracks to be done quickly so we can dig into the vocals and the color parts as soon as possible, this is where I can really help a project. I like to bring out unusual instruments so we can experiment with sounds and parts. I’ll give musicians writing tasks that inspire them to stretch their wings. We will try the Hammond C3 or an Optigan on a part. We’ll drag out the huge suitcases full of percussion instruments. We’ll try adding group vocals or string parts. Maybe a sitar. If you are so caught up in fussing over a rhythm guitar sound, you may never get the chance to really get creative.

As a producer I approve mixes before the band comes in for a listen, and I’ll often do the mixing myself. I prefer to have another engineer set up the mixes so I can take a fresh listen to the songs before finishing. I hope I have interpreted the artist’s vision and gone beyond their expectations!

PS: There’s another aspect to producing that I didn’t mention above, and that’s the ability to get great performances. There is so much to producing a record that goes beyond gear, engineering or other details. It’s the performance! I do have somewhat of a reputation in this area, and I’ve been known to be a bit outrageous in my efforts to push the artist into that magical zone where they stop over-thinking and pour their heart out into the microphone. The psychology of how I accomplish this is my secret sauce, and it’s a recipe that can’t be easily reproduced. I’ve fired guns into pianos, driven motorcycles into the studio, thrown guitars off cliffs, burned almost everything, etc. It’s the ability to open a scene where suddenly people stop internalizing, and start spontaneously creating. Lightning in a bottle, so to speak.” Since I could not have said it better, this was used by kind permission of Sylvia Massy

How are vinyl records made?

Traditionally mastering is the process by which the master recording is transferred to a lacquer master disc.

The process can be a straight transfer where the master is transferred without any changes to the lacquer master. Yet, sometimes changes are necessary because there are limitations on what can be transferred to a lacquer disc. Excessive high frequencies need to be attenuated using a high-frequency limiter, while excessive low frequencies will prevent a loud record, and out of phase low frequency signals may cause skips (“vertical lift-offs”). These are vinyl’s main limitations.

But changes can also be made to improve the sound.

All formats are accepted master formats, but most need to be optimized before transfer to lacquer. Dynamic mixes translate better to vinyl that “loud-limited” mixes with little dynamics.

The master is played into a cutting amp rack and subsequently onto a disc recording lathe which cuts the groove onto the lacquer master. A cutterhead mounted on it moves laterally across the lacquer master as it rotates on the turntable. The cutter head holds a stylus, which vibrates and cuts the groove.

After the master lacquers (one per side) have been cut by the mastering engineer they are sent to the pressing plant.

PLATING AT THE PLANT: Once the audio is on the lacquer disc it is electroplated to make metal parts for replication. These metal parts are used to stamp out the records. Mastered lacquers are chemically cleaned and sprayed with a silver solution. They are then placed into a nickel bath with a high voltage charge. The electric current causes the nickel molecules to be attracted to the silver creating a build up of material. Positively charged nickel ions are attracted to the negatively charged silver-plated ions. The more time given to this process the more nickel will build up, and the thicker the plate or “metal father”, resulting in different thickness. Once the desired thickness is reached the lacquer with nickel negative (“metal father”) is cleaned and separated.

From this point the nickel plate (“metal father”) can be used as a stamper – this is known as single step plating.

In order to press large quantities of records in excess of 1000 copies, multiple stampers need to be produced by repeating the above process: In the next step the “metal father” undergoes the plating process to produce a positive mirror image (“metal mother”). This third generation can be plated repeatedly to produce multiple negative stampers for pressing (“stampers”).

Pressing vinyl: The set up involves the stampers for each job being fastened inside a hydraulic press onto top and bottom inserts, a vinyl biscuit or puck is placed. The biscuit has labels compressed onto it and is then placed inside the press. Two thousand psi at 300 degrees is applied then cooled down to 100 degrees. When the press opens a record is then moved to a trimmer, where it is trimmed of excess vinyl, burnished and stacked on a spindle.

Once the records have been taken off the press, they are individually quality controlled to monitor the auditory and visual standards, after which they are placed in sleeves. See how all this is doneHERE