The art and science of CD Mastering

So we've now finished tracking everything except some last minute bass clarinet and alto flute harmony parts. I recorded one solo that I left out because it was so hard, I didn't want to hold up the entire band until I was happy with it. Well, I'm still not happy with it. I did a shitload of takes and never really got in the groove. Partly because I wasn't really warmed up and partly because the sound was also pretty bad. We were recording in our engineer's small project studio and even though we used the exact same mic setup, the sound came out much brighter and smaller. It's hard to play when you're hearing a weak sound in the cans. I was also going to replace another solo but the sound was so much better in the big studio that we decided to keep the original tracks. This of course wasn't Sean's fault, there's just no way a home studio can come close to the sound of a high end professional studio.

Having great preamps and a top of the line board makes all the difference in the world. At first we were thinking of trying to cut costs by mixing at our engineer's home studio, but we wanted the best sound possible. Pere was talking about having the engineer master the CD on his ProTools HD system to save $500-600 dollars. Mastering is the last phase of the process before pressing and it can really make or break the final sound. Some mastering facilities will do a CD for a flat fee and some charge by the number and length of the tracks. A good mastering facility has very specialized gear that is too expensive to own unless you are in the business of mastering. People say that you should always have a different person master your project than person who mixed it. Mastering is about organizing all your tracks, setting the correct levels, adding the right amount of compression and tweaking the final timbre to create a specific tonal atmosphere. This last operation requires that the mastering engineer has a very clear idea of the sound that you are going for artistically. As with your recording engineer, make sure that the mastering house has done the type of music that you are working with. Rock mastering is a very different game than Jazz mastering. Rock mastering usually compresses the hell out of the sound and cranks up the levels until the waveforms look like bricks.

If you're going to spend several thousand dollars on recording and mixing, then don't be a big weenie and do a half-assed job on the mastering. Here is some more information about mastering from Digital Domain website.

Can't I just mix to DAT?
Seven reasons why you need mastering.

Every recording deserves good mastering. When you're through mixing, your work is not finished. Mastering adds polish, it sounds more than just a record...it becomes a work of art. The songs work together seamlessly, their sound can take on a dimensionality and life that enhances even the best mixes. Here are seven reasons why Mastering is needed.

1. Ear Fatigue
Most music today is produced by recording a multi track tape. The next step is the mixdown. This mixdown may take anywhere from 4 hours to 4 weeks, depending on the producer's predilections, the artist's whims, and the budget. Usually each tune is mixed in isolation. Rarely do you have the luxury to switch and compare the songs as you mix. Some mixes may be done at 2 o'clock in the morning, when ears are fatigued, and some at 12 noon, when ears are fresh. The result: Every mix sounds different, every tune has a different response curve.

2. The Skew of the Monitors
Monitoring speakers. It's amazing when you think about it, but very few studios have accurate monitor systems. Did you know, placing speakers on top of a console creates serious frequency response peaks and dips? A typical control room is so filled with equipment that there's no room to place a monitor system without causing comb-filtering due to acoustic reflections. And though your heart is filled with good intentions, how often do you have time to take your rough mixes around, playing them on systems ranging from boomboxes to cars to audiophile systems? Usually there is no time to see how your music will sound on various systems in different acoustic environments. The result: your mixes are compromised. Some frequencies stand out too much, and others too little.

3. More Me
The producer was supposed to be in charge. He tried to keep the artists out of the mix room. But something went out of control. The producer was gone for the day, or the bassist had a fit of megalomania. Or the artist decided to be his/her own producer. Whatever....all the mixes sound like vocal, or bass, or (fill in appropriate instrument) solos.

4. May I Have Your Order, Please
When mixing, you (the producer) often have no idea what order to put the tunes until after all the mixes are completed. If you physically compile these songs at unity gain, and listen to them one after another, it probably won't sound like "a record." Some tunes will jump out at you, others will be too weak; you may discover (belatedly) that some tunes are too bright or weak in the bass, or that the vocal is a little weak, or that the stereo separation is too narrow. These things actually happen, even after weeks in the studio, and the problems sometimes don't become apparent until the album is assembled in its intended order, or auditioned in a good monitoring environment.

5. The Perspective of another Trained Ear. The Buck Stops Here.
The Mastering engineer is the last ear on your music project. He can be an artistic, musical, and technical sounding board for your ideas. Take advantage of his special ear... many beautiful music projects have passed through his studio. You may ask him how he feels about the order of your songs, how they should be spaced, and whether there's anything special that can make them stand out. He'll listen closely to every aspect of your album and may provide suggestions if you're looking for them.

6. Midi Madness
Lately it sounds like everyone is using the same samples! Acoustic sounds are coming back in vogue, but perhaps you haven't got the budget to hire the London Symphony. So, you had to compromise by using some samples. But you shouldn't compromise on mastering. Good mastering can bring out the acoustic quality in your samples, increasing your chance of success in a crowded music field.

7. Don't Try This at Home
The invention of the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and the digital mixer is an apparent blessing but really a curse. Many musicians and studios have purchased low cost DAWs and digital mixers because they have been led to believe that sound quality will improve. Unfortunately, it's real easy to misuse this equipment. We've found many DAWs and digital mixers that deteriorate the sound of music, shrink the stereo image and soundstage, and distort the audio. There are several technical reasons for these problems-usually wordlength and jitter are compromised in these low-cost systems. Therefore, we recommend that you protect your audio from damage; use a mastering studio that employs a high-resolution system that enhances rather than deteriorates audio quality. Prepare your tapes properly, and avoid the digital pitfalls. Use the informative articles at theDigital Domain web site as resources to help you avoid audio degradation. When in doubt, take this advice: mix via analog console to DAT or analog tape, and send the original tapes to the mastering house. You'll be glad you did.

Those are only some of the reasons why, inevitably, further mastering work is needed to turn your songs into a master, including: adjusting the levels, spacing the tunes, fine-tuning the fadeouts and fadeins, removing noises, replacing musical mistakes by combining takes (common in direct-to-two track work), equalizing songs to make them brighter or darker, bringing out instruments that (in retrospect) did not seem to come out properly in the mix. Now, take a deep breath and welcome to the world of CD mastering.

from Diskmakers soundlab-

In the recording studio, you record one song at a time, and the focus of the recording or mixing engineer is to make each song great. The result, however, is generally a collection of songs that all peak at different levels and may have different EQs. In the post-production phase (called mastering), a professional engineer unifies the CD by using EQ, compression, and other dynamics processing to give it a consistent sound from track to track.

In addition, post production can raise your album's overall level through the careful use of compression, so your album can compete with any major label release. The mastering engineer also ensures that your music will sound great - whether it's being played through a car stereo, a portable CD player, or a top-of-the-line stereo system. In CD Mastering, the sound of your CD will be optimized, making it sound punchy, warm, and full, while raising the overall level (volume) and highlighting details that aren't already apparent. Post production is also helpful for addressing issues such as "pops," out-of-phase tracks, and overall noise reduction.

A fresh pair of ears can be the difference between a good-sounding CD and a great one. A real advantage of post production is that an unbiased sound professional has the opportunity to evaluate your master and determine how to get the most out of your production. After you've spent weeks or even months in a recording studio listening to your CD over and over again, a fresh pair of ears can put the project into perspective for you and let you know whether or not your CD will benefit from post production. After all, you only have one chance to make your music sound its best. The choice is up to you.

The mastering engineer, to improve your recording, can:

• Raise the overall level.
• Even out song levels and EQ individual tracks for cohesion.
• Correct minor mix deficiencies with equalization.
• Enhance flow by changing the space between tracks.
• Eliminate noises between tracks.

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