What is audio mastering? How is it different than mixing?
Mixing is performed prior to Mastering and focuses on adjusting the balance and presentation of the individual instruments and tracks in a song, resulting in a 2-track stereo mixdown.
Mastering is the final stage of processing on a completed stereo mix prior to the release of a record. Mastering ensures that the track sounds as full, present, and provides optimal impact in as many different listening environments as possible. For a good production and a solid mix, this final stage imparts the polish that makes it "sound like a record". Mastering makes a collection of songs sound like they all belong together.
Mastering is also the final creative step that comes just before manufacturing a CD or digital distribution (iTunes, BandCamp, DistroKid, TuneCore, Spotify, YouTube, etc.). It's a crucial step that can literally separate the hits from the rest of the market.
The mastering engineer has a fresh and objective ear, he also has the equipment, the experience, and the facility (treated room, ridiculous speakers) to hear the tiniest details and make corrections where necessary. He prepares your music so it translates with the best optimum sound on all sound systems. He also has special skills and software to repair imperfections that may be in your mixes (audio glitches/pops/clicks, reduce noise, eliminate hum, fix undesirable errors).
You may think your mix sounds great but you will be amazed how much room there is for improvement. Mastering takes your final mix and tweaks, processes and polishes it. It's what gives depth, punch, clarity, and volume to your tracks. It is part science, part craft, and part alchemy.
In addition to applying surgical Equalization, appropriate Compression, and audio restoration, the mastering engineer is also in charge of sequencing (putting your songs in order), determining spacing, cross-fading, encoding song & artist information (CDs), encoding ISRC, and a bunch of other fun stuff. Mastering engineers provide the final quality control for your project.
What kinds of things can mastering fix or improve?
Mastering commonly imparts greater clarity and focus to a mix by adjusting the frequency balance of the mix. Mastering is also frequently called upon to bring a track's loudness up to commercially viable levels. It can make bass sound fuller & deeper and can add silkiness and warmth. Mastering can add punch and impact, as well as an expensive-sounding polish and sheen to well-produced material.
There are some things mastering can't fix, however. Mastering can't fix a poor recording or an overly sloppy mix.. It will make your mix sound better than it ever has... but it will still be your production and your mix. There are limits to the mastering engineer’s powers.
Will mastering give my tracks that "radio sound"?
If the production & mix are good, the answer is a resounding YES! In many cases, mastering can also fix certain mix problems and take a decent mix over the top into stellar territory.
It's important to note, however, that many songs you hear on the radio have teams of great writers, performers, producers, programmers, and mixers behind them. Mastering doesn't create that sound on its own.
Why pay for mastering?
With today’s digital music market open as it is, many producers/labels don’t see the need for mastering or do “it” themselves. However, they forget or maybe underestimate the value a good mastering can bring to a release.
Besides the fact that the mastering engineer will have a fresh, unbiased ear (that you will not have after spending hours, days or weeks on a song), he also has the equipment, the experience, and the facility to hear the tiniest details.
His musical understanding enables him to recognize important details in your song and put the focus on those details.
With so many releases every week, good sound quality is more important than ever to stand out from the rest. It’s not a coincidence that all “hits” sound as good as they do.
Professional mastering is a vital step which should be valued, respected and not be taken lightly.
What do I need to do to prepare for mastering?
First, make sure you're as happy with your final mix as possible. Listen on your monitors, headphones, car stereo, etc and address as many problems as you can. The better the mix you send me, the better the end result will be! Leave yourself plenty of time in your budget for mixing. A rushed mix may leave you unsatisfied.
Avoid compression, limiting or EQ on the master output of your final mix --unless you have mixed through this chain from the start, and it's essential to the sound & coherence of the mix. Also, make sure the master output isn't clipping. In fact, you should leave several dBs of headroom. You can, however, add a brickwall limiler (ex. L2, L3) on the Master buss/fader for "transient-peak-safety" (ex. Threshold of -1.0db, output ceiling of -0.3db). It's usually recommended that mix peak level of -4 or -6 dBfs at 24 bit is enough to ensure good low-level resolution while maintaining enough headroom for the mastering stage. It's a bit more complicated than that, but that's a good start. What's important is that you don't over compress your mix and maintain good dynamics and crest factor. Having said that, it is possible to master a hot/loud mix (within reason). If you have any questions please feel free to contact your mastering engineer with any questions prior to your final mixdown.
Export your mix in the highest possible bit depth (ex 24bit) and sample rate resolution (ex. 44.1kHz). This means if you recorded at 24bit / 44.1kHz (or 16/44, 16/48, 24/48, 24/88, 24/96) then mixdown to the exact bit depth and sample rate. For example, a project recorded at 24bit 44.1kHz should be exported at that same sample rate and bit (24/44) depth (not 16bit) in WAV or AIFF format. Also, you should NOT apply dither when exporting your mix. * MP3s or other lossy formats are not suitable for mastering.
*** When you burn your mix files to a CD or DVD, please make sure that you create a DATA cd or DATA DVD, and not an audio CD with your mix files. You'd be surprised how often mix engineers make the mistake of creating an audio cd with the mix files. When you "create an audio CD" your CD creation software will convert (Nero, Roxio, Toast, etc) the DATA wav or aiff files into cd audio files. I can still work with an audio CD but it is preferred that I master from the unaffected DATA wav/aiff mix DATA files. So make sure you select the "Create DATA disc" option in your software.
*** Please note: I have more detailed Mix preparation tips that will be sent to you if we end up working together.
Can you listen to my mix and tell me if it's ready for mastering?
Yes, I'm happy to provide some basic mix feedback for clients who think they're ready (or nearly ready) for mastering. Simply contact me and upload your finished mix via your preferred transfer service (ex. WeTransfer, Dropbox, etc). I'm also a musician and mixing engineer so I may be able to help guide you on how to fix problems in the mix prior to mastering.
In general, the question to ask yourself is, "Am I happy with how it sounds? Have I taken my mix as far as I can?" If the answer is yes, it's probably ready for mastering!
What sort of tools do you use? Analog or digital? What gear?
I have an arsenal of the finest digital mastering tools at my disposal, including processors from Universal Audio, DMG, iZotope RX, Waves, API, SSL, among many others. I also have outboard gear, including Tube EQ, Tube Compressors, as well as 2-Track tape, harmonic exciters, and the worlds best 2-track recorder (Korg MR2000s). I have to say that in most cases I prefer to stay in-the-box and go all digital. The technology has arrived (emulations are arguably identical to their analog counterparts) and the flexibility of instant recall just makes sense these days.
In the past many felt that you needed to incorporate analog outboard gear to achieve a good mix or master, however, the advanced technology of the top of the line plugins have finally caught up to their analog counterparts. These professional plugins sound equally as good as analog gear and are not prone to hardware failure or tube degradation. Another huge benefit of digital plugins is that they are 100% recallable. Meaning if we decide we like the mastering, but wish to make additional changes, we can recall exactly what processors were used and tweak them accordingly.
*** This also helps keep my rates very affordable. The top Montreal mastering houses will charge up to 175$ per hour.
Every song is treated individually, then as a whole project. With an eye toward ensuring the final product sounds appropriate to its artistic intent and genre. I don't use presets or maximizers; Instead, I use my ears and my 15+ years of experience to ensure your record sounds the best it can. Trust me on the gear, and prepare for your music to really shine.