Mastering is the last creative process in the production chain and the final technical check before duplication. Creatively, an artist can wait until mastering to edit songs, adjust fades, sequence the tracks and add the time between the songs. Generally speaking, the goal is to make it as easy as possible for the listener to get through the CD without needing to adjust playback volume and EQ. This is accomplished with equalization, compression, and/or limiting. But equalization and compression can also be used to change the character of the recording. In the right hands, mastering can transform a collection of good mixes into a great album.
Many independent CD projects are being recorded and mixed in less than ideal environments. Compromises in room acoustics in these “project studios” prevent the engineer from realizing the true nature (balance) of their mix. Inconsistencies from song to song can also exist if more than one person is mixing the project in different studios using different engineers and equipment. Mastering helps create consistency within the CD and assures the artist that their CD will fit within accepted standards of quality found in most major label releases. This means that there will be consistency of volume and tonal balance creating a more professional presentation.
Can I come to the mastering session?
All mastering sessions are unattended. As you may know I’m no longer at The Plant and I’m working out of a studio I built in my home. What I offer is to master your project based on your notes and / or phone conversations with you. When the mastering is complete, I will provide you with a reference CD at no cost. If you like it, and wish to continue or have the master cut you would then pay for the mastering. This way, I work at my own pace and deliver you a better product at no risk. Rushing through a project with the clock ticking to keep within a clients budget is no longer the case. I spend as much time on a project as I need before turning it over for your approval.
What kind of equipment do you use for mastering?
After spending eight years at The Plant in Sausalito with a room full of high end audio equipment I found myself relying on a half dozen pieces of gear for mastering. These consist of what I believe to be some of the finest mastering devices ever made. It all starts with the AD/DA converters – I use Prism. These converters quite simply redefine the current state-of-the-art. For analog processing I use the Millennia TCL-2 Compressor/Limiter with Telefunken tubes or the SSL XLogic buss compressor. For EQ I use the Prism MEA-2 mastering EQ. I also have a totally rebuilt Ampex ATR-102 tape recorder with flat response heads for tape processing. For digital EQ I use the UA Precision EQ, Eiosis AirEQ or the Massenburg Design Works High Resolution Parametric and for limiting the UA Precision Limiter or the Fabfilter Pro-L. I use a ProTools HDX system with a Universal Audio UAD-2 processing card as my DAW clocked to the Prism converters and the Hofa CD-Burn & DDP software for producing the DDP or PMCD masters. The room is laid out, treated and tuned for mastering. I use Meyer Sound HD1 speakers that are professionally voiced with a Meyer CP-10 EQ. I only use the gear I feel necessary for the project and believe in less-is-more. Yes, I use fancy wire and have expensive power conditioning for the entire system. But the most important piece of gear is my ears that I have cleaned and checked twice a year.
Should I normalize or compress my mixes before mastering?
Normalizing is not necessary before mastering. Part of the mastering process is to balance the apparent levels and normalizing is rarely the best way. Compression, on the other hand, is often used to shape the sound of a mix. If you have been mixing with stereo buss compression and like the sound of your mix then there is no reason to remove it for mastering. On the other hand, if you have not been mixing with compression, don’t add it before mastering. The mastering process will include some form of compression and/or limiting.
How loud will my CD be?
If you leave it up to me to decide I will adjust the apparent level of your CD safely below the point it would degrade the sound quality preserving good overall dynamics. Your CD will be hot but not distorted. It will retain its punch and sound full without being mushy. For clients who want all the dynamics of their mix preserved I can add just enough limiting to prevent any overshoots. For clients who wish to compete in the “Loudness War” just let me know who the competition is and I will set a target level regardless of the consequences.
Here is some good information on the Loudness War I recommend you read before making a decision. Loudness War.
What is a DDP master?
DDP file sets are an error¿protected wrapper format specifically designed for reliable optical disc replication. DDP or Disc Description Protocol is the industry standard method for delivering all of the data and metadata needed for disc replication to a pressing plant. Unlike audio CDs, DDP file sets contain error protected audio data plus all ancillary metadata or, “data about the data.” If your replication company can’t accept a DDP as the master or if you have ordered CD-TEXT I will provide you with a PMCD master.
Can I make copies of my reference CD at home on my computer to give to friends and band members?
There is no easy answer to this question. With the proliferation of computer software and CD burners there are many ways to mess up a music CD when making a copy of it. The reference CD you receive from me will be your only true reference of what the final version will be like. Here is a list of things that can go wrong when people try to copy music CDs.
The imported audio can be converted to a low resolution MP3 file without your knowledge.
So-called “sound enchantment” processing may be introduced during the importing or playback of a copied CD.
Noise such as snaps or clicks may be introduced during the burning process due to media, burner, and/or software incompatibilities.
The spacing between songs applied during the mastering process may be removed and replaced by your computer’s software default settings.
Artistic cross-fades between songs applied during mastering may have gaps put in by your computer’s software default settings.
As you can see there are many reasons not to use copied reference CDs for serious evaluation of your project.
Will my song titles appear when I put my CD into a computer?
When album information is displayed on a computer, it’s a result of your CD being registered in an online database (also known as Gracenote). A similar but different technology is that of CD-TEXT, which shows album information that is actually encoded on your supplied master disc. CD-TEXT will only display on players that support it. The most common CD-TEXT capable players available today are aftermarket car stereos. Many CD replication companies like Disc Makers will register your CD with Gracenote or add CD-TEXT as part of their service.
What is ISRC code?
If you’re planning on selling your music through digital retailers (i.e. iTunes, Napster, Sony Connect), then having the ability to assign ISRC codes is absolutely necessary. The ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) is a unique international identifier for tracks on sound and music-video recordings. Comprised of a 12 character alpha-numeric code, the ISRC functions as a digital “fingerprint” for each track. Unlike a UPC code (a.k.a. bar code) the ISRC is assigned to individual tracks and not the carrier of the tracks (CD, cassette). In addition, the ISRC remains allocated to a track regardless of changes in ownership. It is an extremely powerful tool for royalty collection, administration, and anti-piracy safeguards in the digital arena.
The ISRC is made up of four parts:
Country Code: The registrant’s (sound recording copyright owner) country (2 characters).
Registrant Code: The code of the registrant that allocated the ISRC (3 characters).
Year Of Reference Code: The year in which the ISRC is allocated to the recording (2 characters).
The code assigned to the track by the registrant. This code may not be repeated within the same calendar year (5 characters).The RIAA assigns registrant codes and answers questions regarding implementation of the ISRC program for free. There is no charge for these services regardless of whether or not you are a member of RIAA. Your implementation of the ISRC is cost effective. It can be done without special investment in equipment or technological measures. It only requires you to develop an internal system for administering ISRCs.Applying for a registrant (company) code is easy, and best-of-all FREE! This code can be obtained from the RIAA, the national ISRC administration agency for the United States. Membership in the RIAA is not required to obtain a registrant code. The RIAA strongly encourages all U.S. sound recording copyright owners to apply for an ISRC Registrant Code, and assign ISRCs to all tracks.