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Sound Advice

A Mastering Primer by Karen Kane

In the days of the vinyl record, the mastering facility was a different animal than it is today. Typically back then, we sent our master analog tapes to a disc cutting mastering studio and hoped for the best when we received back our “reference lacquer” or our “test pressings”. Many of the albums I worked on in the ’70s and ’80s were done in this manner, where producer and artist were not in attendance at the mastering session.

Today, it is unheard of for a producer or artist not to be at the mastering session. At all levels, we have gained the creative control we always should have had. This is due in part, to the way mastering is currently done and the number of mastering facilities that are now available.

These days, one has to be cautious not to get caught up in the illusion that someone with a computer music editing program and a CD burner is a “mastering” studio. While this type of “facility” can be useful in certain situations, this is not the place to go to for proper CD mastering.

To properly understand the differences between mastering facilities we could say that there are three categories: World Class, Professional and Non-Professional. A world class mastering facility has a well designed, large, accurate listening environment; a pair of awesome, accurate speakers; a variety of 2-track playback systems (analog ½”, analog ¼”, DAT, etc); ultra high-quality EQs and compressors; and a high quality computer editing system. (While ProTools is an extremely popular computer mastering program, a lot of world class facilities opt for Sonic Solutions or Sadie). Very often, the mastering engineers at these places are known for their “famous ears” and have many gold/platinum records on the wall from past clients. The cost of this kind of facility can be as high as $3,000/day US for the most “famous ears” and as low as $1,000/day.

While professional mastering facilities can provide excellent results, these types of rooms differ from world class rooms in that they have less awesome gear, less awesome speakers, smaller rooms and usually no “famous ears”. The cost is also more in line with what indie projects can afford ($65-75/hour).

Whether professional or world class, it all still comes down to PEOPLE. The wrong person in a world class mastering may not do any better than as the right person in a professional mastering room.

As I mentioned earlier, a non-professional mastering room is usually a home studio with someone who happens to have a few of the main ingredients to be able to “master” a project. Many times, when I have worked on a demo project, I actually do look for this kind of situation. Since the “mastering” needs of a demo are limited to putting the songs in correct order and basic volume matching, this type of situation will often suffice. However, in today’s world, there are so many musicians and budding engineers able to afford this kind of equipment, you must be careful who you are dealing with … successful results are not necessarily guaranteed.

To clarify the basic functions during a mastering session, here’s a list of mastering’s 5 main jobs:

1. To EQ and compress each existing mix. This allows you to
a) enhance an already good sounding mix and/or
b) make up for any inconsistencies possibly due to an inaccurate listening environment at the mix studio, late night mixing, etc.
2. To Edit … clean up the head and tail of each song and smooth out or create fades. Often, we’ll have more than one version of a mix and we can use bits and pieces from those different mixes. Thanks to editing programs, we can cut and paste pieces of several mixes together as easily as cutting and pasting text in a word document.
3. To put songs in correct order and decide amount of seconds in between each song.
4. To match levels song to song. Consistent matched volumes all the way through the album is important so the consumer doesn’t have to turn the volume up or down for each song.
5. To put program material into the format required by the CD manufacturer. (CDR, exabyte)

Mastering is often referred to as the “court of last appeal” or the “icing on the cake” and it is VERY TRUE. This is the last opportunity to make your project sound as good as possible. Never skip — or skimp — on this on this very important last step.

Karen Kane has been engineering and producing music since 1974. Her credits, profile, and other published articles can be seen at her Web site www.total.net/~mixmama.

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