Preparing Your Audio for Mastering
Updated: Jun 11, 2018
1. Why do you need Audio Mastering? It's a good question, when you consider all of the inexpensive boxes and plugins out there that promise amazing results with very little effort or knowledge. Just plug it in and out comes million dollar audio!
It doesn't quite work that way, especially when you consider that good sound, just like your own music, is an artistic endeavor. It takes a real mastering engineer with good ears to objectively evaluate your project, and let you know what needs fixing. A box or a software plugin just can't replace the human element with that amount of close attention to detail.
There are other reasons. When you finish mixing, the first order of business is to "remove yourself" from a studio setting and start hearing your project in the real world. Professional mastering gives you that opportunity - in a place where you can evaluate your project in a high quality, but "real" environment, similar to your most critical listener.
Finally, the mastering stage allows you to make final aesthetic corrections before you commit to release. Important details like sequencing, fades, and even song structure can be positively improved at a mastering session. These may be things you may not have even considered! By giving yourself that one last opportunity to proof your mixes, you will come away with a more refined product.
2. Planning-Time and Money
Many projects exhaust their budget by the time they get to mastering. But it's a shame to exclude a process that can exponentially improve your project for just $800 or less. So try to fit it into your time and money budget.
The cost of mastering will depend on both the length of your project and the consistency of the mixes. We can give you an accurate estimate for everything, including references, shipping and archiving. Do not expect to leave with a finished master on the day of your session. Allow yourself time for revisions and "touch-ups." After each revision cycle you will receive a new reference (wav file or CD-REF) to evaluate. This whole process may take 1-2 weeks.
If you are doing CDs, the artwork can often cause the longest delay in your production process, so start designing your artwork before your mastering session. Your CD manufacturer will want finished artwork (computer files) at the same time that your audio master is delivered.
3. Which Format? What Bit Rate? What Sampling Rate?
A good mastering facility can handle any format.
It's more important that you choose a format that complements your equipment and will optimize your mixes. Try to avoid sampling rate and format conversions during the tracking and mixing process. Here are some guidelines that you can follow:
It is very important that you mix to 24 bit rather than 16 bit. This will give you an audible quality advantage. Sampling rate is less important. We get mixes anywhere from 44.1 to 192 kHz and the higher rates offer only a very subtle improvement.
For those of you who are mixing to analog, there are some important guidelines that will help you get the best results: use a professional half track tape machine. 1/4"tape @ 15 IPS will yield good results - 1/2" tape @ 30 IPS will yield great results. If you want us to do the transfer to digital, be sure to include 3 calibration tones: 100 Hz, 1kHz, and 10-15 kHz created on the machine you recorded on.
4. Mixing Tips It may seem out of line for a mastering facility to make recomendations on mixing. But we have found over the years that a few guidelines on protocol can help save a lot of time, money and give you better results. Here's our list of helpful hints:
If there are open artistic questions: vocals up vs. down, more vs. less reverb, etc. have your mixing engineer do several mixes of each song. A mastering engineer can easily piece together several mixes to create a nice composite.
Keep the levels healthy, but not peaking. 3-4 dB below peak gives the mastering engineer enough headroom to work with.
Use compression sparingly - only on individual tracks, not on the overall stereo bus mix!
Leave fades alone. Fades can be better executed with improved fidelity in the mastering process.
Log all mixes accurately with complete descriptions! For digital file names: ID all mixes with dates, but don't make your file names rediculously long! Analog: leader all mixes.
Take copies of mixes home - compare to roughs for "feel" and spontaneity.
Avoid doing any post production tampering with the mixes, especially with an inexpensive PC audio program or mixer!
While listening, take extensive notes on the things you feel will need fixing in the mastering. Experiment with sequencing, by using playlists, etc.
5. Backups Redundancy is very important in digital audio. Make sure your mixing engineer is backing up all your mixes to another hard drive, and giving you copies on a thumb drive at the end of the day.
6. Preparing for the Mastering Session
It's always advantageous to send your mixes to us ahead of time. That way we can load the audio in advance and be ready to go to work when you walk in the door. Have your mixing engineer upload your files onto a common public server like DropBox or WeTransfer and send us the link. We will download your files and have them ready on the morning of your mastering session. If you are attending the mastering session, please bring the following:
Backup files of your mixes.
A written list of the sequence of tracks.
Any notes about specific issues regarding the sound.
A few of your favorite CDs, either by yourself or other artists, that may be similar in style and instrumentation. We'll use these to target the sound of your project.
7. What Can You Expect from Professional Mastering?
A professional environment with extensive experience and proven results.
The ability to handle just about any format you may have.
The ability to put together any sequence or combination of sounds you desire through editing control and accuracy not available to most multitrack or home project studios.
Consistency in the overall sound, ie. from track to track, allowing the listener to focus on the music and not on "sonic distractions."
A fully verified and approved master acceptable for Internet release or CD production.
8. What Miracles Can You Hope for?
A poorly recorded/mixed track can be rescued with careful analysis and remedial EQ/compression.
Accurate adjustments of internal levels.
Denoising, declicking, removal of cosmetic noises, ie. mouth clicks, acoustic clicks.
Sonic repairs of dropouts, noisy endings, etc. with patching, reverb, wave cycling, interpolation.
A noticeably stronger, louder, and more powerful musical presentation.
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