What is audio mastering?
Mastering is the last creative step before a project reaches completion - a crucial process that can make or break a project. It encompasses all the fine tuning before a project "goes to press."
Let's use the simple analogy of a book editor: This is a person who receives the final manuscript from the author and then proceeds to correct the syntax, polish the text and perhaps make a few creative suggestions. Ideally, the editor has never seen the manuscript before, ie. never been directly associated with it's creative process. He/She can judge the manuscript from a fresh perspective and with an objective eye.
Similarly, a mastering engineer can objectively evaluate a project and remedy any inconsistencies or deficiencies. He/She bases their opinion on years of experience with similar projects. When the mastering engineer is finished, the client receives a reference copy, identical to the master that will be used for replication.
Can't I just put my recording on a CD and have someone duplicate it?
After your recording and mixes are done, it may feel like you are finished. But one last step will insure a professional product. Mastering is one of the most crucial parts of the whole creative process.
As you near the end of your project, you may be a bit "world weary" - ready to slap the mixes onto CD-R or have your mixing engineer or best friend take a crack at it, then ship it off the CD plant. It's tempting to do that. Afterall, you've committed a gigantic amount of creative energy to put together something that reflects.
What are the specific steps in audio mastering?
Audio mastering usually entails three steps or phases of operation: 1) loading the audio, 2) sequencing and editing, and 3) improving the sound.
Because computers are very fast these days, the first step can either be done before or at the beginning of the session. If you have mixes at different sampling rates, the mastering engineer will probably consolidate them into one common sampling rate. Most importantly, your mixes should be recorded at 24 bit.
Step Two involves fashioning the starts, the ends (fades), and the spacing between songs. Anything from standard two second pauses to complicated overlaps can be created. If needed, the mastering engineer can also edit musical sections quickly and easily.
The third step involves volume balancing, equalization and compression/limiting. Gain optimization and frequency equalization are important to make the project consistent, and listenable. Compression can help give the audio a more professional, streamlined sound while sacrificing some dynamic range. Limiting is necessary to prevent loud peaks from clipping or distorting. All of these processes will make the audio more dramatic, powerful and "consumer ready."
How is a transfer from analog done?
There are many steps here, some of which are quite technical. But the first step is the responsibility of the client: to provide the most original, best sounding analog source.
Analog magnetic tapes manufactured from 1972-1985 often suffer from "binder breakdown" where the adhesive chemicals in the tape begin to dissipate because of moisture absorption. The remedy for this is to bake the tape at low temperature in a convection oven for several hours. We do this very carefully with no resulting harm to the tape, to insure smooth playback. How do you tell if a tape needs baking? Telltale signs are squeaky, sticky playback with accumulation of oxide or gummy residue on the heads and guides. If these symptoms appear, stop playing the tape immediately and contact us for assistance.
If calibration tones exist on the tape, we optimize the frequency response and azimuth to make sure that high frequency detail and phase are correct. If any splices have dried out we re-splice them carefully to ensure smooth playback.
Usually an analog transfer for archiving is done without additional equalization, but sometimes an analog master can use some analog EQ to restore detail and clarity after years of storage. For this we use a discriminate amount of analog equalization (Troisi custom shown right) to restore the proper spectral balance to the recording.
Once the levels are optimized without incurring any overs or distortion, we make the transfer through a high quality 24 bit Analog to Digital Converter. The audio is stored on a hard drive on our soundBlade mastering system.
Once the audio is digitized, it can be manipulated in many ways. Denoising and declicking are common procedures to reduce unwanted noise. Tracking and any necessary editing are done. A reference CD is created for the client and a 24 bit archive is stored on a recordable disc.
Should I use compression?
We believe that compression is an aesthetic choice, best delayed until the end of the mastering session. Some projects warrant compression and others do not. Most popular music projects include compression in the mastering, while few classical projects do.
Will my project be loud enough?
Our goal is to get your project as loud as we can without compromising the integrity of the audio. Unfortunately, there is no guaranty that your project will sound as loud as the latest commercial heavy metal band. Much of it depends upon the strength of the tracking and mixing. But it will have at a very healthy, comparable level. Thankfully, the loudness wars have begun to subside, since musicians have figured out that loudness is not the key to making a good record.
How do I get the track titles to appear when people play my CD?
There are two different systems at work here, one for CD players and the other for computers. They are called CD-TEXT and METADATA, respectively.
CD-TEXT is written into the Table of Contents (TOC) of your CD Master and replicated discs. It includes the album title, as well as the title and artist of each track. CD-TEXT compatible players are most commonly found in cars. CD-TEXT cannot be read by a software player on the computer, unless you install a special iTunes script (dougscripts.com)
Software players like Windows Media Player or iTunes use METADATA to retrieve titles from a database on the Internet. You can get your METADATA onto the internet in two ways. First, you should register your release with All Media Guide (Windows Media) by sending them a published copy of your disc. They will enter the METADATA for you and possibly review your album as well.
All Media Guide
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Secondly, you should upload your METADATA (song titles, artist, etc.) from iTunes (submit CD Track Names) to a service called Gracenote. Once the METADATA is processed by both of these services, any computer in the world connected to the internet should be able to display your CD titles.
What is a UPC barcode and do I need it?
The UPC (Universal Product Code) Barcode is a mandatory 12 or 13 digit code, used for tracking retail and online sales of your CD. You can purchase a barcode from an outfit like cdbaby.com or your CD manufacturer. Your CD artwork will need to include the barcode since it appears on the back inlay card,
What are ISRC codes and do I need them?
ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) codes are a good idea, particularly if your release is associated with a label.
The ISRC is a 12 digit code for each song, that is written into the TOC (Table of Contents) of your CD. If you're on an established label, ask the production manager for the codes. If you're starting your own label, you can obtain a unique 5 digit prefix for this code from the Record Association of America (www.riaa.com). The ISRC code breaks down as follows:
When should I get started on my CD artwork?
Artwork can be the biggest cause of delay in the production process, so start designing your artwork before your mastering session. The CD manufacturer will want finished artwork (computer files) at the same time that your audio master is delivered. There are three parts to CD Artwork: 1) the disc label, 2) the booklet or CD insert, and 3) the backcard.
If you are using an independent designer and printer, make sure that they have the Compact Disc printing templates (cdinsert.pdf / cdtray.pdf / cdlabel.pdf) and specifications. There are many specific rules regarding the CD label and printed materials.
How do I create song files for the internet?
You can request mp3 or aac (iTunes) files from your mastering engineer, or you can try to create them yourself, using a reputable encoding software. You should use a bit transfer rate or at least 160 kbps or better and include METADATA with Song Titles, Artist, etc.
What is an Enhanced CD and do I need it?
Enhanced CD is a format that was added to the CD spec about ten years ago. It is a data session, like a CD-ROM, that is appended to the end of an audio disc. Any sort of computer or data files can reside on an Enhanced CD.
Originally, Enhanced CD was positioned as an "added value" item to the AUDIO CD. Some artists and labels went out of their way to construct elaborate multimedia content for their fans. More recently there has been less emphasis on content and more focus on linking to a website. Many Enhanced CDs include a video and some kind of menu with a weblink. For some ideas and examples of Enhanced CD menus, click here.
What other planning should I do?
You should have a semblance of a marketing plan in place. Know your fan base. Your target audience will directly impact your marketing strategy. If you have the budget, it may make sense to hire a publicist or press manager.
There are some obvious pieces to the marketing puzzle. You must have a website. You must have some downloadable music samples. You should be set up through a third party retailer (Amazon, CD Baby) for online sales. Airplay on commercial broadcasters is difficult, but oftentimes you can start by making your music available to college radio stations. Distribution is logistically difficult and expensive, but you can approach local retailers (gift and novelty shops) to see if they will sell your CD on commission. Finally, the most effective way to market and sell a CD is to perform regularly. Bands rarely get noticed until they've put in many long hard months (or years) on the road
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