What is mastering? Why does my project need mastering?
Mastering has 3 main parts:
- Correction of sonic issues
- Creative enhancement
- Creation of media for distribution
At its core, Mastering is the final stage of audio production. It’s a mix / album’s final opportunity for quality control and corrective measures, as well as the last opportunity for creative input – ideally from an objective ear, unattached to any previous sonic decisions and able to assess the recording from a fresh and informed perspective.
Mastering is also the last chance to make sure a project sounds as good as possible – and sounds good on as many systems as possible – before its release. Your mastered recordings will be optimized for playback on multiple systems and environments.
How is mastering different than mixing?
Mixing involves taking all of your session or song’s audio, aux sends, and stems and applying compression, equalization, FX, level automation, etc. to each track, then bouncing or printing that mix down to (most often) a stereo file.
Mastering involves taking each of your mixed files (for instance, 10-12 stereo mixes), correcting any sonic issues that are still present after mixing, making any final creative decisions, and putting the mastered tracks together as a sonically cohesive unit. This can involve noise reduction, equalization, compression, limiting, or other effects, but these effects are typically applied on a “macro” level, to the entire mix (or to the middle/sides of a mix).
After this the tracks are sequenced and spaced so that there is a continuity of sound to the project (so you won’t have to adjust the volume or EQ when listening sequentially), and a final “master” is created. This “master” (which is actually called a premaster – frustrated yet?) can be one digital file (DDP), multiple digital files (WAVs), or a physical product (CD/DVD). Once complete, the final (pre)”master” is sent to be mass-produced / distributed.
What happens during the mastering process?
Here’s what goes into each mastering project:
- Setup – download and import of source material, sample-rate conversion (if applicable), labeling of tracks.
- Auditioning – the source material is listened to, to evaluate and identify needed areas of focus.
- Processing – the source material is processed as needed, and printed in real-time (60 minutes of material = 60 minutes to print mastered files).
- Sequencing – the mastered files are put in order and spaced appropriately.
- Media Creation – the mastered files are exported / assembled as WAV files, DDP fileset, or CD.
- Verification – (aka “QC”) the final mastered project (aka “premaster”) is auditioned in real-time to verify no errors exist.
- Distribution – the final, QC’d premaster is uploaded or sent via post to client or distributor, label, and/or replicator.
- Archival – the mastered project is backed up, and all settings stored for future recall.
Can my mixing engineer also master my project?
Think of it this way: can your family doctor perform a quadruple bypass, or a facelift? Probably, in a pinch! Do you want them to?
Alternatively, someone who has been immersed in a project for hours, days, or months – no matter how talented – can often miss things both big and small that a fresh listener who is not tied or affected in any way to/by musical or sonic decisions made prior to mastering would pick up on immediately.
Finally, if your project is mastered in the same room in which it was mixed, you may miss out on revealing key sonic information about the way the mix sounds in other environments.
Mastering involves a highly specialized skill set and often requires years of learning and well-honed objectivity to “master”. The tools used to master are also extremely specific and usually quite different than those used by a mixing engineer, and the listening environment of a mastering studio must be exactingly accurate and reliable.
Even with the proper tools and environment, it can be difficult for someone intimately close to the project to be objective enough to be able to make the “forest for the trees” decisions at this critical stage. Objectivity is key.
Mastering is one of the smallest financial investments you’ll make over the course of your project, but it is also one of the most important and powerful ones, with great potential to help – or to harm. Give your project the best possible chance to stand out: seek out a dedicated mastering engineer.
What will my mixes sound like after mastering?
Professional mastering is what makes recordings jump out of the speakers, adding crispness, punch, clarity, and often loudness, but also smoothing out rough edges – subtle or dramatic – and making songs within an album flow together.
We work hard to bring out the best in each mix, and to make sure the album (if applicable) flows well and feels like a cohesive product. After your project has been mastered, you can expect to hear any of the following, as is applicable:
- More definition
- Added depth, width, or space
- Cleaner or punchier low-end
- More open top-end
- Less “mud”
- More present lead vocal
- Increased overall loudness and presence
- Less obvious distortion
- Mitigated phasing issues
- Reduced room noise, hum, or clicks
- Elevated awesomeness
How much does mastering cost?
Most artists can’t afford thousands of dollars in mastering costs. Every artist wants to sound like they can. Mastering is one of the biggest “bang for your buck” investments an artist can make in the sonic quality of their project. A few hours spent polishing your hard work can pay major dividends. Our rates are competitive, fair, and worth it.
Mastering is billed at a flat rate of$75/song, and all mastering work includes:
- Mix Consultation prior to your mastering date
- Mastering (download, session setup, auditioning, processing, sequencing)
- Error Checking/Critical Listening of mastered material
- Media Creation (DDP and WAV included)
- Upload of mastered material to client
- Archival of all files and settings, available for future recall
How should I best prepare my mixes for mastering?
Please deliver your mixes as either multiple-mono or stereo-interleaved WAV files, in the highest native resolution possible. Please print mixes at their native resolution and bit-rate (the same ones they were mixed at).
Do not worry about loudness or making your mix loud (we’ll do that).
Do not overly compress or limit your master fader / stems (unless it’s a creative decision).
Do not perform any SRC (sample rate conversion) on your mixes (again, we’ve got this).
Do not add any dithering to your mixes.
Do be sure to leave enough headroom for us to work with (-6dB for OCCASIONAL peaks is a starting point).
Do make sure your mixes are truly “final” before they are sent to be mastered.
Short version: Just make your music sound as good as possible, fix as many issues as you are able to, and let us take care of getting the levels competitive and fixing the rest.
What kind of guidance should I give the mastering engineer before starting?
Mastering can do a lot of pretty amazing things, and can sometimes absolutely “save” a project. But it’s not the same as mixing, so the feedback you give for mastering should be made with that in mind. Once your 192 audio and effects tracks have been bounced down to 1 stereo file (or one “mix”), there are certain things that mastering can do, and certain things it cannot do. Some guidance:
Do say things like:
- Make Song 1 brighter / darker
- Make the bass louder on song 2
- Tighten up the bass on song 3
- Bring out the lead vocal on song 4
- Leave some dynamics in song 5
- Try to give song 6 some added depth / width
- Try to remove the room noise in song 6
- Make the album awesome
Don’t say things like:
- Turn down the Guitars in song 1
- Turn up Frank in song 2
- Fix the solo tuning in mm32 on song 3
- Fix the T2 rhythm in mm8 on song 4
Again, if you have questions about what you can and can not ask for, please contact us before your mastering date. We’ll do all that we can to address your concerns, even if that means recommending you go back and “fix it in the mix”.
I’m unsure which version of a mix is “best”. Should I send both versions?
If you’d like our opinion we are happy to give it. If you can’t decide, we can master both versions for an additional $35. Likewise, we’re also happy to master a “clean” and “explicit” version of the same track, or a version with the lead vocal +1dB louder, etc.
I think I know just how I want the mastered mixes to sound. Should I sent you my “fake masters”?
Though it is not mandatory and we are more than capable of using our judgment to get the best out of each track (that’s why you’re hiring us!), please feel free to send us your fake masters / final mixes if you’d like for us to use them as a reference while we master your project.
Should I request a digital master in DDP or WAV format?
You may need one or more of these formats, depending on your plans for distribution. Please be sure to check with your replicator/duplicator/label for their exact instructions. Here are some general guidelines to follow:
A DDP includes your WAV files, along with spacing and metadata.
If you’re making CDs, using a DDP will allow you to encode exact spacing and CD TEXT into an exact incorruptible digital copy of the CD, which your replicator will then use to create your CDs. You can also submit WAVs to your replicator, in some cases, though without the advantages of DDP.
If you’re only releasing digitally (for video or distribution online), all you should need are WAV files.
If you’re releasing both physically and digitally, WAV files can be extracted from a DDP, making DDP the typical choice
Why should I select Vocal Mastering to handle my project?
Mastering vocal music is especially difficult. The way sustained voices behave under limiting and compression is unique, and requires a highly experienced and delicate touch – as well as a very specific set of tools – to deliver maximum clarity and loudness while maintaining dynamics and musicality – without causing added distortion, smearing, or artifacts.
Vocal Mastering is the only dedicated mastering studio in the world that is focused exclusively on vocal music, from contemporary to choral. Owner and senior mastering engineer Dave Sperandio (aka “diovoce“) has mastered thousands of “a cappella” and “nearly a cappella” tracks for clients around the world, and our studio is the “finishing station” for most contemporary vocal music producers, and for hundreds of of vocal groups.