If you’ve already read all of this and are ready to get started, please read our guide to the mastering process.
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.
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.
Still confused? Please continue reading, or Google “mixing vs mastering” for more detailed information.
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 by a separate engineer, 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.
Download our complete guide to the mastering process here: Vocal Mastering – Process
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.
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
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.
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”.
You may need one or all 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:
If you plan to replicate a CD (typically at least 300 copies), most reputable CD plants will accept an upload of an exact digital copy of the project with all spacing added, called a DDP.
The advantages of sending a DDP are speed (no need to Fedex a physical CD overnight), cost (no need to listen to the physical CD in realtime at cost before sending, to make sure there are no burn errors), and increased reliability.
If you plan to duplicate a CD, (typically fewer than 300 copies – also known as a “short-run”, and essentially the same as you burning a CD in your computer’s CD drive), most CD plants will only allow you to send in a physical CD or individual WAV files.
If you require a physical CD to be sent to the plant (the plant should not *require* one, usually; this is a matter a preference for the client), or a reference CD to be sent to you, we can do this. Keep in mind that all physical media require verification, also known as “QC”ing, which is done at realtime, at cost, and that there is a slight chance for disk damage or shipping snafu, even after QCing.
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 on a per-song basis at $60/song (singles are $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 by a second engineer
- Media Creation (DDP and WAV included)
- Upload of mastered material to replicator, distributor, and/or client
- Archival of all files and settings, available for future recall
Please refer to our pricing page for a complete breakdown of rates and fees.
Mastering a cappella 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.
Learn more here
We’re honored to be a preferred mastering partner for many terrific studios, engineers, producers, arrangers, and labels, including:
- A Cappella Records
- Ben Bram
- Bill Hare Productions
- Breaking the Curse Productions
- Clear Harmonies
- Deke Sharon
- Ed Boyer A Cappella
- Emerald City Productions
- j. cannon
- JAG Recording Studios
- James Gammon
- Mike Boxer
- Mister Tim
- Northgate Productions
- Overboard Productions
- Plaid Productions
- Random Notes
- Russell Kamp
- Silvertone Studios
- Sled Dog Studios
- T2 Productions
- The Vocal Company
- Tim Bongiovanni
- Voices Only
Are you a producer or engineer? We’d love to earn your trust, and to add you to this list. Drop us a line!