What is online audio mastering?
Audio mastering is the final creative and technical stage in the life of a track before it goes for pressing / distribution. As soon as the producer and mixer have done their jobs, it falls to the mastering engineer to buff and polish it, iron out any creases and add the necessary technical stuff. It’s about making your tracks sound as good as they possibly can and creating a commercial quality product that people will happily invest their time, love and money in.
‘Online mastering’ just means the process is carried out via file transfer rather than you attending the session at the studio. So you send me your tracks via WeTransfer or DropBox or similar, I master them, and return them via DropBox, and on CD if you requested one.In a nutshell, mastering is these things:
- Equalisation — to ensure a track is balanced across the spectrum, from sub-bass, through the mids and up into the highest treble regions. Equalisation is also used to create a cohesion between all the tracks on an album so they sound like they belong together
- Compression — to create clarity or bring out detail in a track, add punch, weave together the instruments and pull down any too-loud transients
- Limiting — to raise the volume to a competitive commercial level and sympathetically shave off spiky transients
- Technicalities — adding track markers, CD text, ISRC codes, UPC/EAN codes, cross-fades, creating a DDP image or Red Book CDR
- Restoration — to fix glitches or clicks, remove noise etc.
- Magic — yes, there is magic
Why get my music mastered?
Nowadays it’s easy to get the basic tools you need for audio mastering — the price has come down enormously with the advent of digital plugins. And yes, it is possible to master your own tracks — just like you can also make your own trousers if you put your mind to it; but probably, it’s best to let an expert do it; someone with years of experience and craft behind them and a range of high quality tools. It requires an analytical listening process to identify a track’s needs and heaps of experience to know how best to deal with them.
Professional mastering also brings with it a fresh pair of ears. It’s tough producing and mixing your own tracks, and by the time you’ve completed this stage, your brain doesn’t hear the track in the same way anymore — it’s full of information about the process it went through. Whereas a mastering engineer only hears the music as it is and is unencumbered by how it was made.
Every producer has been there; you’re really happy with a track, you play it on a different sound-system but it sounds awful and you feel like you should never go near a production studio again. Well, the good news is, it’s not because you’re bad at mixing, it’s because your studio isn’t tuned properly and you’re compensating for its inadequacies. For example, let’s say hypothetically, your studio is cuboid and your listening position is right at the centre of the room — right where the bass frequency range of 80-90Hz is cancelling out to varying degrees because of the way the waves are interacting with the room. (Did you know if you put two identical tracks into a DAW, then nudge one of them forward in time so the waveforms fall exactly opposite to each other (troughs for peaks, peaks for troughs), you’ll hear nothing at all?)
To compensate for this loss of volume, you boost the 80-90Hz frequency range in your mix. And of course, in a different room, with different dimensions, that boost is going to make those frequencies sound way too loud because they aren’t cancelling out here like they did in the studio. Simplistic example, but you get the picture.
At the foundation of any audio mastering process, is the ability to hear the music accurately. It’s about listening to your tracks in a tuned room where there is as flat a frequency response as possible. This means your masters will travel to other systems and sound great everywhere. And I listen — I mean, really listen to your tracks, so I can accurately identify frequency ranges that need attention, or transients that have got a little out of control, or bring out detail in the reverbs, or add a little extra punch where needed.
Clear and accurate monitoring is crucial, so in the studio I use Dynaudio mastering monitors powered by mastering grade Hafler amps with Avantone monitors for mono; in the listening room, Mackie and Yamaha monitors supply an alternative reference.
I use digital products from leaders in the field including the full Waves set, Melda, Nugen, Izotope, Meterplugs, Slate Pro Audio and others. I use a small range of quality analogue outboard gear, including two Revox B77 MK II reel-to-reel analogue tape machines (one at 15ips).