Pro Audio Mastering

Four things you should know about online mastering

  1. Is there a difference between a traditional mastering facility and a web service that offers audio mastering online?
  2. Why does good CD mastering make all the difference?
  3. What services can I expect when I send my tracks to a professional audio mastering studio?
  4. Why should I use to get my music mastered?

Nowadays, most clients deliver their audio projects in digital formats, usually as WAV of AIFF files. A typical music mastering session therefore begins with the mastering engineer loading the audio files into his DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) to set up a project. The engineer will then listen carefully to his client’s material in order to get an idea of the artist’s style and musical intention, and he begins considering what type of audio processing would suit the music best. He decides what steps need to be taken to enhance the sound quality of each individual track so as to bring out its full potential.

Depending on the material and his clients needs, he may decide to convert the signal from digital to analog in order to perform analog mastering, if he wishes to add some analog warmth and feel to a track. But if he prefers to stay in the digital domain, he will perform digital mastering, to achieve highly accurate, clean and transparent results. Very often he will combine both audio mastering techniques, to benefit from the different possibilities of each type of processing.

First, the mastering engineer applies some equalization to the track, to make the music sound ’round’ and sonically well balanced. He will try to correct any mixing errors and remove any disturbing resonance. For these purposes he will often use different types of finely configured equalizers in combination with m/s processing, to shape the sound in a manner which is both professional and highly musical.

The engineer then usually adds single and/or multiband compression to brighten up the sonic qualities of the audio, and emphasize the important details of a mix. In pop music, for example, the emphasis is on the vocals, because this results in the kind of direct, in-your-face sound that all artists wish for. Again, the mid and side channels can be compressed independently, if necessary. Various saturation tools, tube gear, harmonic enhancers and other audio mastering processors can also be added, to alter the sound in a specific way. Each processing stage is done with the sonic ideas of the client in mind. Finally, the mastering engineer applies single-band and/or multiband limiting to bring the audio up to the client’s required level of perceived loudness.

Now it is time for a careful comparison of the processed versions of the track with the unprocessed original. The engineer continues to tweak the audio until he feels he can no longer achieve any further absolute sonic improvement on the original production.

At this point, the music is ready for the clean up process. Beginnings and endings are cut and faded professionally. When this has been done, the audio signal is ready to be converted to the target format; usually it is dithered down to CD standard, i.e. 16 bit/44.1kHz.

The music mastering process ends with the compilation of the master CD, the so-called PMCD (Premaster CD), which will later be sent to the pressing plant for replication. To meet CD production standards, the audio mastering studio will therefore embed ISRC/PQ/UPC codes and CD Text in the music data before the Redbook-compatible master CD is burned.

Depending on the client’s needs, the mastering studio can also provide a digital download of the masters in WAV or AIFF format, or alternatively, it can create a DDP file, which is a professional digital container file format for full albums, similar to a Master CD, used for digital delivery of music files to the pressing plant.

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