Mastering

Mastering Engineer: An Aural Enhancement Specialist.

After you have completed your recording and mixing, you should master your music – the final step just before manufacturing. This is your last chance to make adjustments or “fix” things before pressing. The goal is to make something that sounds good sound great.

Some studios offer this service, however, I recommend that you go to an outside source for your mastering, to someone with a fresh ear and different experience who may hear something in your music that you or the engineer may not. Hearing your music on different equipment can also be helpful. Mastering engineers usually have special mastering equipment that studios don’t. And sometimes they will discover problems with your music you never even realized. I had a client who took his mix-down CD to a mastering engineer who informed him it was in MONO!

Technically, at its most basic, mastering equalizes the highs and lows and makes the volume consistent with other CDs on the market and throughout the CD. When you record each track separately, especially over time, you end up with different volumes and EQ’s. When you put them together on a CD, you want the listener to be able to play straight through without changing the volume between each track and for it to feel cohesive. And as more albums are being recorded at least partly on home systems, the importance of mastering is even more critical to compensate for lower quality equipment and non-professional techniques. A good mastering engineer will know what kind of treatment your material needs, and have the equipment to apply that treatment, without damaging the quality of the sound.

The final challenge is to ensure your music will sound good on different systems, such as in the car, on the radio, a boom box, and, of course, through a high-end speaker system.

Professional mastering not only prepares your master for the factory – it is an art. He polishes it, fine tunes it, puts the icing on the cake. He gives your music depth, punch, shine, continuity, volume and clarity.  He balances everything out to provide a cohesive listening experience from beginning to end. He sets the experience and the essence.

The mastering engineer will provide you with a production master (this is what you send to the factory) – usually a CDR, which has been encoded with whatever “extras” you requested (text, barcode, ISRC, etc.), along with a PQ Code sheet (which is a paper copy of what is encoded on the disc).

Master formats: By supplying a PMCD (Production Master CD) to the factory, they need only do a direct transfer to their system. There are other acceptable formats for submitting masters: DRT, 1630, 8mm Exabyte, and specially formatted DAT among others.

Create multiple production masters – Three or four is good – 2 to send to the factory, 1 to keep and 1 to put somewhere safe. Be sure to make reference copies directly from each master and listen. No sense in storing a bad master.

Why send two masters? All CDs have errors. This allows the factory to choose the one with the fewest.

Request several reference copies so you can distribute them to whomever needs to listen to it.

Don’t touch your PMCD. Check the “reference copy” made directly from your first generation production master (PMCD). Listen to the reference copy so that you are not handling the production master. If the reference master is OK, then you know the production master is too. It’s often a good idea to listen to the CD with headphones and on different players. Never play on the same computer you burned it on.

The factory will not check your tracks against the listing on your insert.

All media is not the same. Use high-quality Red Book approved media. A few of the most widely accepted brands are, HHB, Mitsui, Maxell, Taiyo Yuden, and Apogee.

HANDLING, LABELING AND PACKAGING YOUR MASTER

Package your master in a jewel case, NOT a paper sleeve. Then wrap in bubble wrap and put into a box, not a mailing envelope.

Send by trackable carrier (Fedex, UPS).

Do not send your ONLY COPY. The master may not get returned, or could get lost in transit or damaged.

Handle your master by the edges only. NEVER TOUCH THE DATA SIDE. Even a fingerprint can increase errors.

Do not set a disc on the desk – place it directly from the player to the jewelcase.

Store in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.

Mark Artist and Title with Soft China (wax) markers or a water-based felt tip pen designed for CDs.

Do not use a Sharpie or ball point to label your discs. This is because the xylene or toluene in Sharpies will eat through the top layer of the disc, and the indentation of the ballpoint can damage the data you have recorded onto the discs. If you must use a Sharpie, write on the CLEAR HUB only. Avoid writing on the data area.

DO NOT USE A STICKY LABEL!!!!!

Do not send a master you haven’t reviewed minute by minute.

Master checklist

Listen to your REFERENCE COPY. Not your PMCD. If possible, listen from start to finish, in one sitting IN A QUIET ROOM.

Check for:

  • tracks are in the right order (sequenced) and match artwork listing
  • All tracks are included.
  • there are no pops, clicks or anything that should not be on it
  • tracks are spaced correctly
  • ISRC codes are included and correct
  • barcode is encoded
  • Text encoding – check proof sheet for accuracy
  • PQ Code sheet
  • Give it to someone with fresh ears to listen to it.
  • Listen with headphones and on different players (home stereo, car, etc.)
  • it sounds good!

Remember: The factory will not listen to or review the content of your disc. It is your responsibility.

YOU WILL GET 1000+ COPIES OF WHAT YOU GIVE THEM.

Mastering FAQs

How long will it take to master my CD?
Expect an average of one hour per song assuming the tracks are well recorded and mixed and no additional processing requirements are specified.

How much will it cost?
Don’t cut corners on mastering – you could end up with something that sounds worse than your original mixes. Budget around two dollars a minute  of mastering time multiplied by one hour per song to be in the ballpark.

Should I master my Demo?
Mastering demo CDs is becoming a standard practice in this competitive music market and can give you an edge over someone who doesn’t master.

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