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"I discovered that the most interesting music of all was made by simply lining the loops in unison, and letting them slowly shift out of phase with other..." - Steve Reich

Mastering?

What is mastering?

The purpose of mastering is to transfer the mixes to a duplication-ready format and check everything in order to find out any errors that might affect the quality of the recording. The sound of the tracks is also often slightly tweaked for better.

Mastering is mostly about listening. Any kind of processing of the sound is only an outcome of listening, and it is done with a good taste, respecting the original sound of the recording. A change doesn’t always mean it’s better. Is the resonance you’re hearing really a resonance, or is it actually a nuance that makes the sound feel alive?

Why is it a good idea to use a professional mastering engineer?

The mastering engineer offers you a pair of fresh ears and accurate listening environment. A professional understands the sound of various styles of music and is capable of preparing the material to the final format without the fear of unpleasant surprises in duplication or distribution. Most of all, the value in hiring a professional is in the final checking of the project and in the accurate, careful work, which is absolutely essential for this last step in the process.

What happens in a mastering session?

In a typical mastering session, the tracks are arranged to the correct order and any non-delibrate level variations between the tracks will be fixed. If the sound of the tracks is going to be altered, it is done track by track, keeping the big picture in mind.

After the processing is done, the heads and tails are cleaned up and specialties like fade-ins or fade-outs are done. The pausing of the tracks will be built up and at the end some digital processing might take place, such as raising the overall level.

The final master will be sent out for duplication in the required format – usually in various file formats via the web.

What can mastering fix?

In addition to the typical tone and level adjustments, it is possible to splice up the audio and to remove unwanted noise and crackle from it. The tools and methods of mastering are not limited to music alone, but the same principles can be applied to voiceover recordings, for example. Restoration, enhancing the intelligibility of the sound and removing noise are typical work for a mastering engineer.

What mastering can’t fix?

If the mixes don’t sound good to begin with, it is highly likely that the mastering will not improve the situation much. It is very difficult to try to affect the levels of instruments in mastering, as well as bad playing or tuning problems.

What are the ISRC codes?

From the IFPI website:

“The ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) is the international identification system for sound recordings and music videorecordings. Each ISRC is a unique and permanent identifier for a specific recording which can be permanently encoded into a product as its digital fingerprint. Encoded ISRC provide the means to automatically identify recordings for royalty payments.”

Does mastering for vinyl require any special treatment?

You do need to keep a few things in mind when doing a vinyl master, but usually this does not mean that you need to do any special compromises. I have done a lot of masters for cutting and the only difference compared to the parallel digital release has been a lower overall level and a pause between the sides of the record. Occasionally I have done some additional adjustments to the low or high frequency ranges.

Sometimes you need to re-arrange the track order to make the side lengths more equal. The physical limits of the vinyl format are very real – maximum running time of the side directly depends on the overall level, the amount of bass and its dynamics – and of course the RPM and the physical size of the record. Cutting a laquer is a very three-dimensional job to do.

Cutting Engineer Paul Gold of Salt Mastering answers quite a few common questions at his website, check it out.