Why master? What does it really offer?
Most every Mastering Services website will answer this question, but perhaps this might help answer it in a way that will sink in. When your song or album is mixed down and you're listening to it in the studio, you like what you hear. Great! That's the goal! The mix is exported and you leave the studio with a demo. Listening to the CD-R on your way home it still sounds pretty rocking but perhaps, not as you'd expected. However, when you insert the CD of a big influence of yours, BOOM! It makes you gasp for breath at how much louder or how much more powerful and big sounding it is!
In most cases this is the first thing people notice about a well-mastered album. Certainly, that's become the #1 reason people want their music mastered. Good news! There's much more to it that's truly beneficial. First, yes, you get a much better representation of your music on a commercial level. But you also get the following:
A more consistent sonic rendering of your music that will sound great on anything. Not only more powerful and loud, but balanced to work with speakers of any size, not just studio monitors. This isn't a rant against studios and mixing engineers, but rather, they know their speakers better than you and you know your speakers better than theirs. After all, you're not always listening to each other's speakers.
Music is formatted for the destination and the mastering engineer will work with target volume and dynamics expectations of destinations, such as Pandora, Spotify, Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, etc., even cassette and vinyl. We have ways to check and reveal how your music will sound on most playback systems. So you and the mix engineer guess less on the final result.
The mastering engineer checks for digital errors, performs critical listening to ensure everything is balanced properly, uses extensive metering and monitoring to verify all the audio conforms to the best practices and standards, corrects DC Offset, and can organize the whole album with fades, including heads/tails (starts/ends).
The mastering engineer can also provide valuable feedback to you and/or your mix engineer so that you might be saved a ton of time and money from issues in the mix. It's easier to fix a mix before mastering than it is for the mastering engineer to correct it, potentially causing other aspects of the mix to suffer in the process. For example, if your kick drum is too weak or too powerful it could be detrimental to the bass guitar to try and fix it in the mastering stage. I offer this feedback/advice for free! Plus, if you get me involved early on, I can help catch these issues and have you get them fixed sooner than later.
Many times it's not about the gear you're listening to the mix on--it's the ears and perspective. Studios usually offer some great monitoring, and in some cases, excellent room acoustics. My own room has great acoustics and I monitor through some audiophile speakers (Egglestonworks Andra II) powered by a Pass Labs X-350, one of the cleanest, purest amplifiers in the audiophile community! That said, you're really getting value in that I'm another critical engineer who will listen to the music as a new listener, give you a fresh perspective, not mention, aid in helping you get the best out of this process.
Can the mix engineer master the project?
At the risk of making some mastering engineers cringe, to be perfectly honest, YES! And many do offer this service. However, you have to realize that when you're in the mix session with the mix engineer he or she is going to make the audio sound the best they know how. The trouble isn't that good ears aren't good enough but rather that you're looking at two disparate roles. The mix engineer is great at working with drum mixes or how the vocals sit on top of the mix, how the guitars are automated throughout a song, how the instruments are "placed" in the stereo field, and what sort of effects are used on different elements of the mix. The general focus is on the mix.
Mastering is taking that body of work, as the mix is baked perfectly and sort of commercialize it so your music will sound as professional and competitive when you A/B your final master with other commercial work. This is not always the area a mix engineer spends a great deal of their careers developing skills for. The mix engineer's ears are focused more on how individual instruments are coming through, while my focus is largely on how the sonic ensemble of the music as a whole comes across the speakers, or how well it will work on vinyl, for example. Where a mix engineer spends most of the time working on mixes, my primary function is mastering. My role involves QC (Quality Control), formatting, arranging of the songs into a montage, and adding meta-data. Recording and mixing is something I do more as a secondary function on occasion.
More, your mix engineer already has spend days, weeks, sometimes months on the mixes. When you've spent that much time working on the same songs it's very easy to become ear trained to believe that the way the mixes currently sound are right, and any changes might disrupt the chemistry. It's more difficult for a mix engineer, who's worked on a mix for that long to start fresh and be open to any tweaks of the entire audio spectrum of the songs without frequently going back to fix the mix. Even if you had a mix engineer perform the mastering duties you may benefit even more to use someone else's ears and methods. Having performed all of these duties for a single song/album of some artists, I believe that is still the best advice. Fresh ears are invaluable!
"What would you say...you DO here?" -Bob Slydell
"I have people skills, dammit!" I still love the movie, Office Space!
If a mix were submitted to me that was absolutely perfect, where no adjustments were needed, I might just give it a good listen and let you know, you earned a discount! That's right! If it gets to me and I needn't do any real audio work on it, you've got yourself a mix master, and you need to pay this person well. Some of the best mixers in the industry have working relationships with mastering engineers where the mixes they submit need little more than volume adjustments, or normalizing a montage of songs. This happens a lot, but not as often as you'd think. Even the best mix engineers' work is rejected from time to time by the mastering engineer, not because the mix is bad, but because the mastering engineer is proving once again that a second set of professional ears can catch things others didn't, even after hearing the same music for weeks.
Even if your mix is perfect, you'd still want a pair of objective ears fresh to the audio to provide that feedback, and finish it off with adding all of the specific meta-data (CD-Text, for example), arranging the music into a final organization such as a CD Montage, and perhaps changing the target levels or dynamics to best suit the destinations where the music will be heard or purchased/downloaded in digital or physical medium. Case in point: vinyl. Should you want your music on vinyl, there are some delicate considerations that need to be made in the master to ensure there's no inter-groove distortion, or bumpy bass in frequencies that might cause the needle to skip on playback. Or, in the case of cassette. You don't want the cassette playback to sound as if the bass is making the tape head to bounce off the tape, leaving your listeners with a nasty, bumpy or warbled experience.
Many mixes require at least some gentle EQ work, some fundamental compression, maybe some character to bring out harmonics, or some clarity brought back to open up the sound-stage a little, and with almost all mixes, a final stage of limiting to ensure no digital clipping occurs. Extensive metering is used to ensure the master hits specific loudness, dynamic, and sound-stage targets. I also rely on reference tracks (even ones you submit) to compare your masters to so that we both know better about how the final product should stack up.
Finally, I typically help package up the entire project for submission to the vinyl cutter, CD-replicator/manufacturer, digital streaming service, etc. so that it will be submitted properly. If you wish, I can handle this in your bandcamp, CD-Baby, etc. accounts for a small fee.
I can also hook you up with fine vinyl cutters, best for the genre of music you're associated with.
Can you make my master LOUD?
The short answer is, Yes. If the mix is good, and hasn't been terribly brick-walled limited or hyper-compressed when I get it, the better the loud master can be. I've mastered recordings that were on average -5db LU Short-Term and Momentary loudness. While my target level for loud CD masters is -6db LU, there are times when the master will allow slightly hotter measured levels, even if the absolute perceived loudness isn't any higher. The ideal concept is that you want a loud CD in many cases, but not at the expense of good punch and dynamics. I only recommend this type of mastering for CDs.
What's the deal with the multiple formats?
When a song is mixed originally it's meant to sound great as a song and succeeds when that is accomplished. That's what mixing is all about. Mastering is a different realm based on its origin. By definition, the mastering process is to create a master apparatus from which duplicates are printed. It is the very final touch of of anything that can change the audio before it's stamped or printed. That said, the role of the mastering engineer has morphed into more part of the oversight of the sonic quality for artistic taste--a sort of last collaborator, and less of the creating of the master apparatus. There are still mastering engineers who cut vinyl themselves. These are the engineers who still follow more of the true definition. The new-age mastering engineer typically pre-masters.
When mastering audio for vinyl records, there are some limitations of the medium, such as not too much crushing the music with limiters, or too much bass information in the extreme left and right channels of the stereo production. When mastering for MP3 or some other digitally compressed mediums as such, you shouldn't simply slam the volume as you can with a CD. The result can be rather unpleasant. When sending a loud CD master to Apple to be sold on iTunes (assuming it's not rejected), it will be overshadowed by the dynamics and volume of other music Mastered for iTunes®. It's true that one mastered version of the music may sonically suffice for all mediums, but the harsh reality will enforce it doesn't compete. A lower volume iTunes master will not hold a candle to a loud CD in the consumer's mind, unfortunately. We've not seen the very end of the loudness wars.
The reason for the extra cost of additional formats is really simple. The audio must first pass the test of quality in general, but to export and finalize the music (how the audio is formatted as files or montages that will ultimately be distributed to CD plants, vinyl cutters, cassette duplicators, online streaming uploads) takes extra time. It's less time to add formats vs. full-mastering because the process is really to aim for the medium's requirements to and to be certain no adverse effects are detected afterward. Critical listening for each format must be done to ensure it's perfect.
So, while it may seem reasonable to simply master the music at a general level and merely export the different formats, it's not always going to be the best one size fits all formula.
What are your thoughts on Instant Online Digital Mastering Services?
They're getting better and better. Are they good enough to master your music for commercial sale? I can't argue that some artists have used them successfully. Here's what I'd consider: Obviously, read what the services provide, and understand what they do. Then, give them a try and send me the same mix you submitted to them. I'll give you a demo from my suite for free, and you can compare. If their service is better, don't hesitate to let me know.
An online instant digital mastering algorithm is going to analyze your music by measurement and mathematics (some allow reference tracks to be submitted, which is cool), choose tools and methods to master your track, and then process it for you to download. Most offer choices as to how you wish for the audio to sound. In a minute or so, you have a fresh master right from the website! It's actually pretty clever and state of the art! I'll admit, they can be impressive!
Now, how I handle this is in a similar fashion, but with a few changes in how it's done. First, I listen to your track and your reference (or some of my own in a similar genre/vein), and make some decisions about my approach. I will listen as a listener, not merely just an analyzer. I will master the track, give it another few listens, pump the audio through a few different environments, then save the mastering chain that I used. I upload the mastered tracks back to you to audition. I will offer you any feedback I deem necessary or you requested for free. Should you not like the master result at all, I'll refund you the money or correct whatever you'd like for free (within reason, of course).
Here's the TRUE value I offer: Let's say you play back the master to the rest of the band. All is well, you love the master...but the drummer feels the kick drum is slightly loose or "boomy" sounding. You quickly order the mix engineer to tighten up the kick drum, and re-submit the mix back to me with the tiny re-export fee listed in my RATES page. All I have to do is pull up the exact same mastering chain and settings for your track, the same ones previously used, and simply switch out the mix file. When I render the updated master, there will be absolutely NO changes to the mastering chain!
The instant online services will always start, from scratch, re-evaluating the new mix file as an entirely new session, so it could potentially make different choices for the entire mix simply based on the one element that changed. That may or may not be very consistent for you if the mix is being slightly tweaked and re-submitted to the instant online service. These services do not listen to the music, they're only evaluating it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but you have a very high chance of going down a rabbit hole you didn't intend to, especially if you're a budding mix engineer. If you're a professional mixing engineer, you already are painfully aware of how poor mix decisions can be made by leaving some strong limiter on your master bus enabled. Not knowing what's on your master bus at any given time could be even worse.
Finally, instant online mastering services do not offer stem mastering. I do not charge any extra for stem work (see below).
Do you accept stems?
Yes, I do accept stems up to full sessions. However, stems are best kept in the order of 3-8 separate stems to qualify for mastering rates. I'll work with you on this so that you don't subject yourself to my mixing rates.
What is a stem? Normally, your mixes are exported and sent to me in a L+R (Left and Right) stereo file. Sometimes, to save considerable back and forth work with the mastering engineer, it's beneficial to submit the mix in stems. A stem is, for example, a mix-down L+R stereo track of just drums (perhaps with a separate kick and snare stem), or just guitars, or just vocals. Your mix engineer should be knowledgeable of this. If you have questions, don't worry, I can help.
Typical stem sessions I receive might come with a stereo drum track, stereo guitars, stereo vocals, and either stereo or mono bass. These are already mixed (and perhaps automated) in your mix sessions, so that I'm not tweaking individual instrument levels (like changing cymbals vs drums, or lead vs. rhythm guitars), effects, automation, panning/placement, but it affords the opportunity for me to adjust the overall guitars in the mix in relation to everything else. It also provides me the ability to compress or limit, for example, the drums differently than the rest of the mix, or to EQ the low-end of the bass without affecting the kick drum.
The benefits are tremendous, and can save you some serious time. I have customers who come to me because of the stem work I do. More, going back to revise your mix later you can make changes to say, the drums only, then simply re-export the drum stem and send it to me again without touching the rest of the mix!
What is your "chain", is it outboard hardware or In The Box?
I work about 50% "In The Box", or what I will refer to as ITB from this point on. Great mastering engineers use both, while some only use analog hardware or 100% ITB. There are pros and cons to both. Hardware is hardware, and mostly 'repeatable' quality from unit to unit. However, one brand new $8,000 tube EQ may not sound as good as the same model EQ built 20 years ago. Two exact same model compressors from the same manufacturer made 5 years apart may not sound the same, because some internal parts may have been changed in the unit's BOM (Bill OF Materials) during manufacturing. Even so, does that really matter? Nope! The end result it what matters! I use a hybrid mastering chain, but at times, I'm 100% ITB. I mostly use analog gear for taste, more than precision simply because plugins have proven to be far more accurate. Analog gear can make the master sound more musical in many cases.
Being ITB has some advantages, however. For one, the music stays there, as well. It's not converted to analog, tweaked and re-sampled back to digital requiring super-accurate clocking of excellent DA/AD converters and some quiet cabling and power. Two, it also does not require the songs to be transmitted through the analog chain to be processed. Three, and even many analog aficionados will agree, plug-ins have gotten alarmingly good, especially in the past 5 years! Even some hardware manufacturers have admitted on camera that their own modeled plug-ins of their own hardware are going to depreciate hardware sales to only those who simply won't believe it. To be fair hardware can still provide some unique harmonics, smoothness, grittiness, grime, punch, or perhaps artifacts that the music will be imbued with at the end of the chain. Even so, where these things are improving all the time in plugins, again, it's not about the equipment used, but about the final result.
Plug-ins sound inexpensive don't they? Yes, they do and often go on sale. Many seem to be long overdue for the bargain bin. There's a few plug-in developers out there who have been in the industry for quite some time. They still sell plugins that really are as old as the hills and have been surpassed by tons of others, far more powerful and easier to use. I won't mention names because these very same developers have also been the ones to pioneer what we have today. They have done more for the industry than most competitors will ever admit.
I have literally hundreds upon hundreds of fabulous plugins (and a terrific number of awful ones I no longer use). The ones I use for mastering have been lauded by Grammy winning mastering engineers, many widely used across the entire industry. Some I use as 'secret weapons'. Others I use simply because they just do exactly what I need them to or I use them because of their accuracy and/or they model hardware that is what I'd like to use in a chain.
Being ITB is advantageous to services I provide, especially due to speed and accuracy. Rather than keeping books or spreadsheets of notes for all your mastering chain settings per song, I merely have to save the whole chain in just a few clicks. The "Iterative" master is much faster by working ITB.
Instant Online Mastering services are 99% ITB, but where they totally re-evaluate each mix submission, potentially resulting in different results, once you like the chain I use for your project it never has to change at all, ever giving you total consistency!
Tell me more about the "Iterative" Master
The term, iterate means to repeat again and again. It's valuable to simply be able to repeat, again and again, the mastered result to you each time so you don't have to feel pressured to have your mix 100.000000% perfect before having it mastered. You make little revisions to your mix and I can iterate the master with your updated mixes quickly and often. It's easy!
There's also a concept heard in the electronic circuits called a feedback loop. Part of the output of an amplifier circuit is fed back into the input so that the electronics can "see" the accuracy of the output measured against the input. When these two signals are compared the input circuit can use this feedback to improve the input or know when the result is only going to grow worse. I like the term, "feedback loop" in audio mixing and mastering. When you submit your mixes to me to master, or remaster, I can offer you that feedback loop so that you can improve your mixes as close to perfect...and then trying new tweaks.
The key point is: the pressure's off. There are many, many younger and newer mix engineers that work out of smaller environments, perhaps those who simply don't have the experience as more seasoned professionals, and they want to learn a bit by trial and error. Trial and error is less costly with Iterative Mastering.
Get it right! Don't simply accept the flaws that may compromise the final result! Want the artist to have a mastered demo to hear swiftly? Hit me up!
What is the "Mastered for iTunes" certification? Are you certified?
Mastered of iTunes was started as a method for Apple to ensure that the music purchased on iTunes would be the finest quality for its customers. Other benefits include volume consistency across music genres, artists, albums, etc., and ensure the customer would not be downloading a quiet tune, cranking up the volume, then have to urgently drop the volume on the next tune.
Apple has a similar process for Apple Store apps that are downloaded by the millions every day, although Apple doesn't exactly alter apps--they just approve/reject them. If an app submitted to the Apple Store review process fail to meet Apple's strict guidelines and requirements, or if there are issues with the app crashing, Apple has the freedom to reject faulty submissions. In the case of audio, Apple will simply reprocess the music and set the volume at their whim.
When music is submitted to iTunes, it is converted and adjusted in volume through their proprietary encoding algorithms before being placed into the iTunes store or onto iTunes Radio. Apple has provided specifications and tools to help engineers pre-master to these specifications and prevent rejections from Apple due to excessive clipping or other issues. The problem is, you may not know ahead of time what your music will sound like in iTunes until it's posted there, which is an extraordinary waste of time and resources if you're not sure of your masters. Mastered For iTunes certified engineers are thoroughly aware of how Apple will treat your music, so you can rest in that knowledge and experience to get the best-sounding quality on iTunes.
MFiT (Mastered For iTunes) is still largely a thing, but I dare say, it's not as critical for the mastering engineer to hold a certification. That's because probably 99% mastering engineers are already aware of the new trend in mastering to targets. iTunes is now just one provider that is best-suited by master submissions that are specifically fine-tuned for their encoders. But other services now widely use similar techniques. Spotify is a major one. There are other outlets, and they all have different requirements for the audio. The Mastered For iTunes certification only addresses the needs of Apple's process.
There are now a number of music aggregators that handle submission duties to each of these services automatically for you. They also help ensure you get paid, and that all of the other technical behind-the-scenes profit, taxation, and agreement-handling is all done through a single provider. I can help you find the one right for you. These aggregators hold the MFiT certification in most cases. They will ensure your submissions to iTunes will be successful.
Am I MFiT certified? No, because I do not submit your music directly to iTunes. I rigorously follow the clearly laid out guidelines of Apple, and the aggregators to provide you the audio that will always work best for the end results. I use several key tools, not only to monitor target levels as necessary, but to also master to target dynamics targets, a topic rarely discussed with clients that want great sounding music.
The digital music industry is a modern reality. Every year, there's seems to be a new target to shoot for. But this should be less a concern to you and more for the mastering engineers.
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