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What Is Mastering?

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Audio mastering has often been shrouded in some mysterious seeming aura of voodoo...a secret to be possessed by only a few.  And while it is true that relatively few do it well, mastering is not so arcane as to preclude one from knowing what's important in the process, and in knowing how to recognize good mastering when one hears it.  After all, an educated consumer is a better consumer.

Mastering is different from tracking or mixing audio in that the mastering process is usually associated with a two-track stereo file, as opposed to mixing's multi-track format. 

Mastering is involved mainly with balancing the audio for an album project in terms of loudness, equalization (frequency spectral balance), and flow...that is, the sequencing of the album's music in an order that is pleasing, artistic, and that meets the client's goals in making the presentation of his work.  This includes topping and tailing the audio files for clean intro's and outro's...as well as fades...

Essential to quality mastering is a good set of ears.  Your mastering engineer needs to know sounds: frequencies, levels, proportion...how these work best together to achieve an artist's aims.  This needs to take place in an environment using equipment that the engineer knows can be counted on to give dependable, repeatable results...results that translate well to multiple play-back systems, whether it be an audiophile system, a car's CD player, a boom box, or an iPod. 

Over the last several years, the demand for louder recordings has increased tremendously.  I must say that I have very mixed feelings about the results, as they are sonically compromised in my opinion.  To achieve more overall loudness in a recording, the overall dynamic range has to be reduced, and that can often rob music of one of its greatest assets.  When you think of dynamics, think of a symphony orchestra and the multitude of quiet parts , the crescendos...the back and forth of it all.  It's part of the emotion in the offering.  If that is removed, much of that which is compelling to us as listeners is lost. 

Of course, different styles of music require different treatment for loudness (as do different instruments for frequency equalization).  An orchestral recording will likely not be handled as would that of a death metal album.  Rock 'n' roll would be mastered differently for overall loudness than would a jazz record, or bluegrass for that matter.

The bottom line these days (and it's really not a new thing in and of itself...record companies have wanted loud records for radio airplay spanning decades now), is that labels and artists want it LOUD, thinking that will translate best on the radio and other play-back systems  As a 20 year radio host I have been simultaneously amazed and appalled at the levels and what it's done to the quality of the musical presentation.  In a word, it's: DISTORTION!  I will, however, concede that distortion has its place.  A 50 watt Marshall JTM-45 that's cranked behind a Gibson SG sounds marvelous!  Distortion is even welcome in the very subtle ways that analog equipment like microphone preamps, mixing consoles, and other outboard gear color the sound of the source being recorded or mixed.  Much of that is very pleasing to the ear...and so then, desirable.

But today's recordings often suffer from dynamics that have been limited so much, and levels brought so high (ain't digital great?) that the distortion, while not necessarily noticeable to the average listener upon first perusal, IS noticeably fatiguing after just a few minutes, making listening to an entire album an exercise in auditory masochism! 

Here at Blantone Music's MU-SPOT MASTERING I can make it as loud as you want, if that's what you want.  I might recommend against pushing levels to the extent that I have been hearing lately on newer releases. 

Honestly, leaving some dynamic range in your music does sound better!  And believe it or not, it will hold up just fine on the radio.  In fact, it will likely sound better than recordings that have been "crushed", to use the industry term!  Why?  The majority of radio broadcasts are compressed, i.e. made louder through the stations' own manipulation of equalization and dynamics control.  If your recording is too "hot", it can over-modulate the broadcaster's transmission equipment, and that equipment is designed to keep extreme levels in check.  Radio broadcasters want smooth, even output, too.

Knowing how much to "push it" is part of your mastering engineer's job.  He might even recommend that you have one master produced for broadcast and another for play-back on other systems...if you want the best of both worlds, as it were!  Normally, though, a happy medium can be reached without having to resort to this.

There is much more that can be said on this subject...that's for sure.  Should you have any questions or desire more information on the various aspects of mastering, drop me a line here and we'll see that you are satisfied, whether I do the work for you or not.

 

MASTERING TERMS FOR THOSE HIP AND IN THE KNOW (and what they mean to YOU):

BIT DEPTH: most commonly, for the audio relative to our purposes here: 24, 20, or 16 bit. Let's look at this in terms of 3 circles, or pies, if you will, of 24 inches, 20 inches, and 16 inches across respectively. The 'pie' is your audio. We are going to process it, or 'cut it 8 times, equally. Consider the 'cuts' as processing the audio for volume, pan, compression, EQ, reverb...etc...the slices of the 24 inch pie will be larger than the 20 or the 16.  After the cut, you have more per slice...and you can only cut the pie so many times, as my father says. The higher the bit rate we use in mastering, the more preserved the quality of the audio. 24 bit is what I recommend.

SAMPLE RATE: relates to the bandwidth in kilohertz of the recorded material. CD's have a 44.1kHz bandwidth. Roughly half of that frequency range will be represented digitally and in the conversion back to analog as we listen. Frequencies then will top out at around 22kHz. A separate 22kHz test tone might be hard to hear for some, but given the nature of harmonic structure, multiples of the frequency do play a part in shaping the overall EQ spectrum or spectral balance. The higher the digital bandwidth, the more resolution can be maintained in the dynamics of the audio. Like higher bit depths, higher sample rates are generally better. It seems to be more relevant sometimes to quieter passages where detail can be lost . Be that as it may, many processes in digital audio can benefit from higher sample rates to preserve as much detail as possible no matter the loudness of the material. I accept material recorded at sample rates of 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, and 192kHz bandwidth.

PEAK LOUDNESS:   on a dynamic scale of 0 to 100, the highest amplitude (VOLUME)  reached of any signal introduced to an input or playback system.  For our purposes here, the loudest portion of a song or album recording.  PEAK LOUDNESS BECOMES A COMPONENT OF CALCULATING RMS LOUDNESS.

RMS LOUDNESS:  this is the way our  ears hear sound.  RMS loudness has been on the increase in the last few years in mastering.   DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY HELPS MAKE THIS SO. The lower the level of the rms the "louder" a recording may sound on a playback system.  i.e., a -14.8 dBfs recording will not be as apparently loud as one at -9.5 dBfs.  RMS LOUDNESS IS AVERAGE LOUDNESS OVER THE TIME FRAME OF A PARTICULAR RECORDING.  DEPENDING ON THE MATERIAL RECORDED AND THE SKILL LEVEL OF THE MASTERING ENGINEER, SONGS HEAVILY COMPRESSED AND/OR LIMITED MAY NOT TRANSLATE WELL ON THE RADIO.  RADIO BROADCASTS ARE THEMSELVES EQUALIZED AND COMPRESSED...AND LIMITERS ARE IN PLACE, TOO.  ANYTHING LOUDER THAN WHAT THE BROADCAST ENGINEERING ALLOWS IS GOING TO GET "SQUASHED", AND VOLUME WILL ACTUALLY BE LOST UPON TRANSMISSION.  LOTS OF TODAY'S RECORDINGS SOUND DISTORTED TO MY EARS..."GRAINY".  THIS IS ESPECIALLY NOTICEABLE FOR MOST LISTENERS IN THE MID-RANGE AND HIGH END FREQUENCIES.  HUMAN HEARING IS MOST SENSITIVE IN THE MID-RANGE.  When excessive RMS loudness is the ultimate goal, much of the dynamic range in the music affected is lost.

COMPRESSION:  dynamic range compression, also called DRC (often seen in DVD player settings) or simply compression, is a process that reduces the dynamic range of an audio signal. Compression is used during sound recording, live sound reinforcement, and broadcasting to control the level of audio. A compressor is the device used to apply compression.  Used thoughtfully, compression can add punch and presence in a rock recording or an improved sense of space in acoustic material.

EQUALIZATION:   equalization or EQ is the process of using passive or active electronic elements or digital algorithms for the purpose of altering the frequency response characteristics of a recording.  Much like compression, equalization can give individual instruments an improved sense of space in a mix or a master.  A balance of frequencies best used to convey the artist's vision of their music is one of the prime goals in mastering.

LIMITING:  somewhat like compression, limiting reduces the loudness peaks in a recording to even out the dynamic range.  It is indeed a type of compression that reduces the gain of a signal.  In this way the signal is prevented from going over a certain amplitude.

SPECTRAL BALANCE:  refers to the entire balance of the EQ frequency spectrum in a recording. 

MORE ON DITHER AND SAMPLE RATE CONVERSION

REDBOOK STANDARD:  refers to the standard developed by Sony and Phillips in 1980 that governs CD audio.  For more on this important aspect of mastering, click here.

IN THE BOX MASTERING:  refers to the practice of doing mastering almost exclusively within a computer without the added, measureable benefits of analog processing.   For more on this money-saving approach to mastering, click here.

MASTERING RATES

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