What is mastering?
Mastering is the art of making a collection of your best mixes sound like an album, and the science of preserving and enhancing the details of the artists' vision. Making your CD stand out in a sea of releases requires a solid grasp of what defines sparkling sound and the competitive realities of the market.
The art of mastering is one of hearing and perspective. Mastering requires patience, focus on details and the knowledge and experience gained through hours of critical listening. For your release, mastering is the last opportunity for a qualified engineer to perform "quality control" in a revealing, high resolution setting.
Mastering requires an optimal listening environment. Any alterations of your original material must be performed with the best sounding tools and techniques available. At the center of this environment is an engineer with experience in the process of replication and an understanding of commercial requirements for many genres of music. The typical studio control room, your computer workstation, and even audiophile listening rooms lack some or all of these ingredients. Mastering is a process best performed by an experienced, full time mastering engineer in a dedicated facility with the very specialized tools of the trade.
What is QCA Mastering's approach?
We listen. Listen to your ideas if you attend, or read every note you send us if you don't. We listen to your music before we do anything at all... every project is different. We listen to the context of the songs and spaces between them, aiming for musical transitions, rather than a formulaic approach: some semi-professional CD burning applications have fixed 2 second gaps, or do not allow for fluid, free-form auditioning of the spacing, starting from anywhere in the mix. If we encounter problems, we assess the situation, come up with some possible solutions, present those options to you, and listen to your input before proceeding. When we finish, and you've approved your reference CD, we listen to the final product once more from start to finish to ensure there are no glitches or flaws in the parts delivered to the plant, or errors or mistakes in the documentation, cuing and indexing of your CD.
Is mastering really necessary if I'm satisfied with my mixes?
Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes the studio engineer processes the mix to get them to the proper level, and defines the tonal qualities sufficiently that little or nothing needs to be done to the mixes. We pride ourselves on recognizing this reality at QCA. If a tape sounds great when we get it, we will call you and suggest doing a direct transfer (at considerably less cost to you!). Some tapes and CD-Rs arrive levelled and sequenced in such a way that it's obvious the mix engineer considered it "finished". In these cases when we think we can improve the sound, we'll call to find out if there are unprocessed versions of the mixes available to work on. If not, again, it's often better to leave them alone and do a direct transfer.
In most cases, the best mixes come from the studio with considerable headroom for a mastering engineer to make tonal and gain adjustments. Most albums are mixed over a period of days, weeks, months or even years, often in different studios by different engineers. So, the collection of music can be quite diverse. Mastering is the process that brings together all of the different mixes into a cohesive-sounding album.
A great mix left unmastered and directly transferred to CD will generally sound thin after commercially released CD's played in multi-disk changers. Worse, when you get airplay, an unmastered song will be slaughtered by broadcast chains optimized for fully mastered releases. In these cases the mix engineer did his job perfectly, but the artist or label dropped the ball by not following up with professional mastering.
If your mix is perfect, and you just want us to transfer it to CD-R, and drop ID points for you, this is a standard service that we'd be happy to perform called "M2 Mastering" and it costs just $100. If you think this is all your project needs, but want our opinion, we can call you before we make your M2 Reference CD and let you know what we think. Further, if you are disappointed by the sound of your M2 Reference and feel you would benefit from a standard mastering package, we will apply whatever you paid for M2 Mastering to your Full Mastering package price. Either way, you're covered.
Why not master during mixdown? Why not take advantage of the studio's post-mix services (workstation based editing, fades, eq, leveling and processing in devices like Alesis' Masterlink, TC's Finalizer or DBX's Quantum)?
Just say "no" to processing of your full stereo mixes. Yes, Finalizing and basic "normalizing" will make your songs sound better and louder on your reference CD than flat mixes, but it's unlikely that the results will compare to what the same unprocessed song will sound like after full, dedicated mastering. The difference between what happens in a "one-size-fits-all" processor and a mastering studio is not subtle, nor is the damage this approach does to the resulting files. 44.1 Khz, 16 bit files are relatively fragile, and it's difficult and often impossible to fix the damage to dynamic range, stereo imaging and overall tonality that take place when these tools are aggressively used. Yes, Finalizers have a place in both studios and mastering rooms... thier convertors are fine for many kinds of music and they allow you to maximize 16 bit mediums like DAT to retain dynamic range when properly used. In mastering, some of the tools are useful as well. Low-end computer program or even quality systems like Pro Tools and Sonic Solutions are fine to mix down to, and enhance your ability to weed through different mixes.
The problem with mastering in the mix room is three fold: first the monitoring environment of a control room bears little relationship to any real-world space, so you have to trust the engineers to know how things you cannot hear will translate anywhere else. Second, while the studio may have a fine digital multiprocessor box, it's rare for one box to hold all the answers for any project. Finally, when your engineer mixes your song down through a digital processor of any sort, the changes he commits to are forever. If it turns out that the degree and kind of compression in his dedicated processor are inappropriate, it may be difficult if not impossible to "uncompress" your music.
These are non-issues in a real mastering suite. Monitoring is performed in an environment that is more like a living room than a studio, using speakers that are selected to be revealing (our room has 2 sets of speakers and 2 different listening positions, both modeled on real world spaces). A mastering room has a number of different processors, all of which can do different things with your music... we're not locked into the "flavor of the month". At QCA we have at least 3 different flavors of digital EQ, 4 different digital compressors, 3 different kinds of peak limiters, as well as a variety of classic analog mastering processors. Mastering processors are designed from the ground up to have repeatable settings, and our workflow is "creative" (meaning every action we perform "creates" a new file) as opposed to running your mix through a Finalizer on the way to a DAT which is "destructive" (the signal stored on the DAT is permanently altered by the processor). If you don't like what we do, your mix is safe, so we can redo it to achieve the results you expect. If you don't like a Finalized mix, you are faced with a choice between remixing, or extensive custom mastering to recover lost dynamics and mangled tonal relationships.
What's the difference between custom mastering and mastering packages?
Mastering packages are all that most well produced, carefully crafted projects require. We perform overall EQ, compression and signal processing to entire songs, and try to make the package sound like a cohesive album.
Custom mastering is required in situations where the artist has a complex vision, or when the original material is damaged, old, or otherwise flawed. A lot of older recordings in an artists' catalog need work to be re-released on CD, or re-issued in today's market. A CD mastered in 1984 probably has less apparent volume than recent releases. Old analog recordings, or ambient mic'd music often requires extensive noise reduction. Finally, many artists realize their vision through extensive, painstaking editing: cutting and pasting many different mixes into a cohesive whole.
As you can imagine, the custom situations take a great deal more time and attention than a standard mastering package. To give every job the attention it deserves, we perform custom work on an hourly basis only. At the other end of the spectrum, the time required to do a standard package is more related to the run-time of the program than anything else. The amount of time it takes to work on the job is relatively constant (packages are priced with the assumption that the average package job takes between 3-6 hours).
- Bring a commercial CD in the genre of your music that you are familiar with to the session. Ideally, the CD should define what you think a good CD sounds like, and be musically similar to your project. Be prepared to point out specific songs and nuances that you consider significant. Plan to spend some time at the beginning of the session getting aquainted with the sound of our room and speakers.
- Be on time! Mastering time is relatively expensive compared to studio time. The clock on your session starts at the time of your appointment. If you are attending a package mastering session, we have a pre-alloted time frame to complete the work, whether you're in attendance or not. Don't waste that valuable time unnecessarily.
- Don't bring the entire band to your mastering session. While we have a couch and room for a few people, the "sweet spot" of our monitors is relatively narrow. It's inevitable someone sitting outside that spot is going to be making comments without being able to properly listen to the music. Ideally, the nominal "producer" of a project should be in attendance, along with one designated band member who has gone over the entire project with the rest of the band and has a list of everybody's concerns. If the mix engineer is available and interested, his input might be valuable. While we may not be able to fix every single problem, we can at least explain what we've done (or not done!) to let you report back to the band. Unless you're doing custom mastering, this is not an opportunity to second-guess every decision in the recording process or remix your record, so there's really no need for every band member to be present. Worse, with package jobs, the amount of time devoted to your project is limited. Time spent discussing mastering options is time lost to actual mastering processing.
- Make sure your tapes are clearly marked and organized. Know exactly which mix is the keeper. It may seem unbelievable, but bands have wasted entire package mastering sessions just figuring out which songs need to be mastered. At this point, a simple package job unnecessarily becomes an hourly custom job.
- If there are alternate takes, try to clearly mark what the differences are... DATs are a particularly "fragile" medium, and prone to flaking, data errors, and mistracking. It's often possible to fix a problem in a mix by finding an undamaged version of the flawed part of the song in another mix. This is only possible if you keep a record of what the differences between takes are.
I'm sending my project to you in the mail. What do you need from me?
The best way to organize your project is using one of our track listing sheets. Fill out all the fields and send it along with your master tape.
You should include any comments you may have about what you hear in your mixes. Tell us what you like and what you don't like about each song. We listen!
Specify all fades by telling us where in the song the fade should start and where we should be out and the song ends (in minutes:seconds, not bars/beats or sections!). If there are crossfades (songs overlap) timing is even more critical. Be aware that regardless of where we place the Start ID for the second song in a crossfade, cueing might not be as precise and clean as it is with a true gap.
Otherwise, preparing a project for unattended mastering is similar to attended sessions.
- All tapes should be clearly marked, logged and organized.
- ID Numbers on tape should match ID on track listings.
- Mark details about unused mixes in case we need to use parts of them to fix unforseen problems.
- Keep a safety copy of all masters shipped! Yes, copying all those tapes can be expensive. Yes, we take great care to ensure your master is recieved, handled and played in near-ideal circumstances. No, we cannot guarantee that there could be a mishap in transit, or a tape won't be chewed unceremoniously for no apparent reason. It is YOUR responsibility to have backups in your of your precious work when something goes wrong.
I'm getting my project replicated somewhere else. Will QCA Mastering still work on my project?
Yes! QCA Mastering is a mastering facility first, and we understand that many of our clients have other replication arrangements.
Make sure to specify where the masters should be shipped and what formats are required by your replication facility.
Should I put all my mixes onto one tape for mastering?
If your studio is equipped to do digital-digital copies, on professional DAT machines, and can verify their system does bit-perfect clones, then this is absolutely a good thing. It kills 2 birds with one stone: It gives you a chance to listen to your project in context while protecting your original masters from the rigors of shipping and handling. Also, time in a decent recording studio to perform transfers and assembly edits is much cheaper than time searching through a pile of DATs in a mastering room.
That said, the initial caveat is strict. Digital copies can be perfect, but sadly, often are not! For instance, another round trip through a DAT machine's generally bad sounding A/D and D/A convertors can't be good for your music. If a digital copy is made with the wrong clock settings the program can be filled (or merely occassionally punctuated by) clicks and pops. Be sure to playback all or at least a good long chunk of the transfer once you make it.
Should I have the engineer trim off the count offs and do the fades for me?
We'll whisper words of wisdom: Let it be. While many studios can and do much of this work before a mix is ever committed to tape (using mutes and console automation or a ProTools rig), it's not a requirement at all. If the songs were mixed without fades and still have count offs after the final mix, we'd prefer to get it warts and all.
To begin with, our workstations treat every edit or transition like a fade, so trimming the clicks off of the top of the song is a natural part of editing.
As for fades, unless the fades were written in automation or performed in real time by the mix engineer, anything that happens with your DAT tape requires a transfer that gives us a tape a true generation away from the original. Even using ProTools to fade out a mix after the fact, requires ProTools to re-generate the data in the area of the fade, and it is here that we lose a generation. As simple and basic as a fade is in the analog domain, it is a critical and non-trivial activity in the digital domain... the algorithm's used to create the fade, coupled with the kind and amount of dither used to smooth the sound will be affected by later processing in mastering (if we do any level or eq changes in mastering, we must re-dither the final calculations... dither on dither!). Bottomline: Doing the fade at the same time you do other processing can sound better.
In general, don't be stingy with tape... leave plenty of room between takes, and give the DAT time to get up to speed before you start your mixes. Don't worry if the start indexes on the DAT are a little off. As long as they happen after the end of the previous song, they are fine. If the song starts in a non-obvious way, make sure to note it in the documentation. Regardless, ID's don't transfer into the workstation along with the audio, so they will have no affect on where the IDs happen on your finished disc.
The studio mixed everything down to 96K (or 88.2 or 48K or for that matter at 24 bits rather than 16). Should I get them to make a DAT or give you a CD at the standard 44.1K sampling rate and 16 bit depth?
Give us the highest resolution, earliest generation master possible, or an exact digital copy thereof. Do not attempt to perform any Sample Rate Conversion (SRC) on the music, or to make our job easier by correcting these things for us.
All SRC algorithm's sound different. Different kinds of music respond differently to each flavor. Sometimes, the need for SRC gives us a "free pass" to use some of our analog outboard processors... High resolution D/A convertors (we have 3 different flavors of convertors, all with different sonic characters) let us use our sweet analog Sontec EQ before we recapture the music at a more compatable sample rate.
When working at 88.2 or 96K we perform all processing at the native sample rate with 24 bit files, preserving the character and detail of your high resolution master (we can prepare a backup of this master for future high resolution release if you want). In these instances, we take special care to translate as much of the detail and dynamics to the final 44.1/16 CD References and Masters. This would not be possible starting with lesser sources.