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Putting the much-needed icing on your recording project

As engineers in the midst of recording, we are responsible for making each song great. Throughout a project, we move guitar parts around, audition different drum tones and guitar tones, etc. We record and re-record vocals, and the more harmonies the better, right? Of course! But when your three and a half minute masterpiece is done, the volume and tone will be quite different from your next three and a half minute masterpiece. That is an inherent but necessary flaw in the recording process. As the last step to your project, mastering aims to fix these differences in order to create a finished, cohesive project.

Consider at the beginning of your project whether or not you will have the time and budget to spend on mastering. Call around to your local studios to see if they offer mastering services. Beware of people who seem to offer mastering services just because they own a DAW. Mastering is an art form and requires unique equipment to be done properly. Get a few different quotes and ask for references or a list of recent projects. Although it is fun to be involved in the mastering process, it isn’t necessary for the mastering studio to be local. You can always ship your mixes to a studio. Just be sure to communicate clearly with the engineer as to what you expect to accomplish. Mastering is also relevant to your live recordings. If your church records each service and is aiming to produce a collection of live recordings, mastering is still a very important process that needs to be considered. You can also check with your duplication facility to see if they offer mastering services. Be sure to listen to the changes they make before the CD is duplicated.

Most mastering engineers agree that if the song is mixed well, then you can easily produce a great master. Keep in mind that it is not the mastering engineer’s responsibility to fix a poor mix. There is no such thing as “We’ll fix it in mastering.” The mastering process should start only when everyone is completely happy with the mix. If you aren’t happy with the mix, you won’t be happy with the master.

One of the best places to check your mix is in the car. Burn a CD of your project and take a drive. Listen to be sure you are able to hear all the parts you are expecting to hear. It helps to get the mix in a “real” environment in which you are used to hearing music. If for some reason you aren’t hearing what are you are expecting to hear, you probably need to make some changes to your mix. You may also want to consider taking multiple mixes to your mastering session. Often, you may have a mix with the lead vocal up or down a dB or two. You can also choose to have some mixes with other lead instruments up or down a couple of dB. Although it makes for more work for the mixing engineer, it can give you many more options in the mastering process.

It’s also important not to fall into the trap of trying to self-master your project. There are plenty of plug-ins available that allow for EQ and limiting of your two-track mix. Although a mastering plug-in can appear to improve the sound of your mix, it is no replacement for the ears of a mastering engineer. Once that plug-in has affected your mix, it can’t be undone by the mastering process. You may ultimately harm your mix if you try to accomplish the goals of mastering on your own.

Once you are happy with the mix, there are some important steps to keep in mind when preparing for your mastering session. Be sure to talk to the mastering engineer or studio with whom you will be working. You will need to know what digital and analog formats they accept. Most studios can accept a large number of digital and analog formats but you wouldn’t want to show up with a file they can’t open or a reel of tape they can’t play.

Be sure not to over-compress or over-limit your recording. That will be a part of the mastering process in itself. If you try to pre-master or over-compress your mix, you will be harming your final product. Don’t stress over the volume of your mix. It will be quieter than any store bought CD. That’s okay. Again, this is part of the mastering process. If you want the loudest CD on the planet, they can do that for you. However, with perceived volume, you sacrifice dynamic range and that too can be damaging to your masterpiece.

Also spend some time to think about the order in which you will place each track. There are many schools of thought as to what the first song should be and what the last song should be on a record. Take a listen to the tracks in different sequences and think about what each song says and the message you want that song to portray. Finally, be sure you have a clear picture of what you hope to achieve in mastering. Take some notes of things you want to address with the engineer, such as too much bass in a particular section of a song, or a lack of ambience in another part.

In a mastering studio, you won’t see the familiar multi-channel consoles, racks and racks of effects processors, or many multi-track tape machines. You will most likely see a nice pair of full range speakers, a small mastering console, and a digital audio workstation (DAW), in a small quiet room. A mastering facility doesn’t need the hordes of equipment most studios acquire because by the time your project gets to the mastering stage, you are primarily working with a two-track source.

Mastering mixers are often custom designed and built from hand-matched components to assure that the left and right channels sound the same. There is often very little equipment in the signal chain. A two channel limiter, a nice two channel parametric EQ, a set of high-resolution meters, and then the final destination, either a DAW, a CD burner, etc. It is important to keep the signal chain as clean as possible to avoid the addition of noise in your final product.
Mastering is unique. When you adjust EQ on your final mix, you can’t narrow in on a particular instrument as you can when you mix. So, if you want to adjust the EQ of the kick drum in the mastering process, you will invariably affect the bass guitar, keyboard or piano, and every other instrument in that same frequency range. That’s why having some different mixes (Vox up 1dB, down 1dB, etc) available can be a blessing in the mastering stage.

The engineer will take your source material and transfer it to the DAW. As he or she listens to the material the engineer will keep the following items in mind:
• What medium will this project ultimately be transferred to for duplication?
• Are there any minor edits that need to be completed, fixed, considered?
• Are there clicks and pops that need to be eliminated?
• Does the track need any noise reduction?
• Does the track need general EQ to smooth out highs, or calm lows?
• Does the volume of each track need to be adjusted?
• Are there peaks in some tracks that need to be eliminated?
• Is there any audible distortion that will need to be dealt with?
• Does the track need compression or expansion?
• What is the proper order of the tracks to convey the artist’s intentions?

It would be a good idea for you to take the above list into consideration before you go to mastering. If you have a long list of things that need to be addressed as you go to the mastering studio, then you may want to reschedule and fix the problems yourself. It will save you money in the long run.

Once the list of work is compiled, the mastering engineer may need some time on his or her own to work. If that is the case, the engineer will schedule a time for you to come back, in order to listen to the final product and make any final adjustments. If the list of work is short, often times the mastering process will happen as you listen and you will walk away with your final product. Be sure to listen to your material before and after the mastering process. Now all that is left is duplication or replication.

Mastering is an incredible art form. You can do incredible things in a project studio with the equipment available today. Take your time, listen carefully and quietly, and you can have a successful, professional recording of your three and a half minute masterpiece. Mastering is that final step that will let you stand out in the crowd!

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