Guest post from Anthony Casuccio. Anthony is a seasoned recording engineer/ producer and owner of Xtream Audio Mastering.
I have questions about the mastering process: What format files do I send you or another mastering facility? I have separate .wav files for each instrument, vocal, and drum track and so forth. Is that an acceptable format for me to send my songs to get mastered?
First, please refer to my last blog about file preparation. Secondly, you need to mix your tracks down to two tracks in order for them to be mastered. Last month’s column will give you a few guidelines to follow while mixing your songs in order to prepare your song files for mastering. Thirdly, I am going to shed some light on the unpopular, yet “every song needing” art of mastering and explain the differences between mastering and mixing (which is a whole other art form) and how the process and files differ between the two. I get asked this question quite a bit. Yes, it is very elementary in nature but hey even the best in the biz started out at this point some time in their career. I will be happy to field this question.
Mixing is the process of taking the individual recorded parts i.e. vocals, drums and guitar and adjusting the sounds and balance to create the final mix of a song. Making the song sound the way that you want it i.e. more lead vocal or less guitar or even making the bass sound fuller. There are many books written about this process, so I won’t go into any more detail. What you are doing is taking all the tracks and “mixing” them down to two, a left and right track or a stereo pair. That stereo pair now becomes the file that you would use for mastering.
So what is this thing called mastering? Mastering is the art/science of assembling individual songs into one cohesive musical journey and should be considered the final creative step in a recording project. Or as we often say the final “polishing steps”. ALL commercial releases are mastered. Not only can you enhance the mixed material, but also you can correct problems like hiss, electrical hum and distortion that can only be addressed with the kind of tools and ears good mastering provides. This is because the mastering engineer can contour the EQ and dynamics to make it sound richer/ fuller and commercially ready. This is done with high-end equipment that has been calibrated to ensure exact results. If you are going to do this at home, I recommend checking out some 2 track audio editors like Steinberg’s Wavelab 4.0 or Sonic Foundry’s Sound Forge that are great for mastering.
After the sound is approved, the engineer will create the masters for the plant to use (this is very important if you are getting commercially ready discs). There is a big difference in the quality of the disc created at the studio compared to the one from your home computer. If you are going to create your master at home, burn the master at the slowest possible speed allowed. Also include a tracking sheet with the exact start and stop times of each track.
Ok let’s recap. Mixing is the combination of multiple tracks into a final two-track stereo master. Mastering is the process of enhancing that two-track stereo master. The process used in mastering varies from project to project, but in general can include the following:
- Noise Reduction
- Overall Compression / Limiting
- Relative Level adjustments, continuity between songs and spacing
- Fade ins/outs to black
- Over all listening experience
- Plant master generation for replication/duplication
We can break some of these down in future columns and discuss how they can be used while recording as well as mastering. Until then, keep making music and email me your questions.
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