So, what is audio mastering?
Mastering is the final part of the record production process and ensures your music fits together seamlessly with the best possible sound quality. Mastering is all about improving the clarity and depth of your music, polishing the sound for commercial release. Audio mastering also includes compiling your tracks with gaps and fades and creating production ready audio files for manufacture. Mastering can make the difference between something that sounds like a demo and something that sounds like a commercial recording. Mastering also ensures your music stands up well to being compressed for online streaming services such as Spotify and this poses a unique set of challenges - which are important given that this is how the majority of listeners now consume music.
It's increasingly common for bands to record and mix their own music at home on a PC, or for tracks to be recorded and mixed by different engineers at different studios. This can lead to the individual tracks sounding noticibly different to one another. Mastering will help shape the tracks into a cohesive whole where the songs are matched for level and overall sonic character as far as possible.
There are cheap "automatic" online mastering services which allow you to upload your tracks to be mastered by a computer algorythm, but there really is no substitude for an experienced engineer who can make creative judgements based on many years of experience. An experienced pair of ears can also advise you on things that are better addressed in the mix.
My career in professional audio began in the late 1980s working as an old-school "Tape Op", operating, aligning and maintaining analogue tape recorders for a recording studio on London's Wardour Street. Initially I worked exclusively with magnetic tape before the "dawn of digital" when I progressed to working with various digital systems such as NED's Synclavia, SADIE, Sound Tools and early Pro Tools.
Throughout the 1990s I worked as a recording and mix engineer for renowned reggae producer and engineer Terry Barham (Bob Marley, Steel Pulse, Burning Spear, Rico Rodriguez) at his Surrey studio. Which, as well as the ubiquitous Pro Tools, also featured a unique EMI 16 track 2" tape machine, arguably the best sounding audio format of all time and the kind of recorder you'd find in classic studios of the 1970s. During this time I worked on a wide variety of music projects, commercials, television and film soundtracks.
In 1999 I went freelance and following a series of band projects working with mastering guru Ray Staff, I was inspired to learn the craft of mastering. Intrigued by the difference the mastering process can make to an already great sounding mix I set about learning as much as possible. Throughout the 2000s I freelanced for several major and indie record lables, including BMG, Jive, Measured and Zomba - working on mastering projects for artists such as Britney Spears, NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Groove Armada, Cameron Mackintosh and The Stone Roses. I've worked in almost all genres of music including classical, folk, jazz, rock, gospel, musical theatre, world, reggae, soul and indie in a career spanning over 30 years. I now run my own mastering and mixing service for bands, performers and labels alike.
How does online audio mastering work?
In a nutshell it works like this:
- You send me your mixed stereo audio files
- I listen to your music very carefully on high quality reference monitors and make judgements on frequency balance, soundfield, phase, dynamics and loudness
- Where necessary, audio processing is applied to your songs so that your music sounds professional, balanced and cohesive - and meets all the technical requirements of your manufacturers
- Next we send you high quality MP3 files for your approval and feedback
- Any final changes are made until you are completely happy with the end result
- I then generate the high quality stereo WAV files and a DDP master file for the CD manufacturer
- The completed files are sent to you as a download (we can also send you hard copies if required)
Can I attend the mastering session?
No, all mastering sessions are unattended. This is so that I can keep my costs to you as low as possible.
How do I send my music to you?
Send me your master files in either 24bit WAV or AIFF format. Your files can be interleaved or split stereo and should be supplied at the same sampling frequency as your recording session. So if your tracks were recorded at a sampling frequency of 96kHz then your stereo files should be sent to me at 96kHz too.
I prefer you to send me your files using a file sharing service such as WeTransfer, Google Drive or Dropbox. Alternatively contact me for access to our secure FTP server. I can also accept your music as a DAT tape or files on a CD, DVD or flash drive.
How should I prepare/mix my music before sending it to you?
Your mixes should not be overly compressed and you should NOT use any type of brick-wall limiting on your master bus. The reason for this is that limiting is the last step in the mastering process. Mixes that have excessive compression or limiting on them are difficult to work with as the dynamic range will have been significantly reduced. It's also important that we have enough headroom so that your music can be supplied with the correct LUFS value to get the best result when your music is uploaded to streaming services.
Many mix engineers like to apply processors such as exciters, tape simulators or stereo enhancers on their mix bus. This is fine if used sparingly but please bear in mind I cannot remove these effects if they have been over-used. I may sometimes ask you to supply a new mix with these processes removed or reduced. If you are home recording it might be better to leave these effects off your mix and let me make the call if they are helping.
If any of your tracks require a fade at the end, I would ask that you leave this to me. This ensures you get a smooth fade to silence after any dynamics processing. All you need do is tell me your preferred start and end times in seconds and I'll do the rest. I will add dither the final master files to improve the perceived audio quality as the music fades.
Can you advise me if there are problems with my mix?
Yes absolutely. If there are any issues I think would be best addressed during the mixing stage I will advise you on this before doing any work. I can guide you on how to improve your mix and how to address any specific issues. A great sounding mix will translate into a great sounding master.
Can I have a free sample of your work?
Yes you can. Simply send me one song in WAV or AIFF format and I will master it and send you back a high quality WAV of the first 2 minutes. This will give you a clear idea of how mastering can improve your music.
What kind of processing will you apply to my music?
This depends, the first part of mastering is listening to your mix several times on different systems and making notes. Every track will be assessed separately to identify any specific issues, and then again as a part of the album to assess how the project works as a whole. I only use the processors I feel are necessary and suitable, and those which will improve the sound of your music. This often includes gentle equalization or frequency specific compression, but may also include other processes such as phase correction, harmonic processing or sound-field adjustment.
What equipment do you use?
My mastering system is based around an Avid Pro Tools Pro augmented by an extensive range of digital and analogue processors, but what you're really paying for is experience. My main reference monitoring system is by Dynaudio Acoustics with a full range Yamaha system for near-field monitoring. However I also check your tracks on a range of "real world" systems to ensure compatibility and best results. I ensure your music sounds great on a decent domestic hi-fi (Denon), on a car stereo, on a smart speaker, through ear-buds, and on a mobile phone speaker. I also ensure your music sounds good once encoded to MP3 and AAC encoded (as as it will be by streaming services).
Can you make a DDP file for my CD manufacturer?
Yes I can, this is a standard format I supply. The PQ encoded DDP file can be used to directly manufacture your CDs. Many manufacturers prefer this format over individual files and having one may well save you money with your pressing plant.
Can you add my ISRC codes?
Yes I can, the ISRC codes you supply are added to the DDP file. I also add the usual range of meta data including song and artist information and UPC/EAN information.
Can you edit my music as well?
Yes I am happy to make edits to your music based on your instructions. A simple edit can often be accomodated in my standard fee but more complex edits may add to your costs so please contact me first to discuss.
What if I want changes to the master after you send me the approval files?
After my initial work on your music I will send you high quality mp3 files to listen to and I recommend you listen to them on a wide range of different speaker systems and devices. If there are any changes you would like made at this stage I will happily address these and send you a new set of listening copies. I want you to be happy with the end result and there are no additional charges for revisions during the approval stage.
Once I am happy with the masters what do you send me?
When you are completely happy with your mastered audio tracks I will send you your masters in all of the following formats:
- A DDP file containing everything your manufacturer needs to press Red Book CD
- Fully mastered 16 bit, 44.1kHz stereo WAV files for Red-Book CD manufacture (or 24 bit 96kHz for vinyl)
- Fully mastered 320kbps mp3 files ready for download from your own webite or sending as listening copies to radio stations
- Fully mastered WAV or FLAC files optimised for streaming services (I will ask you how you plan to distribute your release and tailor the file format accordingly)
If you would also like hard copies of your mastered music on Red Book audio CD or DAT tape that's no problem. I can arrange for these to be sent to you.
If you have asked for your CD masters to be outside of the loudness specification I would recommend for streaming services, I will provide a second set of 16bit/44.1KHs WAVs for this purpose.
How much does this all cost?
I try to keep prices reasonable and simple to understand
- Price per mastered music track (tracks can be up to 5 minutes in duration): £25
- Price per red book format compact disc (inc P&P): £12
- Price per DAT tape of your master (inc P&P): £42
- Audio editing POA
How do I pay?
Once you've sent me your tracks I will send you an invoice. I prefer BACS transfers but will accept cheques (subject to clearing).
How long will it take?
That depends on the number of tracks you send me and how busy I am but I will typically turn around a project within 5 - 7 days of your order.
What else do you do?
I also offer a range of other services including music mixing, stem mixing/mastering, audio editing and audio restoration. Email me for more details.
Contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org