My career in professional audio began in the late 1980s working as an old fashioned tape operator, operating and maintaining analogue tape recorders. Initially I worked exclusively with magnetic tape based systems before the dawn of digital recording. During the the 1990s I progressed through various digital systems including DAWs such as NED's Synclavia, Otari, SADIE and Pro Tools (I was a beta-tester for Digidesign during the development of the first 4 track version of their "Sound Tools" software which later became Pro Tools). I've worked on projects by major artists, major labels (working for Zomba records during the 2000s), independent labels and unsigned bands alike. I've worked in almost all genres of music from classical and Jazz to punk and indie in a career spanning over 30 years. After many years as a recording and mix engineer and following a series of projects working with mastering guru Ray Staff, my interest turned to the "black magic" of mastering. Intrigued by the huge difference the mastering process could make to an already great sounding mix I endeavoured to learn as much as possible.
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 CD or vinyl manufacture. Mastering can make the difference between something that sounds like a "demo" and something that sounds like a record.
It's increasingly common for bands to record and mix their own music or for tracks to be recorded and mixed by different engineers at different studios. This can lead to the individual tracks sounding noticible different to one another and sometimes disjointed. Mastering will shape the tracks into a cohesive whole where the songs are matched for level and overall sonic character.
There are many 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 sound engineer who can make creative judgements based on many years of experience mastering music from many genres from classical to jazz, hip-hop to rock, folk to punk.
I also stress how important communication is during the mastering process. When you deliver your music files to me the first thing I ask is if you have any preferences for your sound. Some people are happy to leave the decisions to me but if there's something specific you are aiming for (for example one client was keen for their self-produced music to sound more "Motown") let me know, and give me examples if you have them.
How does online audio mastering work?
In a nutshell it works like this:
- You send me your mixed stereo audio files which I load into my mastering system
- 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 mp3s 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 also 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 48kHz then your stereo files should be sent to me at 48kHz too.
You can 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.
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 start or end we would ask that you leave this to us. This ensures you get a smooth fade to silence after any dynamics processing I add. All you need do is tell me your preferred start and end times in seconds and I'll do the rest.
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 mp3 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 entirely on the music you send me. Every track will be assessed separately even if part of an album. I only use the processors I feel are necessary and suitable, and those which will improve the sound of your tracks. This can often include gentle equalization or frequency specific compression or expansion, but may also include other processes such as analog tape simulation, harmonic processors, parallel processors or sound-field adjustment. In some cases I may need to process some parts of a track differently to others in order to fix problems or create a better balance beteen sections. The first part of mastering is listening to your mix several times on different systems and making notes.
What equipment do you use?
My mastering system is based around an Avid Pro Tools HD 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 smartphone speaker.
Can you make a DDP file for my CD manufacturer?
Yes I can, this is a standard format I supply. The 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 your CDs
- Fully mastered 16 bit, 44.1kHz stereo WAV files for Red-Book CD manufacture (or 24 bit 48kHz or 96kHz for vinyl)
- Fully mastered 320k mp3 files ready for download/streaming
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.
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 compact disc copy of your master (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.
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 mixing, stem mixing/mastering, audio editing and audio restoration. Email me for more details.
Contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org