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"The Final Step"

The final step in making a professional recording is the mastering. 
A studio master tape is not a final master. 

You've had a recording session, with top notch musicians, in a good studio. 
You have your beautiful mixdown, thanks to expert engineers and producer. 
Are you ready to press your CD's? Not quite. 
Next you send it to the mastering studio. 
The mastering process puts the final touches, the idea being this... 
to make the recording sound perfect on as many players 
and radio stations as possible. 
Mastering engineers do a number of processes to accomplish this. 

Here are a few of the things a pro mastering engineer thinks about... 
It should sound great in both stereo and mono. 
In fringe areas, FM radio reverts to mono on most receivers. 
There's not much you can do about it after the recording is out there, 
but you can keep hitting the mono button during the mix... 
or you can leave it to the mastering guy to fix it. 
There are several ways to make it mono/stereo compatible during mastering. 
If nothing is done, some instruments might just disappear in mono, 
and the tone of others can change. 

Bass sounds below 40Hz take airspace away from the rest of the music, 
and can't even be heard on a lot of systems. 
Bass sounds below about 28 Hz take up tons of space 
and can't even be heard by the human ear. I call it "silent rumble". 
The first thing I do when mastering is to cut away this useless junk. 
The highs and the rest of the record jump right out. 
I can see it on the visual display, and the sound is instantly cleaner. 

The string bass and bass drum are important. 
The low end that gives them power is somewhere below 80 Hz. 
The attack or tap that gives them presence is above 1000Hz. 
These factors have to be balanced. 

Records get louder every year, so you want to get a good level, 
but without hurting your music. 
It's wrong to push the level to 100% and chop it off there with a limiter. 
This loses punch, sound quality, and dynamics. 
Dynamics are the soft and louder sounds needed for contrast, 
like building up to a chorus. 
If all the music is full blast and chopped off at the top like a hedge, you lose. 
It can also make the listeners swear and jump for the the volume control. 

One way to beat this is with "apparent loudness". 
The human ear is most efficient in midrange. 
and hears things loud and clear at 2KHz to 3KHz... the CB radio range. 
So if you roll off some lows and highs, like a TV commercial, 
it sounds louder, at least to humans. Trouble is it can sound brassy. 

"Punch" is not loudness. 
Punch is how far the speaker cone moves and pushes air. 
If the whole track is all the way up, 
the the speaker just goes all the way forward and stays there. No punch. 
So we don't cut off all the peaks. We just even them up a little. 
Much of this relies on our "ear" and experience. 

The mastering engineer has a barrel of terrific tools now'days, 
thanks to electronic and computer advancements. 
I have well over a hundred sound tools that didn't exist a few years ago. 
The only problem with this is that I get too many good mixes to choose from. 

There is too much to the subject of mastering to cover here, 
but I hope I've convinced a few of you recording artists 
to send your studio mix to the mastering studio before pressing. 
Especially if you're in this for a career. 

Copyright  February 6, 2007 Jack Blanchard. All rights reserved. 
Reprinted by permission.

 

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