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FAQ - Mastering

1.  What is Music Audio Mastering? Mastering is the process of preparing and transferring recorded audio from a source containing the final mix to a data storage device or file - the Master. The Master is the source from which all copies will be produced. In recent years digital masters have become the norm, although some engineers still specialize in analog mastering. Mastering requires critical listening, and software tools are used to aid the process. Results still depend upon the intent of the engineer, the accuracy of the speaker monitors, and the listening environment. Mastering engineers may also need to apply corrective equalization and dynamic compression in order to optimize sound translation on the majority (if not all) playback systems.  During the mastering process, a stereo file of the original mix is processed using equalization, compression, limiting, noise reduction, and other processes such as editing, pre-gapping, leveling, fading in and out, noise reduction, and other signal restoration and enhancement processes.  Comparison with reference tracks in the same genre is often used.  If there are multiple tracks, they are put in the proper order (track sequencing), and prepared specifically for the type of media to be used for the intended release.

2.  Why do my songs need Mastering?  Mastering provides the final professional polish to make a song sound bigger, richer, louder, and wider.  Any distortion or other obvious problems in the final version are buffed out.  If you have a song that sounds rather good by itself but plays at a higher or lower volume after another song – mastering can even them out so they’re consistent when the whole EP or Album is played.  Similarly, if a song sounds good on its own but is too dull or too bright next to another song on the EP or album, mastering can balance them.  Same thing for low-end or high-end when compared with another song in the group, mastering can provide a more consistent or “together” sounding playlist.  Finally, the Mastering process produces files in a format compatible with distribution media, such as CD/DVD, digital streaming, radio broadcasting, on stage performance, vinyl, video, or film.

3.  How do I prepare my mix for Mastering? If I’ve done your mixing job, then you’re all set and I'll take it from there.  If you’ve done your own mixing and are hiring me to master your song, then here are some guidelines for Pre-Mastering Mix Preparation:

  a.  Check your mix for phase issues. Check it in mono to see if any instruments go flat, fade, or disappear and if so, make the corrections.  If you need help with this, here are a couple of good links on the subject:

    i.  http://behindthespeakers.com/fix-phase-cancellation/

    ii. https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/mix-rescue-phase-relationships/

  b.  Please make sure you have no FX processing (e.g., EQ, compression, limiting) on the master bus/channel of your mix prior to rendering/bouncing down the file you send me.

  c.  Please leave me enough headroom to master your song. There should be no clipping (peaks at or above 0dB) which will cause distortion.  Your maximum peak levels should be between -10dB and -3dB; an ideal target would be around -6dB.

  d.  As far as total (average) loudness is concerned, aim for an RMS about 12dB lower than your maximum peak. So if your max peak is -6dB, shoot for an RMS of -18dB.  This will give your mix a healthy dynamic range.

  e.  When rendering/bouncing down your mix:

    I.    Keep the original bit and sample rates as your basic mix (no up-sampling)

    ii.   Do not apply dither or noise reduction options to the mix

    iii.  Do not normalize the mix, its tracks, or media elements

  f.  Please submit your rendered/bounced mix files as 44100Hz, 24-bit WAV files (16-bit is also acceptable). I do not accept MP3 files to Master.

  g.  I encourage you to send along one or two reference tracks in your genre that have the sound or feel you’re really going for, along with any notes which will guide me and help to avoid or reduce revisions.

4.  What is a Reference Track? A reference track is a professionally recorded track that is used by mixing and mastering engineers to compare with a mix. This often reveals previously unnoticed issues, e.g, imbalances, in a mix or instrument track. Reference tracks are usually chosen for their great sounding loudness, width, or depth, usually in the same genre as the mix being mastered.

5.  What Are Stems and why would I need them? Stems are mixed groups of tracks, usually based around the major pieces of your mix, such as Drums, Percussion, Bass, Guitars, Lead Vocals, Backup Vocals, Strings & Pads, Synths, Brass, etc. A drum stem would be a stereo sub mix of all of the drum tracks as they’ve been mixed. Stems can be used in various ways, but the most common are in Mixing, Mastering and Alternative Mixes.  Some bands or musicians will create submix stems in order to reduce the tracks that need to be sent to the mix engineer and potentially save a little money.  Mixing and mastering engineers will sometimes use stems to create alternative mixes for louder or softer vocals, instrumentals, vocals-only, backing tracks (TV Mix), or for other requirements.  Let me know if you need a stem set or alternate mix and I can master them for you.

6.  How do I send my music for Mastering?  One of two ways:  First (and preferred), if you’re hiring me through Soundbetter.com, you’ll sign in to their site (using Facebook or your email to start your account) and we’ll have a Workroom area there where you can upload your tracks; or alternatively if you’re hiring me through using the Job Request Form on the “Get Started” page of this website, then once I receive your Job Request, send you a quote and receive your payment, then I’ll send you a MediaFire.com link where you can upload your tracks to me.  

7.  How long will it take for Mastering? I usually quote two working days turnaround time on Mastering, but it depends on the scope of the work. An EP of four songs might take a week, or an album of 12 songs could take ten days. I’ll be able to give you a good estimate once I get a look at the work, and I’ll always keep you informed as to my progress and how things are going.

8.  What file formats do you accept for Mastering?  I typically master WAV files in 24-bit, 96 kHz, or less. Please submit your rendered/bounced mix files as 44100Hz, 24-bit WAV files (16-bit is also acceptable). I do not accept MP3s files.

9.  What Mastering products will I get back from you?  Upon completion, you will receive a stereo WAV file suitable for upload to CDBaby, DistroKid, TuneCore, and similar distributors.  You will also receive an MP3 file along with any alternative mixes you have ordered.  AIFF, FLAC, DDP, or OGG files are also available as desired.  I will not provide a copy of the actual mastering session, but I can send mastered stems of your song(s) if you need them for $20 each.

10.  How will I get my final tracks?  It’s pretty much the reverse process of uploading – back to you through the Workroom on Soundbetter.com, or I’ll send you a MediaFire.com link if we’re working direct.  Fortunately, downloading is much faster than uploading.

11.  What is an ISRC and do you provide them?  An ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) is the international identification system for sound recordings and music video recordings. Each ISRC is a unique and permanent identifier for a specific recording, independent of the format on which it appears (CD, audio file, etc) or the rights holders involved. Only one ISRC is issued to a track, and an ISRC can never represent more than one unique recording. ISRCs are widely used in digital commerce by download sites and can also be permanently encoded into a product as its digital fingerprint. The encoded ISRC provide the means to automatically identify recordings for royalty payments.  I do not provide or embed ISRCs.  If you plan to distribute your music on the internet, sell through online stores, etc., your distributor will handle the assignment and embedding for you.  CDBaby and DistroKid include the service free with your distribution through them; TuneCore charges a nominal per track fee.  You can learn more about ISRCs at https://www.usisrc.org/ .