THE MANY PARTS OF SOUND MASTERING
Music is a wonderful gift and it is the biggest unifier of our diverse world. It speaks all languages, tells our different stories, and finds its place in our ears whilst dictating the movement of our steps to its rhythm.
Isn’t it amazing that music which is our biggest unifier is made up of many parts? The many parts that make up music are put together through different processes one of which is mastering.
The processes involved in making an industry standard audio/music production requires various steps/methods. Think of audio/music production like the same process of making a cake. The flour alone cannot make the cake but it must be thoroughly mixed alongside eggs, butter, sugar, and other ingredients before it becomes cake.
What we hear and dance to may be great but if any of the parts that make it up are missing, then the whole piece will fall apart.
Now for the different parts that make up our music, we can easily categorize them under pre-production, production and post production. To put these in clearer perspectives, music or audio Production is basically carried out in a four-step process which are recording, editing, mixing, and mastering.
While other steps of the process are important, we will focus on mastering in this article.
Mastering can be simply described as the process of refining or beautifying music. Mastering involves applying a series of processes to a final mix and transferring it to a storage device that will be used for future duplication. Storage may be in the form of a CD, Vinyl record, or in digital form.
Refining means taking out the impurities and clearing out the unwanted parts of any music. So, the process of mastering enhances an audio production in a bid to eliminate all negative qualities and make it fit acceptable audio production standards. In this article, we will be discussing the purpose of mastering, roles of a mastering engineer, how to prepare mix for mastering, the complete process of mastering, and the format of mastering.
Let us get right into it.
PURPOSE OF MASTERING
The purpose of mastering is to ensure that there is a balance between all the essential elements that are put together to bring the mix to an optimum level i.e., to bring the final mix up to standard requirements for the final consumer e.g. private listener, radio stations, clubs etc.
The process of mastering can be broken down into various steps which includes:
- Loudness Equalization: This entails bringing the track up to nominal loudness levels for playback – a level that fits with other professional releases. Equality in loudness among professional tracks prevents the continuous need for adjusting volume faders/knobs during continuous playback.
- Dynamic Range Compression (multi-band compression): This is done to control/restrict the variations in loudness across the track, thereby smoothing out the listening experience and giving room for more consistency.
- Equalization: This will help to adjust the overall (subjective) balance of the track by cutting out unnecessary frequencies and boosting other frequencies. The goal is to ensure that the full audible sonic spectrum is well represented in the track, giving a sense of depth and fullness. However, the equalization processes done during mastering are generally wide-band and basic. E.g., high and low pass filtering, wideband high and low peak filtering etc.
- Spatial Effect/Stereo Widening: This is the process of creating more spatial separation in a stereo mix. This creates a greater sense of depth and space by increasing the gain of the panned elements within a mix. Stereo widening also creates an impression of more loudness as tracks with more side details tend to sound louder when played back on stereo setups.
- Bass Enhancement/Bass Boost: In some genres, some level of the bass boost is used to boost low frequencies and add weight to the track.
- Rendering The Final Master: The finished work is bounced to audio on this step. The mastering engineer chooses the best audio format, sample rate and bit depth. The best one strikes a perfect compromise between audio quality and audio file size. Common configurations are: mp3/128kbps/44.1kHz and wma/128kbps/44.1kHz.
ROLES/DUTIES OF A MASTERING ENGINEER
The mastering engineer is trained to positively improve audio/music quality by refining its many parts in the post production phase. Simply put, a mastering engineer is a person who identifies the irrelevant parts of a song/audio and separates them from the complete body of work. Some of the roles/duties of a mastering engineer includes:
- A mastering engineer has a uniquely, keen ear to detect frequencies easily. Their job is to raise the audio volume to industry standard and to make it welcoming to the listener’s ears.
- Another role performed by a mastering engineer is the role of balancing each track in an audio production whilst ensuring that it is free from all distracting elements and set to the optimum volume.
- A mastering engineer has the responsibility of performing the final edit in a production and preparing manufacturing copies.
- A mastering engineer controls the overall volume of an audio production to ensure that the music volume is consistent via any playback device.
- A mastering engineer eliminates clicks or glitches that may have happened in the course of recording or mixing.
- A mastering engineer burns the final master and sends to those who will mass produce and distribute.
PREPARING A MIX FOR MASTERING
When mixing an audio, the following steps should be taken to prepare the mix for mastering.
- Turn Down The Master Fader: This is necessary to give enough headroom for mastering effects and processes, and to reduce chances of clipping to the barest minimum. However, care should be taken not to turn down the volume too much as this could lead to loss of some audio details.
- Disable The Master Track Compressor and/or Limiters: This would give the mastering engineer the liberty to build the dynamics of the track from scratch, especially as any dynamics related issues can pose severe challenges after mix down. In certain scenarios you might bypass all plug-ins on the master track.
- Communicate Ideas With The Mastering Engineer: It is also advisable for the mix engineer to prepare a note document to communicate delicate choices and preferences (of the artist/producer and mix engineer) to the mastering engineer. This helps preserve the concepts and prevent the song from derailing from the original blueprint or plan.
- Bounce/Export to Lossless Format: The mix down should be in a lossless audio format e.g., .wav or FLAC. These formats preserve the fidelity of the mix as there is no data compression at all in .wav and .FLAC formats. The idea is that the mix must get to the mastering engineer’s table exactly the way it was mixed, as data compression (such as in .mp3) takes away (subtle) audio details which are highly useful for mastering. In simple terms, you would bounce your mix out and send the mastering engineer a .wav file; not a mp3 file.
FORMATS OF MASTERING
The following are audio mastering file formats that an audio file must be stored in before it can be distributed. Different platforms have their specifications so it is imperative to note these specifications before finalizing the mastering.
- Music Licensing: the proper format needed in this category is dependent on who licensed the music. The most common audio format for video is 24-bit/48k WAV although recently with Blu-ray it has increased to 24-bit/96k which means if you have the intention of making music that will be licensed in video production, the mastering engineer must make a 48k WAV version of your master.
- YouTube: Mastered audio format for videos on YouTube must be 24-bit/48k or 24-bit/44.1k WAV files.
- Cassette: Mastered audio file format is 16-bit WAV files and sample rate that’s above 44.1k.
- Vinyl: Mastered audio file format is 24-bit WAV file and sample rate must be 44.1k and above.
- Compact Disc: Mastering can be done in CD format using several methods, but the most common is the Red Book and Blue Book CD standards. Red book CD is the standard format used for audio CDs to allow it to play across all platforms. In this type of format, audio is mastered at 44100 samples per second i.e. 44.1KHZ 16 –bit 44.1 KHz. Many mastering engineers do not use the blue book CD because of incompatibility issues.
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