TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 56 The Mastering Process

Last week we finished our look at MIDI. This week – in our final installment of the TCM Mastering Home Music Studio series (for the time being) – we take a look at…..Mastering.

Ted Carfrae In The TCM Mastering Suite, Kent UK.

Mastering is the final stage of the record making process. The myth of mastering is that the mastering process can make any piece of music sound like a hit, but this is not true. The success of the mastering process very much depends on the quality of the final mix master.

Mastering will only enhance what is there already. So if you try to master a bad or unbalanced mix, you will end up with a brighter, possibly louder version of the same substandard mix.

I remember that Sony Music’s on-line mastering website once described it this very direct way and I quote, ‘If you send us a turd, you will receive a polished turd’. Now I would have probably chosen a different way of explaining it but the sentiment is absolutely correct, the quality of your mixes is crucial. So remember that if your mixes are unbalanced and bad quality, there is very little that any mastering engineer can do to improve it.

Mastering is an exact science and the processes used are quite specific. The skill is to hear what is needed to enhance the song and never to add processing just for the sake of it. It all comes down to using your ears.

In the two videos below, Ted explains the mastering process in a little more detail.

I have said many times before that even though I am a skilled recording and mastering engineer, I always have my productions mastered by someone else. This is because, when I am in the studio recording and mixing for sometimes months at a time, I am so involved that sometimes it is hard to remain subjective about my own work, so I need a fresh pair of ears to listen.

In my experience this has been crucial to my own personal success because Kevin (Kevin Metcalf), who incidentally trained me as a mastering engineer back in the late seventies, has actually mastered all of my albums and he has always added something special. I knew that his experience and exceptional skills would bring the best out of my work and that is the goal of any producer.

An issue for me is that nowadays, every digital workstation has a set of mastering plug-ins, so musicians and producers are always trying to make their music to sound like their favourite CD. But in all honesty, even with these great plug-ins, it is unlikely that they will ever succeed. I have also found that people try to emulate their favourite CD when recording and again they have to realise that a commercially released CD has gone through a whole set of processes to arrive at that final sound.

The production process is pretty well-defined as follows:

1. Write or find a hit song.

2. Song arrangement.

3. Record rhythm tracks.

4. Record overdubs.

5. Record vocals.

6. Mixing.

7. Mastering.

Mastering begins with the final mix, ideally the original master. The song is then processed using some EQ, compression, possibly limiting, editing and CD assembly, putting the songs into the correct running order. Another essential process is matching the output level of each individual track so that when the album is played, the volume of each song is at the same level, creating an even listening experience… don’t want your listeners reaching for the volume knob after every song.

Depending on the source material, other processes may include Noise Reduction and Audio Restoration.

As a producer, it is your job to consider every element of the production process and mastering is one crucial consideration. In order to get the very best results, it is important that the master is delivered in such a way as to give the mastering engineer the room to add more processing.

I find that a lot of people send me tracks that have already added hard limiting which then gives me no available head room for additional processing. They are trying to make their song as loud as a commercial CD and over compression will kill dynamics and can result in a disaster. Limiting is a part of the mastering process and is added after additional EQ and possibly compression so you should always send your flat master mix.

Below I have listed the preferred criteria for successful mastering:

1. Audio levels should peak at around -3 dB.

2. Either WAV or AIF files.

3. 24 bit or higher.

4. A little space at the beginning and end for editing purposes.

5. No added limiting or any other additional processing.

Once mastered, the song is ready for commercial release and there are several ways of delivering your mastered tracks. The preferred format for professional pressing nowadays is a DDP file set. This is a specialised piece of software where your album or single is compiled with all the relevant information needed for pressing CDs.

If you need more information, give us a call. Our contact details are here.

IRSC Codes and titles are added, start and end indexes are defined, levels can be adjusted and the final album can be auditioned and checked. The software then renders the DDP set which can then be sent electronically to the replication company. Other accepted formats are CDR and DVD. DDP file sets are now the preferred security format used by all major record companies.

Glass Master In Clean Room.

The next part of the mastering process is to produce a Glass Master of your album or single. From the glass master, you can have any number of copies replicated and the glass master is usually kept at the pressing plant for future replication.

If your album is going to be released on vinyl there is a totally different set of skills and processes that must be considered. Firstly, your music will be pre-mastered, this entails a series of processes that include EQ, compression, possibly noise reduction and editing and this would happen before the actual cutting stage begins so you end up with a new cutting master. The tracks would be assembled into two halves, Side 1 and Side 2 with the appropriate gap between songs.

Neumann Cutting Lathe.

Disc cutting is an expensive business and the biggest expense is a piece of kit called a Cutting Lathe. Most cutting lathes are made by Neumann in Germany and this is the industry standard lathe. You cut your album onto a Lacquer Disc which is essentially a heavy disc covered in a layer of a wax like lacquer that is absolutely smooth and free from dust, any impurity in the lacquer would ruin the cut.

Very simply, the lacquer is placed on the lathe, the music is cued up at the very start of the opening song. Once the cutting head (which resembles a heavy turntable head and stylus) is placed gently onto the lacquer the cut begins. As the cut begins, the cutting head removes the waste lacquer from the groove as it cuts and this waste material is call Swarf which is gently removed as the cut progresses, cutting the spiral groove to the centre of the disc.

This is a nerve-racking and precise skill, because one mistake will result in having to start again. With analogue mastering to disc, there is no ‘undo’ function, this is on the fly and live so the skill involved cannot be underestimated. The cutting engineer has to use other skills such as live audio levelling and fading in an out from one song to another as the album plays through creating a gap between songs.

This is a very simplistic overview but Disc cutting is an art form so next time you look at a vinyl album, you can see the care, skill and effort that has gone into creating that piece of vinyl.

As I mentioned at the beginning of today’s blog, this is the final blog in the TCM Mastering Home Music Studio series, for the moment. We sincerely hope you have found the series entertaining and informative.

There is the possibility of more Home Studio blogs in the future or we may put together an e-book for Setting Up A Home Music Studio.

We thank you for your interest and wish you every success in the future with your musical endeavours – from all of us at TCM.

TCM Mastering and TCM Music Group continue to work with new artists and seasoned pros alike, so please check us out if you need help with anything musical – whether it be recording, mixing, production, mastering or audio restoration.

Explore posts in the same categories: Music, Recording Studios, Sound Recording

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