Mastering FAQ

 

SafeandSound Mastering provides affordable yet high end, professional analogue mastering for musicians, bands and record labels.

 

This page is written to help you prepare for online mastering, reduce avoidable delays and is a mastering FAQ.(frequently asked questions) I recommend bookmarking this page as I am sure you will be back to read it again soon.

 

 

 

TOP TIP : Apply for your ISRC codes now. (If you are unsure what they are please read below)

 

Important time saving advice:

 

Please listen to your actual bounced/exported tracks on headphones before sending them for mastering, this is standard practice for professional mixing engineers and good practice for all. Clicks, glitches, timing errors and bad vocal edits are extremely common and it will reduce avoidable delays if you correct them before sending the tracks for mastering. Try to focus for these issues specifically when doing a listen back. 

 

 

What is mastering and what files shall I send ?

 

Mastering is the final production procedure after your files have been mixed. In mastering we use 24 bit and above stereo interleaved mixes. (not multitrack recordings or sessions from your DAW) Ideal formats are 24 bit .wav or .aiff files at the sample rate of your digital work stations project/session. (Do not sample rate convert your files) I will use high end analogue equalizers and compressors in a fully linear room. Along with the latest digital tools. I will adjust your tracks so they sound as good as they possibly can for all audio formats and playback systems. Presenting your music in it’s best possible light. I offer the best professional mastering at the lowest rates.

 

How do I get the files to you?

 

Use www.wetransfer.com this is very easy and it automatically zips the files up (the most robust way to send audio for online mastering) simply insert safeandsound123*googlemail.com (replace * with @) in the “Enter friends email address” box and add audio files from your hard drive.

 

Please do not send MP3, m4a, ogg vorbis or wma files for mastering as they are data compressed and already degraded, preferably send 24 bit .wav or .aiff files at your project sample rate (no need to change it), further details below.

 

Please listen to your tracks with headphones on specifically for clicks before uploading.They are extremely common, excessive clicks/glitches (more than 5) will attract restoration fees.

 

Alternatively you can use www.yousendit.com if there is any issue with wetransfer.

 

(these services can slow up from time to time)

 

What audio file format will my mastered files be delivered as ?

 

If you have specific delivery requirements let them be known before the mastering work starts. This is very important.

 

My standard delivery is dithered 16bit 44.1kHz .wav files. This is currently the most widely accepted format for digital distribution (and is standard for Red Book CD format). If you require alternative formats or sample rates please communicate this at the start of the project and check your distribution platform can accept them.

 

 

Multiple delivery formats (bit rates/sample rates) means multiple file generation and quality control (listen back) and takes time so there may be a nominal fee applicable for multiple bit resolutions, perceived volumes and sample rate deliveries.

 

Information regarding optional delivered file formats

 

I am sometimes asked for differing song versions and various file formats. In 2013 mastering music has new considerations, not least MFiT (Mastered for iTunes) and the use of volume normalization in some streaming services. (such as Spotify and iTunes Radio, to date only available in the USA Nov 2013). As such it can sometimes be necessary to deliver multiple masters for different purposes. This is why mastering is and always be a skilled and specialized service which is bespoke for every client. Part of SafeandSound Mastering’s approach is communication of technical issues that may not be well understood by everyone making music.

I am able to advise in more detail once a job has been paid for as it is specific to clients needs. Multiple file formats and versions can require small additional fees as extra work is required to provide compliance, quality control, deliver multiple files and versions. Once you have paid the basic mastering fees I can explain to clients in detail the options available if need be. There are new developments that may have industry wide implications.

 

Shall I leave my master bus limiter on ?

 

Please remove it. By removing the limiter it allows the mastering engineer to make your music sound as good as possible. This way the mastering engineer has full scope to apply equalization and dynamic processes to maximum effect. One aspect of mastering is the correct and specific application of a choice of limiters that will suit your mix down. When you remove your limiter double check you are not clipping the master bus after removal. If you see “overs” or peaks up to 0dBFS/clip point/digital zero after removal, as a compromise, pull down your master fader by the amount required to stop clipping and for the future please read this article I have written about mixing gain structure. (i.e. levels)

 

http://www.masteringmastering.co.uk/gainstructure.html

 

If you have mixed into a limiter and used heavy gain reduction you will hear how the limiter has significantly affected your mixing decisions and balances. When using professional mastering, mixing into a limiter is not recommended (other than for an occasional check). Mastering engineers use a variety of means to achieve higher perceived volumes and using just a limiter does not really give anything other than an approximation of what a mastering engineer may do. It is best to mix a track into nothing more than a gentle bus compressor.

 

How much headroom shall I leave on my master bus?

 

The most important factor is that the master output is not clipping. This is exceeding digital zero/clip point/0dBFS. An ideal situation would be if your mix was peaking between -12dBFS and -6dBFS . However as long as it is not hitting 0dBFS it is a non issue. Most DAW’s will give information about a file so you can check the samples maximum peak value. You may use the compromise of pulling back the master fader by the amount needed to stop clipping. In future if you start your mixing with the kick drum peaking at -14dBFS at 24 bit you should have ample headroom on your mix down.

 

What is clipping and how can I tell if my audio is clipped?

 

Clipping occurs when your audio mix goes above 0dBFS on the output of your digital audio workstation meters. This can be seen on the meter itself in your mix down session.Positive numbers indicate clipping, as does the meter hitting the end of the meter display.In a final stereo mix audio file itself zoom deeply into a peak like a snare drum, if the top of the waveform is squared off or “flat topped” this indicates clipping has occurred. Rather than adjusting the balance of the mix on the faders simply pull down the master output fader by the amount required to stop the clipping happening. To be sure pull it down a few more dB than needed and bounce/export at 24 bit resolution.

 

Can you tell me about your free preview?

 

Free previews come secondary to my paid work throughput so if you are serious about getting your track mastered, a payment gets you in the schedule. Invariably the studio is busy and payment for work on your music shows immediate commitment and gets my full attention and scheduling.

 

Mastering as a service has become more complex so the days of listening and choosing the loudest master are numbered. This is NOT what mastering is about, it never has been, volume is merely one aspect of a holistic practice. Always remember the human ear is easily fooled into loud being better. More important than free preview will be a relationship with a mastering engineer who is skilled and understands the likely future needs of clients. Never has it been more important to have a good relationship with a mastering engineer who is equipped and skilled in true fidelity and technical understanding.

 

 

Should you wish to wait for free preview you must send your final mix down in full length, please supply some details in an accompanying email, such as a single song that represents the perceived volume that you aspire to, any specific concerns, importance of “loudness” or dynamics, feel free to ask me to “do my thing”. Free preview does not include mix advice/appraisal (If the material is not possible to master I will let you know). Once a payment is made free mix advice/appraisal is inclusive, In times of high studio busyness I reserve the right to suspend free preview without notice.

 

And by all means phone and have a brief chat regarding your goals, it is always pleasant to speak to clients in person, just because the service is online does not mean it needs to be impersonal, Barry (0)7810271371.

Free preview can take approx 5 to 15 working days depending on studio throughput when you send your track.

 

 

Are my files secure upon upload and transfer ?

 

In over 5 years of operation there has been zero privacy issues when using www.wetransfer.com this service automatically zips the audio files and this is the most “data corruption” safe means of sending audio.The compression is loss less and uses a CRC32 check sum so the data integrity is 100pct accurate throughout transfer and decompressing process.

 

If you want to be extra security conscious please download and install “7Zip” for Windows. 7Zip allows you to enter password protection so only the recipient of the password can open the file. If you use 7Zip please inform me and provide the archives password.

 

Some mastering studios offer a lower rate “in the box” mastering service, do you ?

 

I do not offer any second class services, mastering by definition does not lend it self well as a “tiered service” this is in opposition of the definition of what mastering is. It is a service without compromise to get the most from a clients music using all and any tool available, analogue or digital. There are cheap ‘in the box’ services online it is the wrong time to be duped by cheap, inexperienced engineers. Mastering is not the time for learning and experimenting. At SafeandSound Mastering you get 1 uncompromising high end service at rates competitive to others “second class” sales gimmicks. For mastering you want engineering experience not a cheap rate because someone has very few jobs on.

 

Current rates on this page :

 

http://www.masteringmastering.co.uk/cheapmastering.html

 

What is the difference between mastering, mixing and stem mastering?

 

Mastering typically works with the stereo 2 track audio files (the stereo interleaved mixdown file), in mastering all processing is undertaken on the stereo audio file, sonic sweetening, improving translation of music to all reproduction systems, adding warmth etc.

 

Mixing is balancing multi-track audio files using faders, (i.e. kick, snare, toms, cymbals, bass, keys, lead vox, brass, strings, backing vox) in mixing there is discrete control over all the elements of a multi-track recording which is usually automated to a high degree.It is a time consuming procedure. Each sound source runs through a mixer channel where discrete processing and automated levelling can be applied.It is different to stem mastering.

 

Stem mastering is a hybrid between mixing and mastering.Stem mastering uses groups of “like” instruments such as drums, synths, guitars, bass, vocals, brass section etc. It occasionally uses automation, but not always. It allows the mastering engineer more flexibility and control to improve the end result if there are any doubts or insecurities about the mix down.(Good stems should recombine to produce the mix as it sounds in an exported stereo file). Stems are useful if there are continued issues of mix balance or uncertainly about any given mix element.

 

(Stem mastering of up to 8 stems is £45.00 per track, free preview does not usually apply to stems due to the work involved in setting up the project, possibly in the case of a bulk delivery of tracks for stem mastering. When supplying stems please ensure that all bounces/exported groups are bounced from exactly the same point in your DAW timeline so they re-sync here) If you have a reference track send it at the same time as you send your stems, reference tracks are used as an approximate guide for tone and perceived volume.

 

Full information regarding stem mastering on this page:

 

Stem mastering

 

What audio formats are best for online mastering?

 

The best format is a 24 bit .aiff or .wav file at the sample rate of your project. 32 bit is also fine but not necessary. Do not send MP3, m4a, Ogg Vorbis or WMA files for mastering.They are lossy, compressed audio formats, with degraded sonic integrity. 16 bit files are also ok to master from if this is all that is available. (24 bit files do not require dithering to be applied)

 

Is it ok to let the recording studio where my tracks were recorded and/or mixed do the mastering as part of a deal package ?

 

It is not optimal for your musical releases, because :

1) Specialist mastering will not compound any problems caused by their monitors and acoustics.

2) A specialist mastering engineer will do a better job because they are well versed in the listening techniques required for the niche engineering discipline that is mastering.

3) It is best to have mastering grade acoustics, monitors and amplification which many mix studios do not.

4) A fresh eared dedicated mastering engineer will have objective listening capability on your musical project.

5) Specialist, high end DAC/ADC, analogue stereo equalizers and compressors produce better results than plug ins.

 

The results are very much likely to be better when choosing a dedicated professional who masters day in, day out. Not to mention the difference in price is minimal.

 

How do I make a payment?

 

Paypal is preferred, bank transfer for trusted clients and on occasion by Western Union for countries not allowing Paypal operation. Credit card payment is not currently possible. Please see side bar “Pricing and payments” for preset Paypal buttons. Paid work is prioritized, free preview is queued thereafter. No Paypal ? Often a friend or relative will have an account so you can settle with them, many clients pay this way.

 

Are mastering revisions free?

 

You get 2 free revisions on the original mix sent inclusive in the mastering rate, excessive revisions, requests for higher perceived loudness when a reference has not been provided can become chargeable. Resubmitting a mix file once it has been mastered will usually attract a fee of £15.00 per version as the project will require further man hours. At SafeandSound we use analogue equipment and there it is only possible to process in the analogue domain in real time so effectively the job is being done again.

 

 

Can you make my track very loud?

 

At SafeandSound mastering we can increase the level of your track and seek to minimize side effects. How loud your track can go without the inevitable side effects of distortion, loss of depth, loss of punch (impact of drums) and loss of space depends greatly on the integrity and balance of the mix. It will vary between tracks. Also bear in mind that the “louder” your track is the less likely it will sound good when broadcast on FM radio or when converted to a lossy format such as MP3. If a loud master is your primary concern please provide a single level reference track before the job commences. Be aware that whilst I will minimize side effects this decision usually means that audio fidelity and tone takes second place. Some tracks will hit high perceived levels more gracefully than others. There is no isolated “loudness button”, mastering is a holistic procedure of which loudness is one element and is also highly dependent on other sonic qualities.

 

In addition there is not a ‘loudness button’ that exists independently of the tone and other qualities of the master, level increases affect the tone/stereo image/drum punch etc. of the track so consider perceived volume with care.

 

At this juncture I recommend requesting a lower volume master in addition to any high perceived volume masters. Please inquire at the time you send your job and make payment.

 

Shall I leave my stereo bus compressor on the mix?

 

If you have a nice analogue compressor please send 2 versions of your mix, one with and one without. If you feel the compressor you have is an integral part of the mix “sound” that is no problem, if it’s for increasing mix level only please remove it and send the single resultant stereo file

 

Do you offer mix advice or mix appraisals ?

 

If you have ordered mastering, (i.e. paid) mix appraisal is inclusive if you require it. Unless there is something very wrong that needs to be addressed in the mix stage (i.e. 10dB too much bass on your kick drum) I will not usually critique a mix unless requested to do so or if there is a very obvious problem. This may differ for regular, reliably paying clients and mix advice can be offered when we have established a working relationship.

 

What are ISRC codes?

 

ISRC codes are unique 12 digit track identification numbers which allow automated royalty reporting.(They are only of concern if you require a Red Book Master CD as there is no official provision for this code in wav/.aiff files) In the UK you can get them from PPL http://www.ppluk.com/. In other countries you need to find and contact the issuing local body. Apply sooner rather than later as they can take 2-3 weeks to obtain, this will delay CD-R pre-master creation. Apply now, rather than wait.

 

Do I need to send any other information?

 

Ideally you would supply audio files as above, ISRC codes, running order, exact track name, exact release title for disk, exact artist name for disk, mailing address. If you have a reference track for perceived volume/sonic quality please send it. If you have specific track gap requirement please inform me (or send a 128kbps mp3 montage of your track sequencing). Information such as “remove track count ins” or “leave track count ins”, “start fade at 04:20 to end”, is useful. If you need files to be returned at exactly the same length i.e. for video sync or anything specific it should be communicated at the start of the project. Mastering is a technical work that concentrates on best translation of your audio across many sound system types. Taste and your artistic preference does have a role to play so any sonic pointers are absolutely welcomed.

 

Are P.A./instrumental versions chargeable?

 

This is on a case by case basis, normally they are completely free but a nominal fee may be charged for borderline “same” tracks. It is discretionary. In any event they must be delivered in one and the same delivery to be classified as a free version.There are no exceptions to this rule as recalling settings later is time consuming and not possible within the scale of fees.

 

How long does mastering take?

 

Average turnaround 3-8 days, but this depends on integrity of files sent, payment being made, busyness of studio, if it’s a single, E.P. or album, speed of client response to communications / approving track previews and whether it is a stem mastering project. So it can vary. During busy periods longer times are to be expected and shorter turn around during less busy times. If you pay your music gets scheduled, if not other people can pay in between communications and come forwards in the schedule. I always try and accommodate deadlines but on the basis payment is made prior to works commencing. So far not a single deadline has been missed.

 

Additional note : One of the most common and unnecessary delays is the existence of clicks in audio files, in digital audio files they are rife, either from export/bounce problems or simply bad edits or sample ins/outs. If you require fast turnaround please alleviate this type of delay by listening to your file in full on headphones before sending it.

 

What equipment do you use ?

 

In a nutshell, the best – PMC IB1S high end loudspeakers, MANLEY Massive Passive (hardware), Elysia – Class A analogue equalizer, HCL VariS (Vari mu compressor), Benchmark DAC1- HDR, Summit Audio DCL-200 valve compressor, Custom built Sontec inspired analogue mastering equalizer, Izotope RX Restoration. Ear selected plug in software from major manufacturers. Custom 120dB dynamic range ADDA conversion with audiophile grade electronics. As a word of advice use only online mastering studios that actually show their equipment ‘in situ’ in the studio. There are many dubious/inexperienced operations out there. Equipment is important, it relates the the engineers mastering philosophy and there is skill in choosing the best sounding hardware and software, it requires the same hearing acuity as does the job itself.

 

What is your engineering background ?

 

After leaving audio engineering college and obtaining a diploma I was trained for 3 years by a BBC Studio Engineer. I later worked at the UK’s largest audio production company as head of engineering. Daily work involved recording very well known professional musicians, engineering multi-tracked and direct to stereo music recording sessions, engineering music mixing sessions, balancing live recordings for BBC broadcast programmes. Mastering was also involved in various projects which inspired me. Managing large scale outside broadcasts, live music event recording. As a freelance engineer I worked in audio to video post production houses, music recording and broadcast studios. I have been successfully operating SafeandSound Mastering for 5 years and have been mastering full time, it is a dedicated mastering studio. I rarely mix anymore and mastering is where I derive my sole income. I have also been producing my own electronic music in a home studio environment since 20 years ago and am now mainly focusing on playing guitar as a musical pursuit.

 

Engineering experience and clients listed in detail on this page :

 

http://www.masteringmastering.co.uk/masteringengineer.html

 

 

How do we credit you ?

 

If you wish to credit me on your release it is always appreciated but not obligatory of course. Simply : Mastered by Barry Gardner at www.masteringmastering.co.uk is fine : )

 

A few words about reference tracks…

 

If you would like to send me a mastered commercial reference track (a 1 minute clip is usually fine) it should be delivered at the same time as your stereo mix or stems. A reference track can be useful as a guide to perceived volumes and overall tone for the mastering. MP3 is fine but please try and send MP3′s at no less than 320kbps.You should always send a realistic mastering reference. If the reference is wildly different from your mix tone then it is likely you need to improve your mix first. Otherwise it can be quite useful in attaining your sound target.

 

What format does your mix advice come in ?

 

Mix feedback/appraisal is in the form of concise feedback like this example: ” Save As your project prefixed with ‘EQ tweaks’, then : Kick drum is lacking in sub add 3-4dB at 55Hz Q of 1.5 to give it a bit of weight. Bass note at 00:33 is 4 dB louder than the others, this maybe intentional accent, I will leave it for you to discern. Vocal is a little muddy pull out 3dB at 190Hz Q of 0.9. Also add a little air to the vocal 2 or 3dB boost with a high shelf EQ at 12kHz. Boost vox at 3kHz by 0.7dB Q of 1.00 The bass sound is lacking in sub content but there is little to be done about that as it will get muddy quick IMO. Overall instrumental balance is fine but the snare and kick sample mean it won’t be quite as punchy as some other tracks in this genre.”

 

Do you do “Mastered for iTunes” ?

 

 

The answer is yes and this must be clearly requested in your communications prior to the job commencing. MFiT requies a specific set of guidelines to be followed and this normally means a slightly different way of working and a little more work so it is not trivial to create MFiT files after you have received your non MFiT masters.

 

Simply send your high resolution 24 bit and above (non up sampled) files and I will perform the necessary work to adhere to Apple’s guidelines. You must state you want the tracks “mastered for iTunes” before the work commences. Adjustments at a later stage become chargeable. Further details are available here :

http://www.masteringmastering.co.uk/mastered-for-itunes.html

 

 

 

 

Do you offer mixing services ?

 

I earn a living through operating a dedicated mastering studio and this is my professional full time focus. During my professional engineering career (see mastering engineer page for career history) I have had significant mixing experience and am fully equipped for mixing, please contact me about your project. Unfortunately mixing is time consuming and so rarely can it be fitted in the schedule.

 
 

Do not hesitate to contact me for any other questions you may have….

 

Barry +44(0) 7810 271371 / safeandsound123*googlemail.com (*=@)

 

Mastering FAQ Page