A few fundamentals of sound recording and mixing, fidelity counts.
This entry is aimed towards producers and musicians with relatively few years of recording, mixing and production experience in relationship to audio mastering.
Audio mastering is the final process in audio production. A great master comes only from a good mix down. A good mix down generally comes from someone with years of experience mixing. And a good mix down can only be made from well recorded sources (or engineered, in the case of synthetic sources such as synthesizers and electronic drums).
Mastering is unable to turn a poor recording and subsequent mix into a track that sounds like your favourite artist. Contrary to some peoples expectations fundamental changes in sound source quality, recording and mixing cannot be resolved in mastering. These fundamental sonic qualities are directly embedded in the recordings, mixes and production choices.
What can be corrected ?
I can offer basic mix appraisal as part of the mastering process to assist in producing the best master that is possible from the audio presented. We can easily sort out a loud snare, sibilant vocals or a bass line that is too quiet. I can identify the obvious “obstacle” issues and provide remedial advice.
These type of sonic problems are usefully resolved with mix appraisal. These are generally easy sonic issues to resolve. (I have significant mixing skills though choose to specialize in mastering as I can. You should not get your music mastered by your mix engineer for many important reasons.) The types of problems that cannot be resolved are poor quality recordings, embedded/recorded distortion, issues of fundamental fidelity. (suggested remedial mix eq can sometimes help, but cannot magically change the lack of fidelity in source recordings into something they are not.) Fundamental fidelity and sonic quality is fixed. We can shape sound with tools but not replace them entirely.
Advice on suitable reference tracks for audio mastering
A reference track can sometimes be useful in mastering if you have some aspiration towards a certain sound or perceived volume (usually for very specific purposes, please read more about this below).
Sonic character should have been built in from as early as the recording stage and definitely within mixing. However, often in mastering it is possible to add a nudge in a desired direction, at least in terms of dynamics and the broad tone of the results.
Firstly, always present a good reference track at the very start of the mastering job, ideally submitted with your mix. This can save time, effort and confusion for yourself and me. If you send a reference it must be an officially released .wav file reference that you have purchased. Or at the very least an officially released and untouched by DAW, MP3 of 320kbps bit rate. You can usually track down a .wav file release from official sources online. Here are a few sources of .wav files for dance music genres and for other music genres.
For a multitude of reasons, but we will stick with sonics for now, you cannot present an online audio rip as a meaningful reference. Not least, it is illegal. A rip will be of a compressed streaming file format so the fidelity will be lower than an uncompressed .wav release. It may even be encoded into a lossy format twice. (AAC to MP3 as an example)
There are multiple reasons why the resultant volume level of this file is likely not suitable for use as a reference. “Ripping software” may record it at a lower level or a higher level than the stream.
In addition, the streaming will almost certainly be subject to volume normalization and we cannot know if the stream is of a streaming optimized master or just a loud master without any streaming optimized mastering applied. Just don’t go there ! It is doing your and others music a disservice. Purchase your references at the highest quality available… it is worth every penny or cent.
If your main goal is to present a reference for volume please do not overly concern about it. I can make both loud and streaming optimized masters for you without the need of a reference that will always be optimized/tailored for your music and how it is mixed. (and of course in context of mastering)
Loud mastering versus streaming optimized mastering
One of the most important aspects of mastering is resultant perceived volume level, it is comparable to pitch in terms of ear sensitivity. These are the 2 things you hear first, volume differences and out of tune vocals or instruments.
As such making comparisons between 2 pieces of audio, mastered or otherwise must be done by using your ears to level match the 2 sources. Put the 2 pieces of audio on 2 tracks and match them by ear, dropping the loudest source to meet the lower level source.
You must remove the volume differences before you have any chance to make some meaningful judgement on the tonality of 2 pieces of music.
Follow this link for more information on referencing. Although this is specific to mixing and not as a mastering reference, much still applies.
Some dance music genres may still have a need for a loud version for the purposes of impact for a DJ play out or for the 2 specific online services of Bandcamp and SoundCloud which do not currently employ volume normalization. For some dance music genres you may need a streaming master version and a loud master version.
I currently charge £36.00 for a single track. At this moment in time if you mention you need a streaming version I will include it for free. As you have demonstrated you have read this article and understood the above principles, that makes things easier from the outset. Efficiency has a value. At this time I will generally provide a streaming master free of charge if your dance music requires it. (for most genres one “middle path” master for volume works well) Please just ask when a job is paid for and proceeding.
There maybe a small fee if this is for an EP or Album as the time taken to render and listen back to multiple streaming masters starts to eat up studio time. So for EP’s and albums I generally charge a small additional fee.
A few words on monitoring and making mastering judgements.
Contrary to popular belief in car stereos are not the ultimate in audio monitoring accuracy ! It may well be the case that the seats and soft furnishing soak up some highs, mids and upper bass but it is far from accurate. The speakers will not be great quality and there will be resonances galore in such a small space. (just consider the cabin and inside of the dash board as 2 obvious examples). You can go from 5 types of bad sound in as many EQ preset changes.
Masters should be checked on multiple systems. This is a big part of mastering, masters should be produced in acccurate rooms with audiophile level monitoring (DACs, mastering grade monitoring, and amps). Audio mastering will generally be shooting for the “middle path” tonally speaking, relative to the genre. (and often dynamically speaking).
This ensures the music translates as well as possible across as many audio play back systems as possible including those with compromised bandwidth and dynamic reproduction.
Taste, can of course be a factor in results, however, this will likely have been discussed at the project onset if some tonality that deviates from optimal translation is required. In the event of a specific taste aesthetic, or effect.
Audio recording, mixing and production is a path of many years.
As a general rule there are no short cuts available to learning about sound engineering.
You need a great monitoring, good room acoustics, a strong will to learn and work through problems, progressively improve knowledge through doing, track by track. They are stepping stones on which to build your skill set. And finally, a high quality tool set is required to achieve greatness.
One possible exception is having a good relationship with a knowledgeable mastering engineer. This can expediate the process a little if you get some worthwhile feedback on your work. Each track you make will be a stepping stone on the path to sonic improvement. Knowledge is typically something that is built over time and by doing.
There has to be realistic expectations though, as audio mastering clearly cannot be a comprehensive mixing training course based on a single track or project. However, during the mastering process it will be highly valuable to be given some important sonic pointers and advice along the way.
There is a vast quantity of information and techniques to learn within the realm of sound engineering, it takes time and is a journey. No one can deny that making music is a very valuable form of art and has many benefits for those who are willing to put in the effort and build upon corrected mistakes and successes. Audio mastering with the right mastering engineer can help remedy some problems and assist learning and progress.
My low price list is here :
And my Biog here:
(In short : 22 years of professional sound engineering experience, 10 working for a London audio production company as head engineer and 12 solely as a dedicated/specialist mastering engineer)