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  Hot Audio Q&A

"The most common problem is too much level [at mixdown] - [A project is unfixable if the mixer] just slammed it. If it's just crunched and really distorted, there's nothing to be done about it, but those crunches are always going to be there...

Not only is distortion the result, but that kind of saturation takes away the attack. It flattens things out.

A kick drum, for instance, becomes all mush, so you don't feel the real solid slap to it. where it's almost distorting, but not quite, and the mastering process will bring that out. Sometimes it will really need to be remixed."

-"Big Bass" Brian Gardner - Bernie Grundman Mastering

I originally wrote this article in 1999. Made a few changes. Too loud then is quiet by 2015 standards, and that's not good. But what is good is that we've gone from rediculous - to stupid - and back to not as rediculous.... certainly not ideal in my opinion. I'll always say that tone & musicality rules over volume, and lo-and-behold, 16 years later many different articles are stating the loudness war is over. Artists like Madonna,  But for the sake of background info (and yes this article still uses the term "CD") here's a helpful Q&A. After checking this out there's more on my Mastered for iTunes page!

Q) I've tried to make my mix as much in your face as possible. It sounds great, but after I hear the finished CD, the volume level sounds lower than other CDs. It still sounds good, but I have to turn it up to match store-bought products I compare it to. Any ideas what might be the problem? -Pete

A) This issue is encountered by artists quite often. You go and buy all that cool gear so you can record as much as you like, and then your CD comes back 6 dB softer than the commercial products. Yikes! Since you want your CD to sound as competitive as possible, it's important to know why there's a difference.

Commercial CDs have often been (1) produced by people who know how to arrange the music so that there is space for things to show through easily (2) mixed by highly experienced engineers who know how to illuminate the key elements (3) and mastered by experts who know how to fashion the tonal spectrum and hopefully still have some dynamics left over. We're cutting CDs as hot as they can go without distortion in many cases, and it takes more than just a Finalizer to know how to do this effectively.

Key: Loudness levels on CDs are greatly dependent on how the full range of frequencies - low/mid/high - are interacting with each other as the volume is brought up.  Bringing up the volume really means bringing down the peak information and bringing the whole thing UP.  In digital, there is no secret "bonus" area where you can get more level.  Once you try to exceed the digital "ceiling" all that happens is you get "overs" (those pesky red lights) and the signal squares off and sounds harsh.  You've probably seen those red lights and thought "I don't hear any distortion." but the first peaks to light up are smaller ones from higher frequencies in many cases and they're not as easy to pick out at first.  After a while, however, the fatigue starts to set in.  Sometimes people don't know why they don't tend to listen as long to a distorted recording, but it can happen. 

There are actually several different kinds of "level" (volume). When we master a project, we listen to the over-all level of the band, the vocalist level, the apparent level (amount of presence), the song-to-song level based on musicality, peak levels, and finally the level compared to other CDs. All of these factors play into the making of a commercially competitive CD, and the adjustments are quite varied.

Why are CDs hotter now? It goes back to the days of vinyl. When we mastered to vinyl, there was an inherent surface noise that was masked when the music was cut hotter. Louder records not only had better signal-to-noise ratios, but they also slammed out bigger when the disc jockeys played them! They sounded more exciting over the air, and all the record companies sought out the innovative mastering engineers who were cool enough to push the volume and improve the sound at the same time. Thus mastering came out of the closet and became a high-profile art, instead of a back-room mystery.

Whoosh! Time travel back to the present and those same wizard CD mastering guys are being asked by the record companies to "cut it as hot as you can - pump it up - I want it to be hotter than the other albums..." etc. It's the principle of a louder record is more exciting and it makes others sound not-as-good. Never mind that all that cool dynamic range on CDs that makes music sound natural and open (without any hiss or rumble) is now tossed out the window in favor of loudness. Maybe that's appropriate for some music, and there are enhancement factors to this approach that really do work.

Trap: Bringing up the RMS (over-all) level (and hard-limiting the peaks) takes out the *punch* inherent in natural dynamics, even though it's... um... louder. Huh? What do you mean... take out the punch? Punch (like when the kic drum hits you in the chest) comes from a wider speaker excursion... how far the cone of the speaker actually moves back and forth, thereby pushing the air, or thrusting the air, if you will. The greater the peak, the wider (back to front) the excursion, the deeper the volume of air that is moved. You feel it. The excursion of the speaker is in direct proportion to the excursion of the recorded waveform.

When we have to go to great lengths to limit the peaks so that we don't create digital clipping on the CD, we actually have to pull down those peaks. Imagine Mount Everest smoothly sawed off about 2/3rds the way up. That's how the waveform looks. Now imagine climbing up a sawed off Mt. Everest... you actually don't have to climb up as far. Sonically, the speaker doesn't have to move as far either when the waveform is flattened. You can push the whole waveform up higher (more volume) but the impact contains more sustain to it than before - the sound is somewhat changed (particularly in kic drums and bass).  And it can become less distinctive, open, detailed, subtle, musical, natural etc. "In your face" may be completely appropriate and beneficial to the end result. The impact of a loud CD is still impact, it's just a different kind of impact from one that's softer overall but with greater dynamics.

The dilemma for a non-major-label project: It can be a dilemma to push the level or keep the dynamics. I think there's a happy medium, or a least a place where musically it makes sense to put the levels and retain the natural musical appeal. The ultra-hot commercial CDs have the advantage of top of the line everything in their sound. This is one of the benefits of Separation Mastering - you have more flexibility to optimize more elements in the sound without compromising other elements.

What can you do about it in the meantime? Make your mixes magic -- and keep 2-3 dB of headroom (24 bit recordings especially don't need every bit used in order to sound good). Don't try to make your mix as loud as new commercial CDs - that's the mastering engineer's job! If you over-compress your stereo mix you could be losing some punch. Hire an mastering engineer with at least 20 years of full-time experience to get the level and keep it sounding musical.

Key: When you mix, use a monitor controller with instant front-panel level-matching capabilities. This make it easy to level the playing field when you A-B your mixes - then you're making tone and balance comparisons instead of a sheer volume contest. When you can easily A-B your mixes with commercial productions, you can listen to the good qualities of other artists and eliminate the guesswork when you're fine-tuning your sound.

If available, use either a peak limiter (hardware or plug in) to see what your mix sounds like with some hot-CD squashing. The mix will change slightly, and that can be some of the effect that mastering will have.

Step 1 - make a standard "we love the way this sounds" mix. Keep it.
Step 2 - make a peak-limited version, with let's say 3 to 6 dB of limiting so you can increase the overall level. Adjust the mix so that the stuff that gets squashed by the limiter can be increased to compensate for the loss in dynamics. Keep it.
Step 3 - make a mix leaving your squash-mix adjustments in place but take out the limiter. Yes, it will sound like the kic is too hot, or maybe the snare is too hot, or something else. Regardless, if you liked what you heard using the limiter and the adjustments, keep this mix too.

Step 4 - make Separations - if you have the time, make them both with and without the extra stereo limiter in the signal path.

For do-it-yourself mastering software seems to frustrate most people I speak with.  Use your best judgment, check your results on several different consumer systems and see what works for you. 

Gear vendors will tell you that the Finalizer will give do-it-yourselfers the mastering touch, but trust me, the sonic variations on a typical CD demand more than any all-in-one box can give. Like say a particular word sticks out in the vocal, and it doesn't hit the compressor enough for it to sound right. Manual level correction or a different compressor (analog, for instance) can take care of that, but a Finalizer won't have a clue. I had a Finalizer and I liked it for de-essing, but multiband compression added harshness to the mids or highs, and the limiter took away openness from the sound. If you're not picky about the smoothness and openness of your sound, the limiter will prevent digital overs, and the multiband compressor will add pizzazz to a moderate sounding mix. But make sure you set the attack and release settings just right for each song, because it makes a difference.

I still say spend the money on going to an experienced mastering person - once you see how your mixes are adjusted, you'll take home knowledge that you'll keep forever and utilize every time you mix from then on. An engineer with a musical background will especially be able to reveal layers within the sound that truly enhance the professional sound you can achieve.

Essential to know: Use caution if you send your unmastered final mixes to a CD duplication plant that does not specialize in mastering.  Often their rates are not any better than the pro's (once you add in the "extras") and they may or may not use a highly experienced engineer.  Also, they have to be careful how much they alter your mixes, because if there are problems, it might cause you to wonder about their replication services - which is what they do most.

"I am truly amazed at the imaging, separation, and detail that you were able to reveal. On a couple of songs I could swear that you had access to the raw audio and were able to remix the track!!! Thanks also for bringing a warmth and depth to a fully digital recording that I was fairly sure was impossible without starting from analog tape."
-Tom Harter - Green Bay, WI

"Your effort, hard work and dedication brought George [Duke's] album to the potential it deserved - and in the process, made me look better. That is the mark of a great mastering engineer. I look forward to continuing our relationship in the future." -Erik Zobler, Hollywood, California

Q: We've been using the mastering features found within the Roland VS units themselves... but we haven't been able to get it to that "level" as hot as say the new Jamiroquai or a Puffy CD but we'd like to come as close as possible. -AJ

Sigh. Take your project to a pro mastering house, along with your Jamiroquai & Puffy CDs, and request that they "make it sound like this." Then, it's simple. They either can or can't satisfy your request.

Warning: I just evaluated a CD for a platinum engineer who was dissatisfied with the mastering from a *major* mastering house. The problem: It was cut so hot that there was tons of clipping on it, and it completely changed the sound of the kic drum making it dull, sustaining and punch-less. You have to decide if you want sheer RMS (overall) volume on your cd... or if you want it punchy and then it's a fine line to make the whole frequency spectrum work for you.

It's my opinion that a punchy CD will motivate a club dj to pump up the level, and it will hit harder than the CDs that are extremely loud but compressed into a smooth, flat waveform. Most dj's can feel the energy of the crowd and work the music... they don't just make a softer CD whimp out next to the others, and it's not that hard for them to push up those faders an extra 1/4 of an inch to equalize the volume level.

There's a couple places where CD level counts. When people have "carousel" style players... say at a party and your CD comes on next to everybody else's. You want it to be competitive/compatible. Also when you present your project to a record company to potentially get signed, you want it competitive/compatible. However, most record companies won't turn you away if you CD has great material and performances on it. They care about that more than they care if they have to turn up their volume knob a 1/4 of an inch. Generally, if they are *interested*, that's what they'll do anyway.

"0" on an analog VU meter has a +1 and +2 and +3 after it.... but digital "zero-VU" is just all there is. Since the top isn't moving any higher in the near future, it is only the management of the peaks and RMS levels that determines how loud your CD will be. The question is whether the trend will always be to make less punchy - loud cds, or if people will ever give feedback to the record companies/artists on this issue (and here's an article on that makes the same point).

Date created: 7/15/99 • Last modified: 3/25/15
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