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  Surprising Differences Audio Mastering Can Make

You know that CD mastering is the final step before replication.
You know that the order of the songs can be changed easily. Maybe some highs, mids, lows, or compression is used. Or we'll leave it flat, limit it a little, and bring up the level. You've checked out some
mastering procedures and you know that your music deserves to be taken seriously. But what the heck are these surprising differences... with traditional stereo mastering or with HD Separation Mastering?

Mastering began primarily as a transfer step from tape to master lacquer - a required step toward pressing vinyl records.  As more sophisticated mastering techniques developed, compression, eq, limiting, de-essing, filtering, editing all became commonplace, since artists and labels are competitive for bigger, better sounding records. 

Today, traditional mastering can achieve better sound when the music is played on a variety of systems - from boom boxes to 10,000 watt nightclub systems, high-end mastering will soothe the savage beast (or bring it out, depending on what the client wants!). 

Some surprising Traditional Mastering differences are:

• Reduced vocal sibilance allows over-all clarity to be added to the entire track, without creating harsh jabs of high frequencies. Sibilance was avoided in the days of vinyl and cassette tapes because it easily distorted.
• Careful sculpting of low frequencies can make bass notes more even and help prevent speaker distortion
• Vocals can be made to come forward or dip back into the mix, depending on the processing
• Enhanced width of instruments, room ambiance, reverb, tightness or warmth of certain instruments can be achieved with Mid-Side processing, as well as some phase correction of lower frequencies
• More consistent song-to-song levels... but also
• When we catch a slightly out-of-sync instruments on song beginnings or phrase beginnings, we can make improvements with skilled editing. 
• We can extend the sustain to the end of the song - for instance if the reverb tail is too short, we can clone a portion of the tail and make a graduated edit that seamlessly extends the ending. Our refinements are non-destructive, and we don't have an ego around our ideas -- we have pride in supporting your ideas and goals. 
• Traditional mastering usually take between 1/2 hour and 3/4 hour per song -- but every project is different!

Some surprising Separation Mastering differences are:

• Equalization and distinction of instruments is more noticeable and clear
• Everything has more of it's own "space" - the articulation is better

• Certain musical sections that need more precise compression, or expansion - vocal issues in particular can be solved without compromising instruments
• Multiband compression can be used for de-essing, removing harshness, tightening bass response (even removing certain resonant "boomy nodes" and more
• Flaws hidden by "masking" of poor acoustics in the recording studio can be corrected
• Copy-and-paste solutions, cross-fades, waveform redraws, de-clicking only what's needed
• Split tracks makes eq-by-section effortless.  If the chorus needs more muscle, it's easy!
• On the average, Separations take 1/4 hour more per song - but every project is different!

Know your budget, though, because these changes can take time. If you come into the mastering session prepared, your project will sound it's best, and you'll feel confident about it when it hits the market!

Q) Is it better to bring in a stereo mix or a multitrack recording? -Adam

We find Separations to be the best format in most cases, but sometimes you just don't want to fool with the magic in a particular 2-track mix!  2-track stereo still sounds great, particularly with large budget mixing engineers at the helm. 

If the vocal is too loud on the stereo mix can this be changed in mastering stereo 2 channels?

In some cases the blend can be evened out - mainly by "teeter-tottering" up the support instruments or Eq'ing out some presence in the middle of the mix.  Not for the faint at heart. If you have a song that you know you're unhappy with the vocal blend, make Separations.  Even if you only separate the instruments from the vocals, it's a great way to go and you have an instrumental mix already done!  If you want TV mixes (all tracks including the backup vocals included, just the lead vocal removed) you'll need to separate the lead and backup vocals.

If the timing of kick and bass isn't tight, can this be corrected in a stereo 2 channel mix?

Yes in some cases.  However, this isn't an adjustment that is applied throughout the entire song (unless you've brought in Separations). In traditional stereo mastering, it's more at entrances to phrases or in certain areas of the song. It's an editing technique and can work well, but if there are timing problems all over the song, then it's time to go back to the studio and try Beat Detective, or make Separations and we'll see what we can do.  We've even replaced drums in a very few cases to solve major drum issues.  In a very few cases, we have done so much work to the Separation tracks that we were literally remixing.  Again as an example of not-standard practice, we have gone into the Separations and changed drums, added instruments, edited in special efffects, tuned vocals and more.  Do not take this out of context, because it's not the main goal of Separation Mastering.  It's become a by-product of the flexibility and potency of the format.  We find that if people have the technology and need serious revisions/ additions, they will ask us to step up and provide the extras they desire.  We have actually termed this "Separation Mixing" given that it's far and above the procedures for mastering! 

Is the mixdown of Cubase SX or Pro Tools better?

DAWs are getting better sounding all the time and somewhat more difficult to gell apart - it will be interesting to see how 64 bit computer processing sounds in the different machines.  If you are familiar with a particular DAW system, it probably won't impact whether you cut a hit or not - it's always the song, the singer, the performances, the production and the professionalism of the artist that makes the ultimate difference!

For making your final mix, I recommend making 24 or 32 bit files. Close all windows, if possible, while you are bouncing tracks/mixes. Stay at the sample rate of your system (44.1k, 48k, 88.2k, 96k) but always make 24 bit stereo files.  Even more sonic improvement happens when you have better power chords going into your gear!  Find that hard to believe?  Here's a white paper on the matter!

Doing some research can save you time

Major artists are fed up with MP3s and less-than-fabulous sound. Computers, Smartphones and internet services are faster - so now HIGH-RESOLUTION AUDIO is in demand. Mastered for iTunes has been a great start.

Your product deserves the same attention to detail that is available with LOSSLESS STREAMING services such as Tidal. The reviews will produce discussions, to be sure, but the trend is undeniable.

With Apple's Sound Check and VOLUME-MATCHING FEATURES now found on YouTube, iTunes Radio and more - the loudness war will be substantially less important. Better sounding music will prevail. New high-resolution audio players will replace the iPod for the more discerning listner. We are here to make your sound Future-Ready

Created 1998 - Modified 09/07/09
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"A human being is part of a whole... [we must widen] our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."   -Albert Einstein