Into the Studio: Part Three – Mastering

In parts one and two I discussed the process of recording and mixing an album.  Late last Thursday evening, after devouring a delicious mole veggie burrito at El Limon, we finished up the mixing and moved to mastering.  This was the part that I knew the least about coming into the studio.  It turned out to be a fascinating process.

Mastering involves several separate processes that finalize the tracks to make them ready for duplication.  First the tracks are adjusted so that they are all of similar volume.  That way the entire album sounds balanced, and no one track stands out as either too loud or too quiet.  The gain is also brought up as high as possible without distorting the sound.  Some minor equalization and compression is also applied to the track to make the songs sound polished.  Lead time is added to each track (so that there is some space between them), and they are then exported to AIFF format, to be burned onto a CD.  Finally, the track names are encoded into the file so that radios and devices that display the artist’s name and the track name will have the data they need.

Phil started out by opening a separate Protools file on a different computer that is attached to the board.  That means that anything played on that computer is heard in the speakers, and anything played on the board can be recorded onto the session on that computer.  He then loaded up the first track on the original computer and started playing it through the board and a digital mastering console.  He turned a few knobs on the console and then immediately turned the volume down to almost nothing.  When I asked him about it, he told me that he was listening for distortion.  He said that distortion, or clipping, is best heard when the volume is extremely low.  If you turn the volume up too high, the distortion is lost in the high sounds and can’t be heard.

We also listened to both the analog and digital versions I mentioned in part two.  There really was no comparison, though.  What had seemed like a subtle difference a few days earlier was crystal clear.  The analog version sounded warmer, smoother, and fuller, while the digital version was cold and almost hollow.  Analog it is!

After the track volume was set, Phil recorded the finished song onto the second computer in stereo and we moved onto the next one.  Here, however, another step was added.  In order to balance the tracks with each other, Phil would play the track he was working on, and then quickly switch back and forth between tracks that had already been finished, making small adjustments along the way.  After about 4 or 5 songs were finished, it got to be fascinating and borderline comical.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.  I got some film documentation (plus a free preview of the album, Greatest Hits of the 80’s style):

This process took about an hour and a half.  Once each track was compared and finished (or mastered, if you will), we went through each of the tracks to determine the spacing between songs.  Phil told me that the old way to do this was to put some time in before each track (starting with -0:02 or so and going forward), but that this caused problems when they were played independently from the CD, such as in iTunes or on your Zune.  The better way to do it is to add the lead time in at the end of the previous track so that no matter where it was played, there would always be the same amount of empty time after the track had finished.  We went song by song and played the ends of them, deciding how much time to wait until moving to the next track.  In retrospect, I didn’t put enough time in, as they move too quickly to the next song.  Fortunately, I still have time to make that adjustment when I give Phil my track names to encode in each file.

With that, we just had to burn a copy of the master, and then we were all done.  We had started around 2 in the afternoon, and it was almost 11 when we finished up.  Phil and I said our goodbyes, and I drove home with the CD playing the entire night.  As soon as I got home, I ran upstairs, plugged my computer in, and transferred the entire session over to my backup hard drive.  As my friend Adrian says, if it’s not backed up in 4 different places, it doesn’t actually exist.

All in all, a thrilling experience.  The best is yet to come though, because I can say without hesitation that the tracks sound amazing.  You’ll be able to get your hands on them at the end of August.  August 25th, in fact.  I’ll have details for that coming soon at www.neonandshy.com.  I promise I’ll talk about something other than producing an album next time!  Thanks for joining me on this journey.

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2 thoughts on “Into the Studio: Part Three – Mastering

  1. Anonymous says:

    Dan, these are very helpful entries. Ok, here comes the old fart story: Reminds me of the experience I had, nearly 30 years ago, mastering a record with Bob Ludwig than at Masterdisk, or was it Europadisk in NYC. Even then, Ludwig was recognized as the man. He’s since moved his operation to Portland, Maine. The mastering task was entrusted to me (a now forgotten Artists House recording, might have been a Thad Jones-Mel Lewis record) because they knew I couldn’t fuck it up, so long as Ludwig was the engineer.He would politely asked me questions, doing a final mix for mastering, I watched, amazed, deferred to his judgements. Wish I’d kept my own log.

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