CD and music mastering information.
CD music mastering
recording music, sound effects, broadcast, CDs.

Michael Oster
F7 Sound and Vision's Michael Oster has been recording the sounds around him since the 1970s, beginning on cassette and continuing all the way up to include 24 bit portable laptop based systems....

Music Mastering Details




diagram of the music production process includes tracking, mixing, and mastering.
CD image

Above is a very simple diagram of the music production process. There might be some variations in this especially with so many people now making music in their homes and on computers, but the essence is the same. Being computer savvy isn't required, but it is very helpful when attempting the music production process.


Mastering is the final phase, where individual songs are processed, edited, cleaned-up, and placed in a replication-ready format (usually a CD-R which is burned disc-at-once). Think of it as quality control too because mastering is the last chance before the music is sent out for replication. The differences in the sound from an unmastered song to the same song mastered can be huge too, so mastering should not be skipped.


If you're comparing on of your tunes to one that you purchased on CD, and yours isn't as loud, or it sounds muddy, or less intense, or whatever, chances are that you haven't mastered it yet. But if you have and it still doesn't sound right, you may need to try a different approach or hire a professional to do the mastering for you.


What's involved in mastering, just making the music louder? Louder is part of it, but certainly not the only thing that is considered. In mastering there are several different processes combined that are used to put the finishing touches and balance on the music. Overall volume should be part of the picture, but it is NOT the ultimate goal (although many record companies and artists do want their music louder than everyone else's).




Who needs their music mastered? Anyone who wants to:

- sell their music commercially (in stores, internet, at shows... unmastered work sounds "cheap" and "unprofessional")

- have their music stand up to, or exceed, the sound quality of their competition (there's a reason why professional releases sound they way they do)

- have their music aired on radio (many stations won't play unmastered work)




What tools are used in mastering? Tools that mastering engineers use vary by personal preference, but the fall under the categories of: compressors (multi-band and single-band), limiters, EQ's, Digital Audio Workstations, Converters (analog to digital and digital to analog), Monitoring System.


Looks like the same stuff that's used in every recording studio, right? Kind of. It's not so much the gear itself as how that gear is used. But, there is equipment that is made with the specific purpose of being used for mastering. That mastering specific gear usually costs far more than its recording studio counterparts. Most mastering equipment is made with better components that produce a premium sound quality. Also, tighter tolerences are required in mastering gear, where changes of 1/10 of a dB may be needed to get the best sound.


Mastering is an art that is learned. It relies on very developed critical listening abilities. A mastering engineer must be able to focus on the smallest of musical details (things that might go unnoticed by most other people) because in this phase, the smallest factors can take a recording from "good" to "great".


Where do you learn mastering? There are recording schools that teach the fundamentals. There are also books and websites, too. It's a difficult art, but you can even learn on your own through trial and error (though hopefully not with a paying client).



Guerilla Mastering
(this will not make you an instant mastering engineer, but it's a nice excercise to try)


What you'll need:
- a commercial CD (one that's been professionally mastered) this is your "rosetta stone".
- unmastered music (yours, or a friend's - try to get something that's well produced.
- a good monitoring system that you're very familiar with (and a way to A/B the CD and your music without changing the playback volume).
- a multiband compressor/limiter (software is fine)
- stereo EQ


What you do:
- set your playback system at a "normal" volume and LEAVE IT.
- listen to your "rosetta stone" CD. Listen carefully. Note the volume, and sound signature.
- play back your music (without making any volume changes on your monitoring system).
- there will be differences in the way your music sounds and the way your "rosetta stone" CD sounds. Your goal is to get your material into the same sound realm as the "rosetta stone"
- using your multiband compressor and EQ, make changes to your music to get it closer to the finished sound of your "rosetta stone" CD.
- try this with different "rosetta stone" CDs and note the differences in your sound.


Hopefully what you'll get from this excercise is a taste of critical listening from a mastering perspective and an opportunity to try some basic techniques that can make your music sound more like commercial releases.
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