Easy Home Recording Blueprint * Extra *
Mastering Tips and Advice
Official
"Preparing for The Blueprint"
Series

Let's Talk About the Audio Mastering Process

In This Edition:

1. What is the real difference between mastering and mixing? 

2. The mastering process presents a great opportunity for Blueprint artists. Find out how we'll take advantage of it

3. Where to find affordable, world class song mastering



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I've already got some material on the site about song mastering tips and the audio mastering process, but I'd like to go a bit deeper.

At the end of this page I'll share the particular benefit of the mastering process for those using the Easy Home Recording Blueprint method. So this discussion should be really useful.

(Make sure you read and understand this whole lesson, because it will make a huge difference in how you work and how your finished recordings sound.)

1. First, what is mastering really?

The audio mastering process occurs after a song is mixed. At its most basic, the goal of the mastering process is to bring up the overall average volume of the recording, especially for use on radio, tv or film.

In other words, mastering keeps the lower volume parts of a recording from sinking too low and the higher volume parts of a recording from spiking too high. Therefore, the "average" volume of a song is smoothed out and made consistent througout the song. The song appears to be "louder."

But this kind of common definition is way too over simplified to provide any real understanding of the mastering process. 

So, how is mastering done?

A mastering engineer takes someone's fininshed "mix" and not only listens carefully to the entire song, to become familiar with the characterics of the song, but at the same time he or she is studying the look of the song's digital waveform. He or she is familiarizing themselves with the "shape" of the song.

Look at the "shape" of a mix's waveform before and after the digital audio mastering process

digital waveform of unmastered mix


Waveform of mix after mastering


As I point out in the diagram above, an audio mastering engineer isn't simply turning up the main volume or running our mix through a simple compressor to bring up the overall level... anyone can do that. (For the mastering engineer that would seem like a surgeon using a hammer.)

No... the mastering studio has much finer tools. You see, because the mastering engineer does not normally have the luxury of having the recording artist's separate tracks at his or her disposal, he must target the instruments, sounds and vocals in our mix by using ultra targeted multi-band compressors/EQ. Multi-band?

Multi-band simply means being able to target multiple very specific bands of the frequency (EQ) spectrum. Having "multi-band" compression capabilities is a truly powerful and amazing thing in the hands of the mastering artist because although he may not have access to each instrument's track, he can target where that instrument or sound "lives" in the frequency spectrum. So, the digital audio mastering process can get each and every sound in a mix to jump through hoops with these kind of multiband compressors and EQ's.

Let's have a look at how this ultra targeted multi-band EQ might look in a mastering session:

what is mastering


In the diagram above, the mastering engineer receives a mix of a song and notices there is slight harshness when the vocalist sings certain notes. He determines that 3384 Hz (hertz) is where this harsh spike keeps occurring. He targets this exact frequency and through a combination of EQ (i.e. frequency equalization) and compressing this exact area, the problem is solved.

Because this song was recorded well, using the Easy Home Recording Blueprint method, with good levels and no digital distortion, the mastering engineer's job is made easier. The result is that the completed master shines because the mastering engineer has a high quality mix full of healthy and clear sounds, instruments and vocals.

Let's look at how ultra-targeted multiband compression can separate and clarify even the trickiest parts of our mix

bass compression


*What home mastering program am I using for the illustrations above?
Izotope Ozone 5 Complete Mastering System



2. The Secret Treasure in The Mastering Process for Easy Home Recording Blueprint Artists 

Have you ever heard your favorite recordings before they were mastered? It's a very interesting, (often quite shocking,) and most of all, a very useful experience for Easy Home Recording Blueprint artists.

Even established artists' mixes before they are mastered, are quite quiet, lacking in "punch" and the midrange and low frequencies are often fairly unclear and a bit muddled.

There are a couple of good reasons for this:
1. Producers know they need to leave "headroom" for the mastering engineer, so their mixes are deliberately fairly quiet. The volume of the mix is deliberately set so it doesn't peak any higher than -3 or even -6 below the "zero" mark on the master volume.
2. It is also necessary when mixing not to use a heavy hand with compression and EQ. The mastering engineer will be hitting the mix hard with detailed compression and EQ. Therefore, a mix that is over compressed or EQ-ed will end up sounding pinched, "choked" or harsh when it is mastered.

You see, for an experienced producer, a quiet, slightly dull mix is a good thing... something to be expected and planned for. They know the mastering process still awaits and that's when their mix will really come to life.

The midrange and low end that seem muddled in the initial mix are easily separated and defined in the mastering studio.

The lead vocal suddenly has that incredible crisp high end and yet still remains warm with no harshness.

The instruments in the low frequencies are each given their own bubble of compression and EQ and each becomes clear, defined and full of punch. 

(This is a prime example of the power of multiband compression and EQ in the mastering process. i.e. the targeting and highlighting of the glossy, "airy" frequencies of a vocal, targeting and de-emphasizing of certain upper midrange harsh frequencies and rounding and solidifying the low midrange or "warm" frequencies.)
 

Unfortnately, home recording artists are often unaware of the finer points of the mastering process and they spend many fretful hours attempting to get their mix to sound like a fully mastered recording.

I realized it was very important to clarify the mastering process because I certainly do not want Easy Home Recording Blueprint artists to go through this needless worry and time wasting by attempting to make their mixes sound like a mastered recording. It is totally unnecessary and actually will harm the quality of your finished product.

(Remember, the mix is not the finish line. The true sound of your recording isn't complete until it is mastered. Your job is to use the Blueprint recording method to record healthy tracks,
make your edits, make basic EQ adjustments and set your volume levels and fades for your mix.)

Here's how understanding this is going to benefit you

By understanding what we have covered today, you will take another big step ahead of most home recording artists. Most of the frustration for home recording artists is caused by constantly "sweating the small stuff." They are constantly tweaking and making tiny adjustments because they are totally mistaken about what their goal should be in the recording and mixing phase of their project.

They are misguidedly trying to achieve a "master" during the recording phase. This is because, more often than not, they just don't understand the difference between a "mix" and a "master." They are trying to achieve the volume and type of sound they are hearing by copying one of their favorite artist's "mastered" recordings. This is a no-win situation. They are never going to be satisfied with their mixes and they will needlessly lose confidence in themselves. 

For Blueprinters, we're going to set our goals correctly. We'll focus on well recorded tracks and a good quality "export" of our stereo mixes. We now know that properly recorded tracks and a properly exported mix will be appreciated and welcomed by the mastering engineer.

Mastering engineers LOVE mixes from Easy Home Recording Blueprint artists because they know they have a good file to work on and they will be able to buff our mixes to a high gloss, punchy, in-your-face master that will demand the attention of listeners.

Here's the reason I wrote this article for Blueprint recording artists or those of you thinking of using the Easy Home Recording Blueprint method: The truth is, it's extremely important you are aware that we all now have unprecedented, affordable access to the world's top mastering engineers, and that you all make use of this amazing resource.

Why is this happening now? Because record labels have tightened their wallets and no longer pour the money they used to into new artists, it means that there are hundreds of the world's best mastering engineers who can no longer count on a regular payday from label-financed projects.

These mastering engineers have turned to indie and unsigned artists and are offering their digital audio mastering services for prices that were unheard of just a few years ago.

Where "Blueprinters" can look for affordable, world class song mastering

Great mastering engineers can now be hired online - with audio files sent back and forth between recording artist and mastering engineer also taking place online.

You should expect to see prices from between $20 - $75 per song for a top quality mastering done in a well equipped professional mastering studio.

Here are some good places to start looking:

Landr automated mastering  will master your song using a mastering software algorithm (analyzes your song's waveform and EQ frequencies and then creates an appropriate master of your mix). I have tested Landr.com's automated master and it does a disturbingly good job. I believe for a simple HQ mp3 master, it is free and about $10 for a full quality .WAV file.

The key, if you're going to try a "bot" to do your mastering, is to create a mix that is friendly to an automated mastering bot. My advice is to make sure you start with a clean mix that isn't over compressed and at least -3 to -6 db below the "zero" mark on your mix's volume output.

Also, I would suggest making sure that your mix isn't too "bright" (trebly).

Then, I think services like WaveMod (see below) and Landr Instant Mastering could definitely be very useful and economical tools for quick mastering. Definitely worth a try.

Headroom Mastering $10 per song.


Master your song online with WaveMod auto-mastering - $10 per song. WaveMod, (like Landr.com above) is a mastering service that "auto-masters" without an actual human engineer involved. Its software analyzes your stereo mix file and then applies mastering compression and EQ based on what it has deduced from your mix.

I've already heard it worked well for one of our members of The Easy Home Recording Blueprint, (listen to her WaveMod master here) but, keep in mind, she started with a very good mix to begin with.



Another idea is to look at the mastering engineer on a favorite record and do a Google search to see if they offer their services online. It may be a long shot, but you just might get pleasantly surprised if they are available. Never hurts to ask. (Easy Home Recording Blueprint artists have nabbed Elton John's mastering engineer as well as No Doubt and the Black Eyed Peas mastering guys this way.)

I've seen it time after time - Recordings made using the Easy Home Recording Blueprint make great sounding masters

When you get your tracks recorded well, using all the simple tips and methods in the Blueprint, and then get your balances between tracks the way you want for your mix, then you don't have to "sweat the small stuff."

Don't worry if you'd like the bass to be a little more distinct or the vocal to be a bit more present. Just export your best mix as a stereo WAV or AIFF file and try one of the audio mastering services we mentioned above or others you'll find online.

The recordings and mixes you'll be doing with The Easy Home Recording Blueprint method will respond very well in the hands of a mastering engineer.

So, go out there and find someone or a service who fits well with your music and you will see it will be one of the most important relationships you will have in your music career.

Knowing that you can rely on your masters sounding great is priceless and will ultimately spare you hundreds of hours you used to spend fretting over your mixes.


In the meantime, I'm not going anywhere, and I'll be keeping you posted regularly about things of interest. It's been a pleasure so far, and if you aren't already, I hope to hear you soon as a full Easy Home Recording Blueprint Artist.

Until then... be big, bold and in control.

All the best!

Owen Critchley
Warner, Capitol, recording artist/producer
Author of "Easy Home Recording Blueprint" and
"The Musician's Blueprint to Getting Heard"
(Now the bestselling home recording guide on ClickBank)

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