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Audio Mastering Basics - An Introduction to Mastering
Written by Brian Smithers - © 2005, PRIMEDIA Business Magazines & Media Inc. Reprinted with Permission.
Very little in the field of audio engineering is more shrouded in mystery than the thing we call mastering. Does the name come from the idea of creating a master disc or from the stature of the master engineers that do such work? If mix engineer Bob Clearmountain is so good, why does he need mastering engineer Bob Ludwig to second-guess him before his work is mass-produced?

The proliferation of affordable mastering plug-ins, -programs, and -hardware devices has arguably replaced mystery with confusion. If I can create a viable Red Book CD, why do I need to spend money on mastering? If I own a Finalizer, can I offer my services as a mastering engineer?

This article will attempt to clear away the mystery and confusion by exploring the history and modern reality of mastering. We'll look at the craft's principles and techniques and discuss what an experienced mastering engineer brings to your project. We'll also discuss how best to use the services of a mastering engineer and what types of things you should consider when you want to go it alone.

Way Back When
Back when musical performances were recorded directly to acetate masters, tracking, mixing, and mastering were done in a single step rather than independently as they now are. The role of the mastering engineer developed later, growing from the process of transferring tape recordings to acetate. Engineers who understood the complexities of the record groove could produce LPs that had a hotter overall level, more uniform tonal balance, and better signal-to-noise performance.

The role of the mastering engineer started with two essential functions: creating the physical master from which the product was mass-produced, and optimizing the audio for the sonic characteristics of the playback medium. In the early days of vinyl records, creating the physical master required very expensive and specialized gear. Therefore, mastering engineers were traditionally employed by record labels. Eventually, however, independent mastering houses sprang up, and that became the norm.

With the advent of the compact disc, a different manufacturing chain was required, but it would be more than a decade before average musicians had the capability of creating CDs on their own and sending them to be replicated. The mastering engineer continued to be the link between a finished mix and the manufacturing of discs. The process required digitizing analog content, formatting it according to the Red Book specification, and delivering it to the manufacturer, usually on Sony PCM-1630 digital tape.

In their sonic characteristics, CDs brought their own advantages and disadvantages, and mastering engineers adapted their tools and skills to optimize the sound. Seeing the power of talented mastering engineers to manipulate audio levels, for example, record labels began to push for louder and louder product in an effort to stand out from the competition on radio. For better or worse (see the sidebar “The Loudness War”), the role of the mastering engineer came to include making it loud.

Modern Mastering
Now that CD burners and Red Book — savvy software are abundant, why would anybody spend the time and money to have a project professionally mastered? There must be some reason, as virtually every major release bears an acknowledgment of the contributions of a mastering engineer.

Perhaps the most important function of a mastering engineer is providing independent judgment at the last stop in the line of audio-quality control. Unbiased and unaffected by peripheral concerns — like the producer's insistence on eight revisions of each mix or bickering between the lead guitarist and lead vocalist — the mastering engineer brings objectivity to the creative process. With fresh ears and an open mind, he or she can do much to shape the final outcome.

To that end, the mastering engineer prizes two tools above all others: experienced, trained, and sensitive ears, and an exceptionally accurate monitoring system. Whereas a mix engineer can (and must) focus on creating a unique and original sound, a mastering engineer sees every song in context with other projects in the same genre. The mastering engineer knows how to make a mix translate well on a broad range of playback systems, from boom box to home theater, as well as how to make it come off well on the radio.

In a mastering house, the acoustics and monitors are optimized for the most accurate and honest reproduction possible. Any glitches, clipping, or stray noises can be found and fixed in this pristine environment. Defects can easily be missed in surround mixes, making a quality-control pass even more important.

The mastering engineer is responsible for shaping a bunch of tracks into a cohesive album. If the project includes mixes created at different times in different facilities — even by different mix engineers — that can be a major challenge. How should the songs be ordered? How long should the gap between tracks be? Should engineer A's mixes be brighter or engineer B's darker to make them fit together?This is an excerpt from the following article: Master of the Universe.


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