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The pros and cons of mastering


ZoeB
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Does anyone have any advice (or strong opinions) on mastering?

 
My current workflow involves making no real distinction between the master buss and the mastering process.  The whole mix (NLS buss output) goes straight to a bit of light EQing and limiting, which is different for each track.  This helps with releasing at least one separate track each month, each one ready for people to download and play.
 
When it comes to grouping some of these tracks together into albums and EPs, I've simply collected tracks that go well together, and kept them as separate files to play one after the other, which is good for anyone who just wants to buy or stream a single track here and there, or mix any of the tracks into their DJ sets.
 
But this process means I can't write an album that flows smoothly from one track to the next, like Abbey Road or Dark Side of the Moon.  As an experiment, with my latest (retrospective) album, I took all the tracks, and overlapped them slightly in a satisfying, rhythmically pleasing way (e.g. placing the next track's first note on top of the last track's last note), and it does sound better for it... at the cost of slightly annoying anyone who might want to play a single track.  So it feels like a tradeoff with no right or wrong answer.
 
What does everyone else think?  Should I accept that people want single tracks, not whole fluid albums, and carry on making each track standalone with its own limiting, then grouping them into releases with no additional mastering?  Is mastering as distinct from mixing an outdated 20th century concept?
 
Or should I save the premaster as well as the individual sort-of-mastered version of each track, then for full releases, overlap, limit, and split up again as a separate process?
 
Or should I go with the secret third option and release albums with the continuous mix as a bonus track, A Song Across Wires style?
 
Please, let me know your thoughts.
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Depending on the busing and setup, I would dual bounce an unmastered mix with nothing on the master bus and a quick mastered mix which is louder than the unmastered mix. The unmastered mixes would be for future 'real mastering' by yourself or someone else, for compiled releases, and the quick masters for sharing individual tracks with people.

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Depending on the busing and setup, I would dual bounce an unmastered mix with nothing on the master bus and a quick mastered mix which is louder than the unmastered mix. The unmastered mixes would be for future 'real mastering' by yourself or someone else, for compiled releases, and the quick masters for sharing individual tracks with people.

 

This sounds quite sensible, thank you.  Yeah, I think I'll start exporting premasters as well as quick masters then, so I have the option later on to have them mastered more professionally by someone else.  Thanks!

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I sum most of my tracks to 3-4 busses (Drums+Bass+Synths+FX/Textures for example), which also has processing, alongside reverb/delay returns, all of which together are mixed to around -10dB and that I'm very happy with sonically. I then make a bounce of that master bus (which has no plug ins at all) as well as bounce those stems.

 

Then for mastering I'll send the master bus bounce to some outboard gear and record that back into Pro Tools as a master that I will call the finished version.

 

This way I a) have a finished version that I love that sits at a decent volume compared to other music for mixes etc and b ) have the original mix/stems still available should anyone be dumb enough to want to release it commercially and need to give it their own master.

 

Further to this I will try to write songs with rough mixing along the way. Then when I have a collection I'm happy with, I will mix them to 100% completion all at the same time. Then once the mixes are finished, I'll do all the mastering together.

 

I find that splitting up processes means that I keep a rough sound across all tracks as - specifically in the mastering - I'm using a lot of the same/similar settings to get some nice conformity across all tracks.

Edited by b born droid
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TH

 

Unless the recording is very poor, mastering really isn't necessary. I'd focus on making a mix good enough that it doesn't need to be mastered. Compression killz

this is the worst opinion ever.  a truly skilled mastering engineer can make electronic music burst with intensity. 

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TH

 

Unless the recording is very poor, mastering really isn't necessary. I'd focus on making a mix good enough that it doesn't need to be mastered. Compression killz

this is the worst opinion ever. a truly skilled mastering engineer can make electronic music burst with intensity.

Agree. There are no cons to mastering, only good and not good mastering engineers.

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Well, i wouldn't mind some proper €100 per track mastering.
If what i do can be called mastering then yes, i do it as a separate stage/process.

 

Also, mixing to a 2-buss compressor from the start is a forever ongoing discussion at gearslutz

Edited by xox
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Really depends what your audience is and what you expect your music to be played on.

 

If you are doing music for an iphone app game then you don't really need to master it for anything outside of using iphone buds; the audience is just the individual so mastering isn't necessary. Also if you don't expect your music to have a wide audience listening to it on different sound systems then its alright to leave it be. If I want a track to have a more "personal" production I'll leave it unmastered.

 

If you expect your music to be played for an audience that is listening to it on the dancefloor, at home on a sound system, on an mp3 player, and on a car system then you definitely need mastering. Your songs might contain phase invariance that have dead zones in your speaker set up and end up having destructive interference happening, so engineering tracks right to account for that is important. Even just to take things like isophonic curves and psychoacoustics into consideration for the best listening experience is important on higher sets of monitors and cans. Also if you are having your music pressed to vinyl then you want someone good at mastering to be able to bring out as much detail as possible as the quality in the grooves degrades the closer towards the spindle it gets. Lots of pedantic things that add up in the end and that can bring out more detail than you would not have otherwise thought existed.

Edited by Entorwellian
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Disclaimer: I don't make music, but obviously I am fascinated by it, and how it's made, etc.

 

In regards to workflows - I know from my time as a digital artist/designer, keeping a 'source' or unaltered copy of any work is critical for flexibility later on (say you have the funds to pay a big-name mastering er, master to take your old material and make it sound fresher than ever) as you can always enhance the source, but never take away changes to it that alter it down the road.

 

I don't know how anal some musicians can be in regards to cataloguing their material (look at Richard with the recent SoundCloud dump), but I imagine having a backed up, redundant repository of 'source' works will pay dividends down the road for revisiting older material for possible reissue or to finally release.

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Guest Chesney

Mastering shouldn't really be for anything other than getting a mix that you already love to a level that competes with other music or other music you have made for a collection. Granted tracks do sound different after mastering but it shouldn't be so different that an artist is disappointed with it. That does depend on how good the mix is to start with and how much work the mastering engineer thinks it needs to get it sounding as good as it can AND whether the engineer is any good.

If you are releasing music, I think Mastering is a must but that can mean from spending money on a professional job to sticking a mastering preset on the end in your DAW, it will just serve to get the music to a more universal level.

Paranerd knows his stuff ;)

 

Zoe: I'd say, don't cater for anybody but yourself. listen to your music against released music you love and compare the mix, dynamics, EQ colour and of course, level. Get it sounding like they could easily stand side by side if played on a compilation or radio. Nothing worse than having to toggle the volume when the next track dips so much.

 

Clark trent, dude, come on! ha ;)

 

Edit, just to point out, I'm not a masterer or claim i'm any good at it but I have opinions on it ha

Edited by Chesney
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Some insightful replies here that I'll re-read in the morning, thank you!

 

I don't know how anal some musicians can be in regards to cataloguing their material (look at Richard with the recent SoundCloud dump), but I imagine having a backed up, redundant repository of 'source' works will pay dividends down the road for revisiting older material for possible reissue or to finally release.

 

Nowhere near anal enough, I suspect!  He seems to have a certain mindset that's really beneficial when it comes to creating the music (not adhering to set ways of doing things, excellent), but not so useful when it comes to retrieving it.  That SoundCloud dump was wonderful, but came across a bit "oh, I found another tape today, here you go, here's a few of the tracks from it," which is great, but I worry how much music he's just lost forever.  I'm sure he mentioned taping over his mother's prerecorded cassettes at one point...  The track titles seem to have track numbers, but it's not clear if they're their positions on their intended potential releases or, more likely, on the DATs they were precariously stored on...  Various tracks have rather malleable names ("make a baby" / "get a baby"), plus duplicate names...  They seem to have malleable speeds too...  He has a certain 17th century / dyslexic approach to English, again with the anything-goes approach which is great for creativity but less good for cataloguing...  He even forgot he already released one or two tracks (Japan, for instance)...  It's wonderful to get to listen to all this music, don't get me wrong.  I just hope he's properly digitised it all, and made an offsite backup of all of it.  The last thing anyone wants is to lose all their data, especially when it took decades to create and is one of a kind.  Basically, I still think he should employ a curator of some kind to archive everything properly.  Possibly to talk to labels on his behalf too if he genuinely gets depressed at their glacial pace, so he can concentrate on what he clearly loves, making more music.

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TH

 

Unless the recording is very poor, mastering really isn't necessary. I'd focus on making a mix good enough that it doesn't need to be mastered. Compression killz

this is the worst opinion ever.  a truly skilled mastering engineer can make electronic music burst with intensity. 

 

 

Also mastering != compression.

 

I'm not a pro by any means but I master stuff for people sometimes (actual mastering, not the "demastering" thread stuff I posted a few months back although personally I kind of prefer that sort of treatment sometimes) and one thing I can say is that mastering someone else's tracks is a whole lot different from mastering my own, it's a lot harder to work on stuff that I've already heard who knows how many times during mixing and have all kinds of blind spots and preconceived notions about.

 

If I was going to do something like a vinyl release I'd want it to be mastered by someone else who was sensitive to what I was going for, no doubt about it.

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I master all of my own stuff and I made an album that progresses continuously from track to track.

 

As long as the volume is consistent and the "color" doesn't change drastically from track to track, then it should be good. If your music isn't going to be played on the radio or tv, or whatever, then it's really not that important to stick to a mastering standard. Also, services like Spotify modify your master to meet their standard anyway, so that's worth noting.

 

 

That album might not be the best example of my mixing skills, since I made the whole thing in 40 days, but whatever. The mastering itself is alright.

 

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I just think it's really useful to have someone with an objective outside perspective go over stuff if you have the luxury.

 

That said, the couple of little vinyl releases I HAVE had over the years with bands had in-house mastering by the pressing plant and it was always terrible.  The worst was a spit 7" that had a bunch of cutting head distortion on the first test pressing and when we reported it they took about two months and sent us back a second test pressing that just had the mix lowpassed at like 8k so it sounded like the speakers had a carpet thrown over them.  By the time they got the third master done and we approved it and it got pressed and the label had covers made and everything, it had been over a year and the band wasn't even together anymore because some of our members had moved away.

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Also, services like Spotify modify your master to meet their standard anyway, so that's worth noting.

 

Do you have a source on this claim? Never heard about it, except for the normalization option (which can be turned off).

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That's a good point, context is important.  So the full album and EP versions of these tracks would be sent to Bandcamp (which largely keeps them intact, aside from converting them to all the major codecs), and DistroKid (which passes them on to Spotify, iTunes, etc).  So being Spotify-friendly is a concern.

 

This is in contrast to the quickmasters I make myself (light EQ, maybe light compression, L2 to stave off any wayward peaks but certainly not squash everything).  I convert these to FLAC and MP3 myself, people download them, and some use them in their YouTube videos.  I'm not sure what ratio of those videos end up mastered.  They occasionally end up in podcasts, small compilations and the like too, probably without much if any extra processing.

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Think as mixing into a compressor as a way to emphasize the groove of a tune, the interaction between all the instruments. It's not about loudness, it's about movement and cohesion.

 

Using dynamic tools during mastering often serves quite a different purpose : standardizing the audio content for a given medium (be it vinyle or a streaming service). So does EQing.

 

Of course mastering can also be a more creative process, but it's also vert utilitarian.

 

When it comes to volume, I'd rather focus on dynamic range than on maximum peaks and RMS. Makes masters much more versatile and likely to sound good and consistent on many different media.

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Also, services like Spotify modify your master to meet their standard anyway, so that's worth noting.

 

Do you have a source on this claim? Never heard about it, except for the normalization option (which can be turned off).

https://ask.audio/articles/spotify-drops-loudness-target-to-14-lufs-what-does-this-mean-for-producers

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Also, services like Spotify modify your master to meet their standard anyway, so that's worth noting.

 

Do you have a source on this claim? Never heard about it, except for the normalization option (which can be turned off).
https://ask.audio/articles/spotify-drops-loudness-target-to-14-lufs-what-does-this-mean-for-producers

I.e normalizing?

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Also, services like Spotify modify your master to meet their standard anyway, so that's worth noting.

Do you have a source on this claim? Never heard about it, except for the normalization option (which can be turned off).

https://ask.audio/articles/spotify-drops-loudness-target-to-14-lufs-what-does-this-mean-for-producers

 

 

Interesting. I don't use Spotify often, so I never noticed anything regarding an enforced -14LU spec.

 

As a side note, last time I checked, Bandcamp's streaming bumps down the volume -3dB across the board. Soundcloud doesn't touch the volume when streaming.

 

 

Of course mastering can also be a more creative process, but it's also vert utilitarian.

It can be, but I wouldn't say it's often that creative compared to production. There's always room to explore in mixing and mastering, so in that sense it can get creative. But production has full creative freedom while mix and mastering are the tech to make sure it sounds good.

 

I don't think I could solely mix/master and feel creatively productive. It pays the bills though.

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@psn: Somehow yes, even though normalizing is more about leveling up/down to a max. peak rather than to an overall perceived volume.

Edited by Nil
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