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Using your Digital Audio Workstation
as the source for mastering
by John Vestman
Typical mastering is only done using a stereo or a 5.1 mixdown where last minute
touch-ups enhance what's there. The stereo mixes usually differ slightly from song
to song, so I even things out so stuff leans more in the same direction, as well
as add more level to compete with the (too) loud commercial product out there.
I'm perfectly comfortable doing standard mastering, but I'm also unusual in that
I've taken things a bit farther. I suggest that artists can bring in their computer
so that we avoid the degradation of "rendering" a 2 track mix internally in a hard
disc system. The hard disc systems cause some quality loss due to the software's mix
engine that blends all those tracks down into two.
The mix engine isn't the end of the world. If no one told you it was there, many
wouldn't know the difference. (Many who do prefer to mix onto a Masterlink or 24
bit Tascam DAT machine just for the purpose of avoiding the mix engine.) However,
when we come straight out of the hard disc system's "mixdown mode" via the digital
output, we get a first generation virtual "master." I quote the word "master" because
it's really not a "hard copy" master - it's just a "pass" of the multitrack machine,
but it's going straight into my mastering rig.
The advantage is that when the artist, engineer or producer is here, on top of
my mastering tweaks, we can tweak some mix issues right on the spot! So rather
than me trying to draw out more kic drum (if that's what I think it needs), I just
suggest to the artist "bring up the kick drum." This offers the best of both worlds.
You've spent the lionshare of time mixing to your satisfaction, and we add my opinion
into the mix/mastering, and usually it comes up a new level of quality. :Plus with
CDs becoming louder and louder, you really need to accentuate some aspects of your
mix in order to retain the punch that you want in the first place.
That all being said, this isn't' the only way to have a great sounding CD. Many
folks get great results from the stereo masters they've made whether they're on
audio CD, analog tape, DAT, AIFF file etc. This is just just one more option and
it's up to you if it's practical and appropriate for your project.
The extra mixing during a mastering session can add to the time needed to complete
the project. But sometimes one little boost or dip of one instrument can make all
the needed difference, and that amounts to a couple more minutes. Sometimes, the
whole thing needs major surgery!!!! This can cause the mastering session to go a
lot longer unless you are really prepared - and here's a few tips:
1) Be fast on your computer/hard disc system. Know your stuff - I move fast in mixing
situations, so be ready to cook!
2) Have cue points or markers where you can instantly go to a certain area. So if
I say "Please play verse 2 again" you don't have to hunt on a screen - you press
whatever your hot key is to cue to verse 2 and zap! it's playing. Mark all the
verses, chorus', bridges, solos, etc., but not more than 10 cue points.
3) Know which tracks are automated and (if so) which tracks aren't.
4) Be able to "select all" tracks in the waveform editing window (envelop window)
so that you can bring all the tracks down 3 or 4 dB without disturbing the balance
between everything in the mix - sort of like bringing all faders down proportionately.
5) Know your pluggins and screens well. Sometimes I'll ask to play with the eq or
compression parameters - be able to get back and forth quickly.
6) Know how to set your clock source to digital in (could be called AES/EBU in or
SPDIF in). This is so I can send you a signal from a better clock which then makes
your machine sound better.
7) Once you're mix sessions are all saved and you're ready to go, do a "Save As"
for every song and give each song a new name in case we need to refer back to what
you did originally. For instance, if your song is called "Peace Train," - save as
"Peace Train.2" or something like that, perhaps in a new folder.
8) Make sure your computer is running smoothly and isn't so fragile that a ride
in the back seat of your car is going to make it wig out. Back up your hard drive
- bring an audio CD burnt from your mixes so we can compare what were doing with
what you had before.
Q) In mastering, are you working with the original 16 tracks? -Jon
Only if that' practical and/or preferred.
If you're fine-tuning the original tracks, should I go back and automate each
track on every song?
Each system is different. Hard disc systems like Roland's VS series probably need
all tracks able to be recallable. Be sure you know how to modify stuff easily.
Computer-based Digital Audio Workstations keep the fader levels, eq settings etc.
in place whether you've automated them or not. You just want to be sure that the
mix you heard at home is the mix you're going to start out with when we plug in your
But... you don't have to go to that length. If you're happy with your masters,
just send them! Some folks just have questions about what's required to get closer
to that top-of-the-line engineering quality that pro artists have.
Digital isn't the answer to pro sound - some folks hare a misconception that if
it's recorded digitally, it's perfect and it will sound like the majors. In many
cases digital is used by the majors (not all), but all of the elements starting
from the ground up go into what makes the smooth, big sound you hear on a commercial
CD (hey just singing in tune is a big plus). Lots of digital pluggins and such are
trying to emulate the "old" sound of vintage compressors and equalizers and
analog tape, just because it all sounded so good! Straight digital tends to be a
little cold and harsh unless you've paid the price of great converters and other
hardware, like the big studios have...
What I have now are my own 2-track stereo masters using the Roland mastering function,
Be careful about a "Mastering" function. That could just be a word for "stereo audio CD"
or it could mean more digital processing applied to the stereo buss in order to
"enhance" your mix. Additional stereo processing to the stereo buss recalculates
the numbers and can shrink down the sound if you're not careful. Generally, it's
best to do your eq, compression, reverb, fxs etc. to the individual tracks and leave
the stereo buss alone.
I've also had several clients who just don't like the sound of the CDRs that the
Roland makes for them (that may improve with time). They prefer the sound that
comes straight from the mixdown mode. Therefore you'd need to be able to recall
them all from whatever drive they reside on - be that external or internal. But
again, this isn't a pitch for you to spend more money with me or go over the top
unless it's appropriate for you to do that. I'd rather you be happy with what
you've produced and what you've spent, then have you go to a lot of trouble and
expense if it means missing two months of car payments!
I suspect you need to work with original tracks, so automating the mixes is
Automated is great if you can bring in the computer or hard disc system, but I
don't need to do it that way. It's your option - I can do it from whatever 2
track source you provide me with, even a cassette!
As far as how the cost is affected, 10 songs would need a minimum of 5 hours
with standard 2-track mastering, and it could go as much as 1 hour per song
with mixing weaved into the process. The package prices automatically upgrade
proportionately as the number of hours goes up. And remember, your music is the
most important thing - the sound is just icing on the cake.
John Vestman is a veteran mastering engineer with over 26 years in the industry.
His credits include: Hole (Courtney Love), Juice Newton, Ambrosia, Andre Crouch,
The Wynans, Great White, Candyman, Billy Davis Jr./Marilyn McCoo and more. John
Vestman Mastering is located in Orange County, California, and his web site
http://johnvestman.com offers over 40 pages of information about successful studio
recording techniques and sound philosophy.