Why is mastering important - Part 1

Lately, it’s getting more and more confusing for the artists when it comes to mastering. Some want to sell CD’s, some over internet, either from their website, or through online stores. And, when it comes to online stores, there are a couple of preferred formats. Even more, the normal last step – mastering – due to different formats required by different markets, has also implication on how you have to think the recording and the mixing process. 

The best way to deal with this issue is to get informed and understand the process. It’s not NASA science, it just takes a bit of time, and the intention of the next couple of blogs is to shed a light in this subject. Let’s start by looking at the most common mastering formats:

Mastering for Compact Disc – CD-R master or DDP

I advise to find first a CD manufacturer, and see if he works with DDP, or he wants a physical CD master.  A DDP image is preferable, and it is easier to handle, as it can be delivered over internet. The reason why is preferable over a CD master is the lack or errors that can occur with physical CDs (read/write errors, scratches, skips, or purely the ability of the burned to burn without errors – actually every burned has errors, but they have to be within some standards). The DDP (Disk Description Protocol) is a digital image of a compact disc and includes all the info: the audio files, the tracks, the CD text and ISRC codes. In a DDP everything is properly done, and there is no possibility of errors, like when you handle individual files. Listening to a DDP as a client, you actualy hear exactly the same thing the mastering engineer heard. Some mastering houses offer a complementary DDP player, but, if you can’t get one, you can buy one dirt cheap.

But if the CD manufacturer prefers a CD master, then this is what you ask for, and, once you get it, please handle with care, to avoid any scratches, do not listen to it in your car, etc.

Mastering for vinyl

Some of you may smile , but hear me out: in 2015 the vinyl sales surpassed the  CD sales!!! The vinyls are also the choice for some music audiophiles and the preferred choice for some specific music styles. The resolution of the audio files needed is higher than the resolution used for CD masters (16 bit 44K); usually, it is the native resolution of the project. Unlike the CD master, there are certain limitations which demand some technical requirements. The master should be optimized for vinyl, you just can’t use the CD master.

A very interesting story regarding mastering for vinyl is the making of Thriller of Michael Jackson. When Quincy Jones – the producer - and Bruce Swedien – the mixing engineer (two music legends) got the first master, they were extremely surprised: it sounded weak! The reason was the length of the sides! The longer the sides, the weaker the sound! So, they cut from the length of the sides! That has to do with the physical limitation imposed by the dimensions of the vinyl. So, before thinking of releasing an album on vinyl, it will be useful to talk to a mastering engineer who has a good idea about these limitations, and ask for his advice. Today so many regular albums have more than an hous and that would be a problem, so, if you plan to release both CD and vinyl, get the facts first. Contact also the manufacturing plant, they know what’s better for their lacquer cutting process.

Mastering for music licensing – videos

The typical format is 16 bit / 48K wav files, and you can ask the mastering engineer for masters at this resolution if you are serious about it. And don’t forget that in most cases you want to get the instrumental version mastered, as they are very common when it comes to licensing. While you may have to pay a bit more,  you want the sample rate conversion to be done with the proper tools so you get the best sound quality. If you leave it for others to do it, the quality most likely will suffer, the conversion done in video studios is a low quality one. And one more thing: get 320 kbps MP3s, so you can send it fast for auditioning, and, of course, get them mastered, to increase your chances to have your music licensed.

Mastering for iTunes

I already discussed this in one of my previous blogs. What is really important, especially for independent artists, that are selling their music through aggregators, is to have the masters at 24 bit, preferably at 96kHz (but if they are at a lower sample rate do not upsample, it will not help), and you want to know that the mastering engineer leaves enough headroom to avoid clipping when the conversion is done by aggregators. 

There are a couple of standard tools to check how a file sounds when it is converted to AAC or mp3, like the Wavelab Encoder built in Wavelab 8.5, the free droplets provided by Apple -Riund Trip AAC - etc. A great solution is the Sonnoc Fraunhofer Pro Codec, which allows not only the audition and accurate peak detection during conversion, but it has an extremely accurate conversion- let’s not forget that Apple actually pays royalties for the Fraunhofer codec – and, even more important, you can also audition what is eliminated during the conversion. In one of the future blogs I will put clips with the audio part that is left out during conversion.

Mastering for online distribution

a.     iTunes standard, Spotify and others

They require 16 bit / 44.1 kHz wav files, and the rule is basically the same: your mastering engineer has to make sure he leaves some headroom to avoid clipping. You need to ask for the files that afterwards are burnt on Cddo not use them from the CD. Also, do some homework, like checking the mp3s resolution that the online stores aggregators are using for distribution (is it at 256, or 192, or 320 kbps) as it makes a difference on the amount of headroom needed. From this point of view, I can’t recommend enough you deal with a mastering place that is using the Sonnoc Pro Codec, which shows the best all these differences.

b.     Bandcamp and Soundcloud

You definitely can upload here files at higher resolution- 24 bit and sample rates higher than 44.1 k. From this point of view, whenever you decide to record your songs, check out the studio capabilities, you want to deal with a studio that can work at the highest possible resolution, and you want to maintain it through the chain- mixing/editing/mastering. The fact that Bandcamp and Soundcloud allow the use of higher resolution files should be exploited, as the sound quality f the compressed files – as mp3s – will be better. 

Stay tuned,

Flo Fandango

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