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My experience in discovering the need for mastering was very recent. I had created my first respectable mix, and thus thought I was finished, but I could not figure out why it was so quiet compared to commercial CD's, even though the meters would read the same value.

I posed the question of my perplexingly quiet mix in another forum, and the responses led to my discovery of the mastering process. I then had it mastered by a studio, and indeed the levels were rendered adequate.

However, I am still puzzled by the apparent necessity of this intermediary step. My question is, why does mastering (or rather mixing?) itself exist? From the technical/hardware point of view, why has someone or some company not developed a system that allows one to lay tracks at mastered levels, so that one goes from tracking to mastering rather than tracking to a mix that then needs to be mastered? Perhaps there is some obvious reason and benefit for the two steps rather than one, and I am curious.

Massive Mastering Mon, 10/20/2008 - 12:46

First - "or rather mixing" -- No, the mixing step is absolutely necessary. Records won't mix themselves.

As far as the *volume* portion of the mastering process is concerned, it's more or less an afterthought. Yes, volume happens during the mastering phase - But it's by far NOT the core of the process.

The point of mastering is to (hold on to your hats) create a compliant replication master (that's why it's called "mastering").

Why not at those levels? Because they're absolutely INSANE - that's why.

It takes extremely clean signal paths - Loads and loads of headroom at every conceivable stage in the recording and mixing process to come out with a mix that can handle the "abuse" of the current trend in volume.

Gear just isn't made to do what we're asking of it. And it shouldn't be - I don't want to go on a rant about how crappy most records sound at this point in time, but c'mon...

But the benefits should be pretty apparent if you've ever recorded straight from a live console to a CD recorder. There, you're skipping the - well, you're skipping the "traditional" mixing process (as you're stuck with what you get) and skipping the mastering process completely.

In any case, the mastering process includes, but isn't limited to, a final "quality check" - along with the obvious tweaking to insure translation on the widest possible array of playback systems, making sure the volume from mix to mix flows properly - along with the general flow of the project as a whole. And that whole "make it really loud" crap also.

Long story short - Your mix was not quiet - It was completely normal and typical. It's the other stuff out there that's far too loud. Back some years ago, any of us would've been run out of town on a rail if we cranked out the ridiculously over-crushed stuff that people beg us to crank out now.

However, I am still puzzled by the apparent necessity of this intermediary step. My question is, why does mastering (or rather mixing?) itself exist? From the technical/hardware point of view, why has someone or some company not developed a system that allows one to lay tracks at mastered levels, so that one goes from tracking to mastering rather than tracking to a mix that then needs to be mastered? Perhaps there is some obvious reason and benefit for the two steps rather than one, and I am curious.

There are no intermediary steps - They're completely and totally unrelated tasks. You can't "go to mastering" -- You can go to mixing at ridiculous levels if you want - Plenty of people do (then they wonder why the mastering engineer sends them back for remixes). But you have to mix. Otherwise, you might as well go from tracking to shrinkwrap.

Mastering is the final assembly and authoring. It's the final detailing on the car - It's not the car, it's hardly even the paint on the car. It's not the model, it's the makeup on the model. It's the sprinkles on the icing on the cake. It's the presentation of all of the previous steps in the process. YES - It CAN have an apparent and sometimes extreme sonic impact on the material. Sometimes. It can 'kick it up a notch' to some extent - But it's not something to "jump" to...

jm2 Mon, 10/20/2008 - 15:04

Thank you for the reply. Perhaps I did not phrase my question as well as I could have. In any event, some parts of your post help, but I must admit that I remain saddled with some conflicting ideas (mostly related to volume). Perhaps I will gain a better understanding over time and with more learning.

Even without the exact answer I am looking for, I am resigned to making mixes that have adequate headroom (as I have been told to do), so that I can have them properly mastered by others later. I would not let my mental block interfere with getting the best sound I can with my extremely modest resources.

mark_van_j Mon, 10/20/2008 - 17:29

I guess some things to keep in mind are:

1) Mastering is not primarily done to make tracks louder. Making tracks "louder" is more or less a by-product of the "loudness wars", though one could argue it dates back to mastering on tape when the signal needed to be as far away as possible from the noise floor. But from what I understand (and this is debatable) mastering was initially just meant to cut any stray peaks when cut to vinyl as to not make the needle jump.

2) Mastering is primarily intended to EQ the mix in such a way, to make it compatible with most speakers of various sizes and to smooth out any bumps or holes in the spectrum. Sure you can do it yourself, but remember that most mastering engineers spend pornographically obscene amounts of money, getting the best sounding cables, AD/DA converters, speakers, room treatment, amps, limiters, compressors and EQ's*, in an effort to hear absolutely everything there is to hear**. Not to mention the decades of training their ears have gotten, and experience of what will actually work and sound good "in the real world".

But yeah you could throw on an L3...

3) In mastering, you also get to not only create the proper fade-outs/crossfades between songs, but also setting the PQ's and transferring to Exabyte, all of which will make your CD more professional.

So as you see, mastering is not JUST about making things louder, but it's part of a larger process. You can make mixes louder yourself, but you'll probably end up using the same process as in mastering, just not the same quality of gear and settings...

Recording, is taking sounds and creating tracks. Mixing is taking those tracks and making them all fit sonically to create a decent sounding song. Mastering is taking those songs, putting the cherry on top and serving them on a platter (album). Hope this makes sense... :)

* I know a mastering engineer that spent 6 years making his own EQ because none that he could find on the market sounded exactly the way he wanted an EQ to sound. It has no writing, therefore only he knows what the knobs do, and where what frequency is. He valued it at around $14,000.

** I've truly experienced this only once, when an artist spent a fair bit of money to go to a higher end mastering studio. It was about 30 years old, and had just as many years put into perfecting it's acoustics. It seemed like a fairly small studio, but at least a third of it was used as a bass trap, out of view. It also had the largest collection of Weiss gear in Canada, all remote controlled... anyways, I digress... The whole mastering session, I was sitting in the back corner and making comments and observations. I didn't really hear what was getting processed and I just thought it was because the guy could hear a needle drop on the bottom of the Atlantic. But at the end, he sat me down in the "sweet spot" to give my final opinion... I swear I've never heard anything like it. Not only to HEAR everything, but I was litterally immersed in my mixes. I was hearing everything in 3D. I could close my eyes and be IN the song. The sounds were coming from left, right, up down, back front, the reverb was so clearly separated from the music, the stereo definition was nothing like I've EVER heard. It was seriously one of the most exciting times of my life...

fourone3 Tue, 10/21/2008 - 03:55

mark_van_j wrote: pornographically obscene

Hahahaha. I love it! And it's funny because it's so true.

What do you all think about these places popping up more and more claiming to do mastering? It seems like I'm finding a lot of these around.

If one of these places only has software and no hardware to be seen, is that a good indication that your money would be best spent elsewhere? I've been looking around my area at different places, but I'm a bit wary of these places that use only software.

Massive Mastering Tue, 10/21/2008 - 08:26

I have a few thoughts on the subject (many of which are [[url=http://[/URL]=""] HERE[/]=""] HERE[/]) -- But in short, many of them aren't doing anything you can't do yourself (as much as it's still preferable for an unbiased engineer to throw in).

Keep in mind that I'm drawing a line between "mastering facilities" and "guys with plugins who make stuff louder" also.

In any case, better that a place claims to use only software than one that *claims* a long list of hardware that they don't have. And monitoring will always mean more than gear - hard or soft - as will the engineer's experience.

Massive Mastering Wed, 10/22/2008 - 02:55

mark_van_j wrote: [quote=Massive Mastering]In any case, better that a place claims to use only software than one that *claims* a long list of hardware that they don't have.

I know of a couple of studios that have a long list of vintage gear, that always seems to be out in "repair"... Definitely look out for those.

I used to have a little fun with the places that would steal my gear list -- I'd call them up (not using my real name, of course) and offer them ridiculous amounts of money to rent a few pieces for an "emergency recording session" that just came up.

"Uh, umm, well, we... Uh..."

Good times... Right before my attorney would send them CAD orders...

BobRogers Wed, 10/22/2008 - 09:31

I think it's important to understand the history. From the late 40's to the 70's mixing and mastering were more distinct jobs. One person took all the tracks and mixed a stereo master tape. The mastering engineer took that tape and prepared a master disk. (That's a record with physical grooves for all you young'uns.) Different technologies with different requirements. In particular, limiting and compression were often necessary to keep the needle from jumping out of the grooves, so these tools became associated with mastering. (There are still reasons to leave overall limiting and compression till the end of the process, even if there are no grooves.)

The two-stage process has proved valuable enough that it has been preserved in the digital age even though the technical differences between the jobs have essentially disappeared. Now the mixing engineer prepares a stereo file and the mastering engineer does the final manipulation of that file to prepare it for replication. The technical aspects of that preparation are easy to learn, and so any fool with the appropriate software can call himself a mastering engineer.

You really should experiment with limiting and/or compressing the final mix yourself. Make sure to save a copy of the uncompressed mix. That is what you should send to a mastering studio if you decide to go that route. Try every stereo limiter or compressor you have across the final mix. I use Maxim and find that it is really pretty easy to squash down a few peaks and raise the average volume to the point where my mix doesn't sound out of place with commercial CDs - all this without turning the waveform into solid bricks of noise. At the very least it will give you an idea of some of what you are paying for at a pro shop.

Michael Fossenkemper Thu, 10/23/2008 - 07:29

History is always important in understanding why things are still done a certain way. There are many benefits and drawbacks to self mastering and farming it out. I've done both in the past and on the rare occasion I do get asked to mix something, I now farm it out. Not because I don't have the gear or the know how, cause i do, but because I've taken on baggage that only time gets rid of. So I prefer to hand it over to someone else to check me. It allows the project to have objective ears layed on it and a big picture attitude wrapped around it. I keep the interests of my clients in the front and not let my ego get in the way of getting the best end result for them. Now I just don't hand it over to anyone, I make sure it's in good hands. Most times I don't even listen to the end result for months afterwards because I know the ME, Producer, Artist know what they are doing and don't need me looking over their shoulder. If they are happy with the end result, that's all I really care about. If they aren't, then I step in and see what needs to be done.

So while lots of things have changed with technology and ability, the benefits of handing it over still outweigh everything IMO.

uncamike Sat, 10/25/2008 - 02:50

About this in response to JM's question...

First I am having a bit of confusion about what you mean exactly by levels. Computers and hardware cannot discern or hear music so they do not know what levels are. In the mixing process we are not married to the mix. This means it is static. It changes constantly. As a mixer I want it static. I need to be able to change the EQ, level, midi tones and effects when ever I want. Once I have found my mix I am ready to master it.

Here is the problem. I like my mix but it doesn't sound like the places that make professional recordings. It lacks that luster that makes the tracks pop and sound hot like on pro recordings. First problem is that speakers come in all shapes and sizes. Also people listen to music in all types of environments. If you mix to headphones you are not getting a real sound of the music since the music is hitting both ears at the same time. That does not happen outside of the headphones where ears are at different distances from the speakers. Effects that sound huge in the headphones may not even make the air in the room breath so tracks can get flat fast. Most people listen to their tunes in there car going to and from work. It would be nice to mix it to sound best in the car. Keep in mind the air is compressed in the car and your mix may well suck in other places.

Now to the point of my post. In these studios that master they have another weapon in their arsanal that they are not telling you about sitting in their rack. They use compressors and limiters to help, but that is not what makes your mix jump out. It is called an aural exciter and it's made by Aphex. Aphex has the patent on it and licenses the technology to other companies. Do not ask me which is the best one. I have no idea. It is pretty simple in what it does. In all music there is cancellation of sound because the sound is in phase. If you hit a C note on your keyboard it will come out of both speakers at the same time. The C note wave from one speaker will conflict and hit the wave from the other speaker and cause cancelation which dulls the sound. Sometimes if you do it just right in your tracking software you can cancel a sound all together but it has to be done perfectly. You can get rid of white noise this way. It is still there but you can't hear it because it cancels itself out.

What the exciter does is simply moves the sound out of phase. It can be less than a millesecond and that is enough to keep the phase from cancelling itself out. This effect will brighten up the tracks and give that punch that pro recordings have. The levels of sound don't change. It is the same amount of volume. It is just keeping the waves from conflicting. Air needs to move to make sound. All sound is is a wave of air. When one wave of air hits another at the same time it blocks it. You can compress and limit even crank the volume all you want but if you don't run the sound through some kind of aural exciter it will still be lacking. I do not know which product or company has the best and I am not going to endorse one or the other.

Here is a website that has a little history about Aphex and the company that holds the patent:

Older models of exciters can be bought off Ebay for pretty cheap and for most purposes are just as good as a new one.

I don't know if this answered your question, but I hope it helps.

Thomas W. Bethel Sat, 10/25/2008 - 05:37


I know of NO professional mastering operation that uses an aural exciter for any reason. Where you got that idea is beyond me. Mastering engineers do what they do mostly with equalization and compression/limiting and on rare occasions by over driving the A to D converter.

It is all in the skill of the mastering engineer and has less to do with equipment and more to do with listening critically and having a good monitoring setup so they can hear what is going on.

If you are going to post then please get your facts correct before you post anything. Thanks!

24-96 Mastering Sun, 10/26/2008 - 08:24

In these studios that master they have another weapon in their arsanal that they are not telling you about sitting in their rack. (snip) It is called an aural exciter and it's made by Aphex.

Damn... you got me.

Robin Schmidt
24-96 Mastering

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