Detailed Mastering FAQ

Q: Why do we need to pay someone to master our record at all?

A: If nothing else; simple objectivity and complete understanding of the mastering process. Fresh ears skilled at squeezing every last drop of sound and space out of your mixes takes a completely different kind of well-trained critical ear, and there’s also a surprisingly different set of equipment as well. This includes everything from bypassing the built-in (eek!) converters in Pro Tools when bouncing a mix to disk with something like the WEISS box, to the sound that comes out of monitors specifically made for mastering, to the converters used to transfer between digital formats (like WEISS’ Saracon which I adore) to the external processors we couldn’t live without, like our MANLEY MASTERING EQ) to the ATR-102 1/2″ tape machine, modified by Mike Spitz and more.

But all the fancy gear in the world is no replacement for an objective set of trained ears that can twist the depth, or the punch, or the clarity, or any of the other things you’re looking for out of the mixes you worked so hard to create with the seemingly endless list of tools that are now available to just about anyone. Most studios add mastering as an afterthought, but the Playground has been re-built as a mastering studio that is also quite capable of tracking equally as well, rather than the other way around. Yes, we’ve got Neve pre-amps, as well as Shadow Hill and Avedis MA5’s, but we made sure that the studio was first and foremost, capable of mastering even the most difficult and desperately in need of TLC records.

Q: How much will it cost and how long will it take?

A: This is perhaps the most-asked question we get (which is inevitably followed by “What format do we need our music to be in?) . Even though we’ve done a massive upgrade of the studio, especially in terms of mastering capabilities, mastering is still just $50.00/song or $500.00 for an entire album.

As far as time involved, there is, for purely mechanical reasons, an absolute minimum time to get your project done. Briefly, this is an overview of the minimum steps and approximate time:

  1. The material must be copied or transferred to our computer and then properly organized.
  2. Song markers need to be placed at the start of each track, timing and fades need to be added.
  3. Making sure all levels are even and not clipping anywhere…all done through listening in real time.
  4. Listen to each track making any needed adjustments on a song-by-song basis.
  5. A backup needs to be created for the archives and later retrieval.

So, for the above mechanical processes, not including a lot creative adjustments or the inevitable “Can we get a copy to play in our car on the way home?”, we’re looking about 6-8 hours minimum in total for an entire album. This is to just organize the material into a CD, making sure that it all sounds reasonably “together” and there are song pointers and no errors, with very little creative input or musical modifications to the original source material.

Then, you can go from there. Some bands want to tweak every song until it’s just right, and then go home, listen to what they or we’ve come up with, and come back with fresh ears the next day. I would say that 8-12 hours to master a record is typical, and 4 days of 6 hours each day is not unheard of.

Q: Do we need to be there for mastering?

A: No, not at all! – Many bands simply send of a hard disk or a data disk with their mixes on it, and give us an idea of what they’re looking for. We then master on out time, within the allotted time, and send the final product off to you. You of course are free to comment, make notes, and offer any needed changes. We go back in, fix, and repeat. Many bands send the material in advance, and then come in for just a few hours for the “final tweaks” and listening. It’s really up to each band and their location as well as preference.

Q: Can we bring our favorite CD and have you make ours sound like that?

A: You are far more than welcome to bring in a “reference” CD of what kind of sound you’re going for, but it’s important to remember this: There’s only so much can be done in the mastering process to emulate reference music. We can’t promise a match, but can promise that we work with every last detail of the material we’re given to get it as close as sonically possible to what you’re hoping to hear. Many hope that mastering will be that mystical “magic wand” that we can wave and make bad mixes good, but the truth is that we can help make good mixes sound great, we can preserve every last nuance of mixes, maybe giving them a little more punch and impact, but there’s still no way to polish a turd.

Q: What format should our material be in?

A: This question is answered in-depth HERE, but the short answer is to send/bring 1/2″ tape or stereo mixes in as high a resolution format as possible, preferably in 24-bit or 32-bit WAV (or higher), multiple mono format (The LEFT channel and the RIGHT channel are each their own files). AIFF stereo interleaved files work well, but are not as pure as multiple mono WAV files.

Whatever you do, do not bring in an audio CD of your music (one that will play on a CD player). Bring in a DATA disk (or hard disk) of your mixes. Again, a full discussion about this very thing is in our “What to Bring With Us” article found elsewhere on our website. We prefer to do all of the converting and dithering and reductions here, to preserve every last detail of your original material, and please do not use a “maximizer” of any kind on your mixes either. This will only crush the peaks, reducing the dynamic range, and introduce audible digital distortion on your mixes as well.

Q: How far in advance are you booked?

A: Weekend sessions are typically booked 1-2 weeks in advance, but weekdays sessions; you can sometimes get in the same week or even the same day. Even better is sending the source material in advance so we can do most of the transferring, organizing, level-setting, and general mastering tweaks in advance of your arrival. Then, you can show up for the last few hours (many bands actually don’t show up at all), to help fine tune the master into it’s final form.

Q: Do you always alter the sound of the source material?

A: This is COMPLETELY dependant on the band and what they’re looking to accomplish with the mastering process. There have been records I’ve mastered where we barely touched a thing, concerned mostly with spacing and volume, and there have been some projects where we were working as hard as we could to “save” some bad mixes…carving and tweaking until we were able to get all that the source material had to offer out of it.

Q: Do you use cool analog gear like Pultech EQ’s?

A: The romantic idea of putting your entire mix through some vintage EQ such a Pultech, isn’t as romantic when you actually hear what these (amazing) pieces of gear do to your sound. Even the best maintained vintage gear often colors your sound simply by putting your signal through it, and not in the ways you imagine. Yes, we have a Pultech so you can hear the sound, but we much prefer our “Analog Channel” plug-in, as well as our Avalon or Manley Mastering EQ’s if we decide that we need to leave the digital realm. They’re ultra clean, and add that fat warmth of tubes, but while maintaining the full frequency and dynamic range.

I actually wrote a VERY in-depth article about this very topic in my article called “Why Digital Does Analog Better Than Analog Does” on my personal blog. And in all honesty…let your ears do the listening and not what you think would be cool to use on your CD.

Q: Can you make our record louder than anyone else’s?

A: Yes, we can make it louder than anyone else’s, but volume comes at the cost of dynamics when pushed too far (See my “Nothing Goes Louder Than Zero” article for details). Something that has never changed from the early days of pressing vinyl…is that there is a ceiling to the volume level you can reach. Louder sounds on vinyl make fatter grooves in the record, and limited the amount of music you could put on one side of an album.

Digital is actually less forgiving, and not only are we limited by ZERO as our maximum level, digital clipping is rather unpleasant, unlike analog clipped which is called saturation.

Furthermore, the most critical piece of information is this: With any increase in perceived volume level, it will be at the loss of something else.

The “something else is a loss of bottom end or dynamic range. Low frequencies take up A LOT of room in a mix, so if you make a mix less “fat”, you can get more volume. Alternatively, if you want to keep your mix as fat as possible, you would have to add some compression to make the song “louder”. This will make the louder parts seem less loud and the quiet parts seem more loud, but the overall effect is an increase in the overall volume of the song.

Unfortunately, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, but that is part of the art of mastering: We balance the elements to give you the best sounding record possible from the source material you provided us with.

Q: Who will be mastering our material?

A: That depends largely on time and budget, but Keith Cleversley does most of the mastering at Wavefront Mastering. Keith has many years of ultra-critical listening and beta-testing many new plug-ins for several software companies such as Waves, Nomad Factory, and a few others, so he knows every plug-in available for mastering in some way inside and out, and how to get exactly the sound he’s looking for out of each one. It’s incredible how different each manufacturer’s EQ or compressor can sound.

We also allow outside engineers to master at the Playground, but the rate is still $85.00/hour.

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