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The Recording Process - Part 5 - What Is Mastering?
By Leon & Sheryl Olguin - 09/19/2002 - 05:36 PM EDT

The recording process begins with your musical ideas and ends with a finished product that faithfully preserves these ideas and represents your musical vision. Now you have something tangible (a CD or a cassette) that you can share with everyone.

To get from the beginning to the end, you have to go through a series of steps, several of which we have dealt with. We’ve talked about preparing to record, financial matters, and what actually happens in a recording studio. We’re now getting close to the end of the process, when we come to mastering and manufacturing.

It may helpful at this point to review the steps leading up to this point:

1. Planning the project (assessing your abilities, finding the right songs, determining arrangements, finding musicians, copyrights…).
2. Finding the studio.
3. Setting up a budget (also determining how long the project will take).
4. Basic tracks (Drums, guitars, keyboards, the basic backing)
5. Vocal tracking.
6. Overdubs (Solos, strings, horns, backing vocals, etc.)
7. Mixing.
8. Reviewing mixes.
9. Additional tracking, if needed.
10. Additional mixing if needed.

We should note that there are many possible variations to the above process, but this is the way it works out for most projects. This leads us to the final steps:

11. Master assembly.
12. Mastering.
13. Manufacturing.

Master assembly could be considered the first part of “mastering.” When you are through recording and mixing, what you have are a collection of single song mixes, contained on one or more master tapes (usually DATS – digital audio tapes or CDs). Now these mixes must be edited into a complete “master” that flows from beginning to end in the order you want, with the right amount of space between songs. In the old days of analog tape, this was done by physically editing the mixes, i.e., cutting and reassembling the tape. The amount of leader between the mixes determined the amount of space between the songs.

When using DATS, the final master may be assembled by transferring between two DAT machines. A great many digital recordings are assembled on a DAW (digital audio workstation) with the assembled material then transferred to a DAT or a CD-R (recordable CD). Don’t worry if you’re new to recording and some of these terms are unfamiliar. The more you work in the studio, the more you will learn.

Once the master assembly is complete, the recording must go through the mastering process. Most of the time this is done in a different facility than where the tracking and mixing were done. There are studios specifically set up for this purpose, where they do nothing but mastering.

Mastering is the link between the production process and the manufacturing process. Your project will go from the recording studio, to the mastering studio, to the manufacturing facility where the copies will be made.

In the mastering process, the overall level is set, as well as song-to-song or “relative” levels (this keeps folks from having to turn the volume up and down when listening to your CD!). The mastering engineer may also use compression and/or EQ to make your music sound as good as possible when played on a home or car stereo system.

The mastering process can be a little hard to understand at first. Many musicians think, “I’ve spent all this time on my project, I’ve come up with some great mixes, how can someone who’s never even heard my music make it sound better?

A good mastering engineer brings a new perspective to your album. When you are in the midst of recording your project, you and your producer will concentrate on one song at a time. The result is that your mixes will have subtle differences: the peak levels will be slightly different; the EQs for each song are different, etc. The mastering engineer will look at the album as a whole, and try to bring unity with the use of gain, EQ, and compression. His goal is to achieve a consistent sound, and to make it sound the way you want on any home stereo system. He will also be able to raise the overall level so that your CD is as “hot” as any major label release. If the CD of your final mixes doesn’t sound “loud” enough, or doesn’t sound quite the same as your “regular” CDs, don’t fret. After the mastering process, that problem is always solved!

When the mastering engineer is finished, the program (your album) is transferred to a “Production Master” (usually a CD-R) and sent to the plant that will make the actual copies.

For an excellent article on the mastering process, you can go to:

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