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How to Prepare for CD Mastering - by John Vestman
1. Call each company you will be using for your production, and map out a schedule... all the way up to delivery date. As creative people, it's easy for us to focus on the moment and forget the big picture. Some of my clients were in a rush to get their cd mastered, only to have delays and complications with graphics, printing, pressing, you name it. Get a calendar and chart what needs to be done so that everything is in sync leading up to getting your cds in hand.

2. Book the session 1 to 2 weeks in advance, so that you have time to think about any last minute questions or ideas that you want to bring up in the session.

3. Label your master tapes with the names of the songs, the id numbers (if using DAT), and the time location on the tape where each song starts. Include the name of the artist or producer on the tape, and assign a number, like tape #1, tape #2, etc.

4. Make a list of the songs in the order you think you'd like on the final cd. This order can be changed if you like. Order changes are fairly common in mastering, and it's easy to do. If you have labeled each master tape, you can put the location of each song on your list. This will make it faster to find your material.

5. If you are making cassettes, write down the times of each song, and calculate how long Side A will be and how long Side B will be, figuring about 2-3 seconds between songs. It is very important that Side A is longer than Side B, because if a listener has her cassette deck set to "auto reverse", then Side B will start right away instead of leaving a long gap in the middle of the album. Aim for 20 seconds or less difference between side lengths.

6. If you are using analog reel-to-reel tapes, be sure there are alignment tones on one of the reels. This is so I can set my playback machine to sound the way the record machine sounded.

7. Make a list of what you think needs processing and editing on your songs. For instance, you may feel that one song needs more bass, and another one needs more vocal. If you're in a group, have a meeting to listen to all the songs to make notes. Note: If you find that the bass player wants more bass, the drummer wants more drums, the vocalist wants more vocals, and the guitarist wants more... you get the picture....... Order pizza, and let the mastering engineer decide. One of the benefits of mastering is that someone with a completely objective point of view will be listening with fresh ears and a knowledge of the "sonic marketplace". Handling these things correctly means that your music will sound consistent from song-to-song, and the whole cd will sound great out in the real world.

8. KNOW YOUR BUDGET. Ask up front for a cost estimate, but realize, it is almost impossible to predict how much it will take for your project. If you know your budget, you can find out what you'll get at that price. In my experience, the average album runs four to eight hours to complete, but it can be less and it can be more if creative enhancements are wanted by the client. One time I had a client that had cymbal crashes that were just too loud every time they hit. We did level correction on each crash, and it took more than an hour of unexpected time. But the result was fantastic! The vocals came out more, and the whole mix seemed bigger. The artist was very pleased with the result. (Here's a graphic of a project with some of the creative things that can be done in mastering.)

9. Bring a couple of commercial cds with you that you LOVE the sound of. This gives me an exact reference for your taste. You have listened to your favorite cds many times at home (and perhaps in the car) and you're familiar with the tone and overall level of those cds. My system is level-matched so that we can compare your project with the commercial cds, and you'll know exactly how your sound compares.

Interesting: One customer brought in about five cds, all of which he thought sounded great. After we did some comparisons with his project, he was shocked to hear that there were different aspects of at least four of the popular cds that he disliked. He heard differences on my system that he had never heard on his own. This is common, since many home systems have their own "tone" which tends to mask the differences in sonic qualities on different cds. I've spent years refining my listening system so that every sonic quality can be easily heard, making it easy to refine and perfect your sound.

10. When you have your reference cd, don't just rush back to the studio where you mixed it for your first listen. Check it out on home systems, boom boxes, the car, clubs, etc. You've been accustomed to hearing it in the studio, and it's going to sound different than you were used to in that "creative cocoon". What's more important is the real world. Take notes about what you hear. The mastering engineer can easily reproduce what was done before and make the changes you would like, if any are needed. Every mastering studio makes these kinds of changes from time to time, and it should be very cost-effective to do so.

1. Don't compress the stereo output buss. It restricts what we can do in mastering.
2. Listen to your favorite commercial cds in the control room to compare with your sound.
3. Be aware of the level of the lead vocals from song-to-song. Relisten to your previous mixes.
4. Allow for extra time to mix. Nothing is worse at this critical stage than running out of money, and you end up stuck with less than the best. Mixing is a crucial point in your project.
5. Take breaks, have fun, enjoy the process. Treat your mixing engineer to lunch or dinner. It will go a long way toward a fresh and pleasing experience.

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 offers over 40 pages of information about successful studio recording techniques and sound philosophy.

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