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Using your Digital Audio Workstation as the source for mastering - by John Vestman
Typical mastering is only done using a stereo or a 5.1 mixdown where last minute touch-ups enhance what's there. The stereo mixes usually differ slightly from song to song, so I even things out so stuff leans more in the same direction, as well as add more level to compete with the (too) loud commercial product out there.

I'm perfectly comfortable doing standard mastering, but I'm also unusual in that I've taken things a bit farther. I suggest that artists can bring in their computer so that we avoid the degradation of "rendering" a 2 track mix internally in a hard disc system. The hard disc systems cause some quality loss due to the software's mix engine that blends all those tracks down into two.

The mix engine isn't the end of the world. If no one told you it was there, many wouldn't know the difference. (Many who do prefer to mix onto a Masterlink or 24 bit Tascam DAT machine just for the purpose of avoiding the mix engine.) However, when we come straight out of the hard disc system's "mixdown mode" via the digital output, we get a first generation virtual "master." I quote the word "master" because it's really not a "hard copy" master - it's just a "pass" of the multitrack machine, but it's going straight into my mastering rig.

The advantage is that when the artist, engineer or producer is here, on top of my mastering tweaks, we can tweak some mix issues right on the spot! So rather than me trying to draw out more kic drum (if that's what I think it needs), I just suggest to the artist "bring up the kick drum." This offers the best of both worlds. You've spent the lionshare of time mixing to your satisfaction, and we add my opinion into the mix/mastering, and usually it comes up a new level of quality. :Plus with CDs becoming louder and louder, you really need to accentuate some aspects of your mix in order to retain the punch that you want in the first place.

That all being said, this isn't' the only way to have a great sounding CD. Many folks get great results from the stereo masters they've made whether they're on audio CD, analog tape, DAT, AIFF file etc. This is just just one more option and it's up to you if it's practical and appropriate for your project.

The extra mixing during a mastering session can add to the time needed to complete the project. But sometimes one little boost or dip of one instrument can make all the needed difference, and that amounts to a couple more minutes. Sometimes, the whole thing needs major surgery!!!! This can cause the mastering session to go a lot longer unless you are really prepared - and here's a few tips:

1) Be fast on your computer/hard disc system. Know your stuff - I move fast in mixing situations, so be ready to cook!

2) Have cue points or markers where you can instantly go to a certain area. So if I say "Please play verse 2 again" you don't have to hunt on a screen - you press whatever your hot key is to cue to verse 2 and zap! it's playing. Mark all the verses, chorus', bridges, solos, etc., but not more than 10 cue points.

3) Know which tracks are automated and (if so) which tracks aren't.

4) Be able to "select all" tracks in the waveform editing window (envelop window) so that you can bring all the tracks down 3 or 4 dB without disturbing the balance between everything in the mix - sort of like bringing all faders down proportionately.

5) Know your pluggins and screens well. Sometimes I'll ask to play with the eq or compression parameters - be able to get back and forth quickly.

6) Know how to set your clock source to digital in (could be called AES/EBU in or SPDIF in). This is so I can send you a signal from a better clock which then makes your machine sound better.

7) Once you're mix sessions are all saved and you're ready to go, do a "Save As" for every song and give each song a new name in case we need to refer back to what you did originally. For instance, if your song is called "Peace Train," - save as "Peace Train.2" or something like that, perhaps in a new folder.

8) Make sure your computer is running smoothly and isn't so fragile that a ride in the back seat of your car is going to make it wig out. Back up your hard drive - bring an audio CD burnt from your mixes so we can compare what were doing with what you had before.

Q) In mastering, are you working with the original 16 tracks? -Jon

Only if that' practical and/or preferred.

If you're fine-tuning the original tracks, should I go back and automate each track on every song?

Each system is different. Hard disc systems like Roland's VS series probably need all tracks able to be recallable. Be sure you know how to modify stuff easily. Computer-based Digital Audio Workstations keep the fader levels, eq settings etc. in place whether you've automated them or not. You just want to be sure that the mix you heard at home is the mix you're going to start out with when we plug in your system here.

But... you don't have to go to that length. If you're happy with your masters, just send them! Some folks just have questions about what's required to get closer to that top-of-the-line engineering quality that pro artists have.

Digital isn't the answer to pro sound - some folks hare a misconception that if it's recorded digitally, it's perfect and it will sound like the majors. In many cases digital is used by the majors (not all), but all of the elements starting from the ground up go into what makes the smooth, big sound you hear on a commercial CD (hey just singing in tune is a big plus). Lots of digital pluggins and such are trying to emulate the "old" sound of vintage compressors and equalizers and analog tape, just because it all sounded so good! Straight digital tends to be a little cold and harsh unless you've paid the price of great converters and other hardware, like the big studios have...

What I have now are my own 2-track stereo masters using the Roland mastering function,

Be careful about a "Mastering" function. That could just be a word for "stereo audio CD" or it could mean more digital processing applied to the stereo buss in order to "enhance" your mix. Additional stereo processing to the stereo buss recalculates the numbers and can shrink down the sound if you're not careful. Generally, it's best to do your eq, compression, reverb, fxs etc. to the individual tracks and leave the stereo buss alone.

I've also had several clients who just don't like the sound of the CDRs that the Roland makes for them (that may improve with time). They prefer the sound that comes straight from the mixdown mode. Therefore you'd need to be able to recall them all from whatever drive they reside on - be that external or internal. But again, this isn't a pitch for you to spend more money with me or go over the top unless it's appropriate for you to do that. I'd rather you be happy with what you've produced and what you've spent, then have you go to a lot of trouble and expense if it means missing two months of car payments!

I suspect you need to work with original tracks, so automating the mixes is probably better.

Automated is great if you can bring in the computer or hard disc system, but I don't need to do it that way. It's your option - I can do it from whatever 2 track source you provide me with, even a cassette!

As far as how the cost is affected, 10 songs would need a minimum of 5 hours with standard 2-track mastering, and it could go as much as 1 hour per song with mixing weaved into the process. The package prices automatically upgrade proportionately as the number of hours goes up. And remember, your music is the most important thing - the sound is just icing on the cake.

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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