From mastering audio to manufacturing: the steps in CD production

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Excerpted from our newly revised audio mastering guide, this preface lays out the basics – from recording to CD production

Audio Mastering Guide
At Disc Makers, scores of masters come through our doors for audio manufacturing every month. This gives us a particular expertise when it comes to the best methods for preparing your master – as well as the pitfalls to avoid. Our revised guide, Making a Great Master: Essential information for musicians, engineers, and producers, clarifies and simplifies the transition from the artistic (i.e. writing and recording) stage of your project to the manufacturing stage.

The audio recording and manufacturing process

The process of transforming your musical ideas into a finished product you can share and sell begins with your recording sessions and continues through to the delivery of your packaged CDs or vinyl records. The choices you make at each step affect the quality of your final product, so familiarizing yourself with this process at the earliest stages will help you produce the best possible results. In general, the process runs as follows:

Recording
Recording involves capturing instrumental and vocal sounds, using microphones or direct inputs, and storing them on a stand-alone or computer-based digital audio workstation (DAW) – or in some cases, on digital or analog tape. Some recordings are made direct to stereo, but the vast majority are recorded “multi-track,” meaning that the sounds of the different instruments are recorded and stored individually.

Mixing
Mixing is the art of blending individually recorded sounds through a console or on a DAW, controlling the level, EQ, and pan (stereo speaker placement) of each sound to create a final “mix” of your musical selections, or songs. These mixes are typically two-track stereo and are recorded to disc, tape, or stored on the hard drive of a DAW.

Master assembly
Master assembly means editing a collection of individual song mixes into a complete master that flows from start to finish in the desired order and with the desired amount of space between selections. Due to the ease and control offered by digital waveform editing, digitally recorded songs are typically compiled on a DAW, with the material then transferred in assembled form to a recordable CD (CD-R), DDP 2.0 (Disc Description Protocol) master, or individual audio files like WAV or AIFF.

Post-production mastering
Mastering is the final step in the recording process, which takes place after the mixing process (post-production) to optimize and add the final sonic touches to your recordings. When you send your master to a professional mastering studio like The SoundLab™ at Disc Makers, your overall program level is set, as well as the song-to-song (AKA relative) levels. EQ, compression, and other digital processing is also used to make your recorded material sound as good as possible when played in the various listening environments of the customers who buy the end product. Once optimized through mastering, the resulting program is transferred to a “production master” for the manufacturing plant that will make the actual copies. Production masters are typically:

  • a CD-R or DDP 2.0 master for the CD plant; or
  • a “master lacquer” for the vinyl record pressing plant.

Manufacturing.
Manufacturing is the process of producing and packaging copies of the production master for distribution and sale.

  • Replicating CDs (typically for quantities over 300) is a process in which the production master is transferred to a “glass master.” Molds are made from the glass master, and from there discs are replicated, a multi-step process involving injection molding, stamping, and lacquering.
  • Duplicating CDs (typically for quantities under 300) is a process in which the master is used to record or “burn” CDs in duplication towers using lasers to etch information on a recordable CD, or CD-R.
  • For vinyl records, the master lacquer is used to make molds that are used to press the records.

Get your free PDF and read lots more in the complete guide, Making A Great Master, Essential information for musicians, engineers, and producers(Revised Third Edition).

Learn How to Make a Great Master

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