In our July Disc Makers Twitter chat (#DMchat), Brian Lipski, mastering engineer and manager of The SoundLAB, gave us an introduction to audio mastering for musicians of all genres.
Brian Lipski, manager of The SoundLAB at Disc Makers, has been a mastering engineer for over 20 years and has personally mastered thousands of releases in his time at The SoundLAB. To view the entire chat transcript, please visit this link. Below is a reformatted version of our discussion.
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How would you define mastering in layman’s terms?
It’s a final chance to polish a recording before release, whether it’s for a physical product, downloads, or streaming. The overall volume of a mix can be raised in mastering to be competitive with other releases and bass-heavy or muddy songs can be brightened up to add clarity, detail, and open up the vocal range. We provide an overview on our website that goes into more detail as well. Some people liken it to the final waxing of a car’s paint job. Make it shine!
Guest: I used to represent an independent artist. What could you share with first time artists about proper formatting for mastering?
Come prepared with a high quality source, such as WAV or AIFF files, and a well balanced mix.
What’s the biggest challenge that musicians face when it comes to mastering their music?
Probably understanding the limitations of the process so their mixes are as balanced as possible before moving to mastering. Individual instruments can’t be targeted for volume changes or specific EQ work easily in a mastering session. That should be addressed in the mix, otherwise you’re likely to get a call from the mastering engineer with bad news.
How important is it to have consistency across an album with the rise of singles?
It’s still very important as people tend to stream full albums as opposed to purchasing individual singles. Also, vinyl is coming back in a big way and is definitely an “album” experience.
What’s the first step that artists should take when learning how to prepare their music for mastering?
Talk to a mastering engineer; let them know of any issues you’re having with your mixes. Most will offer to listen for free and give some critique. We do! You can also check out our blog posts, and mastering related guides.
What are some common issues you see with files submitted for mastering?
Mixes that are too loud, over-compressed, and hard limited. There’s no easy solution to work with a mix like that. It will likely result in a call from the mastering engineer asking for a re-mix. Also, submitting a compressed format like MP3, AAC, etc. is a no-no. Start with a high quality source like a WAV file!
What set of processors do you work with most often in the mastering process?
We rely mainly on analog gear, especially for any EQ work. Nice high-end analog EQs have a sound that’s hard to beat! That’s one of the benefits of hiring out the mastering, access to really nice gear that’s hard to justify purchasing.
What’s are the final steps involved in preparing the master for distribution or manufacturing?
Creating a final 16-bit production master, usually a DDP, if having CDs made, that includes final spacing, CD-TEXT, and ISRCs. Alternatively, we create high quality WAV files for downloads, streaming, etc. With Apple’s MFiT process we can also create hi-res 24-bit files of the mastering session for upload exclusively to iTunes. We provide a list of best practices on our website.
Guest: Is it okay to add compression to drums, vocals, etc. before mastering?
Absolutely! Individual tracks definitely need compression to sit right in the mix.
What’s the most common problem artists face when mastering their music at home?
Overuse of limiting and compression. I hear it all the time. Sometimes it results in audible distortion. Compare your master to major label artists who’s sound you admire. Note the producers and engineers in the credits. You can find other albums they’ve worked on and start trying to achieve a similar quality and clarity.
How should artists evaluate their final mastered songs before production? What things should they listen for?
Listen to the master everywhere! Listen in your car, on your computer, with earbuds, etc. For an album, listen through without touching the volume, and note any variations from song to song. It should be very consistent after mastering.
What resources do you recommend for further tips and information?
We also offer a Free Mastering Review here in The SoundLAB. We’ll listen to your mix or master and give you some feedback!
Mastering Gear and The SoundLAB at Disc Makers
Avoid these common mistakes to get the most from audio mastering
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Audio Mastering – The Mysterious Post-Production Art Form
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From mastering audio to manufacturing: the steps in CD production