Frequently Asked Questions - Mastering

Mastering Preparation Guidelines

Cutting straight to the chase- you should have the following all set to go:

- Sequence
- ISRC codes (unique ID number that will help track royalties)
- UPC code (your bar code number)
- Any specific "problems" you would like addressed
- Spacing decisions
- Properly mixed tracks
- All licensing for any 'cover songs'
- Know the difference between duplication and replication

Sequence

With the advent of iTunes and shuffle modes, there is validity to the argument that the flow of an album is far less important today than it used to be. But, it is still important. My feeling is that the listener who is really going to LISTEN to your music is most likely to hear it in order- either from the CD or from purchasing the album from iTunes. So pick a sequence that flows well. Yes, you want to start strong (that doesn't necessarily mean loud or uptempo), but you also want to be able to build and pull back. There are a lot of parameters that you can analyze (and over-analyze!) to rationalize a good sequence- song length, instrumentation, tempo, key, strength of 'hook', etc. all of which boil down to 'energy'. Make it flow.

ISRC codes

These are issued by your record label. If you ARE the label, you can register yourself/ your indie label with the US ISRC Organization. It usually takes a couple of days- Unfortunately, it is now $75 to register, but it allows easier tracking of digital performances (on internet and satellite radio) of your tracks and helps you get paid faster... although you must also register with Sound Exchange in order to collect your royalties. All pretty easy and a very good idea.  ** Some manufacturing/distribution companies have offered to supply ISRCs to clients- be sure to ask what it costs and how they handle administration of your royalties.

UPC code

this is the bar code that usually goes on the back of your CD to help retail stores track sales etc. Generally, these are available from your manufacturer (ie Discmakers, Nimbit or CDBaby) or your designer... etc. There is usually a fee for these, although much cheaper to do it with a vendor ($20-$30) instead of registering yourself ($750). At this point in time (2009) this is an absolute requirement if you are going to do any digital distribution... which is where a larger and larger chunk of your income is going to be derived from.

Specific Problems

If you have a not-so-great mix and you want the bass part to be hotter, or you want the vocal to stand out more, or there's a weird pop in the vocal at 2:17 on track 3, or you feel like everything is lying a bit flat (these are all things that should ideally be taken care of in the mix stage...ideally)... then it would be great to know ahead of time, as these details take more time to deal with at the mastering stage since we are dealing with just the stereo mix. Things like- I can never hear the intro to track 3 because it is so much quieter than everything else... that's part of what the mastering process should address. But it's helpful to know what you, the artist, are hearing/feeling with the mixes.

Spacing

I do not subscribe to the 'every song should have 3 seconds between them' school. I think, just as with sequence, if someone is listening to the album as we intend them to, there is a rhythm to it. The space between songs is dictated by many things as well- tempo, is it a fade out?, is the next song faster or slower? is the album overall about space/breathing, or is it a dance/club CD that should have a pretty tight flow with almost no dead space. So I simply feel the spacing and try to find that happy medium that works for every listening situation.

Properly mixed tracks

well... yup. That would be swell. And better for you. Mastering is more expensive than mixing time, so take the extra time in mixing to get it right. Mastering only deals with the stereo mix file, Not the multitrack session, so there is very little control over individual elements/instruments of the mix. You should take the time to review your mixes and make sure that you are very happy with the mixes as they are prior to sending them to mastering. Your Mixes should be at the highest possible resolution- meaning that if you recorded and mixed at 24bits, 44.1kHz, then your final mixes should be submitted at that resolution.

Licensing cover songs

No, you cannot simply record your version of "Back In Black" by AC-DC and then sell the CD. You must license the rights. They wrote it- they get paid for that. Just like you will want to be paid every time XM radio plays your version of the song. Harry Fox is a great place to start- they make it pretty easy to understand and let you know if you even CAN purchase a license for the song you want... (yeah, this kind of brings up the point that it might be good to do BEFORE you even go spending tons of money recording the song... ) PS- I just found some great step by step instructions on licensing at CDBaby- check them out!

Duplication vs. Replication-

The manufacturers do not do a great job emphasizing the big difference here... DUplication is basically mass CDR burning ... REplication is the actual pressing of CDs from a Glass Master. Replication is FAR superior in terms of quality and longevity for your product. Audio CDRs can actually have errors burned into them (yes, there is a threshold that they must stay below, but...). Glass masters created from the mastered audio DATA set (I create a DDP file set for you) are much better. Yes, they have a higher minimum run, but in my opinion you get a much better value.