Archive: November, 2013

How Do I Make A Good Pre-Master?

How Do I Make A Good Pre-Master?

1: Don’t record too loud. There is a popular myth that says you are only getting the most from your digital recorder if “all the lights are on” – ie. the signal is clipping or peaking at 0 dB. Please allow at least 3 or 4 dBs headroom when recording – any higher and you risk digital distortion, which can cause major problems at mastering.

Some systems use less than perfect metering, so we recommend you avoid allowing your recording to peak at zero, just in case there are over-levels which the meters aren’t showing.

Engineers & producers – even if your customers are demanding a really “hot” reference copy, please make a clean copy for us to master from and then lift the level for the listening reference copies.

2: Please supply your pre-master files in their original (native) sample/bit rate and file format without using any dither processing. We can accept all audio files formats up to 192 kHz 32 bit. If your pre-masters have been created in split-stereo file format, we prefer to master from these rather than you converting to interleaved files.

3: Avoid unnecessary processing. Every time a change is made to an audio file it can incur a small number of digital errors, and these may affect the sound, especially if multiple changes are made.

So for example if you adjust the volume and then change your mind, don’t process it again to reverse the change – go back to the original. Think carefully about whether you need to make a change at all – it’s even a good idea to avoid digital copying except where absolutely necessary.

4: Avoid analogue copying. If your sources are digital, and you make flat copies digitally, you can maintain their quality. But every time you make an analogue copy, a small amount of quality will be lost. Also watch out for computer soundcards. Even those with digital inputs may apply sample-rate conversion to your music (for example the Soundblaster Live series) which has the potential to degrade the sound, especially if it’s done several times.

5: Be organised, but don’t worry about the order. We can put your tracks in the right order at the session, but it’s a good idea to make clear notes for our engineers especially when sending multiple versions of tracks etc. This will save time in the session.

6: Avoid “over-cooking”. Decent audio equipment is much more easily available than it was, and there is a temptation to try out all the options. In particular, there are many tools offering “mastering” functions, like compression and normalising. We recommend you leave this until the mastering session.

It is possible to achieve excellent results with these tools, but it is also very easy to ruin a good mix if not used with great care and experience. By all means send us an example to listen to, but wherever possible we prefer to work from “clean” sources.

7: Always keep a backup copy of your pre-masters, and bring it to the session if you’re attending. When digital sources fail, they often can’t be repaired, so always keep a second (digital, flat) copy of everything, just in case.

8: Leave “topping and tailing” to the mastering session. We will be loading your tracks to a digital editor, so we can perfect any fades and/or crossfades for you then. Sometimes mastering can bring up subtle details of the mix which weren’t audible before, and it’s a shame to have them chopped off too abrubtly. You can always experiment beforehand and bring in a copy for us to refer to.

9: Always listen to your pre-master files before sending. Just because a computer says a file has been created correctly, doesn’t guarantee it will sound perfect. Many sources arrive with us for mastering full of clicks and dropouts which our clients didn’t know were there. It’s always worth taking the time to listen carefully to your pre-master all the way through prior to sending for mastering.

If in doubt, feel free to give us a shout 🙂

What Is Stem Mastering?

Stem Mastering

Stem mastering is different from 2 track stereo mastering. Stem mastering uses a number of grouped instruments such as drums, keyboards, bass, guitars and vocals. For electronic styles typical stems might be drums, bass, sub bass, lead synth 1, lead synth 2, effects sweeps etc. This allows the mastering engineer additional scope to discreetly enhance and optimise any specific set of instruments within a mix. It also affords enhancement based on the summing of the stems. Additionally, standard stereo mastering processes are included. Stem mastering can produce improved sonic results and increased depth and dimension to your master.

It is worth clarifying that stem mastering is not mixing. Mixing uses heavy fader and send automation, effects, tuning etc. Stem mastering tends to only use occasional automation, but does allow the mastering engineer to target the use of eq, dynamic adjustment and other forms of processing to the individual stems often producing an improved master.

When is stem mastering worth considering?

Stem mastering is worth considering if you feel there are some specific issues which could be improved upon by a fresh set of ears in a highly linear monitoring environment. If your mix is lacking separation, width and depth, stem mastering can help you achieve this. It can be used to target specific elements within a mix.

Stem mastering is not the same as mixing. Mixing balances individual multi track recordings and involves many man hours and often heavy use of automation, equalization, dynamic control and effects processing.

Stem mastering tends not to use lots and lots of automation, occasional tweaks are more common. Stem mastering uses groups of instrumentation and allows additional sonic tweaks and targeted adjustment in addition to global stereo processing. Stem mastering allows additional and specific enhancement to instruments such as width, depth, warmth, punch, gluing, summing improvements, eq improvements, adding “air” and reduction of harshness.

How do I prepare tracks for stem mastering?

Firstly, it is important that your stems “sum or re-combine” to sound identical to your mix down.

Please supply full bandwidth 24/32 bit stereo files of identical length/duration. Export your stems from exactly the same time code position in your digital audio workstation time line so they will synchronize in our digital audio workstation. This will invariably involve setting left and right locators when you bounce/export your files. When preparing files consider that ideal stems should combine/sum in your digital audio workstation and sound virtually identical to the stereo mix down when combined and played together.

I have been mixing into a limiter – will this affect my stem exporting?

If you are including your mix bus limiter processing when bouncing each stem, the limiter will be reacting in a different way than when playing the full mix. This means that the resulting combination of stems will NOT sound the same as your mix! We recommend one of the following solutions:

1. If your limiter has a side chain input, you can feed this with a full version of your mix whilst bouncing stems. This way the limiter will be forced to react as if it is receiving the full mix and your stems should then combine to sound the same as the mix. We recommend that you always listen to the resulting combined stems to make sure they sound identical to your mix.

2. If your limiter does not feature a side chain input, we recommend that you bypass the limiter whilst bouncing stems. Please then include a stereo mix with the limiter on in addition to your unlimited stem exports, so we can hear what you have been hearing. It would also be helpful to let us know which limiter you were using along with the settings used.

If you are at all unsure on anything relating to stem preparation, please feel free to give us a call and we can guide you through the process.

Is there any other information you require?

If you have any reference tracks that you aspire to (i.e. commercially released tracks) by all means send them along as a guide. This is really helpful to us here at Loft Mastering to understand your tonal and perceived volume aspirations.

Any notes about sonic issues that have been of concern during the mix would also be helpful. Pointers eg “bass line sounds muddy”, “cannot get bass line working with kick”, “drums require more punch” etc could be useful. Also please confirm the aspects of the mix you are happy with so we can avoid changing things you like already.

Please feel free to call us anytime to discuss your stem mastering requirements.

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