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.

What Are ISRC Codes And How Do I Get Them?

If your CD is for commercial release then you will probably need ISRC codes. The ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) is the international identification system for sound recordings and music video recordings.

They are included in the data-stream with the audio (note they are not audible), and are typically used by radio broadcasters to automatically identify music to help with royalty payments etc. Each ISRC is a unique and permanent identifier for a specific recording which can be permanently encoded into a product as its digital fingerprint.

The code is specific to you as a rights holder and helps to identify your tracks quickly and simply. By adding an ISRC to each recorded music track or music video you register in the PPL Repertoire Database, you are ensuring that you will receive more accurate payments.

ISRC codes must be encoded at the mastering stage. We can do this for you at no additional cost, but if you intend to use them then you must aquire them before the master CD is burnt. Alternatively, we can add ISRC codes at a later date if you obtain them in the future.

An ISRC is made up of 12 characters and split into four sections:

1: The first two characters identify the country where the member is based (eg, ‘GB’ represents ‘Great Britain’).

2: The next three characters identify you as the recording rightholder (please note that this code does not imply permanent ownership of the recording or video – the code will not change if the recording is later licensed to a different owner).

3: The next two characters identify the year in which the specific recording was given an ISRC.

4: The last five characters are the choice of the rightholder when allocating recordings with an ISRC. These characters are always numbers. The easiest way to organise this section of the code is to give the first recording ‘00001’, the second ‘00002’, etc. The sequence can be reset to ‘00001’ when a new year of reference (section three, detailed above) is applicable.

You can request an ISRC here in the UK by registering as a PPL recording rightholder member and raising a query through your myPPL account. If you are not a member and require an ISRC only, you can register online and select the ‘ISRC only’ option.

If you are a non-UK member, your ISRC must be requested from your local music licensing body.

For more information on ISRC Codes and to get a UK application form go to: (then click on ISRC in the main menu)

Or alternatively call: 020-7534 1122

Label Copy – What Do I Need To Send?

(Q) What information do I need to send along with my audio files?

(A) In addition to uploading your premaster audio files, we’ll also need some information about your project. These details will form part of the metadata (e.g. CD-Text) embedded within your final production master(s) so it’s important to ensure all details are correct.

Please supply the following information:

1. Artist Name
2. Project (e.g. Album/EP) Title
3. Full Track Titles & Running Order
4. ISRC Codes
5. Release Formats (e.g. Audio CD, iTunes)
6. UPC/EAN Number (if required)

Artist Name (required)

Project (required)

Full Track Titles & Running Order

ISRC Codes More information here

Release Formats (e.g. Audio CD, iTunes) (required)

UPC/EAN Number (if required)

Your Email (required)

Mike Cave

Musician turned mixer/producer Mike Cave got his start playing guitar, keyboards & drums in a variety of bands on the Liverpool circuit from the age of 13, and by 15 he was engineering sessions for his own bands and others in the area.

Mike went on to study Music Theory at the London College of Music, but his real education was finding his band The Sunlites in a major record deal with Mercury, allowing him to spend two years in the studio with the big guns –Jeremy Wheatley, Mike Neilsen, Kevin Bacon and Jonathan Quarmby.

A six year in-house engineer stint at Liverpoolʼs legendary Parr Street Studiosfollowed, working alongside heavyweights such as Ken Nelson (Coldplay, Badly Drawn Boy, Gomez), Jeremy Wheatley (Space, Sugababes, Mel C), and Brendan Lynch (Paul Weller, Ocean Colour Scene, Cast).

Mike then went freelance and opened his own world class studios The Loft in a large converted Manhattan-style loft in the centre of Liverpool. He’s built a strong reputation as a mixer/producer, with artists as diverse as Professor Green, The Coral, Elvis Costello, Noisettes, Tinchy Stryder, James Vincent McMorrow, John Martyn, Yuksek, Bob Dylan, Rufus Wainwright, The Charlatans, The Zutons, and Echo & The Bunnymen making use of his production, mixing & mastering expertise and earning him a string of top ten albums & singles and numerous multi-platinum, gold & silver sales awards.

Mike’s talent and experience working on both sides of the desk give him a unique understanding of how to deliver quality records on time and on budget with a magic touch that brings artists’ ideas to life.

Visit Mike Cave’s Website

5 Pre-Mastering Tips

  1. Don’t clip – leave headroom (-12 RMS?) & then check your files!!
  2. Leave premaster files in their original resolution.
  3. Don’t over cook your mix bus – remove limiting?
  4. Multi-band Compression? – try to fix issues in your multitrack NOT mix bus
  5. Consult your mastering engineer.

BIMM Resources


McGurk Effect – Seeing Is Believing (close your eyes and listen!)

Pitch To Frequency Chart



AES Mastering Conference – Stem Mastering

Why Has Stem Mastering Become So Popular?

Higher expectations at the mastering stage/Lower recording budgets – lower skillsets!

When Should We Consider Stem Mastering?

Global mix issues?/ Am I compromising the project in stereo? (Quality Control!)

Common Questions From Clients?

Should I book stereo or stem mastering? (communication pre-mastering/planning/teamwork)

How do I prepare stems? (Client checklist (Blog)/Beware of mix bus dynamics! Always A/B)

How many stems should i send? (Keep it simple!)

How To Avoid Falling Back In To Mix Mode?

Mixing vs Stem Mastering vs Mastering (3 hats?)

McGurk Effect – % Sensory information/Limiting visual feedback

Left brain vs Right Brain (Analytical vs Creative) What impact does our vision have?

Typical stem processing  

Hands on vs hands off? Bold vs delicate?

Approach each project on its own merits. Let the project guide you.


Line Amps / Saturation / Harmonic Distortion /Character


Dynamic EQ/MultiBand







Arrangements – Basics

1. Pitch – High/Low

2. Dynamics – Loud/Quiet

3. Timbre – Bright/Dull

4. Articulation – Ta ta ta vs Na na na

5. Level of activity – i.e. Notes Per Bar

6. Levels of focus (inc. 3D) – Primary / Secondary / Tertiary / Supportive / Subliminal

7. Width vs Mono

8. Contrast – e.g. Filtered  > Full Frequency / Mono > Wide




What Is Mastered For iTunes And Why Should We Use It?

Mastered for iTunes


On your travels around the iTunes Store you may have noticed the Mastered For iTunes logo next to certain releases. Ever wondered exactly what this means and how you can get your music sounding better than ever on iTunes?  Ok folks, step this way and all will be revealed!….

So basically, Apple recently embarked on its Mastered For iTunes initiative and Loft Mastering is proud to be among their elite group of approved facilities. The main aim here is to significantly improve the quality of the audio available from iTunes. Thankfully, Apple have now kindly provided us with a great way to achieve this.

Working with Apple and incorporating specialist mastering tools into our workflow, we are able to ensure that this new MFiT specification is strictly adhered to. These tools enable us to test and approve the MFiT encoding prior to sending your masters for final processing at Apple.

What Is It?

Using their bespoke/flagship codec ‘AAC’, developed with the Fraunhofer Institute, iTunes now offers incredible fidelity with low file sizes.

Using their new 2 step encoding process Apple are able to offer a higher quality encode from a higher resolution 24 bit file, as opposed to traditionally encoding from 44.1 kHz 16 bit (CD quality) audio. The results are impressive.

Why Should We Use It?

Quite simply because this is a leap forward in terms of audio quality on iTunes and a perfect way to begin stepping into the world of high resolution audio. We thoroughly encourage you to compare the Mastered For iTunes codec with your CD quality WAV/AIFF audio files. We think you will be pleasantly surprised! 🙂

Here at Loft Mastering we can optimise your music for iTunes so that it sounds fantastic when encoded to Apple’s new AAC format. If you’d like to hear how good your music can sound on iTunes feel free to give us a shout…we’d love to hear from you.

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