Mastering engineer Graham Semark answers some of the questions often asked about getting recordings best prepared for the mastering studio.
How do I ensure that my recordings are best prepared for mastering?
“Take care not to record too loud – we all want to achieve the best possible signal to noise ratio, but allowing recordings to peak at 0VU on some equipment does risk digital distortion being a major problem in mastering. In my view, it is always best to allow 3 or 4 DB headroom to allow for any peaks that your meters aren’t able to show and ideally 6DB as this still gives you plenty of signal to noise ratio on modern digital equipment. Also, use dither when you can – this will aid audio quality across the spectrum, but is particularly beneficial to quieter signals.
Try to avoid unnecessary processing, copying etc. as even digital adjustments on high quality processors can still incur small errors that may effect the overall sound quality – the cleaner it is, the better the CD will sound.”
What is Dither?
“Dither is a process that adds low level high frequency signal to digital files during processing to combat the problems of truncation errors – benefits include a greater dynamic range and improved purity of sound in natural ambience and reverberation.”
What about compression and normalisation?
“As mentioned earlier, I always prefer to work from as cleaner source as possible and would recommend that these processes are left until the final mastering session where at all possible – even though modern equipment allows excellent results to be obtained in home studios any gain alterations even in digital workstations can cause some degree of audio deterioration.”
How should I supply my masters and do the songs need to be in the correct order?
“We can work from all of the common formats, including digital files and analogue tapes – CDR is very common, although we still have jobs coming in on DAT, analogue open reel tape and vinyl records.
If you are using a DAT machine, always record 2 minutes of silence at the beginning of the tape and allow the machine to record for 4 – 5 seconds before the start and after the end of each track. Tidying starts/ fine-tuning fades and sorting the correct gaps between each song can all be left to the final mastering session and you don’t have to worry about supplying your songs in the correct order, as long as you supply a track sheet specifying which mixes you wish to be used, where you want them on the CD and their running lengths.
Finally, I always recommend making a safety copy of your tracks before send them out to the mastering house. A lot of modern systems are pretty secure, but none of us want our music disappering into cyberspace!”