Category: Mastering Music

Different Types of Mastering

By Damon Mapp - Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

written by Damon Mapp

You’ve been gearing up for this new release for months. On top of the time it took to write and refine the songs, you and your band have spent countless hours rehearsing, testing the songs at shows, and playing every chance you’ve had to save up for the production of this project. Now that you’ve wrapped up at the recording studio, you can finally relax. It’s done… right?

Well, not quite. It’s time to dive into the last phase of finishing your album: mastering! This phase includes a final polish (adjusting volume, EQ, leveling, compression, spacing), adding the CD Text, submitting the content to Gracenote, and more.

If you read my last article, you should know that there are differences between recording, mixing, and mastering. But, did you know there are different types of mastering? Maybe you did. If not, though, don’t worry. Today, I’m going to explain two different types of mastering: stereo mastering and stem mastering.

Stereo Mastering

Stereo mastering is the more common of these two types of mastering. It’s the final polish before mass production and distribution.

For stereo mastering, you take your final mixdown (or stereo track) that the mix engineer has produced, apply balance, EQ, and compression (if necessary), and tweak any other tonal enhancements or deficiencies that the track may have before it reaches its final place: on store shelves, on your merch table, or online for digital distribution. This mastered track is normally louder, punchier, and more articulate than the mixdown.

Stem Mastering

Compared to stereo mastering, stem mastering takes things a little further and offers more options to a mastering engineer. That’s because a stereo master starts with just two tracks (the left and right of the mixdown), but a stem master consists of the separated elements of a track.

I know, I know; some of you are saying, “Now I’m really confused. What do you mean separated? I thought we took care of all that in the mix process!”

Well, I’m glad you asked! For this type of mastering, things happen a little differently, starting in the mixing stage. Each stereo element—drums, bass, synths, lead vocals, background vocals, and sometimes other instruments—is recorded or bounced out as a group. For example, you can bus all of your drums—you know, the kick, snare hats, etc—to one group or bus during the mixdown process. After the drum bus gets EQ’d and compressed, it is re-recoded to a final mixdown track, which is known as a stem. Repeat this process for all of the other elements in the mix, and you’ll have stems for vocals, synths, bass, and so on. These stems are processed and recorded by the mix engineer and then given to the mastering engineer.

When working with stems, the mastering engineer has access to levels on the stems the mix engineer has created. This means that instead of trying to balance levels within one stereo track, the mastering engineer now has access to the separate stems, which can be processed independently of each other. In stereo mastering, if you made an EQ change in the bass region, it would affect the entire mixdown. But if you make that same change on just the drums stem, it would only affect the drum stem, leave the bass on the rest of the song as-is.

As you can imagine, this gives the mastering engineer incredible flexibility in maximizing the sonic potential of each separate stem.

So which one is better?

That is a decision for you, your band, and/or your mix engineer to make. My suggestion is to try both and see which one sounds better to you. They both have their technical advantages and disadvantages, but I will tell you what I always tell artists and musicians: use your ears!




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Recording, Mixing, and Mastering—What’s Really Going On?

Recording, Mixing, and Mastering—What’s Really Going On?

By Damon Mapp - Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

written by Damon Mapp

As an audio engineer, I constantly meet people, including clients, who have no idea what the differences are between recording, mixing, and mastering. They might have heard the terms before, but they usually can’t correctly describe what each term means. For those not in the music industry, that’s both understandable and acceptable. However, for those of you in the music business, whether you’re an artist or a manager or an engineer, you need to know what those terms mean.

So, let’s get started.

Recording and Tracking

First, here are some basic definitions for you: recording is the process of capturing sounds, and a recording session is one instance where this happens (as opposed to a live performance).

A standard recording session involves multiple musicians, instruments, and vocalists. So, for the sake of this illustration, we’ll say your band has a drummer, guitarist, bass player, keyboard player, and two vocalists. Now, you could record everything on one microphone… but the drums might overpower the vocals, and the keys might blend into the bass line in certain sections. Recording everything together is like playing entirely unplugged; it can work, but most bands perform miked and plugged into sound systems to provide their audience with a good and balanced audio experience. That same option exists with recording. Instead of recording everything through one microphone, you can record each element separately to its own track in the workstation or mixer. This approach, which is called tracking, lets you (or, more likely, your audio engineer) go in later to perfect the balance of sounds.

Note that I said each element, not each instrument or vocal. That’s because some instruments consist of multiple elements, each of which will need its own mic. For example, a standard drum kit might have a mic for the kick, snare, floor toms, rack toms, cymbals, and high hats. This allows you to create a much more precise sound in the next phase: mixing.

Mixing

Mixing is taking the individual elements that were recorded as separate tracks in the workstation or on tape and adjusting their levels and tones to create the right balance. Remember when I mentioned that, without separate mics (and their resulting tracks), the drums might overpower the vocals? That’s a balance issue, and mixing allows you to prevent or correct that.

With mixing, you can ensure that certain tracks aren’t overbearing or piercing or, at the other end of the spectrum, too soft and buried by the other elements. You also apply EQ, compression, editing, and effects if they are needed or desired.

Once the mixing is complete for a track, the engineer saves a “mixdown” of the song, which is turned into an album in the next stage: mastering.

Mastering

Like the mixing process, the mastering process involves finding balance. However, instead of balancing elements within a song, you’re balancing the different songs into a cohesive album. This involves:

  • Balancing the level and tonal settings (EQ) of the songs
  • Controlling the dynamic range (how loud and quiet each section is) for the right musical blend of variety and power
  • Editing the “tops and tails”—the beginning and ending of each song—and the gaps to create a compelling sequence
  • Fixing any outstanding problems from the mix, if possible
  • Protecting your content by including PQ information, UPC/EAN codes, ISRCs, and CD Text
  • Creating finished files that are ready for manufacturing and/or distribution

Mastering is an important part of the process that many artists overlook or undervalue. It’s more than just cranking up the volume, which is what many artists request. It requires a big picture approach and an eye for detail. Without both efforts, the finished album isn’t… well, it isn’t finished.

With today’s technology, it is becoming increasingly easy to record and mix in your bedroom or home studio. While this can be a viable option (which I will elaborate on in a future article), I honestly recommend hiring a professional audio engineer for your recording project. In addition to having the gear and software, a good engineer and studio will have proper room acoustics, training, experience, and an ear for what they do. Those valuable tools aren’t acquired easily, nor are they sold on store shelves.




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