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Mastering Considerations and Discussion with Regard to Ambient Online Compilation

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  • Mastering Considerations and Discussion with Regard to Ambient Online Compilation

    Ok. I'll set the ball rolling with a very simple definition of mastering from my own experience.

    Mastering was traditionally a process used to polish the sound of a set of recorded songs (an album, if you will), so that the overall sound of the completed album was tailored to suit the publication/distribution media (vinyl, cassette, CD - the first two being analog media), all of which had unique sonic characteristics which had to be considered and accomodated. Many albums mastered in the '60s, '70s and early '80s were prepared with the intention of vinyl LP release. When these albums were eventually released on CD, the sounds generated (even on high-end CD players) just didn't sound as "good" as those from the original vinyl, which led many people to believe that vinyl sounded much better than CD. I suppose this was true to a degree, but only because the playing field wasn't yet level. I think it was during the late '80s or even the early '90s when new albums were mastered with a view to CD release. Many record companies still have albums on their roster available on CD which have never been remastered for digital reproduction and which still sound "wrong".

    Traditionally, one of the goals of mastering was to give an album or even an EP a "unified" sound, so that the listening experience presented no sonic surprises to the listener (volume/level consistency, EQ characteristics which are reasonably balanced from one song to the next).

    These days many people (myself included) perform their own mastering, often on individual tracks, with little regard for consistency between songs, hoping that their limited experience and feel for the material will win the day. Sometimes this can achieve acceptable results, sometimes not. It is quite the learning experience.

    Mastering is a process which is performed on the master bus in a DAW, or in a dedicated program (I use T-Racks 3). Its input is usually a stereo summation of all of the contributing mixer channels. Processes applied during the mastering stage of music production often include (but are not limited to) saturation, equalization, compression, limiting. Many of these processes may have already been performed upon the individual mixer channels during the recording/mixing phase of production. You could look upon mastering as the final polish which is applied to an album before it is presented to the listening public.

    If a mix contains flaws, mastering is not going to remove those flaws. Mastering can, to a limited degree, hide or camouflage some minor problems in a mix, but to use the polishing analogy again, a dented piece of copper can be polished all day long, but the dent will remain visible.

    Many of the processes employed during mastering can increase the volume of a song, either in a relatively consistent manner throughout the entire song, or perhaps in a more selective fashion during certain parts of the song. If your mix is recorded at such a high level that there is no room for the volume to "grow", it may be that the mastering process is unable to enhance the sound of your track. This is a very simplistic view/explanation, but is a factor worth considering, hence my earlier conversation with S1gns regarding peak levels within the mix. If the tracks are to be mastered to some degree of consistency, it is desirable (although not absolutely essential) to have a fairly well defined set of parameters established for the tracks which will eventually form the compilation.

    This is a rather vague and off-the-cuff summary, but it should be enough to get the ball rolling. I would hope that others more experienced and better versed in the dark art can put me straight and possibly put some flesh on 'dem ol' bones.

    It's over to you.
    Whatsisname's Little Fluffy Clouds | Campsite | Hearthis | SeismicTC | Twitter | Ello

  • #2
    Thanks for this detailed post! Not much I could add. Maybe Phase47 could chime in with some thoughts on mastering specifically ambient :biggrin:?


    • #3
      Originally posted by phoenstorm View Post
      Thanks for this detailed post! Not much I could add. Maybe Phase47 could chime in with some thoughts on mastering specifically ambient :biggrin:?
      Less is more. There are more ways than ever to sabotage your tracks in mastering and people tend to over-process. Stick to the basics: EQ, compression (if needed) and limiting. If you need more at that point, fair game, but don't start with more than the basics. There's definitely a discipline to staying out of the way of the mix while still getting it where you need it to go.

      Having said that, there are still times when you have to go completely medieval on any given mix.

      Albums with multiple producers or mixers, film soundtracks and compilations are usually the most challenging projects and take the most time. There are so many variables that come into play on an album w/ just 10-12 tracks all coming from the same studio, but when you add one (or more) artist/mixer/producer the variables grow exponentially. I will typically try to find the track or tracks that are closest to where I want to end up and start with those.
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