Why Is Mastering So Important?
Mastering is the final part of the creative process, optimising your songs for the final consumer playback format, usually CD, digital download or vinyl. A sympathetic mastering job will make a good recording sound great, and can rescue a less-than-ideal mix; a bad job can completely destroy the music. It’s certainly NOT not just about making it ‘loud’: anyone with a peak limiter plug-in can do that. It IS all about the music: balancing the different frequencies to address problems, improve clarity, add excitement, and so present your songs in a way that will grab the ear of the listener and draw them in to the listening experience. Put simply, correct mastering will make your songs sound great on any playback system.
The White House is proud to offer a high-quality mastering service, and our experience is clearly audible in the final product. Our very affordable rates allow the luxury of spending enough time to properly evaluate and craft your songs for the best possible sound, without breaking the bank. You are encouraged to attend the session, but your music will receive the same meticulous attention if you can’t. Please bring a commercial CD that best represents your ideal sound, or a WAV file of your chosen track, as a reference. We use a combination of plug-ins plus dedicated hardware processors to best match to your reference, and then improve even further if possible. Each song is individually assessed and adjustments made to suit – there are no ‘presets’ used, ever. RX10 Advanced is used to fix any annoying issues that may be uncovered by the processing (e.g. vocal ‘pops’ or clicks). Track starts and fades are then trimmed and adjusted as necessary, and the transitions between songs individually set for most comfortable spacing. ISRC codes can also be added (see below for an explanation) and other relevant metadata encoded into the DDP file set – the only completely error-free method of delivery to the duplicators/replicators.
If attending in person is not possible, you can upload your mix files together with a ripped file of your reference CD track, and a test DDP will be returned for approval. DDPs come with a ‘Player’ installed, allowing auditioning on a Mac or PC, and burning of a test CD if your computer has a suitable optical drive. Tracks can also be exported as individual WAV files for digital distribution.
For best results you should mix your song files at 24-bit resolution and at the original sample rate of the recording session – we can sample-rate convert if required. Please DO NOT peak-limit your mixes in an attempt to make them louder: it is a destructive process that adds distortion and should only be done after ALL other adjustments have been optimised. Likewise, please do not ‘normalise’ files as this can also cause distortion. Headroom of around 6 – 10dB in a 24-bit file is ideal. If in doubt about any of these requirements, or you have a different mix format, then please contact us for advice.
Digital Downloads and Streaming
Mastering for streaming services is actually more critical than for CD. The biggest potential problem is distortion added by the encoding process due to inter-sample peaks, an issue often ignored by basic encoding software. LUFs measurement of each song (a standardised volume analysis), together with inter-sample peak limiting, is now a vital part of the mastering process, to ensure the relevant spec for the platform is met. For example, at time of writing Spotify quotes -14LUFs as a target, and inter-sample peaks up to -1dBFS. We use up-to-date dynamics and analysis software, and also the Sonnox Pro Codec for real-time audition of the various encoding options, so you can hear the impact of lower bit-rates on your music, ensuring the best possible download sound.
For MP3 files the ID3 metadata can also be edited to include such details as song title, artist, copyright, web site and ISRC codes.
International Standard Recording Codes identify the ownership of your recording worldwide and can be embedded into the master CD or MP3 file metadata. This is not the same as copyright for the song, but having ISRCs for songs you have written and recorded will clearly help in any copyright dispute, since the code registration is officially dated. Each different recording of a song, or any variation of the same recording (such as a ‘radio’ edit, extended, instrumental or dance mix, or even a re-master) needs a unique ISRC. You can register at PPL-UK to enable generation of codes, and best of all their service is free – see the ‘Links’ page. You might even get some royalties paid to you in the event of broadcast or public performance of your tracks.
It’s more or less the same process as for CD, but with special attention paid to bass and high-frequency content and phase coherence. A stereo vector-scope is used to check stereo width and mono compatibility as part of the mastering process, and if necessary the stereo width of deep bass frequencies can be narrowed without significantly affecting the overall stereo sound, to ensure a successful cut. Most pressing plants now specify a separate WAV file for each side, together with a cue sheet for scrolls between songs. HOFA software handles this perfectly.