When we made our first CD, to us “mastering” was still just another mysterious geeky word, a process we were happy to leave to the vanity press type outfit doing the replicating.
But by the time we asked the same people to master our second CD, we’d learned to listen better and could hear their work failed to do justice to our music. Somehow they’d ripped the guts from our sound, made it flat and colorless.
We now suspect they applied too much compression and were too aggressive with noise reduction programs like the d-essers which when cleaning up our files we decided it was wiser to avoid.
So we found a local studio that did a more acceptable job. Sure the final sound was not perfect, but we wanted to believe the new guys were good, and since we’d recorded our second CD with the same bottom of the line equipment, we assumed the remaining imperfections were our fault.
However our standards again soared, and the master they made for Work In Progress, our most recent CD, didn’t come close to meeting them.
In fact the second we walked back into their studio we started worrying. The expensive equipment no longer blew us away, instead we were appalled by the mess, the clutter, and the dust experience taught us was an open invitation to static. While the engineer who previously had impressed us as decisive and professional, now felt sloppy and reckless.
Worse yet, he paid absolutely no attention to anything we said. So though we told him we’d already faded in and out our cuts, he ignored us and mechanically slapped on standard fades in places we’d sweated hours to find exactly the right curve for each individual track. And when we pointed out he was cutting off our sound, he didn’t seem able to hear it. Instead he marched onward and in the process bungled the beginning and brutalized the ending of every single piece.
And though the audio files we’d given him were squeaky clean, his master was full of pops and static.
The more we listened to his pathetic work, the angrier we got. We knew we couldn’t let this incompetent fool ruin our lovely music, but what were we to do?
Still we’ve been beaten up enough times we’ve learned to bounce, and after a few depressed days we came to our senses. What had first appeared an almost life threatening problem was really a blessing in disguise. All it meant was mastering would be another part of the recording process we’d do ourselves, and if our past experience with doing things ourselves were any guide, in the end our CD would be the better for it.
Until then we’d been buying into the common view of mastering as an arcane art which mysteriously makes music richer, gives it a final polish. But the music we’d recorded for Work In Progress was fully round and resonant, we knew it didn’t need to be richer or more polished.
Our spidey sense was tingling, the whole concept of mastering just didn’t add up. And as we dug deeper we realized we were on to something, that most of the stuff usually included under the term “mastering”, we didn’t need to have done. We’d already removed all the noises and done all the necessary equalizing, balancing, and limiting. Our files felt ready to go.
Maybe after all mastering wasn’t some magical process, maybe it meant nothing more than preparing a good sounding audio CD which the manufacturer would then exactly reproduce !!
But if this were true, well then we didn’t need to hire an engineer to master our CD and we didn’t even need “mastering software”.
We already had editing software which could turn the multiple tracks we’d recorded for each piece into uncompressed stereo audio files. And if we burned these files onto an audio CD and it sounded good enough, well then according to our new understanding we were there, we knew how to make our master !!
So with the words of a wise old audio engineer echoing in our heads (“specifications are one thing, but if you really want to know, you have to listen”) we put our theory to the test, made the stereo files, burned a CD, and with fingers crossed popped it into our optical drive….
…. Sixty seconds later we had the answer. It sounded beautiful! In fact it sounded like our music, not like the master we’d rejected which at best had sounded like a very defective copy of our music.
Clearly we were on the right track, but a few loose ends still needed to be tied up.
For one thing we remembered in years past some machines had trouble playing home burned CDs, and since under our new plan the manufacturer would be sending us many exact copies of a home burned CD, we wanted to make sure this was no longer an issue.
So one afternoon we walked around town carrying our CD, tried it in a dozen different machines (store and gallery CD players, computers, and a car stereo), and it played just fine in all of them, putting an end to this particular worry.
Next we had to boost the volume of our files, something we’d planned to have done as part of the mastering process. Instead with Tracktion we opened the files for each cut and raised their volume individually. As an unexpected bonus, this let us give everything more than the extra 1.9 db which the local studio had claimed to be the biggest acceptable increase.
Their normalization program had arrived at this 1.9 db figure by determining the very highest peaks on our CD could only take that much gain before they’d start to distort. And when we checked we discovered it had been correct, with more than that, a few peaks in several cuts did distort.
However it was easy for us to open these files, put the problem peaks into separate clips, and then lower their volume. Then we could safely give everything a full extra 6 db. Since the studio could only deal with the CD as a unit, 1.9 db was the most it could add.
What we did amounted to a kind of “hand normalization” similar in spirit to the “hand gate filter” we used to deal with hiss. In both cases our labor intensive approach produced a better product than globally applying a process, even as we’d created more graceful fades by separately treating each track of every cut.
At this point we decided it was time to run our new plan past the tech people at Dering, the company which would be making our CDs.
So we called them up and they confirmed that yes, there was no reason why we couldn’t use a home burned CD as our master. However they did steer us away from Windows Media Player, the burning software we’d used because it happened to be installed on our computer, but not because of sound quality issues, rather because it didn’t allow us to properly close our CD (didn’t offer a “disc-at-once” option), didn’t allow us to put pauses between the cuts (which meant we would have had to add extra seconds to the end of each cut), and didn’t allow us to include CD text.
Eventually to burn our master CD we chose BurnAware, a little freeware program which did everything we needed to do.
We took the final step towards Work In Progress on July 5, 2011 when we put our filled out paperwork, a check, and 2 copies of our home burned master into a very carefully packed box, and then bravely mailed it all off to Dering.
Three weeks later we received 1,000 copies of the CD which not only looked great, but also sounded much better than either of our two previous “professionally” mastered CDs.
Obviously we’d been correct.
There’d been no need to hire some self proclaimed expert to tidy up our fades and adjust our levels. After working so hard to get everything just the way we wanted it, it would have been downright stupid to have let some burned out Mastering Engineer change things to fit his limited vision of what music should be and how it should be presented.
One more time our generalist approach had paid off.