This page contains some information to help with preparing for mastering. We've included a few tips for mixing that will help with producing a good master, along with info about formats we can accept as well as some information you may want to try and get from your record label or distributor before mastering.
Below are a few brief tips for engineers/mixers that can help contribute to maximum flexibility in the mastering process.
LEVELS: PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE LEAVE SOME HEADROOM IN YOUR MIXES! This is perhaps the number one problem we encounter in today's world of digital limiters, maximizer plug-ins, etc. If the delivered mixes are already heavily limited and running right up to 0dBFS, there is MUCH less that can be accomplished in the mastering process to correct any problems that may exist. If it is necessary to create "take home" or "pre-mastered" mixes that are super loud through limiting, clipping, etc., please create a finished mix with at least 3-6 dB of peak headroom for delivery to mastering, and then to do any further processing to that mix for take home/reference mixes. These versions can be used as a reference for mastering too and can usually be improved upon, but only if there is some room to work! Listen carefully to your mixes for clipping and distortion, these problems usually become much more apparent during mastering and can be difficult or impossible to fix in a transparent fashion.
HEADS AND TAILS: The space before the beginning and after the end of each track often contains more than one would think. There is no penalty involved in waiting until mastering to chop off or clean up these spots and it is not uncommon to find that the end of a delicate fade out got cut short during a long mix day. We recommend leaving 2 to 3 seconds of silence, buzz, or whatever before and after each mix.
COMPRESSION on elements such as drums or vocals that seem fairly transparent during mixing can often become much more up front at mastering. Small amounts of equalization can reveal detail that often make compression artifacts much more audible than was intended. Unless a pumping type of compression sound is desired as an effect, less is always more. Longer release times help to minimize this effect as well. (Please do not take this to mean you should not use compression within your mixes, it is simply meant to point out that you may end up hearing the effect of significant amounts of compression more in a finished master than was apparent in your source mix. If you like the way compression sounds in a mix, by all means, go with it!)
VOCAL SIBILANCE is a common byproduct of the kind of close mic-ing and eq techniques that predominate today. This is one of the issues commonly dealt with during mastering, but even with powerful mastering tools, attempts to reduce vocal sibilance will often affect other elements in a mix. Things such as acoustic guitar shimmer, snare drum and bass drum top end (and other elements that are generally in the center of the stereo field) can be reduced at the same time as the sibilance. SO, being aware of excessive sibilance and trying to manage it while mixing can make the mastering process easier and involve fewer trade-offs with other elements in the mix during mastering.
CLIPPING busses and other amplifier stages while mixing can be a satisfying way to get levels up and add intensity to a mix, but can sometimes backfire in mastering. As a mix gets cleared up and adjusted, sometimes the "crunchies" that result from bus clipping and the like become heavily featured. There aren't a lot of good options to undo this sort of problem across a whole mix, so the best option is usually to try and avoid this situation. It isn't difficult to emulate this sort of sound at mastering without adding unmusical distortion artifacts.
ANALOG TAPE: We can accept both 1/2" and 1/4" tape widths. PLEASE ensure that there are proper alignment tones present: a minimum of 1kHz, 10kHz, 100Hz, and 40/50Hz (30 seconds of each) at your 0VU reference level. Any other tones (60Hz, 16kHz, a full sweep, etc.) are helpful, the more the merrier! Multiple tones between 20Hz and 250Hz are a big help. It is also VERY HELPFUL to include 10 seconds of recorded silence after the tones which reflects the level of hiss or thermal noise your mixing chain and tape recorder bias creates. This is often very helpful for creating smooth and natural spacing during sequencing. If possible, please let us know in advance what tape speed, reference level and equalization standard you are using. Please label each tape box with all this information and the location of alignment tones (AT THE END OR BEGINNING OF A REEL IS THE BEST PLACE FOR TONES - after/before a long piece of leader or blank tape). We're also happy to receive tapes that are already edited and sequenced in the correct running order with the spaces and fades between songs as you'd like them to appear on the finished master. For all analog master tapes, please include digital backup copies of the tape mixes made from the same machine they were recorded on originally (and keep a copy of these digital backups at home as well, in case the package gets lost in the mail). Number your tape reels and boxes.
We can accept analog tapes encoded with Dolby SR Noise Reduction, though a one hour setup charge will apply. Please let us know in advance if you are using Dolby SR.
TO ENGINEERS USING RMG TAPE, PLEASE, PLEASE CHECK YOUR MASTER TAPES FOR DROPOUTS AND SHEDDING. WE HAVE HAD A NUMBER OF PROBLEMS WITH THIS TAPE STOCK. BE SURE AND INCLUDE DIGITAL BACKUPS OF YOUR MIXES IF YOU ARE SENDING US THIS TAPE! (This is also a good idea with any tape.)
DIGITAL FORMATS: Our preferred format is 24-bit stereo WAV (or Broadcast WAV). But we can accept stereo or dual-mono data files in the following formats: AIFF, SDII, CAF, BWF, and WAV. The sampling rate should be the native sampling rate of your recording and mixing project. Do not sample rate convert. Our recommendation is for you to record and mix at either 44.1kHz, or 96kHz. Forget about 48kHz and 88.2kHz. 16-bit wordlengths are acceptable, but 24-bit is a much, much better idea (If you are coming in with a CD that plays in a CD player, this is a 16-bit format). Data discs are much better than Audio CD-Rs, however, when using Data CDs or DVDs, we strongly recommend making 2 copies. We have had a number of sessions aborted due to a corrupted disc. An even better idea is bringing in mixes on a hard drive (USB, eSATA, Firewire 400 or 800), or USB Stick. We can also accept DAT tapes (although we try not to!).
Once you've booked a session with our studio manager, he'll email a questionnaire to you.
Information you'll need for this questionnaire is listed here:
Band name and contact info
Your name and contact info
Record label and contact info
Contact at manufacturing plants
Format we are mastering for (CD, LP, digital downloads, etc)
Any timelines or deadlines
Who will be paying and how (check, credit card, etc)
Delivery format (How you will deliver your mixes: tape, data disc, usb stick, upload, etc. Please consult with your engineer to get information on the sample rate and file type your are providing. An unlabelled DVD with unknown file types on it can be time-consuming and confusing and lead to problems with your session.)
Album or project title
UPC/EAN code (see below)
ISRC numbers (see below)
Song listing (with proper desired spellings and capitalizations of all song titles)
Specific mastering notes
(known problems you'd like fixed, spacing instructions, CDs/LPs you feel are a useful comparison to your project, etc.)
We typically add CD-Text information to your master. A CD-Text enabled CD player will display an album title and song titles. For this reason, please be prepared to provide this information as you would want it to appear (with spelling and lower/upper case issues sorted out). Be aware, however, that this is not the same as the Gracenote CD database information which players like iTunes and WMP use to add titles to mp3 rips. This information is provided by you or your label (it can actually be uploaded by anybody) and can be uploaded from any computer with internet access. For more information on this process follow this link.
A CD master can contain numerical data which can assist in tracking of radio play and royalties. ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) numbers are generated by a record label (or sometimes a distributor that deals with a number of small labels) and are attached to each track on a CD master. These numbers are specific to each version of a recording of a song and are used for a variety of purposes beneficial to the artist, including tracking of royalties from satellite radio play, digital download sales, etc.. Each version of a song (such as a "radio edit" or other alterations to any given recorded version) requires a new ISRC number. There is no cost for this service. You simply need some affiliation with a label or distributor authorized to generate them. Or you can apply for your own ISRC registrant code. For more info on ISRC follow this link.
UPC/EAN codes are also typically provided by a label and this simply embeds in the disc the same code that is in the barcode on the outside of a CD.
When possible, having these numbers before mastering is best. In other cases, we can make an approved reference disc, then add these numbers when they are provided later and deliver a master disc to the manufacturer at that time.