FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

MM_BlueCircle16 The F.A.Q... Always a mystery, always under construction. This one in particular. :-)

What is mastering anyway?

In short, mastering is the creation of the production master. The "final destination" of all the files, assembled to a compliant format from which all "on the shelf" copies will be made.

"Way back when" the whole point of the process was to affect the audio as little as possible while creating that production master. Over the last couple decades, it's "grown" to some extent to be the "handshake" between the production process and the replication process. The mastering engineer is generally charged with taking the original mixes and "tweaking" them into sounding like they all belong on the same record. Creating a master with a cohesive sound that has the right "flow" to fit the mixes.

A lot of people mistakenly think that mastering is al about "making it really loud" -- While the mastering phase is the "right time" for such things, it's pretty low on the list of priorities. The first is to bring out the best qualities and minimize the worst qualities of the recordings. Getting them "loud" is an afterthought.

Does MASSIVE offer free samples like [some other place]?

How do I put this… Generally, no. Although the occasional exception is made here and there.

We advertised the "free sample" thing once - Somewhere around three dozen requests came in by the time I had a minute to quickly take it down. It was up for less than 24 hours.

No one can keep up with that sort of demand for sample / speculative work if there's a reasonably steady workload.**

We still get plenty of requests -- As the "in thing" at the moment seems to be the "free sample" master. Many of us call it "cattle-calls" (from the general term for theater and modeling auditions where hundreds show up for one part in a production). Some web sites and forums actually add fuel to the fire -- I know more than a few occasions where a "sample request" was made and dozens and dozens responded. I used to respond to a couple here and there myself, "getting the gig" more times than not.

One time, a client said "We had 63 samples sent and decided on using you." On one hand, sure, that was nice. On the other hand, 62 other engineers didn't get that gig. That seemed like an incredible waste of time. I don't go into a restaurant looking for a steak and asking for free samples of steak from a dozen different places before I decide where to eat. WIth the occasional recording project, I don't even go to a dozen different studios to find a place to record. I do a little basic research, find a few places that seem like they might be the "right" place and work from there. Check the gear lists, check the client lists, contact the chief engineer, choose a studio.

One colleague likens the "free sample" craze as "Going downtown and asking h**kers for a sample b**w-job" (which I found absolutely hilarious - and unnervingly relevant).

** I'm not trying to 'diss' the places that offer free samples - If they have enough time to do them, that's great. MASSIVE isn't the biggest shop in the world, but we aren't exactly an unknown quantity either -- We have a solid reputation of quality work. Believe me - We're absolutely grateful that we're busy enough to not need to do a lot of "sample" work.

So here's the final word --- If you've done your research - If you've listened to samples, looked at gear lists, checked references, rates and all that nifty stuff and you're torn between here and some other place, let me know and I'll see if we can set you up with some sort of sample. On the filp-side, if you're sending a file (or a bunch of files, as it happens occasionally) to 25 different studios without even bothering to seriously check any information on them, you should probably do a little research first.

Communication and research are key in this business -- And "blind samples" are rarely the way to find the best facility for you.

"You mastered my last album - How do I credit you in the liner notes?"

This actually comes up frequently - I wish it came up more! Crediting the mastering engineer is the same as crediting any other engineer on the recording. The name is the important part - The facility next - The location next. The last two are optional for that matter. But if you're looking to fill some space ---

"Mastered by John Scrip" is perfectly fine.

"Mastered by John Scrip at MASSIVE Mastering" is slightly extra cool.

"Mastered by John Scrip at MASSIVE Mastering - Chicago, IL, USA" is as good as it gets - especially for international releases.

Obviously, you're under no obligation to put anything you don't want on your artwork - You don't have to credit anyone, you don't have to put song titles on. But know that we as engineers and other "support staff" really do appreciate having our names out there. It's how we get business. Word of mouth is the most powerful advertising there is in this biz.

Is MASSIVE Mastering an Apple-authorized MFiT (Mastered for iTunes) iTunes Plus mastering facility?

Yes we are. And if you specifically requested a MFiT version of your release, make sure you are provided with our MFiT I.D.

MASSIVE Mastering is an iTunes Certified MFiT provider

Do I *need* "Mastered for iTunes" files to have my album on iTunes?

No. Mastered for iTunes (MFiT) is an “alternate version” for lack of a better term. MFiT sources are high-resolution files with (arguably) more dynamic range than typical releases. Generally speaking, less limiting, more dynamics, more “where the music wants to be” and where the artist intended it to be.

A release that is badged “MFiT” is expected to be the “audiophile” version — again, simplifying things. The highest sound quality, without worrying about participating in the “loudness war” that so many releases get caught up in these days. It’s still the (lossy) AAC format — made from a much more “quality controlled” high-resolution file. At least that’s the idea.

You do NOT need MFiT versions to be released on iTunes (or Amazon, etc.). But if you want to release an additional version of your project that’s more about sound quality and less in line with “keeping up with the Joneses volume” then MFiT is right up your alley.

And yeah - On a personal note, I truly hope that some day “Mastered for iTunes” means nothing different than “mastered.” Few mastering engineers I know have any appreciation for the levels we’re pressured to push many of the recordings we work on. And MFiT, if absolutely nothing else, is letting the public know what they’re missing. They didn’t ask for the “loudness war” either….

THAT ALL SAID — Basically what MFiT provides you with are high-resolution (PCM - Generally .wav) files, at whatever sample rate you require, in a 24-bit word length, at a “more normal” volume with more headroom. Even if you’re not releasing MFiT, but want a high-res “audiophile” version as PCM or FLAC download for whatever reason (even if that reason is simply to have it for future use, release, soundtrack, etc., etc., etc.), it’s not necessarily a bad thing by any means. More “open” - less “squashed” - more dynamic - It’s the version the mastering engineer wishes everyone would hear.

MASSIVE Mastering supplies you with those AAC (in .mp4 iTunes-ready format) as a reference along with the high-resolution PCM files that you would supply to Apple / iTunes. You can sell those files on your own website or supply a URL with physical CD releases if you wish. We can supply lossless FLAC files at the same time for the ultimate in “portability” AND quality sound.

Those of you who aren’t really participating in the loudness war [applause] probably won’t truly benefit from the process. Those of you who are begrudgingly involved - and want to offer your fans a little high-fidelity bonus? This is for you.

Getting really personal here — There aren’t too many projects that come out of here with me shaking my head going “Why? Why do they want this so darn loud when it sounds so fantastic a few dB down?” but it does happen. It might not be what I signed up for, but “the customer is always right” no matter how much I might wish otherwise. And the gear and techniques used here are tweaked to provide the highest sound quality possible at those “unreasonable” loudness potentials. But some day, hopefully the industry as a whole will get together and agree on some sort of “standard loudness goal” for popular music and reintroduce listeners to their volume knobs. Until then, MFiT - if not for iTunes in particular, but as a general practice of a more high-resolution, “normal” volume alternative option - might be just the ticket.

What tools are used in mastering?

The general tools are compression and equalization. A "normal" (for lack of a better term) chain may consist of a collection of transparent and colored EQ's, compressors and converters. Perhaps the odd limiter here or there.

Occasionally, more "radical" tools may be employed -- De-essing, multi-band (a.k.a. "maul-the-band") compression, noise reduction units, pop, click, hum removal, etc.

And then what?

Every mix asks for whatever it needs. To get a collection of mixes to sound cohesive, the dynamic range of each mix is adjusted to fit in with the rest - Or perhaps just the one before it - or after it - or both - What's good for a particular mix might not be the best thing for the project. It's a holistic approach, but at the micro-level.

Why no limiting or buss compression on my mixes?

Good question - A lot of people think that it's because the mastering engineer wants to "take credit" for volume (and the misconception leads a lot of people to think that mastering is only about volume).

But the truth, of course, is something completely different -- The reason that nothing should be done for the sake of volume is that it can limit (no pun intended) what the mastering engineer can do during the session. For example - A steady state noise which might be very easy to minimize while it is a steady-state noise might be nearly impossible to attack if the overall levels in the mix are fluctuating. Sibilance (which should really be taken care of in the mix anyway) can go from a simple nuisance that might be lessened considerably can "flat-top" into uncorrectable distortion, making any effort during the mastering phase more or less futile.

If you want to hear how your mix might handle the eventual "abuse" during the mastering phase, then by all means, throw a limiter on it and squash it to mush. It can actually be an ear-opening experience, as some elements that may have gone under the radar are obvious and obnoxious.

Fix those things and try it again. But make sure the rendered files sent to the mastering facility don't have that limiter in place.

A little buss compression is an entirely different thing -- Mixing into a buss compressor (not the same as adding it later, which can very easily lead to over-compression) can be just what a mix needs to "glue it together" somewhat. A dB or two can make a fairly dramatic difference. But again, don't overdo it - If the mix is asking for more than a dB or two, find out what is too dynamic in the mix before subjecting the whole mix to compression it might very well not need.

Do you do cassette and vinyl restoration and digital archiving?

Cassette, vinyl, DAT, even MiniDisc — If you need it archived with great care and attention, look no further. MASSIVE has captured sources from those “lost recordings” of local acts all the way up to the painstaking restorations of legendary recordings by the late, great, Paul Harvey himself.

All archiving work is done on an “hourly only” basis (see ”MASTERING - *HOURLY RATE* TO FIT YOUR BUDGET -- Also, Attended Sessions, Stem Work, Editing, Restoration, etc.” on the RATE SHEET for details and current hourly charges) — Knowing your budget is key here. Recordings can go anywhere from around 2-3x the playback length for a quick “this setting works well” pass on cassette recordings all the way up to and beyond an hour *per minute of audio* on some vinyl releases — Paul Harvey wanted “as close to perfection as you can get” - and let me tell you, he got it — Even when a lone, noisy, vinyl source from the 1950’s was the only available recording from which to work. The final CD pressing was absolutely flawless to the ear - but that took an incredible amount of time, as each individual “pop” and “click” was painstakingly repaired digitally, one-by-one, over the course of several days. Perfection that an automated plugin just couldn’t achieve.

That said — MASSIVE has a wide array of click, pop, crackle and noise reduction tools that can make fairly short work of your source also if you’re on a tight budget.

Vinyl is definitely the most challenging. We can capture your vinyl here on our turntable or if you have a way to capture it yourself with good fidelity, you’ve already chipped away at the final bill.

Cassette tape — It was a wonderfully portable medium — but it was wonderfully noisy also and those tapes aren’t getting any younger. Decks varied in quality as much as the tape itself. Full restoration can be as simple as a global noise-reduction and EQ pass (generally taking approximately 2-3 times the program length) up to attempted restoration of dropouts and gaps.

Of course - the source decides how well it will come out later. Some recordings can sound absolutely spectacular when completed. Others might not turn out so well. Audio that’s “gone’ likely cannot be recovered.

On to the “long story short” part — There are several cassette and/or vinyl to USB units out there that do a decent enough job for many projects. If you decide to do the “extraction” and digitization yourself, that’s going to save a chunk of $$$ right off the bat. If you’d rather we do it here on our gear [GEAR LIST], that’s fine also. But again - Know your budget. We’re certainly more than happy to shoot for the stars — But we’re just as happy doing the best we can while staying within a limited budget.

These chairs are amazing -- Would you mind...?

Not at all. Those are Brexley bonded leather club chairs. Yeah, they're a little big for the space, but they're big-time comfortable for your session, right?

Believe it or not, this truly is a frequently-asked question. More times than not during attended sessions, someone asks about the chairs. And if it helps, I think I got them at Home Depot. They're really great chairs and they're freakishly friendly on the budget also.

Sometimes it's the little things...

What is the world's fastest animal?

This is also a source of much confusion -- Many people would almost reflexively answer "the cheetah." And while the cheetah's 70 MPH bursts of speed are certainly impressive for any land animal, the Peregrine Falcon has been clocked at speeds in excess of 230 MPH in a downward swoop while chasing prey.

What does that have to do with mastering?

Nothing! I just thought it was cool. Hey, you do what you want on your blog. :-)

Why don't the track titles on my master disc show up on iTunes and other computer players?

Allow me to send you here: http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum=93094

And here: http://www.gracenote.com/about/faqs/

And of course, here: http://www.freedb.org/en/faq.3.html#21

Many discs leaving MASSIVE Mastering have already been submitted to CDDB, FreeDB or both. Sometimes it takes quite a while for these discs to be readily indexed, sometimes only hours. Resubmitting your disc is fine - But use the same information used in the CD-TEXT data or you may wind up with confusing information.