Mastering a track means giving it a final professional touch. The goals of mastering are- perfect depth, a consistent audibility across audio systems and optimal sonic quality. The Most common approach to mastering is ‘stereo mixes’. The other lesser used system is stem mix approach.
Mastering a Track or an Album Using Stereo Mixes
1. Evaluation of recorded tracks
This step is carried out in an acoustically optimized room through an advanced chain of monitoring equipment. The sound engineer listens to the entire album to get a feel of how the final product should turn out. They determine the shortcomings of the track/album in terms of any missing frequencies and inconsistency.
2. Polish each track to unearth its maximum potential
Each track is then individually balanced for a perfect setting in the album. High-grade sonic equipment and processes using sophisticated techniques like analog equalization, compression, stereo expansion, and Limiting are employed. The loudness of the track is maximized, without causing boominess or distortion.
3. Translation across various audio system
The track is then played across various audio systems to test if they translate well. If not, it is fine-tuned more for perfection.
4. Album assemblage
After mastering individual tracks, the entire album is assembled. Proper spacing between tracks, polishing and marking the start and end of tracks on CD and volume adjustment of tracks are executed for an ideal audio output.
5. Review the first master track for perfection and recommend changes
The final authority reviews the mastered tracks and gives feedback for any further corrective measures.
6. Roll out the final version of the master track, perform quality checks and make it ready for manufacturing
A final disc is burnt after performing stringent quality checks and the CD is then sent out for production after requisite paperwork.
Mastering a Track/Album Using Stems
This process is more time-consuming and costly compared to the method discussed earlier. However, its results are worth the extra time and cost. With this method, the mastering engineer can process sound at the elemental level for enhanced clarity and finesse.
What are Stems?
The entire set of sub-mixes of a typical type of song , grouped logically is called a stem. For instance, the stems of a rock album would be the effect of drums – kick, snare and the rest, bass effect, guitars, lead and backing vocals, keyboards and other effects. These are appropriately mixed for achieving an optimal effect.
The mastering engineer can process sound at the most basic level pertaining to each sub-mix.
These sub-mixes are then combined using high-end summing equipment or vintage console.
The album is then mastered using the stereo mix method.
Extreme care should be taken so that the final output maintains the original feel of the album while using this method.
An efficient mastering engineer shapes the composer’s vision of the track.
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By Rajiv Agarwal