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Final Master Delivery for Our Post-Physical Media World

"Today I delivered 26 files, spread across six discs (or folders), to my client for their four song project. Hmm, I remember when that would've been a single 1/4” reel ..."

Final master delivery to the client has become so multifaceted today, with so many formats and end uses to address. As a mastering engineer, that means creating many different masters, in many different file types, for each song. I don’t mind this so much; if it makes for superior playback in the marketplace, it’s worth it. I just hope my stressed, technology-overwhelmed clients can keep up with all the changes and get the right files into all the right places.

First, for some clients (who are generally 30 and up!), I simply create the good old Redbook CD master, whether in actual disc form or as DDP file. That’s liable to be their only physical product need, unless catering to the niche markets of vinyl or even cassettes. For thoroughly modern artists, I only create conveniently deliverable masters for web distribution; chances are pretty high that these clients’ recordings will only be heard via the following master types (other than live performance, of course): 

Higher quality MP3

Use the highest rate you can (e.g., 320 kbps for top quality) and experiment with variables like CBR/VBR (constant bit rate and variable bit rate). Determine which sounds best for your encoder of choice and music. Many websites, however, have 8 to 10MB size limits, so for all but short songs, you’ll have to create the following …

Lower quality MP3

Depending on song length, you may find yourself creating 256 and even 128 kbps masters to meet submission size requirements. Low quality files like this getting you down? If the website is only posting songs for demo (not for download and/or purchase), make edit versions of a song (e.g., verse, chorus and bridge only), use a higher encoding rate and you may still come in under the size limits while sounding great.

AAC (m4a, the audio-only MPEG-4)

iTunes encodes your masters for distribution at their store, but you can (and should) get Apple’s new tools (and guidelines) for analyzing and encoding masters in the new iTunes Plus format. Your clients will be able to enjoy their music on all their iOS devices, sounding just like it will when purchased from the store.

Uncompressed formats

Some online music stores (such as Bandcamp) wisely require WAV or AIFF files for submission. Ripping files from a CD (or changing file extensions) makes many musicians nervous and I can’t blame them. There’s a lot to go wrong with a rip if you’re uninitiated, not to mention that some common players (like Windows Media Player) often behave unprofessionally. Delivering WAV or AIFF masters simply avoid these potential mistakes.

Lossless formats

Finally, some clients may want other hi-fi formats — for example, FLAC compressed to about half-size, but not lossy. If this is the premium product for the discriminating consumer, who you want to encode it? You, the engineer, or a band member?

Formats Keep Falling On My Head

Today I delivered 26 files, spread across six discs (or folders), to my client for their four song project. Hmm, I remember when that would’ve been a single 1/4” reel … 

Rob Tavaglione is the owner of Charlotte’s Catalyst