Photo: Brian Lee
Mastering is often described as the final step in the creative process of making a record and the first step in manufacturing. These days, it's common to receive mixes for a project from multiple engineers, producers and studios — in multiple formats. As a mastering engineer, it's my job to combine all these sources into a cohesive-sounding album. To do that, it's vital that all source mixes are clearly labeled and that all source media and mastering notes are well organized.
We get every kind of format: analog tape and digital files, as well as Sony DSD. We get CD and DVD-ROMs, MasterLink discs, PC- and Mac-formatted hard drives, DAT and digital multitrack tapes, electronic deliveries and the occasional iPod file. Here are some basic guidelines for labeling this source media. Be sure to include these on every source, regardless of format or media type: artist's name, client's name, project name/album name (if one exists), track titles and mix take names (i.e., master, vocal up, vocal down). Also, make sure to notate the “choice” mixes approved for mastering.
- Note tape speed (30 ips, 15 ips, etc.) and noise reduction, if any. (If Dolby, indicate if it's SR or A.)
- Note the record level (plus 3, plus 6, etc.) and record machine type (ATR, Studer, etc.).
- Put calibration tones at the tail of the first reel. (Remember print-through? This will avoid it.)
- Always provide at least the following tones at 0 VU: 1 kHz, 10 kHz, 15 kHz, 100 Hz and 50 Hz.
- Always leader the head of the tape, as well as between each take/track.
- Note sample rate and bit depth.
- Note file type: AIFF, WAV, SDII, etc.
- Include a label with your source material (on your jewel case or hard drive box). It saves a lot of time to know what's on your source without having to mount a hard drive or CD-ROM. Check the P&E Wing Website for a good media ID label. Go to www.producersandengineers.com, click on the tab on “Guidelines & Recommendations,” use the link for “Session Documentation Examples” and scroll through the examples.You can create a quick list of media contents using the Grab application on your Mac. Expose all folder/file levels on your Mac's desktop and then use Grab to take a snapshot of the contents and print. Save the Grab file for your records. You can also use the Print Screen function on a PC to accomplish this.
- Don't forget to label your audio files well. Always include the song title and mix name or number. If using an Alesis MasterLink, then please explain those cryptic file abbreviations!
- Note the song sequence: Tracks are not necessarily in order on a CD-ROM unless the sequence is alphabetical. Include any notes you have for mastering and your chosen sequence. You can start every file name with that file's sequence number, but just be sure to include a “0” in front of the single-digit track numbers so your files will fall into order (i.e., “01_SongTitle_MixName” for track 1).
At Gateway Mastering, we receive many of our digital sources electronically. We have our own FTP server, as well as a DigiDelivery server. When posting your digital files electronically, include some type of text file or e-mail with all appropriate information. Stuffing a Mac file can make it more interchangeable when passing through PC servers. StuffIt™ can also add further security by using an extra password.
Following these guidelines and spending the time to get your labeling right will allow your mastering engineers to spend their time doing what they do best: making your project be the best it can be.
Grammy Award — winning mastering engineer Adam Ayan works at Gateway Mastering & DVD in Portland, Maine. Ayan's client list includes the Rolling Stones, Nirvana, Faith Hill, Linkin Park, Nine Inch Nails, Rascal Flatts, LeAnn Rimes and Sarah McLachlan.