Advantages of online mastering

What is audio mastering | What is mastering
Choosing the best online mastering
Stem mastering
Free mastering
Mastering plugins or online mastering ?
Mastering engineer questions and answers
Advantages of online mastering
The case for professional mastering
Mastering prices
Preparing for mastering

When one considers mastering their album, E.P. or songs, online mastering should be seriously considered. There is sometimes a perception that the musician, band, record label or producer is losing some control by not being in attendance at the mastering studio. This really need not be the case, as long as you have made good preparation and research when selecting your online mastering studio. You will find that the mastering engineer should be very open to your input in the form of notes or track references. In any event the mastering engineer will offer free revisions to your master so you will always end up with the results you need. Online mastering varies from job to job, some of my clients allow me free reign to make adjustments to their music and are very pleased with the results. Others wish to offer more direction and suggest issues they have been having with their mixes either for immediate feedback so the mix can be tweaked or for sonic issues resolvable in mastering.

Good communications with your online mastering engineer will assist with any frequency based adjustments as well as character based adjustments. Frequency based issues are resolved with equalization, this may be with relatively broad strokes of EQ and also more specific issues such as harsh high hats or reducing an unpleasant resonance in a mix. Character adjustments may mean broad eq strokes with vintage type broad, coloured curves or compression that has the ability to warm a mix or add some additional body to the sounds. This is usually a fun part of the mastering work and making the right decision as to how much colour needs to be applied can be very satisfying for the engineer and the client alike. The end results willl always be under the control of the artist, musician or record label and so there is no need to be concerned about loss of control of the project.

Another aspect related to online mastering is finding the right online mastering studio to do the work. I am going to be clear, use common sense, see pictures of mastering grade loudspeakers on the site, high end equipment if it is advertised and consider the length and quality of the engineers background. Request a sample master for your track and listen for yourself how the mastering results are. Of course this may take a few days as the online mastering studio will have paid work going through the studio. Another good plan is to speak directly to the mastering engineer and have a chat about your project and any concern. The engineer should have experienced a lot of different types of musical issues and workflows, so speaking directly is a good way to clarify any concerns. Online mastering has a major advantage in that you can hear your music against reference tracks on speakers you know. In an attended mastering session you will be hearing the music on a reproduction system that you will not know. This may be confusing and your mix may sound very different to how you had been hearing it. The engineer will make sonic adjustments to ensure that the music will translate well across many different sound systems. In this situation you may be inclined to offer input but it will be based on what your hear from an unfamliar system so that may skew the results of the mastering session. Hearing your music on a bigger set of mastering grade speakers and at much louder volumes than what you are used to will show up and problems. This is a given and what mastering is all about. With online mastering you still get the benefits of the mastering grade speaker system. (do ensure your online mastering studio has a reference grade system, not small bookshelf type speakers) But you will hear the translation on a system that you know yourself.

It's a good idea to see if the studio has analogue equipment available and in use. This is useful for adding some analogue tone to your mixes if required. A lot of mixes will have been produced "in the box" and it may be the case that they require some tone enhancement, warming up or specific processing in the analogue domain to bring further character. Normally a professional online mastering studio will have analogue equalizers and analogue compressors in the rack ready for use on music tracks.

The speakers used in an online mastering studio are very critical and an important item of equipment. All decisions that are made will be made through these speakers and as such it is a good idea to ensure some high end ones are being used. Typically these types of speaker cost around £4,500.00 +. The quality of build and design must be meticulous in order to present high quality and reliable sonic information to the mastering engineers ears. They should be full range, have an accurate frequency response and excellent stereo imaging capabilities. My personal choice has been the PMC IB1 loudspeaker, it is a transmission line speaker that uses custom made 10 inch carbon fibre woofers, a unique mid range dome driver and high quality tweeter. They are large format speakers and allow the judgement of scale. I also use them in conjunction with another smaller but still high quality loudspeaker (Dynaudio Acoustics BM6). This covers all the bases and allows for great decision making and translation.

"What is audio mastering?" fact :  In a mastering studio the optimal listening level is normaly around 85 dB SPL, this is due to the human ears natural tendancy to a flatter response at these levels. Checks at other dB levels are also common. You can find out more by studying the Fletcher Munson equal loudness contours.

Acoustics are another important factor in accurate sound reproduction and one of the most important is bass trapping. The use of bass traps makes good gains in making the low frequency response (sub 300Hz) more linear. The bass traps are often broadband and they produce friction against the sound wave as it enters and tries to return from the room boundary. This greatly reduces the reflected energy in the room meaning that the low frequency response in the room is more accurate. If waves are reflected this can easily create very strong nodes and anti-nodes in the room response. It means at some frequencies and room spots there is constructive phase and in some spots there are out of phase elements creating dips in the response. It is very important to minimize these phenomena in order to make the room response more accurate for mastering decisions.
Written by Barry Gardner
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