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Digital Shmigital (What's Mastering?)

Let's start with digital. Digital is a representation of sound, rather than the sound itself. Think of photography for a moment. The difference between a grabshot of a natural scene and a professional medium or large format photo of the same scene is usually apparent. But why?

Often it is in the use of light and shadow. The shading. The details. The way images melt and flow from one element to the next. Detail and resolution are the key. Light is a continuum, and the beauty of high-resolution photography is its ability to sustain the sense of flow. Light, in a word, is analogue.

Sound is like light. Continuous. Ever-changing. Dynamic. A drum pops. A bass drives deep and long. A vocal soars and syncopates. A horn blares. A cymbal shimmers and melts away.

Digital recording can now capture these details, whether subtle or in-your-face, in ways none of us thought possible just a few years ago. Where early digital recordings were content to describe any musical moment in about 65,000 ways, our modern techniques capture each sound in up to sixteen million ways. This is recorded music that sounds like life and sounds like the original performance. And this is music that can sustain the rigors of crafting a performance for CD release. For there is a difference between finishing the music, and finishing the record.

Many steps and processes are available to you in mastering, all targeted to create the best possible presentation for your project. Music needs to grab people. Whether soft and airy, or hard and mean, it needs to shine. It needs to glow. It needs to be big.

Mastering is the last creative step in the long and arduous process known as 'making a record.' It is when decisions are made for the last time. Our job at TuckerSound is to understand your music's concept and put all the pieces together for perhaps the first, and certainly the final, time. Mastering sets it in stone. The photo retoucher. The last creative step. It is a very exciting time.

We want your music to play beautifully and reach out to people.

The fundamental tools we use include:

Editing >> Ambience/Reverb Adjustment >>
Pacing >> Pitch Correction >>
Sequencing >> Speed Correction >>
Crossfades >> Noise Removal >>
Equalization >> Distortion Abatement >>
Level Adjustment >> High-Resolution Digital (24-bit/96kHz) >>
Compression >>  
(For more information, click on any topic.)

Editing

Even in the days of 78rpm disks (and earlier!), different performances were used to create single, error-free versions of music. The process involved playing back from two different turntables and recording bits from each onto a third disk. Or switching between a playback disk and a live performance of the same music, picking up the needed bits on the fly.... Today we have the Sonic Solutions mastering system, which permits us to edit in ways the razor blade never imagined. And undo. All without a trace of splicing tape! Preparation is the key. Go into mastering with a pretty good idea of how you would like to solve musical or continuity problems.

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Pacing

Our intern last summer had no idea that someone actually had to decide how long the pauses would be after each song on a CD. He figured they just happened. A few weeks later, after spending much time in mastering sessions, he told me that he is listening to all his music in ways he never thought possible. The power of the silences had won him over. Pacing rules!

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Sequencing

Sequencing is hell. I'm talking here about the decision-making process of which song goes where. (The editing itself is a snap.) Write out a tentative sequence. In fact, write it out 50 different ways. Think key. Think tempo. Think dynamics. Make cassettes of your trials with just endings and intros. Just be sure to figure this sequence thing out where the rates are cheap: in your living room.

The good news is that when you get it right, you'll know it. It'll suddenly look like the proverbial piece o'cake.

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Crossfades

In digital recording, every edit is actually a crossfade, though most are so impossibly fast that we hear them as hard cuts. Long crossfades, on the other hand, serve the same function as dissolves often do in films: a time or space shift.

At TuckerSound, we offer the asymetric digital crossfade -- a stunningly potent weapon in the battle to make tough edits work. I'm speaking of the ability to carefully overlap the beginning or end of an insert in order to create the illusion of continuity. Often it is a cymbal that needs to ring out over an incoming attack. Or a piano pickup to complete a phrase. Or a just slightly anticipated bass attack, without which the following note seems artificial. To not hear it is to love it.

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Equalization

"Brighten that sucker up!" All sound is comprised of a single set of frequencies, albeit a very large set. What differentiates one sound from another is the overall mix (or balance) of frequencies present in each sound. This balance is what we call tone. Change the balance of frequencies and you change the tone. Equalization (eq) is exactly that -- altering an existing tone to achieve some goal: brighter! punchier! fatter! deeper! nastier! omigod that hurts!!

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Level Adjustment

Ever listen to a record (cd) and find yourself diving for the playback volume control to turn it up for one song that's too quiet? But then back down for the next one that would blow out your speakers if you left it turned up? Sweet nothings. Demolition derby.

Every setting is governed by unique rules of pace and dynamics. Mastering confronts the issue head-on.

Skillful adjusting of levels maintains the energy and creative tensions you crafted into your material, while providing a satisfying flow of events to the listener. When a listener dives for the controls, or even thinks about it, the magic of the project is broken. And if a listener thinks at all about the process of music production, or about decisions made in that process, then the process itself has failed.

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Reverb/Ambience

So this piano recording had to be made in a 'storefront warehouse' in Nova Scotia. A big Steinway D in a large, metallic-sounding space with a plate glass front. To minimize the room, the engineer decided to go in real close with fine Schoeps mics. He cut off the room with gobos (moveable baffles), angling away as best he could from the plate glass window. Are you picturing how great this thing sounds? Exactly.

It is easy to put such a recording into a 'much larger space' using digital processors. But there is more at work here. Imagine a recording of someone screaming a phrase into a microphone at extremely close range. Play back the recorded scream at a lower level with reverb added. Does it sound like whispering? No. More like very strange, unnatural screaming.

Reverb and ambience can indeed change and improve the perspective of a too-dry recording. Remember that our brain innately understands the interactions of distance, power and loudness. A fine line exists between 'the right space' and 'a special effect.'

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Speed and Pitch Correction

Once upon a time: A great performance, played just a hair too slow. could be 'fixed' by speeding up the track (i.e., running the tape faster). And voila! Tempo fixed. Except now it was playing sharp.

Nowadays we can correct speed without changing pitch, and correct pitch without changing speed (within limits, please!). But don't think of this extremely cool process as a routine fix, like eq. In situations that have no other alternatives, though, it is a tool to be reckoned with.

This brings to mind a client who can't seem to keep his beautiful soprano sax solos in tune. He routinely brings in a finished mix -- minus his solo -- and brings the solo along as a wild element. After restoring order to his pitch, and adding a bit of reverb to match, we synchronize the solo with the track and 'fly it in', re-creating the original performance with that soprano soaring exactly as it was intended. The brave new world of mastering.

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Noise and Distortion Removal

Stuff happens. Tapes and disks can suffer dropouts. Cables can fail. Air conditioning can rumble. Samples can have unintended ticks and clicks. Drummers can hit microphones. But Snap! Crackle! and Pop! are three characters who do not belong at your CD party. Out, OUT, I say to these gate crashers. Any unexpected sound that makes a listener think, "what was that?" is worth trying to remove. Keep the music magical. Be picky.

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High Resolution Digital (24 bit/96kHz)

What's all this about, anyway? Consider for a moment two key elements in a digital signal: bit depth (word length) and sampling rate. Bit depth controls the amount of dynamic range (from softest to loudest sound) and sampling rate controls the frequency bandwidth (bass, midrange, treble). A CD is capable of holding a resolution of 16-bit/44.1kHz. The 16-bit part dictates a maximum dynamic range of 96dB. Not bad. The 44.1kHz part means that the highest frequencies it can hold and reproduce are at 22.050kHz, or half the sampling rate. (For those playing along at home, this is called the Nyquist frequency.) This, also, is not too shabby. But real life has more detail than this. Much more.

High resolution digital formats make possible the extension of both these key parameters to ranges more akin to those found in nature. From thousands of ways to describe a musical moment, to millions of ways. The issue is, how much of such detail is necessary for the ear to conclude that sound is "natural"? Many people feel that digital sound, as we know it on CD, is not as beautiful, warm and deep as analogue sound. High resolution formats pose a serious challenge: digital can sound deep and beautiful. Taking advantage of the extra depth and detail of high-res requires special care in the entire recording chain, from microphone to mastering. We'll be happy to tell you all about the possiblities.

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