What does mastering entail?
This is a question we see frequently, but one with a rather complex answer: it depends.
The goal of mastering is to optimize your final track for playback on a variety of formats at an appropriate loudness. Exactly what a track needs depends entirely on it's content upon delivery. We look at each track as an individual situation and try to get it to sounding its best in as few steps as possible. Every move is made with intention - we generally try to use as few steps as possible while mastering a track.
Mastering is NOT possible with presets. It is not possible with algorithms. Mastering is equal part art and science and requires someone with years of experience and a proper listening environment.
There are three main processes most tracks will go through. There may be many more or even fewer. The first is equalization. We use minimal-phase and linear-phase equalizers to shape the tone and remove resonances from a track without compromising quality or 'smearing' the sound with phase shifts across the spectrum. Some tracks will require a good deal of EQ while others may need next to none at all.
The second main process is dynamic control, namely compression. We use analog compressors only when mastering because we feel that plugins can't quite cut it as of 2017. If you've ever run a digital mix through a high end buss compressor you know what we mean. Plugins don't do 'that thing'. We carefully dial in the attack and release times in order to create a sense of movement and cohesion within the track, being careful not to add any obvious pumping or degradation of the source material. Our main buss compressor features Cinemag output transformers that, when driven, can really add some nice warmth to a mix as well.
The final main process performed during mastering is loudness enhancement, or limiting. We don't use standard limiters since they can really destroy transient response and make a track sound flat and harsh when boosting to today's standards. We use two digital limiters in particular. The first adds certain harmonics in addition to reducing peaks in order to control dynamic range without the typical 'squashing' limiting can sometimes introduce. It works almost invisibly and preserves the punch and impact of the source material. We follow this limiter with a super fast 16x inter sample peak limiter (ISPL) to ensure your tracks do not clip when being played on radio, in a club, or on music merchant media players.
A good mastering engineer listens to a track and immediately can identify what needs to be done and why. Then they use the tools they have to get there, making every move with intention. The result can take a good mixdown and makes it sound like a great record. Mastering cannot, however, correct mistakes made in the mixdown, so sometimes we request clients to make some changes and send us a new premaster before we get to work. Get your mixes the best you can because there is no 'fix it at mastering' as some folks tend to think!
Why do mixdowns cost so much more?
Whereas mastering requires (or rather, restricts) us to process just one audio file, our goal with analog mixdowns is to treat every sound to sit better in the mix. Since we use mostly analog processing, every effect and change must be recorded out in real time. So, if we consider an eight minute house anthem with 32 sounds in it....you get the idea. It takes a while. We think it's well worth the time and the investment - a lot more becomes possible when we are able to manipulate all elements of a song individually. We also do mixdowns for traditionally recorded bands as well. Just an acoustic drum kit can be a project in and of itself!
Where can I learn more?
We're so glad you asked. We are launching our blog mid-2017 and will feature plenty of exciting articles around the finer points of dithering, myths in audio, tips for producers - all sorts of fun stuff. If you have questions about a project you are working on or about how we may be able to help, feel free to shoot us a note on the contact page and we will be right with you.