Part 4: Integration via CD writer

© 1997 by Eddie Ciletti

Tracking, overdubbing or mixing are three distinct tasks each requiring a very specific state of mind. Mastering is more than that, it's mind altering. Now that you've got a CD writer, the next step is to roll your own CDs. But before unleashing that arsenal of signal processing tools, you must first master the art of perspective.


At low levels, for example, the ear is less sensitive to bass and treble. To compensate, most consumer stereo systems have a "Loudness" switch that boosts bass and treble at low volume settings. In the "Control Room" there is no loudness control, so it is necessary to set a comfortable reference level using a professionally mastered CD. Make a mark and/or tape the monitor level pot. Always listen at the same level and use the "DIM" feature if available. In fact, it's a good idea to have a few choice CDs on hand and advisable to make frequent comparisons until you are comfortable with the monitors. What's that? You're intimately acquainted? Let's start at the beginning, we're going to learn how to listen in a whole new way.


You probably have collected the material (music, spoken word, etc.) and have an order that works. The next decision is whether to put time between the tracks or to smooth the transitions via crossfade. (Some of this you'll work out when tweaking the PQ code.) Assuming the "program" could range from bone-crushing hip-hop to a crank-it-up ballad, the most difficult task will be to set the levels from piece to piece. No matter what you thought you knew about limiting and compression -- on a per-mix basis -- mastering a compilation will be an ear-raising experience.


In the big city, analog distortion is hip-hop acceptable -- hey, ya gotta get it over the street noise -- but there's no "overdrive" in the digital domain. Digital Law states that nothing can be louder than 0dB full scale (fs). Conversely, a ballad is like a trip to the wilderness. From the valley floor you can hear blood coursing through your veins. Look way up and the mountain peaks give new meaning to the phrase "dynamic range."

To get "the city" and the "wilderness" on the same CD, you must first determine the loudest piece. If it doesn't seem as loud as the reference CDs, it may be necessary to use more compression. Some dynamics processors will simultaneously compress and peak limit. (See the Crane Song review.) To preserve dynamics and to avoid elevating the valley (noise) floor, use less-aggressive compression with more peak limiting. Simply "leveling" the peaks will allow the overall volume to be raised.

If your workstation supports plug-ins, check out the Waves L1 UltraMaximizer. If you're having trouble getting your CD's "average" level high enough without getting overs, the L1 has a wonderful peak limiter which will allow this. But be careful - you could end up with a CD that is way too loud. As Bob Katz once said, "you should need a license to use the L1". The L1 also has a very nice noise shaped dither (something we'll get into another time).

Most mastering tools -- software and hardware -- will warn when a signal becomes overloaded.

If you want the CD to become the master, there can be no "overs."

An over is commonly defined as 3 or more consecutive samples at a level of 0db FS (Full Scale)


Before getting into EQ, cut a flat reference and take a break. Some of us spend an inordinate amount of time in ye olde control cave. Go ahead, get out and see the world. Listen to your work in every possible environment -- especially "the transitions" from track to track -- and take notes!


A good mastering equalizer or compressor/limiter can cost as much as an eight-buss mixer. That is your clue to not go overboard from the first downbeat to the final mix. Fixing radical EQ is both difficult and time consuming. (On some systems, it may also rob processing power and require more than one pass.) Some mastering engineers put the whole master through a favorite piece of gear that exudes such "character" (a euphemism for "pleasing" distortion) as to smooth out radical track-to-track differences.

Some times this "homogenization" process is what characterizes the "sound" of a record. If you can't "get it" with EQ and can't rent or own a vintage "magic box," try using a multi-band compressor/limiter such as the Aphex Dominator or the TC Finalyser. Or, if your soft / firm-ware supports plug-ins, check out the Waves C-1. In fact, being able to process high-frequency dynamics (such as de-essing) separate from the low and/or midrange frequencies can really smooth things out. It's sorta like audio multitasking.


The next reference CD you cut should be much closer to what the final product will be. Live with it for a while. If you're having trouble getting something close to professional results, it may be time to seek help. Now you know why mastering houses charge extra for client participation.

Part 1:The Phonograph Part 2:Magnetic Tape Part 3:The Mastering Process
Part 4:CD
Part 5:DVD
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