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Larry Jones

How Do You Master an Album?

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Posted (edited)

I master my own recordings in my own clumsy, DIY way -- right or wrong, I get them sounding the way I want them to sound, and over the years I've learned from here and elsewhere and from experience and gotten a little better at it. So my question is not "how to master," but rather "how to master a collection of recordings."

I mean if you have, for example, eight songs recorded and you want to put them together in the old-fashioned "album" format, how do you go about it?  Obviously you have to decide on a song sequence, but once you've done that do you put all your mixes on the timeline in the correct order? And what if each track requires slightly different settings for EQ, compression and level in order to make the entire project feel like it's all one piece of work? I guess you could create a region for each track and apply these FX as needed for each region. 

I usually make my homemade masters of individual songs in Sound Forge 11, but I've never tried to make a collection of songs fit together as a coherent whole. Is there an app for this? For what it's worth I use CbB for all my projects, but I also own Studio One 4, Samplitude X3 and Sound Forge.  Years ago I acquired CD Architect 5.2, which tries to do what I'm talking about, but is not compatible with VSTs.

Or is this idea really just too old fashioned? Does anyone release digital albums? Do 21st century listeners even listen to whole albums? Any thoughts on this?

Edited by Larry Jones
clarification

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I've used Studio One's Project Page in tandem with Sonar for years. Although its claim to fame is integration with SO4's Song Page,  no law says you can't load in WAV files, and treat SO4 like a far hipper version of CD Architect. 

I've written about how to assemble collections of songs in Cakewalk, which is completely doable. However, since you have SO4, you might as well take the path of least resistance. The Project Page was designed to do what you want to do.

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Good song @Craig Anderton. Great mix/master too!

I forget what mix tutorial it was, but you did one that involved using the new Sonar Console Emulations. That was when I re-evaluated my method for mixing!! I have since gone the way of I can spend my time writing better songs than trying to mix better. These old ears just can't serve me like I would like.

 

Mastering is a total art unto itself. And I haven't figured out how the mixing process goes with the Mastering process.

 

Someone said (I think it was Larry) something about the older songs being mixed/mastered badly. When I do hear some of my favorite songs I can hear the mistakes they had to live with! But they had to make decisions, keep the ball rolling, get the next client in... but we still loved them songs! : )

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if you want to do this really effectively, you would re-master all the songs. Assuming you keep a pre-master folder of all of your mixes through the years, load them all up in Cakewalk and apply individual effects, eq, etc on each song and send them all through the same master buss with the same limiter such as Waves L2 or Izotope 8. Then open them all up in Sound Forge for a final check -RMS levels, etc. Of course, Samplitude is made for this as well or Studio One has a dedicated Project Page. And, if you really want to give them the attention they need, you could consider re-mixing some.

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I mix all 8 songs first and put each separate mix in a folder called "Album Chuck bla bla Mixes"

These mixes are typically 24 bit mixes that I dither down to 16 once I start the mastering phase.

I master each one at a time. (not the same CWP). this way if I need to tweak the master later, I don't have to open up something really big looking for needles in hay stacks.

After my masters are done, I import them to CD Architect. This software only acts as an orginizer. There are typically no plug ins added in this phase, its only for alignment and song order.

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Posted (edited)
5 hours ago, Chuck E Baby said:

I mix all 8 songs first and put each separate mix in a folder called "Album Chuck bla bla Mixes"

These mixes are typically 24 bit mixes that I dither down to 16 once I start the mastering phase.

I master each one at a time. (not the same CWP). this way if I need to tweak the master later, I don't have to open up something really big looking for needles in hay stacks.

After my masters are done, I import them to CD Architect. This software only acts as an orginizer. There are typically no plug ins added in this phase, its only for alignment and song order.

+1   

Mastering, for me, begins at tracking-choosing the right mic, plug-in, guitar, etc.  Then, mixing is the next step.  All my EQ, panning, arrangements, f/x, and the like are done at this stage.  I mix the levels to be about -4 to -6db below 0db.  I then export the mix to Sound Forge for trimming and fades, after which, I import back into CW for the last step which is limiting to -0.35 db with Adaptive Limiter.  At this point, I render them from 24 bits to 16 bits, typically using POW-R 2 algorithm.  I've gotten consistent results using this method, and by now, most songs are at the same level and rarely need to be readjusted.  Then comes CD Architect, where they are put in order and spaced out the way I like.  The songs can be adjusted volume wise in CDA if needed.

I've heard your songs, Larry, and I don't think you need to worry too much, as you have a good ear and get good results.

Edited by Lynn
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7 hours ago, Grem said:

Mastering is a total art unto itself. And I haven't figured out how the mixing process goes with the Mastering process. 

I still do the two as separate processes. 

For me, mixing is about getting the best possible balance of all the tracks; I use no processors in the master bus, only individual tracks. I then bounce within the program to create a stereo mix of that balance, which I peak normalize. (Of course, saying that means self-proclaimed "pro" mastering engineers will tell you I'm clueless, giving bad advice, and should have my mastering engineer license revoked. But with LUFS, times have changed.)

The  mixed tracks then go into Studio One's Project Page. I check the LUFS reading for all the files to see where they stand, level-wise. They're typically pretty close, but I usually add a Waves L3 as an insert for each file, and adjust the amount of maximizing so they have the same perceived average level. I also check the RMS reading, True Peak, and LRA readings to see if there are any crazy disparities. Of course, ears are a part of this process, but remember that ears are much worse at discriminating small level variations compared to pitch variations. 

Some tracks may require a bit of EQ to match the others in terms of spectral balance. I sometimes use a spectrum analyzer to get a rough idea, but really, ears are by far the best test equipment for this. 

After everything sounds like a collection of songs, I export a file with all the songs. This is where the ears take over totally. I'll listen to the file for several days, at different times of the day, over different systems, in several contexts. This will help ferret out any level or tone issues that need to be addressed. If there are issues, I'll go back, make the modifications, and re-start the listening/evaluating process.

 

 

 

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But I should also add that some mastering projects aren't quite so simple, like a continuous, DJ-style mix, because of adding transitions, crossfades, sound effects, etc. (to hear an example of this, click on the Joie de Vivre link in my sig). I wrote an article about how to do this in Cakewalk in my Sound on Sound column.

For these, most of this kind of work has to take place in the DAW.  After the continuous mix is done, I bounce it to a [long!] stereo mix, and then split it in logical places to create individual songs for track markers and such. Due to continuous nature of the project, this doesn't always happen at the "beginning" of a song, especially when two songs crossfade. These then go into Studio One's Project Page, and the process completes as described above.

This is the most difficult kind of project for me to do by far; just getting tempos to match and not have weird key changes is a challenge. With the Joie de Vivre, the song order was dictated by tempo - slower ones first, building up over the course of the project. A lot of the transitions needed to speed up as imperceptibly as possible to get from one song to another. If you listen to it, the most difficult transition by far was from "To Say No Would be a Crime (Remix)" (3rd song) to "Lilianna." That took hours to figure out; the transition starts around the 10-minute mark; the transition isn't complete until around 10:55.

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Posted (edited)
1 hour ago, Craig Anderton said:

But with LUFS, times have changed.

Good info.

 

1 hour ago, Craig Anderton said:

click on the Joie de Vivre link in my sig

Wow! Great work Craig! That first song is really good. Catchy, great beat, good vocals, and the video!! Did you do that video yourself? The colors are so vivid, especially at the 4:28 part. I enjoyed watching it.

Edited by Grem

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11 hours ago, Craig Anderton said:

I've used Studio One's Project Page in tandem with Sonar for years. Although its claim to fame is integration with SO4's Song Page,  no law says you can't load in WAV files, and treat SO4 like a far hipper version of CD Architect. 

 

this is what i currently do.

 

i finish mixes, and export them as stereo wav files at 24 bit 48khz

 

I'll load in, and check the balance in Har Bal, and make any EQ tweaks there.

 

then bring them into s1p, project page, and finish them off at redbook format.

 

i master all my songs in an album format, and level them to work in the order that they appear on my albums.

working on album no. 4 now.

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17 minutes ago, Grem said:

Wow! Great work Craig! That first song is really good. Catchy, great beat, good vocals, and the video!! Did you do that video yourself? The colors are so vivid, especially at the 4:28 part. I enjoyed watching it.

Yes, I do all the videos myself, using Magix Vegas (and a lot of public domain images :)).

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31 minutes ago, Craig Anderton said:

a lot of public domain images

I was wondering where all that came from! Nice job. 

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47 minutes ago, CosmicDolphin said:

Well you just master the album

It will help you in the future to read more than just the title of a post.

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Posted (edited)

Some really great advice here, and as you can see there's a lot of different ways to approach things. Like @Craig Anderton touched on, everyone will have their own checklist of things that they do, or they recommend against other people trying, but it's all down to whatever process works best for you at the end of the day.

That said (and I'll add this next bit with a huge serving of irony), it's usually best to mix in one process and master in another, in a different environment, preferably with someone giving it a listen with fresh ears. Going to a proper mastering room that's purpose made to have everything entirely flat, run by someone who is used to that environment (that's a big thing) and isn't subject to all of the fun things that can happen when you do it all in the same studio as the mix. Unless you know your studio is dead flat, and your monitors are accurate, mastering elsewhere is great for catching those things that you can miss during the mix. If your lows are overhyped, for example, you'll never know that if you master in the same space.

The irony is that I don't do any of that - I mix and master in the same process, and in the same space! HAHA! But to put that in the proper perspective, my room is acoustically tuned and I know it really well - limitations of the space included. Years of experience has given me a workflow (with a lot of absolute clunkers along the way, mind you!) that lets me have a process where I know what will happen to a mix once I put certain effects on there. I usually have at least a mastering limiter strapped over the master out because I know that the mix will be slammed later, and likely some kind of stereo widening. These won't be the final effects, but there as a way to hear how certain level and panning adjustments will react at the end once I start tuning things properly.

The key for me is to have great reference material of the same ballpark style on hand. Give yourself sanity checks during the mix by referring to the stuff you're comparing it to - it's easy to get caught up in "your" sound, until you realise your ears are playing tricks on you and "your" sound changed many revisions ago, and will sound weird when you put it up against other commercial mixes. Get your mix sounding good, then when you start strapping over your mastering effects, you want to set up a final metering buss (ie: a buss with some kind of metering plugin that lets you check RMS, LUFS, phase, frequency spectrum, etc.) so you can see what your mix/master is doing, and then actually import in your reference tracks and send them directly to the meters, so you can easily switch between your master buss, and each reference track, and you can take note of how different the levels are, is there any frequency that's really popping out, etc. 

Where this is good is you're able to go back and make proper fine tuning in the mix itself immediately, rather than trying to fix things in the master. It's easy enough to drop 85hz on your master if you're getting too much subs, but what is that taking out? Maybe it's just your kick drum that's too thuddy but your bass sounds fine? Cutting everything at the master is nuking both things from orbit, rather than going and fixing the actual problem, and doing it all in the one process is much quicker than going back to a mix, making adjustments, reimporting back into a master session, etc.

Once you have the one track mastered and sounding great, you now have YOUR sound to master the rest of the album to. Even if each song is different, sonically they should all kind of sound like a coherent piece, so using the level and EQ plot from one of your own songs will definitely go a long way to getting you there for all of the others, even if you may likely need to tweak further for each one.

Eventually this will give you the full album. If you're like Craig and have like a long continuous thing going, drag all of those mastered files back into CbB and do all of your fades, etc. (it's worth putting a limiter on the master buss again just to make sure any crossfades don't accidentally put you over FS if you're doing a particularly loud master), and that'll give you one big WAV file. Import that into CD Architect, Studio One, etc. and start chopping up and adding track markers, etc.  (Or if it's all separate songs, skip that step and just import each one in individually). Add your UPC/EAN and ISRC, CD Text, etc. if you want to get your distro happening properly, and you're away! :)  Then go off and check it on EVERYTHING! Before too long, you'll either be happy or sick of it... and it's done!

 

... TL;DR version: do it somewhere else, but if you don't, use reference tracks and meters. Could have just said that in the first place, dude! 🙄

Edited by Lord Tim
Clarifying what I mean by Metering Buss
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9 hours ago, Lord Tim said:

with a lot of absolute clunkers along the way,

Waiting on the book!! : )

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Great thread.

It never gets old hearing others explain the way they go about performing the same tasks only slightly differently.

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Posted (edited)
6 hours ago, Grem said:

Waiting on the book!! : )

Haha!

Actually, there kinda is: There was a big 200 page band history that came with our 25th anniversary box set and one chapter went into the recording of our Resurrection album in 1999. I somehow managed to make a Studer + Neve + vintage gear + brilliant sounding room sound like such a mess that even the head mastering guy at Studios 301 couldn't rescue it. 😑

It's all a learning experience, some more expensive than others...! 😒

But that's what's great about places like this forum - there's a wealth of information and different perspectives you can get from here - FOR FREE - from people who have made these mistakes already so you don't have to. I'm still learning new ways to do things from being here. :)

Edited by Lord Tim
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15 hours ago, Lord Tim said:

But that's what's great about places like this forum - there's a wealth of information and different perspectives you can get from here - FOR FREE - from people who have made these mistakes already so you don't have to. I'm still learning new ways to do things from being here.

 

Great description of this place. I was drawn toward CW due to the great help that was given on the news-group. It has stayed that way all these years. It's almost like I can go to a studio,  look over the engineers shoulder and ask all the questions I want!!

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