Once a mix is complete you will need to go through a process called mastering, readying your song for the world to hear. This is simply more than making a track louder, this is to tie the track together and bring the audio to a format suitable for your desired playback device.
There are many delivery mediums available including Streaming Services, CD, Vinyl, Cassette Tape, Soundcloud and Bandcamp.
So… let’s take a dive into the different mediums and what you or your mastering engineer should be presenting them with.
(Spotify, Apple Music etc)
To upload your music to the major streaming platforms you will use an aggregator such as DistroKid, CD Baby, Ditto, Tunecore or Amuse.
While most of these companies are moving towards higher quality, lossless file formats some are still limiting you to the typical 44.1kHz, 16bit file.
CD Baby and Amuse still seem to only accept 44.1kHz 16bit WAV/FLAC stereo files but we hope that improves over time.
DistroKid, Ditto and Tunecore can currently accept formats higher than 44.1kHz 16bit stereo files, meaning, that your mastering engineer can supply you with a higher quality format if they have access to this.
There are many aggregators out there these days but most seem to accept WAV, FLAC and AIFF at 24bit, 44.1kHz or higher, alongside an MP3 but we strongly suggest you to dismiss uploading your masters as compressed MP3 files.
We’d recommend discussing the specifics with your engineer so they can present you with the best fit master for the aggregator you are using.
Your engineer will also need to bear in mind what level and style of master is produced for the platform it will be distributed through. For example, Spotify loudness levels are completely different to other delivery mediums such as compact disc (CD).
Platforms tend to normalize your music to a set LUFS no matter what you present them with. This is to provide the listener with the very best experience when moving between different tracks across the platform.
This has to be taken into consideration when mastering the track for streaming platforms as you will find your track is required to have more dynamics and headroom compared to typically loud masters.
|-9 to -13 LUFS
|-13 to -15 LUFS
|-14 to -16 LUFS
Music can be played on many different devices when supplied by a streaming platform, basically anything that can be connected to the APP. Mobile phones, cars, bluetooth speakers, large PA systems… the list goes on…
As the playback source is digital, you will not suffer with any loss within playback transmission. Meaning, whatever you supply to the aggregator will be representative on the playback device.
The only angle you need to take into consideration is the device itself. For example; a car may sound boomier than a phone.
Your mastering engineer should be able to create an ‘in-the-middle’ master than can be represented well across these different devices rather than favouring one specific device.
Compact Disc (CD)
Mastering for CD is what each and everyone is typically used to. The standard rate for CD playback is 44.1kHz, 16bit audio files which are then provided to the duplication company as a DDP file or burnt master CD-R.
A Digital Description Protocol (DDP) is usually created by the mastering engineer to supply the CD duplication company. It contains 4-5 files that consists of audio, track ID information and CD-Text information.
It is the most recognised and secure way of sending a CD to be duplicated in the way it’s intended to be with no errors.
A Master CD-R is the alternative to a DDP. It should be error free and contain all audio, track ID and CD-Text as intended. Typically this can be burnt from a DDP and shipped for the CD Duplicators to use.
This is a self-defined target with compact disc, the average LUFs is between -10 to -5 with a -1.0dBTP. Many will debate this but effectively this is up to you and your engineers ears.
Bear in mind what devices a CD may be played on as this will determine how you master your tracks for CD.
I’m our opinion most CD’s tend to be played in cars or through larger systems for background music. Streaming devices or digital copies will be used as alternatives to a CD so bear this in mind when mastering for CD.
Vinyls are often a traditional way for musicians to spread their music to enthusiasts that enjoy warm, high quality music on vinyl. The sample rate for vinyl should be native as your final mastering session and not limited to 44.1kHz. The bit rate doesn’t really come into play as vinyls are analog, the highest possible rate would be appropriate if you wanted to select something.
The best practice is too create one WAV file per vinyl side to ensure that everything is spaced accordingly during the cutting process.
The length of track per side depends on how loud you would like the final vinyl to sound. Typically an LP has optimum sound level at 18-20minutes per side but for accurate results it’s best to speak with your cutting engineer.
The longer the audio, the more a vinyl will have to compromise on its bass, volume and possibly stereo spread.
It is also helpful to create a cue sheet to send alongside your WAV files to show the cutting engineer where each track sites on the file.
Vinyl can accommodate dynamics more than digital playback devices. However, you will create distortion if your vinyl master is loud, say the same level as a CD master or even brick walled by a limiter.
The loudness of your master doesn’t really play a part of how loud the vinyl will actually be. This also the same theory with your peak DB.
The trick is to find an appropriate balance between dynamics and harsh peaks to avoid causing distortion upon playback of the vinyl.
When creating your vinyl master you need to bear in mind that vinyl tends to be more sensitive towards creating distortion from accentuated high frequencies in comparison to a digital master.
You need to cater a for this and taming peaks within the mix, mainly towards high frequencies. A multi-band limiter is great for taming peaks generally rather than a standard limiter and a basic high shelf cut can reduce high frequency build up.
You can also get phasing issues from vinyl cutting. To avoid this issue you can centre all bass frequencies by applying some mid-side processing.
Another fantastic method for additional revenue is Cassette Tape. It’s not as high in quality as vinyl but it’s certainly not something to oversea.
There are three tape types, all with different characteristics suited to different genres.
- Type 1 (Normal Bias): Warmer Tones with an attenuated high frequency range. A louder signal can be recorded without distortion, similar to the level of a digital recording. It has more hiss than others meaning the recording needs to be hot to hide the noise.
- Type 2 (High/Chrome Bias): Reproduces higher frequencies more but find it difficult to cater for low frequencies. It can sound thin compared to Type 1. It can also be recorded at high levels but any saturation can produce unwanted and unpleasant high frequencies.
- Type 4 (Metal Bias): Improves the low and high frequency response as well as dynamics. Lower high frequency distortion that Type 2 has. It is the most costly tape as it’s high detailed and is the best sonic reproduction. Many tape decks don’t support this type tape which cause problems for consumers to use them.
Cassette tapes can be mastered at a similar level as CD mastering. They tend to be requested as 44.1kHz ,16bit files mastered as a single WAV for each side. This prevents any changes to the gaps between tracks.
Again, it is wise to provide a track/cue sheet for the tape duplication company to understand what is on each side.
Type 1 tape will create a warm classic sounding recording.
You will also need to bear in mind that Type 1 tapes have an attenuated high frequency response. Meaning your master can turn muddy if you have overlooked how much high frequency is on your master. Typically you will create a high shelf boost to accommodate this.
Type 2 tape can easily reproduce high frequencies. If you are looking to push the master volume into the tape to increase saturation then it is recommend to high shelf cut high frequencies to help decrease harsh high frequencies. Another tool that can be used is a deesser to tame HF.
To support the lower frequencies it is recommended to boost these lower frequencies. This can be done using a plugin such as the Waves RBass to enhance the lower frequency range.
Type 4 can be mastered similar to a CD due to its sonically sound reproduction.
Soundcloud and Bandcamp
Similar to streaming services, Souncloud and Bandcamp offer a direct streaming platform for users to experience your music. They also allow higher quality 24bit WAV files at 44.1kHz or higher.
They also allow MP3 upload but again, we strongly suggest you avoid this if you are looking for quality tracks.
These platforms also offer an option for consumers to download the high quality master from the platform, if selected. Bandcamp also enables you to monetize these downloads for additional revenue.
Soundcloud normalizes the audio to -14LUFS, meaning you should be presenting your master to them at -14LUFs (-1.0dbtp) for accurate representation of your master. They will turn up or down your master to -14LUFs no matter what.
Bandcamp state they do not touch the audio you upload and their encoding process leaves your masters unchanged. This means you should be able to present them with a master suitable for the consumers download device.
Similar to streaming services, Soundcloud and Bandcamp is a web or app based platform. This means that there isn’t any real requirements to adapt your overall masters tone as it’s a digital representation.
We recommend your tone is representable for the devices your masters will be streamed on, similar to streaming services or CDs. For example; playback in cars, on mobile phones, bluetooth speakers etc.