Making of the album...You Look Familiar Part Four: Mastering and Replication
We're looking at the process behind the writing, recording and production of one of Mary's albums. Last week, Chris and Jessica looked at the different admin roles involved. This week, Chris looks at the misunderstood process of mastering and replication.
Ooh, I did it! I mentioned mastering last week didn't I? This was my last task on the album...to book the session! We tend to use our friend, and mastering genius, Donal Whelan at Hafod Mastering. He's mastered Mary and Jessica's albums, and recently mastered Morgan's album.
Mastering is probably the most misunderstood part of the production process. I'll give you two definitions I heard. First, it is the process of making your music sound the very best it can.
Secondly our old engineer Gerwyn's wife Rachel said "It makes your songs sound like an album". So it's that final polish and process that makes everything sound as good as it can.
Going to a mastering engineer is no reflection on the skills of a mix engineer - and definitely no reflection on Morgan's mixing skills. Mastering engineers have finely tuned, bat-like hearing which means they can hear every bump and lump in the sonic soundscape, and can iron these bumps out to make a beautiful polished sheen.
They also have finely tuned monitoring and rooms which means they know exactly how the track will sound. The importance of this can't be overstated - we don't know how the tracks will sound on every single playback system in the world. A good mastering studio and engineer will give you a very good chance of sounding excellent on practically every domestic system.
Working with Donal is no hardship. He's a great guy, with some awesome analogue outboard gear. His studio is in an idyllic setting, with a beautiful village 500 yards down the road, and a Celtic roundhouse in the surrounding fields.
It is without a doubt the most relaxed studio I have ever been in, and Donal is the most relaxed engineer I've worked with. It gives you a warm feeling knowing that a very experienced, third set of ears is listening over your mixes.
We turned up en masse at Hafod - Mary, Morgan, Jessica and me (along for the ride). We were armed with the mixed tracks on a flash drive (with back-ups on a laptop) and the ISRC codes. Morgan had researched a few different songs as mastering reference tracks.
Donal ran through the tracks of YLF in one day. There are some quite diverse moods on the album, and Donal calmly and quietly listened through, making small EQ adjustments here and there.
In doing this, he eliminated extraneous rumbling frequencies, added a bit of sparkle and sheen and glued the songs to each other.
He also focussed on ensuring the vocal levels were balanced - there's nothing worse than having a vocal that disappears behind the sofa in a quiet song, then jumps out to make you spill your tea everywhere in the next song.
This wasn't about pushing the levels really high. Around the time we produced You Look Familiar pop and rock albums were being mastered at crazily high levels*. They were so loud in fact that the tracks were distorted.
One of the first things that stood out when I first spoke to Donal was the relief he had when we said we didn't want the album to be ridiculously loud. I know mastering engineers will do what you ask them to, but to have someone so keen to make your album breathe is very reassuring.
He used enough compression and limiting to make the album loud enough, rather than crushed to within an inch of its life.
At the end of a very long day, we had a beautifully polished, professional sounding album. Donal had created listening discs for us, as well as the master copy with the Disc Description Protocol (DDP) file for the replicators.
This contains an audio image of the disc as well as other coding, including PQ codes. This is where our ISRC codes end up, alongside start times of the tracks, index and table of contents.
So armed with this, it's off to the replicators!
This is the first time that the album has been out of our hands. It's a bit of a nerve wracking time. Up until this point everything has been down to us, or we've been there when work is carried out. CD replication is utterly beyond us as it is actually a factory job.
We send the DPP file from the mastering studio, along with all of our (checked multiple times) artwork. Any so called "mistakes" that you might find in the album artwork are on purpose, like a "spot-the-typo" competition. Honest.
After the usual to and fro between us and the replicators, they get on and start the job. They'll usually send through proofs of the artwork just to make sure we're happy.
Instead of just burning several copies (duplication), the factory make a glass master from the DDP, which is then used to make negative imprints. These then become stamp templates.
These are used to create the CDs in an injection moulding machine, with hot polycarbonate being forced into a circular mould over the negative image template.
It takes around ten days for them to complete the task. Then comes the happy day when we get the knock on the door, and we take delivery of pallet loads of boxes stuffed with CDs.
Jessica by this point has written PR and prepared emails ready to send out to our contact list, and we prepare for the inundation of orders...
*A lot of music is still too loud but there is a growing movement towards mastering with more dynamics. If you are interested in this subject, please look at these sites:
Christian Thomas sits in a darkened room and does techie stuff. He engineers, mixes and provides technical support to Mary and Jessica.