There really is only one but key difference between a traditional mastering studio and one that offers their services solely online - the clients are never present during the mastering process. They cannot instantly react to the effect the processing has on their mix and they are not able to correct the engineer's approach if needed. There is no denying that lack of the face-to-face contact makes it a little bit harder for an online mastering engineer to hit the spot, as everything is subjective and depends on personal taste and preferences. That is why good communication throughout the whole online mastering process, from the start to finish, is crucial to producing a master that meets the client’s expectations.
Some online mastering studios prefer not to engage too much with their customers. You simply send them your mix and a few days later a ready master is sent back to you, with no other interaction. My approach is different. Not only do I ask about your goals at the ordering stage so that I can tailor the processing to your needs, but I also get in touch at some point of the mastering process to keep you in the loop. I am always available by phone or e-mail so you can contact me if you have any urgent query. Please bear in mind the time difference between London and LA or Sydney though!
Mastering process at Red Mastering is broken down into the following three stages:
1. Critical Listening / (optional) Mix Review
Critical listening is the most important part of the mastering process and takes place regardless of whether you opted for a mix review or not.
I listen to your material in perfect acoustic conditions, judge it from a strictly technical point of view and decide what kind of processing should be used to achieve the results you expect. I do not appraise the artistic value such as song arrangement, out of tune vocals or tempo mistakes.
If you ordered a mix review and your mix has problems such as tonal imbalances or dynamic issues, I will email you as soon as possible with quite specific instructions to remove them. I will also let you know how your mix could be improved; you can then decide to follow these recommendations or not.
If you did not order a mix review, I will ignore problems like an instrument being (in my opinion) too loud or too quiet as it is assumed to be intentional. But I will contact you if I discover any serious technical issues such as distortion or clipping. Please consider that mixes submitted for mastering without the mix review option are anticipated to be fault free and as such they are scheduled for only one mastering session, as opposed to two sessions for orders that include mix review. If I have to unexpectedly stop mid-work and wait for the mix to be amended or just to hear back from you, I fail to deliver on the other orders that had been scheduled following your session. There is an additional fee for an interrupted session so to avoid extra charges, please always double check your mix before sending it for mastering.
2. Audio Processing
I use various audio processing techniques to enhance your mix. Depending on the material and the final medium I may use saturation, equalisation, M/S widening, limiting, compression, parallel compression, expansion, peak limiting, ballance correction, noise reduction, dithering etc.
Although it is always advisable to fix the issues detected at the previous stage by going back to the mix, it may not be feasible. To a certain degree some of these problems can be dealt with in a master. You must however bear in mind that working with one stereo file has its limitations and for example, compressing the drums will affect the rest of the mix. To lessen the impact, stem mastering can sometimes be an option, though it should only be used in exceptional cases. Instead of processing one file, two or more stems (groups of instruments) are being manipulated independently from each other, allowing for a better sound control. If for example a less experienced mixer struggles to properly remove 'pops' on the vocals, I can fix the problem by working with two stems, the vocals and the instrumentals.
Some clients insist on making their masters extremely loud even if the genre of their material does not call for it, and despite my strong advice against it. This is the result of the loudness war we have been witnessing for the past few decades; making masters painfully loud just for loudness sake. The clients are so worried about their single or album not being competitive volume wise in their genre that they are willing to sacrifice the dynamic range of their material. I appreciate that sometimes it is difficult to go against the tide, therefore I offer an extra loud master as an additional option. You will receive two versions - one with full dynamic range and the other one, much more compressed. Please note that in my opinion a standard master of the loudest music genres such as rock, hip hop or house should be no louder than around -10 up to -8dB RMS. An extra loud version can be up to 4 dB louder, though it really depends on the source material.
3. Master Revision
It really is at this stage that the importance of good communication at the start of the process transpires. The more information I was given and the more detailed it was, the fewer changes to the master are required. Since introducing the Job Order form, 99% of my clients were satisfied with the first draft and no amendments were required.
I always advise to listen to the master carefully on various sound systems before deciding whether you like it or not. If you are not entirely happy with how the master sounds, you should email me your findings and I will make the necessary adjustments.