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Mastering, a form of audio post-production, is the process of preparing and transferring recorded audio from a source containing the final mix to a data storage device (the master); the source from which all copies will be produced (via methods such as pressing, duplication or replication). The format of choice these days is digital masters, although analog masters, such as audio tapes, are still being used by the manufacturing industry and a few engineers who specialize in analog mastering. ISRC and Barcoding audio is an important part of mastering yet it is a complex subject. Peace of Eden provides a cost effective service to anyone requiring ISRC and Barcodes digitaly encrypted into their masters. Go to ISRC/UPC for more information on this.

Below are terms and definitions related to audio mastering and audio in general.


Bob Ludwig:

"Mastering is the technical and creative act of balancing, equalizing and enhancing analog or digital tapes so that the finished product will have attained the maximum musicality and competitiveness in the open market. A mastering studio must be both extremely creative and technically perfect, since the master that is made there will be the template for thousands of compact discs, DVDs, cassettes and records produced for commercial release."

  • "Recording is the process of capturing musical performances onto a physical medium like analog tape, digital tape, compact disc or a computer hard disk."
  • "Mixing is the process of taking multiple recorded tracks (3 tracks through hundreds of tracks) and blending them together using a mixing console. The final result is usually a two channel (stereo left and right) performance."
  • "Mastering is the technical and creative act of balancing, equalizing and enhancing, analog or digital tapes so that the finished product will have attained the maximum musicality and competitiveness in the open market."
  • "Replication is the process of taking a digital audio master and transferring it to a glass master where thousands to millions of copies can be made." The glass master stamps indentations into a silver coloured foil disk that is laminated into the compact disk. A laser lights the surface of this foil disk at an angle and reads the 'valleys' as dark patches and the 'hills' as light patches corresponding to digital information of zeros and ones.

  • Duplication is the process of burning a copy of the digital data onto a light-sensitive foil which is encapsulated in a burnable compact disk (CDR). Dark patches burnt by the laser onto the surface of the disk, and light patches, are interpreted as
    zeroes and ones.

    Most common mistake: Using the word "mixing" and "mastering" interchangeably. The definitions are totally different, and represent completely different phases of production. Mixing is done at a recording or mixing studio, and is the step BEFORE mastering.

This is the final mastered format of a project, and are referred to as CD-R PQ MASTERS. These masters are for manufacturing (duplication and replication) only. Masters are not always compatible with all playing devices, and are not meant to be played, other than for proofing one time through prior to manufacturing.

A glass master IS NOT A CD master ! This is a stamping master made at the CD manufacturing plant. This is what is used to stamp out the replicated CD's at the plant. Glass masters are not made at the mastering studio. The CD master that you get from the mastering studio is the format used to make the glass master.

This is referred to as a "ref ". A reference disc is a CD that is burned with the intent to give you a final representation of the project. The CD ref can be used to approve the final project and can be kept for the clients personal use.

PQ Code Printout:
After the project is mastered, the mastering engineer will know the times of each track exactly from the computer data. Each master will be in a case, along with the pq code printout. The pq code printout needs to remain with the CD master, as manufacturing will need it.

These digital codes must be present on a final master. These codes include information embedded in the data of the master, so that the CD's that are manufactured from this master can be "read" by all CD players. These p and q sub-layers contain song times, any cd-text info, isrc codes and whether emphasis was used or not.

All masters that are made at Peace of Eden are encoded with CD TEXT. This is information about the disc and its tracks which is embedded in a sub-layer of an audio CD Master. The information can include album title, song titles, song times etc. In order for the CD text to be displayed on a playback device, the device must be a CD or DVD text enabled player. Not all players and computers are TEXT ENABLED. The mastering studio does not provide access to CDDB's. This is the clients responsibility to register for an online database (such as iTunes, etc.) (See CDDB)

This is a data base of album information that is accessed by such programs as iTunes, Windows Media Player, and WinAmp to display album info on computers. The information in such data bases is not furnished by the CDDB, it is LINKED to CD's that have had CD text embedded in the masters by their mastering engineers, and that info appears on the manufactured CD's. The client is totally responsible for all information for the CD text. The mastering engineer inserts the information that the client provides for the text.

International Standard Recording Code. An electronic tag attached to each individual audio track. The ISRC codes are embedded in your final masters by the mastering engineer. The client is supplied these codes by Peace of Eden PRIOR to the mastering session. This service is associated with the mastering session. These codes are not required by any agency. 

Universal Product Code or BAR CODE. The familiar bar code that we see on almost every product label. If you wish to have your bar code embedded in your master, please provide the mastering engineer with your code at the time of mastering. Contact your CD manufacturing plant or your distributors about providing a UPC code for you. Peace of Eden can provide UPC-A and EAN 13 barcodes if required.

The RED book is the most widespread, worldwide CD standard and describes the physical properties of CD and digital encoding. When you receive a CD master from Peace of Eden it is a RED book standard CD master.



1.1 Pre-1940s

1.2 Advances

1.3 Digital technology


3 Process

4 Audio mastering tools




Pre-1940s  *top*

In the earliest days of the recording industry, all phases of the recording and mastering process were entirely achieved by mechanical processes. Performers sang and/or played into a large acoustic horn and the master recording was created by the direct transfer of acoustic energy from the diaphragm of the recording horn to the mastering lathe, which was typically located in an adjoining room. The cutting head, driven by the energy transferred from the horn, inscribed a modulated groove into the surface of a rotating cylinder or disc. These masters were usually made from either a soft metal alloy or from wax; this gave rise to the colloquial term waxing, referring to the cutting of a record.

After the introduction of the microphone and electronic amplification in the late 1920s, the mastering process became electro-mechanical, and electrically driven mastering lathes came into use for cutting master discs (the cylinder format by then having been superseded).

However, until the introduction of tape recording, master recordings were almost always cut direct-to-disc. Artists performed live in a specially designed studio and as the performance was underway, the signal was routed from the microphones via a mixing desk in the studio control room to the mastering lathe, where the disc was cut in real time.

Only a small minority of recordings were mastered using previously recorded material sourced from other discs.

Advances   *top*

The recording industry was revolutionized by the introduction of magnetic tape in the late 1940s, which enabled master discs to be cut separately in time and space from the actual recording process. Although tape and other technical advances dramatically improved audio quality of commercial recordings in the post-war years, the basic constraints of the electro-mechanical mastering process remained, and the inherent physical limitations of the main commercial recording media—the 78 rpm disc and the later 7-inch 45 rpm single and the 33-1/3 rpm LP record—meant that the audio quality, dynamic range, and running time of master discs were still relatively limited compared to later media such as the compact disc.

Running times were constrained by the diameter of the disc and the density with which grooves could be inscribed on the surface without cutting into each other. Dynamic range was also limited by the fact that if the signal level coming from the master tape was too high, the highly sensitive cutting head might jump off the surface of the disc during the cutting process.

From the 1950s until the advent of digital recording in the late 1970s, the mastering process typically went through several stages. Once the studio recording on multi-track tape was complete, a final mix was prepared and dubbed down to the master tape, usually either a single-track mono or two-track stereo tape.

Prior to the cutting of the master disc, the master tape was often subjected to further electronic treatment by a specialist mastering engineer. After the advent of tape it was found that, especially for pop recordings, master recordings could be optimized by making fine adjustments to the balance and equalization prior to the cutting of the master disc.

Mastering became a highly skilled craft and it was widely recognized that good mastering could make or break a commercial pop recording. As a result, during the peak years of the pop music boom from the 1950s to the 1980s, the best mastering engineers were in high demand.

In large recording companies such as EMI, the mastering process was usually controlled by specialist staff technicians who were conservative in their work practices. These big companies were often reluctant to make changes to their recording and production processes—for example, EMI was very slow in taking up innovations in multi-track recording and they did not install 8-track recorders in their Abbey Road Studios until the late 1960s, more than a decade after the first commercial 8-track recorders were installed by American independent studios. As a result, by the time The Beatles were making their groundbreaking recordings in the mid-1960s, they often found themselves at odds with EMI's mastering engineers, who were unwilling to meet the group's demands to push the mastering process because it was feared that if levels were set too high it would cause the needle to jump out of the groove when the record was played by listeners.

Digital technology *top*

Optimum Digital Levels with respect to the Full Digital Scale (dBFSD)

In the 1990s, electro-mechanical processes were largely superseded by digital technology, with digital recordings transferred to digital masters by an optical etching process that employs laser technology. The digital audio workstation (DAW) became common in many mastering facilities, allowing the off-line manipulation of recorded audio via a graphical user interface (GUI). Although many digital processing tools are common during mastering, it is also very common to use analog media and processing equipment for the mastering stage.

Just as in other areas of audio, the benefits and drawbacks of digital technology compared to analog technology is still a matter of debate. However, in the field of audio mastering, the debate is usually over the use of digital versus analog signal processing rather than the use of digital technology for storage of audio.

Although in reality there isn't such a thing as an "optimum mix level for mastering", the example on this picture to the right only suggests what mix levels are ideal for the studio engineer to render and for the mastering engineer to process. It's very important to allow enough headroom for the mastering engineer's work. Many mastering engineers working with digital equipment would agree that a minimum of 3 to 6 dB of available headroom is critical to perform good mastering. Ideal peak levels should not exceed -3dBFSD and the average sum of the left and right channels should be at around -10 to -18 dBFSD (As shown on the picture to the right).

There are mastering engineers who feel that digital technology, as of 2007, has not progressed enough in quality to supersede analog technology entirely. Many top mastering studios, including Bernie Grundman Mastering (which has mastered 37 Grammy-nominated albums), and Gateway Mastering, still embrace analog signal processing (such as analog equalization) within the mastering process. Additionally, the latest advances in analog mastering technology include 120V signal rails for previously unavailable headroom of 150dB as well as frequency response ranging from 3 Hz to 300 kHz.[citation needed] In order to duplicate this frequency response in digital domain, a sampling rate of at least 600 kHz would be required, by the Nyquist–Shannon sampling theorem. However, it is pertinent that the extremes in this frequency range (3 Hz - 300 kHz), are effectively inaudible, existing outside the range of both the human ear and most professional microphones.

The studio *top*

The audio mastering studio is much different than a normal recording studio. In fact, keeping mastering equipment, which consists of large consoles and monitoring devices, in a recording studio can actually hinder the acoustics of a recording session. Arrangement of the equipment within the studio is also important since the mastering engineer will want to be able to hear every detail of each track. By working with a separate mastering engineer, the recording artist is also opened up to more creative opinions.

Process *top*

The source material is processed using equalization, compression, limiting, noise reduction and other processes. Subsequently, it is rendered to a medium such as CD or DVD. This mastered source material is also put in the proper order at this stage. This is commonly called the assembly or track sequencing. More tasks such as editing, pre-gapping, leveling, fading in and out, noise reduction and other signal restoration and enhancement processes can be applied as part of the mastering stage.

The specific medium varies, depending on the intended release format of the final product. For digital audio releases, there is more than one possible master medium, chosen based on replication factory requirements or record label security concerns.

A mastering engineer may be required to take other steps, such as the creation of a PMCD (Pre-Mastered Compact Disc), where this cohesive material needs to be transferred to a master disc for mass replication. A good architecture of the PMCD is crucial for a successful transfer to a glass master that will generate stampers for reproduction.

The process of audio mastering varies depending on the specific needs of the audio to be processed. Steps of the process typically include but are not limited to the following:

Transferring the recorded audio tracks into the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) (optional).

Sequence the separate songs or tracks (the spaces in between) as they will appear on the final product (for example, an audio CD).

Process or "sweeten" audio to maximize the sound quality for its particular medium.

Transfer the audio to the final master format (i.e., Red Book-compatible audio CD or a CD-ROM data, half-inch reel tape, PCM 1630 U-matic tape, etc.).

Examples of possible actions taken during mastering:

Edit minor flaws.

Apply noise reduction to eliminate hum and hiss.

Adjust stereo width.

Add ambience.

Equalize audio between tracks.

Adjust volumes.

Dynamic expansion.

Dynamic compression.

Peak limit the tracks.

The guidelines above are mainly descriptive of the mastering process and not considered specific instructions applicable in a given situation. Mastering engineers need to examine the types of input media, the expectations of the source producer or recipient, the limitations of the end medium and process the subject accordingly. General rules of thumb can rarely be applied. We use a host of audio mastering tools such as Wavelab and Soundforge. *top*

Some information on this page was obtained from Wikipedia