Tech Tip:- Creating Your CD, Part III: Mastering & Duplication

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


By Dennis Kambury

Mastering your CD is the last step in the creative process before your disk is duplicated, shipped, and purchased by millions of music fans worldwide. But what is it, exactly, and why do you need it?

Let's Review
In the old days (when CDs were 12" black disks made of vinyl), the two-track tape that was mixed and edited in the studio was delivered to the mastering studio. There, if the songs on the master tape were recorded or mixed in different studios, the mastering engineer would adjust levels and EQ to make the tracks sound more uniform without changing the overall feel of each carefully crafted song. Finally, the master tape was played through a small console connected directly to the cutting lathe - a machine that converted electrical signals from the tape to mechanical motion that literally carved the tracks into the lacquer master.

Back To The Present
These days, powerful processors such as TC Electronic's Finalizer line offer easy, preset-driven mastering. By matching your CD style to one of the built-in styles, you can, without much effort, add a professional polish to your CD project. However, one of the disadvantages of self-mastering is that you're really close to the music at this point, and your judgment may be clouded - you KNOW the levels and EQ are perfect, because you just finished making them that way! To avoid this inner conflict, let the mix sit - without listening to it - for several days, until you can be more objective. When you re-listen to your mix, you may even find some elements you want to improve. That's great, but if you do that, put it back in the can for a day or two - you want your ears as fresh as possible for mastering duties.

For larger-scale projects you will want to consider a real, live mastering engineer. It'll cost a little more than a piece of hardware, but you'll gain a set of experienced ears and a studio full of gear that'll make the most out of your master! And while the mastering engineer no longer has to worry about groove-tracking issues, he or she will still balance levels, adjust EQ, and give your CD a competitive, professional sheen that'll play well in a crowded marketplace.

Format This
If you're doing your own mastering, you likely have everything you need already-a two-track mixdown deck (Alesis Masterlink, DAT machine, or your multitrack recorder may have a mix-to-disk option), a hardware or software mastering processor, and a CD burner. If you send your mix to a mastering house, they can generally handle a variety of formats, including two-track analog, DAT, Masterlink, or 24-bit high-resolution files. Call them and ask them what format they prefer, and if you can deliver in their preferred format, that's your best bet.

Once it's all done - the writing, rehearsal, recording, mixing, and mastering, the final step is duplication. There are a number of ways to accomplish this all-important task: burn the CDs one at a time on your computer and label them yourself. Purchase a duplication system such as the Primera Disk Publisher and you can dupe your own disks-labels and all-for a reasonable price. If you do a lot of duplication, this is a great solution. Or you can take advantage of Musician's Friend's duplication service through Disk Faktory. This is cost effective, fast, and reliable.