<![CDATA[Best Mastering Studio - Before and After Music Group - Pittsburgh - Blog]]>Thu, 16 Jun 2022 22:01:13 -0400Weebly<![CDATA[Music Recording, Editing, Mixing and Mastering:  How Do You Know If You're Good Enough to Do It Yourself?]]>Tue, 14 Jun 2022 15:14:47 GMThttp://beforeandaftermusic.com/blog/music-recording-editing-mixing-and-mastering-how-do-you-know-if-youre-good-enough-to-do-it-yourselfMusician wonder if she's good enough to record her own music
In my last blog post - "DIY Music Recording and Production:  It Doesn't Have to Be All or Nothing!" - I offered some tips on how to decide what parts of the music production process you can/should handle yourself and for what parts you should look to a specialist for help.  Those parts included tracking, editing, mixing and mastering.

The advice was all based on a self-assessment and whether you felt your skills were up to snuff on those parts.  But, sometimes it can be hard to do a truly objective self-assessment.

For example, for mixing, I wrote that you need skills such as EQ'ing instruments and voices, smoothing out musical passages using compression, and knowing how to use automation properly, among other things.  But, how do you know if you're actually good enough at those things?

Well, here's an approach you can take.

Let's say that you're planning on releasing a 10-song album.  You recently got a DAW like Pro Tools and have learned how to navigate around it.  You are considering handling all of the production yourself.

You record a song.  You mix it.  It sounds good to your ears.  Maybe even better than you thought it would sound.

But, major label artists pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to record, mix and master their music.  It can't be this easy, right?  Is there something that could be better about the sound of your album if you paid professionals to work on it?

Well, there's one way to find out.

Consider taking that song you've recorded and mixed yourself.  See if you can find a recording and/or mastering studio to mix it and/or master it.

You'll pay their rate.  But, it will only be for one song, so it's not like you'll be paying a fortune or committing to having your entire album done.  And the results will tell you a valuable story.

You will likely arrive at one of the following conclusions:
  • You have done just as good - or even better - of a job as the professional, so you can save yourself a ton of money by going DIY
  • You realize that a specialist can do a better job, but not so much better that it's worth spending the extra money
  • You realize that a specialist can do a better job, and it's worth investing the money to end up with a better result

Regardless of the outcome of this experiment, if you're truly interested in ensuring that you have a respectable recording of your music available to release, having one song mixed and/or mastered as a "test" is usually money well-spent.

Before and After Music Group is happy to do one-off mixes and mastering, whether or not there is a potential for more songs to be mixed/mastered.  Our rates are some of the most affordable, helping you not to invest too much in something that could end up being a "test."  Of course, we think our work could end up being so impressive you have all of your music mixed and/or mastered by us!

So, feel free to contact us to discuss the ideas you have for your music recording project.  We'd be happy to share our thoughts on how you can get the most out of your DIY approach, while bringing in a professional where necessary to enhance it.  You can reach us at beforeandaftermusicgroup@gmail.com or 412-600-8241.

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<![CDATA[DIY Music Recording and Production:  It Doesn't Have to Be All-Or-Nothing!]]>Tue, 07 Jun 2022 17:25:36 GMThttp://beforeandaftermusic.com/blog/diy-music-recording-and-production-it-doesnt-have-to-be-an-all-or-nothing-propositionPhoto of a musician struggling with DIY recording
When average musicians think about music recording and production, they think of two approaches:  the professional approach and the do-it-yourself (DIY) approach.

The professional approach involves going into a well-equipped recording studio with an experienced, professional engineer for tracking, overdubbing, editing and mixing, then shipping off your mixes to an experienced, professional mastering studio for mastering.  The DIY approach is where the artist does everything themselves using consumer-level hardware and software.

The DIY approach is usually chosen to save money.  The results are often - but not necessarily always - less impressive with the DIY approach.

Today, I'm here to tell you that a hybrid approach is a valid third approach.  It allows you to save money while not sacrificing too much quality.

The key to getting the right balance of the DIY and professional approaches is to honestly evaluate what skills and resources are needed and what you have available to you, then choosing what you do yourself and what you leave to the professionals.  Let's break down "music production" into a few of its phases and talk about the skills and resources needed for each phase.

Tracking & Overdubbing

Tracking and overdubbing are phases that require the least technical skill.  And except for recording drums, they are phases that require fewer technical resources.  For everything except drums, you will need the following skills and resources:

  • A good vocal microphone
  • A good instrument microphone
  • Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software, like Pro Tools, Reaper, or many others
  • A computer powerful enough to run a DAW
  • An audio interface
  • Headphones (and, ideally, high quality studio monitors)
  • Basic DAW skills (beyond just pressing the Record button) such as adding tracks, microphone placement, gain staging, setting punch points, etc.
  • A good musical ear for knowing what is a good take and what can be done better

For recording drums, you will need microphones for each drum as well as overheads.  Generally, you can get away with basic instrument microphones and stands/clips for each drum except the kick drum, which will require a kick drum-specific microphone.  Overhead microphones are usually condenser microphones designed for that particular purpose.  And, you need a room acoustically appropriate for drum recording.  Some people choose to take a different approach with drums, either programming them using a software program or tracking them as MIDI.

Some artists do all of their tracking and overdubbing themselves.  Others do none of the tracking and overdubbing themselves.  And it's not uncommon for artists to record their drums in a professional studio and do the balance of tracking and overdubbing in a DIY fashion.

Editing

Some aspects of editing, like making timing corrections, can be done within the bones of the DAW.  Others, like vocal tuning, require third-party plug-ins.  And, if you want a recording that is competitive with what comes out of pro studios - some may, some may not - you will need to do vocal tuning.  So, in addition to what you needed for Tracking & Overdubbing, you will also need:
  • A vocal tuning plug-in like Melodyne or AutoTune
  • Skills at tuning vocals, including music theory knowledge to know which notes work over which chords in various keys
  • Basic to intermediate DAW skills such as cutting, pasting, cross-fading, using Elastic Audio to correct timing errors, drum quantizing, etc.
  • An ear for identifying clean edits vs. bad edits

If you are taking a hybrid approach to music production, you can choose to editing yourself or send your recording to a professional for editing.  I will say this...if the vocals require a little more TLC than just a nudge of a note here or there, having vocal editing done by an experienced professional will result in the vocals sounding a lot more natural.

Mixing

Mixing is where specialized skill and experience really separates professionalism from amateurism.  Someone's first mix ever will not sound anywhere close to a mix done by an experienced professional.  That's because a common misconception is that mixing is just balancing the volume of instruments and voices.  It's much more than that.  While mixing can be done within a DAW using built-in capabilities, here are the additional skills needed for a good mix:

  • An ear for a good balance of instruments
  • Intermediate to advanced DAW skills such as:  determining where each instrument should sit in the stereo soundfield (panning); knowing how to set EQ's properly for each instrument so that they all sound good independently and among each other; knowing how to set effects (especially reverb and delay) within a mix; knowing how to use compression to smooth out performances; knowing how to use automation to change volume, panning, effects levels, etc. throughout a song

If you've never mixed a recording before and want to publicly release a recording that is taken seriously yet still allows you to take advantage of the cost savings that a DIY approach offers, mixing is a smart place to start getting professionals involved.

Mastering

Even when a record label-caliber recording is done in a professional recording studio, it is usually sent to an independent mastering specialist for mastering services.  The prevailing logic is two-fold:  someone who specializes in mastering will be much better at it than someone who does recording but dabbles in mastering, and having a separate mastering specialist means that you will have two music industry professionals putting their talent to work to make your recording sound its absolute best.

So, naturally, even if you've done tracking, overdubbing, editing and mixing yourself, it's to your benefit to have a professional do your mastering.  In fact, I'd say that if you only have one process performed by someone else, it should be mastering.  It's the last chance you have to make a sonic improvement to your music before it goes to streaming or physical product manufacturing.  And, it's usually less expensive than vocal editing or mixing.  You'll give yourself the opportunity to at least have one music industry professional contribute to the quality of your recording.

If you want to do mastering yourself, you should know that DAW's are generally not designed to do mastering.  There are some people who try to do mastering within a DAW with its built-in plug-ins.  But, that's not really true mastering.  Here are the additional skills and resources you need to do mastering:

  • Software designed for mastering, such as Sonnox Mastering or Ozone 9 or higher (which itself has some highly-recommended plug-ins)
  • Multiple devices from top-quality studio monitors down on which to listen to music to ensure recordings sound good in a variety of applications
  • A musical ear to identify the differences between a new recording and a national release and the technical skills to bridge the gap
  • A musical ear to identify how a recording can be given a treatment to exude a certain vibe (e.g., vintage, modern, etc.)
  • Advanced skills for EQ'ing a mix
  • Advanced skills for managing the dynamics of a recording
  • Knowing how to optimally use a limiter and being able to identify when even the slightest distortion becomes audible
  • Skills at determining the maximum loudness of a recording before quality begins degrading
  • Knowledge of encoding files for streaming, physical product manufacture, video sync, and even email (while keeping audible degradation to a minimum)

Closing Thoughts

Obviously, if money were no object, every musical artist would have the best producers, recording engineers, mixing engineers and mastering engineers work on their recordings.  But, money is an object.  So, some situations require a DIY approach to enable artists to get their music out there on a limited budget.  Therefore, it's good to think through what you can accomplish yourself and, if you do have some budget available, where you might be able to afford a music industry professional to enhance your work.

Before and After Music Group is a company that specializes in mastering.  If you would like to have at least one outside company take your DIY project to the next level, we'd love to hear from you and discuss what we can do for your music.  Contact us at beforeandaftermusicgroup@gmail.com or 412-600-8241! 

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<![CDATA[Mixing vs. Mastering:  Why Every Recording Musician Should Know the Difference]]>Thu, 19 May 2022 01:18:21 GMThttp://beforeandaftermusic.com/blog/mixing-vs-mastering-why-every-recording-musician-should-know-the-differenceView of a mastering studio


Between recording/editing your music and distributing it, there are two discrete processes that will be done to your recording:  mixing and mastering.

Both mixing and mastering are highly specialized processes in music production.  But, they are not the same.

Mixing involves (among other things):
  • Balancing the volume of the individual instruments and voices in the recordings
  • Placing each instrument and voice somewhere specific in the stereo soundfield (left to right)
  • Applying effects to instruments and voices

Whereas mixing deals with working with each channel (instruments and voices), mastering deals with the overall sound, including:
  • Tweaking the tone of the overall recording
  • Smoothing out the dynamics of the overall recording
  • Applying effects (if any) to the overall recording to give it a "special sound":  vintage, saturated, etc.
  • Increasing the volume of the recording to maximum levels while avoiding distortion
  • Creating various file formats of the final recording

As you can see, these two processes involve very different tasks.  When done properly, they involve different software and tools.  And - when you want high-quality, precise results - very different skills of the engineers.

That's why mixing and mastering for national recordings are usually done by separate people.  Mixing and mastering each have their iconic engineers who are specialists in just the mixing or mastering segment.  For example, Chris Lord Alge is one of the most well-respected mixing engineers.  And Ted Jensen is equally legendary as a mastering engineer.  Mixing icons don't dabble in mastering.  Mastering icons don't dabble in mixing.

This is for two main reasons.

First, mixing and mastering are different specialties.  The people who are great at one really know the intricate details of performing it from doing it - and nothing but it - day after day on a very high level.  

Second, and perhaps most importantly, separating the two processes enables you to get the multiplied benefit of having not one - but two - music professionals contributing ideas, expertise and work to make your music sound the absolute best it can.  

So, in summary, mixing and mastering are different.  As you make decisions on choosing mixing and mastering engineers, it's helpful to be able to hear the difference that each process makes.  Whether it's your own music or the music of a friend, listen to pre-mixed and mixed recordings back to back.  Listen to pre-mastered and mastered recordings back to back.

Over time, you will understand the difference between the processes, the value of the processes, and which mixing engineers and mastering engineers can do the best job for you.

Despite the fact that national recordings are almost always mixed and mastered by separate people, you will see people on a local level - who aren't great at either mixing or mastering - offering both services.  We're not definitively saying that this can't turn out OK for you.  But, by having these two services performed by a single generalist, you are forgoing an opportunity to have the benefit of having two music production professionals teaming up to give your recording the most ideas and the best treatment possible.

Therefore, it's key to know what mixing and mastering processes are and how they can give your music the most enhancement for your money.

Of course, because Before and After Music Group specializes in mastering, we'd welcome the opportunity to be your mastering studio of choice!  Contact us at 412-600-8241 or beforeandaftermusicgroup@gmail.com to discuss your project and how we may be able to help your music sound as professional as possible.

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<![CDATA[How Much Will It Cost to Professionally Record and Release an Album?]]>Tue, 10 May 2022 17:04:24 GMThttp://beforeandaftermusic.com/blog/how-much-will-it-cost-to-professionally-record-and-release-an-albumPhotograph of musicians collecting money, saving for the cost of recording an album
There are a lot of variables that go into the cost of professionally recording and releasing an album.  Whether you self-produce or hire a professional producer, how many modern production techniques you use, and how much perfection you seek in your takes all play a role and make it difficult to give you a one-size-fits-all number.

However, there are some commonalities in what I'd consider a "typical" recording process that can help you get on the dartboard, if not hit the bullseye, when estimating the cost of your next album.  So, I will focus this article on a "typical" situation, giving you the caveat that mileage may vary in your particular situation.  

This approach assumes that you'll be recording with an engineer, but not a separate producer.  A producer, in a professional sense, takes a very hands-on approach with the artist: co-writing and arranging songs, changing parts, rehearsing and coaching performances, etc. The compensation for that type of pro producer is usually quite high and, therefore, will not be a part of this calculation.

First, let's talk about four variables that you need to get values for before beginning the calculation of your recording and release costs.  Those are:

A.  Studio Hourly Rate (SHR):  Most more professional studios will charge an hourly rate, many of which range between $50 and $75 per hour.  If it's a studio where noteworthy national acts record, that rate can go way up.  Some studios may only offer "blocks" of hours, like a half day/4 hours or full day/8 hours.  In those cases, just divide the block cost by the number of hours you get to determine the hourly rate.  We'll be doing a lot of multiplying by the SHR, so make sure you get actual numbers and don't assume what you'll be charged.

B.  Number of Songs (NS):  This is simple - how many songs are you going to record?

C.  Number of Drum Days (NDD):  In the recording of many albums, usually drums are tracked first and tracked all at once as opposed to the band laying down a whole song before starting a new song.  One of the reasons for this is that drum set up takes a long time.  We'll get to that in more detail in a minute.  But, for now, focus on estimating the number of days you will spend recording drums.  This may vary but, in my experience, five songs is kind of the maximum number of average-length songs for which you can track drums in a single day.  So, even if you only are recording six songs, if you use five songs as the max per drum day, you will need two drum days.  There is no fraction of a drum day...if you set the drums up, it's a full drum day.

D.  Number of Parts (NP):  Now, you need to think of breaking down the number of parts your songs have.  A drum track is one part.  A bass track is one part.  Each guitar track is one part.  An overdubbed guitar solo is one part.  A lead vocal track is one part. A backing vocal track where all members of the band sing at the same time is one part.  If you have harmony vocals where three different band members will record three different parts separately, those would be three parts.  Whatever instrument or voice needs to be recorded on its own track represents a discrete part for the purpose of this calculation.  

Now that you've determined values for these variables, you can start plugging those variables into a calculation.  The calculation is a master calculation separated into sub-calculations for five of the phases of recording and releasing music:  Tracking, Editing, Mixing, Mastering and Distribution. 

1.  The Cost of Tracking

First, you need to calculate the set up time for the drums.  For first time recorders, this cost can be an unpleasant surprise as it can often take around two hours just to set up the drums, get them mic'd, get them sound checked, etc.

So, multiply the number of drum days by the studio hourly rate by two:  NDD x SHR x 2.  

This is your drum set up cost.

Next, understand that - in my experience - it takes around an average of a half-hour per part per song if you're reasonably prepared.  If you're not, it can take much longer.  So, let's count on you being reasonably prepared.

So, multiply your number of songs by the number of parts by the studio hourly rate by 0.5 (i.e., a half-hour):  NS x NP x SHR x 0.5

This is your parts recording cost.

Add the drum set up cost to the parts recording cost to get your cost of tracking.  Expressed algebraically, this would be
((NDD x SHR x 2) + (NS x NP x SHR x 0.5))


2.  The Cost of Editing

Editing involves a lot of things.  Taking noise out in the silence between parts, tuning vocals, quantizing drums and other things.  In my experience, the average song requires about two hours of editing.

(NS x SHR x 2)


3.  The Cost of Mixing

Mixing times can vary.  I've witnessed professional mixing done in as little as three hours per song (for a full band) to as many as 10 hours per song.  I will plug three hours into the formula. Ask your recording engineer for the typical amount of mixing time he/she/they spend and use that number instead.

(NS x SHR x 3)


4.  The Cost of Mastering

Mastering costs can vary wildly.  The mastering studios that major labels use can run thousands of dollars per song.  The mastering studios that indie labels and independent artists use will typically run between $50 and $150 per song.  Before and After Music Group's mastering services, are on the lower end of that price scale but the upper end of the quality scale.

As I've written about before, there is a huge benefit to identifying your preferred mastering studio BEFORE you even begin recording.  So, reach out to a mastering studio sooner rather than later and learn your price.

(NS x Per Song Mastering Cost)


5.  The Cost of Distribution

There are several digital music distribution service providers out there who can get your music on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, etc.  Their prices are often in the form of a per-album fee or an annual subscription.  Per album fees can be lower but, if you are planning several releases in the same year, an annual subscription may make more sense.  There are other differences, so I encourage you to research the many options and go with the one that fits best with your objectives.

Because both per album and annual subscription rates top out at around $30 (US), just use $30 for the sake of calculating the cost of distribution.


The Master Calculation

You need to add the costs of Tracking, Editing, Mixing, Mastering and Distribution together to come up with an estimate of the total cost of your project (not including the manufacture of physical products like CD's or vinyl).

Combined together, the calculation (in US dollars) is:

 ((NDD x SHR x 2) + (NS x NP x SHR x 0.5)) + (NS x SHR x 2) + (NS x SHR x 3) + (NS x Per Song Mastering Cost) + 30


Because many musicians don't release how long it takes to set up drums, or how long it takes to track a three-minute song, or how much editing is involved, this calculation may make it seem like it is more expensive than anticipated to record and release an album.  But, hopefully, having this calculation - put together after lots of experience - will enable you to more accurately estimate your costs and avoid unpleasant surprises.

Before and After Music Group specializes in music mastering.  We'd love for you to consider us to help get your music to reach its sonic potential.  Contact us!

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<![CDATA[Are Your Lyrics Ready to Record?  5 Questions to Ask Yourself!]]>Fri, 08 Apr 2022 18:27:36 GMThttp://beforeandaftermusic.com/blog/are-your-lyrics-ready-to-record-5-questions-to-ask-yourselfMusician, singer looking at lyrics during rehearsal for studio
Before you enter the recording studio, you should do a quality control check of sorts on many aspects of the songs you are recording.  Today, we'll explore how to do such a QC check on your lyrics.

Lyrics are often written hastily.  Whatever comes to you in a stream of consciousness is what goes down on paper.  

Because lyrics often have the least repetition of any of the parts of the song, lyrics are often the last component to be completed.  This can put pressure on the lyricist as you can't have a complete song without complete lyrics.  As such, sometimes the first draft of lyrics are less than perfect.

And that's OK.  However, before you cast your song into proverbial stone in the recording studio, you should carefully review your lyrics and, if necessary, rewrite them to make them perfect.  Here are some questions to ask yourself that can help reveal ways to improve your lyrics.

1.  Does every line make perfect sense?

Obviously, when we write our first draft of lyrics, they make sense...in our own heads.  We know what we are thinking.  We have an idea of the context.  We are assuming certain things.  But, without what is in our heads, a different person may not have a clear idea of the story.

Look at every line.  Would each line make sense to someone reading or hearing it for the first time?  Are you missing details that would help you tell the story better?  Does anything sound lazy, like you just picked that line because it fit and not because it is the greatest line possible for that part of the song?

Asking yourself these questions - and answering them honestly - can help you infuse your song with better lyrics.  Even if you only improve one line from your original version, it can make a big difference to listeners and help your song be positioned for greater success.


2.  Is your listener expecting a rhyme and you disappoint them?

Music styles changes throughout the years and decades.  The most popular songs today sound nothing like the most popular songs from the early 1960's.  

However, one thing that hasn't changed is the fact that the most popular songs all have rhyming lines.  It's expected.

Sometimes, an amateur song will set up the listener to expect a rhyme and fail to deliver that line.  Imagine something like "Roses are red/Violets are blue/I am in love/In love with her."

You were expecting "In love with you," right?  So, when the lyric said "her" instead of "you," you had an unmet expectation that felt upsetting.  Don't give your listeners this feeling!  

Spend the time, find a rhyme.


3. Are your rhymes too predictable?

There's something called a "perfect" rhyme, where the entire ends of two words rhyme and the only thing that's different is the beginning sound of the two rhyming words.  From our last example, that would be "blue" and "you."  That's a perfect rhyme.

But, in modern music, over-reliance on perfect rhymes is frowned upon.  It is regarded as more creative to use "imperfect" rhymes as perfect rhymes can be too predictable.  This is where the two rhyming words share a vowel sound, but may have other sounds that keep them from being perfect rhymes.  

Examples of imperfect rhymes would be rhyming "me" with "beat," or "slay" with "tame," or "beach" with "treat."  Hopefully, you get the idea.

As an example, let's say that you've written the line "Twinkle, twinkle, little star/How I wonder what you are."  You are using a perfect rhyme scheme and it sounds a bit predictable.  You want to convey the same message, but wish you had an imperfect rhyme.  You could rewrite it as "Twinkle, twinkle, little star/You have me so in the dark."

Not exactly a Grammy-worthy lyric there, but it's just to illustrate how using imperfect rhymes can open creative doors and make your songs less predictable.  Embracing imperfect rhymes can help you avoid being boxed in and unable to tell your story well because you feel you have to be obedient to the perfect rhyme scheme.


4.  Are your rhyming rhythms too predictable?

Rhyming rhythms can be predictable, too.  When you have rhyming words on the same beat of their measures, your lyrics can sound dated.  Modern music often has rhymes on different beats.  Using the "Twinkle, Twinkle" example, here's how you can change things up a bit.

If you want your second part to be longer than your first part, you can subtract syllables from your first part.  Like, instead of singing "twinkle" twice, sing it once, keeping the same rhythm thus moving "star" from beat four to beat three and having a quarter rest on beat four, such as:

Twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are

"Star" will be on beat three of its measure and "are" will be on beat four of its measure.

You could also leave the first line alone and modify the second line similarly by subtracting two syllables and, thus, having "are" fall on beat three with a quarter rest to follow:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star
Wonder what you are

Another idea is to add one syllable/one eighth note to the second line, thus placing the rhyming word on the "and" of beat four, as in:

Twinkle, twinkle, little stars
How I wonder what you dudes are

So, there are three very quick examples of how a very small tweak can make your lyrics (as well as your melodies) sound less predictable and more modern.


5.  Can you convert something simple sounding into something more creative?

Plain words are fine in speech when you are trying to convey a message.  But, lyrics should be more creative.  They should express an idea in a way that no one has heard before.

For example, you could write "You've ended relationships with a lot of people."  And your audience may relate to that sentiment.  But, it's kind of boring.  Christina Perri's "Jar of Hearts" is a great example of how to take a boring sentiment and make it exciting, new sounding, and very visually-oriented:  "Collecting your jar of hearts/And tearing love apart."

Another example is "Black Vultures" by Halestorm.  The song expresses the theme of "I will prove my critics wrong."  But, that would be a bit pedantic if the band sung those exact words.  Instead, they sang:

Black vultures, circling the sky
Pick at the pieces
Scavengers wait for me to die
But I'm not defeated

Again, way more interesting and very visual.  

Plus, did you notice the imperfect rhyme scheme?  Halestorm rhymed "pieces" with "defeated."  Cool!


Planning Ahead

I hope that these tips helped you to discover ways to improve your lyrics and make them the best they can be by the time you put them down in the studio.

As you plan your recording and release strategy, you'll eventually need mastering between the time that you finish mixing in the recording studio and the time that you submit your music for digital distribution.  

Before and After Music Group is a professional mastering studio that would love to help your music reach its sonic potential.  It's never too early to decide who will master your recording.  

Whether it's just to ask questions or to take the final step in securing mastering services for yourself, we welcome you to contact us by email at beforeandaftermusicgroup@gmail.com or by phone/text at 412-600-8241.

Best of luck getting your music prepared for the world!

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<![CDATA[What to Expect from Pro Music Mastering]]>Fri, 01 Apr 2022 17:40:18 GMThttp://beforeandaftermusic.com/blog/what-to-expect-from-pro-music-masteringPhoto of a musician listening for the difference that pro music mastering can make
Musicians recording their first song or album have a certain expectation.  They expect to walk into a recording studio with nothing and leave with everything they need to distribute their music.

The one process that they are often surprised to need is mastering.

They didn't know that they needed it.  And their mix sounds good being played through the studio's ultra-high quality speakers.

So, what can mastering really do?

These musicians often don't know.  And, they'll say to their recording/mixing engineer:  "Ain't that something you can do for us?"

Some recording/mixing engineers will do the "mastering" for these clients, even though they don't have true mastering software and tools, aren't specialists in the mastering process, and - having spent eight to 10 or more hours per song on recording and mixing - don't really have any additional sonic ideas to bring to the table.

Other recording/mixing engineers know that their work will actually sound even better if the music was professionally mastered, and will refer their clients to a mastering studio, like Before and After Music Group.

Still, every recording artist should know what to expect from music mastering.  After all, it costs a little bit of money and has the potentially to really improve the sound of the recording.  So, here is a little bit about what you can expect from pro music mastering.

Is Mastering Just About Getting Technically-Required Files?

A conversation may go like this...

Musician:  "Is this what I submit to get my music on Spotify and Apple Music?"

Mixing Engineer:  "No, you'll need to submit your mastered files."

Musician:  "Crap.  I didn't know that.  Is that something you can do for us?"

Mixing Engineer:  "Well, I don't really have mastering software or much experience.  But, I can try to do it with Pro Tools."

Musician:  "Yeah, do that.  I don't want to have to go to another studio."

Mixing Engineer:  "Well, you don't have to be there for mastering.  Most places just accept mixed files online and have you download the final files."

Musician:  "Eh, do it anyway."  

This conversation clearly illustrates that the musician thinks that all mastering is about is getting technically-required files as if it was like converting a WAV file into an MP3 file.

While mastering does culminate is you getting your music in certain file formats, it's about way more than simply encoding data.  Mastering is about making improvements to the sound of your recorded music!


Is Mastering Just About Making My Mix Louder?

Some musicians know that mastering can make a difference to their mix.  But, a common misconception is that mastering merely makes mixes louder.  Like getting music into a technically-required format, some musicians think that mastering is just about getting mixes to a technically-required or "competitive" volume.

That's not true either.

Yes, mastering does bring up the volume of recorded music.  But that, too, is just one part of mastering.

I'll say it again:  "Mastering is about making improvements to the sound of your recorded music!"


How Does Pro Mastering Make My Music Sound Better?

Notice the use of the word "pro" in this heading.  It's there for a reason.

Mastering done by an inexperienced person in software not designed specifically for mastering (like Pro Tools) probably will not make your music sound better.  But "pro" mastering - mastering done by a mastering specialist who uses tools designed specifically for mastering - will make your music sound better.

These are the improvements you should expect:
  • Yes, your music will be in a technically-required format
  • Yes, your mix will be louder
  • Your music will sound smoother, with no parts jumping out of the speakers or being too low to hear, on any system
  • The tonal balance of your music will be optimized

What Does It Mean to Have My Tonal Balance Optimized?

Optimizing the tonal balance of a mix is perhaps where mastering makes its biggest contribution.

​On an average recording, a pro mastering studio will be able to expand the frequencies you can hear in your music.  The highs (like cymbals) will be cleaner, crisper and more audible.  The low end will be bigger.  The muddy frequencies will be cut, making the entire recording sound closer and clearer.  And any harsh frequencies will be attenuated, keeping your music from sounding noisy, even at higher volumes.

Now, sometimes, a mix comes in with too big of a low end, making it sound ridiculous in comparison with national releases.  Other times, a mix comes in with too much emphasis on the high frequencies, making the recording sound thin.  Obviously, a mastering engineer isn't going to boost anything that's already excessive, so s/he will adjust those frequency ranges so they are just the right proportions, perfectly balanced.

Every project is different.  And a mastering professional will treat every project that way, closely listening for the opportunities to improve the sound of the music.  When I master a mix, I commit myself to finding at least one improvement opportunity.  And I usually find more than one.


Now That You Know...

I hope that this post has helped you better understand what to expect when you need to get your music mastered.  And, I hope that you'll consider having us at Before and After Music Group master your music.  We'd be so delighted to be your source for mastering services and to help your music reach its potential!

​Contact us at 412-600-8241 (text or phone are fine) or beforeandaftermusicgroup@gmail.com.


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<![CDATA[The Music Production Decision Almost No One is Prepared for (But Should Be)]]>Tue, 15 Mar 2022 17:46:09 GMThttp://beforeandaftermusic.com/blog/the-music-production-decision-almost-no-one-is-prepared-for-but-should-bePhoto of musician confused about the mastering decision
Back when my band and I were recording the Chip DiMonick "Not Yet Rated" album in 2007, the recording engineer/owner of the recording studio asked us, "Where are you guys getting this album mastered?"

Huh?

Our album needs to be mastered?  What's that?  And don't you do that here?

Those are among the questions that flooded into our heads.  (This was years before I did any music production/recording/mastering myself)

It was a decision we weren't prepared for.

So, we asked the engineer who he'd recommend.  He recommended a guy in Chicago.  Upon investigating the guy's website, it sounded like he specialized in mastering for vinyl records.  And, in 2007, we had no interest in doing a vinyl pressing of our album.  

But, if our recording engineer had experience with him, we figured it would work out OK.  We didn't really know what mastering did, so we didn't know who else might be better.

Well, we started learning about mastering soon thereafter.

After we sent in our unmastered recordings, we got back our mastered recordings.  Something was very weird.

On the songs we tuned down to C# on, we couldn't hear the low C#'s.

"Is this even possible or are our ears playing tricks on us?" we wondered.

I called the mastering engineer.  He said that, because of the reference track we sent him - "Dead" by My Chemical Romance - he thought we'd want that C# eliminated so he cut that frequency.  Still to this day, I have no idea why he would have thought this was a good idea.  But he could restore it in a revision.

And he did.

The C# was back, but we still didn't exactly know how to evaluate how good the mastering was.  Being 2007, this was during the peak of what was called "the loudness war," where mastering engineers competed almost exclusively on how loud they could make a recording.

So, we put the master CD in back-to-back with our friends' CD.  Theirs was louder.  So, we asked the mastering engineer to make ours louder.  

He did.  Without advising us what we'd be sacrificing in quality for loudness.  But, not really knowing anything about mastering other than it can affect volume and take notes/frequencies right out of your songs, we were "satisfied."

In hindsight, we could have done so better.

The decision on who to master our album was ours.  But, we were unprepared for it and were willing to blindly choose a mastering engineer just based on our recording engineer's recommendation (which could have been based on a kickback for all we knew).

It's a regret.

It's not 2007 anymore.  The loudness war has been over for years.  Streaming allows you to evaluate virtually unlimited examples of independently produced music.

Yet, musicians STILL treat the mastering decision with the same ignorance and apathy as we did back then.

In my post from a couple of weeks ago, I wrote that "because mastering is the last thing done to improve the sound of your music...it is a process that you should take seriously."  I wish I someone gave me that advice 15 years ago.

Careful consideration isn't just necessary when your recording engineer suggests a mastering studio.  It's also necessary when your recording engineer suggests doing your mastering himself/herself, which is a topic all unto itself!  I'll post on that in the near future.

But, if you have the knowledge that mastering is a separate and necessary part of music production and the insight to know that you should choose the best mastering studio for your needs, we'd appreciate you considering Before and After Music Group's mastering services.  Email us at beforeandaftermusicgroup@gmail.com or call/text us at 412-600-8241.

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<![CDATA[Why is it Smart to Select Your Mastering Studio BEFORE You Even Start Recording?]]>Mon, 07 Mar 2022 17:50:30 GMThttp://beforeandaftermusic.com/blog/why-is-it-smart-to-select-your-mastering-studio-before-you-even-start-recordingA screen shot of a master bus showing an appropriate amount of headroom for a mastering studio
As I wrote in my post "9 Steps for Releasing Your Music," mastering is "the final – and critically important – process in getting your recorded music to sound as professional as possible."  It is preceded by mixing, which is preceded by editing, which is preceded by overdubbing, which is preceded by tracking.

So, it's natural to think that selecting a mastering studio doesn't need to be done until you are done mixing, or close to it.  

But, it's actually not smart to wait that long.

And the reason isn't obvious unless you know a little technical tidbit about recording.  Fortunately, that technical tidbit is relatively easy to understand, even if you're not an audio professional.

So, here goes...

Mastering studios will have preferred or required characteristics of mixes that help them make the greatest improvement in your music.  One of those is "headroom."

In digital recording, you have meters that show the volume of each vocal or instrument channel.  You also have a single meter showing the volume of the mix - where all instruments are combined into a stereo channel representing left and right speakers.  The channel for this meter is called the "master bus."

These meters generally light up green (from the bottom to the middle of the meter and denoting acceptable volume), yellow (from the upper-middle to the near-top of the meter and denoting closeness to too loud), and red (the top of the meter and denoting definitively too loud).  When a meter hits red in a digital recording, there is an unpleasant sound, kind of like a click, which is called "clipping."  

There are numbers alongside the meter which rise from negative numbers to 0.  The point where clipping occurs is 0dBFS, which means 0 decibels full scale.  You always want every channel and the master bus below 0dBFS.

The distance between the loudest part of a signal during a song - the "peak" - and 0dBFS is called headroom.  Most mastering studios will ask for a certain amount of headroom.

For example, we - Before and After Music Group - ask for 3-6 dB of headroom.  This means that the loudest part of your song should ideally not rise above -6dB on your studio's master bus and definitely not rise above -3dB on your studio's master bus.

If you're curious why headroom is needed, it's to ensure that clipping is avoided in mastering, too.  When a mastering engineer makes improvements to your recording - like boosting frequencies to give a recording more nationally-competitive bottom end or simply raising the overall volume of your recording after compressing it to an optimal dynamic range - that can push a recording closer to clipping.  The more headroom we mastering engineers have to work with, the more improvements we can make without being slaves to the possibility of clipping.

Still unsure what that has to do with selecting a mastering studio early?

Well, when recording engineers begin a mix, they should have the target levels in mind.  

For example, I start mixing by dialing in the drums.  If I know I have to leave 6dB of headroom, I will set levels for the drums so that - when soloed - they peak at around -11dB on the master bus.  I know from experience that adding the other instruments in a standard rock song will add another 5-ish dB to the mix volume.  So, when I have dialed everything else in, my mix should peak around -6dB.

Some experienced recording and mixing engineers even "mix as they go."  This means that, once the drums are tracked, they will set their faders to peak at a certain level so they are kind of "partially mixed" as other instruments are being recording on top of them.

Therefore, it can be extremely helpful for your mixing engineer to know this before beginning a mix or, possibly, even beginning recording.  If the mixing engineer doesn't know this up-front, s/he might complete an entire mix only to later learn that it doesn't jive well with the mastering studio's specs and that could result in more work to be done.  

For you, the musician, the client, that could mean more money spent unnecessarily.  

Don't let that happen.  Decide on your mastering studio early.  Get their specs.  Share those specs with your mixing engineer before the mix begins.  And let your mastering studio do the best job it can with improving the sound of your recording thanks to having a mix prepared ideally for them.

Before and After Music Group would love to be selected as your mastering studio.  If you want to ask us questions about mastering or get some guidance on how to navigate the music production process to get the best sounding final product for your music, contact us at beforeandaftermusicgroup@gmail.com or 412-600-8241.

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<![CDATA[Should You Bother Having A Home Recording Mastered?]]>Mon, 28 Feb 2022 16:17:48 GMThttp://beforeandaftermusic.com/blog/should-you-bother-having-a-home-recording-masteredMusician recording at home
The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns that began in 2020 brought about several shifts in the music industry.  One of those was referred to as a "home recording boom" by the Economist.  Unable to play live and, in many cases, unwilling to get together with other musicians or recording specialists, musical artists began exploring recording at home in unprecedented numbers.

This movement was largely forced on us by the public health crisis.  But, it was facilitated largely by decades-long trends in the recording industry that saw recording software become more powerful, more compatible and more affordable than ever.

That doesn't mean that every musician who recorded at home produced great sounding tracks that rivaled the quality of the biggest and best studios with the most experienced engineers.  In reality, it's probably safe to say that most of the recordings produced by first-timers were pretty bad.  But, it's probably not a stretch to say that some musicians learned quickly and, with an innate knack for it, were able to produce some music that sounded good when reduced to a recording.

Pre-COVID-19, musical artists usually engaged two audio professionals to get their music into radio-ready shape:  a recording engineer and a mastering engineer.  So, does the trend towards home recording make these two professionals endangered species?

Not exactly.

You see, there are several very specialized processes that happen between writing a song and having it prepared for radio airplay, streaming and/or CD production.  As I wrote in a previous post entitled "9 Steps for Releasing Your Music," those include tracking, overdubbing, editing, mixing and mastering.  Each involves its own skill set.  So, you could start from the beginning and hand your project over to a professional once you no longer have the skill set required to produce the quality you want at the step that you get to.

But, let's just say that you want to do as much as possible yourself.  Maybe you want to spend as little money as you can.

Should you have a home recording mastered?

Before I answer, let me make sure we are on the same page in defining a "home recording."  By "home recording," I do not mean a live, one-take recording of a full band on an iPhone.  I am talking about a multi-track recording done on a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) such as Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic or, hell, even Audacity.

I would say that you should probably not bother getting an iPhone recording mastered.  It's unlikely that any mastering services will be able to whip a phone recording into radio-ready shape.  

However, if we're talking a multi-track recording on a legit DAW, I would absolutely recommend having mastering done by an experienced specialist.

Here's why...

Most songs you hear on the radio will have had at least two top-level professionals involved in the production of them:  that recording engineer and mastering engineer.  If you've recorded your own music - and assuming that you haven't been in the business of recording other people's music daily over a period of years - you've already cut one of those professionals out of your recording.  Your recording is already unlikely to sound as good as it would have if you had gone to a pro studio.

But, sending the tracks you've recorded out to a professional mastering studio allows you to at least have one of those professionals involved in getting your music in the ballpark of its sonic potential.  And professionally-done mastering can sometimes have a bigger impact on a mediocre recording than it can on a phenomenal recording.  A phenomenal recording may already have its instruments so perfectly EQ'd and compressed that the mix sounds tonally balanced and dynamically smooth.  Mastering can certainly improve upon that.  But, if a mix has some notable deficiencies compared to major label releases, mastering can close those bigger gaps to a greater extent.

I get it, recording at home can save a lot of money.  When I've recorded in other professionals' studios, I've paid around $450ish per song for the tracking/overdubbing/editing/mixing aspects.  And I've paid $50-$150 per song for mastering.  So, if you choose just to have professional mastering done, it's a smaller proportion of the overall expenses that you are choosing to pay.

If you are considering having your home recording mastered, please keep Before and After Music Group in mind.  We would love to help your music reach its sonic potential.  Contact us at beforeandaftermusicgroup@gmail.com or +1-412-600-8241 and let's discuss your project!

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<![CDATA[How mastering can be the secret tlc your music deserves]]>Tue, 22 Feb 2022 19:43:57 GMThttp://beforeandaftermusic.com/blog/how-mastering-can-be-the-secret-tlc-your-music-deservesHeadphones and headphone amplifier depicted in a mastering studio
Now that I've been a musician specializing in mastering for a while, I've noticed something concerning about my musician peers...Most have no idea how much good mastering can do for the sonic quality of their final recording.

One common misunderstanding is that mastering simply is the technical encoding of music files so you can send them off to streaming or CD production or radio stations.  Well, let me dispel that myth...mastering is so much more!

When performed as an art form, mastering will make your music sound better.

Because of this - and because mastering is the last thing done to improve the sound of your music - it is a process that you should take seriously.  That means putting the right effort, attention and care into who it is that masters your music.

Too often, mastering choices are considered an afterthought in a music release plan.  "I'll just have my recording/mix engineer master it 'cause it's convenient" or "I'll get that online mastering done" or "I heard about a guy that does mastering cheap" are sentiments that are too common among people who should be caring about having the best sounding album or single possible.

So, to give you an appreciation for how a serious mastering engineer (i.e., me) treats your music with TLC and can give you a better sound than your mix engineer or the online service or that "guy who does mastering cheap," I will explain what I do in my mastering studio.

The first thing I do is listen to a nationally-released reference track.  I always ask clients to provide the name of a song, released in the past five years, that is in a similar style to theirs and that they find sonically pleasing.  Because if they know and like a song that's sonically pleasing to them and I can make their song sound similarly good, I know I will have a happy client - there is a clear target and I aim to hit it in the bullseye!

After listening to the track, I then listen to the client's unmastered mix.  As you might expect, there are usually huge gaps between a national, mastered release and a locally-recorded, unmastered track.  

Many of these gaps are simply natural gaps between unmastered and mastered music.  However, being the music junkie that I am, often these gaps include opportunities that I hear that the mix engineer didn't hear.  Other times, they include outright deficiencies in the mix engineer's work that I have the capability of correcting.

My job at that point is to identify all of the gaps and come up with a game plan to close those gaps.  

While mastering isn't designed to change the volume of individual instruments in a recording - that's a job done in mixing - my mastering tools do allow me to boost and cut frequencies such that some instruments that occupy very specific frequency ranges can sit better in the mix.  So, if I am hearing some blindspots in the mixing engineer's work compared to the nationally-released song, I will start my work by trying to get the instruments to sit in the same ballpark as the nationally-released song.

Then, I will adjust the overall tonal frequency of the music.  Sometimes, there's not enough bottom end.  Sometimes, there's too much. The same may be true of high end.  And, sometimes, there is a muddiness that can be removed.  This frequency adjustment process goes a long way in improving the sound of the music.

After that, I will listen to the music softly.  And loudly.  And in-between.  While I am doing so, I am listening for any harsh frequencies that seem to degrade the quality of the music.  Have you ever listened to a song loudly for the first time after listening at normal volume for a while and it sounds kinda bad?  Almost like there is static over top of the music?  Those are harsh frequencies that are present at an unnatural volume in a recording.  With the laser-like precision of a surgeon I search for them.  I find them.  And I take them out of your recording.

Have you ever noticed that, in national recordings, no instrument, voice or part of a song jumps out at you and shocks your ears like may happen if you were watching a live band?  Mastering is responsible for that.  Good mastering will give your music that same dynamic smoothness as the songs you hear on the radio.

Often - but not always - the last step is to give your music volume that is competitive with national releases and consistent from track-to-track if you're recording an album and not just a single.  This is also a process that requires laser-like precision.  I gradually increase the volume of your track until my tuned-in ears notice a degradation of quality.  Just about every recording has a point where, if you turn up the volume any louder, unpleasant distortion will rear its ugly head.  I find that point and bring the volume of your recording just below it.  I always want my clients to have a loud recording, but not one where quality is sacrificed at all.

Now, I mentioned that carefully pumping up the volume is not always the last step of mastering.  That's because, in certain circumstances, there is a "coating" that mastering engineers can apply to a recording that enhances the sound.  For example, one client had me master a song that they felt was similar to a Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings song.  However, in a conversation, they also mentioned that they were more of an "old school Motown" type of a band.  So, I did two versions of a mastered song for them with one difference in one setting:  I mastered a modern version a la Sharon Jones and a version on which I applied a "vintage" effect.  They ended up liking the vintage treatment better.  Effects aren't always part of the mastering process, but they can be when a certain sound is sought that "coats" the entire song.

So, that is my process.  It takes around an hour-and-a-half per song and, as you may imagine from reading this post, a good bit of time is spent carefully listening in order to make the best decisions.  If I make the right decisions, your music will sound noticeably better when I'm done with it.

I recognize that your music came from your heart.  It is your baby.  And my goal as your mastering engineer is to treat your baby with the TLC it deserves.

So, hopefully, now you know more about mastering than the average musician.  It has more impact on music than an amateur musician may realize!

If you're interested in having me master your music with this type of care and attention, email me (Chip) at beforeandaftermusicgroup@gmail.com or call/text me at 412-600-8241.    

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