CD-Text vs. CD Database
There are two different sources from which CD Track information is obtained.
For less confusion, please note:
CD-Text shown on some CD-Players is inserted within the metadata (PQ codes) while burning a Red Book CD. Specific software is used to insert this information (CD-Text, ISCR Codes, Track Start/End…).
Since its release in 1996, CD-Text has been adopted (slowly) but not by all CD Players or CD-ROM manufacturers.
CD Track information shown on iTunes, Windows Media Player or other software media players is linked to an Online Database Server from which any user can upload or download information regarding an Album (Track titles, Genre, Artwork, Comments, lyrics...)
CraftLabMastering offers CD-Text on RedBook CDs (or DDPi)
As Mastering is different than Mixing (room acoustic/structure, gears and ears), we, at CraftLabMastering, have chosen to stick as possible to International Mastering standards.
Our reference room has:
- An NC of 30, a result of an isolated machine room for less noise in the control room (for delicate fadeouts).
- An inclined ceiling that reflects mid/high frequencies behind the listening position and produces a balanced tonality with a precise imaging.
- A 32 ms difference between the direct sound and the early reflections; no obstacles within the equilateral triangle!
- Cables are kept as short as possible for minimum noise (no insert patch or useless connections)
- Cutom designed hand made tube and solid state Mastering Processors for a unique sound character and maximum dynamic range! (no squashed sound yet competitive results!)
- All processors are analogue, no digital plugins.
- Special Mastering DAW capable of inserting all metadata required for CD duplication/replication (PQ, ISRC, UPC/EAN, text)
- DDPi format for album delivery for minimum burning errors and more reliability.
- 3way wide band passive midfields to mimic best a home listening position and go down to 25Hz!
Our fresh set of ears and experience in the audio field in London and Germany have let us implement unique Mastering techniques with an advanced usage of the high-end gears we have!
Higher Sample Rates ...Is it really worth?
Dr. Nyquist has discovered that: "A sampled waveform contains ALL information without any distortions, when the sampling rate exceeds the highest frequency contained by the sampled waveform"
Three important points to remember as well
- Human Hearing rarely exceeds 20KHz (maximum 22KHz)
- Few musical instruments may produce sound energies above 20KHz (maximum up to 40KHz)
- Most microphones and gears are designed to pick up frequencies no greater than 20KHz
It is known as well that all frequencies above the highest one must be cut to avoid aliasing. For example, if we want to sample frequencies up to 22KHz, we must cut all frequencies above 22KHz using a Sample Rate SR=44KHz (22x2).
Having said that, a steep filter must be introduced (at 22KHz). And here is the issue:
- Depending on the quality of the filter, aliasing and artifacts will be introduced to the signal
- Higher filter order will better reject alias but can increase noise and distortion due to the complexity of the circuit
A cheap converter then with cheap filter will introduce more unwanted sounds than a higher quality converter. In addition, microphone, AD and DA limit the audio bandwidth to 20KHz (-3dB each at 20KHz) which makes a total of -12dB. Thus, in some conditions, a 44.1KHz SR might be an issue...
A SR of 60KHz will then do the job because alias frequencies introduced will be unheard by humans. The closest SR found nowadays is 88.2KHz, which will be more than ideal to capture and reproduce any sound.
It is unwise then to say that higher SR will produce better sound quality. There is always a compromise between speed and accuracy. Higher SR (192KHz) can introduce more noise and distortion. Lager files need more storage space with low transmission as well. It is only a marketing strategy some manufacturers use when claiming about the advantages of higher SR!
Loud Mastering for the Radio...do we still need it?
Latest studies showed that Dynamic music sounds better on the Radio (nowadays) than the Compressed ones. Loud Mixed/Mastered tracks sound even more crushed and sometimes distorted on the Radio.
Orban Electronics is the leading company in producing Radio processors. Robert Orban, the CEO and Chief Engineer mentioned in his processors' user manual an interesting note worth reading: There is a myth in the Record industry that applying "Radio Style" processing to CDs in Mastering will cause them to be louder or will reduce the audible effects of on-air processing. In fact, the opposite is true: these CDs will not be louder on Air, but they will be audibly distorted and unpleasant to listen to, lacking punch and clarity. We hope that the Record industry will come to its sense when it hears the consequences of these practices on the air.
Most of the equipments used in the Radio Stations apply further processing such as compression, EQ, and hard limiting. The purpose is to get better signal transmission. The tracks will lose their micro and macro dynamics to have a same loudness. These equipments were not designed to make music sounds any better!
The study proved that a dynamic track processed through these Radio processors had a same loudness compared to a hyper-compressed one. Moreover, distortion, pumping and annoying artifacts were introduced to the louder one.
So it is time to focus on artistic creativity, instead of worrying if your track will compete on-air with the loudest track on earth!
Loudness War has ended
I am quite sure that the majority of the readers are quite familiar with loudness war and its drawbacks with regards to music quality and ear fatigue…
Briefly explained, when you listen to an old recording in your living room and then insert a recent release without changing your monitor level control, the last one will blow your ears off and might harm your speakers! Digital limiting is applied and pushed beyond its limits. Distortion is introduced and no dynamics is left. Of course there is nothing wrong when that distortion is applied on purpose for artistic vision, but the majority of the artists are pushing the limits to compete the others by having their record the loudest, whereas quality and musicality are neglected.
Many audio engineers and music appreciators have suffered for years because of this loudness war and worked hard to end this war. Apple iTunes has finally ended this war by applying as a default its "Sound Check" algorithm to its Radio broadcasting. Listeners cannot turn it off. Loud songs are being brought down and soft songs are being brought up. All the tracks will be played back to a same set target level. Moreover, with "Sound Check" enabled (as well in "preference" user’s library) the tracks mastered “conservatively” (keeping some dynamics) will sound clearer and a bit “louder” than the loud hypercompressed mastered ones.Try it yourself!
Many radio broadcasters are applying the same approach as Apple’s Sound Check along with other media players. Loud produced tracks have no more benefits from being loud! Quality and creativity has returned to Music!
Mastering vs. Mixing
Every artist involved in the music production listens in a different perspective to an instrument (track) due to the particularity of each stage (arrangement, recording, mixing, mastering) and other biological reasons.
Let's first define few terms:
- Recording is the art of capturing all the sound character (frequencies, dynamics, nuance, tonality, timbre) emitted by the source in a natural and clean way. Various microphones/preamps and mic'ing techniques are used for this purpose.
- Mixing is the art of enhancing the sound of every element separately and combining all recorded tracks to fit in a sound field. EQs, compression, panning, reverb, delays and other effects are used for this purpose.
- Mastering is the art of enhancing the quality of the entire mix a step further sonically to be ready for release, making sure it sounds well through multiple playback sytems and with different formats. In case of an album/EP all the tracks will have a consistent perceived loudness. Other logistic responsabilities involve ISRC insertion, PQ codes, CD-Text, DDP... more about Mastering
- Analogue high end processors are used in Mastering for best sonic results (quality, noise, headroom) .The gears are often custom-made and carefully chosen due to each Mastering engineer's taste (in tube sound and other technical features). Digital plug-ins are rarely used in Mastering (few limiting if needed). Mixing nowadays relies on digital processing (especially in home studios) with the effect settings recalled by a single click within the session.
- Early reflections in Mastering are kept at minimum for a precise judgment without any barriers between the monitors and the engineer (an inclined ceiling is a plus). We often see a large console or desk in mixing studios which is important and practical (but has its drawbacks...).
- A dedicated room treatment with different specs (NC, ER, Reverb Time) is needed for Mastering. The mixing room is often surrounded by machines/fans/AC. Mixing is sometimes done in a live concert with PA system (or even bedrooms!)
- A special DAW is used for Mastering with an extended algorithmic calculation and other features ( ISRC and PQ codes, CD-Text, DDPi delivery, formats...). Other DAWs are more suitable for mixing/editing.
- A crystal clear AD/DA converter with professional (preferably passive) 3-way midfield speakers are used in Mastering so as to reflect all frequencies felt and heard while mimiting a typival home listening situation. Nearfield monitors are best suitable for mixing (for precise instrument localization and reverb/effects judgment). We encounter mixes done with headphones too (with relatively acceptable mixing results!)
At the end, the most important point is a fresh set of HEALTHY and TRAINED EARS for this specific process backed up with the CREATIVENESS and EXPERIENCE of the Mastering Engineer.
Now go and tell the mixing engineer who is doing the mastering as well, (which i repeat is about enhancing the quality of the entire mix), wouldn't it be more logical to enhance the quality of his mix !!!!! (...unless he knows nothing about Mastering...)
Our mastering studio in Lebanon offers attended and online mastering services. Artists from the arab and gulf region can master their tracks easily. Contact us for more details.
Verification process at CraftLabMastering
Digital media are subject to data dropouts and burning errors.
CraftLabMastering's special measurements tools ensure through an internal media verification test, the integrity of the disc surface with minimal C1 errors (BLER) and zero C2 or CU error.
Every single project then passes by a last auditioning quality control (QC) through different playback systems and environments.
What is a DDP file?
DDP stands for Disc Description Protocol also known as DDPi (image) or DDP file set. It is a delivery format that ensures an error protected audio material supplied by the mastering studio and suited for CD/DVD replication.
A DDP file contains audio as an image file with 3 additional sub-files that carry all other necessary disc information.
CraftLabMastering includes an additional checking file to verify data accuracy between transfers.
Nowadays, DDP is becoming the audio industry for optical discs replication due to their reliability and the robust data error (if any) correction algorithms.
Audio CDs on the other hand, introduce far more errors on burning and playback with less reliable error correction.
What is an ISRC code?
ISRC: International Standard Recording Code.
It is a 12-digits code that gets allocated (on the CD) to each track that goes out into distribution. This is the code that identifies the owner of the track and country of origin each time it is downloaded or played on the Radio/TV. The ISRC is free of charge and can be downloaded.
What is Dither?
Dither is a random low level noise (similar to a hiss) added to the signal to trim digital distortion known as quantization error. Dither must be used when reducing wordlengths (mainly down to 16-bit).
There are different algorithms to accomplish dither but they all fall into two flavors:
- Flat-shaped dither which is similar to white noise.
- Noise-shaped dither which adds the noise to an unheard (by human) audio band.
All dither sounds different and every music demands specific dither type. Dither must be added once and at the end of the signal chain. Therefore it is the Mastering Engineer's responsibility to insert and choose the right dither type.
Try it yourself:
- Start with a 32-bit sine wave.
- Truncate it to 8-bit using dither.
- Notice the added hiss (dither). It is gentle to our ear.
- Truncate the 32-bit to 8-bit without adding dither.
- Notice the unnatural digital distortion. It is unpleasant to our ear.
It is arguable that 8-bit file is a low quality sound therefore with a 16-bit Redbook CD there is no need to dither. However, with some kind of music we clearly hear the difference (dynamic and low level tracks for example), and generally on the fade outs (with any kind of music). Dither is our friend while digital distortion is not!
What is Mastering?
Mastering is the final creative stage in the music production process. It is the bridge between the final mix-down and the CD duplication/replication plant.
Mastering involves 3 stages:
- Adjusting unpleasant sounds
- Quality enhancements
- Final output delivery
Stage one: Adjusting unpleasant sounds (the Lab part)
Through a careful and critical listening to the audio material, and by keeping up a good communication with the client and his indications, most issues in the audio can be resorted, whether it is in the frequency domain, level, dynamics, phase balance, disturbances or noise. Over compressed material could also be surged to get its life back!
Mid field monitors set up is a standard in Mastering. It mimics a home listening situation. Near Field Monitors are best suited for recording and mixing studios, not for Mastering. This is why we at CraftLabMastering chose 3-way passive midfields as reference.
Stage Two: Quality enhancements (the Craft part)
This creative phase gives the project its sound identity and style by the use of the finest analog and digital mastering processors in different approaches and techniques. That way, music clarity is enhanced, a dimensional and airy sound could be created, warmth or punch is added (if appropriate). In case of an EP/Album, all the tracks will have same sonic tonality and loudness/level.
Within the era of loudness war, a lot of commercial music suffers from hyper compressing and hard limiting processes, which has a lot of technical and sonic drawbacks. i.e.: ear fatigues, blurred stereo image and squashed highs, muddy smashed smeared pumping distorted edgy sound, u named it!
Stage Three: Output medium assembly (the Logistic part)
In this last stage all the tracks are put together and exported as one complete project/file on a specific medium (ex: CD) and format. The following tasks are done with a specialized high resolution DAW (Digital Audio Workstation): Tracks sequencing with the appropriate gap in between to create a smooth music flow throughout the whole album, editing fades/crossfades with minimal calculation errors, choosing the right dither shape, inserting PQ codes (for track start/end and program length timing), emphasis condition, UPC/EAN and ISRC codes, CD text, EDL list, copy prohibit/permit. With a final quality check, a DDP file (recommended) or a Red Book master disc is supplied to the replication/duplicationplant.
What shall I send to the Mastering engineer?
- Let your Stereo Bus peak at a maximum of-6dBFS (preferably at-10)
- Don’t insert any processing or equalizing on the stereo mix bus. NO LIMITERS, No Compressors.
- Do not normalize
- Any Lossless file is accepted with a Sample Rate of 44.1 KHz (or above), 16 bit (preferably 24 bit) burned as a wave file or a music CD. (We do accept mp3 if other format is not available).
- Make sure the format type is the same used in the recording/mixing session.
- If your delivery is a physical disc, please burn the tracks as data and Not audio.
- Leave a gap of one second before the start of the first track (glitches error) even if it is a music file.
- Leave some space before the start and end of the audio waveform while editing.
- Name the tracks with their numeric order followed by their name (ex: Track_01_Me Amor)
- Make sure that the total playing time does not exceed 74 minutes.
- Label the disc using water-based markers and please do not use stickers.
- Don’t hesitate to bring up or suggest any reference music that sounds appealing to you.
- Provide us with appropriate ISRC codes. (Check "Notes" for more on ISRC codes)
- Make sure that the bass drum and bass lines are well balanced.
Why should I have my tracks Mastered?
- Do you need a professional opinion concerning your music?
- Have you ever wondered why your music sounds different in other playback systems (nightclubs, car, TV, Radio, home) than in your listening room?
- Have you ever tried to reach the same sonic results of other commercial releases?
- Are you looking for a punchy tight bass, a warm deep spacious sound, or a loud and dynamic track?
- Do you need an assurance that your audio is problem free and working well on any format (mp3...)?
- Do you want your album/EP to have a consistent and smooth music flow with unified tone and level?
Whether you're a DJ, Mc, musician, producer or artist, Mastering is the key to get a well crafted and defined sound that takes your song to accepted standards.