How does working in a PC environment differ from the traditional studio?
Once you have finished your multitrack recording, got all the instruments sounding just how you want them, you then mixed down to your stereo mix to DAT, Cassette, MiniDisc, or whatever. That version of the process is referred to as the premaster. Many of us mistakingly use that to dup the mass copies from (I was sooooo pissed when a member of one of my bands did that without telling anyone), but that is not the end. For that professional, powerful sound you then must master your recording from the two track format.
Mastering is, arguably, the most important phase for the sound. All yourinstruments are now mixed in the stereo format, and must be blended together with any effect necessary to make it sound like a powerful, cohesive product. Most commonly compression, finalizers (or, sonic maximizers) parametric EQ's, graphic EQ's and maybe some reverb are used in this process.
If your source is on cassette or DAT the first step is to get it into the PC. This is done with programs like Steinberg's "WaveLab" or Sonic Foundry's "Sound Forge". These are used like a tape deck to record you tape into the digital domain. Cassette is easy, just plug into the line-in jack on your soundcard and go...with a DAT first you need to make sure you have a S/PDIF interface on your sound card, then you need to be sure your setting are set to the same sampling rate as the DAT itself was recorded in. SOme great sound cards are available for your DAT interface, "Echo" makes great cards called "Layla" "Mona" and "Gina". with differing numbers of ins and outs, and the Layla even has MIDI in, out, and thru. There are many available, but the good ones for audio use start about $300 and go up from there. You can use SoundBlaster-type cards, but expect nearly the performance level from them, they are great for games, but not pro audio.
This article is geared specifically at the computer as the medium in which you are doing you mastering, because it is become the most common way to do it, and, it is the area I am most comfortable with personally.
Many times what I encounter from artists that send me their recording to master the first thing I hear is over-use of Dolby NR. This tends to give the tape a very flat sound. This is easily remedied with a parametric EQ, or a graphic by giving a bit of a boost to the extreme highs and extreme lows of the overall spectrum. If you use Dolby much, you may want to try this. Waves makes a great set of Direct X plugin for the PC called "Native Power Pack" that has some very good parametric EQ's.
Next, if you multitrack was done on the PC or a HardDisk recorder it probably has that kinda sterile digital sound. Steinberg makes a Direct X plugin call "Magneto" that has some characteristics I have seen in NO other plugin I have ever seen. It gives an analog "warmth" to the sound, and adds some power to it that is quite undescribable. I run almost every digital recording I work on through Magneto to some extent.
Finally, one of the final concerns is getting the most power and volume from your recording as you can without clipping. Waves "Native Power Pack" is one of many "maximizers" that allow you to get more volume and power from a recording by a very simple process. When you normalize the recording, that is, bringing it all up to "0" the software usually finds the peak sound in the song, moves that to "0" and then moves the rest of the recording up proportionally. The problem is, this peak sound it finds is almost always a totally inaudible length of time that it lasts. This is where a maximizer comes in. Going by the parameters you give it, it will seak out those spots, cut them down and mover the whole recording up, so the peak volume is an actual audible length of time. This adds a considerable amount of apparent volume to you sound. Doing this in an analog world is spendy, the finalizers can cost several hundred to several thousand dollars, but, in the PC world, they cost a couple hundred bucks. and they do it cleaner.
All the rest of the job, such as compression, reverb and anything else is strictly a matter of personal taste, try it, if you like it, keep it, if not, just hit the "undo" button...when was the last time you saw "undo" on your analog deck:-)
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