Recent years have seen a revolution in the technology available to musicians and recording studios. The cost of signal processors and electronic sound sources has fallen dramatically.
Happily, this has made the recording of relatively sophisticated music financially accessible to many more people. In some cases this has meant 'professional' equipment being used by people with little training or experience in how to get the best out of it. One area where people are quite often ignorant seems to be that of the disc cutting process. Perhaps the audio industry itself is at fault... This article has been written in an effort to put this right.
No essay on the mastering art today can be complete without reference to disc cutting. Originally the disc cutting process was the recording. After the optimum positions for the microphone(s) and performers had been agreed the sound was cut directly to disc and that was that.
Later, with the development of magnetic tape the disc cutting process became more of an afterthought, almost a formality, albeit an essential one. Certainly classical engineers and producers, especially at Decca & EMI, were aware of how important the process was to getting a good copy of their work into people's homes, but in the early 1960s pop engineers and producers rarely gave it much thought. Many a hit single was recorded straight-to-mono in a 3 hour session from 10am-1pm, the A & B-sides would be chosen over lunch and the tape sent to the cutting room in the afternoon! Cutting Engineers were thought of as back-room boys. Producers had no interest in attending the cut, much less artists; it was, after all, only a transcription process: their work, including any editing, had already been done by that stage. So, historically, little was known about the art of disc cutting, apart from those few who actually practiced it.
During the late '60s and early '70s pop recording developed almost beyond recognition, first 4-, then 8-, 16- and soon 24-track recording. All this has been well documented but what it meant was a whole different approach to recording. All this meant that more flexibility and creativity was available to producers and artists, who had became much more aware of what was going on, technically. This awareness also began to extend into the Cutting Room. Producers and artists began to wonder exactly what could be done by the back-room boys who had been left to their own devices for so long.
So we come to the present day. Technological evolution continues apace and virtually every home computer now has a CD-writer in it, but the fact that you may be able to burn a CD with audio on it does not make you a mastering engineer any more than owning a hammer makes you a skilled carpenter. But while it is perfectly possible to by-pass the role of the Mastering Engineer (as disc cutting engineers have become known) is arguablly more important today than ever before.
THE ROLE OF THE MASTERING ENGINEER
There are many reasons why a tape may need a little additional processing when it is cut or transferred for CD. Often it may be that the sound on tape is not quite what the engineer/producer/artist ultimately wanted, and this may have become apparent since the tape was mixed, especially if the mix was done at four in the morning! In some cases the fresh ear of the cutting engineer may be able to bring out something that those who have been involved more intimately may have overlooked. In the case of an album a little EQ on some tracks may make the subtle difference between a record sounding like an album rather than a collection of individual mixes..
Manufacturers will currently accept CD Tape Masters in the following formats:
Downloads are now just as important as physical CDs, if not more so. These are usually, though not always, subject to lossy data compression such as mp3 or m4a (mp4 audio) and the way the data compression is carried out and the target data rates chosen can significantly affect the level of detail and overall sound of the final result.
Based on an article which was first published in 'Sound-on-Sound' magazine under the title 'Masters of the Universe'.
Revised Feb 2008 and Aug 2014.