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What is an accurate mastering of a song? How can it be achieved?

An RP visitor enquires how to mix and master a song accurately. But what is 'accuracy' in music? Does it have any relevance?

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Question from a Audio Masterclass visitor...

Please tell me is it possible to have an accurate mixing of a song internally in a software like Nuendo i.e. without an external mixer? What is an accurate mastering of a song? How it can be achieved?

David Mellor responds...

I think there are three questions here, the first of which asks whether the internal mixer of Nuendo is any good. I'll generalize my comments to all audio recording software of professional quality...

The process of mixing is a simple summation. In the analog domain, mixing is achieved by adding voltages together. If the addition is done correctly, then the mix is accurate.

In the analog domain there may be distortions, both linear and non-linear, which affect the accuracy of summation. Therefore it is reasonable to expect that the actual mix processing of different analog consoles will sound different, in addition to differences in other sections of the console.

In the digital domain, mixing is also achieved by summation, but this time of numbers. Yes, digital mixing is simple 'adding up'.

Adding up is something that is difficult to get wrong. Digital computers have been adding up since the 1940s, and counting devices like the abacus have been doing the same for centuries before that.

So it would surprise me as much as a formation of microphone stands doing a fly past outside my window if digital mixing was not entirely accurate.

Yes, it could be done wrong. But the designer would have to be either totally incompetent or actively be looking for a firing from his company.

Or, of course, the designer could be seeking to achieve a 'sound' that is not entirely accurate. Just like in the old analog days.

What about accurate mastering? Does that have any meaning?

In some ways, yes it does. There are certain technical parameters a master should abide by.

For instance, the peak level of a mastered recording should be within 2 dB of 0 dBFS (the maximum level the system is capable of).

There are few reasons to think why the peak level should not actually be 0 dBFS. Some people do however worry about that paranormal phenomenon of audio, the 'inter-sample peak' that doesn't really exist. I'll leave that one open to debate.

A master should also display a full range of frequencies between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. It should be free from unwanted distortion and other artifacts.

Once again, with digital equipment, all of this is relatively easy to achieve, although it does take some knowledge on the part of the engineer.

I think though it is safe to say that modern digital technology gives us all the accuracy we could possible want.

It's up to you to supply the character.

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By David Mellor Monday August 7, 2006
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