The Three Tiers Of Mastering

Many artists know what they want their song or album to sound like but they are not necessarily familiar with every step of the process that goes into making the CD, vinyl record or MP3 that the listener will end up purchasing. Simply put, the process between writing a song and selling a recording of it to the public involves 3 basic steps. 


- In The Saltmine Studios Mastering Lab, our mastering engineers Damien Leclaire, Andre Nelson and Jeff Lucero use some of the world’s finest analog equalizers and compressors to raise the overall volume of your song and to shape the sonic spectrum (bass, midrange,treble) and dynamics to suit the material and to match your song to what is commonly referred to as the “broadcast standard” which means that all songs that are intended to be played on the radio need to be generally the same average volume and have a balanced frequency spectrum. On an album project of several songs, one of the goals of the mastering process is to make each song match the other songs in volume and overall tone so that when the audience listens to the whole album from start to finish, they don’t need to adjust the volume or bass and treble controls on their stereo. No matter how great your mixes are, there are likely to be some differences in volume and tone from song to song. This is just “the nature of the beast” as they say, and no matter how consistent the tracking and mixing of the project may be, every song has its own different volume and tone characteristics. This means that there will be differences in the overall volume and tone of each mix. A good mastering job will even out these differences in a tasteful and predictable fashion. At this point, the final order of the album can be determined and the crossfades or spaces between the songs on the CD will be decided upon and a duplication master will be prepared which can then be sent to the CD manufacturing plant. Even if you are just releasing one song, it still needs to be mastered in order to bring its levels and tone up to the industry standard and to maximize its impact.

Submission Guidelines:

We accept mixes for mastering in all formats, and from all over the world via WeTransfer or Google Drive (w/ permissions) to etc. or by good old fashioned FEDEX. “Dropping it off” and especially “mixing it at The Saltmine” are highly encouraged as well. Although it is possible to do a decent mastering job on pretty much any material, we recommend that you provide us with the highest definition source material that is available after the mix is printed, preferably with no stereo equalization or compression applied to the mix.

It is very common for a mixing engineer (especially in a home studio) to apply a generous helping of stereo bus compression/limiting to the mix in order to make his or her mix compete with a commercial release. While this is fine to put on the CD that the artist will listen to prior to mastering, it’s important at the final mixing stage also to print a mix which has no compression or equalization on the stereo mix bus so that the mastering engineer has as much leeway as possible in order to make the necessary adjustments. Ideally this will provide the mastering engineer with what will seem to be a “quiet” version of the mix when compared to a mastered commercial release.

These days, the most common format for submission is a 24 bit, 96 kHz WAV file burned onto a DVD or CDR but we also accept 1/4″, 1/2″ or 1″ analog mixes and of course we can work with 44.1 or 48 kHz files etc. We DO NOT recommend that you send us MP3 mixes or other popular data compressed formats for mastering as the results are ALWAYS less than desirable, and if there is an MP3 of your mix, there must have been a WAV or AIFF version of it somewhere as well at some point. If you have no other options, we can of course master from your MP3 source material but we must mention that we can’t really guarantee that you will be happy with the results in this case. We also accept "WeTransfer" or "Google Drive" (w/ permissions.)

Tier One

Mastering takes approximately 1 hour per song and uses our analog equalizers and compressors and digital limiters. We charge on a per- song basis instead of hourly because once all the songs have been processed through the equalizers and compressors, there is still the process of arranging the order, crossfades etc. and this may not necessarily all be done all in one session. Also, some songs can take much longer than 1 hour, and some songs may take a little less than one hour, so it works out best for the client for us to charge per song on unattended mastering sessions. Attended mastering sessions are priced on a per hour basis. The first tier is our most popular mastering process and we usually quote a 3 day turnaround although rush service is available at an additional fee.

Tier Two

Mastering is more budget oriented. We can work with your budget to provide you with the best possible job that can be done in the amount of studio time that suits your budget. This means that your music will still go through the same equipment as it would on a “first tier”

job but with the interest of time becoming more of a factor. We offer this service so that clients who want a Saltmine mastering job but are having trouble fitting it into their budget will be able to enjoy the benefits of our beautiful mastering system while working within a smaller budget. The “flip side” of the second tier mastering job is for the client who wants to attend the mastering session and work on each song for as long as necessary while paying by the hour. This can take more or less time per song than a first tier mastering job would take with the mastering engineer working by himself.

Tier Three

Mastering is the cream of the crop, using the same equalizers and compressors as described in the first tier but adding our beloved Ampex ATR-102 one inch analog stereo mastering tape recorder into the process. This is the most expensive process because it takes longer and also adds the cost of tape to the project but it sounds amazing and brings a more cohesive, “together” sound to the masters. This process also adds the classic sound of the finest analog tape recorder in the world to the sound of your project. Our ATR-102 is one of about 50 on the planet and is meticulously calibrated ad maintained by the mastering engineer himself for the best possible sound.

- This “third tier” process is especially recommended for clients who have mixed their project at another studio “in the box” a.k.a. a digitally mixed project, especially home studio projects mixed within Pro Tools LE etc. The tape process tends to greatly complement and counteract the generally gnarly sound of these digital systems and offers a level of sonic integrity that would otherwise be impossible to obtain. In other words, it is the ULTIMATE ANALOG complement to PURELY DIGITAL source material.

- John Gray