Options for mastering your Band-in-a-Box album

For more information on creating your first song using Band-in-a-Box and RealBand check out my online video course First Song with Band-in-a-Box for Windows

Questions that are often asked in the Band-in-a-Box community include things like: "What is the difference between mixing and mastering?", "Do I need to have my track professionally mastered or can I do it myself?". "How do I get my song louder?", "How can I get all my tracks to the same volume?". "Do I need to master my song in order to release it commercially?" and "Can I master a single track or does mastering only apply to albums?" and many many more.

If you are anything like me you want to be able to release your songs or albums but cannot see your way to spending about $100 per song to get it professionally mastered. It is just too hard to justify the cost when you consider the pennies that Spotify is paying out in streaming royalties (but that is the subject of another blog post...)

Over the last three and half years I have commercially released 9 full albums, of which only one was professionally mastered. In this blog post I am going to go through some of the things I have personally learned along the way about mastering my albums. I am going to talk here about mastering an entire album but most of the things you will learn can be equally applied to single songs.

Some mastering methods are very cheap (ie they do not cost anything at all), while others are very expensive (ie. say $100  per song) and there are a couple in between. You can choose the method that will suit your budget and your level of expertise. 

But first, lets start with defining the difference between "tracking", "mixing" and "mastering".  There is a lot of talk, arguments and confusion on this subject on the internet about this. Since I am not a professionally trained audio engineer, I am not going to get into this debate. I am just going to repeat here what has served me over those 9 albums.

"Tracking" is the stage of music production when you arrange, record and edit all your instruments and vocals. "Mixing" is where you apply effects and automation to the individual tracks, settle on the relative volume of each track and pan the individual tracks left and right depending on where you want them in the sonic space. At the end of the mixing phase you save or render the song as a stereo WAV file, known as an "audio mix". This is where mastering comes in and is the point at which this blog post will pick-up the process.

For the definition of "mastering", I like the simple definition used on Izotope's Blog which is "Mastering is the term most commonly used to refer to the process of taking an audio mix and preparing it for distribution". Okie dokie, so how do we go about preparing our audio mixed for distribution? That is the million dollar (or one hundred dollar) question.

1. Start an album spreadsheet

I like to start a spreadsheet to keep track of all my settings. In this way I usually end up with a nice uniform album as far as levels go. The last thing you want is for your listener to be reaching for his volume knob all the time while listening to the album!. While you are about it, decide on the order you want the songs to appear on the album. Here is an example of a spreadsheet for my album Circle Dance

2. Export your final mixes

There are a couple of things to note before you actually render your audio mixes from whatever DAW you use. You should make sure that there is NOTHING touching the red on your level meters. If your meters are showing any red what-so-ever then turn your master fader down.I use RealBand for all my mixing so it is quite simple. I look at the "output" meter at the bottom right hand side of the screen and make sure that is it is only just (sometimes) touching the yellow. Otherwise I turn down the master fader until I am at that point.  Then render the mixes down to stereo WAV files.

2. Do some basic editing on the mix

To to this I use a free program called Audacity I am not too sure why I use this program but I always have and I find it very easy to use and, hey, its free!. For each song, open up your WAV file and give your song a hair cut. By that I mean get rid of the drum clicks at the start of the song, shave a couple of seconds of dead space at the start and at the end of the song and make sure that the song starts out and fades out nicely. Start by selecting the drum clicks that region and then selecting "generate silence". 

The select the dead space at the start of the song so that you have approximately half a second of silence before the music starts and then press delete. Then do the same if you have a "long blank tail" at the end of the song. Select that area and then press delete. Now listen to the start and end of the song and make sure it is smooth and that the end does not cut off prematurely.

Now comes the controversial part. I always "normalize" my tracks before I start on mastering. "Normalizing" means bringing the track up to a "standard" volume. This process is controversial because some people believe that normalizing can really mess up your entire track. I always normalize to "-0.3" before starting with my mastering process. It just makes things easier and personally I have not noticed an degradation of the quality of my audio mix ( but then again I can't tell the difference between a 320 kbps MP3 and a WAV file so maybe that is just me, my ears and my speakers!)

To normalize the track in Audacity, select the whole track and then choose "normalize" and use the selections as per this screen shot. This should still give you some room when your start on mastering.

3. Dynamic range, peak level and RMS

The first step in mastering is to understand the levels in your audio mix. This is a subject of life long study and is very complex subject but I will start with my relative simple understanding of the three levels I use in mastering my albums.

1: Dynamic range. This is the ratio between the loudest and softest part of your song. You don't want this range to be so big that people are messing around with their volume knobs while listening to your song but you don't want it so low that there is no variety of intensity in your song. I aim for a dynamic range of around ten.

2. Peak. This is the loudest level in your mix. I aim for a peak level of -0.3 or 0.0

3. RMS. (Route-mean-square). This is just a fancy way of measuring the average volume of your track. It takes account of the dynamic flow of your song from the loud sections to the soft sections and back again and then calculates the average across the whole track. I aim for RMS of between minus 11 and 13 (depending on what type of song it is).

For the last year of so I have been using the TT DR Offline Meter from Tischmeyer Technologies. In researching this blog I noticed that this tool is no longer available for free. You need to subscribe for $30 per year here or, it seems you can download the free Foobar 2000 player and run the meter it as a plugin. You can download the Foobar 2000 and the TT DR Offline Meter here

4. Levels of basic edited audio mix

For the sake of this blog I am going to use one of my original songs that was professionally mastered way back in 2013 (which was the last time I use professional mastering). In this way you will be able to compare the results from the various options.

After applying the basic editing above (including "normalizing" to -0.3 db). This is what the basic audio mix of my song "Its Time (The Last Farewell)" sounds like.

I imported the file onto the dynamic range tool and here are the results.

So, given that I like my dynamic range to be 10 and my RMS levels to be between minus 11 and 13 what are my options for bringing up the levels on the basic mix so that it can be written to CD or released commercially? I am going to discuss 4 options (increasing in cost from free to expensive) and give an example from each option.
5. Option 1: Use Audacity to reduce dynamic range and increase RMS

I imported the basic mix back into Audacity and used compression to reduce the over all dynamic range and to bring up RMS. I used the default compression settings in Audacity. You can listen to file 2 here.  I imported the file back into the meter and here is the result. 

So, this looks more promising. The next step is to write the tracks to a CD as well as to your iPod and LISTEN to all the tracks on various sound systems. Use earphones (cheap and expensive ones), your daughters ghetto blaster, iPhone speakers, your home stereo and your car radio. Make notes on which tracks need to come up and which need to come down so that you are not reaching for the volume knob between songs and make notes if you are reaching for the volume knob DURING a  song. If you are reaching for the volume knob during a song you will need to apply more compression so that you reduce the dynamic range of the song. Otherwise, if you are reaching for the knob between songs, use the "Amplify" function Audacity to adjust the overall RMS of the song. Import the songs back in to the meter and make notes of the settings in your spreadsheet.

So, if that was all you did, you could comfortably commercially release your tracks or write them to a CD and be confident that they have consistent  dynamic range, peak values and RMS.  I will now explore some other options you have for mastering your tracks as well as for shaping the overall sound of the tracks.

6. Option 2: Use LANDR online mastering service

There is an online mastering service called LANDR. The website is here. There are three options on this site; low, medium and high intensity. I selected medium. On this site you can get two low quality MP3s free every month. I do not recommend you release these low quality MP3's commercially or use them for making a CD. I recommend using at least the 16 bit WAV file at a cost of $9.99  per track. Here is sample of the medium intensity MP3 file of "Its Time (The Last Farewell)".

And here are the meter results. 

I also tried the "low" intensity option as well. Here is the low intensity file provide by LANDR

And here are the meter settings.  

mmm. that one is slightly softer than I would prefer. So, if I was going to use LANDR for a whole album I would probably go for the "medium" intensity option. As mentioned in section 6, I would still listen to the entire album on various devices and make small volume and compression changes as required.

7. Option 3: Use Ozone mastering software

I use mastering software from iZotope called Ozone for all my mastering. The website is here. There is a free trial version but before you try it out, I should warn you that, once you try it you are going to WANT it. So be prepared to spend the rather hefty purchase price before you try it out!

The presets are always a good place to start until you become familiar with the software and how it functions. I usually use the "Country Basic" preset.

Here is a link to "Its Time (The Last Farewell)" mastered with Ozone, using the "Country basic" preset.

And here are the meter settings.

Just like Goldilocks, not too loud, not too soft but just right! As mentioned in section 6, I would still listen to the entire album on various devices and make small volume and compression changes as required. Make sure not to forget to update your album spreadsheet.

8. Option 4: Use a professional mastering service

The first album I released commercially was this album Always Here.  The album was produced using Band-in-a-Box and mixed in RealBand. I had the album professionally mastered at a cost of about R10,000 (about $830).  I later used the TT Dynamic meter to measure the settings for the whole album and here is the spreadsheet of the settings.

And here is the professionally mastered version of the track.
You may notice that the dynamic range on this song is less and the track it is louder that I would normally use.  Interestingly it was also quite different from the other tracks on the album.

9. Mastering options summary

I made a video with all the files side by side so that you can compare and see whether you think the R10,000 was money well spent or not!

10. Update your metadata

Once you have finalized the levels on your songs, you should update all the metadata associated with the tracks before sending them to anybody. I use a free tool called "Mp3 Tag by Florian Heidenreich. You can download this tool for free here.

 A note on the "Loudness War: From Wikipedia "Loudness war or loudness race is the popular name given to the trend of increasing audio levels in recorded music since the early 1990s, which many critics believe reduces sound quality and listener enjoyment." Many audio professionals believe the loudness war is now a mute point because all the major digital platforms such as iTunes, Spotify and Youtube process your track levels according to their own internal algorithm while uploading. It is obviously in the platforms interests since consumers do not need to reach for their volume controls while listening to a playlist of a variety of songs from various artists. So sacrificing quality for loudness is no longer a necessary evil.

As you may have realized I am a long way off being regarded as a professional audio engineer. I simply enjoy writing, recording and releasing my own music. Band-in-a-Box has made this possible for me. I would love to hear your opinion on the results of this experiment and what other options you have used for mastering.