A Technical Note Re Digital Mastering and DAWs
Computer based editing and mastering services include items such as change gain, mix, equalize, compress and sample rate conversion which are technically called digital signal processing or DSP. DSP is accomplished by performing mathematical calculations (called re-quantizing) on your digitized sound file. Please note that your new sound files will be permanently changed when processed and not every DAW handles processing in a musically pleasing manner. For example, some digital EQs sound edgy and unmusical and your music could end up sounding grainy and lifeless when compared to the original master. One reason is that DSP can't be done in a sonically pleasing manner at the CD standard of 16 bits and so has to done at a higher rate, which is beyond the capabilities of some older DAWs. Another cause is inferior programming of the DSP algorithms (as compared to high-end digital outboard gear), which is a common characteristic of both inexpensive and "Swiss army knife" digital audio/midi programs and most recording studios-in-a-box.
So what should you look for? Make sure the studio's DAW and/or digital gear does all processing at 48 bit double precision or the 32 to 48 bit floating point process. Once your DSP is completed, the sound file has to be brought back to 16 bits. The particular functions you should be concerned about are dithering and noise shaping. Dither is a technique used to mask the noise created by re-quantizing when the 24 bit file is resolved down to 16 bits and noise-shaping techniques move the noise to a frequency that is less disturbing to the ear. Some manufacturer's noise-shaping techniques and dither, such our Waves outboard L2 Ultramaximizer or POW-r dither, sound a lot better than others. With higher resolution files, such as 88.2 or 96k masters, the sample rate converstion processor is very important. We have used the Pro Tools SRC, which when compared to other work stations, is very good. However, we have the Weiss Saracon on order which is reputed to be the best software based SRC. We also own the LavryGold LE3000s real time SRC but are still working on a way to integrate it into our system. The solution will be announced soon!
To summarize, we master almost exclusively with class-A outboard gear and so we use our Pro Tools HD system primarily as our "playback/record" unit. Plug-ins are only used for noise reduction, special fx and for problem masters, where plug-in automation is the most precise way to solve a problem. One of the few exceptions is the Massenburg designed MDW High-Res Parametric EQ which we find to be the most transparent plug-in we have ever used.
Backing Up Your Album Sequence
After running your master, we back-up all your song files, ProTools/DSP files and WaveBurner to DVD. This is so you have the option to make changes later without having to redo the original prep work. In the event that you want to touch up or add to your master, we can restore your session so that you can continue working exactly from where you left off. The DVD also serves as your safety/archive.
The old studio adage is that if you don't make a safety copy, your master will get lost or damaged.