Silverbirch's Mastering set-up
We find that during the mastering process, the sound of most digital mixes can be improved by running them through class-A outboard gear, including some with tube circuitry.
First we transfer your mixes digitally to Pro Tools HD. We then prepare the session for mastering by marking each track's important sections. These markers will become very important as we move through the album, constantly checking the eq, compression and volume of each mastered track to the one in progress. Usually at this point, the start point and end points of each track are checked and adjusted if necessary. This process is called "top and tailing".
The signal is then routed to the LavryGold DA924 digital to analog 24 bit converters into the analog chain, usually consisting of all or some of the Manley Massive Passive tube 4 band EQ unit, Night Pro EQ3-D, Manley Variable MU tube comp/limiter, Tube-Tech SMC-2B Vacuum Tube Multiband compressor, Requisite L2M Tube Mastering Limiter/Expander and Pendulum PL-2 Analog Peak Limiter. The Digital Domain K-Stereo Processor, which is often used to widen and deepen the stereo sound stage, is accessed through a digital insert, as is the Weiss DS1-MK2 compressor, the Weiss EQ-1 MK2 Dyamic & Linear Phase Equalizer, the TC 6000 mastering unit and the Waves outboard L2 Ultramaximizer, or other limiter. Since the latter units are digital only, the placements can be before or after the analog chain, depending on what works best for the work at hand. If any plug-ins are used, they can be placed in a similar fashion. We also use our ATR-102 Remanufacured 1/2" deck. It often does something magical to the sound and so has been staying in the chain about 40% of the time.
After picking up the "warmth", "air" and "enhanced depth and width" of the analog gear, the signal is converted back to the digital domain through the LavryGold AD122-96MKIII 24 bit analog to digital converters and finally dithered down by POW-R dither to the 16 bit 44.1 kHz CD format as it is recorded back to another pair of tracks in Pro Tools.
If you have recorded at 24 bit, 44.1 kHz, or even at 88.2, 96 kHz or higher, we will master at that level and downsample to 16 bit 44.1 kHz after the mastering process. The latter approach is sonically superior so if mixing at 24 bits, be sure to bring us those files. Don't change the resolution of your mixes for mastering if you can avoid it. By the way, please don't bring in "32 bit" files. This is a proprietary file type that only works in Cubase, Sound Forge and a few other programs and will not load up in Pro Tools. They can be converted to 24 bit files without any loss of resolution. If you haven't done, we can but it can add time to the session.
Our entire mastering process is done in real time, i.e., all adjustments made to the mixes can be heard and assessed instantly. Any digital editing is done in Pro Tools either before or after the mastering, depending on what needs to be accomplished. We find this analog/digital combination works best for the majority of albums.
Optionally an entire album, or track, if desired, can be mastered completely in the digital domain. We have the K-Stereo Processor, the Weiss DS1-MK2 compressor, Massenburg Design Works Equalization, the Weiss EQ-1 MK2 Dyamic & Linear Phase Equalizer, the TC 6000 mastering unit (with mult-band capabilities), a very efficient, and great sounding digital mastering set-up.
While Pro Tools digital audio workstations (DAW) in various configurations are becoming standard equipment in many studios, our combination of Manley, Tube-Tech and Requisite Tube units coupled with LavryGold 24 bit converters, the Weiss pieces, the TC Electronic mastering unit and the K unit plus ATR-102 1/2" tape deck is simply not found in any mid-priced mastering suites. You will be amazed at the difference these high-end units can make to your masters.
A note re using Pro Tools as a mastering platform:
Users of Sonic Solutions and Sadie systems have in the past, voiced objections to mastering with Pro Tools. Part of the reason was that until the release of the HD system, the architecture and therefore the sound of the old Pro Tools MixPlus wasn't quite as good as those aforementioned units. However, the Pro Tools HD system now sounds as good as any other world class digital audio workstation.
Another objection has been the use of plug-ins for mastering. That too is justified to some degree but as of 2009, Silverbirch only occasionally uses plug-ins such as the Massenburg designed MDW High-Res Parametric EQ and several digital limiters as we have amassed a good variety of class-A outboard gear, giving us the tools to do any kind of mastering work without plug-ins. However, if there are problems to solve that do need automation or if special fx have to be added, using a few good plug-ins is well worth the trade-off.
About the only task Pro Tools doesn't do that other mastering-specific systems can do is write CDs directly from the program. However, we use Emagic's WaveBurner, which gives us a choice of doing cross-fades and volume adjustments in Pro Tools or in the sequencing program and it takes less than two minutes to load up the average album. Sonic Studio's SoundBlade is also available and we also use it on occasion, particularly for DDP creation. And lastly, we could afford to own any platform/software we wanted but our mastering engineer has refined his mastering set-up in Pro Tools for almost 10 years and it does everything that needs to be done, from editing to serving as a very efficient record/playback system. As part our upgrade plan, we will be analyzing alternate platforms for our mastering set-up, to see if any improvements can be made by switching, but for moment, the pros outweight the cons and Pro Tools will remain our main digital audio workstation.