72-Grooming the DAW output

Well that’s a strange page title. What’s that all about then?


In normal commercial pop music production, the band is recorded on multichannel disk (used to be tape). Then the band goes on tour or back to their mansion to continue partying, while engineers and producers mix the multichannel recordings down into a stereo final mix. This may involve any kind of processing, adding compression, reverb, effects, overdubs, etc.

Eventually, the song is delivered to the “Mastering Engineer”. What this guy used to do, in the days of vinyl records, was to operate the cutting lathe that converted the recorded two channel tape into a long spiral groove on a metal record master. This master was used to create “stampers” which in turn were used to press the actual records that were played on record players. Obviously, that isn’t done so much any more.

In the days of CDs, the mastering engineer’s job is supposed to be to process the stereo mix from the producer for coding onto a CD such that it sounds as good as possible when played back. In a perfect world, it seems to me that all that would really need to be done would be for the CD mastering engineer to:

  • digitize the stereo mix appropriately (CD audio data is 16 bits, uncompressed, at a 44.1 Khz sample rate)
  • conform the songs to the CD format (track, spacing and index information as required)
  • create the CD data for the CD master writer

The rest (creating the CD master, stampers, etc.) is all done by the manufacturing process.

You can see that CD mastering (usually called “premastering”) doesn’t require any aesthetic decisions on the part of the mastering engineer.

However, in modern times, mastering has become an art form, where the mastering engineer is expected to provide improvement of the audio characteristics of the delivered material.

What I do

What I don’t do is any of the above.

I basically start with loops, samples, software synths, field recordings, and occasionally guitar or keyboard recordings. I assemble and arrange everything, using Ableton Live primarily (as discussed elsewhere) until it sounds “right”.

Once the piece seems to be “done” I use the Export function to create a stereo “wave” format file.

At this point I might just quickly normalize it and burn it to a CD-R to listen to it on a car or home stereo, or convert it to an MP3 file to listen to it on my media player. After living with it a few days  I usually hear things about the arrangement, mix, eq, etc., that I feel I need to change. So, back to Live for tweaks of greater or less amount.

At some point (between 5 and 50 iterations of the above) the piece is REALLY done. Then it’s time to “groom” the exported file.

Basic groomage…

When the piece is ready for exporting from Ableton Live, I make sure that all the appropriate plugins are present. If Reason is required to be ReWired in, that obviously needs to be done (there have been late nights where I have been in a hurry and embarassingly forgot to do this). I select the length to be exported to make sure that the reverb tail of the last note is included … this may mean that several seconds after the end needs to be included.