Pro Audio Files

A Guide to Mastering for Digital Distribution

To be precise, mastering for digital distribution isn’t mastering at all, in most cases. Rather, it’s premastering. This article will help you know what to ask for from your mastering engineer.

The so-called ‘mastering’ process is actually two related, but operationally discrete sub-processes:

  1. Premastering, which encompasses all of the aesthetic decisions related to preparing a set of mixes for an audience. Premastering answers any questions related to what the record is going to sound like.
  2. Mastering, which is the process of creating the delivery media that will allow the audience to access the material. Mastering includes the creation of digital delivery media from the previously separate digital audio and consumer meta-data resources.

So why do I say, “mastering for digital distribution isn’t mastering at all?” I say that because the vast majority of digital distribution channels don’t want encoded deliverables like MP3, AAC, etc. They have their own internal processes, and in some cases proprietary tools, for creating (mastering) encoded formats themselves.

Digital music outlets like iTunes and Spotify, and the aggregators that connect independent musicians with them, want digital audio premasters. Figure I shows a selection of some of the most widely used digital distribution channels, and the premaster materials they request.

Figure 1

MFiT

CD-Quality wav

FLAC

MP3 (320kbps)

Source
iTunes

Yes

Yes

No

No

read more at Apple
Bandcamp

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Bandcamp FAQ
CD Baby

No

Yes

No

No

CD Baby FAQ
Tunecore

No

Yes

No

No

ADVERTISEMENT
Tunecore FAQ
Reverb Nation

No

Yes

No

Yes

Reverb Nation FAQ
Record Union

No

Yes

No

No

read more at Record Union
Rebeat

No

Yes

No

No

read more at Rebeat

‘Mastering’ for iTunes

In 2012 much ado was made over Apple’s Mastered for iTunes (MFiT) program, but most of the commentary failed to address anything that a producer or self-produced musician might actually need to know. Mastered for iTunes is two things:

  1. A detailed specification for providing iTunes or an aggregator with digital audio premasters (not masters). iTunes encodes the masters.
  2. A suite of simple tools that assist in the creation of those premasters. These include a simple utility that allows you to create AAC masters to audition.

What makes MFiT unique is that Apple is asking for high-resolution digital audio assets. Specifically, 24-bit wav files at the mix master source sample rate. Any specialized, professional mastering engineer working today will be familiar with these specifications. You can read about them in detail by following the link in Figure I.

Producers should be sure to ask for MFiT premasters from their mastering engineer.

CD Quality as a Rule

As you can see for yourself, the predominant request from digital music distributors is for ‘CD quality’ digital audio premasters. That is, 16-bit wav files with a sample rate of 44.1kHz.

Obtaining these premasters is easy, especially if the project in question is being released on CD. In fact, these are the same digital audio assets that your mastering engineer will use to prepare the CD replication master.

Be sure to ask for these as a discrete file set, as opposed to ripping them from a CD later.

An Example

Let’s say you’re planning on releasing your project with a limited CD release, and widespread digital distribution. This is hardly far-fetched. So, what will you need from your mastering engineer:

  1. A Red Book CD master in the form of either a hard copy CD-DA, or a DDP file set. This will be delivered to your CD replicator.
  2. A folder of the CD-quality premasters. These wav files will be delivered to the majority of digital music distribution channels – those that don’t accept high-resolution assets like iTunes.
  3. A folder of Mastered for iTunes premasters. These high-resolution wav files will be delivered to iTunes, and any other digital music distribution channels that have adopted the MFiT spec (or quietly emulated it).

It’s not hard to navigate the delivery specs for online music distribution, especially if you’re working with a specialized, professional mastering engineer. Be aware that there are, of course, additional specs and requirements for non-audio deliverables like metadata and album art. All of these are available online, and simplified by using an aggregator.

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Rob Schlette

Rob Schlette

Rob Schlette is chief mastering engineer and owner of Anthem Mastering, in St. Louis, MO. Anthem Mastering provides trusted specialized mastering services to music clients all over the world.

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