From Editing Plot to Creation of the Final Master

Steve Barnett

Once the recording sessions are completed, I want to outline the process for the next steps to the creation of the final CD Master.

1. Preparation of the Editing Plot: Using my session notes as a guide, the takes from the session are listened to and reviewed typically either by the conductor or selected ensemble member, or by me as soon after the sessions as possible. The selected ‘master’ takes and editing points are then chosen and written in on the master editing scores. If I do the edit plotting, it usually takes about 20 to 25 hours of concentrated listening, depending on the length of the CD, the number of takes and the complexity of the music. If the music director/artist or designated ensemble member is to do it, they should plan on probably 30 or more hours to complete the process. In addition to my take notes, the recording engineer will supply a copy of their session log-sheets for whoever is preparing the plot on a set of CD-Rs.

2. Program notes and graphics: depending on your release date, someone should be working on program notes (or a program notes writer should be engaged), and the CD graphics need to be designed and put into production sooner rather than later. Graphics are usually the time hang-up for actual CD manufacture, as no CD replication house will start the CD manufacturing process without the completed and approved camera-ready graphics and program notes in hand.

3. Digital editing of the master: for the best and most accurate affordable recorded sound available today, the sessions are usually recorded in multitrack format at a higher resolution 24-bit digital (rather than the ‘normal’ CD rate of 16-bits), and at 88.2 kHz or 96kHz sampling rate (rather than the ‘normal’ CD rate of 44.1 kHz), directly to large hard drive using high-quality 24-bit A-to-D converters. To retain the integrity of the 24-bit recording, the editing must also be done in 24-bits and the higher resolution sampling rate as well. I do my editing at Preston Smith’s Perfect Record digital editing suite equipped with a state-of-the-art digital editing set-up using the latest version of the Pyramix HD software—used by most all of the major and independent classical labels for editing and mastering of CDs (and also for multi-channel SACDs and audio Blu-Ray discs as well). Ordinarily, on projects that I produce, I am also the digital editor, continuing my producer’s role through to the natural conclusion of the project: the creation of the Master CD-R. It usually takes about 35 to 45 hours for me to edit an approximately 60-minute CD once I have the editing plot in hand and do any corrections or improvements requested by the music director (usually about a 4-week process from the start of editing).

4. The ‘1st Edit’ and corrections: once the basic editing is completed (called the ‘1st Edit’) and placed in an arbitrary order, usually the order recorded and edited (unless the music director/artist is sure of the CD order in advance, I suggest that it is best to wait until he/she hears all of the pieces in their entirety to decide what would be the most effective CD order), a ‘1st Edit’ CD is made. The 1st Edit will sound exactly the way it was recorded using the stereo reference mix made at the time of the recording; none of the mastering tools have been applied yet (see below), and the beginnings and endings will be left long, to allow for fades up and down to be added later in mastering. Upon receiving the 1st Edit, the music director/artist (or designated representative) should go to a place that has very good sonic reproduction without distractions to listen critically through the first edit, both with and without scores in hand. This is the point to make any possible improvements to the chosen takes, to spot edits that maybe don’t quite work, adjust spacings between sections, or to note a wrong or out-of-tune note that may have slipped through the plotting/editing process; and any volume shift changes within pieces. Equalization recommendations are best suggested at this stage as well. You should try to listen both as an artist and also try to step back and listen as an ‘objective’ listener trying to listen to the ‘bigger picture’—what is most important to try and improve, and what can be let go, as no one else may hear it or be aware of it. It is important to strive for perfection, but well nigh impossible to reach it, unfortunately, as we all well know. The best and most musical performance is primary here.

The music director/artist (or designated representative) will then send me a list of places (noted by measure, beat and brief description) to check, change, and/or improve, with alternative take suggestions, if possible (e-mail is usually the easiest mode of communication for corrections). At this point, I will go back to the editing suite and try to improve everything that is possible to improve; some things can be made better, and some things will have to be ‘embraced’ as they are, and let go.

Once the ‘2nd Edit’ is completed, we are ready to remix, assemble and master, and create the ‘Master’ CD-R for replication (hopefully your graphics and program notes are about completed by this time). Usually the corrections and changes (the ‘2nd Edit’) is not aurally reviewed, but a list of what was improved, corrected, changed (or not), is presented to the music director/artist (or designated representative). Only if some drastic changes or re-edits were requested, would a second edit CD typically be sent for review.

5.  Remixing, Assembly and Mastering: This is the last moment for the music director/artist, and/or the producer and engineer, to have a final creative input into the final sound of the CD. If the recording is done multi-track, as most classical recordings are done today, each piece is then remixed by the mastering engineer under the direct input, supervision and satisfaction of the producer. Then, based on the music director/artist’s order suggestions, made in consultation with the producer in advance of the mastering session, the newly remixed pieces are placed in approved CD order on the computer, with spacings (‘spreads’) placed between the movements and between the separate larger works, based usually on my experience and ‘feel’ for the proper spread timings. Fades up and down are placed at the beginnings and ends of pieces (usually no fades are placed between movements, but room ambiance is left between them for a ‘live’ quality). Level matching between and within pieces is checked, so that no movements or pieces, or sections within pieces are too soft or too loud in terms of the CD shape as a whole. Any equalization (‘EQ’: sophisticated tone controls) is added if needed, as well as any additional reverberation and/or special effects. The ‘master’ is then created as a separate file on the computer. The engineer employs another computer program to de-click and de-noise the recording as much as possible. Then the P and Q sub-codes are added to the file to tell the CD manufacturer when all tracks begin and end, and the CD directory is created. All of the separate movements, complete pieces, and the whole CD with the spacings between are now able to be timed precisely using SMPTE time code, to create the time-code log sheets needed for manufacture (and only at this point can the exact timings of the works be added to your graphics and booklet). Finally an approval CD-R is ‘burned’ (Preston Smith will create one-off recordable CDs that will sound exactly like the manufactured ones) and delivered to the music director/artist for their final approval of the project. Even at this point and only if there is a major problem with the approval CD, changes can be made as long as the project remains on the computer. Upon music director/artist approval, a second ‘pristine’ Master CD-R is ‘burned,’ which will become the Production Master CD that you will send to the replication house along with the time-code log-sheets for the actual manufacture of your CDs. Before it is sent out, this master CD-R is reviewed and approved from beginning to end by both Preston Smith and by me. The remixing, assembly and mastering process usually takes about 12 to 20 hours, depending on the complexities of the project.

The Role of the Recording & Mastering Producer

Recommendations for Choral Recording Sessions

Essay List


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