Chapter 8

Step IV

Assembly—Links in a Chain

One day, early in my tenure at Capitol, a respected senior Mastering Engineer at Capitol named Wally Traugott1 explained to me, “Let me tell you something: if an album is mastered well, you can set your volume and EQ and listen top-to-bottom and you don’t need to reach for or adjust the volume or EQ knobs again. The songs flow one to the other like links in a chain.” Wally was revered in mastering circles for the prominent artists that sought his work, and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973) was among the albums he had mastered for vinyl release. He would elaborate on that seminal project occasionally: “The producer (Alan Parsons) didn’t show up as scheduled, but the tapes had arrived, so I went ahead and mastered it and was concerned that the bell and clock sounds [from the introduction of track #4, “Time”] would blow the cutter head on the Neumann lathe. Alan came in the next day, listened and approved the master.” Julio Iglesias, Barbara Streisand, Bob Seger, and other luminaries regularly sought his work, so when he spoke, aspiring Mastering Engineers carefully listened.

Assembly is the process of sequencing and spacing the mastered songs in the correct order for the collection. While mastering a project, a series of adjustments, listening checks, and meter checks are completed to optimize the audio fidelity, level, and loudness of each song as they are assembled into a final collection or album. Each song should relate to the others in the album, but be careful: quiet songs, interludes, and production variances (e.g. very sparse or very dense musical information) can be tricky to place properly. By referencing each track (chorus to chorus or verse to verse) throughout the mastering session, audio cohesion will be intact and can be double-checked during assembly. This final verification of cohesion will bring you a great degree of satisfaction to hear. The rhythm of the mastering session follows a consistent pattern of repeating Steps I, II, and III for each new song in the collection. Song-to-song cohesion represents a fundamental facet of a well-mastered album, which is why the first few songs mastered must be spot-on regarding level, impact, and The Eleven Qualities of Superb Audio Fidelity (see Chapter 2—Listening Experience). There are instances when the sonic perspective of an album takes focus only after completing most of the songs, so never shy away from going back and remastering the first few if necessary.

Tops/Tails Editing and Song Spacing

Always edit off the extra dead space at the tops and tails of each mastered file. I prefer 300 milliseconds (ms) of silence at the top of each song before audio and an appropriate fade out to silence at the tail. Song spacing is to taste but generally ranges from 500 ms to 3 seconds. It can help song transitions to count in time with the tempo of the preceding track and place the new track on a downbeat or upbeat. Include the song spacing after the tail in the file of the preceding track. This allows for an album to be heard as intended if individual files are loaded in sequence (with no additional space added) into a player such as Apple iTunes, or burned to a CD. Crossfades—where one song fades out while the next one fades in—should also be edited and fine-tuned during assembly.

PQ Encoding/Indexing

PQ encoding refers to adding the start index and end index points that determine exactly where a CD player or digital audio player begins and stops playing that particular track. The start and end indexes determine the exact length of the track. It is called PQ because this index information is encoded onto subchannels P and Q of the CD. The PQ information (along with metadata), is compiled and listed on a PQ sheet (Figure 8.1), which is printed and included with a physical CD Master, while a .pdf file of the PQ sheet is included in a DDP CD Master folder.

Metadata

Literally ‘data about data’ in Latin, this is information that is encoded onto the CD Master (DDP Master or PMCD) using your RDAW. It includes CD Text and International Standard Recording Codes (ISRCs). CD Text is usually the song title, and the artist name and will display in automobile or consumer CD Players. ISRCs are distributed to artists and labels via usisrc.org, and each is a 12-digit number that consists of a prefix identifying the label or registrant, the year of creation/publication of the recording, and a series of numbers you chose to identify the specific track. They are usually incremental so that an original album would have an identical but incrementally increased set of codes. ISRCs represent a unique identifier for the song, and help in everything from performance royalty collection, copyright, and verifying the exact version of a recording for administration purposes or downstream releases or compilations.

Please note an obvious exception to assembly (which refers to a collection of songs) is if you are mastering a single. In this case, editing the top and tail of the file, PQ encoding, adding metadata, and QC still apply.

CD-Era Shenanigans: Hidden Tracks

In the heyday of the CD era, artists would occasionally include hidden tracks at the top of the CD (it would be un-indexed and be placed in the pause of track #1, so that you could only hear it by putting the CD in a player and pressing the rewind button). Alternately, hidden tracks at the end of a CD would simply be unlisted on the artwork packaging, but still be indexed (often after a minute, or other amount of time the CD could accommodate). Still other artists would request blank indexes at the end of CD so that the hidden track would play at a specified track index number!

Figure 8.1

Figure 8.1A standard PQ sheet that accompanies all CD Masters. Includes start times, end times, and duration of each song and pause, along with all pertinent artist, label, and release information including metadata (universal price listing code [UPC], international standard recording codes [ISRCs] and CD Text).

Conclusion

Once the individual songs for an album or collection are mastered, they are assembled into the intended sequence. Spacing or cross-fading the songs, PQ encoding (indexing), and adding metadata all occur during assembly. As Step IV of The Five Step Mastering Process, all songs in the collection should be verified to reflect the target level of the album. Assembly prepares the project for Step V—Delivery.

Exercises

  1. Assemble a three-song project using songs from different genres. Decide on a target level, then adjust the three songs so they are cohesive as a collection. Notate the adjustments made to achieve song-to-song cohesion.
  2. In the RDAW software, add metadata (PQ Data, CD Text, and ISRCs) to the project from the previous exercise.
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