Post Production Mastering Tips

The last step in commercial music production is mastering. Typically this involves making a recording sound as good as it possibly can through the application of equalization and multiband compression. In the case of LPs and CDs (remember those?), this also includes setting up the flow from one tune to the next and balancing out levels so the entire product has a consistent sound. Video post has a similar phase, which has historically been in the hands of the finishing or online editor.

That sounds so sweet

The most direct comparison between the last video finishing steps and commercial music mastering is how filters are applied in order to properly compress the audio track and to bring video levels within legal broadcast specs. When I edit projects in Apple Final Cut Pro 7 and do my own mixes, I frequently use Soundtrack Pro as the place to polish the audio. My STP mixing strategy employs tracks that route into one or more subgroup buses and then a master output bus. Four to eight tracks of content in FCP might become twenty tracks in STP. Voice-over, sync-sound, SFX and music elements get spread over more tracks and routed to appropriate subgroups. These subgroups then flow into the master bus. This gives me the flexibility to apply specific filters to a track and have fine control over the audio.

I’ll usually apply a compressor across the master bus to tame any peaks and beef up the mix. My settings involve a low compression ratio and a hard limit at -10dB. The objective is to keep the mix levels reasonable so as to preserve dynamic range. I don’t want to slam the meters and drive the signal hard into compression. Even when I do the complete mix in Final Cut, I will still use Soundtrack Pro simply to compress the composite mix, because I prefer its filters. When you set the reference tone to -20dB, then these levels will match the nominal levels for most digital VTRs. If you are laying off to an analog format, such as Betacam-SP, set your reference tone to -12dB and match the input on the deck to 0VU.

Getting ready for broadcast

The video equivalent is the broadcast safe limiting filter. Most NLEs have one, including Avid Media Composer and both old and new versions of Final Cut. This should normally be the last filter in the chain of effects. It’s often best to apply it to a self-contained file in FCP 7, a higher track in Media Composer or a compound clip in FCP X. Broadcast specs will vary with the network or station receiving your files or tapes, so check first. It’s worth noting that many popular effects, like glow dissolves, violate these parameters. You want the maximum luminance levels (white peaks) to be limited to 100 IRE and chrominance to not exceed 110, 115 or 120, depending on the specs of the broadcaster to whom you are delivering. In short, the chroma should stay within the outer ring of a vectorscope. I usually turn off any RGB limiting to avoid artifacts.

It’s often a good idea to reduce the overall video levels by about five percent prior to the application of a broadcast safe filter, simply so you don’t clip too harshly. That’s the same principle as I’ve applied to the audio mix. For example, I will often first apply a color correction filter to slightly lower the luminance level and reduce chroma. In addition, I’ll frequently use a desaturate highlights or lows filter. As you raise midrange or highlight levels and crush shadows during color correction, the chroma is also driven higher and/or lower accordingly. Red, blues and yellows are most susceptible, so it’s a good idea to tone down chroma saturation above 90 IRE and below 20 IRE. Most of these filters let you feather the transition range and the percentage of desaturation, so play with the settings to get the most subtle result. This keeps the overall image vibrant, but still legal.

Let me interject at this point that what you pay for when using a music mastering specialist are the “ears” (and brain) of the engineer and their premium monitoring environment. This should be equally true of a video finishing environment. Without proper audio and video monitoring, it’s impossible to tell whether the adjustments being made are correct. Accurate speakers, calibrated broadcast video monitors and video scopes are essential tools. Having said that though, software scopes and modern computer displays aren’t completely inaccurate. For example, the software scopes in FCP X and Apple’s ColorSync technology are quite good. Tools like Blackmagic Design Ultrascope, HP Dreamcolor or Apple Cinema Displays do provide accurate monitoring in lower-cost situations. I’ve compared the FCP X Viewer on an iMac to the output displayed on a broadcast monitor fed by an AJA IoXT. I find that both match surprisingly well. Ultimately it gets down to trusting an editor who knows how to get the best out of any given system.

Navigating the formats

Editors work in a multi-standard world. I frequently cut HD spots that run as downconverted SD content for broadcast, as well as at a higher HD resolution for the internet. The best production and post “lingua franca” format today is 1080p/23.976. This format fits a sweet spot for the internet, Blu-ray, DVD and modern LCD and plasma displays. It’s also readily available in just about every camera at any price range. Even if your product is only intended to be displayed as standard definition today, it’s a good idea to future-proof it by working in HD.

If you shoot, edit and master at 1080p/23.976, then you can easily convert to NTSC, 720p/59.94 or 1080i/29.97 for broadcast. The last step for many of my projects is to create deliverables from my master file. Usually this involves creating three separate broadcast files in SD and two HD formats using either ProRes or uncompressed codecs. I will also generate an internet version (without bars, tone, countdown or slate) that’s a high-quality H.264 file in the 720p/23.976 format. Either .mov or .mp4 is fine.

Adobe After Effects is my tool of choice for these broadcast conversions, because it does high-quality scaling and adds proper cadences. I follow these steps.

A) Export a self-contained 1080p/23.976 ProResHQ file from FCP 7 or X.

B) Place that into a 720×486, 29.97fps After Effects D1 composition and scale the source clip to size. Generally this will be letterboxed inside of the 4×3 frame.

C) Render an uncompressed QuickTime file, which is lower-field ordered with added 2:3 pulldown.

D) Re-import that into FCP 7 or X using a matching sequence setting, add the mixed track and format it with bars, tone, countdown and slate.

E) Export a final self-contained broadcast master file.

F) Repeat the process for each additional broadcast format.

Getting back there

Archiving is “The $64,000 Question” for today’s digital media shops. File-based mastering and archiving introduces dilemmas that didn’t exist with videotape. I recommend always exporting a final mixed master file along with a split-track, textless submaster. QuickTime files support multi-channel audio configurations, so building such a file with separate stereo stems for dialogue, sound effects and music is very easy in just about any NLE. Self-contained QuickTime movies with discrete audio channels can be exported from both FCP 7 and FCP X (using Roles).

Even if your NLE can’t export multi-channel master files, export the individual submixed elements as .wav or .aif audio files for future use. In addition to the audio track configuration, remove any titles and logos. By having these two files (master and submaster), it’s very simple to make most of the future revisions you might encounter without ever having to restore the original editorial project. Naturally, one question is which codec to use for access in the future. The preferred codec families these days are Avid DNxHD, Apple ProRes, uncompressed, OP1a MXF (XDCAM) or IMX. FCP editors will tend towards ProRes and Avid editors towards DNxHD, but uncompressed is very viable with the low cost of storage. For feature films, another option to consider would be image sequences, like a string of uncompressed TIFF or DPX files.

Whichever format you standardize on, make multiple copies. LTO data tape is considered the best storage medium, but for small files, like edited TV commercial masters, DVD-ROM, Blu-ray and XDCAM media are likely the most robust. This is especially true in the case of water damage.

The typical strategy for most small users who don’t want to invest in LTO drives is a three-pronged solution.

A) Store all camera footage, elements and masters on a RAID array for near-term editing access.

B) Back-up the same items onto at least two copies of raw SATA or SSD hard drives for longer storage.

C) Burn DVD-ROM or BD-ROM copies of edited master files, submasters, project files and elements (music, VO, graphics, etc.).

A properly polished production with audio and video levels that conform to standards is an essential aspect of delivering a professional product. Developing effective mastering and archiving procedures will protect the investment your clients have made in a production. Even better, a reliable archive routine will bring you repeat business, because it’s easy to return to the project in the future.

Originally written for DV magazine/Creative Planet/NewBay Media, LLC

©2012 Oliver Peters