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  Separation Mastering Illustrated  

From 1957




From the late 50's, 2-track master tapes were transferred onto stereo vinyl recordings.

Studios with multi-channel consoles, machines and Digital Audio Workstations still use the 2-Track to 2-Track protocol.

Adding more technology doesn't increase the engineer's ability to perfect mixes in inaccurate control room situations.

Separation Mastering allows musical elements of a recording to be optimized separately - without compromises.

Graphic by Don Sundstrom
"The space and depth created for each song using Separations is quite a 'jaw-dropping' thing to hear."
- Scott Menefee - Copperdown - Texas
"To hear someone talk about this process is one thing, to actually hear the difference is amazing."
- Laurie Morvan, Lisa Grubbs - The Laurie Morvan Band - Blues rock recording artists
"Separations made a huge difference in our final product.  Our songs jumped up several notches before our eyes. "
- Stayce Roberts, Smalltown/Hit City Records
"We were blown away by the Separation Mastering format."
- Robert and Maria Veloso, "Midwinter Turns to Spring"

There are 2 common ways that people are making Separations:

1) Simply to mute (or disable) the tracks that you don't want in a particular Separation. For instance to make a drum Separation, simply mute all tracks but the drums! To make a vocal Separation, simply mute (or disable) all tracks but the vocals! ...and so forth. So long as your "multitrack" (Logic, Digital Perfomer, Roland, Akai, Pro Tools, etc.) is digital and your 2-track "mixdown" is digital (bounce back into the computer, digital loop-back into the computer, Masterlink, etc.) you can make Separations.
Analog machines can be used, but contact us for details.

2) Solo the instruments you want to use in a given Separation. Each time you solo a group or selected instrument, take careful notes and write down what you've soloed and what you haven't - keep track of your tracks!

Another method is to assign your tracks to stereo or mono subgroups - and send those subgroups to the stereo output (digital and analog). Here's some examples:

• All the drums and their related effects are panned and mixed in a normal stereo fashion and assigned (or sent) to a stereo subgroup. Assign this group to the stereo mix output. Individual tracks are not sent to the stereo mix - only the group output goes to the stereo buss.

• A bass subgroup including related effects is similarly sent to the stereo output.

• All guitars and/or rhythm instruments are assigned in stereo to a subgroup.

• Lead vocals w/ reverbs and effects have their own stereo group.

• Backup vocals, percussion, brass/effect and solos, etc. are assigned to a group.

See a chart of suggested Separations

Key: When you mute all your groups, there should be no sound coming out of your stereo mix. This is a good test to be sure that you have assigned every track and every related effect to a group.

IMPORTANT: Include a click or some peak sound just before the song begins. The same exact click at exactly the same volume should be heard at exactly the same time at the beginning of every recording pass. Each pass will become a separate file that we will line up sample-accurately. Everything has to play in sync. This isn't necessary if you are certain that you are starting each and every pass at EXACTLY the same time. However, the click is an excellent backup plan and we highly recommend it.

The Recording Process

• Record your stereo mix as you normally would and save it into a Separations Folder that is named specifically after each song. The corresponding file could be named something like [your song]full_mix.wav[your song]full_mix.aif (We prefer SD11 files.) You don't need to put the brackets in the actual file name. or

• Make another recording pass, but mute or disable all tracks (or groups) except the drums. Be sure there are no effects from any other tracks being heard on this group, other than drum effects. Remember to include that reference click before the song starts. Be sure that there is no reverb from that click. You've now created your drum Separation. Name the file something like [your song]drums.wav or [your song]drums.aif (SDII is preferred.)

•  Make another recording pass, but mute or disable all tracks (or groups) except the bass and it's pertinent effects. Include the reference click and you've made your bass separation file. Name the file [your song]bass.wav or [your song]bass.aif (SDII, etc.) Leave off the brackets.

•  Make another recording pass, but mute all groups except the rhythm instruments. Check the effects.... include the click. Name the file.

•  Make another pass in a similar fashion for the lead vocal group.... and so forth till you've recorded and named all the Separations.

• Each pass must start from "time zero" even if the sound on it doesn't occur till the middle of the song! Once there is no more sound on that group, you can stop recording it.

• In some cases, effects that are sent "pre-fader" will still be generating that effect, even if the faders are muted, which is why all related effect returns must be sent to the group they go with. You can also "disable" or "freeze" tracks so that no pre-fader effects bleed into the wrong separation.

• Record each pass and "Save As" 24 bit, if your system will allow - even if you were at 16 bit in the recording process. Don't ever record at 44.1 just because "it's going to end up on a 44.1 audio CD." Always record at the highest resolution possible for your needs. The files for your Separations should be stereo interleaved when possible.

• Store each pass into the Master Separations folder. Be sure to CLEARLY and systematically label or name all of the files - these are your Master Separations. It is important that you make separate folders for each song and clearly mark what song and what files are within that folder.

• Use the 3-D's.  Document, Describe and Detail. Organize your materials and files! Include a plain text or Word file in the folder with any notes you have about each song - questions you may have - any notes for the mastering engineer. The Separations eliminates the need for time consuming alternate mixes - vocal up, vocal down, etc. because your notes to the engineer can explain any options you would like explored during the mastering session.

Be sure to include the stereo mixdown in that folder! That is the critical reference that ensures that everything meets or exceeds the sound of your final mix. We will line up and A-B compare your Separations2-track stereo mix to be sure that any mastering enhancements retain the integrity of the mix - as would be the case in traditional mastering. In the analog domain we can use the Nautilus Commander which is perfect for these A-B comparisons. The A-B process is KEY in this whole process and it's part of what makes this a holistic system - not just another name for stems.

with your Tip: it's usually good to have a master fader on your DAW mixing "console" to check your levels for digital overs (clipping) but then remove the master fader when you are making your final mix and your Separations. Very helpful: DO NOT try to max out your stereo output level in order to make a "hot" mix - leave a couple dB of headroom. You can always put your finished stereo file back into a digital editor or Masterlink and bump up the level. The sound is what's important, not the final level. (In fact, hotter pre-slammed mixes can box the mastering engineer into a corner, if not done carefully.) The mastering process will achieve your volume level goals.

Important: Do not change ANY levels in those subgroups when you are making your Separations. Change nothing. Only mute (or disable) the various groups required to reveal each one being recorded separately. When we line up your Separations in our source DAW, all the levels you created will be the same in our system so long as this procedure is followed correctly. You might even wish to confirm that your files are correct ahead of time by opening up a new mix session in your DAW system, loading in your Separation files, and listen to be sure you've recorded everything correctly.

If you're using a common SEND going to your outboard effects, that shouldn't affect Separatins. You simply keep the returns going into the mix each time. The send level should keep the same amount of effect whether you're mixing certain tracks to stereo separately or together. If you want to test Separations, simply make a set and recombine them in your DAW along with your stereo mix. If you mute your stereo mix and listen to the separations, you should be able to SOLO the stereo mix (all settings at -0- and hear a comparison between the two formats on your own system. That way you can check to see if all effects elements are coming out the same in both formats

Client Question) Is it any more costly to do Separation Mastering with vocals split into lead vox & backup vox?

This is an area to be careful with for sure. The more Separations, the more possibilities for changes - which can be really good if you're into it!  It can add cost, but generally not significantly. For instance if we need to de-ess both the lead vocal and backup Separations, it takes only a small amount of time, like a minute or two, to de-ess each Separation. But if there are noises in the tracks or widely varying levels, then each track would require time to make the individual corrections. Reblending lead and backup vocals takes only the amount of time required to meet your goals. Always approach your mix so that you like what you're hearing - our refinements should be "icing on the cake" - not the whole bakery! As with traditional mastering we can't predict what will happen until we're actually working on your project.

NOTE: Somehow, one of our clients accidentally turned off the vocal automation when he made his Separations. The client was unable to do a remix, so we had to "ride" the vocals in mastering. The result was really excellent and well worth it - but it would have saved time had he checked his Separations to be sure everything was done correctly!

Q) Should I avoid tweaking the .WAV files prior to sending them to you (i.e. removing DC offset, audio errors, etc.) -- I'm assuming the less I touch the better.

Actually the happier you are with your tracks/Separations the better - within the context of your mixdown goals. So if there's audio errors, like tics or clipping (or vocal tuning), we'd rather have you take care of that. We take care of any sonic issues arising from DC offset.

Solutions from Separations -- Concerns from Pro's

"I have notices that some stuff coming in now from home studios, where everything has been mixed in a DAW, has a different kind of 'not very well done' feel compared to what I used to get 20 years ago from analogue tape, and in some ways it's harder to deal with."  -Andy Jackson, recording engineer for David Gilmour, mastering engineer

Separation Mastering is the perfect solution for dealing with recordings that need extra TLC.  One of the comments we get from engineers (after coming in for a Separation Mastering session) is that they re-think how they will mix in the future.  Knowing the power and flexibility of Separations, they don't have to work as hard or obssess over countless details in order to achieve the sound they're looking for. 

Once you understand how Separation Mastering works, you can relax!  You can really do less, not obsess and just make an excellent mix - allowing the extra touch of mastering to take the sound to the next level.  When you take home the mastered CDR, you're really hearing the final result and you can make changes based on your exact wishes for your product.

"[Sophisticated mixing plug-ins] will help you avoid embarrassing (and expensive) encounters with your mastering facility."  -Chris Gill - Future Music Magazine

Solutions from Separations -- An Important TIP about Wave POLARITY!

No one should ever have an "embarrassing" encounter with a mastering facility.  Why would you ever be embarrassed?  Because the mastering engineer believes your mixdown can't cut the mustard in today's competitive music market?  Because that mastering engineer might send you home to do a remix before he or she can accomplish your goals for you? 

No one should be embarrased when Separation Mastering is used, because the flexibility and non-destructive recallability and control of the sound is unparallelled.  Yes in some cases, we have encountered cases where the client went back to recut some tracks, simply because after hearing their project clearly and disctinctly, it was obvious that some errors needed repair.  But the ability to make corrective adjustments to a mix means you will have a more potent, professional blend of your tracks when keen listening skills guide the crafting of your sound. 

When you attend your Separation Mastering session, you will have a completed project and a greater understanding of what makes a great mix happen.  These situations are not embarrassing, they are helpful, given the professsional goals of our clients.  Separation Mastering can be eye-opening and positive, particularly when no one in the mastering studio makes you wrong for having done (what you thought was) your best. 

"We have discovered a world of options in our mastering sessions!  No longer are you tied down!  Separation is truly an essnetial aspect for digital recording.  No teniamos idea de lo que se trataba.  Nuestra experiencia es que te abre atados a la masterisacion tradicional.  La Separacion es un aspecto indispensable para la industria de la grabacion."  -Medina, LA, California

John Vestman & Don Sundstom's Article - EQ Magazine John Vestman & Don Sundstrom interviewed in Mastering Music at Home

John Vestman wishes to extend a special Thank You to Don Sundstrom for his time, devotion and contributions to Separation Mastering. Don is featured in EQ Magazine and in Mitch Gallagher's book, "Mastering Music at Home."

Back to
Mastering with Separations

More details on how to record Separations

See a chart of suggested Separation Layouts
    John Vestman, Don in the mastering room
John Vestman and Don Sundstrom colaborated
on defining Separation Mastering.  Check
more of Don's articles on the History of Separations
and career consultation.