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Mastering the Music Domain

Mixes on a computer are preprogrammed ahead of time. All of the fader moves that used to be done in real time as the mastering tape was rolling are programmed in ahead of time. The result, ideally, is a perfect mix.

But there’s less room for error. Analog distortion can be warm, wonderful stuff. But digital distortion is harsh and nasty.

At the end, all of this work pays off, when ideally, the completed track belays its homebrewed Army of Davids origins. But for me at least, getting there was a fairly steep learning curve.

And these days, DAWs can be doing double, maybe even triple-duty -- I use mine to record song demos, to produce podcasts, and to edit the audio on video productions. And I’ve used Ozone at various times on each of these efforts over the years. (Including using it to master PJM’s Sirus-XM radio show that ran from 2007 through 2010.) And while this is primarily a review of Ozone, it’s worth mentioning that iZotope’s RX product is an excellent stand-alone program for cleaning hiss, clicks and other background funk from individual tracks for podcasts and music production -- and does an excellent job removing hum from phone calls and instrument tracks. I’ve been using it on almost telephone interview I’ve produced since 2007.

Learning the Basics

While there are numerous books on the subject (I’d recommend Mastering Audio by Bob Katz), an excellent  manual on the mastering process is available for free as a PDF file at the iZotope Website.

It’s designed to be readable to even those who don’t choose to purchase Ozone. It may be the most readable manual to accompany music software that I’ve ever seen. If you’re a computer tech writer or software developer reading this post, you could do far worse than to copy the style of the Ozone manual for your product -- it’s that good.

And the software itself isn’t too shabby, either.

You could easily spend hours tweaking the patches and presets in Ozone, and its unique interface. But some of those presets sound excellent stock. I found myself using the stock “CD Mastering with Exciter and Widener” preset frequently but dialing back some of its exciter plug-in, as its stock preset seemed to make the high end sound of my mixes a bit harsh.

Todd says, “In the guide are a few references to some genres and presets to use as a starting point. We found that most of the newer users, maybe for the first couple of mixes, will stick with a preset and maybe tweak it just a little bit. But after a while, everybody tends to tune their ear to what they’re looking for. And eventually many users make their own presets, for their own styles of music.”

Is it a perfect applet? Well, as I said, some of the presets can be a bit harsh sounding without any tweaking. And make sure you have plenty of RAM in your computer if you’d like to use it as a plug-in on a single instrument or track. (Recently, iZotope has released a plug-in called Alloy, which is designed to be a more processor-friendly compliment to Ozone, adding additional sheen to individual tracks in a mix during the recording and mixing process.)

And early on, I noticed that because of the intensity of the compression and loudness maximizer and other effects, fadeouts that I’ve programmed on a track before running it through Ozone often need to be adjusted. Ozone hears the volume going down, and its first thought is “push it back up!” Which you may need to compensate for when mixing.

But those are pretty minor faults, all things considered. Anybody who wants to take his or her songs’ mixes to the next level could do far worse than checking out the free demo version of Ozone.

(An earlier version of this article appeared at Blogcritics.org.)