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Until 1948, there was no distinction between different types of audio engineers, since everything was recorded directly onto 10-inch vinyl records that played at 78 RPM. In 1948, however, the age of the mastering engineer began when Ampex introduced its first commercial Magnetic Tape Recorder. With most recording now using magnetic tape, a transfer had to be made to a vinyl master for delivery to the pressing plant to make records. Hence the first incarnation of the mastering engineer was born, although he was called a transfer engineer at the time.
There was a high degree of difficulty in this transfer process, because the level applied to the master vinyl lacquer when cutting the grooves was so crucial. Too low a level, and you get a noisy disc, hit it too hard, and you destroy the disc and maybe the expensive cutting stylus of the lathe too. In 1955, Ampex released SELECTIVE SYNCHRONOUS RECORDING or SEL-SYNC, which now gave the multi-track recorder the ability to overdub and changed the recording industry forever. At this point, there became a real distinction between the recording and mastering engineer, since the jobs now differed so greatly.
1n 1957, the stereo vinyl record became commercially available and really pushed the industry to what many say was the best sounding audio ever. Mastering engineers were now known as cutters found ways to make the disc louder, and as a result less noisy by applying equalization and compression. Producers and artists began to take notice that certain records would actually sound louder on the radio, and if it played louder, then the listeners usually thought it sounded better, and maybe the disc sold better as a result. Hence, a new breed of mastering engineer was born.
This one with some creative control and ability to influence the final sound of a record, rather than just being a transfer jock from medium to medium. An interesting distinction between American and British mastering engineers developed, though. In the US, mastering was and still it considered the final step in the creation of an album, while in the UK they look at it as the first step in manufacturing. As a result, American mastering engineers tend to have much more creative leeway and what they are allowed to do to the audio than British engineers.
With the introduction of the CD in 1982, the cutting engineer was now finally known as a mastering engineer was forced into the digital age using a modified video tape recorder called the Sony 1630 to deliver a digital CD master to the replicator, but still utilizing many of the analog tools from the vinyl past from EQ and compression. The 1989 introduction of the Sonic Solutions Digital Audio Workstation with pre-mastering software provided a CD master instead of a bulky 1630.
Now mastering began to evolve into the digital state as we know it today. In the first half of 1995, MP3s began to spread on the Internet and their small file size set about revolution in the music industry that continues to this day. This meant that the mastering engineer had to become well versed in how to get the most from this format, something that took many mastering engineers years to get the hang of. In 1999 5.1 surround sound and high-resolution audio took the mastering engineer into a new uncharted but highly creative territory. And by 2002 most all mastering engineers were well acquainted with the computer, since virtually every single project was edited and manipulated in a digital audio workstation.
Today's mastering engineer doesn't practice the black art of disc cutting much, but he is no less the wizard, as he continues to shape and mold a project like never before.
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