A multitrack recording master tape, disk or computer files on which productions are developed (or captured, in a live session) for later mixing, is known as the multi-track master, while the tape, disk or computer files holding a mix (mono, stereo or Surround) is called a mixed master.
It is standard practice to make a copy of a master recording, known as a safety copy, in case the master is lost, damaged or stolen.
The phrase “original master recording” began in the period of acoustical audio recording – one “cuts” a recording because the sound is literally cut into the record. The resulting record was then used as the “master”, or original prototype, from which multiple identical copies could be produced.
There is only one original master recording, and that is the recording made at the time of the original recorded performance, but the term “master” is commonly used to describe almost anything used as a source.
There are several methods by which master recordings are created. The first (and oldest of those in current technological use) is “direct to tape.” This is where one (mono), two (stereo), or more microphone signals are equalized, mixed, and recorded directly to a mono or stereo (2 track) tape. This tape is the master.
The other method is called “multi-track recording” and most recently in digital terms, “session files”. By these methods, each microphone signal or line input is recorded to its own track on a multi-track recorder. At a later time, the signals that were recorded on this multi-track format will be reproduced, equalized, and mixed down to a stereo or mono tape, which is also called the master tape.
A multi-track tape may be remixed many times, in different ways, by different engineers, giving the possibility of several masters (AM radio version, mono version, LP stereo version, single version, guitarist’s personal version with lead solos emphasized, etc.). Any of these would have the designation “first generation”, but not necessarily “master”, which means there could be many alternate mixes. With multi-track recording one has the option of changing the emphasis on any given instrument, replacing it or omitting it entirely.
Ownership of the master
Song masters and album masters are considered intellectual property. As with physical property, ownership is acquired by purchasing it, creating it or inheriting it. In this sense, the intellectual property concept applies similarly in the purchase of a house, a car or any other property. The ownership to the master will however not necessarily correspond with the title to the copyright in the audio work. Thus, the sale of a master tape will in most jurisdictions not necessarily imply the transfer of copyright to the songs recorded.
Before a song or album master is released, the value of the master is determined by the cost to produce it. After release, the value of the master is determined by its potential to sell CDs. The master and all rights associated with it may be sold for several times the production cost or “recoupable cost”.
Masters with respect to independent music and major label recording contracts
In a typical independent artist/production deal, the artist will pay the studio up front to produce songs or an album of songs. In this deal, the artist, having financed the project, owns the master. If the studio, production company or record company finances the master, sometimes called a “spec” deal, then that studio or company owns the master.
Major record companies and their major indie satellite labels will not offer the artist the option to finance the production of their own master. This is because major labels have an interest in building and maintaining their catalog of albums, and as a result, will likely own the masters indefinitely.
An independent artist may also do a distribution deal where the independently produced master is temporarily licensed to a major label, and then returned to the original owner; the artist, manager, producer or investor as the case may be.
Sale of the master vs. sale of albums
A recording may generate revenue for the artist and studio/record company simultaneously, regardless of who owns the master. The revenue from CD sales is broken down to “mechanical royalties” and “artist royalties”.Sale of the master refers to a buyout of the intellectual property, usually by a major label. If an independent record becomes very popular, a label could consider buying the master. In this instance, the buyout price will usually be several times the raw cost (recoupable cost) of producing the recording. It is rare that an artist will purchase the master recording after its release. This may be possible under the terms of an independent release, but major labels do not normally sell their masters.
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