We humbly submit to you…
We humbly submit to you…
What does your music “say”?
I find it interesting to allow the music to tell me what it needs. Here are a couple ways that I do that.
I let the producer or artist describe their thoughts about their record to me. Who was it written for? How was it recorded? What are the ideals, goals and purpose in producing this music? I find that not everyone has thought this stuff through. Sometimes the purpose of making the record IS the making of the record. How the producer describes their goals will give me a lot of foundation to base my decisions on. This is really the art of the craft of mastering. Listening with an imagination. Not as often about achieving specific ideals of loud or bright, but finding out what can and should be done to help the music communicate those goals.
Instead of asking “who do you want your music to sound like,” ask “Who is your music composed for?” And “how would you like them to react to it?”
Initially, everyone wants their music to be everything, for everyone. But if the artist is experienced they can tell you why they made the music, where the emotional references come from and how the listener should relate to these emotions. Deep stuff right? But the answers to these questions lead you to a starting point that preserves the musicality of the record, and makes it stronger emotionally and justifies all of the hard work getting the recordings to this point.
There really is no shortcut for experience, but if you ask good questions you can hope to get good answers. I find that these answers put me in a state of mind — ready to listen. Turning the knobs is the easy part. Determining where to aim, where the “target” is takes a lot of thought, an open mind and careful listening. It is very easy to substitute my goals for the goals of the music. Listening carefully and asking the right questions is step one.
If you haven’t thought much about what your music is saying, try to answer these simple questions. I bet it will help you make decisions along the path of making your music.
And on the technical side:
If your project needs to be loud and “shout” then you really must address that issue in the composition, and in the recording and mixing stages. Mastering alone can not achieve all of that despite what the ads and equipment designers claim. Any project that was recorded with the goals clearly in mind, will almost master itself and have a much improved chance at success in the long run.
Listen to what your music is trying to “say.”
Percussionist, drummer and composer Daniel Freedman’s latest album, Bamako by Bus, on Anzik Records, was recently mastered at Masterdisk. I wanted to find out Daniel’s tricks of the trade, but it turns out there are no tricks. Hard work plus talent got him where he is today. We chatted on the phone the other day, here’s what he had to say about making music, New York, and travel.
Q:What’s it like to be a working musician?
A:It’s a challenge of course! I have always done a variety of things to get by, but as long as I am doing music…. I used to play for afro cuban dance classes, modern dance sometimes Alvin Ailey or Martha Graham as well as playing a lot of gigs. At the time I wanted to learn more percussion, so dance classes were perfect. Things come organically… in 2000 I got in to the home studio thing and I started recording more and more things, and some people asked me to write for picture and produce tracks for them. The past several years I’ve been on the road a lot and I try to balance playing and producing. My advice is to stay open, because you may have to do many different things. Very few musicians only play the music that they want to play in order to make a living. That said, I still try to put my head in the sand and do music that I want to do.
Q:Easier said than done.
A:Setting up the environment so that you can stick your head in the sand and work is so helpful. Same goes for practicing. Time is so limited I have to get right to it. Also I guess I rely less and less on inspiration these days and just get to work until something sticks.
Q:How did Bamako by Bus evolve as a project?
A:The song “Darfur” was created years before and then we finished it live. I thought about which musicians I really loved and I wrote with their voices in mind. It’s different from other records I have done, it started off as a project with Avishai Cohen: I would create bass lines and grooves and then he would improvise over them and we would edit the pieces into songs. I could never seem to finish, and I asked Meshell Ndegeocello if she would be into playing on some of our sketches and she was enthusiastic about it. So two tracks were done at my house, and then we finished the rest in the studio. Jason Lindner helped a great deal, he’s a master of harmony and form, but everyone was really helpful. There was direction, but with that level of musicians it’s great to leave things open.
Q:And production-wise, how did that go?
A:Jean-Luc Sinclair mixed the record at my house. We then took it to Michael Perez Cisneros‘ studio and he helped give it a more analogue feeling. Matt Agoglia mastered it and is a real pro; he had a musical quality to his approach and was generous with his time.
Q:Do you think growing up in NYC gave you good opportunities as a musician?
A:Growing up in New York seems to have chosen my musical direction for me in a way. My father Joel played on a bunch of free jazz records in the ’60s and my uncle Alan is a great guitar player. He’s on a ton of records. My uncle is the rocker so he got me Marley and Prince records. Also hiphop and breakdancing was such a huge thing in New York and I was into that. I discovered my father’s record collection when I was about 12 and fell in love with Art Blakey and Coltrane records. Going to Laguardia High School was a really pivotal time for me. Many of the students there were already working musicians around town and I knew that’s what I wanted to do as well.
Q:How do you like writing music for pictures?
A:Its almost always fun for me and certainly takes a different sensibility. My mother is a painter and my grandparents were as well. I wanted to be a painter myself before I found the drums. Writing for pictures requires that the music serve the picture first of all; that brings the emotion of what you’re viewing to life. But you’re limited, especially with commercial work, you have a very short turn around time and it has to sound great right away.
Q:Listening to this album it’s clear you’ve done some traveling; where have you been so far?
A:I always felt a connection to all different music from around the world, and New York is such a great place to be if you are into hearing and experiencing so many different cultures. I also felt that hearing/experiencing music at its source would be incredibly helpful. I had maybe a dozen “study” trips: Mali, Egypt, Cuba, Brazil, Morocco, and Senegal come to mind. Jazz of course lends itself to using almost anything that you can find and with groups like Third World Love, we have been doing this for a while, bringing these influences into jazz or whatever you want to call it. This isn’t new. Duke Ellington was doing that kind of thing way before I was born! But all those sounds and experiences influence my writing and playing. I try not to make it too deliberate but have it inform my general language and vocabulary.
Q:Did you pick up any traditional forms in your travels?
A:There are so many sounds that I heard around the world and loved. Sabar is one, senegalese percussion…mostly really fierce stick and hand. Jeff Ballard showed me some of that way back. Recently, I’ve been playing with Angelique Kidjio’s band and the percussionist is Senegalese, so it’s been great to hear that sound consistently on the road and learn more about it. I always was moved by music when it was in front of me and loud! And I always wanted to experience music by being next to it and feeling it. You know, to play jazz you eventually have to come to New York, so I felt that it would help me in a similar way to go to Africa, Cuba etc…To sit next to the real thing and hear how loud and powerful it really is. In New York I used to hear Elvin Jones, Art Taylor and Billy Higgins all the time and there is nothing that can replace sitting next to the person making the music and soaking it in. Those trips charge my battery and I need to recharge every so often. I’m looking forward to going to West Africa again this winter.
Tip #3: The best idea is going to come from a 15-year old.
Toy Hernandez, producer for the latest hit machine out of Monterrey, Mexico 3BallMTY (Tribal Monterrey), and Sebastian Krys, producer for La Santa Cecilia, Kinky, Shakira and various other Grammy winning artists, talked about being a producer of a certain age and experience at LAMC in NYC in July.
Krys said, as a producer, “you have to stay on top of the game, and the way that you do that is by accepting that the best idea is going to come from a 15-year old, it’s not going to come from you and your experience.”
This may be hard to accept, but it’s true. You should recognize that new ideas drive the industry and that your contribution is to refine them and get the most out of them. “Those days are gone, my friend,” he said, and then roused the audience by calling for artists to make up their own formats, song lengths and album lengths, which earned him a few minutes of applause and approving heckles. If you are moved to create something, he urged, don’t let the form hem you in.
Tip #2: Exposure is the name of the game.
The conversation at LAMC panels moved into licensing. If you are interested in licensing your music, it will help to have a more complete picture about how that world works. Getting your music into the hands of licensing companies such as DMX or Lovecat Music is only one part of the puzzle. You may also have to make changes to your music to fit into a scene or rerecord a song on spec, without guaranteed pay.
Mary Nuñez of Sony Latin urged artists to always prepare instrumental tracks for use (read: master your instrumentals along with your main mixes), and keep your stems ready to hand over to the licensing companies as well. You never know what element in your song matches a scene in a commercial or film and what will need to be pushed or downplayed in the mix.
Nic Harcourt of KCRW agreed: “younger artists who are growing up in a different world from legacy artists, are a lot more hungry and realize that getting their music placed in TV commercials, movies, games, whatever, is probably the only way they’re going to make a living doing music right now.”
Randy Frisch at Lovecat Music and Anita Benner at DMX were particularly encouraging of artists submitting their CDs; they’re always looking for ways to bring new artists into the fold.
Regarding getting picked up as an independent Latin artist, Anita Benner said that with the growth of the Hispanic market in the U.S., clients are starting to appropriate more and more Latin music. “So, anywhere from a jewelry store that targets girls, to hallmark stores in middle America, Champs, every major fashion brand that you can think of, Victoria Secret, Best Buy, they’re all starting to incorporate Latin music in their programming. It’s really a tremendous platform,” she said, “simply walking down the street, you can’t escape us.”
DMX reaches almost 200 million people a day through various marketing venues, and as an artist, it can be a real boost to have such exposure, especially since radio play for independent artists is practically impossible.
Nic Harcourt hit the nail on the head when he said: “whether it’s placement in a commercial, or a major band that get’s their music in a TV show, or in VH1, exposure is the name of the game. It’s really frightening that the outlets and TV commercials still are a way, in some cases for breaking a band.”
The process at DMX is fairly simple: you fill out the contract in ten minutes, send in a CD and it takes up to two weeks to get into the system and then 30 days before you’re in rotation. “It’s a novelty,” says Benner, “to be able to walk into Nike or Puma or West Elm and hear your song playing.” And apparently it goes further than that. Some shoppers have turned into music bloggers who, through guesswork, post unofficial playlists for stores like Abercombie & Fitch. Within the microcosm of the shopper’s world is a growing online music community, another potential audience pool.
Josh Norek of Nacional Records recounted his surprise at placing Nortec Collective (pictured above) on a 30 second spot in a scene where Anthony Bourdain is eating tacos in Tijuana. The day after the show aired, all four of their albums were on the iTunes Latino Top 20. “And that surprised me,” said Norek, “because its a foodie show. I’ve had examples with shows like Breaking Bad, where we had a really good sales bump, but I wasn’t expecting a food show where it was just brief use. So I felt a little less bitter about the small licensing fee, because we saw a reaction where people liked the song and went on iTunes to find it.”
As an independent artist, try every route to get your music heard, because you never know what the outcome might be.
The Latin Alternative Music Conference hosted five panels last week to inform and inspire visiting and local attendees alike. I donned my artist hat, took the wheel and sat down for a spin.The room was full of working artists and producers from Mexico to Argentina, and from Puerto Rico to Chile asking questions, and seeking a more complete picture of their industry.
Tip #1: Story Is Everything!
Licensing your music can be a good source of income for artists. Carmelo Rodriguez from Vidal Partnership, an advertising agency, said that when he is searching for artists to license for commercial purposes, unknown artists are actually in the best position since larger artists tend to “eat” the commercial their music accompanies. Most important is your skill at storytelling within the music. Besides the lyrics, does the music tell a story?
Also, can you tell your own personal story and does it translate to your audience and to corporations interested in using your music? The way you talk about your journey is important. Roberto Isaac from mun2 seconded the idea of story being vital to an audience “getting” the musician. He said that people fall in love with an artist’s story and then they find the artist’s songs.
So, go crazy, tell people where you were born, where you grew up, what first inspired you to play and write music, who are your mentors and idols and what makes you tick. Be generous with your life details and people will be generous right back. Check out the Wikipedia, Last FM, and Myspace pages of your favorite artists to see how they did it. Bands with good “stories” include Calle 13, Carla Morrison, 3BallMTY, Ximena Sariñana, and the list goes on. Make it easy for people to learn about who you are. The clearer your story, the easier it will be to promote and license your music.
Tip #2 will be about licensing your music.
La Plebe is one of the pillars of the bilingual community in the Bay Area. Their most recent album, “Brazo en Brazo” (“Arm in Arm”) was released on Koolarrow Records in 2010 on CD and vinyl, and mastered by Matt Agoglia.
The interesting thing for me is the music, the angst-y-ness of it, the horn-driven lines, and it’s easy to imagine a mosh-pit with this music; Mick Jones of The Clash even appeared on stage at a concert in London in 2008 to sing “Guns of Brixton.” What could be better?
Their songs also have a social awareness aspect with titles like “Siempre Unidos,” (Always Together) “Guerra Sucia” (Dirty War) and “Venas Abiertas” (Open Veins). And then there’s the song “Been Drinkin'” which speaks for itself. Because these guys have experienced discrimination in their lives, they champion the cause of La Raza against ICE raids in the Bay Area and around the country, and they also have something to say about border politics around the world. With the influence of their producer Billy Gould, a lasting member of Faith No More, who has traveled extensively in the Balkans, the union of musical influences is actually electrifying (no pun intended).
Cuellar says that “the fact that we have the ability to express ourselves in two languages… has definitely allowed us to reach a wider audience. However, I will also say that we have often played in places where the spoken language was neither Spanish nor English and still received a gracious response from the locals at the show. So hopefully, it is the international language of music, along with our deep love and appreciation for what it means to be part of a group, that makes us stand out.”
La Plebe seem to really enjoy what they do, and this is a good parameter for success in my book. Cuellar says he especially enjoys playing in small towns in California, such as Chico, Oxnard, Watsonville and Salinas, and some of his favorite cities around the world include Mexico City, Belgrade, Berlin, Skopje (Macedonia), Pozega (Croatia), Bucharest (Romania) Sofia (Bulgaria) and the area of Brittany in France.
The band’s writing process is an exchange of melodies, riffs, rhythms and lyrics thrown around between members.They never know if the song will be in English or Spanish until they write the lyrics; and they’ve even attempted to write lyrics in Italian.
Tips for other bands now trying to survive and thrive? Cuellar says “work hard and try your best to be earnest in what you do. Don’t take gestures of kindness for granted and don’t encourage any feelings of entitlement. Mix all that with a few parts vodka and make sure that you all stay alive on tour. That should be a good start, or continuation, for any functioning band.”
Click here to view the Spanish version.
I talked to audio engineer and preservation specialist Marcos Sueiro Bal the other day, and he mentioned that he recently completed a translation of the “bible for the preservation of audio.” It’s called TC-04 or the Guidelines on the Production and Preservation of Digital Audio, and is published by IASA (The International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives) and the Technical Committee AEDOM (the Spanish Association of Musical Documentation).
IASA has been in existence since 1969, and the website has a ton of useful information, from lists of conferences and events related to music and preservation, to grants and publications. The conference in October will be held in New Delhi, India.
MW: Was it difficult to translate?
MSB: It took more than a year to complete, technical terms are difficult to translate, especially from English to Spanish, because I learned all my technical language here in the United States, and most people actually also use the terms in English.
MW: Like what?
MSB: The word “rewind” was difficult. I didn’t know whether we should use “rewind” or the right word in Spanish “rebobinar.” Another word that was difficult to translate was the word for “78,” which in English is called “shellac,” but in Spanish they are commonly called “slate discs” or “discos de pizarra.” The problem is that they aren’t made of slate, but the term is widely used. The technical term is “goma laca,” and so finally we had to stick to the correct word in Spanish.
MW: What was the most impressive thing about working on this translation?
MSB: This is actually a well written book, and also well thought out. Its not the kind of casual conversation that one has at the water cooler.
In addition, we are moving from things such as tape or disk that you can leave on a shelf and forget about, into the digital world, where everything changes so fast. I’m seeing massive failures in CDR, for example, an indication that the digital world is more ephemeral. So how do we document things?
With photos, for example, we used to have 24 photos developed on a roll, and then we would put those into an album. But now the photos are in .jpg format with 6 or 7 digit codes attached, and because the CDR may fail to access them or the technology may change, the photos may be lost to the next generation.
MW: What do the authors say about the changes in technology?
MSB: Well, they say that despite the improvement of technological development, digital experts recognize that no carrier is permanent.
MW: Wow! I guess this means that nothing is safe and we must ensure the backups of our backups.
MSB: The book assumes that change will occur. It’s difficult, but we live in a world where the latest and greatest is always praised. The same applies to physical formats.
MW: “Guidelines” is the kind of book that engineers should not live without?
MSB: The book is essential, in my opinion, to any person engaging in reproduction, conservation or management of historical collections of audio formats.
Marcos will present at the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC)’s 46th annual conference in Rochester, NY, May 16-19 on the topic of “degradation.”
email Molly at email@example.com
It’s week three of Scott’s guest blog series at The Vinyl District, and it’s a good one! This week Scott starts getting into the geometry of the record groove, aided by some photos from the new camera we have installed on our lathe’s scope. Hope you enjoy it!
Modern Mastering Miracles
In my song called “You’re Not Mine”, I was the “engineer” (with my Mbox, laptop, and hard drive) for the electric guitar session (at my guitar player’s house). We got a great performance and it sounded clean at the time, but with the dump trucks and other outside noise coming in the window of the “monitoring room” (a.k.a. the living room), I had recorded a couple of short, but detectable, channel overloads that I never heard until we got to the mixing studio. At the mixing stage, we tried and tried to fix the distortions with Pro-Tools but just could not do it. Re-recording was not an option for us from a time/budget standpoint, so I had to live with it. When mastering time came, I wanted to make sure, at the very least, that Scott had heard the crackles so he could make sure that his mastering didn’t do anything to accentuate them. Of course I also asked, “is there anything you can do to make them less noticeable, or even disappear?” Scott zoned in to the track for about ten minutes to see if he could mitigate the problem. I stayed quiet as he worked in this weird “hi-frequency-only” mode that literally made me feel dizzy. He went to headphones and I was out of the loop, until he switched the mix back on and played me the two “crackle segments”. I was speechless. The crackles were simply gone! It was a miracle. Now that I know this little trick existed, my mind raced to all my annoying mouth pops, and a drum-punch clip that we could never fix, and I knew I had a few items to attack using this little trick later!
Even though I was thrilled to have my channel overloads and a few other similar annoyances fixed, that type of surgery can be time consuming. Ten minutes here and there add up, so the best thing is to come in with the cleanest mix you can. However, when you’re mixing and your mixing platform and engineer can’t seem to fix some pop, click or momentary distortion, consider trying to handle it in mastering. Be wary of trying fixes if heavy reverb, delay or other effects are applied around the problem. That will make the fix more difficult, time-consuming and possibly not even feasible.
Song Order, Gaps in Between and We’re Done!
The last thing we did was clean up the beginnings and endings of every song. We set the final order and began working on the appropriate time delay between each song. At this point Scott had a suggestion about switching the order of songs two and three, putting the slower “You’ve Got Me” third, and the more up-tempo “Thank You for Saying Goodbye” second. Having already decided, then re-decided my song order about seven times before walking in the door with my drive, I already knew that in the pre-mastering environment, putting “You’ve Got Me” after “Thank You” just wasn’t working. For some reason, one of my strongest tracks, “You’ve Got Me”, just sounded momentarily disappointing coming after “Thank You”. I thought it was the tempo, or going from one key to the other that was creating this little let down. But when we tried the order post-mastering, it was incredible to see that problem disappear and the song really represent well in that very same order I had rejected at home! I can’t put my finger on exactly what made it work, but something we did in mastering made those two songs work in that particular order.
We were done! We stayed pretty much on schedule after subtracting lunchtime and some extra chatting here and there. Scott explained that he would keep the “real-time master”, which is the best copy that can be made from the computer. His assistant would create four reference copies for me to pick up in a couple hours or the next day. I could then listen and “live with the master” for a few days or as long as I needed to decide if we wanted any touchups or to change a song order. When I was ready to pull the trigger, Scott and his crew would handle sending the best copy to the manufacturer. (And of course I asked him if there were any particular manufacturers he liked.)
I asked Scott a few questions I had been mulling over during the session. I wanted to know how much time he spent on a big-budget album compared to an indie project. His answer surprised me: unless there are major problems with a mix, he usually finishes any LP master in about the same time frame — a one-day/8-hour session. It’s the revisions and multiple mastering sessions that drive the prices up. At its most extreme, Scott divulged an experience he had with an unnamed Grammy-winning artist he worked with years prior. Having already re-mixed several times and re-mastered over the course of two weeks, the album was finally sent off to manufacturing. A few days later, during a mastering session to prepare singles, the artist turned to his producer and said “Why didn’t we put background vocals on this song?” He began singing a harmony part and it was clear that it was important enough to act on. Calls were made over the next few hours, and within days, the presses were stopped on the CDs at manufacturing; background vocalists, producers and engineers flown in and out of town quickly; and the background vocal track was actually laid over the mastered track right in the mastering studio before the master was sent back out for replication. That last-minute change cost them, but the song and the album went on to win several Grammy awards.
I hope to someday have a budget that allows me to follow my creative impulses at any point in the process, but that’s not today. If I want to win a Grammy on my budget, preparation, good research, and being willing to spend money on the important things are the only way. In the end, I got the same mastering treatment as the Grammy-winning artist — the same ears, experience, skill, equipment, and listening environment. My record sounds polished, ready to be heard anywhere, and I’m I’m proud to present them to my fans. Now, everything I’ve lived and breathed for over a year is sitting in my little hand, and I’m faced with the question that Scott says he hears often as the mastering session winds down: “So what the hell am I going to do with myself tomorrow?”
A FEW ARTICLE “BONUS TRACKS”
How Scott Fixed the Clicks
Clicks and pops are mostly isolated to the high frequencies, so Scott isolated everything in the mix above 15k. He generated a soundwave of just that frequency range, so that he was able to see and manipulate the problem area in Sonic Solutions. His adjustments were done at a level of precision that we would never get in the Protools environment. Sonic Solutions and his other gear used in the mastering process are designed for this type of precision. At the same time, the problem has to exist in a pretty narrow EQ range and if there’s heavy reverb/delay on the problem, you can’t isolate it as well. In layman’s terms, average harmonic content is figured for the problem region and for a small region before and/or after the problem. Using mathematical algorithms, Sonic Solutions generates a mirror image of a specified range of the sound wave and reforms a single non-clicking wave using “interpolation”. (Get your old math books if you don’t remember that one.) The tool is very different from anything that is done in the recording studio environment and “should not be tried at home”.
Some Factors that Make Mastering More Important than Ever
MP3s – Especially for indie artists, the first listen that many people will have of your recordings is from a super-compressed MP3 file, and possibly through computer speakers. If you do not master your tracks, you have less control over what will “pop” out in this format.
Home recordings and traveling hard disks – Many, if not most of us, nowadays do some recording or editing of our tracks in a home or project studio. We record and mix in a number of different locations before the project is done, adjusting as we go along. Drawing all these disparate sounds together into one cohesive unit is a major task of the Mastering Engineer.
More competition through greater access to recording gear – Almost anyone can come out with a CD today, with very little expense. The barriers are down, but the desire for the best quality music hasn’t gone away. People make decisions very quickly (like, in seconds) when it comes to judging new music. Don’t let some funky frequency, disparate volume levels, or a mix that sounds right only in your own studio be the cause of your music or artistry being dismissed too quickly. Other artists, producers and even industry folk may see through this to your undeniable talent, but the general public is not as forgiving. Make sure they want to buy your next CD too!
I hope you enjoyed our presentation of Kirsten Thien’s excellent article about the ins and outs of the mastering process. Check out the album which was the subject of the article, You Got Me, here.