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Recording 101: A Primer on Recorded Music -- Part 5

By John F. Sase, Ph.D.

Howard Hertz, Contributing Author

Gerard J. Senick, Contributing Writer and Editor

In order to finish a good product, expect editing, mixing, and other post-production work to take the lion’s share of budgeted time. When we add together all of the production and post-production time, we should anticipate an investment of forty to fifty hours per track. In other words, a total of 500 hours for the entire album can be considered the norm. This is why having open access to a home studio for most of post-production is highly valued. Part of this value comes from the fact that ears tire easily; consequently, prolonged post-sessions that require acute listening produce diminishing returns. Any work beyond mundane cutting, splicing, and adding fades and plug-in effects demand the perspicacity of fresh ears. Tired ears usually result in a substandard mix that will require costly reworking.

When do you know when the mix is done? This question is like asking a chef if the soup is done. It is a matter of knowing. We could define that point in a commercial recording as the one at which a constrained optimum is reached. It is the point at which the artistic vision is achieved subject to practical budgetary constraints; you know that the soup is done. For some engineers, this point comes when they play it through a pair of crappy old car speakers. For others, this point may be defined as when you play the recording for others who have not heard it previously and it feels right to them as well. In any event, you will have gotten the best vocal and instrumental takes, have used your studio wizardry to achieve maximum sound, and feel that the music is ready to be unleashed on the world.

Complementing the technical and economic side of recording is the legal perspective. Our guest author Howard Hertz explains that a tangible contribution to a recording (known as the master) or song (the composition) may result in copyright ownership or performance rights being held by any person contributing to the work. In order for the artist or the record label to emerge from the studio with an album that s/he or it fully owns and therefore may distribute for sale to the public, agreements should contain proper “work-for-hire” language. (Essentially, a work for hire means that the contributor relinquishes ownership claims on the master or composition by stating that all work was performed for equitable compensation.)

Hertz emphasizes that these agreements must be signed by all producers, engineers and side-person musicians who have worked on the project. Typically, the artist or label should own the copyright to the master recordings contractually. On the other hand, the copyright ownership in the underlying composition may be owned by multiple writers of that piece of music. However, if agreed to in writing by all parties involved, the artist or label may “buy out” these rights. Often because of the potential complexity of such agreement, a “split sheet” for each work is filled out after the recording of the composition. This sheet lists the determined percentage of the song or instrumental that was written by each contributing party as well as the percentage of the publishing rights that is owned by the publisher of each party involved. Then, the split sheet is signed by all of the contributing parties, thus making the determined, assigned split a binding agreement.

This is a very important point. It is often overlooked by many casual or informal musical groups that lack the understating of business law, which will treat them as a General Partnership. Operating as such an entity implies that all partners are held to have equal shares if no written agreement exists. In respect to the business of music, Mr. Hertz iterates that, if there is no written and signed agreement to the contrary, then a composition is owned in equal shares by each writer who contributed words or music irrespective of the percentage of their actual contribution. Hertz provides this illustration: “[I]f three writers contribute to a work and have no signing to the contrary, they each own one-third of the copyright, even if one of the writers only contributed one line of lyrics and might have likely agreed to a five or ten percent share of the song if it was put in a split sheet.” A word of wisdom to all musicians and audio producers and engineers: have a qualified entertainment attorney on your side to guide you through these choppy waters.

Recording 101: A Primer on Recorded Music -- Part 4

By John F. Sase, Ph.D.

Howard Hertz, Contributing Author

Gerard J. Senick, Contributing Writer and Editor

Producing Recorded Music (Part C)

If you are not acting as your own producer and/or engineer, make the time with this person(s) to share your vision, needs, and concerns in advance. Use this time to go over production notes, equipment requirements, and other mundane items before the session commences. Everyone involved should understand the depth and scope of their responsibilities before the session begins. Delays eat up time for all and… Time Is Money. Therefore, make sure that you are on the same page with your producer and engineer.

Furthermore, note the limitations of the studio and its equipment. It is wise to know the kind and amount of tracks, microphones, signal processors, and other essentials. If you plan to use any unfamiliar equipment, make the time to research it. If possible, work with this equipment beforehand. A recording session is no place for unpleasant surprises. For optimal planning, you should know of any limitations in case you need to simplify your planned mix.

When the red recording light goes on, it is important to be technically precise in performance in order to remain within budget. However, bear in mind that we are making art. Playing with feeling and emotion from the heart is of paramount importance. Producing art commercially requires walking a fine line between the pragmatic and the ethereal. As a result, the genius in producing music is 99% perspiration.

Work with the technology, not against it. Generally, it is best to keep playing through a flop rather than to stop and start over. Part of the art of recorded music is “punching in” a short section of retake or digitally copying and molding a few notes into the track in a seamless manner. As long as most of the take has the necessary artistic integrity, the pragmatism of “time is money” works out.

In shaping the sound, remain focused on the lead line that prevails at the time. Usually, the vocal takes the lead except during intros, outros, and solos. Developing the accompaniment against a preliminary take of the lead line is a way to achieve a fluent and natural sound. Also, such an accompaniment provides a solid understructure that gives flexibility and independence to the musician who is rerecording the final takes of the lead lines. This being said, it remains most economical to achieve a desired sound during the original tracking. Usually, it is more costly to return to a mix in order to rebuild or repair parts of it before the final mix-down to stereo. It is better to record clean and then to add effects and other “sweetening” afterwards.

Treat the production of recorded music with the same regard with which any other successful professional or business entrepreneur would treat their concerns. As in many competitive markets, the revenue per downloaded track or CD collection remains relatively constant across the span of all artists. The album Born This Way by Lady Gaga, one of the top-ten sellers of the year, hit the market at an equivalent retail price as the album MDNA by Madonna, one of the bottom ten. As a result, the economic task of controlling the profit per unit falls fully on the cost side of the equation. Since music production is mostly about time cost, any action that can safely shave cost without destroying the integrity and quality of the product should be considered seriously. Note: these actions include keeping guests out of the session, making backup copies of takes frequently, and keeping thoroughly written notes throughout the course of the project.

Recording 101: A Primer on Recorded Music -- Part 3

By John F. Sase, Ph.D.

Howard Hertz, Contributing Author

Gerard J. Senick, Contributing Writer and Editor

Producing Recorded Music (Part B)

Let’s return to the recording studio. It is a good idea to have more material prepared than you intend to record. Life happens. Sometimes, with a bit of good fortune, you move through the tracking faster than expected. At other times, a piece does not come together satisfactorily. When this happens, the piece needs to be shelved until it can be reworked. Given the time and physical cost of preparation, travel, and coordinating the schedules of the producer, recording engineer, musicians, and other participants in a session, contingency plans constitute a valuable asset. On this point, the Time-Is-Money factor spills over to the matter of equipment by having spare cables, batteries, and fuses available on short notice. One of Murphy’s Laws states that such items have the notoriety to fail at critical times.

When it comes to recording, experience remains one of the best teachers. Practicing against previously recorded tracks that one will hear during the actual recording session is often the most economical way to prepare for a take. Usually, sound-on-sound projects will gel best when they are built upon percussion that is recorded against a scratch and/or click track. Then, the track is followed upward through the spectrum of pitch (lowest to highest frequency) with the addition of bass, keyboards, guitars, background vocals, and other instruments before the lead instrument or vocal is tracked. Offering an instrumentalist or vocalist a copy of the best mix to date without the scratch or click tracks (i.e., the one that s/he will record against), saves confusion, frustration, and time. This work mix allows the musician to develop parts creatively and to get acclimated to nuances of tempo, rhythm, and volume before the session. Usually, this results in more productive takes and fewer of them. The additional cost to the project for this preparation is the minor cost of burning a CD or making an MP3 copy of the mix. The benefit of time saved for all involved far outweighs this cost.

Whether or not you are paying out of pocket for studio time, you are making an investment of your own time as well as the time of other musicians, producers, engineers, and techies working together on the project. Therefore, everyone should show up, should arrive on time, and, if possible, should get there a bit early. The studio is a professional work environment. Please give the other music professionals the same respect and courtesy that you would give to your attorney, medical doctor, or dentist. If you must delay, postpone, or cancel, please do so in a timely manner. Professional time for postponements or cancellations is usually twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Equal to the importance of showing up and starting on time is to know when to stop work on individual tracks as well as on the session as a whole. Tiredness is a vague and relative term. However, sensing the point at which the marginal net benefit of tracking an additional take reaches zero is a professional trait worth developing.

Recording 101: A Primer on Recorded Music -- Part 2

By John F. Sase, Ph.D.

Howard Hertz, Contributing Author

Gerard J. Senick, Contributing Writer and Editor

…without ado, we present “A Primer on Recorded Music” for your reading pleasure.

Producing Recorded Music

In starting, it is good to make a “low-fi” recording at every rehearsal and gig. Often, performers use a pocket digital recorder, the type employed to record lectures and meetings. As the newer digital models can hold six hours or more, one can turn it on and let it be. If the material and its performance sound acceptable under such primitive conditions, the recording passes the 1960s pocket-transistor-radio test. Importantly, any verbal notes about changes to song structure or arrangements will be included for future reference.

A digital video recorder serves well for the same purpose. In the world of the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), the video recording also provides an excellent scratch track. Being able to watch and follow movement and changes frees musicians, producers, and engineers from the old mechanical-sounding click track and helps to achieve a more natural and expressive feel in the multi-track overdubbing process.

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page acted as the band’s producer. He got massive drum sounds from drummer John Bonham by recording him in the hall of Page’s medieval home, Hedley Grange. Forests, beaches, living rooms, practice rooms, bathrooms, and other places provide wonderful places to experiment and develop new musical parts. Generally, the recording studio does not. Even if you have your own studio that allows you to work off of the clock, it is usually best to do the work-up somewhere else, just to maintain perspective. In the early 1950s, guitarist Les Paul invented multi-track, sound-on-sound recording--with the assistance of his friend, crooner Bing Crosby--in Paul’s garage. In an interview, Paul emphatically stated, “I never walk over to that machine until I know what I’m going to do and I never use the machine to find it. I find it and then go to the machine and use it. I never let the machine tell me. I tell the machine what to do.” (Advice from Les Paul for Recording Music, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHa_LlZxqyI&feature=share&list=UUJzp3qY-uZNhCzlUD1MQ-Uw)

Therefore, prepare all of your instrumental and vocal parts in advance and develop a work schedule that includes contingency plans when you enter the studio, which is the final place in which you may be able to maintain creative control. If you need to make last-minute changes, you can keep them to a minimum in order to avoid excessive pressure and confusion during a session.

We can borrow a good parallel of detailed planning from the motion-picture industry, the one that interfaces the most with recorded music. Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock worked as a director in the studio system. He was responsible not only for his own time but for the time of many other professionals working together on the same project. In advance of shooting, “Hitch” storyboarded every shot of a scene before stepping onto the sound stage. For example, in the famous shower scene in the film Psycho starring Janet Leigh, there are fifty-two individual shots in the course of three minutes and ten seconds (Famous Shower Scene from Psycho (1960) Dissected in 52 Shots, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBAMzmQ2SqQ&feature=share&list=UUJzp3qY-uZNhCzlUD1MQ-Uw). The master storyboardist worked out every detail, including chocolate syrup for blood, and framed each shot in advance of rolling the cameras. A major part of Hitchcock’s greatness came from his ability to maintain creative control in exchange for tight management of budget through planning. Planning pays when time is money.

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Recording 101: A Primer on Recorded Music -- Part 1

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By John F. Sase, Ph.D.

Howard Hertz, Contributing Author

Gerard J. Senick, Contributing Writer and Editor

“Aside from the creative and technical aspects of recording an album, there are legal and contractual issues that must be considered before even entering the studio. The artist or label paying the expenses of recording must be sure that everyone is on the same page regarding whether fees and/or royalties are to be paid and, if so, how much is to be paid to each party.”

--Howard Hertz, Entertainment Attorney

Depending upon the individual focus of their practices, attorneys may take cases that involve Intellectual Property and Contracts in respect to the music industry. Very often, composers and performing artists are neophytes when it comes to the economic and legal issues of this industry. Therefore, in this multi-part blog, we will address the basics of recording, manufacturing, and sales to break even on a CD of recorded music. I (Dr. Sase) will address the economic issues. As well as being an economist, I am a musician who has released original music and has produced/engineered the music of other artists. In addition, I own and operate a small recording studio. For the legal elements in this blog, we welcome Howard Hertz, Entertainment Attorney at Hertz Schram PC in Bloomfield Hills, MI (www.hertzschram.com). For the benefit of our readers, we will keep the techno-speak and accounting math to a minimum. Instead, we will present the big picture and will offer a basic understanding of what is involved in this market. In this way, we hope to help attorneys to educate clients, family members, or friends who may wish to attempt a career in this field. (Since many attorneys are also musicians, some of our readers may be interested in putting out CDs of their own music.) Therefore, without ado, we present “A Primer on Recorded Music” for your reading pleasure.

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Notes on Recording Lead Vocals With and Without Effect Processors

Should a recording engineer/musician track a lead vocal through a complete signal chain? Or not? The normal signal chain includes a microphone, preamp, compressor/limiter, equalizer (EQ), and the recorder—often a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). The third and fourth links of the chain, the compressor/limiter and EQ are optional. However, the first two and the last one—the mic, preamp, and recorder--are not. Much of the choice to use the optional links is a matter of personal taste. However, I find that by using the best microphone that I have, I do not need to equalize during the recording. Hence, this approach gives me the greatest freedom to color the sound during editing and mixing.

On occasion, I will use a compressor/limiter during a vocal take. However, compressors and limiters were originally developed to limit the dynamic range of signals for the broadcast and recording systems of the time. Today’s digital systems really do not need that kind of tweaking. Any modern recording system has the capability to capture both the loudest and softest sounds that a singer can make. Nevertheless, as I like to record “medium-hot,” I use a limiter with singers who tend to “spike” their volume into the red because the resulting digital distortion is usually not very pleasant.

In respect to equalization, I prefer not to use it when tracking. I tend to record the lead vocal as the last or near to last track. So, in order to fit the vocal to the tracks already recorded, I prefer to maintain as much flexibility as possible. By using the best quality microphone that I can afford, I find that I do not need to use the equalizer to “fix” the sound of the mic. Furthermore, choosing the right microphone for the task means minimizing the need for corrective EQ later during the mix. Therefore, along with left/right panning, I only use the equalizer to vertically adjust the vocal position in the “soundscape” and better fit the lead vocal to the other voices and instruments. On a final note, I strongly recommend putting the equalizer after the compressor/limiter in the chain. Why? It tends to sound better and you can alter the tone of the signal going to the recorder without altering the amount of gain (volume).
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Re-Amplifying Guitars for a Great Sound!

Re-amplification is the process of running a signal through a second amplifier after the guitar has been recorded. This allows one to develop a wide range of sounds and effects for the guitar track. Exchanging amplifier sounds and tweaking microphone settings represent only a couple of the advantages of re-amplification. It also provides a guitarist and engineer with editing options that provide much more flexibility than the initial live recording can ever offer.

A common way to achieve re-amplification is by using a Direct Input (DI) box to record the guitar performance “dry” while the guitarist uses his effects and amp for monitoring the sound only. This allows the guitarist to give a performance with an inspired sound with which s/he is familiar. Later, during editing, the edited track can be re-amped.  At this point of post-production, one can add effects that fit the track, creating a more unique guitar sound. --John Sase
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Recording Music: Note on the Use of Effects Processors

Of the mysteries that plague those musicians who are new to recording is "when and where" to add effects processors during recording and mix-down. I rarely use processors during recording--the less circuitry in the recording chain, the better. However, with many vocalists and lead guitarists, I find that it helps to add a mild amount of compression to keep the signal from going into the red (over-saturation of digital signals create nasty distortion that take an excessive amount of time to repair).
In addition, I avoid putting any EQ in the chain during recording. Rather, I prefer to use the best mic or direct box available that has the coloration that I want. This choice gives maximum flexibility during mixing.
During post-production, I first add compression to the tracks. Though the settings are usually a matter of personal taste, I generally use a low amount of compression on the lead vocal, mid amounts of the guitars and keyboards, and high amounts on anything bass. This tends to keep the signals well behaved.
Next comes the EQ. I start with the string bass, bass pedals, and/or bass guitar tracks. I normally roll off the low end below the lowest fundamental (usually 40 Hertz--low E). Next, I add a bit at around 80 to 100 Hertz at the first octave. This seems to bring out the bottom. Finally, I roll of the high end sharply, often everything above 1,000 hertz to leave room for the higher instruments.
Conversely, I taper down the low end of guitars and keyboards below 300 to 500 hertz
in order that they will not "fight" with the bass. This is a good way to avoid the muddiness that is prominent in many home-recordings. Remember that Les Paul used to record in his garage with the first multi-track recorder that he built.
Finally, we need to remember that bass sounds naturally center themselves and lead vocals tend to take center stage. Visualize the soundscape in front of you as a landscape painting with the horizon line halfway up. Keep the vocals above the horizon, the guitars at the horizon, and the bass below the horizon and you will find that your recordings become much clearer. That's it for today. Bye.
--John Sase