Another QuarterNote Heard From

Bill Sutton

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Puttin' On the Disc

You've been doing this music stuff for a while. You've had a few people listen on a regular basis, they seem to like what they hear. They keep asking you, "When's the CD coming out?"

A good question, you think to yourself, because you don't have clue one out of 60 how to get things started.

What do you want to put on a recording? How do you want it to sound? Is there anything special that you want to hear? How do you want it to be received?

How expensive do you want it to be? Who can help you with each stage of the recording? Do you want to do some or all of the work yourself? What work is involved in this, anyway? What are the costs that need to be taken into account? How much is it going to cost? Do you need to make these costs back?

How do you get the final product out to people to listen to? Do you want to use only traditional methods? Do you want to experiment with internet or other distribution methods? Do you you want someone else to handle parts of the distribution?

These are only a few of the questions that will need to be answered before you're finished. The thing to keep in mind is that anything with more depth than just a quickly recorded cassette or minidisc will take planning and effort. The more "professional" you want your final result to appear, the more important it is that you understand the work and costs involved.

These columns on recording are not geared toward someone who wants to put some things on tape to pass around to their friends, though I hope some of the hints may be helpful. These columns will focus on the questions that need to be asked when coming out with a product that will be sold - whether just to recoup its costs or for a potential profit.

As always, this column doesn't contain all the answers. I'm hoping to refer you to some of the resources I have used, some of which may very well give you different answers than I have given. In the time-honored tradition of "passing the buck," I urge you to keep what works for you and discard the rest.

Let's start out with a detailed description of the recording and distribution process. Some of you may know this process very well, but I know that there are many who've simply never come into contact with all the steps involved.

Remember, this is just an example. Your Mileage May Vary, as they say. You folks who have been through this will understand that I won't be able to cover every single thing. Knowing my audience, I have tried to elaborate somewhat and provide links for more information where possible.

Step one is to select your material.

Choose your songs carefully. As long as you are only using your own stuff, life is pretty easy. However, when you use someone else's music and/or lyrics, they are entitled to a portion of the proceeds.

This doesn't mean that you should avoid using others' material. It does mean that you are under a moral and legal obligation to find the songwriters and license their works. Inside the filk community this is usually fairly easy, since most filkers can be contacted via conventions, filk publishers, or the newsgroup A good starting point outside would be Harry Fox, an organization that handles licensing for a great number of songs. Another source would be the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency Ltd. (CMRRA) If the song you want isn't there, try contacting the publisher or record company to find out who handles the mechanical license for the song.

The good news is that material that has been recorded is subject (in the US, anyway, I make no predictions otherwise) to compulsory license. This means that if you follow certain procedures and pay the required statutory rates (currently 7.55 cents per copy for songs under 5 minutes, 1.35 cents per minute for songs over 5 minutes), you cannot be refused a license. Note that unrecorded material is not subject to compulsory license - in other words, if you heard someone sing their song you can't force them to let you record it before they either record it themselves or explicitly allow someone else to do it.

The bad news is that lyrics cannot be changed without express permission. Harry Fox doesn't give that permission. Neither do most other license clearinghouses. Most of the time, if you can't get permission directly from the songwriter, you won't get permission.

Second, you need to get those things recorded.

The recording can be done at an existing recording studio or it can be done yourself. If you do it yourself, you will need to consider the recording hardware (tape {analog or digital} or hard drive {dedicated like a Roland, for instance, or a program like Cubase, Cakewalk, CoolEdit, n-Track, or some other}), the microphones, and some general basics of home recording that are beyond the scope of this column. You can act as your own recording engineer (the person who rides the levels and basically makes sure the sound you get is what you want) or get someone to work with you (it is much harder than you might think to do this one yourself - can you really concentrate on your best performance and watch the levels and check for ugly noises at the same time? A skilled engineer can make the difference between 20 takes and 2 takes!)

Recording a one hour CD takes about two hours, right? Ummm ... wrong. Your time may vary based on how many people are involved in the song (one wag once suggested that the time varies according to the square of the number of performers), the complexity of the song, and how well you know it. Also, there will be the occasional phlegm in the throat, too-loud tapping of the foot, forgotten verse, lost chord, broken string, and fatigue. Never mind an extra take or two to experiment with a particular sound that might be really cool. Good rule of thumb: in four hours of recording time, expect at most three songs and probably two.

Yeah, but once the recording is over, everything else is fast, isn't it?


The next step is mixing.

Mixing is, at its simplest, the act of putting all the parts together to make a clean and listenable arrangement for the song. It usually involves, at minimum, making sure that no clicks, pops, dropouts, weird noises, or gross volume discrepancies will appear. At maximum, it involves clearing away garbage from space in the arrangement that can best be used by other parts (for instance, cutting low frequencies from the guitar parts to clean up room for the bass or bass drum), editing out glitches in a single part (when possible), making each part sound its individual best when put together with the rest of the arrangement (using effects or equalization), and then bringing that together to create a particular sound when the entire song is played.

Mixing will take a minimum of an hour per song. The minimum will be barely enough to make sure the song, as is, is clean and listenable. Expect something more like three to 10 times as long as it took to record the song if multiple instruments and vocals are involved.

Recording is done. Mixing is done. Now we can hand it out?

Well, no. In some form or another, the entire recording needs to be mastered. For a filk recording this can be as simple as making sure each track is as loud as every other and that it sounds good in multiple places (that $5000 stereo system, that $25 CD player, in the car, whatever.) For a song with possible radio airplay, there are dynamic adjustments that are expected (involving compression and amplification) to make sure that it is as loud and attention-demanding as everything else on the air. The mastering stage can give the recording an overall ambience through use of analog amplifiers or effects. Obviously, it's also the place where that precious set of tracks is finally put on some medium for transfer to the duplicator.

Now comes getting it to your adoring public ...

Next: Reproduction and Distribution

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Bill Sutton has been active in performing his own and others' music in public for fun and profit ... well, fun anyway ... for over 25 years. His column appears regularly fairly regularly when time permits sometimes as part of The Dandelion Report.

Copyright ©2001 Bill Sutton. All rights reserved.