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Friday, May 22, 2009

The Mystery Of Mastering

Mastering your songs or audio program is somewhat of a mystery to everyone who's not a mastering engineer or who hasn't released a lot of records. Not only is the process somewhat of a mystery, it's a misunderstood mystery as well. So I thought it might be a good idea to do a brief overview with some excerpts from my book, "The Audio Mastering Handbook (The Mastering Engineer's Handbook 2nd edition)."

Technically speaking, mastering is the intermediate step between mixing your audio and preparing it to be replicated or distributed. But it’s really much more than that.

Mastering is the process of turning a collection of songs into a record by making them sound like they belong together in tone, volume, and timing (spacing between songs).
Mastering is not a set of tools or a device that music is run through and automatically comes out mastered (despite what the adverts for these types of devices say). It’s an art form that, when done conscientiously, mostly relies on an individual’s skill, experience with various genres of music, and good taste.

Mastering should be considered the final step in the creative process since this is our last chance to polish and fix our project. A project that has been mastered simply sounds better. It sounds complete, polished, and finished. The project that might have sounded like a demo before now sounds like a "record". Here’s why:
  • The mastering engineer has added judicious amounts of EQ and compression to make the project bigger, fatter, richer, and louder.
  • He’s matched the levels of each song so they all have the same apparent level.
  • He’s fixed the fades so that they’re smooth.
  • He’s edited out distorted parts or glitches so well you didn’t even notice.
  • He’s made all the songs blend together into a cohesive unit.
  • In the case of mastering for CD or vinyl, he’s inserted the spreads (the time between each song) so the songs flow seamlessly together.
  • He’s sequenced the songs so they fall in the correct order.
  • He’s proofed your master before it’s sent to the replicator to make sure it’s free of any glitches or noise.
  • He’s also made and stored a back-up clone in case anything should happen to your cherished master.
  • He’s taken care of all of the shipping to the desired replication facility if you’re using one.
And all this happened so quickly and smoothly that you hardly knew it was happening.

More on mastering in upcoming posts.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bad Chart Week For Everyone Except Green Day

Last week was a terrible week for almost any act with a record out. Every act on the Top 50 except one (Lady GaGa) saw sales drop from anywhere from 2% to 76%, except for the 8 new entries.

Green Day topped the charts with their new entry "21st Century Breakdown" at a respectable 221,345 units but the #2 position was held by Hannah Montana: The Movie soundtrack at only 68,515 units.

It'll be interesting to see what Green Day does this week when the new totals come out. The band has also released a premium edition of the release that includes a 3 vinyl record set and 60 page book. The release is limited to only 3000 and is available for $90.

All that being said, it looks like the new Eminem release Relapse will score between 500 to 600,000 units in it's first week, far surpassing 21st Century Breakdown. We'll know for sure next Tuesday.

It just goes to show that there's an appetite for good music, regardless of the genre. But while opening week is always prime for a superstar act, beware week 2.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Spotify And Music Nest -The Perfect Match?

The announcement came earlier this week that the online subscription service of the future (if you're to believe word-of-mouth) Spotify and music discovery provider Music Nest have tied the knot, creating what some believe to be the ultimate combination for online music.

Spotify, if you've been following this or any other music blog, is the subscription music service that everyone loves, but isn't available in the US yet because of licensing issues. Music Nest, started by a pair of MIT PHDs, is a music intelligence platform that scans the internet to create a recommendation and affinity matching experience for the listener.

If you haven't caught on yet, "music discovery" technology is the holy grail for online music. In the days when radio was king, music discovery happened fairly easily - the DJ discovered the music for you and you trusted his or her taste (like in the early days of FM), or the listener discovered the music by herself by flipping stations.

It's not that easy with online music though, since there are so many sources of music content that the listener becomes easily overwhelmed. And as the old salesman's adage goes, "If you give the customer too many choices, he won't buy anything."

This is why music discovery is such a hot technology right now. By analyzing your music choices, the technology will get an idea of what you like and determine what to suggest. While Apple's Genius and Pandora radio each do something similar with catalog content, the pinnacle of music discovery is when a discovery engine can suggest new music rather than catalog. Music Nest has been rumored to be the engine with the greatest potential, and with their new-found partnership with Spotify (a service that everybody who's tried it loves), we may see a service on the rise that can finally give iTunes a run for its money.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

MXP4 - MP3 The Next Generation?

For some reason, most of the forward-thinking in the audio world comes from Paris these days. Every year the clever French sonic scientists seem to present something new that's way beyond the common audio technology that's developed in the States or anywhere else.

True to form, they bring us a new format designed to overtake MP3 in its domination of the music file format space - MXP4.

Developed by the Paris-based company Musinaut, what makes MXP4 unique is that it's an interactive file, allowing multiple takes, versions or remixes of the same song within the same file. The file can also hold video and text as well, and can be updated after-the-fact. The listener or viewer can select the version that he or she wants and change to a different one at any time. The format can be made available as a stream or a download.

Assuming that MXP4 can gain some traction, I can see numerous scenarios for it's use:
  • This is a natural for games, with the music for different scenes resident in the same file, presuming that it can switch between them fast enough. Check out a demo on the Musinaut website.
  • It's a boon for DJs and remixers as you can have the same melody or rap with a different feel and beat underneath whenever you wish.
  • As a straight release format it's pretty cool as well, allowing all those mix variations that we always take so much time on (like dance mixes, TV or karaoke tracks, different solos, etc.) that usually never see the light of day.
  • You can add text liner notes or music videos to the file that you're not obligated to view if you don't want to (unlike current Quicktime files).
  • It's all in a single interactive file! How cool is that.
But the big obstacle is that you need a special MXP4 player to make it work, although it's free. The adoption rate will determine if this format makes it, but I'm pretty excited about its possibilities.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Side-Effect Of The Auto Industry Woes

A company and industry that's being hurt badly by the auto industry's financial problems is satellite radio and its only provider Sirius.

Sirius tied it's growth almost completely to new car sales, and with car sales about as low as they've ever been in modern times, that doesn't do much for subscriber rates. In fact, current subscribers are bailing as even $12.95 a month feels like a luxury to some.

Even if car sales pick up, and Sirius subscriptions with it, the company may still be in for long term trouble. Expensive satellites will have to be replaced (at about $500 mil each) and the credit market is still tight, not to mention that Wall Street was never enamored with satellite radio technology to begin with.

And has music industry consultant Ted Cohen states in my upcoming book Music 3.0 - A Survival Guide For Making Music In The Internet Age, "GraceNote is working on some cool stuff with the car companies where the head unit on a 2010 car that will have a built-in 3G or 4G communications module so that wherever I am I can stream whatever I want whether it’s coming from Rhapsody or my home hard drive."

If what Ted says is true, Sirius is a goner. The sad part is, I really do like what they have to offer, and listen whenever I'm in a rental car. But satellite radio ultimately might be one of those great ideas that is crushed by market forces before it had a chance to reach critical mass.

Sirius has one more trick up its sleeve though, changing it's advertising to "Sirius Internet Radio" and delivering their products online and mobil. You've got to give them credit. At least they see the writing on the wall and are trying to get in front of it.


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