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Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Sales Party Like It's 1999

Michael Jackson has sold over 1 million CDs in the US alone in the last 5 days, and Sony Music has orders for at least 2 million more, according to industry standard Hits magazine. What's more, an unprecedented 2.4 million downloads of MJ tracks have been sold, giving him also an unprecedented 48 places out of the Top 200 Digital Songs chart. There hasn't been a week like this in the music business since it's heyday of the 90's.

To give an example of how unusual and exceptional all this sales activity is, Nirvana sales rose to only 77,000 the week after Kurt Cobain died in 1994 (Nirvana started the last big trend in music), and sales of Notorious B.I.G. Life After Death (which was just about to be released) were 698,000 the first week after his death in 1997.

What MJ's sales success proves is that there are still plenty of potential music purchasers out there. The problem is that there's not a lot of music that's exciting enough for them to want to buy. Granted, this is a special case that may not be repeated for a long time, if ever. But it's also possible that a new artist at the tip of a new trend can duplicate MJ's current numbers. As everyone in the business is brutally aware, we're way past due for something new.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Recording Checklist

Here's an excerpt from my book The Recording Engineer's Handbook. It's a recording checklist that, if followed, will pretty much keep any engineer, or musician trying to record himself or his band, out of trouble.

1. Does the instrument sound great acoustically? Make sure that you start with a great acoustic sound with the instrument well tuned and minimum of sympathetic vibrations and extraneous noises.

2. Are the mics acoustically in phase? Observe the 3:1 rule and make sure that any underneath mics are at a 90° angle to the top mics.

3. Are the mics electronically in phase? Make sure that all the mic cables are wired the same by doing a phase check.

4. Are the mics at the correct distance from the instrument? If they’re too far away they’ll pick up too much of the room or other instruments. If they’re too close the sound will be unbalanced with either too much attack or ring, and not enough of the body of the instrument. Walk around the player, put your finger in your ear, and find the spot that sounds the best. Remember, most instruments need some space for the sound to develop. The ambience from the surrounding area is a big part of the sound for most instruments.

5. Does it sound the same in the control room as when you’re standing in front of the instrument? This is your reference point and what you should be trying to match. You can embellish the sound after you’ve achieved this.

6. Is there another problem besides the mic placement? A great sound is dependent upon the instrument, the player, the amp and the room. The player has to be able to achieve the tone you're trying to record with his hands first and foremost. The mic itself usually has less to do with the ultimate sound than the placement, room and the player and ultimately, the project itself.

You should always trust your ears and begin by listening to the musician in your studio, find a sweet spot and then begin your microphone placement there. If you don’t like the resultant sound, then move the mic or swap it with another. EQ is the last thing you should touch.

7. Is the problem in your signal chain? Don’t neglect your microphone preamp. The better your preamp, the less trouble you’ll have capturing the sound, but sometimes a certain mic/preamp combination will give you the sound you need. Experiment.

8. Is the problem the players signal chain? A guitarist’s signal chain can be a huge help or a big hindrance. You’ll get a warmer yet aggressive guitar sound by decreasing the amount of distortion from pedals, but turning up the amp’s volume instead to obtain the sustain/distortion from the amp and speaker. Also, smaller amps and speakers tend to sound bigger than large amps/speakers when recording.

REMEMBER: Mics cannot effectively be placed by sight, which is a mistake that is all too easy to make. The best mic position cannot be predicted, it must be found.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

How To Do Your Own Audio Mastering Video

Here's part 1 of a video series on how to do your own audio mastering. I've been using IK Multimedia's T-Racks Deluxe mastering software for some time and if you're going to try to do it at home, it's the most comprehensive software package that I've found. Inexpensive too.

But just because you own a hammer doesn't mean you know how to swing it. You'll get great results if you drive it well, but the problem is that most mastering neophytes expect too much from a powerful piece of software like this and the results are sometimes disastrous. I hope this video and the others forthcoming will provide enough info for better results.

The Zombie Economy

OK, I'm getting pretty tired of all Michael Jackson all the time too, but Umair Haque of the Harvard Media Lab has an excellent post on the Harvard business blog today relating MJ to investment bankers.

Essentially, the argument is that MJ is reported to have made about $300 million in royalties from Sony Music over the last 25 years. Sounds like a lot, right? But it averages out to about $12 mill a year. For the King of Pop? Only $12 mil a year after all those sales?

And that's the problem with the Zombie Economy, as Umair so uniquely puts it. The rest of the money went to the record company, who certainly didn't reinvest it in new products. It all went to Sony shareholders.

Now if you figure that the best and brightest minds that we have to offer have been going into investment banking for the last few decades because they can make 10 or 20 or 30 times what MJ could, and all they did was essentially move assets around instead of actually making something, that's why the US economy is currently in the state it's in.

In order to grow you have to make things, to produce, to nurture, to create. But when you simply recycle assets, the rich just get richer and everyone else just stagnates.

Sure sounds like the music business today, doesn't it?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Michael Jackson Saves The Music Business Again?

Are we seeing a second save of the music business by Michael Jackson? It's no secret that the music business was in a terrible state in 1982 when Michael Jackson's producer Quincy Jones predicted "We're here to bring people back into the record stores," on the first day of recording of MJ's landmark "Thriller."

Surprisingly, his prediction was true. MJ went on to sell nearly 50 million copies of Thriller domestically and reportedly almost 175 million internationally, as the music business went on a streak of unprecedented growth and wealth that lasted 20 more years.

So here we are again 27 years down the road and the music business is in far worse shape than it's ever been, but MJ's untimely death just might bring it out of the doldrums again. Just hours after his death on Thursday, various Michael Jackson albums began climbing up Apple's iTunes Music Store's "Top Albums" list, where his historic "Thriller" now sits at #1.

MJ now holds an unprecedented 9 out of the top 10 chart positions, 14 of the top 20, and 16 of the top 40, which must be some sort of record.

Here's the chart as it stands on Friday afternoon:

• #1: "Thriller"
• #2: "The Essential Michael Jackson"
• #3: "Number Ones"
• #4: "Off The Wall"
• #5: "Thriller (25th Anniversary, Zombie Cover)"
• #6: "Bad"
• #7: "Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection"
• #8: "Dangerous"
• #9: "Michael Jackson Greatest Hits: HIStory, Vol. 1"
• #14: "Off the Wall (Special Edition)"
• #15: "Jackson 5: The Ultimate Collection"
• #18: "History: Past, Present and Future, Book 1"
• #19: "Thriller (25th Anniversary) [Deluxe Edition]"
• #20: "Thriller (25th Anniversary)"
• #21: "Invincible"
• #39: "Anthology: The Best of Michael Jackson"
• #49: "Anthology: Jackson 5"
• #44: "Michael Jackson: Gold"
• #46: "20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection" The Best of The Jackson 5"
• #82: "Blood on the Dance Floor / History in the Mix"
• #87: "Greatest Hits - Jackson 5"

The iTunes singles charts has MJ with 38 out of the top 100 and that doesn't even include Jackson 5 songs.

At Amazon, physical copies of Michael's entire catalog sold out minutes after his passing was announced. He currently has 9 of the top 15 albums and 10 of the top 15 singles.

It should be interesting to see just what this unprecedented sales upturn (in the digital age at least) actually brings in total, but so far it looks like his demise has caused consumers to purchase again. Too bad it's under such sad circumstances.

Below is one of the more bizarre renditions of MJ's truly groundbreaking Thriller video. It's done by inmates from a Philippine prison.


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