“What’s a Working Band to Do?” is a practical series of how-to articles. It is not about describing the unified field theory or exploring the outer reaches of human philosophy; it’s about working in the music business in the real world, so it’s not even about being a star, okay? It’s practical, do-able advice.
You don’t have to have read the preceding five articles in this series, “What’s a Working Band to Do?” in order to benefit from reading this. It may be that you had your demo recorded already and didn’t need the other articles; it may simply be that you’re interested in the process.
Somehow or other — in a process that combines love, luck, and a lot of hard work — you got some of your songs recorded (we’ll say three) for your band demo. Now, it will matter somewhat in the marketing of it, but not at all in these production steps, whether it was a recording of a live show or a set of tracks recorded in a studio (the best you could afford at the time).
At this point, the question to be answered, the decision to be made, is: Is the mix ready to master? Mastering is the last step before production, and it needs to be done professionally, at a cost (for three songs) of somewhere between $100-500. It is not a good idea for the recording/mixing engineer to master the CD, nor is it wise for any other amateur to do it. Since it may cost as much as all your studio time did, it is an important decision that you cannot afford to make incorrectly — or, for that matter, make correctly more than once.
The mixing phase, where the producer and the engineer (without the rest of the band, please!) balance all the recorded tracks in each song, adjust EQ, apply reverb and other effects, choose the best guitar solo overdub or cut-and-paste one together from several different takes — in other words, get all the parts working together to make one, organic whole. Whole books (make that, whole multi-volume book series) are written about this one subject, mixing, so it is far, far beyond the scope of this kind of article. If the Muses are smiling on your project, you will have hooked up with a competent pro or a gifted amateur who excels at mixing.
Okay, so you have your finished mix. Actually, there is a great two-dollar word meaning “next to the last” that should be used in this situation, since no one else but the producer and engineer have heard the mix at this point, and someone may point out something that needs to be fixed or tweaked (“may”? ha!). So, call it “the penultimate mix.” Really: Call it that when you get the group and a neutral observer (hearer) or two together for a listen. “Okay, guys, this is the penultimate mix here…”
This is where the producer, whoever he or she is, really does need to get some feedback about the demo. If it’s you, be prepared to hear“My solo’s too short,” or “Your solo’s too long,” or “I can’t hear my drum fills,” lots of that sort of thing. You may even hear a compliment or two for all the blood, sweat, and tears that you and the engineer poured into the work — but mostly you will hear whining and complaints. You need to keep this feedback session short and focused, with everyone thinking of the greater, common good, the overall sound, the clarity and punch of the tunes, the integrity of the sound, and how well it represents what you do musically.
Another series of books, of course, could be written on all the things that could possibly be wrong with the tunes or the recording of them, but just aim for the sound quality and presence that you get from your favorite CDs, and if you attain 85-90% of those levels, you’ve done well. Don’t let this mix review session drag on; get it done in one evening. Period. You can tweak and micromanage and fiddle forever, especially with software and hardware tools that let you tweak and micromanage and fiddle in a million ways with your recording. Resist the temptation to finesse the demo into a state of perfection. Yes, there is such a thing as perfection; no, it’s not on Earth.
Mastering is the final signal processing step before an audio CD is manufactured. This process is applied to the whole demo, all the tunes, and is not the time for fixing things that are performance-, recording-, or mix-related. Mastering will generally affect the gain (volume) level, apply limiting and compression (for presence and homogeneity), and perhaps add a bit of other signal “seasoning” to make the product “radio ready” — or, in the case of dance music, “club ready.”
There has been a tendency in the last couple of decades to compress the life and dynamics out of rock and pop music, so that your CD is as loud as the other guy’s or gal’s. This is not as prevalent in jazz and classical music as it is in, say, hip-hop and heavy metal, and should not be done “just because.” If your music has dynamic range — in other words, if it has some softer passages, some less orchestrated ones, some “space,” and some subtlety — ask the mastering engineer to take it easy on the “slamming.”
What you should have after handing the mastering engineer his check (a few hundred bucks, on average) is a high-end CD-R (Taiyo Yuden, Maxell Gold, Mitsui) with your tracks written to the 16-bit, 44.1kHz “Redbook” audio standard. This disc is sometimes called a “PMCD” (Pre-Master CD), and it is what a CD manufacturer will use to make the glass master used in replication. If you want to back it up, or keep the original safe and deliver a copy for manufacturing, remember that you must copy the disc, not the tracks; the whole disc needs to be cloned because the all-important Redbook table of contents (TOC) file needs to be at a specific location on the disc for it to work.
Okay, then. You have your PMCD. You have a little money left. It’s time to shop for a CD replicator.
Erik Jay is a writer, designer, and BMI composer/artist who lives in L.A. with one wife and two dogs. At his site, erikjay.com, you can take Door #1 for his editorial and design work, or Door #2 for original music.