Recording

“Every Time I Record Myself, It Sounds Terrible.”  Part One – What a Mic Wants, What a Mic Needs…

We have all watched, maybe in a movie or documentary, or on YouTube, a video clip of musicians in the studio being recorded by a nerdy engineer, and it sounds like pure magic.  This is so inspirational; it makes us all want to be there, recording music!

Barber Shop Studios, New Jersey, where I recorded my third album

So we buy some recording gear, bring it home, set it up, and press RECORD.  What happens next is, well, something LESS than inspirational, because it sounds awful.  Whether because of noise, distortion, a sound that is either too muffled or too shrill, or maybe a sound that becomes really loud and then ducks quieter, the bottom line is that it does nothing to inspire us to ever do it again.

This leaves the question in our mind:  why is it so difficult to capture a great-sounding recording of myself?

Let’s start with an assumption that whatever you are using right now to record yourself – a tape recorder, a mobile phone, a computer, expensive or inexpensive recording gear – is not part of the problem.  Let’s see how you can get the best recordings using the gear you already have.  Later, we’ll get into the gear and see how it plays into the challenge, and how you might be able to get a better sound out of it.

Flashback – I began recording my own songs decades ago using a four-track tape deck, an Atari ST computer hooked up to several MIDI keyboards, and a cheap dynamic microphone.  I would record a synchronization tone onto one of the four tracks of tape, at which point my Atari and my tape deck would record and playback in perfect synchronization.  All of the instruments were recorded as MIDI performances controlled by the computer, and all of my vocals would be recorded to tape.  For effects on my voice, I had the microphone wired through a chain of chorus, delay and reverb devices before plugging into the tape deck, so that all of those effects were recorded together.  I would create a stereo mix of my song by combining the sound of all instruments and voices playing back simultaneously from the MIDI keyboards and the multi-track tape.

 

This setup offered volumes of flexibility in arranging many instruments together and singing layers of vocals (once I figured out the intricacies of multi-track ping-ponging), but it also gave me something truly important – limitations.  Being limited to only three tape tracks (the fourth being consumed for synchronization) forced me to get creative with my recording techniques, and forced me to learn how to get the best sound out of that cheap dynamic microphone and hissy tape.

As technology improved and I bought my first “real” microphone – a Rode NT1 which stills lives in my microphone closet today – the fidelity of my voice recordings improved, but the studio-quality microphone suddenly revealed new challenges to me.  This new microphone could “hear” all sorts of noises in my environment that, quite frankly, I didn’t want to record.  By learning how this microphone responded to sounds all around it, I could find the best sounding spot in the room, the best direction for the microphone to face, and the best way for me to interact with it as a performer.  My recordings improved, but I still needed to tackle the unwanted noises in my environment.  I tried carpet, upholstered furniture, pillows and thick bedding draped over microphone stands, mattresses leaned up against walls, anything to reduce the noises leaking from other rooms and to minimize the amount of sound bouncing around inside my own room.  My recordings improved even more.

Things became more complicated each time I tried recording something other than my voice and MIDI keyboards, but I had confidence in my ability to make the best out of a poor situation, and to learn from my mistakes.  Since then, I’ve recorded stringed instruments (acoustic and electric), pianos, electronic instruments, wind instruments, drums and percussion, groups of singers, even my foot kicking a cardboard box, and I’ve done so in all sorts of acoustically strange or even hostile environments – concrete-walled hotel rooms with air conditioners and busy traffic outside, small rooms and large rooms not intended for sound recording, even outdoors.  Each time I record, I know that I’m able to consider the variables:

  • The room, and how it responds to sound
  • The everyday sounds that I may or may not want to record
  • Each instrument and voice, how they generate different sounds from different listening perspectives
  • Each microphone, how it “hears” the world around it
  • The complexity of having many instruments and voices in the same room, and many microphones hearing a blend of those instruments and voices

Let’s bring this back to the task of recording yourself playing your own instrument or singing with your own voice.  Consider your room, your instrument and your voice.  You’ll quite quickly find that WHERE you put the microphone makes a huge impact on the sound that the microphone “hears”, both because of the sound of the room and because the sound of an instrument will change depending on what part of that instrument is facing the microphone.  And consider the nature of your microphone; try positioning it a little closer, or a little farther away from the source of sound.  Try aiming it a little to the left or right.  Even try aiming it AWAY from the source of sound.  With some clear thinking and a little creativity, you can capture a range of sounds and you can be happier with the quality of your recordings.

Next instalment:  Part Two – What’s Gear Got to Do, Got to Do With It?

(with respect to Shelly Peiken and Guy Roche, who wrote “What a Girl Wants” for Christina Aguilera)

Songwriting

Don’t Be Afraid to Commit!

Are you committed?  Should you be committed?

This morning I was at the piano, playing a song I had written some time ago.  This was a song I really enjoyed writing, and I felt that, by writing it, I had accomplished something special.  However, time reveals the cracks and the flaws, and I had a rare opportunity to step back and stare at this song from a distance.  What am I trying to say?  Who are these characters in the song, and what do they want?  As I realized that I had been far too soft on answering these questions consistently, a glaring truth stared back at me – I HAD FAILED TO COMMIT.

Does this situation sound familiar?  Can you actually hear those voices saying things like “leave it up to your listener to decide”, or maybe “it’s more universal this way”.  STOP LISTENING TO THOSE VOICES, AND DON’T YOU DARE LET THOSE WORDS PASS BY YOUR OWN LIPS!  This is our all-too-human tendency to resort to justification (“it’s good enough, because lots of songs are vague”), to confirmation bias (“see, I found someone who understands it”), to lazy songwriting!  (There, I said it.)

The consequence of leaving too much up to the listener’s guesswork is this – we can’t possibly evoke our desired emotional response in our listeners.  Sure, it’s possible that someone will “get it”, but that’s thanks to a lengthy introduction to the song (or a blog post about it) lending a helping hand to their understanding of the song.  Either way, their reaction isn’t going to be as strong as it could be.

So here’s what I did.  I took a look at my song, as a whole, and asked myself to COMMIT.  What do my characters want?  What do I need to know about them in order to respond properly to their situation?  Then, I looked at the storytelling throughout the song.

  • Am I telling enough story, for you to understand the characters? If not, or if I’m waiting too long to get to the point, I need to work on my verses.
  • Is it clear to the listener, what my characters are trying to achieve? Is it consistent?
    (Please, songwriters, avoid one verse saying “it’s over”, followed by a chorus that says “I want you back”.  PLEASE!!!)  My song must have a single, consistent goal.  Either I want to party with you, or I don’t, it’s time to make up my mind.
  • Here’s an easy one – does a word, or a line, in my lyric, mention unimportant details, or mention something that is CONTRARY to the point of the song? Those words/lines must go!
  • Have I used the best POV (point of view) to tell this story? Maybe I should switch from first person (I/me) to third person (he/she/they), or vice-versa.
  • Can I imagine introducing the song, on-stage, to prepare my audience for the song, without telling a single clue about the contents of the song? If the song needs me to tell the audience, in advance, anything about the characters or the story in the song, SOMETHING IS MISSING FROM MY SONG.

This exercise can become really uncomfortable for a songwriter, for a few reasons:

  • I might become vulnerable
  • I might get judged
  • I might get listeners challenging me, asking me WHY I made the choices I did

As for being vulnerable, there is absolutely no downside to this, as a songwriter.  As humans, our audience will only see this as an honest attempt to talk about something important.

As for being judged, well, here’s a newsflash: we’re already being judged, and the more we are judged, the more we have made an impact on somebody’s life, which is the best result we could have as songwriters.

As for listeners asking WHY we made the choices we did, I’ll again refer to my last point, and say that this is an indication that we’ve made a connection with the audience, and raised a response within them.  How can that be a bad thing?  Aren’t we confident in the reasons that compelled us to write a song?

When we’re writing and rewriting songs, we can choose one of two paths:  we can COMMIT, and gain a much better chance at having a deeper connection with our listener’s emotions, or we can keep it “universal”, and gain a much better chance at our audience looking at their watches while they wait for the song to be over.  THE CHOICE IS YOURS, AND MINE.  Let’s make our songs worth the time we spend writing them, and worth our listeners’ time.

Write On!

Songwriting

Does my song have to rhyme?

Rhyme is an essential ingredient to songwriting; there’s no doubt about it.  Rhyme is used to define the structure of your song, draw attention to key messages in your lyric, and provide pleasure to the brain in much the same way as a piece of candy on the tongue.  Because our brains understand rhyme innately, we as songwriters can use it in our pursuit of triggering an emotional response in a listener.

Rhyme and Structure

In our quest to lead a listener through our song, it is crucial to help them understand the roadmap of the song, as the song winds through verses, choruses, bridges, etc.  A truly effective way of using rhyme in this pursuit is to write different rhyme patterns (rhyme schemes) into each section of your song.  For example, if your first verse rhymes line 1 and 2, and then rhymes lines 3 and 4, it will be very useful to use a different rhyme scheme in your chorus – say rhyming lines 2 and 4, but having no rhymes involving lines 1 and 3.  It will then be most effective for you to use the same rhyme scheme in every verse, and use the same rhyme scheme in every chorus.  The listener’s brain will use these clues (among many other clues that you’ll employ) to distinguish the verse from the chorus.

Rhyme and “Spotlight” Positions

Once your listener understands the rhyme schemes, they will anticipate the rhyme resolutions as the song unfolds.  It is with great pleasure that a brain experiences an anticipated rhyme resolution, and this can be leveraged to spotlight important words and messages in your song.  It is because of this phenomenon that the lyric line which resolves a rhyme will naturally solicit greater attention from your listener’s brain – a strong place to write an important word or message for greater impact.

Non-Rhymes

Does this mean that rhyming is mandatory?  Of course not, but it does mean that your choice of how and when to rhyme, as well as when to avoid rhyming, will have an impact on the way your listener responds to your song.  A song (or section of a song) with no rhymes at all will have a markedly different impact on your listener than one with a pattern of rhymes.  And that might be exactly the impact you want it to have, to match the intention of your song.

Rhyme Frequency

Your choice of rhyme scheme will also have an impact on whether or not your song feels like it moves quickly or slowly.  Too many rhymed resolutions in a section will make that section feel as if it moves slowly, and runs the risk of losing the listener’s attention.  Short lines with rhymed endings can be used for the opposite effect – accelerating the song towards an important moment.

Rhyme Strength

This is where the game gets tricky.  The strength of your rhyme resolution has a huge impact on its effect on your listener.  A Perfect Rhyme, matching both the ending vowel and consonant sounds in your paired words, has a different impact than a Near Rhyme (or Family Rhyme), where the vowel sounds are the same but the consonant sounds are close but not matching, and the rhyme strength is even weaker when the consonant sounds match but the vowel sounds do not (Consonant Rhyme).  The strength of your rhyme is directly related to how “satisfied” your listener’s brain will feel about the rhyme.  A Perfect Rhyme will leave your listener feeling settled and satisfied.  A non-rhyme (as imperfect as rhymes come) will leave your listener feeling unsettled and unsatisfied.  Suddenly a songwriting tool emerges – we can use rhyme schemes and rhyme strength to support the emotional response that we’re trying to trigger in our listener!  If I want the listener to feel an emotion that is more “settled”, “satisfied”, “feel-good”, then I’ll have a better chance of evoking that response if I use rhymes that support that feeling.  Conversely, if I’m interested in making my listener feel an emotion that is more “unsettled” or “unresolved”, I’ll have a better chance of evoking that response with fewer and weaker rhyme resolutions, or no rhymes at all.

Wait A Minute…

This is NOT to say that rhymes hold all the power in songwriting.  There are many other tools at our disposal when writing a song – melodic range and rhythm, harmonic shape, groove, tempo, and many other properties of the lyrics themselves – and each of them has the potential to help us or prevent us from evoking the intended response in our listeners.

Keep it Fresh

Now that we have a sense of the power of rhyming in our songwriting, it’s crucial to do everything we can to AVOID getting cliché with our rhymes (forget EVER rhyming Moon and June in your songs unless you write a TRULY clever lyric which surprises us).  Expand your search for rhyming words to include Near Rhymes, and you’ll likely find a fresh way to say what you want.  NEVER write for the rhyme itself – choosing a crappy word that doesn’t help your song, just for the sake of the rhyme, is lazy songwriting and will hurt your song’s ability to reach your listener.

Now Forget About Everything I Said Above

The last thing I want to do is paralyze your songwriting muscles by telling you that you must engineer your song for optimal rhyming.  It’s a fun exercise to think about these things upfront (and the seasoned writers will do this instinctively), but more likely you’ll want to use these ideas as you EDIT and REWRITE your songs – because you do edit and rewrite your songs, right?  Right?  Just say “yes”.  The ideas above are meant to help you examine your songs to make sure that you’re getting the most out of your rhymes.

Write On!

Keeping it Real

You don’t need to see the Horizon, as long as you can stay on the Path

Are you frustrated by the massive gap between where you see yourself now and where you want to be?

Maybe you see yourself one day standing on stage and delivering mind-melting rock ‘n roll to 10,000 screaming fans.  Maybe you see yourself sinking a game-winning basket in an NBA playoff series.  Whatever your dream, there’s usually a feeling that it could never happen.  Well, only a few select players ever make it to the NBA, and for every stage-strutting rocker there are a million dreamers who wish it could be them, so it’s definitely going to take something phenomenal for that dream of yours to become reality.

But here’s the thing – you don’t need to be able to touch your dreams today or tomorrow to keep them alive.  Just chip away at the obstacles, inch closer and closer, and before long you will be able to see enough growth to motivate you further and further down your path.

A few years ago, I coached youth basketball, and while we didn’t win any championships, I did see growth in our players.  One player in particular struggled to get results, since he was one of the smaller players on the team, and not as physical as many of his opponents, but he learned that committing to incremental change was the key to his development.  He was the player who did simple exercises to strengthen his muscles – calf-raises while he brushed his teeth, and push-ups in the morning and at night, every single day.

He was the one player who came out to every open practice – sometimes being the only player to show up – where he would diligently practice lay-ups, alternating right-handed and left-handed layups until he reached one hundred.  He would practice free throws and three-point shots, one hundred of each.  He learned the plays, paid attention at practice, and ended up as a starter on his high school basketball team.

Did he make it to the NBA?  No, because he had a dream that he wanted even more, and he applied the same focus to training for this bigger dream.  Instead of practicing lay-ups and free throws, now he spends the same dedication to practicing with a guitar in his hands and a microphone at his lips.  He’s not a household name yet, but he has already knocked out some fantastic milestones, including a fantastic debut album which highlights his songwriting and performance skills, increasing respect and visibility on the club scene, and top standing in his college music program – where he still applies a step-by-step approach to his future graduation with a Bachelor of Music degree, and, better yet, a bag full of skills that will propel him toward greater and greater things.  Some days he gets discouraged, because the road ahead is still a long one, but he can already look back and recognize the massive progress he has made.

He still likes to play a little basketball, and when he does, he’s still really good at it.

The take-away is this – as long as you keep yourself dedicated to your goal, and make consistent steps in that direction, you will get closer to the goal every day.  And when you get discouraged or take a step in the wrong direction, just glance backward to remind yourself of your progress so far, and get back on the path.  As the song says, “put one foot in front of the other, and soon you’ll be walking ‘cross the floor” (shout out to anyone who can name the source without relying on Google).  Beyond that, be patient and, most of all, enjoy the journey!

Production

Why is making music so expensive? Am I getting screwed over?

It would appear that today’s musician is faced with a long list of bills to pay in order to make music and get it heard by an audience, and on the other side of the coin, it seems more and more difficult to earn enough money to pay these bills.

First of all, it’s completely accurate to state that it costs, and should cost, a fairly significant amount of money to produce and release music.  This is a business, and the people involved are doing a ton of hard work, over many hours, for the benefit of your music.  There is a glut of boring, poor quality music released every day that hasn’t seen the benefit of enough skilled contributions, and what money was spent on those recordings is wasted, since the songs won’t rise above the noise in the market.  But is it possible that the music business has become all about stealing money from the artist’s pocket?

Some would say that the music business has ALWAYS been about stealing money from the artist’s pocket.  While I agree there are all shades of shady characters out there, making promises and demanding unreasonable fees, there is also a whole world of friendly, honest specialists whose skills are exactly what you need to make and distribute a great record.

From the music teachers who helped you learn to make music, to the sales experts who helped you buy your instruments and other gear, you’ve already benefitted from specialists before you even reach the point of making your own music.  At this point, you can benefit from the expertise of those who know how to:

  • Write a compelling song
  • Arrange the parts for musicians and music programmers
  • Perform some of the instrumental or vocal parts
  • Capture a great recording of instruments and voices
  • Blend and enhance those recordings into an exciting mix
  • Prepare that mix for manufacturing and distribution
  • Create visual art and design that mirrors your intentions
  • Deliver your finished recording(s) to your listening audience
  • Promote your music to help listeners discover you
  • Look for other opportunities to place your music
  • Follow up on monies that should be paid to you when your music is performed or broadcast
  • Help you figure out what to do next

And this list only looks at the best case scenario – it doesn’t even get into the jobs of keeping a recording session on track and on budget, finding a replacement bass player when yours doesn’t show up, and keeping you calm every step of the way.

For decades, these roles have existed in the music business, and we’ve heard the roles named.  Songwriter, Composer, Arranger, Musician, Vocalist, Recording Engineer, Mix Engineer, Mastering Engineer, Illustrator, Graphic Designer, Record Label, Publisher, Manager, Agent, etc.

It’s in your best interest to understand all these roles, even if you aren’t good at some of them.  If you ARE capable of handling every step mentioned above, then you’re likely already a successful indie artist, and I’m likely already a fan.  There is so much to learn, and so much to do, and you will meet so many people who have become really, really good at one or two pieces of the puzzle, so why not put them to work on your music?  And why not pay them what they’re worth?  The end result will be so much better, and so much more likely to help your career.

Performance, Recording

Should I hire a musician to play my instrument?

Whether or not you play cards, perhaps the best advice you can hear as an artist is “play to your strong suit”.

For some artists, their strength is their musical ability, not their songwriting.  For others, it will be the opposite – some artists have greatly developed their songwriting voice, and/or their singing voice, but have only developed their instrumental ability sufficiently to serve their songwriting, or to accompany themselves at an open mic.

This is NOT a weakness!  Many savvy artists choose to specialize, dedicating themselves to excellence in a particular area – often with the benefit of developing a unique style or sound.  That becomes a tremendous strength.

So maybe you wrote your song with a guitar in your hand, and can accompany yourself at an open mic on that guitar.  That doesn’t mean you’re the best choice to play guitar on your recording, or the best choice to accompany yourself at an important live performance.  This concept even extends beyond musical accompaniment.  For some purposes, you may even want someone other than you to be the singer, the FOCUS of the performance, if it better serves the purpose of communicating your song with your desired audience.  This could be in an effort to pitch your song demo to a recording artist, to perform at a showcase event, or even your creative choice of how to prepare your song for public release (MANY songwriters have released records on which another artist is the lead singer).

Consider all your options.  If you can hire a specialist to play an instrument on the record, or on-stage, better than you can do it yourself, it is worth considering, for the sake of the quality of the record.  Do all you can do to make your art remarkable, and always play to your strong suit!

Mixing

How Do I Choose A Mix Engineer?

A mix engineer will take the tracks that you have recorded in a studio or at home, and blend them into a mixed recording that can be played back on any playback device.  By ‘tracks’, we mean the recorded signals which came from each individual microphone or instrument while each performer was recording their performance.  Between the various recorded inputs and the many takes (attempts) at a performance, a modern recording can include anywhere from dozens to hundreds of individual tracks.  It is the job of the mix engineer to use various processing techniques to alter and blend these tracks in an attempt to highlight the important aspects of your performance.

You could take your tracks to hundreds of mix engineers and get as many different results.  Why is this?  Many will credit the equipment, others the technical training, but the most significant factor is the judgment, taste and character of the mix engineer.  There’s generally no “best” mix, because that will depend on your taste as well.

So don’t be convinced to choose one engineer over another by the collection of expensive tools, or a diploma hanging on the wall.  Listen to their work, and ask questions about the nature of the tracks that were supplied for the engineer’s use.  Look for an engineer who can:

  • Work with tracks like the ones you have on hand (home-recorded or studio-recorded, also the kinds of instruments/voices recorded and the style of your music)
  • Listen and understand your vision for the completed recording
  • Provide samples of his/her work which give you confidence in their ability to deliver to your vision
  • Earn your trust
  • Provide references, if you ask

Make sure you’re working with partners who care about your music as much as you do!

Recording

Can I Record My Own Tracks?

Nowadays, technology allows us considerable flexibility in making records.  Not only are the tools of recording becoming more affordable and available, but the ability to easily share files makes it easier than ever before to record with other musicians and engineers, anywhere in the world.

This includes the ability for you to record your own performance, likely saving on the cost of recording facilities, all without sacrificing much in the way of quality.  Your mixing engineer can then incorporate these tracks into the mix.

Technically speaking, you can competently record your own performance with very little equipment.  Depending on your instrument, you’ll need:

  • one or more microphones, or direct injection boxes for instruments with built-in transducers
  • a device which links the microphone or direct box to a recording device
  • the recording device – a tablet, computer, even a mobile phone
  • basic or advanced recording software (often free or inexpensive)
  • speakers or headphones to play back your recordings

There are many possible configurations, depending on your budget and your comfort level with the technology, but suffice to say that recording is more accessible to musicians than ever before.

Don’t let a salesperson tell you that you need to spend a lot of money on any one of these pieces.  The most important factor is HOW you use the technology.  Where you place the microphone, what you do to control unwanted sounds in your recording room, and the natural quality of your instrument, have far more impact on your finished sound than the cost of your recording equipment.

Having said all this, would I prefer to work with professionally-recorded tracks?  Of course I would, but this is about YOUR music and budget, not mine.  Capturing a great sound comes with a variety of challenges.  While I encourage you to consider recording some of your own tracks, it is entirely possible that these challenges will merely help you decide that going into a purpose-built studio, with an experienced recordist, is the better choice for you.

If you feel confident recording your own performances, discuss this with your recording or mix engineer, who can give you valuable advice on how to get the best result.  If it doesn’t work out to your satisfaction, you can reconsider and try again.  If nothing else, you will gain useful experience and understanding of the process.

Performance

What Should I Say Between Songs?

You have spent a lot of time crafting your songs, and hopefully considerable time deciding on the songs that will make up your live show, and the order in which you will perform them.  Performing compelling songs, in the right order, will help you deliver a fantastic live music experience that will move your audience to fill the tip jar, buy your merch, and tell their friends about you.

One part of the live show that is too often neglected, is the transition from one song into another.  Concert flow involves a host of things to consider:

  • Allowing time for changing or re-tuning of instruments
  • Avoiding a lull in your concert, during which nothing happens on-stage and your audience gets restless and begins talking to one another, heading to the bar or the bathroom
  • Setting the right mood for each new song
  • Giving your audience something to remember, and especially something to tell their friends about

It is tremendously useful to visualize the transition between the songs in your show, before the show, and decide what you can do to keep your audience engaged at all times.  Just like making a set list, deciding in advance what you will say during song transitions will help your show, because it will take care of decision-making before you hit the stage and deal with the many distractions that must be managed while the show is live.

Consider how much time you spent crafting your songs, making them deliver the right experience for your audience.  Why not spend time crafting your song transitions?  Writing and rehearsing your stories and jokes will only improve your live show.  Maybe you’ll tell the same jokes and stories each time you perform, maybe you’ll write new ones, but planning and rehearsing these song transitions is the mark of a true performer.

What should you say?  Here are a few suggestions that are simply the opinion of this author:

  • AVOID lowering your audience’s expectations by nervously telling the audience how much you hope they like your song. You believe in your song’s strength, so give a confident introduction to help your audience believe as well.
  • When you’re going to play a song made famous by another artist, AVOID introducing the song as “a cover”. While this is a meaningful term between musicians, it tends to suggest to an audience that this next song will be something non-special.  Instead, introduce the song as a song you “wish you had written”, or a song that “really makes you feel something deeply”, to introduce the song as a special moment in your show.
  • AVOID telling too many long stories. If it truly helps set up the song, then pick your moments and make it special.
  • Make your transition between songs meaningful. Try to let the songs in your show come together into a larger story.
  • When introducing any song, try to give the audience a reason why the next song will be meaningful to them. It’s NOT ABOUT YOU, about how special you feel for having written it – your audience cannot share that feeling.  Give them a way to share the emotion of the song by offering a way for them to relate to it.  For example, “You know that feeling you get when someone tells you for the first time that they love you?  This next song is about deciding to say it back”.  Most of your audience will have first-hand experience of that feeling, and will be perfectly invited into your song.

Planning your transitions is not sacrificing spontaneity.  It is an exercise in serving your audience.

Production

How Loud Is Your Song?

You want your final recording to sound its best, and you want it to sound great alongside your favourite recordings.  Is your producer, or mastering engineer, asking you how “loud” you want your song to be?  What does that even mean?

We have recently gone through a period of time marked by a term called “The Loudness Wars”.  You’ve probably heard people talk about these loudness wars.  They’re talking about the evolution of a practice in song mastering, whereby mastering engineers were instructed to make a song sound as loud as possible next to other tracks.  With the invention of the compact disc, mastering engineers were not working under the same physical limitations which accompanied vinyl records, and were able to “pump up the volume” using audio compression techniques.  This approach was able to make a song seem more energetic and exciting, compared to another song.  For the listener, though, this often meant having to manually change the volume on a playback device to compensate for a song which appears to be either too loud or too quiet.  If you listen to CD’s produced in different decades, you will no doubt notice this phenomenon.

Today’s technology, in both music playback devices and radio and streaming services, has changed to favour a consistent listening experience for the music listener.  Whether you’re listening to music stored on your modern device, or listening to your favourite online streaming service, the playback system is automatically adjusting the volume for you, based on a measurement of how “loud” each song is.  (There’s even a way for you to see these adjustments listed for each song, if you use iTunes software.)

To keep this explanation simple, the end result is this – a song mastered using a “louder is better” approach will actually sound QUIETER and less exciting when played back through modern devices.

The bottom line – be sure that you understand the approach employed by your producer and/or mastering engineer, and ask that they keep current playback technology in mind when mastering your record.