Producing & Recording
My producing career began almost by accident. Having been a performer (on trumpet) for over 40 years, I've played in recording studios for much of my professional life. After countless albums, jingles, TV shows, and production dates, I started asking questions about recording my trumpet and other instruments. I soon found out that many engineers and producers were not tracking these instruments as effectively as possible. By using my talents as a performer, I take the time to record instruments using the best microphones, preamps and recording platform to suit the job at hand. I can usually persuade studio musicians to respond and perform to the best of their ability, and to do it quickly and efficiently. I can write music, make immediate changes, and best of all, get the best sound from their instruments. From Pop to Jazz combos to vocalists to Big Band, I try to cover all the bases. My passion for music is first and foremost, and I have a list of extremely satisfied clients and engineers. I've produced over 75 albums to date, and have produced several PBS TV shows of my annual AppleJazz concerts in New York State. I was fortunate enough to be nominated for a Cable Ace award for my 1995 broadcast of AppleJazz.
I have my own record company and website at www.applejazz.com, and I'm a voting member of NARAS (The GRAMMYS), a member of the American Federation of Musicians, and an ASCAP member. To the right are some of the labels, artists and engineers I have had the privilege of working with.
Making a Record
Many people have asked me how recordings are made. Having produced more than 75 records to date, I would like to share with you the steps I, and I believe most producers, go through to accomplish the task.
First, a brief note of explanation: I still call recordings ALBUMS or RECORDS. Being a voting member of NARAS (the Grammy people), I follow their terminology of "Record of The Year" and "Album of the Year." Don't let anyone scold you for using these terms!! A RECORD can be purchased on a CD or an LP record, or as a DIGITAL DOWNLOAD.
THE SONGS AND THE ARTISTS
Every recording project begins with an artist and/or a band, and a selection of songs. The songs can be a random group, but often choosing a theme helps tie the songs together, making the album more uniform. I generally encourage clients to include a variety of songs and styles that will showcase the many talents and capabilities of the artist and/or the band.
A difficult part of choosing material is narrowing down the selections. Most artists and bands have a large collection of songs that need to be winnowed down and organized in a manner that suits the theme of the project and showcases the talents of the artist and the composer/arrangers.
THE STUDIO AND RECORDING SESSION
The hardest part of this phase of the project is booking the band and the studio. With a group of professional musicians, it is can be very difficult to book consecutive days when everyone is available. Often, it is important to record at a time when the final product will be ready by a particular deadline in order to take advantage of sales opportunities during a tour or festival season. The entire project usually takes about three months from start to finish—if everything goes smoothly.
The choice of a studio depends on the needs of the artist and/or band.
In making that choice, I take three factors into account: the ROOM, the PERSONNEL, and the GEAR. A larger recording space means a fuller sound; the engineer and assistants provide the expertise to run the room and the gear; better equipment means a more truthful and higher quality sound. Of course a big studio, the best staff, and first-rate equipment cost more money, so budgets need to be adjusted accordingly. Most clients come to me for top-quality recordings, so I like to use the best gear, the best engineers, and the best studio when I produce an album. The final product will always speak for itself, so I try to give the artist and the listener the very best music, recorded at the very highest level.
Engineers are the producer's best friends. They must have an understanding of the music, the musicians, and the producer's intent and style. They are almost like an extra member of the band; listening, paying attention to the emotion of each take, the errors, where the artist could improve, or when a take has that special magic. During recording sessions, the engineer documents all the master tracks and takes so that particular songs and takes will be easy to locate when we go to the mixing session. He is also responsible for the setup in the studio, which includes microphone selection (the wrong mike can ruin someone's sound on a record), mike placement, and even having the piano tuned if it will be used during the session. He must create an aural "picture" of the band that replicates the group's natural sound. This takes a real artist!
Recording creates a lot of pressure on artists. Many times a band nails a take in one pass, but just in case, I like to stretch recording sessions out over several days to allow time to do a few takes of each tune if we need to, and for listening back, picking the best takes for the record, making changes as necessary, and striving for the best representation of the artist or group. After each take, I often bring the group into the control room with the engineer and listen to a playback. This allows us all to critique the performance and sound, and decide if any changes need to be made before moving ahead. Once the band has laid down the tracks, there may be a few overdub sessions where vocals are done separately, or some solos may be performed again. Although many steps remain, the recording process is now finished and the pressure on the artists is OFF!
THE MIXING SESSION
As the music is recorded, multiple tracks of sound are laid down. In a jazz session there are usually two tracks for the piano, eight tracks for drums, two for the bass, two for guitar, one track for each horn, one track for extra solos or overdubs, one or two tracks for vocals, and two or four tracks for the room or "ambient" mikes. Of course, each client or band has different instruments and needs, so the track list has to be changed to suit the needs of the client.
After the recording session is finished, all of the tracks have to be blended or MIXED together to make the arrangements balanced and smooth. This process can last for days, and involves a mixing engineer, a producer, and a good mixing studio. I like to use a room designed just for mixing, and Orlando has some terrific rooms. The engineer and I go into the mixing room after the recording session and start listening, tweaking, balancing, and adjusting the sounds of the instruments to get a clear, smooth blend of everything. This takes much of the first day. Then we go to work on mixing the individual songs, making sure we can hear each soloist, the piano, the vocals, and the inner parts that are often lost in live performances due to poor sound people or equipment. Sometimes the artist will stop in to hear how things are going as the mix progresses and to offer suggestions and support. It is not unusual to have to listen to each song 30 to 40 times during a mix, making adjustments with each new "pass." When the mix is finished, the final mixes are transferred to a DVD or a computer's external hard drive for delivery to the MASTERING STUDIO.
THE MASTERING SESSION
If you think of the mix as a delicious three-layer chocolate cake, then mastering is the frosting, decorations and the silver platter upon which the cake is served. The mastering engineer is an artful combination of scientist, audio engineer, and musician. He has speakers that are completely neutral, meaning they don't color the sound at all. Many home speakers boost the bass a little, or twinkle the highs a bit. They are designed that way so when you get them in your living room or car, your music sounds wonderful to you. But in the mastering lab, it is important to hear the final mixes with no coloration whatsoever so that any necessary adjustments can be made. These adjustments are very sophisticated tweaks that you might think of as "bass," "mid-range" and "treble" controls. The volume of the songs also must be adjusted or "leveled." When you play a CD, you should not have to turn soft songs up or loud songs down. This is done during the mastering process.
The mastering studio is also where the final "assembly" of the songs is accomplished. All of the music is loaded into a computer that is designed for audio editing, and then the songs are arranged in the order the client has selected for the album. The space between each song is determined (Yes, it's different for each song.), and the volume levels are checked again to make sure the album has a smooth flow to it. Then a pre-master CD is made. I usually take this home and listen to it on my home stereo and my portable CD player, in my car, and through my headphones. This tells me how the record would sound in the different ways most listeners would hear it. I make extensive notes about each listening environment and determine what adjustments need to be made by the mastering engineer. I then return to the mastering studio one more time for the adjustments and to make the final master that will be used for mass duplication.
ARTWORK AND PHOTOS
For many albums, decisions regarding artwork and photos are made by the label's marketing people. They usually have ideas for the album cover, the photos, and the liner notes inside. Like the recording session, the photo shoot can be a booking nightmare, particularly if you have to get an entire band together at the same time for a picture. Once the materials are ready, the photos, text and sketches go to the label's artist for assembly and digital preparation. This process typically requires several back-and-forth emails for revisions and corrections, which can take several weeks even if everything goes smoothly. I try to have this process taking place while mixing is being done, so the artwork doesn't hold up production. Once the artwork is finished and approved, it is sent to a print shop where the materials for the CDs are printed. Then, when the "paper" is ready, it is shipped to the manufacturing plant, along with the CD master.
The duplication plant presses the CDs, assembles the jewel boxes or Digi-Paks with the tray card and booklet, then shrink wraps the product and boxes the CDs for shipping.
FEES FOR LICENSES
Another necessary step in the project, which is usually taken early in the process, is to secure licenses to record any songs that are not original tunes composed for that record. Most songs are owned by a publisher. When an artist records a song to be put on a CD, permission must first be granted by the publisher. This permit is called a "mechanical license." If the song is to be available for digital download, permission for that is called a "digital license." One major agency that issues these licenses and collects and distributes the required fees to the appropriate publishers is the Harry Fox Agency. If HFA doesn't handle the license for a particular song, then the individual publisher must be contacted for a license. This can take valuable time away from a projected release date! The fee for each song is approximately 9.1 cents per song, per unit. That means that for 1,000 copies of a CD with 10 songs on it, the label must pay $0.091 x 10 songs x 1,000 units = $910 in licensing fees. It also means that folks who think it's OK to download music for free on the Internet clearly are breaking applicable laws and cheating the rightful owners of songs out of compensation they are due!
DISTRIBUTION AND PROMOTION
Many artists and bands rely on distributors to get their products into record stores, but these days many are doing a lot of their own promotion on their websites and through networking sites such as Facebook. Many also keep mailing lists and email lists to do their own promotion, which may include mailings, ads in industry publications, website sales, point-of-purchase sales at gigs, and word of mouth.
As a final thought, I would say that keeping organized and staying on budget are the two most important requirements for a successful experience in making a record. Thanks for your interest in how albums are made. If you have any questions, just let me know. I'll be glad to answer them. Or, if any comments have popped into your head, please let me hear from you.