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Preparing your material

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The Focusrite Guide To Releasing Music: Part 1

Preparing your material.

Words: Chuck Fishman

You’ve recorded a song. Or a few songs. Maybe it’s a collection of songs — an album — now you’re thinking about how to release it.

The good news is that releasing your music is easier than it ever was. When I started my music career I was touring with George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic (P-Funk). My family helped me finance the recording of my first album in 1996, which took place at expensive and beautiful analog recording studios, replete with giant two-inch tape recording machines and a huge Soundcraft 48-channel mixing board. I needed to hire an entertainment attorney as I had to draft contracts for all the special music guests appearing on the album, including members of P-Funk. Then I was dropped from my recording contract by a major label and had to figure out how to self-release the work, which included manufacturing CDs. Once I had the CDs, there was learning how to get the music heard by sending out promo packs to press and college radio. Yes, physical mail!

In this four-part series, I’ll lean on my experience to provide some simple steps that will help you get your music heard. And there are great opportunities to get paid by selling your music, by offering it on streaming platforms, and of course, sometimes lucrative opportunities to license your music outright to be used in advertisements, TV shows and films. Since my career began in the ’90s, so much of the music-release process has been digitised and simplified, even legal contracts can be generated on tech platforms. Unfortunately, there are too many steps you can miss along the way that will wind up hurting these opportunities to get your music streamed, sold and licensed. So, throughout all of this process, remember to take a thoughtful and sensible approach. 

 

The Music Release Checklist

My checklist is almost like a flow chart, a ‘choose your own adventure’ game, if you will. You may skip over some steps if they don’t apply to you.    

 

STEP 1: Preparing Your Final Mixes

This might sound obvious, but it’s important that you actually check then double- and triple-check your final mixes to make sure everything sounds right. Compare your mixes to already released songs you like; specifically songs that are of the same genre that you produce. Do they sound close? What’s different about songs you made and songs you like? These are important questions to ask.

As an example, my group FSQ makes very thick disco and funk music that includes lots of analogue instrumentation. One of the things we do when listening back to the final mix is to make sure that all the instruments can be heard, and that there is space in the mix for each one. What I mean by space in the mix is that each instrument should occupy its own range of the frequency spectrum, so that no two instruments are sonically stepping on each other. 

Sometimes, it’s possible to use EQ to carve out space, but with a lot of instruments in the arrangement, it’s common for the mix to become overcrowded. In this case, we will take a more aggressive approach by muting parts that are conflicting, then introducing them into the song as it progresses. We call this ‘stacking’ the mix over the course of the song, and it has the effect of building the overall energy and giving the track more breathing room on the whole. 

Tip: It might sound obvious, but make sure you are 100% happy with your mix.

If you are still struggling with your mixes, find an audio engineer to help you mix down the songs to your liking. Hopefully you know local audio engineering talent, but can also search on music professional networking sites like Soundbetter, which is owned by Spotify. The issue with finding remote talent is that you may have to do a lot of back and forth over email to get to the final mixes you want. This all may seem like common sense, but I have let too many songs out the door before really spending time with them and listening to make sure they sound right. Don’t skip this step. 

 

STEP 2: Get Organised! 

Regardless of how you make your final mix, there is one extra prep step that is important for the future of your release. Bounce out all of the individual instrumental and vocal tracks, also known as stems, from your individual song sessions. Make sure to export them from your DAW as uncompressed audio WAV of AIFF files, with each one timed to start at zero, so that they all line up when reassembled on a timeline. Make sure to print any plugins and effects you are using into the bounced stems, as it’s possible the audio engineer dialing up your songs does not use the same DAW and may not have access to the same software tools. 

Once you have your stems, name each individual song’s session folder with the song title and the beats per minute of the song, and in the folder place the bounced files. Make sure to put all of your mixdowns and session folders for your songs in a password-secure online storage site, like Dropbox. If you are really worried about security, enable two-factor authentication on your cloud storage. I have seen too many people lose hard drives with their music and have no access to back ups. 

Bouncing out your stems and organising them to this extent may not seem important now, especially if you’re not getting any additional help in making final mixes. But it’s important for the future. Think of it this way, in the days of analogue recording, you left the recording session with a master tape of your music. Organising your sessions now means you have the master tapes, in digital form, and this can make or break deals in the future. For instance, sync agents might want to place your music in film or TV, but may need to go back and make a mix or arrangement change that suits their video programming. In the world of dance music, a record label might want to get another artist to remix your songs at some stage down the line. Recently, my record label asked me to provide stems from a session recorded in 2008! Think of it as an investment in your future. 

Tip: Once your final mix is completed, bounce stems and effects and back up to a secure location — you might need them in the future. 

 

STEP 3: Mastering

So you’re happy with your final mix, what about getting it mastered? There are so many options, and which path you take will depend on your publishing arrangements and how much time and money you are able to spend. 

What’s a given is that the mastering process will certainly make your music louder, but it can also potentially change the whole sonic dynamic. While mastering technology is pretty solid, mistakes are sometimes made in the process. Furthermore, various mastering engineers have different ears and approaches towards sound. The master could wind up sounding tin-can like, thin and metallic, or bassy and muddy. Like checking your mixes, proofing your masters is critical. And, while the record label you are working with may not allow you to make changes to a final master, at least you won’t be surprised if your final mix now sounds different on the release. 

 

I’m signed to a record label, how is mastering handled? 

If you are signing your music with an independent record label, they will most likely be handling the mastering. Once you’re happy with your mix, you will need to create a ‘pre-master’ — a version of your final mix delivered in a format that the mastering engineer can work with. 

 

How do I make a pre-master?

To create a pre-master, take your final mix and turn the master output level down by 6dB to leave headroom for the mastering engineer to work. Then render/bounce/export it as a 24-bit/96kHz stereo file — you can configure these settings in your DAW’s output preferences — and ask the mastering house to maintain this format throughout the mastering process, if possible. They may not be mastering at this quality, but it’s important to keep the high-resolution master, because more music retailers and streaming services are moving to high-quality audio, it’s important to try and offer your music in this format. 

 

pre-master

An example of pre-master settings: the peak level is hitting -6dB to provide headroom in the mixed file.

Always proof your masters!

It’s important to always ask for final approval on the record label’s final masters of your music. They are supplying the material to their distributor, and the distributor will ultimately deliver your music to streaming services and digital music retail outlets. In some cases the distributor is using the masters to manufacture physical media like CDs and vinyl. As with anything, mistakes can (and do) happen, and you are the best placed to spot them, because you know the material better than anyone. Can you imagine if you don’t like the master of your song mix and it has already been pressed to a few hundred CDs or records? 

Recently, I made the mistake of not asking for a listen to the final master of an FSQ remix for Lonely C of Soul Clap. We listened to our FSQ remix on release day, on Spotify, Apple Music, Bandcamp, and everywhere else and thought, ‘wow something is really wrong here’. It turns out the mastering engineer had accidentally mastered our reference master versus our quieter premaster, which was the intended audio file that was to be mastered. This meant that the final master of our remix was twice as loud as it normally should be, and was now over modulated and clipping. Fortunately, we have a great relationship with our record label, Soul Clap Records, and we were able to resupply the master to their digital distributor. Unfortunately, it takes most digital distributors 72 hours to deliver digital audio to the major streaming and retail sites, like Beatport, Traxsource and Juno Download. So for three days before the correct master was delivered, fans were streaming a too-loud, overmodulated track. Even worse, some fans were buying a damaged audio file with the intention of playing it out in public. So, once again: always proof your masters!

 

Can I make my own reference masters?

With my group FSQ, the majority of our productions are remixes for other artists on record labels we may not typically work with. These remixes are going on EP and album releases with work by other producers. So, to keep consistency, the main artist’s record label will master all of the remixes for that release together, using the same mastering engineer and process. However, we also make reference masters that we use to play out in clubs, on radio shows and recorded DJ sets. We choose to handle the mastering process ourselves. In FSQ, we’re lucky to have producer One Era aka Matt Coogan in our ranks, a talented mastering ear who masters all our music using the popular software mastering suite Ozone by iZotope. 

 

A record label is not releasing my music, I need to master it myself 

For those without the support of an independent (or major) record label, you’ll be needing to handle the mastering process yourself. There are plenty of options open to you, and it’s worth spending time doing some research into what will work best for you. 

 

Mastering your own material

If you’re an experienced audio engineer, there are software mastering suites that make self-mastering a very enticing option. The DIY approach is definitely the most immediate and least costly in the long term — once you buy the software, you’ll have it for future projects. And in the right conditions, the results can be as good as any other mastering option.   

However, remember that mastering is not purely a technical process. The creative aspect that a fresh set of ears brings to the mastering phase can lift a song and breathe new life into your work. If you’re mastering yourself, this element of creativity will be omitted from the process. Consider also that mastering requires a very balanced listening environment. So if your studio is the corner of a spare bedroom or you use headphones, mastering your own material is not recommended. 

 

Ozone by isotope in use.

Ozone by iZotope in use.

Hiring a professional

Mastering engineers are a special breed. Their job seems simple, but it can make or break a record. Good mastering engineers tend to listen to music differently to musicians — they analyse dynamics and frequency over harmony and melody, then make subtle adjustments to a stereo file to bring out the best in the mix. They also spend all their time mastering, so they’re fast and efficient, and have tons of experience in the field. 

Hiring a mastering engineer is not cheap, but it’s a sensible choice when you’ve invested a lot of time and money into making a record. When planning your record budget, always consider mastering from the outset, so you can ensure you have the funds when the time for mastering comes. 

While we have a capable mastering engineer in our crew, we chose to hire a pro for the upcoming FSQ album. We decided to work with sought-after mastering engineer Joe Lambert, who has mastered albums for the likes of The Black Crowes, The B-52’s, Animal Collective and Warren Haynes. 

One unique experience that comes with working with a mastering engineer like Joe is the opportunity to sit in on the mastering session. (Check with your mastering engineer that they are happy to host you!) We went to Lambert’s mastering studio and listened while he worked for several hours on the mastering. The result was great and the experience was positive — FSQ productions are lush with instrumentation and the mastering process brought out the discrete instruments and made them shine. 

 

Outsourcing your mastering 

If you’re not comfortable with either using mastering software to master your own material, or spending money on a mastering engineer, there are online services that will master your music for an affordable price. Part of whether you decide to go with an automated cloud mastering service depends on the complexity of your music. Some genres are less musically complicated, such as acoustic folk music or minimal techno, for instance, and therefore may lend themselves better to such mastering services. 

Several of these mastering services can be found within digital distributors who offer self-service options for independent musicians to deliver music to streaming services and retail music sites. These mastering services are essentially cloud-based software programs that run your mixes through audio-processing algorithms to create masters. LANDR was one of the first to the game with this technology and now itself is a digital music distributor. Some record labels we have worked with used LANDR for our FSQ releases. I only found the service to add more dynamic range and volume to our recordings, but not the extra sparkle I hear when we use a mastering engineer or work directly with a software suite.
One major benefit to LANDR and similar services is the affordable fee — LANDR’s $25 monthly fee for as many songs you would like to master is very agreeable pricewise. That said, when selecting your cloud mastering partner, I wouldn’t recommend price be your deciding factor; choose the method and platform that sounds the best. Cloudbounce is another automated offering that is partnered with digital music distributor CD Baby. Like LANDR, Cloudbounce offers a subscription service for unlimited mastering and also charges about $10 per song individually. Meanwhile CD Baby sister company, Discmakers, has Soundlab which offers professionally engineered masters starting at roughly $50 a song. Tunecore, another digital distributor has a professional mastering partner, Aftermaster, this time at roughly $75 a song. SoundLab and Aftermaster’s middle ground of using real engineers and allowing you to send feedback on their completed work might be the best balance between using an online platform and maintaining some connection with the engineer. You won’t be in the mastering suite, but you will at least be able to adjust the masters to your liking via an email feedback loop. Other online mastering services include Chosen Masters, eMastered, Schnalz and Maztr. 

 

Some of the options offered in online mastering service LANDR

Some of the options offered in online mastering service LANDR.

Footnote: to copyright and publish before mixing and mastering? 

Some of my musician colleagues would tell you to first copyright and publish your songs before moving on to making a final mix, pre-master and master. The copyright and publishing steps are super important and some artists do put these first. For instance, songwriters who make music for other artists may create a demo version of their songs that they want other artists to perform. In order to claim the song as their own, they first copyright it and furthermore may publish it, before sending the demo on to another artist. 

I put mixing and mastering as the first steps towards releasing your music because there are so many different scenarios for each artist in terms of how publishing and copyright will be handled. Furthermore, it’s my belief once you have final, great-sounding songs ready to go, you’ll be more motivated to move your music towards release. 

Coming next

In part two of this four-part series, I will show you some of the best online services to streamline the copyright and publishing process. In part three, I will introduce you to the world of music metadata and detail what specific metadata fields need to be captured in order to ensure your music gets heard and that you get paid. 

About the author: Chuck Fishman

Chuck Fishman

Chuck Fishman is a music business veteran. He started his career in the 1990s, touring and recording with George Clinton & Parliament-Funkadelic (aka P-Funk). Today he manages digital marketing and partnerships for the legendary funk group. Parallel to his music career, he has a long history of working in technology, including roles held at Cisco, official.fm, Acquia and Gracenote. In these tech roles facing the music industry, he developed partnerships with Warner Music, Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group, enabling them to build web platforms to serve thousands of artists. Chuck also has been a part of several music industry trade associations including A2IM and the Music Business Association.

Today, he makes music as part of a six-person production team known as Funk Style Quality, aka FSQ, who release music mainly through the dance music label Soul Clap Records. FSQ members include eight-time Grammy nominated producer G Koop and others. While he’s always on the cutting edge of music technology and digital marketing trends, Chuck finds that the techniques to produce and successfully release music are constantly evolving. Through this series, he hopes to share what he’s learning as he continues to churn out new FSQ remixes, EPs and albums.