P&E Wing Recommendations for Delivery of Recorded Music: That’s a Mouthful, but It’s Important

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As some of you know, I’ve been active in the Recording Academy for a long time. At the national level I’ve served as Trustee, Chair of the Presidents council, and as a co-chair of the national Planning and Governance committee. Locally, I’ve served in positions ranging from governor to president of the board of our San Francisco chapter. As a longtime member of the P&E Wing, it means a lot to me to be able to share knowledge and experience with the recording community and help build solutions for raising the bar for high-quality audio.

So, I was privileged to be part of the team, led by Academy Trustee Jeff Balding, that updated the Producers & Engineers Wing’s new recommendations for the delivery of recorded music projects.

These guidelines, many of which have been in place for some time, have been followed by labels, studios, and other music creators as best practices for ensuring physical recordings are delivered and stored correctly and reliably so that they’re accessible in the long term.

One of the key additions in this new document is a section on recommended file hierarchy and management. It outlines a structure built on international nomenclature for dates, artists, and file locations: where your stems are held, where your high-res files are held, where your masters are, different mix versions, live versions, instrumental versions, etc.

As an industry, particularly in the digital era, we’ve been lax about documentation, which has caused problems with everything from credits to archiving to re-issues to getting paid. These new delivery recommendations offer better ways to document files not only during production, but also in deliverables to labels or artists after the fact.

Crediting documentation is extremely important for a number of reasons. Accurate documentation is key to getting paid, but remember that recordings are also our calling cards as engineers, producers, and musicians.

Including proper documentation within the project folder will mean that moving forward, when people want to look back and find something, they’ll know by its name designation, exactly what it is, and who created it.

The guidelines outline a clear folder hierarchy that covers elements ranging from alternate takes, stem mixes, and LP masters to specific parts such as folders for vocal tunings. There's also great glossary of technical terms and recording technologies.

The document features a section on keying the two-bus compressor—when creating stems, making sure that when you're using a compressor on the master bus, you're not hitting the compressor in the same way as you are with the full mix, but more in a manner that's appropriate for the stem itself. On the P&E recommendations site, there’s even a link where you can grab a set of folder presets to start building projects.

These guidelines give you the tools to organize, deliver, and back up your files to preserve your work for posterity. We hope they’ll become adopted standards moving forward.

The Human Element in Mastering

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When Avid and Landr announced a partnership last week, I wasn’t surprised. Production technology gets more affordable and accessible every day, which has opened doors for countless artists and engineers. I’m glad to see the scope of mastering options widen. And we all have to keep up with evolving technology, or we’ll be left behind. 

But at the same time, as a professional mastering engineer, I think it’s vital for artists to understand the differences between these options, and the audience and purpose they serve, and to manage their expectations of the process—whether they choose a professional mastering engineer or a self-mastering algorithm.

First and foremost, music is art, and art is expression. Having a machine do mastering is like having a machine write a song. It’s certainly possible, but how is it going to express emotion?

A song, or an album, can be presented in many ways, sonically, and a mastering engineer provides invaluable insight and guidance on its final direction. Running music through an algorithm to be analyzed and regurgitated is not art. It’s not making music the way it’s intended, from the artist’s point of view.

Context and perspective are key in mastering. For example, you would never make a decision about a microphone, preamp or studio monitor on specs alone, would you? Just considering frequencies would be like arbitrarily making adjustments based on an analyzer telling you which frequencies are there, which levels are there. It has nothing to do with what it sounds like, and nothing to do what it feels like. (And isn’t feeling the whole point?)

Much of mastering is about cohesiveness and translatability of the body of work, not just a collection of songs. Being able to listen and make adjustments to make sure a mix is expressed as intended everywhere it’s played is not something that machines can do; that’s a human touch, and that’s experience. 

Mastering is also about quality control. It’s about identifying potential problems and advising clients. It’s being able to notice that perhaps something might be out of phase in the mix, being able to distinguish between pops and clicks and percussion; it’s knowing a track was mixed on headphones so the vocals are a bit down in the center, and how to handle it…it’s being able to catch these problems ahead of time, so mastering becomes the polishing state rather than the fixative state. 

All of this collaboration helps raise the bar for future work of the artist and the engineers, and elevate the craft. It makes the client look good, it makes the mix engineer look good, it makes everybody look good. Algorithms can’t do that. Machines can’t do that.

Your art was not created by an algorithm. I believe mastering shouldn’t be, either. 

Michael