How it works….getting to the top………


I spent last night with a new band that I will be producing. A bottle of good whiskey a couple of marginal vintage acoustic guitars and a good meal naturally evolved into a people taking turns showcasing new songs or playing masterworks of America’s rock history.  The band had just fired their most recent drummer for being an asshole. The new drummer, an old friend, of course, fit in perfectly. This band is playing Alt Country. The drummer rose to the occasion and shaved the middle part of his beard to create truly impressive mutton-chop sideburns.  He fit right in with the bands look and attitude. To take the gig he dumped a girl, walked away from a job he hated, put down the guitar and picked up the drumsticks. Those are the actions of a real musician.

It's a brawl motherfucker! First you better pay at the door!

Later in the night, as the band got remarkably drunk, before they reached the stage of sending me nonsensical text messages, the conversation turned to how to get ahead, how to get to the top, how to put on a better show etc. I of course, being an arrogant ass, gave them plenty of advice. If you are reading this blog some of the points that came up may be news to you.

The band are amped up. They’re flat-out excited. A producer had come to see them play, loved the show and agreed to produce some music for them. This is an exciting moment in any band. We hashed out the basic plan before the Johnny Walker ran out. Was this their big break? Perhaps. Time will tell. It also could be the wrong move. No one will know until years from now. One thing I have seen repeated with every band that succeeds is the series of small breaks that lets the band climb to the top.  This is the true system to becoming a star and a working musician.

Let’s use this band as an example. They have a manager/producer, a completed album that is released locally and a full gig schedule. All of this happened before I ever heard their name. How did they get that far? Hmm… it’s easy to guess. They all spent countless hours learning to play and listening to music. They fell in love with certain bands, particular songs and the stories they heard about other bands they admired. They all played in shitty bands. This taught them the difference between good and bad from the inside looking out.

Sure, this is how everyone dresses...right?

They all played in bands that were better. This is the winnowing process that every musician lives through. Some of them switched instruments as they realized where their true talents lay. They all played some local shows. Some of these shows sucked, bad. They learned how to get the audience engaged and how to make the girls shake their asses.  They all came to the realization that their heroes didn’t dress like the audience so they cautiously start to acquire stage clothes. 

As their set became a winner they started to branch out to new towns. Soon they won fans in these towns too. Then they heard of a studio owner/producer that seemed to have something good happening. They booked time and soon he was a fan too. They talked him into being their manager. This caused the local press to start to mention them.  He produced a brilliant but spotty first record. He dropped by my house for dinner with two of the band members in tow. By the end of the dinner I could see they had talent. I hadn’t even heard the recordings but I was interested. All I had to do was talk to them and I could see that they understood how it worked. I could see their passion and their ambition. So now they have a new producer.

The point to this little history is that you get ahead with mountains of little breaks. You create these breaks by working hard to make music, by getting yourself talked about, by not fitting in, by being a little bigger than the stage you step up on.  If you work hard enough and have lots of luck you make it to the top. At that point looking back down the mountain you will see that there is never a big break. There is never one thing that gives the band the attention of the world. You hear stories of big breaks because this myth is manufactured by the big labels that need people to believe that they create stars.  They never mention how many great musicians they bury.

Summing it all up – work hard for lots of small triumphs. Pile these up and you have a story of how a band succeeded at rock………

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

How to release your own music…………


I asked for suggestions. I received quite a few.  I start by covering Dave’s suggestion that I provide a timeline for a band releasing their own music.

Let me start by repeating some advice I have proffered in the past. Releasing your own music is an excellent idea.  There seems to be an old wives’ tale that if you release your own music this will scare away labels. This is utter crap. Often people who have never worked in the actual record business will act as if they have all the answers. Invariably they will tell you “wait! shop the labels, wait until the market is ready…” – it’s all the same idiotic claptrap.  Thousands of worthy bands have expired waiting for their “big break”. The term “big break” points to the stupidity and misunderstanding that underlies this philosophy. Band’s don’t get a big break. They get ahead by hundreds of little breaks that bring them into a position to move to a large label and finally sell millions of records.  If you ever get to that point, don’t worry. The music business will go out its way to advertise the fact that the label created all the buzz and lifted you out of obscurity while ignoring everything the band and its fan base did to get ahead.

Think of any huge band. There are always “early recordings”, “demos”, “bootleg recordings” etc. These are all recordings created as the band rose to the top. You often can find members of any huge band appearing in unknown bands before they make it big. All of this illustrates that the path to the top is a series of small steps and the associations you build with other musicians on your way up.

One final thought on recording and releasing material. Just do it. Don’t fuck around. Don’t wait for that producer to find time for you next year. For any new band the first year should have fifty gigs and at least one full length recording.  Write the material, practice it and then record it. Certainly take the time to get it right but get it down on tape.  You can always rerecord material later.

Okay let’s move on. For this blog I will assume that you are recording a full length release and all of the sessions are worked out or complete.  Often bands concentrate on recording and ignore everything else. This works great if you are U2 but it causes problems if you are a little band. You need to be thinking about releasing the record as you record it.  You should be setting up a mastering engineer. They often are booked months in advance. Mastering is expensive and necessary. It often makes your material sound pro and much, much slicker.

 At the same time you MUST be working on cover art. It takes longer to manufacture the CD sleeve than to duplicate the CDs. I recently had dinner with a alt country band. They have tons of talent. More songs than they could ever use and a gig schedule that would make any young band jealous. They fought for months over the album art after completing the recording of their first record. This delayed them months and, in the end, they ended up with a lousy cover that has little to do with their music. Work out your cover art while you are making the record.  By the time you finish your mixes and are working on a sequence you should have your artwork locked in. Make sure someone is taking notes for the album cover. These notes are the classic choice to contain a few inside jokes.  Please remember that these jokes will not be understood by your fans. Do not make the whole cover an inside joke. This invariably leaves you with a cover that the fans hate and do not understand.

Now you’ve reached the point where you have a finished set of mixes and an album cover. Pick a date about four months in the future and decide that will be your release day. Book a date at one of your strongest venues.  This will be your release party. If you don’t give yourself a release date as a goal you and your band will likely stall and delay yourself into obscurity.  SET A DATE!

Once you have picked the date count backwards from this date six weeks. This should be the date that your promo copies (and your copies to sell) should be in your hand. Now that you know the production date (that’s what it’s called after all..) you can contact the CD duplicator and find out how long it takes them to duplicate the master and produce the art. It’s usually best to give both these duties to the CD duplicator. Yes you can save some money if you find artwork manufacturing separately but putting 2000 cds into their sleeves sucks so just skip it. At this point you will likely notice that you are already behind schedule. Try not to worry about it and just press ahead with mastering and setting up various things to promote this magical recording.  As you move towards the actual release don’t be surprised if you grow to dislike the recording. THIS IS COMMON AND YOU MUST LEARN TO NOT SECOND GUESS WHAT YOU HAVE DONE! If you do start to meddle and change things you will fall down the black hole that often consumes bands and leads to purgatory.

With all of this behind you it is time to work out how you will promote the recording. Here’s some standard ideas:

1. Book a tour that covers every market where you are known and any geographically related market where you can scam your way into a gig.

2.Collect lists of every magazine, E-zine, website and blog that writes about music similar to your band. These will all receive a press pack (see my blog on this) photo and CD in the weeks before your release.

3. Set up an account to upload to Itunes and other sites. (CD baby is quite popular) Design and arrange for your website to have a new look and copious verbage about the brilliant release, all primed and ready to go on the day of release.

4. Dig around on the internet for info on Indy distributors. Call other bands, ask how they sell product. Take notes. (product is one of those nasty music industry terms for music…)

5. Design a tour shirt and some kind of Choch-Kee (sp?). This is some small cheap item that has the album art or title or band name that can be given out to people to promote the release. (I have suggested fortune cookies that contain the band’s album title in some clever way. No one has ever used this idea so maybe it’s a tacky idea …hey you can be the first) Be creative, hand puppets? key chains? Kites? Hand grenades? This is your moment to shine.

6. Think of possible promo stunts…. the album is called Pig Fuckers? Hmmm…. what could you do? Creativity goes a long way towards getting people talking. When people talk CDs sell.

So now you’ve got the machine in gear. All of these things need to be timed to happen in and around the “Album Release Date”. It doesn’t matter much if you are a little early or a little late. You need college radio play (oh yeah get a list of college stations for mailing), press and local TV during the two months when your release will be new.  Don’t worry about shopping the release to labels. You can send out mailings if you like but the way to get signed is to get more popular. It’s a simple as that.

Columbia Records “discovered” Janis Joplin, the legendary blues rock singer at a show in San Francisco. She was given one of the most lucrative contracts up to that time. No one mentions that Columbia A & R guys first saw her at a 7000 seat theater show.  Those guys were a long way behind what every kid in Frisco had known for a year…Janis Joplin will melt your shoes….that’s how you get discovered.

I am sure I missed some points. Post questions, I’ll answer promptly….Oh yeah…if you are putting out a record you better be writing the next record or you will once again fall into the black hole……..

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

How to create a final mix (pt 2)


So now we move on to adding the effects, compression and fader moves to your mix. I am assuming that you have read and understood part one. You have your mix up and running and it sounds completely balanced with drums, bass, guitars and vox. Now it’s time to add in all of the other ear candy such as background vocals or car crashes – whatever is left. As you do add elements find their proper position in the stereo field first, then find their level. This is important. If you set level first and then pan it somewhere it will be very hard to achieve balance.

This is the point where you sit back and think about the mix. Does it feel right?  Too dry? What does it need? This is the point where you may decide to add effects to instruments to achieve particular colors or atmospheres. Don’t add reverb to the vocals because all vocals have reverb. First this isn’t actually true and second it should be added in an attempt to achieve something particular.  Over the years I have spent endless hours screwing around with effects at the demand of musicians, all of that time was wasted. It rarely comes out better. On the other hand when a musician has something in mind you can quickly move towards a better mix. For example the singer might say “the vocal needs to sound more lonely”. Well that might seem vague but it gives you somewhere to go. You might add a small room reverb and pan the instruments slightly away from the vocal so it seems like it’s by itself.  By contrast the guitarist might say “the solo needs to sound grand, like a choir or something” . This leads you to push it back in the mix and add big church reverb. Most musicians understand how things should feel. They all use different terms to describe these variables. You need to take the time to understand what they mean by “it needs punch” or “it has to rock more”. Everyone seems to use these kind of terms differently. if, on the other hand, the drummer says, “I wanna sound like Bonham on When the Levee Breaks remind him that he plays like a pussy, Bonham was no pussy and that he still owes 9 bucks for last night’s food. In short ignore him.

Now is the time to think about EQ changes. Does the bass lack bottom? Is the vocal dull? When you identify a problem like these two attempt, at first, to remove things from the mix to see if the problem goes away. The most common problem that I have seen in mixing is caused by each individual element having too much top, bottom and mids. When you put it all together it makes mud.  THIS IDEA IS IMPORTANT. LEARN TO THINK ABOUT IT!

All of the great remix engineers spend most of their time removing frequencies from tracks to achieve clarity. Muddy mix? Take things out.

Now this doesn’t mean you need to lose the guitars. Instead you may need to EQ them and remove some well-defined frequencies. As you rebalance the mix and add in effects be careful to carefully remove bits and pieces of the different tracks frequency spectrums to allow other elements to shine. If you follow the rookie system of adding top and bottom to every track as it enters the mix you will end up with mud that smells of shit. I guarantee it.

Another important point about effects. Less is more and whenever you add reverb to a track it makes that track LOUDER. That means you must lower the dry track and add the reverb return track. Then rebalance the two elements, then rebalance the whole damn mix. If you put effects on everything then the mix will become an insoluble rubic’s cube. So don’t do that.

Next element to consider is compression. I am a big fan of compression. It makes tracks flatter dynamically and as a result adds detail which makes them stand out in the mix. It also controls big jumps in volume (very useful on vocals). This allows you to get a balance that continues throughout the whole mix. Again, if you compress a track you need to rebalance the mix.

Often I will run the mix through matched compressors to flatten the whole mix and make it all sound louder.  In this case both compressors must be the same with one unit “slaved” to the other so that only one set of controls runs both units. If you know how to do this and have two nice matching compressors give it a try. If not it’s best to leave this to the mastering engineer.

One final comment – always listen to the mix on as many different stereos as possible before deciding it is done. Play it in the car. Play it on your iPod through your girlfriend’s clock radio, play it on your kid brother’s karaoke box, play it anywhere that is a challenge. This will show you what needs to be changed and will show you how it will be listened to by your fans. Remember, no one is going to listen to your mixes on a studio rig so get used to it and mix it so it sounds good on ANY system……….

©Copyright 2011 Brad Morrison/Billiken Media

oodles of recording noodles……………..


So let’s swing back to the core of what a band does to promote itself – recording music.  Recording, the private, back room activity that an active band engages in, should be central to a your band’s development. You should always be setting something down on tape. This could be demos, live tracks as the band plays out, major sessions with a producer, a running project to rerecord “Dark Side of the Moon” as a salsa album or collaborations with other artists. It all counts. It is all central to being a great band and it all should be DONE WITHOUT DELAY!!! Stop fucking around and make the record.

Over the course of my career I heard the same lame excuse with sickening regularity. There are many variations but it basically goes like this ” We’re waiting for Tyrone Mablamawitz to find time in his schedule so we can work on some tracks” The key word is “waiting”.  Your waiting for the studio. Your waiting to finish writing two more tracks. Your waiting for label to show some interest. Your waiting until you buy that new compressor. Your waiting for your lucky groupie to get outta rehab…..Bullshit. Why wait? Never wait. If you are going to be a band that records songs then FUCKING RECORD AND DON’T BE AN IDIOT ABOUT IT! Great records are made by bands that actually push the RECORD button. If you are too timid to do it, if you are always finding an excuse why you’re not ready, then you’re not a great band.

You have to feel the fierce urgency of NOW!

Look at it this way. You’re in a band. You have the lives of four or five people tangled up and committed to the crazy campaign to make great rock. How long can this last? How long will the band hang together? How long until someone pisses off everyone else and things change? I have thirty five years experience in this subject and I can tell you with no reservation that answer to all of those questions is “Not long at all”. All bands are temporary. The only ones that stick around for decades are the ones that make it big. Once that happens you will have already figured out that you need to get it down on tape.

All of the arguments that you are not ready don’t really add up. For example if you find yourself arguing that the tunes need to be practiced in order to have enough polish then get to it and knock out the practices. That is part of the recording process. There is a subtle but important difference between “Yeah we have just been practicing” and “We’re doing preproduction practices”. One is the humdrum pace of a band wasting its time and the other is a band working towards a short-term goal.

Let me sum up this rant. ALWAYS RECORD WHAT’S GOING DOWN IN THE BAND. It all has use and if you are not recording then you damn well better be playing out live. Oh yeah, if you are playing live you damn well better be getting some of the shows on tape. Listening back to a live shows tape is a great way to figure out that it’s time to fire the drummer or that “I’ll cry over your puppy baby” really sucks and the band should finally drop it from the set list. (which, of course, will mean you can finally fire the drummer since it is his only song)

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This post looks like a few random recording topics. Since there are always lots of brief comments rattling around in my skull I will occasionally spit out these disjointed posts. I hope that they fit in with all of the other more structured posts.

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How do you get good tracks in the studio? How do you make a recording really special?

Getting great tracks

This, of course, could be a huge post with lots of subchapters and scores of stories. Tonight, at least, I am going to give a few quick and dirty tips and rules to help ensure cutting great tracks.

1. Great tracks are based on great, relaxed, well centered playing. It all starts with everyone in the band being in a great mood (by great I mean appropriate and intense in some way) Everyone should be well fed, and focused. The band should try to record at the hours where everyone involved is working at their best. If your bass player just spent 14 hours unloading UPS trucks and arrived with no sleep and utter exhausted then you are on course to cut lousy tracks. Another piece of this core idea is that you should never work really long sessions. I have seen it tried hundreds of times and it has never worked. The best tracks are always cut when the band is relatively fresh and everyone’s ears are fresh.

2. Always keep practice takes and shoot for cutting the base tracks in one or two takes. If you find yourself playing a song again and again then you either need to go back into the preproduction rehearsals or the band needs a break.  The ideal session should run around 10 or twelve hours maximum. This is important. If you think you are smarter than me on this one good luck. You will spend lots of studio time banging away at the same song  and the tracks will sound lame when you go back and listen with fresh ears.

At my residential studio, Morrison Hotel, I always recorded from noon til twelve with a two-hour break in the middle. During the break I would cook a big meal. Get the band loose with substances of their choosing and tell them a bunch of rock stories to get everyone in the proper mindset. 80% of the tracks on my recordings at Morrison Hotel were cut during the two or three hours after coming back from break. The really great tracks, the ones that I can look back at and say they really rock were first or second takes.

If things start to get stale while recording take a break and do something fun. Go throw snowballs at the Hookers on the Avenue or go to the piggly wiggly as a group to see what trouble comes up. Stick together but take a break.  When the lead singer needs to “go for a pilgrimage into the woods for five hours then you are going to be getting a new singer soon.

3. Break the rules and experiment when you hit a roadblock. Every band finds themselves frustrated and stalled at some point while trying to record. When this happens use some strategies to break out of it and reenergize the session.  I think the key here is to do something creative and impulsive.  Try to rewrite a Beatles song. Record the song with the structure backwards. Cut out the chorus and try rewriting a quick and dirty version of the song with new verses and a new bridge.

Brian Eno, one of the world’s most creative producers, invented a set of cards called Oblique Strategies in the early 80’s. The purpose of these strange Tarotlike cards was to shake up the creative process. I believe you can still buy them if you are curious.  They looked like a Taro set. On each one was printed a command like “Erase and Start again” or “Take a minor element and make it a primary element”. When you got stuck you cut the deck and did what it commanded. Simple, brilliant, inspired. If you want to hear the result listen to “The fly” by U2 or any of the tracks on the Talking Heads “Remain in Light”.

4. Work on the band’s sound and get it to sound amazing before you put mics on it. Yes, the recorded tracks should be cut with the best mics and compressors you possess but the secret to a great sounding recording is to get the band sounding amazing and then capturing it. The mics, compressors, recording console and effects will not create world-class recordings by themselves. They can add to the sound. They can sculpt the sound but they can’t make it sound great when it sounds like shit in the tracking room.  THe first thing you do is get the drums, guitar amps, bass amps, leslie cabinets etc. sounding like the Voice of the Great God Jupiter. Once you do that it becomes a simple process of capturing the sound on tape.  Another way to put it is great tracks are not created in the mix room they are created by the players themselves using gear they understand.  GET IT RIGHT IN THE RECORDING ROOM FIRST. MAKE THE AMPS AND DRUMS SOUND LIKE MAGICAL SPIRITS AND THEN PUT MICS ON IT AND HIT RECORD!!! That’s the way professional, world-class records are made.

OK that sums up tonight’s advice. Of course there will be more to say in the coming weeks…. stay tuned…..

© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

The ultimate prize, a record deal!


Well I’ve been dancing around this topic since I started the blog 5 months ago. I haven’t written this blog for some unknown reason. It is certainly not due to lack of interest from you all. The emails and votes for a blog on a record deal have been relentless.  So now I will give in and outline the inner details of doing a deal with the devil.

Through the decades I have managed quite a few bands. Every one of them has lusted after a recording contract. After the first few contracts I developed the habit of telling all of these starry-eyed children that getting signed to a recording contract was the worst possible fate. All of them laughed. All of them ignored me. Did this bother me? No, it was just me covering my moral ass. If I hadn’t warnedthem, with what I know about recording contracts, then I would have been guilty indeed. All of the musicians I represented got what they wished for. All of them regretted it in one way or another.  In some cases it destroyed them and ruined the band. Oh well, I warned them. Now I will warn you.. [Bad Brains -Pay to cum]

Listen carefully -You do not need a record deal. You do not want a recording contract. You will be making a big mistake if you sign a recording contract. Are there exceptions to this? Yes, of course. If by some strange twist of the time space continuum you, the reader are a guy named Elvis and the guy giving you advice goes by the name of Col. Parker then ignore me. If your name is Jimi, you play a lefty strat, and the most important fact it is June 1966 in your world then go right ahead and sign anything anyone offers as long as it comes with a cash advance that is available now.  For all of the rest of you….DO NOT SIGN A MAJOR LABEL RECORDING CONTRACT!!! Is that clear?  [The Who -Dr. Jimmy]

Now I know you will all ignore me. So be it.  If you are being offered a major label deal then it is extremely important to keep in mind that any major label deal is ridiculously complex. YOU MUST HAVE A REAL LAWYER INVOLVED! That means that your uncle Taco is out of the deal. Further you should have a professional manager involved and you should be taking his advice. If you do not have a manger then contact me and I will pass along some contacts or tell you what my consulting fee would be. (I can hear the wheels turning in the minds of many of my readers. Do not attempt to fake a deal in order to get an email full of names from me. It won’t work. The first thing I will do is contact the label and confirm the basic situation. Sorry, I applaud your creative thinking though) The advice I just offered is deadly serious. If you sign a contract without the advice of a real, experienced lawyer then you will get fucked. If you don’t believe me then think about it this way. If you are offered a deal and it is negotiated by a real lawyer and a real manager you will get fucked. With this is mind what will happen to you without their advice? You will get screwed so bad that someone else will end up owning everything including the band dog, the band groupies and that beat up piece of shit guitar that you keep around because you learned to play on it.  Enough said.

Now I am not going to explain how to negotiate a recording contract, that will take a few blogs and I hope to get to that soon. Before we approach that topic I must explain how a recording contract works. For those of you taking prescription antidepressants now would be a good time to check that you have dosed yourself.

OK let’s go.  Let’s assume that a major label wants to sign you. How does something like this happen, in real terms, how does it go down?         [Bowie TVC15]

To reach this stage you will have done all the preliminaries, showcases, meetings, presspacks sent and read, managers and label dudes (and dudettes) making endless calls, rumors, fistfights, depression, elation…so now what happens?

Generally the label starts by issuing a “deal memo”. This is a letter that they send to your lawyer and manager. It is one page and it is a summary of the deal that they are about to offer. IT IS NOT A CONTRACT. It outlines the basics of the deal. That is to say it outlines the basics of the deal they would love you to sign since you haven’t negotiated with them yet. It will tell you how big the advance they will give you for the first few records. It will tell you the total length of the contract and it will outline their offer for your publishing. If they are not attempting to buy your songs then it will address how they plan to pay for the use of your songs on the records.

Your lawyer will turn this offer down and  begin to negotiate with the label.  Every young band will panic at this point and attempt to override their lawyer management team and sign the deal as first offered.  They don’t want the label to change its mind. The band has been hoping and fighting for a deal for so long they talk themselves into believing that negotiating the deal is risky and may drive off the label. Actually the opposite is true. The label expects to negotiate. It is their favorite part of the process. If the band doesn’t try to sell itself high then the label can become doubtful. If the band doesn’t know in its heart that it is the greatest band on earth then how will the fans believe it? Taking a label’s first offer is a sure-fire way to speed up the process of the label losing faith in the band.

So you negotiate with the label and finally come to an agreement. At this point the label sends multiple copies of the 60 page contract. The band sits down and signs them all in multiple places. NOW YOU ARE SIGNED. What does a deal like this say? [Velvet Underground “White Light, White Heat”]

Every record company contract is different. Every deal is different but there are many things that are common to all the deals. These are the things that count. So I will explain them in as basic a fashion as I can.  If you understand the basics of how deals like this work then you will be prepared to open your mouth in a meeting and maybe get what you want or need in a deal. This applies to both big label deals and small label deals.

Every recording contract is designed to lock the band into only recording for the label.  As a result the deal will be split into two halves, the first covering what the band must do, can do and cannot do when it comes to recording. The second half will cover how the band gets paid for its services as recording artists. In addition there may be a third section covering specific commitments to promote the records and to provide tour support.  Finally the contract may cover song publishing and include a complete publishing contract. I will not cover the details of publishing in tonight’s blog. You can check out some of what is involved in my two blogs about publishing royalties. [Yes -Close to the Edge]

Part one the section that covers how long the band is bound to the contract is always structured as a series of options.  What the hell does that mean? Well it isn’t like choosing one item from column A and two from Column B at the chinese take out. (if you have no experience with chinese take out then you are either  an underage hippie kid living at a remote commune, playing a hemp guitar, or not a musician)

The options in a recording contract work like this – the band must make the first record for the label. The label can take a god awful long time putting it out. You must wait. Once they release the recordings the clock starts to tick on the band’s option. Let’s say that it’s a one year option. This means that within one year of the album’s release the label must tell you if they would like another record from you. It is the label’s option not the band’s. It is NEVER the band’s option. [Jackson Five -I want you back] If they say that they would like to “excercise the next option” then the band makes another album.  Most major label record deals have TEN options. In practical terms this means the band is committed to the record label for up to 15 years. (California has restrictions on deals that are this burdensome so most labels use NY law to get around this anti-slavery law. Think carefully about this sentence….yes….a recording contract is a form of slavery…remember I warned you….)

Often bands will talk about getting “three records guaranteed”. This means that the label commits to exercising the first two options after the first release. In practical terms this is never true. The label can usually get out of the options by paying off a penalty. [Iggy Pop- The Passenger] If the label decides it doesn’t want to release any more records from a band, any band, they will stubbornly stick to their guns.  Even though the band may have language in their deal that states that the label must do it in practical terms this will not make them release the record. They will pay the penalties, no matter how large, and move on. Even a sizable non-release penalty payment is cheaper than releasing a full-scale release. When you add in the fact that an unwanted release would require lots of staff time, time that could be spent on a record the label is excited about, then you can start to see why they do this.

So a contract that guarantees three albums will be released doesn’t mean three albums will be released. What does it mean? Well it shows that the label was enthusiastic enough when they signed the deal to commit serious money to the project of developing the band.  So deals like this primarily measure how committed and excited the label was about the band during the negotiation process and little more. All bands and all labels rise and fall in their enthusiasm and this affects the way albums are promoted.

Now we’ve established that the contract revolves around options and that options are set to certain time periods and all of this is nailed down to the concept of  a “record”. This concept is certainly being tested in the modern market. Bands no longer go into the studio and put together a 10 song, 34 minute vinyl LP (the standard from 1967 ’til 1987) nor do bands go into the studio and put together a 12-14 song , 45 minute Compact disc (the standard from 1987 ’til 2003). I think we can also rule out the old school idea that bands go into a studio and cut two tracks which are turned into a single.

 [Mission of Burma “Academy Fight Song”]

The current environment is one of changing standards where bands are releasing individual tracks as downloads, collections of varying lengths in every format they can concoct and in the near future streaming the live creation of recorded music through peer to peer networks. [Bad Brains “Banned in DC”]

Despite the state of chaos and the coming changes labels seem to be sticking to locking a band’s output into the concept of albums and collections of songs. [Deep Purple “Pictures of Home”]. No matter how a contract is structured all of the band’s recorded output will be controlled by the label for the duration of the contract. If a contract did not accomplish this there would be no reason for the label to enter into the deal.  In short the band will only record for the label and every single note put to tape during the contract will be owned by the label.

In this section of the deal the contract will also cover who controls the different aspects of creativity. Here’s a short list of things that will be covered.

1. Who’s songs are going to be recorded?  Are there going to be any Bob Dylan songs? Is a ghost songwriter going to be employed? Can the label force songs on the band? Often the label will require the band to submit demos and then the label will pick out the tracks to be recorded. Sometimes the selection will be by mutual agreement. When the deal is structured in this manner the band will discover that it is very hard to win an argument on song selection with the label.

[Bob Marley “Crisis”]

2. Who will produce the recordings? Here is another case where the label will demand complete control. For all bands without a hit the label will use the producer to control the band and micromanage the band’s recordings. Once again if the band gets the label to agree to a situation where the producer is agreed by both sides then the band will have a great deal of trouble over ruling the label. [Love “Live and Let Live”] In many cases a band will attempt to be self producing. That is to say they want to make their own records and do their own tracking, mixing and editing with the help of a buddy who is an engineer. This kind of provision is very hard to get from a label for the simple reason that all major labels know that this is an extremely bad idea for any new band. The label knows that the band has no experience creating a record that will compete sonically on the radio. If the band makes this point a do or die point of negotiation the label will act as if they are giving in and just demand more flexibility to remix. Then under the cover of darkness they will “remix” the record by tearing it to pieces and producing the product they wanted all along. [Rolliing Stones “Sympathy for the Devil”]

3. The budgets for recording of each optional record. The language that covers the recording budgets will name maximums that the label is willing to put up for recording. They will often include language that allows the label to exceed these numbers but only with the written permission of the label.

4. The budget for the total amount of money to be advanced to the band. This will be a large sum which will include many smaller sums like recording budget, tour support, personal advances to band members, allowances for gear purchases etc. [Santana “Black Magic Woman”]

5 Budgets and maximum allowances of money to pay producers. Once again these sums will be controlled solely by the label. In general the producer will be paid an advance payment which will be part of the money that he will earn when the record sells. THIS MONEY AND THE ROYALTY POINTS COMES OUT OF THE BAND’S SHARE!

6. Allowances and advances set aside for the band’s manager. This amount is usually negotiated by the manager as he works out the deal. This is a blatant conflict of interest on the part of the manager and is, as a result, standard practice in the music business.

There are other items that are often included in the first section of a recording contract. I’m certain I am forgetting a few but it doesn’t really matter. What is extremely important to understand is that the number of options, the guarantee of options, the total contract length will all determine how long you may be locked into a label.

When a label is courting a band they will be the most charming, supportive, understanding, coolest people who you have ever met. This view will change once you begin to work with the label to create your first album. I promise that any label will be much less attractive once the deal is over. Always keep this in mind.

 Without exception the area of the contract that covers options and budgets is the part that gets a band licking their greasy chops. It is very easy for these numbers to add up to over a million dollars for the first option.  This is what lures the band in and gets them to sign.[Beatles- 8 days a week]

Now here is the fact that puts all of this in the proper perspective. Everything that is done to create, manufacture and promote the record, everything that is done to pay off the business, all of the advertising, all of the advances , all of the tour support, all of the gear allowances, all of the catered food and press events, all of the plane tickets given to writers, all of the cash put up to print up t shirts, everything in every possible way that is paid for by the label ultimately comes out of the band’s cut of money. Go back and read that again. What does this mean? EVERYTHING DONE TO MAKE THE RECORD AND PROMOTE IT IS PAID FOR BY THE BAND OUT OF THEIR ROYALTIES!!!

Think about this fact. It the fundamental truth about record deals. The band pays for everything out of the royalties that the band MIGHT receive.  As a result of this the way a recording contract is structured the average musician in a successful band will not only make no money from making records they will spend years OWING THE LABEL MONEY!!!

[Grand Funk “I’m your captain”]

I will explain how this works in the next installment when I cover royalty payments.  Let me close by saying that it often works out like this :

Producer $50,000

Recording Studio $200,000

Engineers $75,000

Manager  $140,000

Each crew member $12,000

remix engineer $40,000

Mastering studio $20,000

Band member $7500 and a new guitar, amp and a few pedals

Ask yourself do you want to give the best you’ve got to give, perhaps the best you will ever give since you are in your prime, in return for $7500, a new guitar and amp and a year’s worth of crappy catered food as you make an album?

[Gang of Four “Anthrax]

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

How to fix phase……….


Recently I have noticed that there have been a growing number of searches coming to my blog that relate to fixing phase problems. Although I have mentioned the importance of phase in recording I do not believe that I addressed fixing phase problems.

Ok let’s get started.  You have a multitrack recording and somewhere there seem to be phase problems. Are you sure? Probably not.  Let’s review for a second.

Phase is caused by two or more microphones being used on one item that you are recording. In some cases the varying distances between the mic cause the sound waves to line up peak to trough and this means they are out of phase.  If you are in the process of recording this sound then you fix the problem by moving the mics around until the sound falls into phase.  Also it should be noted that EQ adds phase problems to any signal it is used on. This is an absolute as far as I am concerned although I have been corrected by engineers on this point they are wrong and I am right damn it. If you add EQ it adds some phaseyness. Usually this is acceptable and part of the sound. Sometimes too much EQ makes a thin phasey mix.  How do you fix this problem? Drop all of the EQ it’s that simple.

The most common situation for phase problems is recording multiple tracks of one particular instrument on one pass. When do you do this? Every time you cut drum tracks. So let’s assume that you cut four simultaneous tracks of drums last night and know it’s time to mix and damn it sounds out of phase. 

The first thing you do is prove it to yourself. Drop every track except one. Now listen carefully. Does the track sound fat? Does it have bottom? It does, ok move on to the next track. Most likely all of the individual tracks will sound fat and have bottom. Now start putting up combinations of tracks two at a time. One you happen upon one combo that sounds thin, phasey and has no bottom mark it down and move on.  There may be multiple problems. Sometimes, but not usually the problems may be between two tracks recorded at different times.  Remember listen closely.  You are looking for thin sound with no bottom. If you are unsure what phase problems sound like put up a track and then switch the positive and negative wires on your studio monitors. Step back away from the speakers and play the track. That’s the sound of a phase problem.

So now you know what phase sounds like and you have two or more tracks that are definitely out of phase with each other. Can you rerecord? No ok then let’s fix it.

In all likelihood the sounds are not perfectly 180 degrees out of phase. They rarely are.  It doesn’t matter. If it is enough of a problem to be heard as out of phase correcting the phase will help.  In short what you need to do is reverse the phase on one track and then listen. Does your board or software have a phase switch? If it does you are all set. Switch the phase on one track , it doesn’t matter which, and then listen to the offending tracks. When it comes into phase you will hear much more bottom and the thin wavy quality will disappear. If you have more than two tracks at issue you may need to mess around with various combos of phase switching in order to find the best phase situation.

What do you do if you don’t have a phase switch, which is common with many boards. Does the board have an insert section with paired plug ins/outs? In this case you take a cable open one end up and cut the two or three wires. Switches the connections on the positive negative. Now use this cable to flip the phase on the individual channels. Use the same process I outlined above.

What do you do if you have a board with no phase switch and no insert section? Shot yourself? No, calm down.  Try doing the same trick with a basic guitar cable. Then send the sound out of one channel and record it on the next open track with the phase reversed.

Now I will address the more complex method since someone that thinks they are smart will certainly post a comment about it. I may even decide to approve said comment if it contains a good joke or the new home phone number of my high school girlfriend.

There are phase relationship altering outboard and inboard equipment. They allow you to dial the phase around 180 degrees. They are magic. Let an engineer run them, preferably an engineer that would never record two tracks out of phase.

Finally I’ll talk about phasing in a mix. A depressingly common problem is a mix that sounds shitty. It sounds muddy, or phasey or both. How do you fix this? Well if you are trying to fix a mix that is done and is a stereo master than take it to a good mastering house. If you are trying to fix a mix that you are working on then there is still hope.

Let’s say you have a home studio. You do a mix. The next day you take the CD of the mix and pop it into your car stereo and, jeez, does it sound like shit. Don’t worry everyone does shitty mixes. It’s only a problem if you release it  to the world.

Ok try this. Put up the mix. Eliminate every EQ that is engaged. This alone may solve your problem. After you remove the EQ’s the sound may very well clear up. Try running a mix with no EQ on anything just rebalance the tracks and call it a mix. No compare the two. Which one sounds better? The most common problem I have seen in mixes is too much EQ. If this doesn’t help the mix try adding the tracks one at a time listening specifically for the phase problem to appear. When you find the offending track strip it down to the basic track without effects. How’s that?  If it isn’t caused by some kind of outboard effect then the most likely problem is that the offending track(s) sound too good. What!!??? That’s right. A common problem with recordings is that every single track is recorded as if it the only track on the recording, that is to say tons of bottom, tons of mids tons of top. If you do this on every track then the mix will sound like shit. Remix engineers make great money taking multitrack tapes and removing various frequencies in order to make them sound clearer.  Try removing a little bottom from a few tracks with the eq. Try cutting some of the mids. EQs are much more beneficial when used to remove frequencies then when they are used to add frequencies……..

© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010