There’s a problem in the independent world of record making. It’s too easy to make an album. As a result, many more albums are being made without the time, team, and resources to go the distance. And the lives of countless records that could have made it, are cut short. I mean on an artistic level. While there are plenty of artists making great records, there are greater numbers of albums being made that are still below par and not industry-ready.
Look, we all know that being an artist is a gamble that costs a lot of money, takes a lot of time and requires lots of nurturing. It takes years upon years (10+) to become a real musician, singer, and songwriter, let alone the enormous outlay of recording + musician costs let alone the cost of branding and promotion. But if you don’t have it right at the songwriting and recording level, your beautiful little record ain’t gonna fly the coop. Not really.
You don’t want to lower the bar by rushing the gate or stabbing at it, or just doing what you can, you want to raise the bar by doing it right and taking the time you need to pull off something extraordinary, for real. Great albums take time, lots of tweaking, editing, even re-recording and re-mixing as well as a heck of a lot of planning that leaves room for all of that.
“The goal should be to set the bar higher than you think you can reach and to get your album ‘industry-ready.”
What does ‘industry-ready’ mean? It means an album that is recorded and delivered in such a way that meets the industry standard (see note on Broadcast Quality below). Keep in mind I’m not talking about selling out, I’m talking about selling in and making a record that you want to hear, but doing it right so it can make an impact.
Here’s a shortlist of how to make your album ‘industry-ready’:
1. Songwriting Craft That Goes Beyond.
Don’t put songs on your record that only you like and understand. I want you to be true to you, but not unrelatable. Learn the craft and structure as well as your truth, so your songs not only matter to you but to thousands of people. To break yourself as an artist, to truly gain the respect of industry and fans alike, your songwriting craft has to go beyond. Never compare to mediocre songs on the radio. Yours have to be better (especially to break you). Once you have gained credibility, you’re in. But not one moment before.
2. Vocals That Stand Out and Deliver.
Too many records go out with under produced vocals. It’s a problem in the independent world mainly because most don’t know about, or use vocal arrangers. The vocal arranger is responsible for making the vocals deliver the record. Vocal arrangers are a secret weapon of the industry and industry-ready records. Vocal arrangers build the dynamics of the vocal track. They decide on the phrasing, pronunciation, place ad-libs, oo’s and ah’s and basically help the singer sound 100x better than even they think they can, pulling out their signature sound. There is an industry-standard and a great vocal arranger will deliver it. Don’t make another record without one. Think of it this way, your vocals sell your record. Don’t scrimp.
3. Production That is Innovative, Relevant, and Has Roots.
Exceptional records hold a place in music history. If you want to make an impact musically, you want your record production to be relevant to what’s going on now, as well as have its roots in the past. Music is like fashion with styles that change, merge and innovate, but not to the expense of discarding the past or not be so back in the past that you lose people today. For example, most UK artists have their roots in American blues, but in a modern way. All real pop music comes from R & B, but not the R & B of today, R & B from the past: rhythm and blues. Got to love those pentatonic scales!
4. Broadcast Quality Mixing.
Your mix is undeniably the most critical piece of your record meeting industry-standard or ‘broadcast quality’. An album mixed on a laptop or on a sub-standard mixing console might be good (and fun), but it won’t be broadcast quality. Which means that the sound quality of your record can hurt your release. For instance, I recommend mixing on a Neve console or state of the art console (or it’s virtual equivalent) to achieve a certain quality of sound (like Sound City’s Neve that recorded a plethora of rock records including Foo Fighters). I’m still a purist about it and won’t even think about anything less. If you don’t have the cash at the moment, save up your pennies for a great mix. Also if your producer doesn’t have that kind of that desk, bring it to a studio that does and bring your producer along or hire a separate mixing engineer. But don’t be fooled, it matters way more than you think.
5. Broadcast Quality Mastering.
Mastering is a crucial gateway between production and consumption and, as such, it involves technical knowledge as well as specific aesthetics. Results still depend upon the accuracy of speaker monitors and the listening environment. Mastering engineers may also need to apply corrective equalization and dynamic compression in order to optimize sound translation on all playback systems. A few things to look out for are over-compressing (popular today). One of the ways you can tell is it squashes the vocal “air-i-ness” and volume as well as overall “loudness.” It pumps up the gain and makes the whole mix louder. Be sure to ask that vocals are not “over-compressed” on your mastering.
Note: Broadcast Quality
Broadcast Quality doesn’t really refer to a specific technical benchmark. What it means is that the material has to sound good on the radio and stand up well alongside commercial records, which in turn means recording a good performance and choosing a suitable range of sounds, then mixing it all carefully so as to avoid unwanted noise or distortion. There’s also the artistic side of mixing to take into consideration, such as the use of effects — but the bottom line really is that if it sounds good, then it is good. In order to make your records industry-ready so they can sit comfortably alongside commercial material, level-wise, you also need to ensure the finished audio file is polished with a little mastering-style processing and mixing.
I have students who brag about other artists who did their ‘whole album on Garageband.’ I guess that’s cool if you plan to have a small cult following of musicians and your genre fits the super indie electronic DIY market. But if your record is not Broadcast Quality, you slash your chances at radio play or Film and TV licensing (or commercials) who are looking for Broadcast Quality recordings.
If you want to take a big jump ahead…
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