Boston, Massachusetts is home to over 250,000 college students. With institutions like Harvard, M.I.T., Berklee College of Music, Emerson, Boston College and a slew of others, it’s a given that you’d see plenty of artists and bands finding their legs in a major U.S. city – whether they’re undergrads meeting at a local party or show, or a grad student furthering their music career by way of education. Growing up in the area, I recall being obsessed with bands in the ‘local scene’ – catching the T to see bands play in places from Elks Lodges to 18+ venues that I had to ‘borrow’ an ID to get into. But even then I noticed a turnover, as bands would migrate to other parts like New York and L.A., or venues with all-ages access would close unexpectedly.
While this isn’t uncommon, there’s still a lot to love about Boston’s music scene, but it can be a difficult place to live and survive as a musician or engineer. And what about the potential fans who don’t know what’s in their backyard?
Enter The Record Co. – a Boston-based non-profit facility that provides access to an affordable space to record quality projects and opportunities to freelance engineers and producers. The result is a much-praised collaborative atmosphere that is helping to change the landscape of Boston’s independent music scene. Not to mention, The Record Co. does a wonderful job of showing off all Boston has to offer with their Boston Sessions collaborative mixtape series, with Vol. 2 coming out soon!
In this month’s Studio Spotlight, I spoke to Jesse Vengrove, Program Director (and engineer/musician) at The Record Co. to discuss how the non-profit’s approach to offering this kind of access and how it’s been paying off:
First and foremost, what inspired you to start The Record Co. and do so as a non-profit?
Go up to any studio owner and ask them the following two questions and you’ll probably get similar responses:
1) “Are you making a large profit?” – “No”
2) “Why are you doing this then?” – “I love the work and I think it’s important/has cultural and/or artistic value.”
And there you have the most informal definition of a non-profit organization.
The Record Co. was founded in 2009 and, after a failed startup (first location flooded), we moved to our current facility in 2010. The non-profit angle came out of a realization that that no one really needs to own a studio, people just need access to one.
We wanted to create a space that was accessible to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, and we wanted to create a space that was a part of the community and give back to the city. We charge our clients to use the facility like any other studio but the rates are subsidized by foundations/grants and individual donors who believe it’s important to cultivate a vibrant and creative scene in Boston.
We’ve found a way to allow artists to come in and use the facility at a price point that works for small/non-existent budgets while relying on other sources of funding to keep daily operations running. In 2017 we’re on track to host 1,100 sessions between the two rooms, so needless to say there’s a demand that we’re filling (while still seeing new studios pop up and legacy studios stay in business).
Give our readers a little bit of a breakdown of the facility overall. What sets your studios apart from others in the area?
We currently have about 5,000 sq/ft split up over 2 floors which gives us a fair amount of space. We have two studios, Studio A and Studio B (yeah, super creative!). Studio A is 2,500 sq/ft and includes a full kitchen and a lounge (with an ever-growing homage to the amazing art collection at Goodwill). We wanted it to feel like you’re walking into your friend’s living room, warm and homey. We kept a lot of the windows up there so there’s a lot of natural light, which really makes the room comfortable. There are two iso booths in there and a large live room. You can get giant drum sounds up there (and we once squeezed a 45-person orchestra in there) or you can control/segment the room with gobos. It’s a large space but we did our best to keep sightlines open so no one feels disconnected.
Studio B is our smaller vocal/overdub room. This room is a little more chic than Studio A; no windows to the outside, color-changing LED lights, leather couch. It’s a small but spacious enough so it doesn’t ever feel crowded, and everyone always loves the homemade absorption panels covering the wall. Studio B definitely has a more traditional feel to it compared to A but it’s by no means sterile; it’s still a comfortable room to work in. There’s a lounge outside the studio so there’s lots of space to spread out. Studio B has it’s own private bathroom which sounds most excellent for re-amping.
Obviously you provide a space for the many artists of Boston to record, but tell us a little more about how your setup has benefited freelance engineers over your seven-year history.
TRC is a 100% freelance studio, which means that we don’t have any staff engineers. We think it’s really important for artists to work with technical professionals that they get along with (both personally and musically) and so we enforce that every client brings in their own engineer. At this point we have 1,100 gigs for freelancers every year happening in our facility, and we’ve priced our studios in a way that leaves room for engineers to charge a reasonable rate for their services.
When clients need referrals we refer to our staff, who are all great engineers as well (but they still negotiate their own rates and get paid directly by the client as a freelancer). We also see a lot of engineers coming in from other studios around town (Q Division, Mad Oak, Zippah, Futura…) which we love.
Has the way you operate fostered its own community within the greater music scene? Do you feel you’re providing a space for collaboration and networking?
We see thousands of musicians/artists/engineers through our doors every year so I’m happy to say that it feels like we have a large community surrounding the work that that we do. We really value the face-to-face interaction that takes place in recording studio and are happy to see so many people coming out of their basements or bedrooms and collaborating. The best music doesn’t get made in a vacuum, it usually takes a team.
How do you feel that The Record Co. has contributed to the ever-changing landscape of the arts in Boston?
We’ve contributed in two ways: through direct support to artists/musicians and through an effort to raise general awareness about the great music that is being made in our city. There is an obvious need for the programming we do as there are thousands of people that have taken advantage of our studios. We have had bands and engineers tell us that we are the reason they stayed in Boston instead of moving to NYC or LA which is extremely meaningful to us and shows that there is a need for the work that we are doing.
We have also made an effort to engage music fans in Boston and let them know that you don’t need to look to NYC/LA or Pitchfork/Rolling Stone to find good new music, there’s actually tons of being made all around you. Raising the reputation and awareness of what’s happening here in Boston is a long process but it only serves to make the city feel more like home for all of the musicians/artists that struggle to live and work here in Boston.
For a city home to a quarter of a million college students and a mayoral administration hoping to retain this population after graduation, what else does Boston need to be a happier home to working musicians and engineers?
That’s a tough one and is something we talk about regularly. All-ages music venues, more (well maintained) rehearsal spaces, better public transportation, affordable housing inside city-limits…. None of these things are easy problems to solve but all would go a long way towards making the city a more hospitable place for artist and engineers.
Speaking of those college students, how does the Recor Co. interact with student artists and engineers-in-training from local colleges and universities?
We wanted to price our studio rates in such a way that artists could afford to rent an appropriate amount of time to actually accomplish what they set out to. These days the only way for artists to develop themselves is to act as their own A&R and just keep recording and tweaking until they finally land on something good.
Because we also cater to a lot of engineers who are just getting their start or haven’t worked in a studio outside of a college setting we host orientations every other week which consists of a conversation about expectations and best practices while working in a professional setting, how to avoid pit-falls that have the potential to kill the vibe for the players, and then a full technical walkthrough of the facility. We always have staff around to assist with any technical questions/issues and we do have a great crew of part-time assistants that are able to help out as well.
After six years in business you dropped Boston Sessions, Volume 1 – which resulted in a very cool development in the Rock Band video game franchise! – what led you to releasing this? What was the reaction from artists and labels involved?
We really wanted to tackle both raising the reputation of what’s happening in our music scene and also provide an economic opportunity for the artists involved. ‘Vol.1 – Beast’ featured 13 brand new tracks by 13 Boston-based artists. In total we paid 63 artists/engineers/producers to make the record, which we’re really proud of.
Artist and sponsors alike both loved the project. It was unique as it was all brand new material (not pre-recorded content) and really provided a cool cross-section of the diverse scene in Boston. We were really happy to work with Harmonix to get the album featured in Rock Band, which is by far one of the craziest things to come from the project. We also just finished up a large donated outdoor ad campaign around the city and on the trains called “Boston Music Is” which features pictures of artists from the comp. It’s great to see the city showing some love for the artists that make it a cool place to be.
What can we expect on the upcoming volume of Boston Sessions? Beyond promoting the Record Co. and the artists featured, what hopes do you have for the release?
Vol. 2 is going to be an awesome collection of new music from some great artists around the city. We really hope this go around that we not only turn heads in Boston but in other cities as well. Ultimately we want Boston to be seen as a music destination and the Boston Sessions program is just one step along that path to get there.
[Editors Note:This blog was written by Sabrina Bucknole. Sabrina has been singing in musical theater for over eight years, and wrote this as a deep dive into how live and theatrical singers can adapt their vocals for the studio and offers five practical tips for singers recording in the studio.]
Singers who have a lot of experience performing live can often find difficulty in bringing the same level of performance to the studio. Whether this is because of the space itself, the lack of an audience, the different approaches to singing techniques, or the range of equipment found in the studio, singers must learn to adapt their vocals for the studio if they want to create the “right” sound.
Introducing the Stage to the Studio
There are many elements about the studio that cannot be re-created on stage, but with technology advancing, this gap is closing, especially where vocals are concerned. For instance, loop pedals are becoming increasingly popular in live performances among the likes of famous artists including Ed Sheeran, Radiohead, and Imogen Heap. Loop pedals are used to create layers of sound and add texture to the performance, allowing a solo artist to become anything from a three-person band to an entire choir.
Vocals are recorded similarly to how they are recorded in a studio except they are recorded in the moment during live performance. It could be said that recording vocals in a studio is more intimate and requires more focus due to the enhanced sensitivity of the mics used in these spaces.
Both dynamic and condenser mics usually come with a specially designed acoustic foam windshield which absorbs the soundwaves coming from the voice. Duncan Geddes, MD of Technical Foam Services emphasises the importance of choosing the correct type of foam for the microphone windshield when recording in the studio. He explains that “having the right microphone windshield is essential to ensure an effective barrier against specific background noise while still allowing acoustic transparency. The critical aspect is the consistent pore size and density of the foam, to ensure complete sound transparency”.
To avoid picking up any unwanted sounds including plosives (“b” and “p” sounds created by a short blast of air from the mouth), acoustic windshields can be very effective. These air blasts strike the diaphragm of the mic and create a thump-like sound known as “popping”.
From Broadway to Booth: Vocal Differences
Singing in a recording studio can be daunting, especially for those who are used to singing live in a theatre. This could be because every tiny imperfection of the voice is picked up in the studio, including things that go unnoticed when performing live. Faced with these imperfections, some singers try to smooth out every little bump or crack in the voice in the pursuit of “perfection”.
Others embrace the “flaws” of the voice to create a sound unique to them. For instance, the well-known artist Sia embraces the natural cracks of her voice. This is apparent in most of her songs, especially in the song “Alive” on her 2016 album, This Is Acting. At 4 minutes 10 seconds you can hear her slide up to a higher note. To some, this might sound a little strained, but to others and Sia, this may simply be a natural and welcome part of her sound and performance.
Volume control can also be something to think about when entering the studio from the stage. Theatrical singers are taught to project their voices even in soft, quiet parts so they can still be heard. It could be argued that belting high and powerful notes becomes almost second nature to them, which is why they may find themselves having to reign it in slightly when adapting their voice for the studio.
For instance, according to multiplatinum songwriter and producer Xandy Barry, vocalists need to tone down their performance when recording in a studio. He reveals, “In certain quiet passages [singers] may need to bring it down, because in the studio a whisper can be clearly heard.”
It could also be argued that when performing live, the stage is a space where a certain type of energy is released, something that cannot be re-created in the studio. Playing to a crowd may bring something out of an artist. Some performers feel they can express themselves more on stage compared to in the studio. A live performance is ultimately, a performance after all.
This does not mean that the studio is restricting; instead it could be argued that other techniques are evoked when recording in this space. For instance, some singers display more finesse and subtlety in their work, something that cannot always be re-created on stage.
Five practical tips for singers recording in the studio:
1. Warm up
Studio time can be expensive which is why it’s best to warm up before entering the studio. As well as being prepared vocally, make sure you’re prepared with how you’re going to approach the piece. Some recommend knowing precisely how you’re going to sing every section, but this can come across as being over-rehearsed and may not sound natural. To avoid this, approach the piece differently each time and try experimenting with different sounds, textures, and volumes.
2. Record, record, record
Try and capture everything you can. If you vocalise something you like the sound of, but no one hit “record”, it can be frustrating for you as the singer, trying to re-create that same sound.
3. Keep cool and have fun
If you feel like you’re getting frustrated because a take isn’t going well or you’re not hitting the right notes, or you’re sounding rather flat, take a break. Take some time to clear your head and start afresh, so the next time you hit record, you’ll almost certainly get the results you were after!
4. Be emotional
Conjuring up emotions in the studio can be harder to do than on stage. This can be due to the lack of atmosphere, people, and the confined space. To avoid lyrics coming across bland or meaningless, try to focus on the lyrics themselves and decode them.
To stir the emotions you’re looking for, personalise the material by asking yourself “What is the meaning behind these words?”, “How are these lyrics making me feel?”, and “How can I relate these lyrics to my own life or the life of someone I care about?”. Like an actor and their script, discovering and analysing the intention of the words can have a great effect on the performance.
5. Manage the microphone
Singers with experience behind a mic know how to handle one. Skilled singers know where and how to move their head to create different volumes and sounds. For instance, by moving closer to the mic as they get softer, and further as they get louder they can manipulate the volume of their vocals, reducing the amount of compression required in editing later.
Singing into a mic when recording can be different from singing into a mic on stage. The positioning, mounting, angle of the mic, and distance from the singer, can all effect the captured vocal sound. Live singers usually hold the mic close to their mouth especially for softer parts, but in a studio, the mic is usually more sensitive to sound. This is why it’s best to keep more distance between yourself and the mic, especially for louder sections.
Once upon a time, remixing a song meant actually redoing the mix. Many vintage consoles (some Neve 80-series, for example) have a button labeled “remix” that changes a few functions on the desk to optimize it for mixing rather than recording.
But sometime in the late 20th century, the word “remix” began to take on a new meaning: creating a new arrangement of an existing song using parts of the original recording. Into the 21st century, it’s evolved again and is now sometimes used as a synonym for “cover.” The latter two definitions remain in common use, while the first has largely disappeared.
Language is constantly evolving, and musical terms are obviously no exception. In fact, in music, language seems to evolve particularly fast, most likely owing to lots of interdisciplinary collaboration and the rapid growth of DIY.
Ambiguous or unorthodox use of language has the potential to seriously impede communication between collaborators. In order to avoid an unclear situation, let’s break down standard usage of some of the most commonly conflated, misused, or misunderstood music-related terms.
GAIN / DISTORTION
Gain, as it’s used in music electronics, is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “An increase in amount, magnitude, or degree — a gain in efficiency,” or, “The increase (of voltage or signal intensity) caused by an amplifier; especially: the ratio of output over input.”
To put it in less formal terms, gain is just an increase in strength. If an amplifier makes a signal stronger, then it causes that signal to gain intensity. Gain is usually expressed as a ratio. If an amplifier makes a signal 10 times as loud, then that amplifier has a “gain of 10.”
On the other hand, harmonic distortion is that crunchy or fuzzy sound that occurs when an amplifier clips (as a result of its inability to handle the amount of signal thrown at it).
In the 1970s, some guitar amp manufacturers began employing extra gain stages in their designs to generate harmonic distortion on purpose. In other words, they’d amplify the signal, then amplify it again, and that second gain stage — having been given more than it could handle — would distort. These became known as “high-gain amplifiers.” Because of this, many guitarists just assumed that gain was synonymous with distortion. This was cemented when later amps like the Marshall JCM900 had knobs labeled “gain” that, by design, increased the amount of harmonic distortion when turned up!
Outside the realm of electric guitar, though, gain is still most typically used in a conventional way. When a recording engineer talks about “structuring gain,” for example, he or she is usually specifically trying to avoid harmonic distortion. It’s easy to see how this might cause confusion!
TONALITY / TONE
Not to pick on guitarists, but this is another one that trips us up. Tone has many music-related definitions, but the one of interest at the moment is (again, per Merriam-Webster), “Vocal or musical sound of a specific quality…musical sound with respect to timbre and manner of expression.”
On the other hand, the dictionary definition of tonality is:
It’s important to note that “tonal quality” here refers to “the quality of being tonal,” or the quality of being in a particular key (in other words, not atonal). This is a different matter from “tone quality,” which is commonly understood to mean “timbre.” Most musicians with formal training understand tonality either as a synonym for key or as the quality of being in a key.
If you’re trying to sound fancy, it can be tempting to reach for words with more syllables, but using tonality as a synonym for timbre can be confusing. Imagine you’re recording two piano pieces — one utilizing 20th-century serial composition techniques and the other utilizing functional harmony. If you express concerns about the piano’s “tonality” while recording the second piece, the composer would probably think you were criticizing his or her work!
OVERDUB / PUNCH-IN
Most musicians in the modern era understand the difference between these two concepts, but they still occasionally confuse folks relatively new to the process of recording.
Overdubbing is adding an additional layer to an existing recording.
“Punching in” is replacing a portion of an already-recorded track with a new performance.
To do a “punch-in” (in order to fix a mistake, for example), the performer plays along with the old performance until, at the appropriate moment, the recordist presses record, thus recording over the mistake. The recordist can then “punch out” to preserve the remainder of the original performance once the correction is made.
GLISSANDO / PORTAMENTO
A portamento is a continuous, steady glide between two pitches without stopping at any point along the way.
A glissando is a glide between two pitches that stair-steps at each intermediate note along the way. A glissando amounts, in essence, to a really fast chromatic scale.
To play a glissando on guitar, you’d simply pluck a string and slide one finger up the fretboard. The frets would make distinct intermediate pitches, creating the stair-stepped effect. If you wished to play a portamento on guitar, you could either bend the string or slip a metal or glass slide over one of the fingers of your fretting hand.
VIBRATO / TREMOLO
While often used interchangeably in modern practice, vibrato and tremolo are actually distinct kinds of wiggle. In most cases, tremolo is amplitude modulation (varying the loudness of the signal), whereas vibrato is frequency modulation (varying the pitch of the signal).
But over the past few hundred years, tremolo has commonly referred to many different performative actions. On string instruments, tremolo is used to refer to the rapid repetition of a single note, and in percussion, tremolo is often used to describe a roll. Singers use it for even crazier things, like a pulsing of the diaphragm while singing¹.
Leo Fender must’ve had his terms confused — he labeled the vibrato bridges on his guitars “synchronized tremolo,” and the tremolo circuits on his amps “vibrato.” Confusion has reigned ever since.
ANALOG / DIGITAL
Analog and digital are perhaps the most confused pair of words in the 21st-century musical lexicon. I once had a somewhat older musician tell me that my 1960s-era fuzz pedal and tape echo made my guitar sound “too digital” for his music. Likewise, countless younger musicians claim to prefer the “analog sound” of the original AKAI MPC (an early digital sampler) and the Yamaha DX-7 (an early digital FM synthesizer). But “analog” and “digital” are not simply stand-ins for “vintage” and “modern,” nor for “hardware” and “software.” They’re entirely different mechanisms for storing and generating sounds. Let’s learn a little more!
Merriam-Webster’s most relevant definition of analog is, “Of, relating to, or being a mechanism in which data is represented by continuously variable physical quantities.”
Also relevant is its first definition of analogue: “Something that is analogous or similar to something else.”
Now, how does this relate to music technology? It all goes back to humans’ longstanding search for a way to capture and store sound. Sound, on a basic scientific level, is nothing more than compression and rarefaction (decompression) of air that our ears can sense. Since air pressure fluctuations can’t really be stored, recording sound proved elusive for a long time.
20th-century scientists and engineers, however, brilliantly figured out that recording sound might be possible if they could accurately transfer that sound into something that could be preserved. They needed something storable that would represent the sound; an analogue to stand in for the sound that would allow it to be captured and kept.
First, they used mechanically generated squiggles on a wax cylinder as the analogue. Eventually, they figured out that they could use alternating-current electricity (which oscillates between positive and negative voltage), as an analogue of sound waves (which oscillate between positive and negative air pressure). From there, it was a relatively short leap to figuring out that they could, through electromagnetism, store that information as positively and negatively charged magnetic domains, which exist on magnetic tape.
This is analog recording!
Since electric voltage is continuously variable, any process — including synthesis — that represents air pressure fluctuations exclusively using alternating current electricity is analog, per Merriam-Webster’s first definition above.
Digital, on the other hand, is defined as, “Of, relating to, or using calculation by numerical methods or by discrete units,” and, “Of, relating to, or being data in the form of especially binary digits, digital images, a digital readout; especially : Of, relating to, or employing digital communications signals, a digital broadcast.”
That’s a little arcane, so let’s put it this way: Rather than relying directly on continuous analog voltages, a digital recorder or synthesizer computes numerical values that represent analog voltages at various slices of time, called samples. These will then be “decoded” into a smooth analog signal later in order to be accurately transferred back into actual air pressure variations at the speaker. If that’s a blur, don’t worry — you only need to understand that this is a fundamentally different process of storing or generating sound.
Absent a real acquaintance with the technology of an individual piece of equipment or process, it’s probably safer to avoid leaping to conclusions about whether it’s analog or digital. For example, there are reel-to-reel magnetic tape machines (like the Sony PCM 3348 DASH) that don’t record analog voltage-based signal at all, but rather use the tape to store digital information (as simple ones and zeroes).
Since you can’t judge whether a piece of gear is analog or digital with your eyes, it’s probably best to only use these terms when you need to refer to the specific technologies as outlined above. In other words, next time you’re recording in a studio with a cool-looking piece of old gear, it’s probably safer to use #vintage instead of#analog to caption your in-studio Instagram photo!
PHASE / POLARITY
Phase is defined by Merriam-Webster as… (deep breath):
“The point or stage in a period of uniform circular motion, harmonic motion, or the periodic changes of any magnitude varying according to a simple harmonic law to which the rotation, oscillation, or variation has advanced from its standard position or assumed instant of starting.”
That’s a mouthful! This is a concept that’s easier understood with an example, so let’s imagine that you have a swinging pendulum:
If you were to freeze that pendulum at two different times, the dot at the end would be in two different locations. The pendulum’s swing occurs over time, so the location of the pendulum depends on when you stop it. We’d refer to the phase of the pendulum in order to describe this phenomenon and where the pendulum is in its cycle relative to time. And since it’s always moving in a continuous, smooth arc, there are an infinite number of possibilities!
Phase becomes potentially relevant for anything that’s oscillating or undulating — like the pendulum above or a sound wave.
Polarity, on the other hand, is defined as, “The particular state, either positive or negative, with reference to the two poles or electrification.”
To put it in very simple terms, you’re dealing with polarity any time you install a battery. The battery has a positive terminal and a negative one. You have to make sure it’s installed the right way. While phase is infinitely variable, polarity has only two choices — it’s one or the other.
In our brief explanation of analog audio above, we mentioned that positive and negative swings of voltage are used to represent positive and negative changes in air pressure. If we switch polarity of a signal, we swap all the positive voltages for negative ones, and vice-versa. +1v becomes -1v, +0.5v becomes -0.5v, etc. This is usually accomplished with a button marked with the Greek letter theta or “Ø.”
Interestingly, if you have one signal alone, it’s usually the case that our ear can’t really tell the difference between positive or negative polarity. It’s when you combine two or more similar signals (like two microphones on one drum for instance) that a polarity flip of one or the other can have a dramatic influence on the sound.
Confusingly, this influence is a result of phase differences between the two sources, and switching polarity can often improve (or worsen!) the sound of two combined sources which are slightly out of phase. For this reason, the polarity switch is often called a “phase switch,” and depressing it is often colloquially referred to as “flipping phase.”
In the graphic below, you’ll see a brief, zoomed-in snapshot of two waveforms. A single bass performance was simultaneously recorded into both a direct box (blue) and through a mic on its amplifier (green).
In the first graphic, you can notice that the two are slightly out of phase. The blue direct-in wave swings negative ever so slightly before the green mic–on–amp one does. This is because the amp’s sound had to travel through the air briefly before being picked up by the microphone. Since sound in air travels much more slowly than electricity does, this creates a slight time delay or phase discrepancy.
In the second example below, I’ve flipped the polarity of the amp track. You can see that the time delay still exists, but now the amp track’s wave is inverted or “upside down.” As the DI track swings negative, the amp track swings positive.
In this case, the switch made the combined sound noticeably thinner, so I quickly flipped it back. Occasionally though, flipping polarity improves the combined sound of two sources which are slightly out of phase.
In practice, most recordists will understand what you mean if you say “flip the phase,” but should there happen to be a physicist in the room, you might get a raised eyebrow! Generally, though, this is a classic example of how unorthodox usage sometimes becomes accepted over time.
Which raises the point: any of the musical and audio terms above may eventually, like “remix” before them, evolve to incorporate new shades of meaning (or even have some earlier “correct” definitions fall into disuse). In the meantime, though, the more precise your grasp on the language of music, the less likely you are to misunderstand or be misunderstood.
¹ In performance, for both singers and many instrumentalists, pure tremolo is almost impossible to achieve without taking on some characteristics of vibrato — that is to say that a passage is played or sung with only variations of either pitch or volume.
[Editors Note:This blog was written by Alex Sterling, an audio engineer and music producer based in New York City. He runs a commercial studio in Manhattan called Precision Sound where he provides recording, mixing, and mastering services.]
As an audio engineer and music producer I am constantly striving to help my clients music sound the best that it can for as many listeners as possible. With music streaming services like Apple Music/iTunes Radio, Spotify, Tidal, and YouTube continuing to dominate how people consume music, making sure that the listener is getting the best possible sonic experience from these platforms is very important.
Over the last several years some new technologies have been developed and integrated into the streaming service’s playback systems called Loudness Normalization.
Loudness Normalization is the automatic process of adjusting the perceived loudness of all the songs on the service to sound approximately the same as you listen from track to track.
The idea is that the listener should not have to adjust the volume control on their playback system from song to song and therefore the listening experience is more consistent. This is generally a good and useful thing and can save you from damaging your ears if a loud song comes on right after a quiet one and you had the volume control way up.
The playback system within each streaming service has an algorithm that measures the perceived loudness of your music and adjusts its level to match a loudness target level they have established. By adjusting all the songs in the service to match this target the overall loudness experience is made more consistent as people jump between songs and artists in playlists or browsing.
If your song is louder than the target it gets turned down to match and if it is softer it is sometimes made louder with peak limiting depending on the service (Spotify only).
So how do we use this knowledge to make our music sound better?
The simple answer is that we want to master our music to take into account the loudness standards that are being used to normalize our music when streaming, and prepare a master that generally complies with these new loudness standards.
Concept 1: Master for sound quality, not maximum loudness.
If possible work with a professional Mastering Engineer who understands how to balance loudness issues along with the traditional mastering goals of tonal balance and final polish etc.
If you’re mastering your own music then try to keep this in mind while you work:
If we master our music to be as loud as possible and use a lot of peak limiting to get the loudness level very high then we are most likely sacrificing some dynamic range, transient punch, and impact to get our music to sound loud.
The mechanism of loudness maximization intentionally reduces the dynamic range of our music so the average level can be made higher. There are benefits to this such as increasing the weight and density of a mix, but there are also negatives such as the loss of punch and an increase in distortion. It’s a fine line to walk between loud enough and too loud.
Here is where loudness normalization comes in:
If our song is mastered louder than the streaming target loudness level then our song will be gained down (by the service) as a result. If you are mastering louder than the target level then you are throwing away potential dynamic range and punch for no benefit and your song will sound smaller, less punchy, and more dynamically constrained in comparison to a song that was mastered more conservatively in regards to loudness.
If we master softer than the target level then in some cases (Spotify) the streaming service actually adds gain and peak limiting to bring up the level. This is potentially sonically adverse because we don’t know what that limiting process will do to our music. Will it sound good or not? It most likely will create some loss of punch but how much is lost will be based on what content was put in.
Some music is more sensitive to this limiting process. High dynamic range jazz or classical music with pristine acoustic instruments might be more sonically damaged than a rock band song with distorted guitars for example so the result is not entirely predictable just on loudness measurement but also on musical style.
Thankfully the main platforms other than Spotify don’t add gain and peak limiting as of this writing so they are less potentially destructive to sound quality for below target content.
Concept 2: Measure loudness using a LUFS/LKFS meter.
The different streaming services have different loudness standards and algorithms to take measurements and apply the normalization but for the most part they use the basic unit system of loudness measurement called LUFS or LKFS. This metering system allows engineers to numerically meter how loud content is and make adjustments to the dynamic range accordingly.
Being able to understand how our music masters are metering with this scale is useful to see what will happen when they are streamed on different services (i.e. will the algorithm gain them up or down to meet the target or not?)
Concept 3: Choose which loudness standard to master to.
Direct your mastering engineer if you are working with one to master to a target loudness level and consult with them about what they feel is an appropriate target level for your music. If you are mastering jazz or classical music you probably don’t want to make a very loud master for sound quality and dynamic range reasons but if you are making a heavy rock, pop, or, hip hop master that wants to be more intense then a louder target may be more suitable.
iTunes Sound Check and Apple Music/iTunes Radio use a target level of
-16LUFS and this would be a suitable target for more dynamic material.
Tidal uses a target level of -14LUFS that is a nice middle ground for most music that wants to be somewhat dynamic.
YouTube uses a target level of -13LUFS, a tiny bit less dynamic than Tidal.
Spotify uses a loudness target of -11LUFS and as you can see this is 5 dB louder than iTunes/Apple Music. This is more in the territory of low dynamic range, heavily limited content.
Somewhere in the middle of -16LUFS and -11LUFS might be the best target loudness for your music based on your desired dynamic range but the goal is not to go above the chosen target otherwise your content gets gained down on playback and dynamic range is lost.
In all services except Spotify, content that measures lower than target loudness is not gained up. So for people working with very dynamic classical music or film soundtracks those big dynamic movements will not be lost on most streaming platforms.
However since Spotify is unique and adds gain and peak limiting if your content is below target it is potentially the most destructive sonically. So should you master to -11LUFS and save your music from Spotify’s peak limiting but lose dynamic range on the other platforms? It’s a compromise that you have to decide for yourself in consultation with your mastering engineer.
You might want to test out what -11LUFS sounds like in the studio and hear what the effect of that limiting is. Is it better to master that loud yourself and compensate in other ways for the lost punch and lower dynamic range? Or should you accept that Spotify users get a different dynamic range than iTunes users and let your music be more dynamic for the rest of the platforms?
In all cases there is no benefit to going above -11 LUFS because that is the loudest target level used by any service. If you go louder than -11LUFS then your music will be turned down and dynamic range and punch will be lost on all the services needlessly and permanently.
[Editors Note:This is a guest blog written by Jason Moss. Jason is an LA-based mixer, producer and engineer. His clients include Sabrina Carpenter, Madilyn Bailey, GIVERS and Dylan Owen. Check out his mixing tips at Behind The Speakers.]
Setting up a home recording studio can be overwhelming.
How do you know what equipment to buy? Which software is best? How can you make sure everything will work together?
Take a breath. This guide will walk you through the process, step by step. It contains everything you need to know, including equipment recommendations. Make your way to the bottom of this page, and you’ll have your home recording studio up and running in no time. This way, you can get on to the good stuff—making great recordings!
Your computer is the command center of your home recording studio. It’s the brains and brawn behind the entire operation.
This is one area where you don’t want to skimp.
Recording will place high demands on your computer, and you’ll need a machine that can keep up. If you plan on tackling projects with lots of tracks or producing electronic music, this is even more important. The last thing you want is your computer to slow you down. There’s no faster way to kill a moment of musical inspiration.
Laptop Or Desktop?
If you absolutely need to record on the go, a laptop may be your only choice. But be prepared to pay more and walk away with a less capable machine.
Go for a desktop whenever possible. Dollar for dollar, they’re faster, more powerful, and offer more storage. They also last longer and fail less, because their internal components don’t overheat as easily. And since a desktop doesn’t sit in front of your face, the noise from its fans will be less of an issue. (Microphones are super sensitive, so a noisy room will lead to noisy recordings. I worked on a laptop for years, and fan noise was a constant problem.)
PC Or Mac?
While my first computers were PCs, I’m now a Mac guy through and through. Macs crash less. They’re also the computer of choice for music-makers (you’ll find them in most home recording studios). Because of this, updates and bug fixes for recording software will often be released for Mac users first.
With that being said, most recording software and hardware is compatible with both platforms. Macs are also more expensive, so this may influence your decision. If you’re more comfortable using a PC, you can make it work. Just make sure your audio interface and software is compatible with whatever you choose.
4 Computer Specs That Really Matter
When you’re trying to find the right computer for your home recording studio, it’s easy to get lost in techno-speak. The following 4 specs are what count. Hit the guidelines below, and your computer will handle nearly any recording session with ease.
CPU (Clock Speed & Number Of Cores)
If a computer was a car, the CPU would be its engine. Clock speed is like the number of cylinders an engine has. The higher the number, the faster the CPU. A fast CPU will handle large recording sessions gracefully.
If the CPU has multiple cores, this is even better. Multiple cores will allow it to multitask more effectively.
It can be difficult to compare CPUs (especially those with a different number of cores). To make this easier, you can use sites like CPUBoss or CPU Benchmark.
Good: 2.6 GHz dual-core
Better: 2.8 GHz dual-core
Best: 3+ GHz quad-core
RAM is your computer’s short-term memory. More RAM will make your computer run faster, particularly when working with large, complex projects.
Good: 8 GB
Better: 12 GB
Best: 16+ GB
Hard Drive (Space & Type)
A computer’s hard drive is its long-term memory. This is where your recordings will be stored. Recorded audio takes up lots of space, so you’ll want plenty to spare. If you end up filling your hard drive, you can always buy an external one. However, it’s always better to start with more space.
But when it comes to hard drives, space isn’t all that matters. In fact, speed is even more important.
The best hard drives are solid-state. While they typically offer less storage space, they’re worth every penny. Solid-state drives use flash memory (the same technology you’ll find in a USB thumb drive) and have no moving parts. They’re much faster than their mechanical predecessors. If your computer has a solid-state drive, it will be much snappier when playing back and recording projects with large track counts.
If you can’t avoid a mechanical drive, opt for one that spins at 7,200 RPM. It will deliver data about 33% faster than a 5,400 RPM drive. This really matters if you plan on tackling projects with 30+ tracks.
Good: 500 GB 7,200 RPM mechanical drive
Better: 1 TB 7,200 RPM mechanical drive
Best: 500+ GB solid-state drive
Your audio interface (see below) will connect to your computer using USB, Thunderbolt, or FireWire. Make sure there’s a port available on your computer for it. If you plan on using a MIDI keyboard or other accessories, make sure you’ve got enough free ports to accommodate them too.
Best Bang For Your Buck: Mac Mini
The Mac Mini is seriously underrated. This is what I use in my home recording studio, and it’s more than enough. Opt for a solid-state drive and maxed-out memory for even more power. And don’t forget—you’ll need a keyboard, mouse, and monitor too.
For Mobile Music-Makers: MacBook Pro
If you need to be mobile, the MacBook Pro is a great choice. Just be prepared for fan noise.
For Those Who Want The Best: Mac Pro
It isn’t cheap, but you’ll find the Mac Pro in most professional recording studios. Even the baseline unit is more than enough.
Your audio interface is the heart of your home recording studio. While it may look intimidating, it’s nothing more than a fancy routing box. This is where you’ll plug in microphones, speakers, and headphones. It’s also where the signal from your microphones gets converted into ones and zeros, so your computer can make use of it.
Interfaces vary widely in features. Some have knobs to adjust the volume of your speakers and microphones. Others accomplish this through a software control panel. However, all great interfaces are transparent—they don’t add any noise or distortion to the sound. This is where high-end interfaces often differ from cheaper ones.
Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing an interface:
Number Of Mic Preamps
The more preamps, the more microphones you can record at once. If you’re only recording vocals, one may be all you need. To record instruments with multiple mics (such as acoustic guitar in stereo), you’ll need at least 2. To record drums or people playing together, go for 4 or more.
Quality Of Mic Preamps
When it comes to mic preamps, people get distracted by quantity. They think more is better, so they buy cheap interfaces with 8 preamps.
This is a rookie mistake.
Cheap preamps will add noise and distortion to your recordings. This will become a permanent part of your tracks, and it can add a harsh, brittle quality to your music.
Quality is more important than quantity. Avoid cheap interfaces with 8 preamps. Instead, go for an interface with 4 or 2. You’ll walk away with a higher-quality interface, often at the same price.
With a 1/4″ input, you can record electric guitar or bass without an amp. You can then use software to shape the tone. This isn’t an essential feature, but it’s handy (especially if you’re a guitarist or bassist).
Pro Tip: If your interface doesn’t have a 1/4″ input, a direct box will do the same thing.
Make sure your interface has the same type of outputs your speakers use (either XLR, 1/4″, or RCA). If there’s a mismatch, you’ll have to use an adapter or special cable to connect them. While this isn’t a huge deal, it’s best avoided.
With a headphone jack, you’ll be able to plug in a pair of headphones and listen back while recording. This is an essential feature, and almost all interfaces have one.
Pro Tip: Most interfaces have a 1/4″ headphone jack. This is larger than the 1/8″ plug on most consumer headphones. To use consumer headphones with your interface, you’ll need an 1/8″ to 1/4″ adapter.
Most interfaces will connect to your computer using USB, FireWire, or Thunderbolt. Make sure your computer has a free port of that type available.
You’ll also want to make sure your interface is compatible with your recording software. You can find this information on the interface manufacturer’s website.
How To Find A Mic That Makes You Sound Radio-Ready
Microphones are the ears of your home recording studio. They convert sound into electricity (which gets sent to your interface).
If you’re a guitarist, you know that every guitar sounds different. You might reach for a Tele over a Strat, depending on the part you’re playing. Microphones work the same way. One might sound better than another in a specific situation. But if you’re starting out, you don’t need a dozen mics to cover your bases…
This Type Of Mic Will Always Get The Job Done
There’s one type of microphone that sounds great on just about anything (including vocals).
It’s called a large-diaphragm, cardioid condenser.
If you’re only going to get one for your home recording studio, this should be it. Here’s why:
Large diaphragm: The diaphragm is the part of the mic that picks up sound. A large diaphragm makes the mic better at picking up low frequencies (like the body and warmth of your voice). This means it will faithfully capture the full tonal range of sounds.
Cardioid: This is the microphone’s polar pattern. It dictates what the mic will pick up, and more importantly, what it won’t. A cardioid mic will pick up what’s in front of it, but almost nothing to the sides or behind it. You can use this feature to reduce the level of unwanted noise in your recordings (like air conditioning rumble, noisy neighbors, or chirping birds). Just position the back of the mic towards the source of the noise!
Condenser: Refers to the technology the mic uses to capture sound. Condenser mics do a better job at picking up high frequencies (like the sizzle of cymbals or the crispness of a voice) than any other type of mic.
What About USB Mics?
Avoid them. While you won’t need an interface to use one, they are of lower quality than most traditional mics. They also aren’t future-proof; if USB ports become obsolete, you’ll need to buy a new mic.
Recommendations For Large-Diaphragm Cardioid Condenser Mics
How To Choose Studio Monitors That Supercharge Your Tracks
Studio monitors are speakers designed for use in home recording studios. You’ll need these to play back and mix your recordings.
These are different than the speakers you might buy for your living room. Whereas consumer speakers often flatter and enhance the sound, studio monitors are neutral and uncolored. They won’t sound as pretty as typical speakers—in fact, they may even sound dull.
Listen on speakers like these, and you’ll hear what’s really going on in your music. Great studio monitors will force you to work harder to craft a mix that sounds good. This will lead to tracks that sound great on a variety of different speakers, not just ones that sweeten or hype up the sound.
Can’t I Just Use Headphones?
Headphones are notoriously difficult to mix on, and tracks mixed on headphones often don’t hold up on speakers. (There are, however, other uses for headphones. You’ll learn more about this below.) If you’re doing basic voiceover work, you may be able to forgo studio monitors. But if you’re recording music, it’s crucial to invest in them.
4 Studio Monitor Specs That Really Matter
When choosing studio monitors for your home recording studio, it’s easy to get distracted by frequency plots and technical jargon. Here’s what really counts:
Active Vs. Passive
Speakers need an amplifier to produce sound. If a speaker is active, it means the amplifier is built-in. This makes active speakers completely self-contained—you just need to plug them into the wall and your interface. On the other hand, passive speakers need a separate power amp to function. I would avoid them, as they add another piece of equipment to your home recording studio.
Near-Field Vs. Mid/Far-Field
Near-field monitors are built to be used in close quarters, like a home studio. Mid-field and far-field monitors are built to be placed farther away from your ears, and are more suitable for larger spaces. Go for a pair of near-fields (unless you live in a castle).
Most studio monitors have a fairly flat frequency response. This means they sound neutral—the bass isn’t louder than the treble, and everything is well-balanced. However, even the flattest studio monitors will sound different in your home recording studio (room acoustics affect speakers dramatically). For this reason, I wouldn’t obsess over the frequency response of your speakers. You can always use software like Sonarworks Reference 3 to flatten things out later on.
Pay attention to how far the speakers extend down the frequency spectrum. This will often be quoted as the bottom number in a range (from 40 Hz to 20 kHz, for example). Smaller speakers won’t extend down as far. This will make it harder to hear what’s going on in your recordings. Try to find speakers that extend to 40 Hz or below.
Your studio monitors will have XLR, 1/4″, or RCA inputs. Make sure these are the same type of connectors your interface uses. If the two don’t match up, you’ll need a special adapter or cable to connect them. This isn’t a big deal, but it’s best avoided.
Headphones are an invaluable studio ally. You can use them while overdubbing, mixing, or to avoid disturbing your neighbors.
Like studio monitors, studio headphones are designed to be tonally neutral. While I don’t recommend mixing on them exclusively, headphones like these will offer you an accurate, unbiased perspective on your recordings.
When trying to find the right pair, here are some things to keep in mind:
Open-Back Vs. Closed-Back
Open-back headphones have perforations on the outside of each cup which allow sound to pass through easily. They typically sound better than closed-back headphones, and are the preferred choice for mixing. However, since sound leaks out of them so easily, they’re not ideal for recording (mics pick them up).
On the other hand, closed-back headphones have a hard enclosure that prevents sound from escaping. This makes them a better choice for recording, when maximum isolation is needed.
If you’re only going to buy a single pair for your home recording studio, go for closed-back. They’re more versatile.
Most pro studio headphones use a 1/4″ plug. This is thicker than the 1/8″ plug you’ll find on most consumer headphones. If you want to plug your studio headphones into an iPhone or laptop, you’ll need a 1/4″ to 1/8″ adapter.
Comfort And Fit
You’ll be wearing these for hours on end, so you want them to be comfortable. Cushy foam padding makes a big difference. Also, look for headphones that rest over, not on your ears. And if possible, try them on before you purchase!
While they may look cool, consoles like these are now collecting dust in top-tier studios across the globe.
You don’t need them anymore. In many cases, they’ve been replaced by digital audio workstations.
A digital audio workstation, or DAW, is the software that will power your home recording studio. It’s what you’ll use to record, play back, and manipulate audio inside your computer. Arm yourself with a great DAW, and you’ll be able to do everything you can do on that hunk of junk above (and more).
What’s The Best-Sounding DAW?
Visit any online audio forum and you’ll find people that claim one DAW (usually the one they use) sounds better than the rest.
This isn’t true. In fact, all DAWs sound exactly the same. The differences between them have more to do with workflow than anything else.
My 3 Favorite DAWs
When choosing a DAW, there are tons of great options. Here are my favorites:
As a mixer, Pro Tools is my DAW of choice. I’ve been using it for nearly a decade.
You’ll find Pro Tools in most recording studios. This is helpful if you ever end up recording in a commercial studio, because you’ll be able to open the projects you save on your own rig. This means you’ll be able to record drums in a professional studio, for example, and then edit them later in your home recording studio.
Pro Tools excels as a recording platform. Its audio-editing features are second-to-none. However, beatmakers or EDM producers may be better off with one of the DAWs below.
Logic is the preferred choice for many producers. It features a fantastic library of sounds and plugins—one of the most comprehensive packages available. When I’m not mixing, it’s my favorite DAW.
Unfortunately, Logic is Mac-only.
Ableton Live is great for loop and sample-based producers. In fact, many EDM producers swear by it. Its audio manipulation tools are flexible and innovative, and it can be easily integrated into a live performance. If I was an electronic music producer, Ableton Live would be my choice.
Other DAWs Worth Exploring
Your search shouldn’t stop here. Here are some other DAWs worth exploring:
How To Choose The Perfect DAW For You
Choosing a DAW is like dating. Download a few trial versions and take them for a spin. Explore your options and make sure things fit before committing. While all major DAWs have similar features, some do certain things better than others.
If you’ll be collaborating, check out what DAW your collaborators use. It’s much easier to work together if you’re both using the same software. But in the end, the choice is yours.
Don’t get too hung up here. Remember, The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper on a 4-track tape machine. Even the most basic DAW has infinitely more power. Go with your gut and move on.
Save Hundreds By Avoiding Unnecessary Plugins
As you start to explore the world of home recording, you’re going to run across plugins.
These are pieces of third-party software that extend the functionality of your DAW. They allow you to manipulate sound in different ways. Most people invest in plugins too early. If you’re just getting started, your DAW’s stock tools are more than enough to make great recordings. Master what you have first—more plugins won’t necessarily lead to better-sounding tracks.
We’ve covered the basics, but there are a couple of extras you’ll probably need too…
You’ll need an XLR cable to connect your mic to your audio interface.
You’ll also need a pair of cables to connect your speakers to your interface. These will be either 1/4″, XLR, or RCA—depending on which connectors your speakers and interface use.
Go for quality here. Cheap, flimsy stands will be the bane of your existence. I prefer ones with three legs over those with a circular, weighted base. They tend to be more stable and don’t fall over as much.
A mesh screen that sits between your microphone and vocalist. It helps diffuse the blasts of air that accompany certain consonants (like “p” and “b” sounds). Left alone, these blasts will overload your microphone’s diaphragm, leading to boomy, muddy recordings. This essential accessory will significantly improve the quality of your tracks.
Pro Tip: For a pop filter to work well, there needs to be a few inches between the filter and the mic, as well as the filter and the singer. If you push the filter right up against the mic or put your mouth on it, it won’t be able to do its job.
With a MIDI keyboard, you’ll be able to “play” any instrument imaginable. You can use it to fill out and orchestrate your recordings. If you’ll only be recording real instruments or vocalists, you won’t need one. But if you’re a beatmaker or electronic music producer, it’s almost essential.
Every decision you make while recording will be based on what you hear. If what you’re hearing isn’t accurate, you won’t make the right decisions. This will lead to recordings that sound good in your studio, but fall apart on other speakers.
You can avoid this by setting up your home recording studio properly. Don’t overlook this crucial step! If you follow the guidelines in the video below, you’ll be well ahead of most home studio owners. Your recordings will sound better too!
Taking Your Room To The Next Level With Acoustic Treatment
After your home recording studio is up and running, you’ll want to invest in acoustic treatment panels. These will improve the sound of your room by evening out acoustic problems. While acoustic treatment is beyond the scope of this article, I’ve put together a PDF with resources that will help you get started.
It’s Time To Build The Home Recording Studio Of Your Dreams
There will be nothing more satisfying than hearing your own recordings play over the speakers in your new home studio. You now have everything you need to make this happen.
The next step is for you to take action. Order the equipment you need, set up your room using the guidelines above, and start recording! Remember, once you get all this out of the way, you can get on to the good stuff—making great music!
But before you go, leave a comment below and tell me—what will you use your home recording studio for?
I wish you the best of luck on your home recording journey!