Music Soundtracks

There are many aspects of my job that are rewarding, but one of my favorite things is music for video.  Sometimes its a production for one of my clients and sometimes its for-hire from a third party.  The example I use for this article was done for the highly regarded firm, Cinemanix (Ohio and North Carolina).  SHOOTERSFINALThis group (led by Director/DP, Maz Mawlawi) is a talented and experienced film and graphics company.  Their client for this project was Home Savings and Loan, Youngstown, OH.

Soundtracks are a very subjective thing.  It’s important to consider the message the client wants to convey, and one would obviously want to know if they have a preferred musical style.  Regardless, there are a few things that I feel are necessary to consider when producing music for video.

  1. Combine (if possible) actual instruments with keyboard/electronic versions of them.  This is especially true with violins and strings.
  2. Despite the lure to use keyboard versions of percussion and drums, use real versions of them whenever possible.  The slight imperfections in timing and tone give the music an organic feel.BOARDFINAL
  3. When writing the music, try to use partial chords and incomplete scales during the body of the piece.  This allows for more interpretation and less leading-the-message from the music.
  4. Include one or more major tones of the scale when tagging the music or ending the video.  The message becomes clearer and more important as a result.
  5. If the customer can give at least one example of music they like, it can save a step or two.

In this video, the shots from the studio are followed by the rough video.  The link to the final broadcast version is below the embedded video.

The final video as broadcast is here: 



The Big Sleep and the Music Industry… Part Two

Hundreds of articles have been written about the fall of the music industry, but there’s a story I tell clients when the conversation turns to it.  I finally went back and researched the two articles I talk about.  This is Part Two.

In the five years that passed since the 1995 article I referenced in Part One, the recording industry was hell bent and singularly focused on establishing a new, higher quality format for music that would replace the CD and maintain the traditional album configuration.

MIX 2000In December of 2000, Mix Magazine dedicated an entire issue to this new format; DVD-Audio (A).  The DVD-A standard was 5.1 (five speakers and a subwoofer) with 24 bit resolution (the existing CD used 16 bit audio and two speakers).

I reference one of the several articles in this issue (Paul Verna, “DVD-Audio Arrives!”, Mix, December 2000, pp. 37-44.).   “DVD-Audio is finally ready for prime time; the Warner Music Group released its initial batch of DVD-A discs on November 7, 2000.  Those releases – on the Warner Bros., Atlantic, Elektra, Teldec and Erato labels- carry a suggested list price of $24.95, packaged in jewel boxes and clearly labeled as DVD-Audio titles.  More Warner releases, including titles on the Nonesuch, Giant and Rhino catalog imprint are set for a December 2000 and January 2001 release.  DVD-A players (prices range) from the low hundreds of dollars to $1,200 and up.  Most of the DVD-Audio players in the US incorporate the encryption technology mandated by the recording industry (RIAA) and some include a watermarking chip that is designed to protect music copyrights.”

As consumers, we were mostly unaware of some extremely important issues that either led up to, or paralleled the announcement.

  1. For four years, the music industry had been locked in a serious battle with the movie industry concerning this format.  After all, films were already produced in Dolby 5.1.  It was basically equal in quality.  But, from a patent standpoint it didn’t financially benefit the music companies.
  2. Sadly, over time, the product the music industry had begun marketing wasn’t music.  Music was just the advertising jingle for their real product which was the delivery medium.  Every time a new format was introduced, the industry banked on significant revenue as consumers upgraded their existing music catalogs.  Since we owned Frampton Comes Alive on vinyl, we would buy it on Cassette, CD and then again on DVD-A.
  3. Not surprisingly, the DVD-A announcement was DOA.  In February of 2001 ( TWO MONTHS AFTER THIS MIX ARTICLE), the file sharing site Napster experienced it’s peak historical usage with over 25 million users and 80 million songs shared.

By July of 2001, the RIAA got the courts to shut down Napster, but the iceberg had already gouged the ship from bow to stern.  It turns out that consumers didn’t care about improved quality OR owning media.  The music industry lost site of the real product…music.  Incredibly, the industry at that time had no plan to take advantage of downloading technology.  Despite what is now obvious, they literally didn’t see it coming.  Their resultant solution was to bring legal action against consumers and providers of illegal downloads.  And make no mistake, this was illegal.  As a result, iTunes is now the largest record label in the world with estimated 2013 revenues of 13 billion dollars.  No wonder the recording industry has been so reluctant to release their catalogs!

Of the eight record labels mentioned in the article, only four still exist.  Ironically, an enitre industry whose business model was based on the fact that their consumers could hear… didn’t listen.

The Big Sleep and The Music Industry… Part One

Hundreds of articles have been written about the fall of the music industry, but there’s a story I tell clients when the conversation turns to it.  I finally went back and researched the two articles I talk about.  This is Part One.

Don’t ask me how I remembered this article, but I did.  While that may seem miraculous enough, it’s nothing compared to the luck I needed in finding the story again.  …There were reasons that I kept these old industry magazines…  Those reasons elude me now… wait… isn’t that the definition of a hoarder?

Anyway, the story was buried  in between the pictures of million dollar studios and ads for the equipment featured in those studios.  The piece wasn’t listed on the cover, or even pushed to the back page as a final statement.  Borrowing the title of an older REM song, “The End of World as We Know it”, it was hidden in plain sight on page 26.

MIX 1995I was a subscriber to MIX magazine for about a decade beginning in the mid nineties.  At that time, MIX was generally accepted as the premiere industry magazine for recording and sound-for-film studios.  I remembered this article from one of the issues (Ken C. Puhlmann and David G. Lampton,”The End of the World as We Know It,” MIX  October, 1995, pp. 26-31, p 352) .  The authors did an excellent job of laying out the possible future for the audio industry.

“The advent of the World Wide Web marks the beginning of a new era, an era of shared knowledge and distributed computing.  Every day, billions of bytes of data are donated to online archives around the world.  It is not unreasonable to assume that nearly the whole of human knowledge will one day reside on networked computers.”  They go on to say, “The most popular service providers are Prodigy, Compuserve and America Online…most providers allow Internet access, and recently, some providers have added Web access; several have even provided the ability for individual users to create their own Web pages.”  The authors recommended using dial-up speeds of al least 14.4 kbps because “the relatively large file sizes would preclude slower connections”.

“One of the most dramatic changes engendered by the Web may be the dwindling role of the record companies themselves.  The Internet will spawn an online independent music industry in which the Web-savvy musician will no longer have to compete for the attention of a record company to disseminate music.”  Given the prior comments, their final paragraph would have seemed really over the top for 1995.  “The world has changed; to compete and participate, each of us must change as well.  The sword has been withdrawn from its sheath; the blade glitters in the flickering light.  Position the sword carefully.  Now, fall upon it.  Your re-birth awaits you.”

Among the many ads in this issue for now-defunct products and companies was a turnkey, computer recording system that boasted a 17″ CRT monitor…for the “unbeatable price” of $9,995.00.  Ouch!

The music industry had begun to think of itself as an institution.  They made the rules.  They told us what music to like, what music to listen to, and what music to buy.  What… do you think it was the independent-minded college radio DJ’s that discovered “the next big thing?”  Those stations were actively marketed to by major label subsidiaries.   The music industry was clearly in the drivers seat.  Sales were steadily rising, and by 1999, they would report all-time-high revenues of 14.6 billion dollars.  How could they go wrong?  What a lesson!  As business owners, we need to be careful not to tell our customers what they want.

In Part Two, we’ll jump forward five years to December of 2000.


Recording Vocals for Music

MACYAlthough I have over twenty years of recording experience, I don’t present myself here as an expert.  I simply offer tricks that have worked for me over time.

Almost all of the home-studio savvy musicians that end up at Mud-Hut have one of two issues; drums or vocals.  I’ve previously given my opinions on recording drums.  So what is it that makes vocals so troublesome?  Most of my clients describe two problems.

  1. Fluctuations in volume.  The vocalist is too loud in some passages and too soft in others.
  2. The inability of the final performance to “sit in the mix”.  Even with volume issues corrected, the vocal track is either underneath or on-top of the music.

Volume Fluctuations:

Let’s assume that the vocalist has some respect for the microphone as an instrument.  Screaming into a very sensitive, condenser mic presents the opposite issues that standing back from a durable, dynamic stage mic can.  Let’s also assume that the signal chain (microphone into pre-amp into computer interface) isn’t out of whack and there seems to be plenty of headroom with no distortion.  These are heavy assumptions, but if you don’t have at least this much…then inconsistent volume and mix placement are not yet your worries.

  • RVOXIt’s all about compression.  I compress vocals on the way IN to the converter, but it’s not necessary.  You will, however, absolutely have to compress/limit recorded vocals with a plug-in as an insert.  There are many available.  I use Waves R-Vox and squash the signal as much as required.
  • I tend to lightly use an Optical Compressor on the Vocal Group (ie. all vocals).  I utilize the UAD LA2A for this.  Compressors are not used here as special effects… If you can hear processing, you’ve overused them.  Listen for the corrections they’ve produced.


    Vocal Opto-Compressor

Mixing Issues:

All microphones have distinctive frequency signatures as do all singers.  Matching mics and vocalists is an art that implies patience and a large microphone collection.  If you have a microphone locker, then why are you reading this?  Forget about it…

  • It’s all about the EQ.  Take a wide-ish band around 1 kHz and cut it moderately/aggressively.  You should notice that the vocals begin to sit.  Don’t hesitate to use a light, short, understated reverb as an assistant.


    Vocal EQ

  • Since this EQ cut can reveal and over-emphasize high frequencies, you’ll need to use a De-esser plug-in as an insert to catch the sibilance (S’s) so the high-end doesn’t get away from you.



  • It will also potentially give you a problem with the low-ish end, and you may have to address a frequency like 250 Hz and cut it slightly to return the voice to a natural sound.  Use your ears and don’t be overly aggressive.  Slight EQ is usually enough.


  • Some vocalists tighten their vocal cords when they strain and this can create a most unflattering tone (around 2.75 kHz?).  It will sound inconsistent and edgy.  You may have to pursue another plug-in.  In this case, I use a multi-band compressor.  Yes, this is a combination EQ and compressor.  It compresses (controls) only the frequencies you tell it to.  Set it to grab generally only the frequencies of the passages that irritate you.


    Multi-Band Compressor


These tools are like any instrument.  If you aren’t playing it… you’re playing with it.  Practice is the only teacher.



Can You Afford Paper?

LITTLE KIDThere was a time in our history when paper was too expensive for the average writer.  Paints and canvas were an indulgance for the rich; materials were simply too costly.  It’s crazy to think that these items were for the elite, not the everyday artist.

Prior to the 1990’s, the equipment used in recording studios was so expensive that musicians were paying more than $100/hour to get the use of a facility that owned some of it.  In fact, time was so expensive in the early days that only well capitalized record companies could afford to rent the studios for the musicians.  The rate included the studio engineer who, by the way, most likely had a college degree in electrical engineering.

Video equipment followed the same plot line.  Before the early 2000’s, Only TV stations and high-end independents with rates to match could afford the equipment necessary to produce professional looking videos.

Today, with a credit card and stops at a big box electronics retailer and a music store, you can take home enough equipment to do both jobs.  Hey, pick up some paint and paper and you can be a writer and an artist too!  I’m being facetious.  The point is this; if you think that media communication is important enough to do it regularly, than you need to consider doing it yourself.

Ian Kanski from IMR Digital and I have discussed this many times.  He believes that once technology can be placed directly into the hands of creative people, everything changes.  The story teller, the artist, and the musician need no go-between.  Once they understand the tools, they can begin presenting their vision.

Sometimes technology learning curves require patience and practice.  Just because we can go buy a Fender Stratocaster at any music store doesn’t mean we’ll be Jimi Hendrix.  So before we set up media production in that empty bedroom/cubicle by HR, there are a few questions that I usually ask my clients;

  1. Do you have a creative person on your staff that would be interested in this type of role part time?  Maybe they have media experience.  Maybe they think it would be fun.
  2. Do you have a digital media strategy that includes the need for professional final products?  Hey, smart phones do a great job of taking pictures and capturing video.  Audio is another story, but if short, regular FB posts are your objective, then good audio may not be necessary.
  3.  Is there a way that Mud-Hut Studios can help you set up your studio cube, train personnel, or even provide on-site production/examples for you?  I am happy to work myself out of a job… I’m used to it!

Little House on the Scary. A Brief History.

FIREPLACE FINALHow far back in time would we have to travel to find our families gathered around a fire?  It would have been a near daily occurrence. fire had warmth, light and was basically the stove.  As education became more common, male family members may have taken turns reading from the bible or borrowed novels by fire light.  Eventually even the girls were allowed to go to school, and they participated.  It’s not too hard to visualize this picture.  If we haven’t been camping, we’ve certainly seen examples of early living in movies.  Versions of this family gathering played for centuries around the globe and it certainly still exists today in much of the third world.

Urban homes began installing electricity in the early decades of the 20th century.  The first radio broadcast was in 1920 and by 1922 there were 600 radio stations.  While probably in the same room as the fire place (central heating didn’t become a common goal until the RADIO1930’s), the radio caused the family to lean in together to hear the static, words, and music.  The radio had replaced the fire as the central gathering point.

In the 1950’s the television replaced the hulking radios in the family room.  We moved as a group from the dinner table to watch Gunsmoke.  Whether we really liked the programming or not was irrelevent.  The TV was the new fire and like the vacuum tube radio technology before it, you could even say it glowed…

Whether the family gatherings were mandatory or not could be argued, but it was probably punishment to be banished from them.

Today, If your family consistently  eats together around a table, I congratulate you.  If you move en masse to a family room, I envy you.  If by chance you then regularly carry on meaningful conversations, I gape at you.

Everyone has their own TV; we can access the world from any room in our home via wireless link; and if you’re reading this, I guarantee that you have used electronics to communicate with another member of your household who was somewhere in the same living space.

Here’s the undeniable irony;  We are more connected now than ever before.  Despite the weirdness of texting someone in the same house, it doesn’t matter whether they’re even in the same state.  It feels the same… like they’re under your roof.  This is why anybody can do business with anybody.  We’re all just settin’ ’round a bigger fire.

Recording Drums… Part Three

DRUMS JOSHThere are hundreds of dissertations on this subject around the web.  Many written by people far more qualified than I.  However, since I’ve recorded 400+ different kits over the years, and customer satisfaction has generally been high…  This is Part Three.

I Usually… One:  Take a wide-ish band at 500Hz and cut it aggresively on the toms.  This is the boxy tone that nobody misses.

I Usually… Two:   That pesky energy node you’ll probably get on the toms at 200Hz isn’t going to go away unless you spend a month tuning… forget about it. Set a narrow band on the eq and try to notch it out either while recording or while mixing later.

I Usually… Three:  Cut 100Hz or so on the kick drum.  I know…I know… that’s the frequency that some people will tell you to boost, but it pushes to much energy into the compressor.  You don’t have to get crazy, but as you drop this freq, you’ll hear some awesome sub tones DRUMS PIGGYthat seem to expand the size of the kick.  You’ll also have to make a wide, gentle boost some place in the upper midrange to show the slap of the beater.  If you hear a weird “clacking”, “beeping” or other unnatural sound, figure out the frequency and… notch it.  I don’t usually boost any low frequency on the kick unless genre=metal then I’ll boost 44Hz a tiny bit with a more severe 100Hz cut.

I Usually… Four:  Put some level of compression on all individual drums.  Very light on the toms, a little more on the snare, and quite a bit on the kick.  Yes, we’re shaping the tone, but we’re really looking for some level of consistency in volume across the kit.

Oh Crap!  Too much cymbal:  They’re in everything and if that weren’t bad enough they’re flanging because of the phase differences at each mic making the drums virtually unlistenable.  Let’s figure out why.

  1. The room is usually the number one culprit.  The cyms just seem to multiply everytime they’re struck.  You’ll have to deaden the room or move the kit to a larger space.
  2. Mic placement is usually the next bad guy.  Solo each mic to find the trouble maker(s) and make adjustments in the way they’re placed. Crashes eat up tom mics and the ride is almost always facing the capsule of the snare mic.  I’ve rubber banded pieces of foam to the sides of mics to help with this.DRUM FOAM but asking the drummer to either move his cymbals or change the way he/she plays may be the only way out.  Depending on your situation, you may have to remove the offending cyms and have the drummer play them as overdubs.  I’ve not done this, but it was common back in the day…
  3. Make sure your overhead mics are in the best possible position to capture a balanced drum vs cymbal performance and as the drummer plays make sure that you sweep from pan to center (mono) to listen for phasing.  Correct accordingly.
  4. I’ve found that almost all drum tracks have too much cymbal in the tom mics.  I just mute the tracks in between tom strikes.

The Snare:  Don’t over compress!  Make sure you can hear enough snare band.  Need more snare in the mix and pushing the volume doesn’t really help?  Build a reverb that does it.  There are tons of plugins that let you set early reflections, tune the verb, and simulate natural rooms and environments.  These can/willDRUM SNARE MIC make your snare as big as you want it without sounding too reverb-y.

I don’t consider myself an expert, just someone who’s had the remarkable opportunity to mic a lot of drum kits.  twenty years from now, there may not be many engineers around who will have recorded more than 10 kits.  Music has changed.  Anybody who’s used sample/replace software knows… but if you have a real band and a  real drummer, who wants to hear real drums, mic’ing is easy…  Part One.  or Part Two.

Recording Drums…Part Two

DRUMS KEITHThere are hundreds of dissertations on this subject around the web.  Many written by people far more qualified than I.  However, since I’ve recorded 400+ different kits over the years, and customer satisfaction has generally been high…  This is Part Two.

There was a session several years ago when the band had finished recording all of the basic tracks and were starting to overdub guitar parts when one of the band members asked, “Where did (the drummer) go?”  None of us had seen him since the last trip to his car after tear-down…it had been at least UNDER EVERYTHING DRUMMERa half hour.  It turns out that he had packed his car and quit the band.  He drove three hours back home without saying goodbye thinking he was saving the band the messiness of quiting before he had recorded with them… Probably not the right call…

No Worries One:  Really cheap tom mics are fine.  You’re only going to use them to augment the overheads and bring attack, body, and increased volume to the toms anyway.  That sounded surprisingly like a shampoo ad.

DRUMS FROG AND GUMNo Worries Two:  Remove all of the damping, tune and reapply moon gels cut in half.  Full gels kill too much area.  If you have to, use two halves in different spots.  Drum Gum is also really effective.  I actually use little frogs that I bought at a party store which are made out of the same stuff.  Part Three.  or back to Part One.

Recording Drums… Part One

ROB DRUMMINGThere are hundreds of dissertations on this subject around the web.  Many written by people far more qualified than I.  However, since I’ve recorded 400+ different kits over the years, and customer satisfaction has generally been high…  This is Part One.

After recording and mixing a session one day, a band member asked, “What did you do to the drums?”  His wording surprised me.  I thought they sounded pretty good.  “Umm, what do you mean?” I asked.  His reply;  “Well, they sound so good…  So natural… What did you do to them?  The last studio I was in spent two hours on the snare drum alone, and we didn’t record anything the first day of the session because we worked on the drums the entire day.  You just threw some mics up, turned a couple of knobs and said, ‘OK, now guitar.’  Do you have a secret processor or something?”DRUMS CM

I do not.  I have no secrets of any kind, and I have never substituted a drum sound using sample-replace software.  It just seems so unfair to the drummer.  Hey, guitar player, I don’t like the tone of your amp; let’s replace you and your little dog too.

There are a couple of things that I’ve done over the years that have given clients consistent results.

I present these with the humility of someone who has been in situations where nothing really worked and despite my best efforts the drums didn’t sound like they should have.

DRUMS DAVEAssumption One:  The drummer can play.  He/she actually strikes the drums with authority and confidence.  Touch drummers do not record well.  You really have to be on your game when recording a jazz oriented player who strikes lightly.

Assumption Two:  The drums aren’t complete garbage.  I tracked a kit once that was cobbled together from three different below average drum sets.  However, the top heads weren’t dented and he hadn’t removed the bottom heads (important).  Once we removed all of the duct tape and retuned, they recorded fine.  I am partial to maple shells, though.  They just seem so focused.

Assumption Three:  You have some idea how a kit is supposed to sound, and you aren’t afraid to help the drummer tune it.DRUMS KICK MIC

Good Idea One:  Two heads are better than one.  You can’t fake this.  There’s a reason that drums have two heads.  The kick drum can be the exception, however.  If it has a hole, put the mic inside the drum, and you’re in business.  Otherwise remove the front head.   If you’re going for a flabby/indie/70’s sound you may have to keep it and mic from outside the front.

Good Idea Two:  Get two good overhead mics.  They are your drum sound.  I’ve used different ones over the years, and I found that I liked affordable, natural sounding microphones.  I settled on ADK Area-51’s.  Properly placed, you can shut off all DRUM OVERHEADSof the other mics except the kick and hear the real drum sound.  If you’ve been searching for overheads, I highly recommend you audition these.  You won’t need a hihat mic either.  I’ve never used one.   Part Two.

The Battle of Rap

CJ Anderson (ChronicLz) has recorded so many songs here that neither of us can remember them all.  Among the things that make him unique is that he is nationally recognized in the world of “Rap Battles”.

Chronicllz03Wait… a music genre that morphed into a competition!?  Outside of the more mundane fiddle contests and battles of the bands, I can’t think of anything that even touches this in terms of a quantum change in entertainment.  This is unique.

When I first heard about this art form, I was clueless/skeptical to say the least.  After watching some of these battles on YouTube, I now believe…    (WARNING:  Explicit Lyrics, Urban Attitude, etc.).  FYI, I have seen NOTHING in my twenty years in the entertainment industry that compares to it.  There are world leagues associated with this art form.

Two competitors (usually from different geographic locations) with only tenuous social media knowledge of each other go into a ring.  They have written several rounds of verbal abuse for their opponent and use these words as weapons.  Nothing is off limits.  If they find out that their opponent’s mother died of cancer, they will use it.  Knocking the opponent out (making them freeze or lose lucidity) is the objective.  There are unbiased judges that render decisions, but the fights are posted online for thousands to judge after-the-fact.

While Mud-Hut has done hundreds and hundreds of Hip-Hop tracks over the years, ChronicLz is the only client to compete in world ranked Rap Battles while continuing to produce his own music.  In 2009, at CJ’s suggestion, Mud-Hut hosted a battle that included Real Deal,  (an internationally ranked battler and MC) and many other participants and fans.

Whether or not you like Hip-Hop, is irrelevant.  If you like “extremely different”, this artform is worthy of a one-time exploration.  It’s crazy.

Again…(WARNING:  Explicit Lyrics, Urban Attitude, etc.)