What Is Audio Mastering & Is It Necessary?

Do I Need To Get My Music Mastered?

Yes. 

End of blog, I’m off to grab a coffee.

Okay, you’re still here. I can see that you’re going to need more than that to be convinced. 

First of all, who is this article for? If you’re a recording musician, producers and mix engineer who doesn’t know a whole lot about mastering (yet) this should help. I’m purposely keeping it simple.

This is a question that I sometimes get especially when I’ve been mixing a track and the client is really happy with the mixes. They will ask “how could this sound any better?” my answer: Mastering.

Ready To Release

I like to think of mastering as doing 3 things:

  1. Correcting
  2. Continuity
  3. Compliance

These are like the flight checklist before take off. You need to make sure you’re ready to release this track. Mastering is the final process to make sure that you’re ready to go.

Mastering Is Corrective

When I first receive a song for mastering I’m going to listen to it for any obvious issues. This is the first stage of the mastering process.

There Is A Time To Fix It In The Mix

Sometimes those issues need some tweaks in the mix. If I try to fix them whilst mastering I might hurt other parts of the mix. It also may be downright impossible to fix too. If you are serious about releasing great sounding music you need to get the mix right first.

Example. 1 – Problem: The kick drum is too loud in the mix.

In this case I could address this with some EQ or special compression. This will help the kick sit better in the mix but could hurt what’s happening in the bass guitar. It would be better to ask the mix engineer to fix this issue. That way the rest of the mix doesn’t need to be overly processed to compensate.

This Mix Is Great But Could It Use Some Help

This is where most mixes fall. This is what I would call the norm. Most mixes I get a pretty good. Some are so good that I need to do very little mastering processing. In this case you as an artist would almost wonder “Do I even need mastering”. The answer is still yes.

Example 2. Problem: The mix needs a frequency tidy up and some dynamic control.

Without getting too technical, this is what a mastering engineer is generally doing. Maybe there is a bit of muddiness in the lower frequencies. By removing this with a little bit of corrective EQ it helps the song sound clearer. It’s subtle. You’re happy with the mix when listening to it on it’s own. However if you listened to a commercially released song next to your mix it would sound dull. More on this later.

Whilst your mix engineer has done a great job on controlling the dynamics of the track. Most mixes benefit from a kiss by a compressor in some way. This generally helps to glue the whole track together. Other times it might be just tidying up some of the percussive elements of the track a little.

Other Corrections: Weird Noises

Sometimes there might be pops, clicks or other weird non-musical noises. These will need tidying up. Hopefully these have been taken care of in the editing stages. Or if it’s some funky digital issues, which I won’t get into, I’ll try and sort it out at the mix level first.  If all else fails I’ll do my best to fix this in mastering.

Example 3. Problem: The track I’m given for mastering has nasty digital clipping.

95% of the time I’m going to go back to the mix to fix this one. This is usually just a level issue with and instrument or the mix. This is the best place to fix this.

If for some weird reason it can’t be fixed in the mix I can use corrective software to help rebuild the mix. This should greatly reduced these noises or completely remove them. This is not ideal but at least the track has been saved and can be released.

Mastering Is About Continuity

This is the more traditional aspect of mastering which looks at songs in relation to one another. Do the mixes sound good as part of a whole EP or album? Are there inconsistencies?

Not All Mixes Are Equal

Even if the same engineer sends me 2 tracks those mixes will not have the same balance of frequencies. This means the bass, middle and treble won’t sound the same between the two.

Their comparative loudness probably won’t be the same either. This means one track might be a little (or alot) louder than the other.

This is where most mixes fall when I get them. I am looking for certain frequencies that need to be reduced or boosted. I’m looking to create a bit more space between instruments or remove clutter if possible.

Example 5. Problem: The lead vocal isn’t loud/clear enough in the mix compared to other tracks on the album.

When this happens it could be a volume thing. Or maybe other instruments are fighting for the space that the vocal is in.

In this instance, if it’s not a problem that could be fixed in the mix, I am going to apply some processing to the stereo track. This processing will create some more space for the vocal to help it sit better.

This might especially be important if the vocal isn’t as prominent in one track as it might be in another on an EP or album. In this case I’m not just correcting something on one track anymore, I’m also looking to create continuity.

Music Streaming and Continuity or is that Compliancy

As music streaming has grown in popularity the issue of continuity has changed. Now it’s about how your track sounds next to another. Sometimes the difference can be extreme when you’re jumping between genres.

This isn’t a new scenario, radio was always a medium you had to mix and master for. You had to make sure your songs sounded good right next to another. Hence the expression “radio ready”.

Mastering Is About Compliancy

This last aspect is the bit where all the other C’s come together to help make the track compliant. All this means is that compared with other commercially released music your songs are on par.

If you want examples of the wild-west of music mastering compliancy, visit SoundCloud. I’m not being an elitist here, but the nature of SoundCloud is one of getting your track out there.

This can be wherever it’s at in the production process which I am 100% behind from an artistic point of view. BUT, as the medication says, side-effects may vary – and they do.

What A Let Down

I had the experience of listening to a young electronic artist from Italy recently. He had some cool songs but his music needed some mastering help, as well as a little mix help.

It was disappointing. After a few songs I couldn’t listen any more. They were sounding nasty and grimed up by the mastering processing. Unfortunately this was probably due to self-mastering the songs.

It was a let down and I was disappointed for him.

Mastering Matters (Even when you’re not sure what it is)

This is a big thing for new and emerging artists. The home recording revolution has placed exceptional power into the hands of artists.

You can buy a Macbook, a decent USB mic, fire up Garageband and record a song which can be released commercially. That’s empowerment for the artist right there.

This has also led to a gap in the understanding of artists and songwriters. They don’t always know about the processes that go into recording and releasing music.

There are a growing number of artists who don’t know the difference between mixing and mastering. They aren’t sure if they need one or both of them. This can lead to vital part of the release process not happening.

Recording, mixing and mastering is an artform in itself. You might be able to save yourself $1000s in recording studio time by producing your record at home. BUT when it comes to releasing that music you’re going to need help.

Investing In Your Songs & Audience

Do you value the music you make? You’ve spent a lot of time recording those songs and producing them so I’ll assume yes.

Do you want to release the best possible music you can to your audience? These are the people who will give back to you. They will listen too and love your music. They will buy your merch and stream your music.

And, one day when you have enough of them, they will be the ones who make it possible for you to do musie as your full time gig. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this essay: 1,000 True Fans.

Get It Right

It’s worth getting it right for you and for them. When it comes down to it, that’s why you need to get your music mastered.

Songwriting Tips From Famous Songwriters: Goyte

I find the Billboard Hot 100 end of year charts fascinating. I’ve done a lot of research to try and understand why some songs become number ones. Typically it’s not just for musical and lyrical reasons. Having a song in an iconic movie or television show seems to really help. It makes sense of course, by exposing a well crafted song to more people it helps give it more momentum. However, the song still has to have those sometimes elusive seeming qualities which make it an earworm.

The song and songwriter I want to look at in this blog post definitely got a helping hand from the song being performed (not necessarily by themselves) on high profile TV shows. BUT the song clearly had something compelling about it which helped it become a #1 in Australia first and then in 27 countries around the world! Not bad.

Home Grown Slow Burner

In this blog post I want to look at Australian artist Gotye and his song “Somebody That I Used To Know”. This song sat for 8 weeks at the top of the US Billboard Hot 100 charts which also earned it #1 position in the end of year charts of 2012.

Gotye, had a long career as a self-recording musician well before the success of “Somebody That I Used To Know”. He had recorded three EPs and two albums before releasing his 2011 album “Making Mirrors”. His DIY recording/songwriting approach on this album yielded the hit song “Somebody That I Used To Know”.

A Sample Of Inspiration

According to Goyte, the song started it’s life as sample from this song:

Probably best to let him tell the story in his own words …

“It just had some weird pull for me and I just sort of went with it. I had a hypnotic attraction to it that prompted the first few lines of lyrics. When I hear something like that that has some almost unexplainable pull, then I feel like other people might feel that as well. I like to stay with that feeling. If I can stay true to that one part that inspired me in the first place, I find that that’s what people tend to resonate with the most.”

Wouter “Wally” De Backer AKA Goyte

The DIY Recording Revolution

Another big part of Goyte’s songwriting process is recording in non-studio environments. This trend is becoming more and more popular with songwriters as technology has improved. It is now definitely possible to record and produce world class songs and albums at home*.

I always remember the story of one of Australia’s iconic 80s albums, Whispering Jack, which started it’s recorded life in a garage in a rented house. That album went on to become Australia’s first album released on CD and the best selling album in Australia.

Goyte’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” was birthed in a similar way and as we’ll see later this is a key part of Goyte’s approach to songwriting process.

The Songwriting Tips

Now onto the good stuff. Here are some songwriting ideas I pulled out the interview with Wally which I thought were quite interesting and inspiring:

1. Recording On The Go

He records on a laptop in a variety of locations. This includes a barn, in his apartment and on tour. This approach encourages spontaneity and creativity.

It can also help avoid “stage fright” type blockages by having you record in a low pressure environment. This could mean you might capture a take or do something experimental which is “one of those moments” that you might not have captured in the studio. Not a necessity but a good experience to try and see if it works for you.

2. Music Before Lyrics

Experiments with sounds, samples and instruments that inspire him. This leads to moments where a melody and/or lyrics will start coming forward.

He lets the music write his lyrics rather than starting with lyrics. This is a very popular approach with many songwriters and bands. Some people actually dreading the lyric writing process and leaving it as the last part of the songwriting puzzle.

3. Giving Yourself Space

He will let the musical arrangement ideas roll around in his head whilst doing other things. (He’s not the only Australian songwriter who takes this approach to songwriting.)

It’s always important to know when you’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. When the physically songwriting isn’t getting you anywhere and you need to step away and do something different.

This is an important part of songwriting where you’re writing whilst not physically writing. You’re mind seems to keep working to resolve the problems even whilst you’re not focussed on it.

4. Go With That “Feeling”

If the kernel of something has an unmistakable pull to it he runs with that feeling and try not to let the process take away from that pull.

This is a really important thing to remember when recording and producing your own music. If the song isn’t getting “better” as you’re adding things to it start stripping back the arrangement to the kernel and then start to build it again paying attention to where it strayed from the “feeling”.

(You can find the full interview on Metro Lyrics.)

I hope the above ideas are useful for you and might give you some tools to approach you songwriting differently to mix things up.

If you’d like to read more posts like this let me know in the comments.

*Everyone love a DIY success story but it would be remiss of me not to mention that, whilst both Gotye and John Farnham’s albums had a home recording start, they did utilise professional recording studios, mixing and mastering to help get them to release quality. No recording artist is an island.

What is the Difference Between Mixing & Mastering?

In the most basic sense mixing is taking many individual tracks and combining them together (mixing) to create a stereo version of the song. This is the “knob twiddling” part where you’re making sure all of the different elements that have been recorded separately work together to create a great sounding track.

In a music production, once the mix is sounding right all of those tracks are bounced down or mixed into a single stereo audio file. This stereo file is then ready to be mastered before it is released for streaming, on CD, vinyl or even cassette tape.

Mastering is taking that stereo version and applying certain types of processing (EQ, compression, stereo widening, loudness maximising etc.) to finalise the song before release.

Back in the day when music was produced for the vinyl medium, mastering sometimes didn’t apply any processing and was simply the process of cutting the stereo mix (or back in the early, early days before stereo, mono mix) onto a “master version”. This master version was then used for reproductions in the vinyl pressing plant.

As time went on and music equipment and formats progressed mastering became less of a physical art form – e.g. making sure the physical cutting head of the vinyl cutting lathe didn’t jump grooves because their was too much bass in the track – to a more artistically complementary art form e.g. make the music sound as good as it can for whatever medium it will be distributed on whether streaming, CD, vinyl etc.

The bottom line is if a mix is killer the mastering engineer’s job is much more straightforward however if your tracks have been mixed in a less than perfect mix environment or by less experienced mix engineers (even experienced engineers miss things too), the mixes might need a little help.

Mastering performs 3 roles in the final step of the music production process:

  1. Continuity – Making sure all tracks in a release work together as a whole.
  2. Compliance – Making sure every track meets certain benchmarks for commercial release.
  3. Corrective – Making sure the track is free from errors and correcting any inconsistencies that might not have been addressed in the mix.

Hopefully this article helps give you a better understanding of what’s involved in the mixing process and how this differs from music mastering.

You might also be interested in:

How Do I Choose A Mastering Engineer?

Asking “How do I choose a mastering engineer” is a bit like trying to find a good car mechanic.

Not everyone understands what a mechanic does. How do you know you’re getting good work done? When you talk to your friends you might get the line “you need to go to my guy/girl”.

You’re not a mechanic. If you’re a little ofay with cars you might be able to check your own oil, make sure your brake and ATF fluids are topped up but that’s where your mechanical knowledge ends.

How do you know if you’re getting value for money?

No, you haven’t landed on a Car Maintenance 101 blog post but I think the above example helps to illustrate the divide between “the expert” and the “customer”. This divide can fill you with not only questions but doubts too.

Hopefully this post will arm you with answers to your questions and make you feel like a more savvy “audio maintenance” customer when considering audio mastering guys or girls. What follows is not an exhaustive checklist of points so please feel free to add comments with more ideas.

A Note About Personal Recommendations

A personal recommendation is a powerful way to connect with quality audio professionals. It’s one of the main ways this industry works. However it is still valuable to have some reference points to consider to make sure you’ve found “your guy/girl”. 

You need to keep in mind that people like to be “knowledgeable” and “right” but don’t like to look “wrong” or like they made a bad choice. If they recommend someone to you the bias created by the natural desire to appear “right/knowledgeable” but not “wrong/stupid” can be a powerful one. A balanced and informed approach to choosing the right person, even if they’ve been recommended, is a very valuable thing. 

(One More Thing) The Mix Matters

Before we move on, it’s important to understand – mastering can do some amazing things to a less than perfect mix BUT if you’re giving a mastering engineer proverbial excrement to polish don’t expect miracles. 

Having a great mix is the best starting point so make sure you’ve gotten your tracks mixed by someone who knows your genre and has the necessary skills. A good mastering engineer should give you a heads up if your mix or mixes are less than ideal and not ready for mastering.

Now onto working out how to choose a mastering engineer.

#1 It’s Personal

It’s been said that people work with others that they know, like and trust so it stands to reason you should be aiming to tick those boxes when choosing a mastering engineer. So on a personal level what does that mean?

Are They A Good Fit?

The first thing you should do is check out their website (hopefully they have one). You want to hear projects they have worked on in the past to get an idea of their sound. You might not be able to pick out the finer details but you at least know if you like it or not. It also isn’t specifically a genre thing either.

Hopefully they have an about section and you can find out more about them, their experience and their approach to mastering. Does it sit well with you? Are they about the music or do they like to talk about gear a lot? 

Start putting together your shortlist of guys/girls. They don’t have to be local but sometimes it can be nice to work with someone face-to-face for the first time. That said, tools like Skype, Google HangOuts, Messenger etc. can work to have a face-to-face with prospective engineers you want to work with if they are open to it.

Note to mastering engineers: If you don’t have a website, get one. If you’re not portraying yourself and your approach accurately, make the effort to do it. Yes you might have a great clientele already who knows you and refers people to you but there is so much more music out there to be a part of and so many more great clients to be served.

Great Communication

Once you’ve found a few mastering engineers you like you need to make contact. Be concise and make it no more than 2-3 paragraphs: 

  • Be clear that you’re looking for a mastering engineer and have checked out their site.
  • If you liked a particular track or two in their portfolio let them know. Mastering guys appreciate that and it’ll open up a better dialogue because they’ll know you are serious.
  • Give them a little bit of information about your project. How many songs, deadlines, basic genre information and how you will be releasing the music e.g. streaming only, CD, vinyl, cassette tape (yes that does happen).
  • Give them your contact details and ask them if you could get an email or call back.
  • Spell check. 

You’ll notice that I didn’t get you to call them. Chances are they will be busy in sessions and either won’t take your call or you might not get their full attention. An email is a good way to lay clear and concise groundwork plus the response you get back can help you weed out the poor fits.

A note about Facebook Messenger. Sometimes it can be tempting to want to hit a mastering engineer up via messenger. If you’re serious about your music, I wouldn’t advise using a social platform to do that. Some mastering guys might be completely fine with it but in general (and from my experience) people who contact you this way can sometimes come across as not 100% serious so your enquiry might get missed or ignored. It’s your call but if you don’t get a response within a few days, try an email.

Open Or Closed

I’ve worked with a number of mastering guys for different mix projects I’ve done and from my experience the ones I keep going back to are the ones that are open and interested in what I’m doing. I’m not talking about ego stroking or insincere flattery, I’m talking about thoughtful and helpful communication about your music.

A great mastering engineer will add value to your project not only in the form of banging masters but with the communication they give you about your music and projects. Have some questions about your project ready to ask them to help find out how they communicate.

The bottom line is if you approach them in a professional helpful way how they come back to you via email or phone gives you helpful cues to who you choose to work with.

#2 Experience and the Technical Stuff

20+ years experience! 

20 years of experience is great and should certainly count for something but what if you’ve been muffing it for 20 years? Generally this isn’t the case but it’s worth pointing out that experience doesn’t always equate to a quality master. Keep this in mind as you’re checking out potential engineers and, as always, listen to their previous projects.

The Jack of All, Master of None

Like the 20 years experience thing, being “good at everything” shouldn’t always be a selling point either. There are definitely guys who are genuinely good at the whole shebang but also keep in mind that they might be spreading themselves too thin and not really have the skills to deliver the masters you want. 

For me it lies with a person’s passion. Are they passionate about mastering or are they providing mastering because it means they can keep more of the project all to themselves and make a little more green? Again, this doesn’t mean that they are bad at mastering but using myself as an example, I still really enjoy the mixing side of projects and so will offer those services to the right project as well as offering mastering services. This is a choice made because of where my passions lie not a one-stop-shop or “oh, I can do that too” mentality.

Mixing & Mastering

A lot of people want mixing and mastering taken care of together these days which is understandable. Sometimes it’s a conveinience thing, sometimes it’s a project budget thing.

Traditionally mix engineers and mastering engineers were separate people and there is still a strong desire and good arguments for it to remain this way in a lot of the audio community. This also makes sense in many ways as the skills are different, especially the mindset and approach to the audio material.

I think in most cases it makes sense to keep mixing and mastering separate for the best results however on some occasions the engineer is up to the task especially if your music has more of a niche sound that the mix engineer understands. 

What I would say is that if you’re getting mixes done and the person is offering to master them too, ask them why they wouldn’t give it to someone else to master. Their response should indicate whether they understand the differences between the mixing process and the mastering process. If they are “tacking it on” as a package deal maybe they’re not giving it the importance it deserves and that’s a red flag.

This is a really tricky point as I don’t feel it’s as clear cut as it might have been in the past but my general advice would be to avoid this scenario. 

Gear Doth Not Make The Master Good

Just because someone has the best set of spanners does not mean they know how to work on a car. In the same way, having all the right mastering gear doesn’t mean that you’re a great mastering engineer.

You might think that is a no brainer but trust me, sometimes that’s one of the main items a mastering engineer will put forward as their credentials. Listen to their masters and you will know soon enough if they know how to wield those “audio spanners”.

This Week Only! Get Our Special On All Analogue Mastering!

Like the whole gear thing, the analogue VS digital thing is really a misnomer. When I was a young pup, I used to get caught up in the “analogue makes it better” hype. I’m not going to get into a discussion about analogue tools Vs digital tools (notice I said tools). There will always be a place for lovely analogue gear in mastering studios but it’s not necessary to have an analogue signal path either. That’s up to the taste of the engineer and their personal process. Expertise on the tools they have is what matters. 

Like in film or photography, you can give someone a great camera setup and they will still shoot garbage whether they use 35mm film or whether they use a digital camera because they don’t know how to use the tools. The quality of the tools still matters of course, but whether they are analogue or digital is missing the point.

#3 The End Product

It’s already been mentioned, but one of the easiest ways to compare mastering guys is their samples on their website. You can talk the talk but can you master? Listening to masters on a website is pretty cut and dry but there are a couple of ways I would approach this. I address this in another blog post and video called “What does mastering sound like”. 

  1. Use some headphones to listen in more detail.
  2. Loud always sounds better so when listening to A/B comparisons keep this in mind.
  3. Compare the masters (as best you can) with commercial tracks of similar volume.

Does Genre Matter?

This is a tricky one. Part of me wants to say that having someone who knows your genre and the end sound you are going for might give you a better end product BUT a great mastering engineer should also be able to pull this off too. 

As mentioned at the start, the quality of the mix is a huge factor in this and having someone mix your record who knows the genre is definitely important. If it’s great “genre specific” mix I feel any competent mastering engineer should be able to knock it out of the park. 

In the end, chances are you’ll be looking at their portfolio anyway and if they have worked with your genre before and you like the sound of what they do, it’s safe to say that they’ll be able to deliver great masters.

Invest In Getting A Single Mastered

Sometimes you just have to pony up some cash and get a test master done. Once you’ve got your own A/B you can do some critical listening and really determine whether the mastering engineer is going to deliver you the masters you’re looking for.

Just a quick note on “what you want” VS “what you should have”. Jumping back to our mechanic analogy, great mastering engineers with years of experience generally started out in music production and mixing themselves. They have chosen to specialise in mastering and are “experienced mechanics”. They are probably sometimes interested in details that artist and even mix engineers aren’t always thinking about. You’ve obviously got to be happy with the masters you get but if a mastering engineer delivers you a master and explains what he or she did and why, but it’s not exactly like you envisioned it, don’t assume you’ve gotten a bad master. Have a conversation with them and get a better understanding of why the masters sound the way they do. Communication is key.

Putting It All Together

Finding “your guy/girl” for mastering might seem daunting if you’ve never really had someone master your tracks. Hopefully the points in this article have helped clarify some of the things to consider when engaging a mastering engineer so you feel more empowered in your choices. 

The only thing I would caution, don’t let choosing a mastering engineer hold up your project too much. Do the best you can to vet potential candidates but then you need to dive in and get that project finished and released. THAT would be the greatest mistake when choosing someone to master your music.

P.S.

Navigating the myriad of options available to artists, producers and mix engineers can be tough and confusing. I’m always happy to talk with you about mastering or answer and questions about the masters you’ve received so feel free to contact me.

How Parkinson’s Law Can Help Songwriters Get More Songs Written

Do you remember when you were at school or uni and you had an assignment that you had to get finished? You had two weeks to have it done and life was cruisy.

Two weeks out you’d be, “great, plenty of time, I’ll get stuck in tomorrow and start knocking it out”. One week out you hadn’t really made a start but you knew you had a week so, sweet. Three days out and you know you need to get this thing started and done. You write a paragraph or two feel a little better. Then you realised there is something good on TV/YouTube/Netflix to watch.

One day out and you’re only a third of the way through so it looks like it’s going to be a late night/early morning for you. Finally, bleary eyed, you’re still spell checking at 8:58am before you need to email it through to your lecturer before 9am.

Why do we do it?

Okay, I know not all of you do/did that. I know I did in highschool, at uni I liked my sleep too much and got better at managing my time and those assignments. Some people will say that it’s poor time management, procrastination, etc. and it is BUT there is also another idea at play called Parkinson’s Law. 

Cyril Northcote Parkinson … in the drawing room with the lead pipe.

Cyril Parkinson, far from being a character in the game of Cleudo, was a British naval historian who penned 60 odd books in his lifetime. Sounds like he lived by his own law of not mucking around and setting effective deadlines for tasks.

Parkinson’s law states: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Essentially, if you have two weeks to get something done, you will most probably take two weeks. Although originally Mr Parkinson was referring to the ineffectiveness of bureaucracies primarily, his “law” has become a valuable “getting things done” battle cry.

How Can Parkinson’s Law Help Song Writers?

If you’re a song writer there are some helpful ways that Parkinson’s Law can help you get more songs written and recorded, relieve writers block and save you from drowning in your own internal bureaucracies.

#1 Setting A Deadline

The most obvious way of using Parkinson’s Law is to set yourself a deadline for the writing or recording of a song. If you want to release a song, setting a deadline for the release is the best way to make it happen.

Setting a deadline also lets you work backwards from that date and chunk your time into pieces. This helps you get the necessary actions you need to take scheduled out in easy to execute pieces.

Benefits of using this technique:

  1. Release more music.
  2. Save money on studio time.
  3. Keep things fresh.
  4. Learn to be creative under pressure.
  5. Increase your instrumental/vocal skills.

Here’s an example in a recording situation:

  • Chunk your recording into pieces by instrument.
  • Set a time limit for recording each part. Usually an hour per instrument is enough if you’re competent at your instrument and comfortable with recording.
  • Because you only have an hour to record your part for a 4 minute song you’ll only get around 6 – 8 takes in that hour.
  • Do a practice run through the song 1 – 3 times to get comfortable and refine your part some more.
  • Try recording a couple of times through, mistakes and all. On the third take, do a chunk take where you record sections. Stop the recording when you flub go back a couple of bars and then start again.
  • You’ll now have 2 full “feel” takes and a 3rd “perfect take” to comp together which should give you 1 complete take with feel, musicality and a tight performance.
  • Quickly comp this together within the hour. You can always come back and fine tune in your mix prep but you want to get it locked away right then and there.
  • Stick to these time limits

If you’re paying for studio time you’re going to be saving money. Regardless you’re still going to be moving quickly and be more efficient with your time. This will get the track finished much quicker and by default you’ll have more music to release.

Be Tough On Yourself

I can’t stress enough how much you need to be strict with yourself. If you’re worried about the quality of the finished product, try doing one song this way and compare it with a past productions and see how different they are. You will find the difference between the “perfection” version and the “work to a deadline” version will be minimal and you might even like the quicker version.

#2 Set Parameters & Boundaries In Your Songwriting 

Not strictly a Parkinson’s law concept but if you’re struggling for inspiration setting limitation in your songwriting can actually inspire creativity. When we have limitations we problem solve, when we problem solve it force us to be creative to achieve our goal. It’s a great way to rattle free your seized creativity.

Here are some ideas of limitations you can apply to your songwriting, arranging and recording to help you find creative ideas:

  1. Only give yourself limited tracks in your DAW.
  2. Write a melody with a limited number of notes.
  3. Restrict the number of instruments in the arrangement.
  4. Limit your syllables per phrase when writing verse lyrics.

With your limitations be strict but at the same time if you if adding one extra track or one extra syllable to a phrase to make it work after you’ve tried your best to make it work without it, it’s not the end of the world. If you can “win” without breaking the rules, even better.

Creeping Scopes Because Of Creeping Egos

When Cyril was coming up with his law of work inefficiency he was thinking about the inefficiencies of government bureaucracies. 

“He based his comments regarding the nature of bureaucracy on his experiences as a British army staff officer during World War II. Administrators make work for each other, he said, so that they can multiply the number of their subordinates and enhance their prestige.“ https://litemind.com/parkinsons-law/

This is a subject that deserves a blog of its own but there is a lesson to take away here: 

Don’t complicate things because it makes you feel more “clever” as a songwriter. 

OR to put it another way

Don’t complicate things because it makes you feel “affirmed” as a songwriter.

Make your songwriting decisions because it serves the song not because it serves your ego. (Been there).

I Fought The Law … and Then Realised The Law Was Helpful

Parkinson’s law is one of those common-sense sort of  ideas that, when applied, should help you get more things done. I think the biggest thing, particularly for those of us who a perfection-centric, is that setting a deadline for songwriting will make you a more prolific songwriter. The more songs you write the better you get at writing. The more songs you record and release the more value you bring to your fans and future fans.

What are your waiting for, go set a deadline to get a song written and recorded.


What Songwriters Can Learn From The 80/20 (Pareto) Principle

There exists a phenomenon in the world called by a number of names, the Pareto Principle, the law of the vital few or the most popular, the 80/20 principle. It’s an interesting observation which states 80% of results will generally come from 20% of the action.

An Italian Guy In His Garden

The idea was first observed and documented by an Italian economist and philosopher Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto. The story goes that he was looking at the pea plants in his garden and he noticed that 80% of the peas produced by the plants came from 20% of the actual pea plants. He started thinking about this idea of the uneven distribution of things and went on to observe that 80% of Italy’s land was only owned by 20% of the Italian population.

Peas Are One Thing, What About Music?

So say I am writing a pop song with a verse, chorus, bridge structure. 80% of what makes that song catchy and memorable probably comes from 20% of the actual song. Take “Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison for example, the phrase “pretty woman” is repeated 16 times throughout the whole song. That song has a total of 169 words and 20% of 169 is 33.8 words – the phrase “pretty woman” accounts for 32 of those words or 18.9% of the total words. That’s the catchiest bit of that song … and I bet it will be in your head all day now.

Now before you say, hey, that’s just one song buddy! Give me 20 another examples. Remember that it’s about observable patterns not “every popular song must follow the 80/20 rule”. It means that you can look at the whole of something where there is a result of some kind, an affect, and most probably this ratio exists somewhere in the picture.

Not convinced?

Okay, one more example. Fast forward to 1983 and the Billboard Top Hot 100 number 1 song for the year is “Every Breath You Take” by the police. Again, just as a rough gauge, there are 34 lines of lyrics in that song. The main hook melody heard in the first two lines “Every breath you take, every move you make”, accounts for 8 lines throughout the song. It’s the melody that you would sing if you wanted someone to know which song you were talking about. Guess what percentage of the song those lines make up? If you’re math savvy you might already know but if you’re like me and need a calculator it’s 24%.

Not exactly an 80/20 split but I wonder if you analysed the actual melodies in the song rather than my quick little “lines in the song” approach, it might be a little closer to 20%. The thing we’re really interested in focussing on is this idea of the law of the vital few. Or the idea of which smaller things actually account for the majority of the affect in the whole of something.

How Can This Help You As A Songwriter?

I’ve started to piece together some ideas about this and I’ll probably add more as I approach music making and production with this idea in mind. As I’ve already stated, I think as a rule of thumb that you shouldn’t necessarily look at it as a strict 80% to 20% split but think of those numbers as a rough guide when observing this principle. Also, remember that it’s not about shoe horning the principle into what you’re doing but recognising it and then using that knowledge to help guide your decisions.

The Voice

No, not the television reality show. In popular music, which most of us as songwriters are in the business of creating in one genre or another, the vocal line and tone plays a crucial role in a song. Want proof? Listen to a Karaoke version of a really popular track – something missing? Without that melody that song and the instruments therein become a shell of what it is without a vocal line. It’s full and complete in one way but without that melody it’s not quite right. I think this illustrates very clearly the power of the few i.e. the 20% the vocal part makes up in the arrangement of the whole of the song has the 80% of the impact in the song generally.

Backing Without the Backing

I think this is another reasons that instrumental versions of popular songs for sync with film (the vocal removed) don’t really work as well as songs written specifically for film. These purpose written songs contain the melodic elements which help to create interest and emotion in place of a vocal melody being present to do the job. We already know that melody plays a huge part in the whole of the song (that’s why people who are top line writers exist) but hopefully the point above really highlights how important melody is. As songwriters we should be aware of this and using this to our advantage whether we’re writing a pop song with a top line or something instrumental for film or some other sort of sync.

Protect the Melody

Watch out for arrangements that hinders the melody. Learning to have a ruthless confidence to remove parts which blur it or crowd it, even if you’ve spent a bunch of time writing or recording other parts. Serve that lead melody first and have everything else support it.

Why Vocal Tone & Performance Matters 80/20 Style

As YouTube has proven, covers can be hit and miss. We’ve heard those covers that are a nice try but really don’t bring the goods and then those that make you forget the original. Why is that? Well it depends on a few things of course. In our case talking about the 80/20 principle and to keep it simple, if it’s a cover that has the same arrangement as the original then I’d say 80% of the time it’ll be vocalist.

They might have all the chops in the world but if their tone isn’t quite right for the song it just won’t site. It also might be a performance thing. Maybe it’s too perfect, maybe they’re just not connecting with the song like the original artist. The point is that if that 20% is off the rest of the song doesn’t really matter.

It’s a feel thing

I remember going to see some bands recently and one of the band was doing this surf rock/punk type of thing. I could hear what they were trying to emulate – a loose, we don’t care if it sounds like we can’t play our instruments that well sort of punk thing. It didn’t work. The fact of the matter is that the bands they were trying to emulate actually can play their instruments well and work well together at making it sound like they’re just banging it out. It takes skill to sound like you’re loose and punk.

This is true for vocals too, just because it’s an emotional, slightly out of tune in places, kind of vocal take doesn’t mean that you don’t have to work to get it nailed. It’s counter intuitive, but take a listen to artists who’s “thing” that is and you’ll see how good they really are. (Anthony Keidis from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers has made a career out of not being the most pitch perfect front man)

Protecting the Vocal

From a recording perspective you should be spend as much time as necessary getting the best takes possible of the vocal. If the vocal isn’t hitting it, don’t be afraid to go again. Even in music genres where the vocal may not be loud and proud like in pop music and the performance may be about capturing the “imperfections” as much as the beauty. Take the time to get the right take.

The Right Hook

Yes, that is a double entendre.

I want to step away from melody and vocals to take a look at something mentioned earlier in the first two examples. Another element of song writing which packs a punch – there it is – for such a small musical phrase. The hook.

We should already understand the importance of a strong hook in popular music. As we’re talking about the Pareto Principle it’s important to recognise the relationship between the hook to the rest of the song. The hook is often a tiny passage or phrase of music but it leverages great power in making a song an earworm.

We’re not going to talk about writing a great hook, plenty of people have talked about that, what I think is interesting is how such a small part of the overall arrangement and production can have such a huge impact on a track. I think it’s worth taking notice of this when you’re listening to music especially artist that you love and take inspiration from.

As noted earlier in the “Pretty Woman” and “Every Breath You Take” examples some things you should take note of when understanding the hook from an 80/20 perspective:

  • Hooks and count how many times you hear them in a song.
  • Which instruments take the hook and where do they sit frequency wise.
  • At any given time where are the hooks, how do the other instruments support the hooks?
  • When the hook is present what about it keeps your attention? How is the arrangement structured to support and compliment the hook.

Remember a lot of this stuff seems to “just happen” because an experienced producer just “feels it”. They know something is missing and they are good at working out what it is. If you listen intently you start to “get a feel” for those elements too and see this “law of the vital few” start to present itself.

Deeper Listening

When you start looking at songs like this you start to get a feel for the balance and imbalances within a song. You can listen to your own songs (if you’re writing in a popular style) and spot “dead spots”. Listen to other artists tracks and notice the difference in what makes one of their songs really popular and those that are not so popular.

There is no right or wrong in this sense. It’s more about being aware of the deeper structures of songs and what makes some songs more immediately accessible than others.

80/20 Relationships Abound In Songwriting

There are more things I could write about songwriting and music production which illustrate an 80/20 relationship but I think I’ll leave that for a follow up to this post.

I’d love to hear your observations of this principle in the songwriting and music production so feel free to share them below in the comments.

p.s. A good book I’ve recently read (it’s not very long) talks about the “law of the few” and offers some interesting insights which could help your songwriting and production philosophy. You can get is here:

Further reading on this subject: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

The Saddest Thing I’ve Heard Today


Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.


Pablo Picasso

Musicians are sometimes not great at being pragmatic or at least, it’s not our natural leaning. This is especially true when it comes to songwriting.

The Creative Mythos

I think this is in part because there is a mythos around art and the creation of it that is relayed in stories about artists creating their masterpieces. The story goes, in songwriting at least, that the artist creates this iconic song in a moment of profound brilliance and providence, it was so natural and everything came together in some sort of metaphysical epiphany and on the other side they stood there with a song in their hand that went on to become a classic evergreen played on radio forever and a day. Plus, it only took them half an hour to write. Therefore, if you want to write a great song, that’s how you do it because that’s how great songs are written.

I think we like stories like this because they are transcendent. I know I do. There’s nothing wrong with that and I believe it genuinely happens BUT I believe it’s the exception and not the rule. I also think there is also more to the story than that …

The Outliers

I recently read a book called The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In a nutshell it’s about how we make assumptions about people’s success in life without taking into consideration what’s gone on before and how that has affected their ability and circumstances to be successful at something.

One very interesting observation and one that should be quite encouraging and hopefully inspirational (depending on how you look at it) is the experiences of arguably some of the best songwriters in popular music history, the Beatles.

Practice Makes Perfe … Ah, Hit Songs

In Gladwell’s book he points out that the Beatles spent significant time in Homberg, Germany playing music for up to 8 hours per night over the 3 years they worked there. All up he calculates that they spent 1200+ hours playing in those 3 short years. He goes on to point out that this is a phenomenal amount of experience crammed into a very short space of time.

When I think about my own experiences in bands over many years I don’t think I’m even close to playing 1200+ hours live. When I think about it only bands that are touring extensively and for many years rack up those sorts of hours on their instruments as a group and it shows.

Have Melodies, Will Write

Hours of playing aside, I think about the songs they were playing. They were popular songs and they had to know A LOT of them to play for 8 hours at a stretch. Those melodies would have been swirling around in their heads and when it came to write their own songs I can see how it would make it very natural for them to be able to create amazingly catchy pop melodies and arrangements. It’s not mythical and their not superhuman, they had just done a lot of inadvertent practicing.

So what’s my point? Let me tell one more story.

The Saddest Thing I’ve Heard Today

I was talking with another musician from a band I’ve been mastering an EP for recently. These young guys are making some great music both as a band and as individuals. So he was telling me how one of the members of the band wasn’t going to start writing his album until he had a vintage tape machine to record it too. I heard that and was like “What the?! That’s the biggest load of horse fluff I’ve heard”.

Unfortunately this guy was buying into a common and bogus way of thinking about music making. He was waiting for the “the perfect moment” to start making his music. I’ve been there an it’s a bunch of self-sabotaging garbage.

The Time Is Never Right (It’s Always Right)

The truth is, there is no “perfect moment”, most music gets made because people have a goal to write music. Most “great” music gets made because the people writing it have written, and written, and written and they continue to choose the write even when they don’t “feel it”.

Do I believe in providencial moments and the touching of something spiritual in the making of art, you bet, I’ve experienced it myself many times. But I know that when I wait for those moments with nothing in between I won’t create a situation where those moments can happen.

If I don’t have my guitar in my hand at the very least, I’m not even going to be thinking about writing a song. Sure the inspiration might hit when I’m away from my guitar but I know that inspiration is far more stirred up when I’ve been noodling away at a song.

The Myth of The 30 Minute Masterpiece

I think the bottom line is that as songwriters we need to push through and put aside the idea of the “perfect moment” or the perfect song for that matter. Many artists who write evergreen classics didn’t know they were writing them at the time yes they can reflect later and say that it took them 30 minutes to write that and what we get from that story is “songwriting should be easy, natural and happen in this profound moment”. What maybe we should take from that is, wow, that person must have spent hours & years honing their craft to arrive at a moment where this song that not even they realised was going to be a classic got written.

The Songwriting Habit

The lesson for us is if you’re not even writing, you’re not even in the game. If you’re not honing your craft daily you might never get to that moment where it all comes together into something timeless.

So much about being a creative is our headspace. Believing in half-truths and bogus assumptions are some of the biggest stumbling blocks. Building great habits around songwriting and not relying solely on inspiration is key to actually writing great songs.

Remember The Good Times & Cultivate Passion

That’s not to say that it’s a hard slog and just discipline. As Stevie Wonder (who recorded 200 songs in 2.5 years) has indicated, it’s not so much imposed discipline but the passion that drives him.

Cultivating your passion and reminding yourself of how much you enjoy writing and recording music when you don’t feel like it or are discouraged. I can’t count the number of times I’ve not been completely jazzed about hitting the studio but once I’m in here the inspiration and fun of creating starts to bubble up and I’m glad I pushed myself to get writing. I keep those experiences in mind the next time I’m not feeling the studio vibes.

Enough Of The Self-Sabotage

If you’re a songwriter your biggest hurdles isn’t getting creative it’s actually building habits that allow you to be creative. It’s putting a guitar in your hands or a piano under your fingers regularly. It’s about switching on your studio equipment and putting aside a couple of hours to write and record regularly. It’s about finishing a song that last 5% so you can release it and knowing and reminding yourself it’s not nearly as hard as you think. (All of these points I’m reminding myself of too)

You don’t need a vintage tape machine to start recording your music. You don’t need a new guitar. You don’t need to watch that cat/fail video before you get started. You just need to make a start and then make time regularly to work on it. Whether you feel like it or not.

In those moments of habit you will find inspiration, creativity and profoundness. And who knows, you might write a classic song that gets played on radio all the time and then you can tell the story of how it only took you 30 minutes to write.

5 Things to Check Before Sending Mixes for Mastering

Are those mixes nearly done? Just a few more tweaks and they are ready for mastering? Check these 5 things before sending off those mixes:

1. Format

Absolutely stereo .wav or .aiff. 24bit preferrably at 44.1kHz of higher. ABSOLUTELY NO .mp3s .. but if for some reason that is all you have they can be used as a last resort but it is really a big step back in quality.

2. Pops, clicks and edits

I know it’s a drag but going over you regions and checking that they have been faded in or out or crossfaded if a region is overlapping is such a simple thing but can make all the difference. A bad edit will also cause you regret once the music is out there and you can always hear that one little vocal edit that sounds weird. Check them and fix them.

3. Tame The Percussion Lion

Check percussive elements and tame those dynamic peaks. This is especially true for most pop, rock, metal and indie music. If it has drums and you want it to be comparably loud to other songs released commercially then using some limiting and compression to tame those peaks will make a big difference. If I have to do it in mastering it will be compromising the rest of the mix.

4. Get Out Of There

Step outside the room you’re listening in and take note of the volume of the vocal in the mix (if it’s not instrumental). Listen for the snare too, then the kick drum, then the bass guitar and then other elements of the mix. Do any stand out clearly? They probably need to be turned down a dB or two. Could also be an EQ thing. The “outside the room” trick really helps give you perspective on the balance of the mix.

Mono Check 1, 2 …

Check your mixes in mono. Most “fuller” frequency systems are stereo but a large number of smartphones are not. If you’ve got something funky going on in mono people will hear it (just happened to me tonight). Plus it’s just another good way to get more perspective on your mixes.

Bonus Check Point

Listen to the mixes on a small speaker, bluetooth and smartphone. Why? Can you hear the bass? Maybe it needs a little more sculpting with EQ to translate to smaller speakers. Don’t go overboard, it’s always a compromise.

Is the bass blowing out the song on the small speaker? Maybe you need to tame that bottom end on the kick, bass or a synth part. Maybe there is sludgy mud build up in the 200 – 300 Hz range? Try turning the speaker or phone volume so it’s just audible and seeing what the balance is like of all the instruments. What is most prominent? Probably should be the vocal and snare, possibly a secondary melodic part should be there a little quieter too.

There are probably more things I could list (and I probably will) but these will definitely help get your mixes much more master ready than not. Leave your thoughts, comments, suggestions below in the comments.

Gold Coast Open Mic Nights

Ground & Sound
Open Mic Night (Afternoon), 12pm – 4pm Sundays
23 Musgrave Avenue, Labrador, Queensland 4215, Australia
Call: 0426 004 718

Burleigh Town Tavern
Open Mic Night 6:30 pm – 9:30 pm Wednesdays
Cnr Tsipura & Township Drive,
West Burleigh, Qld 07 5576 0077

Open mic @The Kirra Sports Club
22 Appel St, coolangatta QLD
Sunday 1:30 – 5:30pm
Solo, Duo, Band

Here is a list of open mic nights on the Gold Coast. Shoot us a message if you want to add a night to the list or if any details are incorrect.

Venue Night Time Address Contact Phone Email Details
Hard Rock Cafe Surfer Paradise Thur 7pm Cnr. Cavill Ave. & Surfers Paradise Blvd Surfers Paradise, Queensland 4217 Mike Edwards   surfersparadise@hardrockcafe  Pre-registration required.
Hope Island Tavern Wed 8pm 87-97 Broadwater Ave, Hope Island Alex Crook   alexcrookmusic@live.com Beginners welcome. Acoustic Guitar, Bass Guitar & Drums provided. Supportive environment with good vibes!
Fuel At Chevron Sun 2pm  53 Thomas Drive, Surfers Paradise, Queensland  N.A.  (07) 55382122   Great jam, free drinks etc
The Loft  Wed 8pm  54a Thomas Drive, Surfers Paradise, Queensland  N.A.  0406 258 102  info@theloftcheveron.com.au  All musicians welcome
 Kirra Sports Club Thurs  6pm  22 Appel St Kirra, QLD, 4225  N.A.  (07) 5536 7422  admin@kirrasportsclub.com.au  The Jam Session are back by popular demand. Come out and showcase your talent.
 Town and Country Restaurant & Motel  Thurs 7pm  2 Nerang Southport Road, Nerang    (07) 5578 4488   A family friendly venue with a welcoming environment for all people interested in music, whether you’re a pro or just getting a taste for being on stage, come on down.
Jimmez Cafe & Bar Wed 7pm – 10pm  1/25 Pitcairn Way,
Pacific Pines, QLD 4211
 N.A.  (07) 5665 6761