An Audio Engineer’s Perspective on Achieving the Commercially Successful Song
I want to share some of the best ways for bands and musical artists to get their music heard on a commercial platform. Be it streaming services, Mp3 sales, or even media like TV and movies, getting a professionally mixed and mastered song is an absolute must. If your goal as a musician is to get your music out to the world, here are some do’s and don’ts for getting your music heard.
When you record a song it has to be a composition and performance that everyone in the band is comfortable with. This includes tempo, song structure, musicianship and vocal quality. Take your recording session seriously. For example, I cannot tell you how many times I have worked with bands in studio, and after the band listens to initial mix the singer says he or she was fighting a cold or a band member was not happy with their performance. My advice is, if you are not at your best do not go into the studio to record your song. The mix engineer can do some things to make it sound better but there really is no button to be found that can cure a cold or fix your performance. Band members should put all internal politics and egos aside and instead focus on what is important, their performance. Every member of the band must be on time and well rehearsed for the tracks they are getting ready to put down.
The foundation for a great mix is a great song! As an audio engineer, and my goal is to get the most out of your song. I don’t arrange, rewrite, or add my own performance to your song, that would be more of a Producer's role. There are some audio engineers who are also producers and they may wish to add their own input into your song, and as a result they can own part of your song. No one should profit from your music other than you, unless you have a written agreement in place! I strongly recommend that prior to having your songs mixed or produced, register your music with the Copyright laws in your country. In the USA that would be the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
BEFORE YOU SEND ANY MUSIC TO A MIX ENGINEER FOLLOW THESE STEPS
It is your song and you recorded it, so nobody knows it better than you right? Why would you want the audio engineer to select the best takes? This practice is called comping tracks and its very common, however, I think the band is in a much better position selecting the best takes themselves.
Listen to the vocals closely because vocals are what the average listener focuses on the most. If the vocals are not recorded with a high quality microphone consider buying or renting one for the recording sessions. The tracking engineer, whether they are a professional, an amateur or someone in your band must understand how to track vocals and each instrument properly. Listen closely to your recording, make sure that there isn’t noise interference coming from fluorescent lighting, a ceiling fan, air conditioning units etc. Yes, all of this matters to get a professional commercial release.
Once all of your tracks have been recorded, everyone in the band should listen to the tracks and select them by consensus so every one is on the same page. Once you are happy with your chosen tracks, you must make sure that your tracks are ready for a professional mix. Make sure that every audio track that you send (or upload if you are using an online service) starts at the very beginning of the song and that all of the tracks start at the exact same spot. This is extremely important when the engineer lines up the tracks prior to doing your mix.
Never export or bounce your tracks to an Mp3 file, always use WAV files and most preferably without any effects on them. They need to be dry. Use the same sample rate that you used during the tracking session. It should be at least 44.1 kHz or higher with 24 or 32 bit resolution. My preferred settings are 48 kHz at 24 bit resolution.
Label each and every track. A lot of mix engineers will send them back to you if they are not labeled. This means that the snare, synth, bass guitar and every instrument used needs to be labeled. You can abbreviate these labels too, just be consistent.
Avoid clipping, try to be about 5 db. below clipping on your DAW's mixing channel. Don’t worry if the track is recorded low in volume, it is much better not to clip or overdrive the mix channels.
Always include a brief outline regarding tempo and any additional input that gives the mix engineer an idea of what you want. One tip is to give your mix engineer the names of some commercially recorded songs that are similar in genre who's mixes that you like. This gives the engineer an idea of what mix styles you like and how you envision your mix. This doesn’t mean that you will sound just like them, only that you like the way they are mixed.
You know your song better than anyone else, why can’t you do the engineering yourself? Having a professional mix engineer mix and master your songs! Be selective of the mix engineer that you want to use. First rule, don’t have a friend or band member do the mix because they have a good ear. This is not what commercially successful artists do. You need someone who only does mixing and mastering to do it.
When looking for an online mixing service, check out their website's. Their website should be professional and should have a portfolio of at least ten high quality samples of their work. Their services and rates should be clear and easy to understand. They should give you an accurate time frame for your projects completion and do revisions to the mix if needed. Most reputable online mixing companies offer up to three revisions with a money back guarantee. If they don’t, be suspicious. I have heard some real horror stories.
DURING THE MIXING AND MASTERING PROCESS
Once you receive your first mix for review, listen to it in comparison to other commercial releases from bands that are similar in genre to yours. Your song should fit right in on that playlist. Take notice that comparing songs through an iPhone, which has a tiny mono speaker, is not ideal. Use your car stereo, headphones, home stereo, or studio reference monitors.
The main point is to compare your music to bands that have commercially successful releases in your music genre. There should not be a drop in clarity, too much or to little bass, boxy or muddy sounding. Each instrument should be heard. Once the mix is established as good, and all parties are happy with the final mix, take it towards the final stage which is mastering. This process gives the entire song some extra polish. If it needs drastic changes at the mastering level it is probably a bad mix to begin with and you should consider having it remixed.
ONCE YOUR SONG IS READY FOR COMMERCIAL RELEASE
If your band is upcoming and developing a fan base, consider releasing a single a month each month as opposed to one full length album. This strategy works great as it gives you a way to reach out to your fans more often and keeps them excited about upcoming releases. After you have a handful of singles you may think of doing a compilation EP. As your fan base builds go ahead and release the full length album.
Develop a logo and brand for your music. Put the brand on everything that represents your band. Get your music out there on social medias and media sources like iTunes, Spotify, Tidal etc. But remember, make sure your songs are registered under the Copyright laws in your country and also registered to a royalty collection service such as BMI or ASCAP before releasing them to anyone.
I would like to wish every band and musical artist the best of luck in their efforts to become successful in this business, and I hope that my experience in the music engineering has helped in the navigation of the process. We Audio Mix Engineers can’t do what we do without you, the artist, and I thank you.
Drew Puzia is a multi-award winning Mix Engineer at SoundBurst Studios, Las Vegas. Drew is certified in Audio Engineering from the world renowned Berklee College of Music. His experience spans over three decades in the music industry and he has recorded and mixed countless musicians in many genres of music.