Representing the artist that would otherwise not have a voice

Author: Jimmy Kerr

Jimmy Kerr is President and CEO of the Foundation for Musicians and Songwriters. He is a tech entrepreneur who has started dozens of companies including Mr. Kerr is a musician and Berklee College of Music trained Recording Engineer and Record Producer.

How Streaming IS Changing the Sound of Pop Music

In 2015 the U.S. music industry made more money from streaming than from CDs or digital downloads. Streaming platforms now boast more than 100 million paying subscribers worldwide. And the popularity of these services continues to rise, with more than one trillion plays logged last year alone. The times, they are a-changin’.

In case you haven’t noticed, the way we consume music is shifting—and that is impacting artists. (We’ve all seen the pitiful royalty statements and scathing op-eds. And who could forget Taylor Swift’s epic 2015 fallout with Apple Music? But amidst all this talk, no one’s mentioned how the rise of streaming will affect the actual sound of pop music. Streaming will change not only the way pop music is consumed but also the way it’s created. This shift will likely redefine what future hit records sound like. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. There’s always been a close-knit relationship between music, medium, and distribution. For proof, just look to the past.

Built for Radio

In the 1960s, Motown built records for radio. Short songs allowed for the regular interjection of ads, and long intros gave DJs the freedom to talk over tracks. During the 1980s, the dawn of the CD gave way to longer-form content. The length of an average album increased from 40 minutes to well more than an hour. And since it was no longer important to maintain the integrity of vinyl grooves, records started sporting more low end and louder levels. Is it any surprise that hip-hop emerged as a dominant genre during this time? During the 2000s, Apple’s decision to unbundle the album and offer single-track downloads on iTunes shifted the trajectory of the music industry once again. After an album-oriented trend that lasted decades, singles once again became the primary focus.

Along the way, our listening habits evolved too. As on-demand, à-la-carte platforms like iTunes and Spotify emerged, attention spans narrowed. Even I can’t remember the last time I listened to an album from start to finish. Today, music discovery is like mining for gold. We cherry-pick the best songs off albums, curate playlists of our favorite tracks, and ignore the rest. And once we start listening, we’re more impatient than ever. In fact, there’s nearly a 50-percent chance you’ll skip a song before it’s over. Why suffer through a dull bridge, an uninspired outro, or your favorite artist’s “deep cuts?” You’ve got places to be!

Today’s music makers have evolved to serve this ever-changing audience. As long-form content has given way to singles, concept albums have become relics of yesteryear. Albums are now more likely to serve as repositories for singles. And while we may feel nostalgic for iconic albums such as The Dark Side of the Moon, Thriller, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, there isn’t much of an incentive to create their modern-day equivalents.

An Emphasis on Sales

However, throughout the history of the music business, the goal has always remained the same: Encourage listeners to purchase records. The music industry as we know it was built to inspire these one-off transactions, and the traditional pop music-making process evolved to follow suit. Infectious, hook-heavy records were crafted to drive listeners to checkout aisles. The biggest hits seemed inescapable for a month or two, but often disappeared as quickly as they emerged. But as far as the music industry was concerned, this was irrelevant. Once a purchase was made, it didn’t matter whether a record was listened to or not. As long as people bought the CD or downloaded the song, labels were happy.

But streaming has completely changed the game. For the first time, financial success is no longer based on onetime sales, but rather on ongoing play. The more a track is played, the bigger the payout. The implications of this shift are massive. In fact, it’s likely to disrupt the entire music business yet again.

On streaming platforms, flash-in-the-pan tracks that burn bright and fade fast are less lucrative than ever. Current per-stream payouts are nothing to write home about, and these tracks won’t stick around long enough to produce meaningful returns. But payouts will continue to rise, and future plays will be worth much more than they are today. And so the most profitable pop songs will burrow their way into the hearts of listeners, inspiring millions of streams for years to come. In fact, the biggest hits may even increase in value as time goes on.

This shift introduces a powerful new incentive to foster deeper, longer-lasting relationships with listeners. While tracks still need to be hook-laden enough to inspire an immediate connection, they must also be worth listening to hundreds, if not thousands of times. Gone are the days when an artist could stuff an album with filler and rely on the strength of a single to drive sales. Today, there’s nowhere to hide. Songs are evaluated on an individual basis, and their success is determined by merit alone. Artists with the ability to master the long game will win. One-hit-wonders won’t stand a chance.

Loudness War Truce

Evolution in streaming technology will also affect the sound of pop music. For example, most streaming platforms now automatically adjust the volume of different tracks so they play back at an equal level. This seemingly inconsequential feature will likely end a decades-long arms race known as the “loudness war,” where artists and labels compete to release the loudest records. Without any incentive to crush tracks, records will be mixed and mastered at much more conservative levels. And this means they’ll have more punch, impact, and dynamics—and sound better!

But what will the pop hits of the future actually sound like? We can only guess. As terrestrial radio continues to become less relevant, arrangements and song structures will likely become more fluid. New, innovative mediums may even emerge. Who says a recording has to offer the same experience with every play? What if tracks evolved over time? What if, after 100 plays, a bonus verse emerged? As play count becomes a dominant metric for measuring the success of tracks, ideas like these are ripe for exploration.

And the impact of streaming will extend far beyond the music-making process. It will have a profound effect on the way music is marketed and promoted as well. In a world where a sale is no longer the goal, there’s less of a need to build up hype before an album’s release. In fact, some artists are already abandoning traditional album releases entirely. Beyoncé dropped her last two albums without any prior promotion whatsoever. As more listeners adopt streaming platforms, artists will need to find new ways to foster longer-lasting, more consistent levels of engagement with their audience.

If any of this leaves you feeling discouraged or intimidated, keep your chin up. I’m optimistic about the impact streaming will ultimately have on the music industry. I believe it will usher in a new era of artistic innovation, and foster deeper, closer connections between artists and their listeners. And some things will always remain the same. Exceptional artists with something unique and special to say will stay in high demand. Great songs will still rise to the top. But one thing’s for sure—as streaming becomes the dominant platform for music consumption, the sound of pop music will undoubtedly change. Will you change with it?


Prince’s Estate Signs With Universal Music Publishing

Universal Music Publishing Group announced Wednesday (Nov. 2) that it is the exclusive worldwide publishing administrator for Prince’s entire song catalog — released and unreleased — effective immediately. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, although a source tells Billboard it is a “long term agreement.”

According to the announcement, UMPG is “responsible for servicing and administering Prince’s expansive catalog of songs” and will “work closely with the artist’s estate to develop new creative outlets for his music.” Before his death, Prince and his staff managed his publishing catalog, with Peermusic handling back-office administration, after an earlier UMPG contract ended in 2013.

UMPG chairman and CEO Jody Gerson, said to be the company’s key negotiator in the deal, said in a statement, “We’re humbled to be entrusted with Prince’s catalog and I’m grateful to my entire team for their work in making this agreement a reality. With the timelessness and genius of Prince’s music, there are no limits to what we can achieve working with his estate. Prince’s popularity will only continue to grow around the world.”

Lucian Grainge, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group, said, “I congratulate Jody and her team on this landmark deal. Since joining UMPG as chairman and CEO in 2015, Jody has done a remarkable job at developing and signing some of the most important songwriters and recording artists in contemporary music highlighted by the addition of Prince’s incredible catalog of work.”

Bremer Trust, the court-appointed temporary special administrator of the Prince Rogers Nelson Estate, hired longtime Prince associates Charles Koppelman (who, as head of EMI Records, signed Prince to his first post-Warner Bros. deal in 1996) and L. Londell McMillan (who was the artist’s manager and/or attorney for more than a decade) and as advisers on the musical holdings. They commented in a statement, “We are pleased that UMPG shall once again administer Prince’s music publishing worldwide and assist the estate by giving Prince’s iconic music catalog the proper care and support it deserves. With this major agreement, the estate maintains ownership of Prince’s music, and now legions of fans from around the world will have even greater opportunities to continue to delight in his incomparable songwriting and musical expression.”

Negotiations for the licensing rights to much of Prince’s overall catalog, as well as to four decades’ worth of unreleased material, are ongoing. The advisers are considering multiple offers, McMillan confirmed to Billboard earlier this month.

Prince’s longtime label Warner Bros. announced that it had secured the rights to the first releases since the artist’s death on April 21: a 40-track greatest-hits compilation called Prince 4Ever, out Nov. 22, and a deluxe edition of Purple Raincontaining a full album of unreleased material, out early next year. The albums are likely the first of many to come from the singer’s vast archive of recordings. In the years after Prince’s initial deal with Warner Bros., which spanned from the beginning of his professional career in 1977 to 1996, the artist — who railed against the traditional label system and doggedly (and, at times, dogmatically) insisted on controlling the rights to his own work and likeness — struck many different one-off deals with labels and streaming services, and even returned to Warner Bros. in 2014 for a pair of new albums, and a renegotiation that saw him gaining at least some of the rights to his Warner catalog.

One high-placed source opined to Billboard that the recorded-music deal is “Warner’s to lose,” citing Prince’s long history with the company and the good will fostered by the 2014 deal.

Since his death on April 21, Prince has sold 1.95 million albums and 4.9 million song downloads in the U.S. through the week ending Oct. 6, according to Nielsen Music.

As for performance licensing, Prince withdrew from ASCAP effective Jan. 1 2015, but his music is still available from that PRO for licenses that were in effect as of that date. ASCAP says that some of those licenses-in-effect expire at the end of this year, while others will continue in effect for several years. So whatever PRO signs a deal, will even get the Prince catalog for ASCAP licenses expiring at the end of this year too, like the one with Radio Music Licensing Committee. A source tells Billboard that the estate is still in the process of selecting a PRO and a decision is expected in the coming weeks.

Prince apparently did not leave a will, which has made the management of the estate deeply complicated.

About the Foundation for Musicians and Songwriters

The Foundation for Musicians and Songwriters is an IRS 501c3 Public Charity that is dedicated to helping Musicians and Songwriters develop their careers in the Music Industry.  We do so without taking a penny or rights from the artist we represent.

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6 Steps to Streaming Success on Spotify

Whether you like it or not, there’s no denying that the music streaming industry is continuing to grow at a rapid pace. With Spotify recently hitting a new milestone of 30 million subscribers, we think it’s a wise decision for all independent artists and labels to strengthen their presence on the service.

To help, we’ve compiled these six super easy action items that we’re confident will make a difference in your success on Spotify. Try them out!

1. “On air, on Spotify”

If your music is “on air” – meaning on the radio, YouTube, SoundCloud, or anywhere else online — it should be available to stream on Spotify. This way, you’re both monetizing your music and encouraging playlist adds and profile follows for continued listening.

2. Verify your profile

By verifying your profile (similarly to Twitter), you have the ability to directly communicate with your fans and be highlighted with Spotify’s check of approval. These profiles not only show off an artist’s discography but also house your tour dates, merchandise, biography, photos, and allow you to toggle over to view your playlists on your user profile. A verified profile allows you to communicate with your fans within Spotify through the Spotify Social and Discover feeds, and in-­client messaging. Every time a new piece of content is released ­(new single, EP, album), your fans get a push notification, and every time you add tracks to your playlist, all followers of that playlist will get notified.

To sign up for a verified page, simply fill out the Spotify Verification Request form.

3. Use Spotify as a promotional channel

Think of Spotify as a social network that allows you to monetize your own content in a creative, promotional way. On Spotify, you can gain a follower base, which in turn becomes a promotional channel­. Your Spotify followers receive notifications about updates to your content and your listening habits. Sharing your Spotify profile across your artist properties and socials will drive fans to follow you on Spotify, and allow you to engage in conversations with your fans.

Here are some practical ways to grow your Spotify followers:

  • Follow artists you like to help your fans discover the music you’re listening to.
  • Create and share your playlists.
  • Share across external social networks and encourage conversation when sharing (i.e. ask your fans which tracks they’re into).
  • Share single tracks and albums you’re listening to, and ask fans which playlists you should follow.
  • Add Spotify links to YouTube and other video descriptions.
  • Add the Spotify Follow Button to your website to allow fans to follow you in an easy single click without leaving your website.

4. Create quality playlists

Similar to how a DJ would curate a mix for a radio station or club, streaming services use playlists as an easy way to share tracks and promote discovery.

Keep these tips in mind when creating your playlists:

  • Ensure your account is never empty, and that you have at ­least 1­2 public playlists available.
  • Focus on one playlist –­ choose one to maintain, and add to consistently.
  • Adding tracks on a regular basis is key. The more frequent the adds and the bigger the playlist, the better. Each time you update your playlist, it will appear in fans’ Discover feeds, and followers of the playlist will be notified.
  • Share it. Actively clicking “share” ensures you reach your fans. You’ll find the “share” button towards the top of each page, or right click (cmd+click on Mac) any title to copy and paste the link to be shared across other social platforms.
  • Share with messages: Include text when you share to help your story stand out.
  • Listen to music from your Spotify account. You’ll appear in the live ticker feed (on the right side of the Spotify client), and you’ll generate stories through Discover.
  • Add themed playlists. Once you’ve grown one playlist, add more niche, smaller playlists around certain events or themes.

5. Put the Spotify Play Button on your website

Spotify provides a quick and easy embeddable code that you can put on your website so that your fans can listen to your playlists and discography. By putting this Spotify Play Button on your website or Tumblr, your fans can listen to your music while continuing to engage with your site.

To get the button: just right click on the playlist, track or album on Spotify and select “Copy Embed Code.” This copies the link to your clipboard. Then, paste the code into your website and the Spotify Play Button will show up on your site.

6. Track your metrics

Next Big Sound provides free up-to-date analytics for artists. When you log in, you can see your growth in followers, streaming data, and the effects of your social media campaigns. You’ll be able to track how all of these best practices grows your streams and revenue.

Apply to see your Spotify data here, and read this overview for a full breakdown of how to use Next Big Sound.

About the Foundation for Musicians and Songwriters

The Foundation for Musicians and Songwriters is an IRS 501c3 Public Charity that is dedicated to helping Musicians and Songwriters develop their careers in the Music Industry.  We do so without taking a penny or rights from the artist we represent.

To Subscribe to our Music News Updates, Click Here

Click to Subscribe to our Newsletter

Top-10 Tips to get a Professional Sounding Mix

In today’s tech world, everyone that has a computer is expected to produce expert quality projects.  This is somewhat easy when one needs to create a PowerPoint presentation or a Word Document, but it is not so easy when the final product requires unique skills.

It takes years to get to the point to create studio quality albums, but there are key areas to focus on that can make a night and day difference in the sound quality of the final output.  I put together a top-10 list that can help get you thinking like a Music Engineer/Producer:

1. Check the session over before you start

Make sure you have all the parts, esp. if mixing for someone else. You would be surprised how often a part gets forgotten (Check the rough mix too!) & consolidate the files if you can – it makes it easier to “see” what’s going on in a big session, and psychologically it looks neater! It’s a small thing – but when zoomed “out” you will be able to see where everything is, rather than a mass of edits, which obscure the waveforms.

2. Get the timing right

Especially drums –very important that it’s tight if lots of parts are layered. If there is some unintended “Flaming” going on (i.e. transients of 2 snares that don’t start at the same place, or worse kicks! It can sound messy) In the case of kick drums it can make it sound weaker too, which is very often the opposite of why it’s layered with different sounds.

3. Print Virtual Instruments can be useful

Not everything benefits from this, BUT drums do, and it will help you to see if there is any issues with timing. It also stops you fiddling with the samples and sounds, and concentrate on the mix! As it’s a hassle to reprint. It also frees up system resources, if there is a lot of virtual instruments it can suck a lot of computing power, even with today’s systems, and you will be struggling to have enough power to do the mix.

4. Listen Quietly

It will help if you are in a less than ideal acoustic space (if the room is not acoustically treated, it will get worse with more volume!) I have worked in a few weird sounding places! It really helps when you keep the volume down – the more you crank it, the more any issues with acoustics (or lack of) will show up and you will make bad decisions.

5. Subs can be useful

But only if you have quite a large room (Need 12-15 feet in at least one dimension) and your neighbors will not thank you! (Sub’s tend to throw out in all directions, so it often sounds louder than it actually is, away from the speakers)

6. Listen in Mono

It’s hard to do, but very good for balance (check out other mixes, see if you can listen to them in mono – see where things “Sit” and try and work it into your balance). You might find this teaches you more than you think.

7. Be clear on what you – or the client wants

If you are mixing for someone else – ask what they want! It sounds simple but it’s not good making a “banging” mix with hard drums if they want it “Classic & Warm!” LOL ☺ & ask them what they don’t like, and see if you can fix it (there’s a challenge). Be aware also that they may not KNOW what they want, so it can be a tough job to find the right direction for a mix approach, and might take a couple of attempts, but don’t give up! listen to the rough mix, even if it’s bad, it can give a good overview of what the track is about, and also any problems (Can’t hear the vocals, too soft/hard EQ etc….)

8. Take Regular breaks

Ear fatigue is real, and just because you are young, you are not immune! Sometimes it’s hard – but even a 5-minute tea stop can do wonders for your perspective. And if you are the engineer – if you’re old enough to, please DON’T DRINK ALCOHOL while you work – it changes your perception (for the worse) and you will find yourself questioning things, as it dulls your high end.

9. Watch your levels

Start with the faders down if you can (like on a desk) and build a rough balance – if you have difficulty balancing things (can’t get it loud enough, or the fader is at the bottom, and it’s too loud or disappears) you may need to adjust your levels for better gain staging on each part – remember headroom in channels is GOOD – and the more level in each channel, the harder it will be to build a good mix before everything goes red, and in a DAW that’s mostly bad!

10. Reference other material

Reference other material, and level match it – this is very useful for seeing where you are with the tone (EQ) of the mix – and don’t forget to always print an “Unlimited” master pass, that is one without the limiter if you have cranked it hard – mix compression is ok, as long as you like it.
Have fun with it – and if you are working in a DAW (digital audio workstation) you can always come back fresh and go again!

About the Foundation for Musicians and Songwriters

The Foundation for Musicians and Songwriters is an IRS 501c3 Public Charity that is dedicated to helping Musicians and Songwriters develop their careers in the Music Industry.  We do so without taking a penny or rights from the artist we represent.

To Subscribe to our Music News Updates, Click Here

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Facebook Update will Impact Bands

Facebook once again is changing their newsfeed algorithm that will likely have a significant impact on band and musician pages.

According to Adam Mosseri, Facebook VP, Product Management in a Facebook Newsfeed Algorithm Change Update, “The goal of News Feed is to show people the stories that are most relevant to them. Today, we’re announcing an update to News Feed that helps you see more posts from your friends and family… As part of that process, we often make improvements to News Feed, and when we do, we rely on a set of core values: ”

  • Friends and Family Come First
  • A Platform For All Ideas
  • Authentic Communication
  • You Control Your Experience
  • Constant Iteration

He went on to say, “When we launched News Feed in 2006, it was hard to imagine the challenge we now face: far too much information for any one person to consume… That’s why stories in News Feed are ranked — so that people can see what they care about first, and don’t miss important stuff from their friends. If the ranking is off, people don’t engage, and leave dissatisfied.”

How do the Facebook Newsfeed Algorithm Changes Impact Band Pages?

Why do we believe that the recent changes to the Facebook Newsfeed Algorithm will impact band and corporate pages?  Anyone running a Facebook Page will certainly attest to seeing a decline in organic traffic.  To get content from a fan page to be seen has been a pay to play proposition since the last major change of the Algorithm that rolled in around April 2015.

Lars Backstrom, Facebook Engineering Director, said in his blog post titled Helping Make Sure You Don’t Miss Stories from Friends that “Overall, we anticipate that this update may cause  reach and referral traffic to decline for some Pages. The specific impact on your Page’s distribution and other metrics may vary depending on the composition of your audience. For example, if a lot of your referral traffic is the result of people sharing your content and their friends liking and commenting on it, there will be less of an impact than if the majority of your traffic comes directly through Page posts.”

The last sentence, “If the Majority of your traffic comes directly through page posts” is a big one.  People have been speculating for awhile that Facebook has been penalizing them for using third-party platforms such as Hootsuite, CD Baby, TopSpin or Bandcamp to post to their pages.

Facebook has historically avoided the direct answer to that question, but Mr. Backstrom’s statement seems to clarify this point.  It appears they will be promoting content that is created directly on Facebook or very few if any will actually see the post.

What does that mean in English?  Bands will not be able to schedule automatic posts for album releases using third-party systems using the Facebook API.  They will have to go to the page directly at the exact time and publish a post.

What should a band do?

We routinely tell our Musician and Songwriter members to own their data.  The Facebook Newsfeed Changes are another good example of why.  A good case study is to think about the millions of fans that were following Bands on MySpace. Practically overnight MySpace was gone and the bands completely lost access to their fans that were following them on that platform.

Musicians who manage Facebook pages do not have access to personal information of their followers such as email addresses and they have no way to directly engage with them — even paid posts do not guarantee all fans will see the update.

Any time Facebook makes a change their is a potential to completely lose access to a fanbase and there is nothing that anyone can do about it.  Accordingly, the new Facebook Newsfeed Algorithms will look at how end-users are engaging with content.  If they don’t regularly click on a post form a Band Page then the chances are all posts from that page will be suppressed and never been seen by that fan again.

About the Foundation for Musicians and Songwriters

The Foundation for Musicians and Songwriters is an IRS 501c3 Public Charity that is dedicated to helping Musicians and Songwriters develop their careers in the Music Industry.  We do so without taking a penny or rights from the artist we represent.

To Subscribe to our Music News Updates, Click Here

Click to Subscribe to our Newsletter


Avid ProTools Music Mixing Myths

Mixing with Avid Pro Tools is just like mixing in any other medium… except when it’s not. This is to say that although the process is in most ways akin to how you’d work with any other storage and signal processing technologies, certain distinctive characteristics of Pro Tools lend themselves to somewhat different approaches than you may have previously encountered—and a few aspects of digital mixing may actually have no precedence in the traditional lexicon of production techniques.

This may sound perfectly reasonable, but entering the world of Pro Tools mixing can quickly become an unexpected and confusing mélange of contradiction, confusion, and outright frustration. Ask 10 engineers how to best go about mixing in the box, and you may get as many differing responses. Worse, it’s likely that much of what you’ll be told will neither be backed up with clear explanations nor hold up to thorough and thoughtful analysis. What’s a budding Pro Tools mixer to do?

The Dark Side of Music Production

The audio industry has always had a murky side to it with regards to matters like sonic quality, preferences about gear, and accepted practices for recording and mixing. Mythology has reigned supreme, and many “truths” are held as gospel for reasons that are largely unclear. An SM-57 is the best snare mic, period. Mixes come out better when monitoring with NS-10s. Analog sounds more natural than digital. Tube mics are superior to all others. Oh, and here’s another for you—the Pro Tools mix bus is inferior to an analog mix bus.

Where do these stories come from? There are no doubt a myriad of sources: the many real, legitimate experiences of intelligent and capable professionals; hasty conclusions based on partial or flawed observations by wide-eyed neophytes hoping to break into the business; a fair amount of marketing hype from audio equipment manufacturers; technical commentary made by individuals with no background to support such statements; years of an industry mindset of some that valued secrecy over sharing for fear of giving away personal tricks and techniques… the list goes on and on. What’s clear from observing these forces at work, and the resulting music industry zeitgeist, is that there’s both good information out there as well as a large number of shady beliefs. For the uninitiated, it’s hard to know what to think.

The whole thing is quite a slippery slope, because the final arbiter is hearing, and there’s no way to measure or compare what different people hear. Furthermore, numerous related factors—often unknown to the listener—might support a different conclusion about the basis of some phenomena that otherwise seems to have a simple explanation. What does it mean if a golden-eared engineer claims to hear a subtle artifact that you do not, and offers an accompanying explanation? It could certainly be that he/she truly has exceptional ears that are “better” (or more finely tuned) than yours, and has built a reasonable analysis from that observation. But it could also mean that he/she  thinks there’s something there or wantsto hear it. It could also be that though there’s something going on, the explanation itself is off base. It’s very easy to fool your ears, and just as easy to jump to shaky conclusions even with the best intent.

It’s tempting to offer up the seemingly sage advice to just trust what you hear rather than blindly accept what you’re told. Sounds reasonable, right? But wait—this is exactly the sort of approach that’s caused such rampant confusion in the first place! When it comes to evaluating audio quality and understanding psychoacoustic phenomena, there’s only one way to develop meaningful conclusions—conduct double-blind tests in neutral, controlled environments, such that neither the listener nor the tester knows which options are being heard at any time. Only under these circumstances can you honestly and legitimately reach conclusions about subtle sonic issues. Otherwise, you’ll unfortunately have to be skeptical about both what you hear as well as what you’re told…

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Analog Vs. Digital

One of the hot button issues discussed by people who like to talk about this sort of stuff is the difference between using the “mix bus” in a DAW versus using the summing network in an analog mixer (or, more recently, an external summing device designed strictly for this purpose). Actually, there’s no such thing in the world of digital audio as a hardware device with a common conductor fed by all channels in an analog console; Pro Tools and other DAWs use a mathematical algorithm for accumulating the values of multiple signals feeding a mix. But the algorithm does the same thing, so we’ll succumb to peer pressure and call it a mix bus.

But does a digital mix bus behave the same way as an analog version? Some users are convinced that otherwise identical mixes sound different—and better—when routed through the individual channels of a console or dedicated summing network. Many of these folks blame the DAWs’ mix busses, claiming some sort of inadequacy in the algorithm’s ability to accurately sum audio signals.

As the debate rages on, it can be very difficult to separate fact from fiction, and truth from myth. Since it’s a logistical challenge to create an accurate, unbiased test that compares mixes differing only in their summing methods, you’ll have a hard time researching this issue yourself. Fortunately, it’s possible to distill some simple conclusions amidst all of the chatter:

  • There is no evidence that the summing mechanism in Pro Tools—or any other current professional DAW—degrades or otherwise modifies the quality and character of mixes.

  • There can be audible differences between the sound of a mix created via analog versus digital summing. Depending upon the circumstances and the listener, these differences might be characterized as anything from negligible to significant. Typically, the difference tends towards subtle. In some—but not all—cases, producers and engineers prefer the results derived via analog methods.

If the digital audio mix bus is not responsible, what is? This is not understood definitively, but the explanation may be similar to why many other aspects of analog audio technology have a distinctive sound—the artifacts of analog audio that are inevitable byproducts of storage, transmission, and signal processing often act like sonic enhancers, injecting mixes with subtle flavors that to many sounds good. Interestingly, these manifestations of analog audio essentially reveal fundamental shortcomings of the technology, so it’s ironic that the effects can be pleasing. This is most certainly the primary justification for hanging on to more or less antiquated technologies such as analog tape machines, which at this point in time are a complete hassle to maintain and operate except for the fact that they yield desirable results under the right circumstances.

More specifically, how do listeners describe the differences between digital and analog summing? Some have commented on sonic characteristics involving tone, warmth, and detail. However, these are more likely based on related phenomena such as distortion caused by overdriving analog components. Others have noted differences in the width and depth of the soundstage. The actual foundation of such a distinction is unclear.

What’s the bottom line on how all of this affects you? Honestly, I wouldn’t give any of it a second thought. The fact is, until you can master the many other challenges of production—putting together great songs and arrangements, working with amazing musicians playing beautiful instruments, doing all of this in superior sounding recording environments using quality microphones and preamps, and building mixes with inspired balance, tone and depth—worrying about the nuances of digital vs. analog summing will probably distract you from far more important issues…

Latency Issues When Mixing

In general, latency in digital audio is a time delay observed for data at different locations of a system. Unlike traditional analog setups, in which everything occurs more or less instantaneously, various processes in a digital audio signal chain require small but detectable amounts of time to complete. The primary culprits are tasks such as conversion, disk access, and signal processing. Since each of these can themselves contribute measurable delays in handling audio, latency is cumulative when a signal is subject to multiple processes in series.

If you have ever recorded through a DAW, you have likely dealt with latency in the recording process.  Delays can wreak havoc on a musician monitoring a live performance.  We’ve seen that reducing the size of the hardware buffer and forgoing signal processing on live signals can improve monitoring latency to an acceptable level. Though converter latency cannot be eliminated, using higher sample rates does help.

Latency can also be an issue when mixing. However, in this case the problem isn’t that audio is delayed between disk playback and monitoring. Though this does occur, the only time it could matter is when theamount of latency varies on different channels. As long as latency is the same for all channels, the only repercussion will be a (typically) imperceptible lag when entering playback.

Without inserts, there’s nothing in the signal flow of an Audio track that introduces latency.

Without inserts, there’s nothing in the signal flow of an Audio track that introduces latency.

When latency is the same on multiple tracks, signals arrive at the mix bus simultaneously, and will not interfere with one another.

When latency is the same on multiple tracks, signals arrive at the mix bus simultaneously, and will not interfere with one another.

Having seen that it’s not unusual for audio signal paths to exhibit latency, when is the amount of channel latency different? When mixing, there are two possible scenarios:

    1. DSP plug-ins always introduce a small (and occasionally not so small) amount of latency.

    2. Native plug-ins sometimes introduce latency, if their algorithms utilize look-ahead processing.

    3. Analog hardware inserts always introduce latency due to the conversions necessary to route the signal to the external gear and back to Pro Tools.

    4. Digital hardware inserts sometimes introduce latency, if the external hardware’s algorithms utilize look-ahead processing.

      Different signal processors on channels. In some cases—though not always—latency will be introduced due to channel inserts: 

  1. Different routing used for channels. When sending the output of certain tracks through a bus and subgroup (as we’ll demonstrate next week), those tracks will be slightly delayed.

    In this example, bass signals enter the mix almost a millisecond later than simultaneous snare signals. However, it’s highly unlikely you’ll hear this difference.

Here’s the tricky part: the only time this matters is when the relevant tracks contain in part or completely the same material. This would be the case if:

  1. You’re summing together a processed and unprocessed version of the same signal. This can be a nice technique when you want the sound of (typically) extreme processing but also want to maintain some of the original signal characteristic.

  2. You’re processing a track for an instrument that was recorded with multiple microphones. Let’s say you’re compressing a snare mic. Since the snare sound is also picked up by the overheads and other drum mics, the phase relationship between these tracks changes if the compressor exhibits latency.

    Here, snare signals enter the mix later than the drum overheads. Since the overheads also pick up the snare, phase cancellation can occur.

In these scenarios, the combination of a processed track with latency along with similar tracks without such delays generally results in some sort of phase cancellation.  Phase cancellation is generally not desirable, but all is not lost. Fortunately, it’s possible to compensate for latency so that you can implement any of the above setups without interference problems.

If you’d like to explore the issue of latency further, here’s an informative primer on the topic written by Digidesign: Latency and Delay Compensation with Host-Based Pro Tools Systems

Floating- vs. Fixed-Point Mathematics

Another topic of some dispute is the computational approach used in various DAWs to crunch numbers for signal processing. It turns out that software developers might implement different methods, depending upon factors such as hardware support, ease of coding, and portability. Some DAWs utilize floating-point math, in which data is represented in a manner resembling scientific notation. Others do fixed-point math, using a prescribed number of integral and fractional digits. There are those who feel that floating-pointmath is superior since it is more flexible and can convey a wider range of values than fixed-pointcomputation given the same number of digits. However, the resolution of floating-point representation decrease as the values increase, and the noise floor also varies. Ultimately, proper coding should make these issues insignificant. If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll listen to Colin McDowell, founder and president of McDSP, one of the leading developers of third-party plug-ins for Pro Tools and other DAWs:

“If the fixed vs. floating point question is in regards to algorithm quality, the difference should be negligible. The code can be created on either platform to equivalent specifications. As long as the input and output bit depth are equal to (or greater than) the bit depth of the files being processed, and the arithmetic processing is double that bit depth (i.e. double precision), output signal noise level can be made to be lower than the smallest value representable in the output format.”

In the past, Pro Tools HD required TDM hardware whose DSP chips utilized 24-bit inputs and outputs, while RTAS signal processing supported by host-based systems was based on 32-bit floating point arithmetic. Both were capable of producing high-quality results, but some users felt that subtle differences could be identified between the two methods. What could have explained these perceptions? Was this another example of mind over matter, or were there differences in coding methods that could yield audible disparities?

Fortunately, as of Pro Tools 10 the above issue is of academic interest only since all computation is now performed via 32-bit floating-point math. By design, the DSP chips used in HDX hardware do floating-point arithmetic just like the signal processing in host-based sytsems, so (essentially) the same algorithms can be used for both native as well as DSP processing. It’s nice to know that any given plug-in should sound the same regardless of the platform, and the use of 32-bit floating-point math also provides a mamouth amount of headroom that makes it virtually impossible for users to overload computation engines.

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