Monday, August 30, 2010

Introducing Recording Session Metatags

We’ve all complained about incorrect credits listed on All Music at one time or another. Pretty soon, you can do something about it. A tool will be available shortly that will aid in capturing credits and other production specific information.

On August 17th, 2010, the P&E Wing of the Recording Academy presented the Content Creator Data (CCD), the new recording metadata standard, and accompanying software application called the CCD Collection Tool at their New York office.

After several years, the folks at BMS/Chace, in conjunction with The Library of Congress’ National Digital Information Infrastructure & Preservation Program, came up with an open schema (a standardized data structure for informational exchange) that defines recording session specific metatags.

Since the late ‘90s, schemas have been developed for a multitude of industries and uses, including electronic business transactions, retail industry, human resources, financial information, geographic applications, customer information, elections, emergency data, office documents, content syndication (e.g. RSS) and many others. The music industry joined in on the effort in 2006 by forming an organization called DDEX (Digital Data Exchange), which is developing standards for new release notification, digital sales reporting, licensing and other related items. CCD was developed to make sure it is compatible with existing standards by DDEX, SMPTE, AES and other relevant standards organizations.

The CCD Collection Tool is a free, cross platform utility that will soon be available. Through its user-friendly interface, anyone can input album / project and song specific information in the form of metadata that includes names of performers & recording personnel, the type of gear or instrument used, the recording media and settings used, and other details about sessions to help in documentation, master delivery and archiving. The output of the utility is a XML file.

In order for the standard and tool to be truly useful, there are a few conditions that have to be met.

As some philosopher (actually an IBM technician / instructor) famously said, “Garbage In, Garbage Out.” The critical stage in the process is at the point of data entry where the validity and accuracy of the data is determined.

The theory goes that data should be entered where it is generated. Presumably, that is why this tool was developed and why people are being encouraged to use it in the studio. It was suggested at the meeting that assistants in recording sessions could enter this data. This is certainly possible, but assistants are already taking care of a lot of things during the session.

Trying to get names correct and standardized (e.g. Jim, James, Jamie, Jimmy, Jimmie, ...) is a very big challenge. One solution that is being suggested is to have each person register and use a 16-digit ID number called the ISNI (International Standard Name Identifier) that will become available in the spring of 2011. It is a universal ID for a public identity.

In practice, sometimes we don’t know the full names (or how to spell them) of some of the musicians who come in for sessions, especially if it is a large session. However, that information would be known to whomever hired them or whomever will have to get them to sign contracts / releases. Another problem is that some song titles have not been finalized at the time of recording,

In the “old” days, there were people attending from the labels or coordinators hired by them to collect this type of information, at least during the session. The reality is that data that needs to be kept is being generated not just in the studio, but throughout the entire production process of the project, which leads to…

More and more recording or mix sessions are being conducted in multiple locations by multiple parties – in some cases, concurrently. How data generated in multiple instances is collected and combined will be critical in making sure the data is complete.

From what we have seen in practice, there is already a lack of organization and documentation of session data. Adding metatags to the list will be a challenge, especially in smaller productions where very few people are doing pretty much everything. Only discipline and diligence by those involved will ensure that the data is complete.

Once the data is collected or while it is being collected, there has to be a safeguard to prevent data from being altered or deleted intentionally or inadvertently. Different levels of access and authorizations might have to be implemented at some point. The developers talked about implementing a simple security scheme by allowing people to enter data, but not change it. A better mechanism might be to track any and all changes, much like tracking changes in a document, to be sorted later on.

The other issue is privacy or the need to know. I don’t think it is any business of studio personnel to know what the writer splits are for a particular song.

Data Administration
In the end, all the data will have to be deposited in a centralized location somewhere and reviewed. Who will oversee and ensure that the data was accurately and completely been entered? The logical answer is that it should be the one who owns the “assets”, which is the record label and/or the artist. On a more practical level, it will have to be the person who has the most complete view of the project, whether that person is the producer, the designated project manager or the artist. What do you actually do with the data? That will have to be worked out as this tool get wider use. Ultimately, this metadata file will become a component of the masters to be kept as part of the project archives.

Adoption (Integration with Existing Tools)
A key factor in adopting this standard is whether manufacturers will support it by embedding the metatagging capability into existing tools such as Avid’s Pro tools. This would certainly be more convenient and conducive to compliance. The manufacturers will have to be convinced that this is a good idea.

A good thing about this open schema is that for those who like to have fun with data, the schema is extensible since it is XML, which means you could expand the data set to include other items you feel is relevant to what you do and develop applications around those data sets. Unforeseen, supplemental tools may emerge to address other needs that currently exist in tracking production data.

I’ve outlined a few issues that I’m sure will get addressed over time. In the final analysis, the use of metatags is 1) something that was probably long overdue; 2) still in the early stages and is expected to evolve; and 3) is a good idea in principle, is the right thing to do and will need a lot of support from you to really become useful.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Recording as Therapy

I came across an article on April 25, 2010 titled “‘American Idol’ judge Kara DioGuardi hosts charity golf outing for Phoenix House.” It contains excerpts from an interview with Kara DioGuardi from Golf Digest. She speaks about how she partnered with Phoenix House, a substance-abuse organization, to build music-recording studios for teens and women in recovery from drugs and alcohol addiction.

Ms. DioGuardi says, “I have seen the impact on kids who've had trouble divulging things in normal clinical therapy. When they go into the studio instead, it's the kind of safe haven that allows them to talk about things that they wouldn't otherwise talk about. It's very helpful to their recovery.”

I wanted to find out more specifics about how the recording process helped in recovery and so I contacted the Phoenix House.

Since 1967, Phoenix House has grown to become a leading provider of alcohol and drug abuse treatment and prevention services operating over 150 programs in ten states. Currently, the organization cares for a case load of more than 7,000 through residential drug treatment for adults, residential Phoenix Academies combining long-term drug treatment and schooling for teens, outpatient care, after school, and day programs.

Arleen Kropf, Deputy Director for Marketing & Communication for Phoenix House Foundation in New York, got me in touch with Brian Edwards, Deputy Director at the Los Angeles studio and licensed therapist and John Morabito, the engineer at the studio.

Both are from the Phoenix Academy of Los Angeles located in Lake View Terrace in California. The Phoenix House there deals with youths, 13-18 years old, with serious substance dependency issues. Most come out of the California juvenile justice system where 70% receive residential treatment, 20% medical treatment and 10% treatment from private pay insurance. Phoenix House provides residential treatment for these youths. There are about 100 kids at any given time at the site who can stay up to a year.

American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi originated the idea of building a recording studio for Phoenix House 3-4 years ago. It was her way of giving back to the community. She was interested in building an effective facility that yielded results. The first studio was built at the Lake View Terrace location.

The program integrating recording activities has been refined over the years and has been running in its current form for the last 2-3 years.

Music has played a key role in reaching troubled youths to get them to open up about what is really troubling them. When kids come in, they are offered several different kinds of programs to engage them ranging from music appreciation of all styles of music to guitar instruction, vocal choir coaching and the recording program. Personal interests and preferences are taken into account when proposing an activity for each person. Each activity takes up a block of 2-3 hours at a time, typically in a group setting.

In the recording program, almost all the kids have never handled a microphone or know how it works, yet most are willing to give it a try. The idea of spending time in a recording studio is intriguing.

The studio is equipped with an Apple computer with Apple Logic as the main application program. Much of the gear such as the Rode tube mics, AKG headphones, and EVENT speakers were donated by each manufacturer. Kara, along with West L.A. Music donated equipment as well. The computer is loaded with over 100,000 beats, courtesy of one of the main sponsors, Big Fish Audio.

Typically, 8-10 kids are involved at a time per session in the studio. The recording space is small but sufficient to accommodate these kids, recording engineer and staff members. Before a session, kids are given 6-days to put their “heart on paper” and tell their stories. The living quarters that these kids stay in offer communal interaction. During the writing stage, peers act as sounding boards and aid in the creative process. They are focused on writing so they help each other despite their differences, even when they are from rival gangs.

99% of what is recorded is rap. On the day of the session, the engineer plays an assortment of beats until one of the beats catches someone’s fancy enough to try to rap what they’ve written down to that beat. Each person takes turns in rapping to the selected beat and then after a few tries, records the performance.

There is no vocal booth. The recording is done with everyone in the same room. This setting keeps everyone engaged. They listen to their peers rehearse as well as to the stories being told, provide suggestions and comments, stay quiet during the recording and think about what they are going to say when it is their turn. This is when the magic happens.

According to the engineer, John Morabito, the high point is watching the faces of the kids light up when they hear themselves on play back. “You have to understand that these are kids who have never used or even held a microphone before. They did not even know that they had it in them to be able to accomplish this (one) feat.”

Many kids who have trouble adjusting to treatment have found the music program to be their emotional outlet. They come out of their shells and become open to change. The staff has seen many challenging kids, who have had years of difficulty dealing with their emotional issues and substance abuse issues, become more involved in the treatment process via the music program.

There is a girl, a Ms. L, as tough as they come, who upon going through this process, opened up (during the session) and rapped about her relationship with her mother. The experience had a lasting effect. Even after graduating a few years ago, she still talks with some of the staff members on a weekly basis.

Another boy, a Mr. J, who had never rapped in his life prior to the program, completed 26 songs during his stay. His parents were so impressed, they came to the studio and asked what they could do to help their son continue. Upon receiving some advice, the parents bought some studio equipment a year ago and Mr. J converted his closet into a booth and continued to write and record songs. He has been clean to this day avoiding any cigarettes or alcohol.

Hundreds of recordings have been made ranging from just one verse of a well-known song to completely original songs showcasing hidden talent. The kids leave with their own recordings as reminders of their experience during their stay and as something they can point to as their own accomplishments.

Going through the recording process peaks their interest and appreciation for other forms of musical expression. The kids get the opportunity to attend concerts and to be exposed to different kinds of music. Recently, they were invited by MusiCares to attend the Grammy Awards show rehearsals and non-alcoholic gatherings to talk to people in the music industry.

There are now recording studios in Los Angeles and Yorktown, New York with plans to build more in Austin and Florida. Future plans include the addition of a DJ’ing program due to popular demand. The studios need more guitars and Discmans (when kids are going through difficult times, Discmans are given to them with music of their choice to help them get through the rough patches).

It is a wonderful thing to be able to operate a studio when you know that each recording has the potential to change someone’s life in a big way. Now, that’s a studio worth running!

NOTE: Special thanks to Arleen Kropf for arranging the interview and providing photos.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Raising the Recording Literacy of Musicians

In the June 2008 issue of Mix Magazine, Humber Recording Studio was among a number of new facilities that opened and qualified as one of "The Class of 2008". It was opened in September of 2007 as a key piece of a brand new Bachelor Degree music program offered at Toronto's Humber College Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning. The studio featured a 30x30-foot main tracking room with two iso-booths and a 30x20-foot control room equipped with a SSL Duality console. The live room was designed for recording great horn sounds.

As great as the room is, it is only half the story. The new four-year Bachelor of Applied Music – Contemporary Music program as well as the new recording space is the brainchild of Ian Terry, a seasoned engineer / producer who now teaches at Humber, in collaboration with Program Head Denny Christianson and existing faculty.

Ian Terry has over 30-years of experience in audio recording (includes working in the recording scene New York for 14 years) and has engineered and produced over 400 records. Ian also ran a studio in Montreal called Studio Tempo From 1976 to 1996. Artists he has recorded include David Bowie, Peter Frampton, Leonard Cohen, Celine Dion, Diana Krall, Oscar Peterson and countless others. (He also served as Director for five consecutive years on the executive board of SPARS in the ‘90s). Ian is currently the Head of the Music Production Department at Humber and teaches Aesthetics in Recorded Sound and Master classes in Music Production among other courses.

It is the intent, the philosophy around how the new curriculum was put together that is truly visionary. Consider the fact that there are more people than ever creating music than any other time in history. There are simply not enough trained recording engineers with the right kind and depth of knowledge to properly take care of every artist’s recording needs.

Recognizing also that artist and musicians now have access to a lot of powerful recording tools and basically call the shots on when and where to record, Ian wanted to design a unique curriculum to raise the recording literacy of musicians as one of his main design goals.

It was important for Ian to raise the knowledge level of musicians so they take the responsibility for how their art is produced. The aim of the program is NOT to train musicians to become engineers and learn another craft, but to be able to make informed decisions on where and how to record and the right “who to hire” to get their projects done. Understanding the limitations of what one can do and knowing how to ask for the right kind of help are two important ideas Ian wanted to instill.

Statistically speaking, not everyone has the aptitude nor the desire to be a great musician AND a great recording engineer. Yes, there is that rare person, perhaps one in 10,000, that can do both extremely well, but the focus of the program is being a musician first.

As part of the recording literacy curriculum, students learn the difference between MP3 vs. WAV files; why bit depth of 24-bits and what that means; what is the difference between 96k vs. 192k sample rate; what is mastering; how does mixing in the box compare to mixing using an analog summing box; what do you look for in a studio; what do you look for in an engineer; how do all these factors affect how the music actually sounds?

In order to teach all these concepts, they needed a room to be able to demonstrate and have students hear and experience firsthand what it means to record in a quality facility.

During the first two years of the program, students focus on musicianship and performance. In their third year, students begin taking engineering and production related courses. All students in this program must complete a recording project / portfolio in their fourth year. For the recording project course, 70% of the effort is focused on one’s own recorded performance as an artist and 30% on producing an artist other than themselves. A professional recording engineer is brought in as well as a mastering engineer to finish each of their projects in the form of a final recording. This professional-quality recording, along with a complete press kit and other promotional materials, become part of the assembled portfolio, which will function as a student's calling card for entrance into the music industry upon graduation.

The program is in its fifth year and the second graduating class has just finished up. As the relatively new curriculum solidifies, Ian has seen a marked improvement in the quality of project work from increased focus on recorded music production. With 75 students and only one room available, students must complete 3-4 tunes in 16-hours. The limited resources force students to make the most efficient use of time both in and outside the studio, simulating real life situations. Pre-production becomes a much more critical part of the entire process.

Ian states it in another way: “If you have a $5,000 recording budget, the artist has to make intelligent artistic decisions to figure out how to allocate resources and to consciously know what quality level to shoot for. That translates to knowing when to go into a studio and when not to and make deliberate decisions on which particular audio set up and gear to use.”

The program has proven so successful that it has attracted a lot of notice and talent with 1,100 to 1500 applicants vying for just 100 openings each year.

A tagline used by a clothing and shoe retailer called SYMS, states that “an educated consumer is our best customer.” This is holds even truer for recording studios.

** Thanks to Don Wershba at SSL for introducing me to Ian Terry.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

National Recording Studios Open Day – An Intriguing Idea

There was a little reported event in the U.S. press that took place nationwide in New Zealand on May 29, 2010 called National Recording Studios Open Day. It was part of the activities associated with NZ Music Month, an annual event coordinated by New Zealand Musician Magazine (a bi-monthly, free publication for the last 22 years). It was the first national event of its kind in New Zealand or any country for that matter.

Organizer Richard Thorne, publisher/editor of NZ Musician Magazine, explained his intent of holding a national open house:

“The main hope behind the Open Day is that by getting people in and looking around, you might get some of them to take the next step and book a session. Secondary was the exposure and publicity gained leading to future bookings.”

Between noon and 4 PM, a variety of professional studios around the country opened their doors to provide an opportunity for musicians, artist managers, music students and others to find out more about local studio facilities, in-house recording professionals and services and the audio quality benefits of recording in a professional studio environment. Owners, engineers and staff were on hand to answer any questions about the studio and the recording, mixing and mastering processes.

Participating studios ranged from the high-end and long established studios to low cost community facilities. Entry was free and each studio offered its own program of information and entertainment.

York Street Recording Studios, a large format international class studio in Auckland, reported 160 to 180 visitors on the day of the event. Jeremy Mcpike, manager of York Street said he had members from their session band there to answer questions from a musician point of view about recording. All their engineers were on hand as well. They ended up having four to eight mini lectures for rotating groups of visitors.

One of his goals as organizer, Richard was trying to dispel the notion that “studios have an aura of inaccessible cool.” Jeremy from York Street elaborated on this topic further from his perspective:

“…there is a bit of mystery about large studios and I think a lot of smaller bands / solo artists may be a bit intimidated about coming in here, thinking that only ‘big’ well know bands can record here, which of course is not the case at all. If anything it is the small jobs in between the albums that keep us busy. So I wanted to use the day to allay some of the fears and show the musicians that we are friendly / approachable / professional and welcoming to all artists from all genres.”

In addition to promotional activities by NZ Music magazine, relevant regional news outlets, papers and radio stations were contacted and a few picked up the story. Each studio also promoted the event locally and through social networking sites such as facebook, twitter and myspace.

Most studios experienced a busy day of visitors, busier than they had expected to be. Some of the studios did take bookings on the day and some got local media exposure they have not received before.

Richard Thorne concluded that the event “was a big success and will be repeated.” His plan is to make the Open Day an annual feature of the NZ Music Month.

The event is an interesting take on the idea of trying to spur support for local recording facilities, what Richard refers to as “collaborative promotion.” If there is a Record Store Day (third Saturday every April) in the U.S., then having a recording studio day may not be all that far-fetched, time difference and all.

Jeremy from York Street summed up the event by saying, “…it was a big day, loads of fun and seeing the amazed look on peoples faces when they came in to the studio reminded us all of what a special place we work in and what a wonderful job we have.” Amen to that.


The event was coordinated by NZ Musician magazine, with support from CHART in Christchurch, Auckland’s SAE Institute and Phantom Billstickers (a street media company).

Here is a complete list of studios that participated in the first National Recording Studios Open Day.

York Street, Parnell Auckland
Earwig Studios, Birkenhead Auckland
Depot Sound, Devonport Auckland
Stebbing Recording Centre, Herne Bay Auckland
The Colour Field, Tauranga
The Stomach, Palmerston North
TMV Studios, Levin
STL Audio, Victoria St, Wellington
PAF - Villa Number 9, Porirua
Tandem Studios, Christchurch