Taking Control of Your Music Online

April 4, 2013 by  

A couple of weeks ago, a good friend watched her laptop’s screen in horror, as a complete stranger began uploading her entire concert from the night before onto YouTube.

She hadn’t seen this unknown cameraman, filming from the middle of the audience with a shaky, low-res cell-phone camera and capturing every moment: The mistakes, the tuning breaks between songs, the fleeting moments of awkward banter, and even a new unreleased song that the band was workshopping for the first time in front of an intimate audience.

 Know Your RightsIt’s easy for many people to understand how being broadcast and exposed to the entire world against your will could make you feel violated and helpless. Our ability to share and broadcast music cheaply and easily may be among the great advances of the 21st century, but without consent, sharing just doesn’t feel right. This goes double when it’s on a huge commercial website, monetized without your permission and available for the entire world too see. There are laws against this kind of thing for a reason.

Some of us are more comfortable than others with the idea of our music being shared freely and indiscriminately – the good and the bad shows alike. Fortunately, it’s our right to have our own creations shared indiscriminately should we choose that path. But it’s also our right to maintain some control over what people can, and more importantly, can’t do with our work.

Even the Grateful Dead, who have always encouraged fans to record and share their performances, draw the line somewhere. It might sound surprising at first, but to them, this new model of sharing, whether on YouTube or on a pirate website, is antithetical to everything they stand for.

Their official policy is generous and free-spirited, but also clear-cut: “No commercial gain may be sought by websites offering digital files of our music, whether through advertising, exploiting databases compiled from their traffic, or any other means.”

That would clearly preclude YouTube, as well as any pirate website that sells advertising (and most do these days.) Technology may change, but ethics don’t: “The Grateful Dead and our managing organizations have long encouraged the purely non-commercial exchange of music taped at our concerts and those of our individual members. That a new medium of distribution has arisen – digital audio files being traded over the Internet – does not change our policy in this regard.”

For almost a decade, musicians and fans alike have looked overwhelmingly to the positive side of a “free” and open musical culture. But if anyone and any company can use our music however they choose, then what rights do we lose? Do we lose the right to choose whether our music can be used in TV commercials, movie soundtracks or political campaigns? Do we lose the right to choose when and whether or not we will work for free? Do we lose the right, like the Grateful Dead, to demand that our performances never be monetized, whether directly or indirectly, through the sale of ads?

David Byrne. Photo credit: Catalina Kulczar

David Byrne. Photo credit: Catalina Kulczar

These concerns are not theoretical ones: David Byrne made headlines not long ago when he successfully sued former senatorial candidate Charlie Crist for using his hit song “Road To Nowhere” in a political ad without his consent. Tom Waits likewise successfully sued both Frito-Lay and Audi for using a Tom Waits imitator after he had refused to license his music in their commercials – at any price.

Those are just two stories of artists taking control from among countless thousands of examples. And you too can start taking control of how your work is shared and monetized, even online.  It doesn’t even require the hassle and grand gestures of a lawsuit. You can do it from right in your bathrobe:

A piece of weak-tea legislation called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (or “DMCA”) is what allows sites like Google and YouTube to get away with their “Share First, Ask Questions Later” policy. But that same bill also allows musicians and other content creators to have their work removed from these websites when it is posted without their consent.

In fairness to Google, they’ve been very good about increasing the effectiveness of the tools that allow artists to flag, control, monetize or even remove unapproved content from both YouTube and Google Search. What they’ve been less good about is spreading the word. I’m amazed how many regularly exploited artists are unaware that they actually have the power to do something about it.

In the case of YouTube, you can lay claim to any videos or tracks that belong to you right now, without getting up from your chair. It only takes a few minutes.

And, if you’d like to maintain a fan-powered presence on YouTube, you don’t have to have your music taken down entirely. Using the available tools you can even decide to leave your tracks up and instead have YouTube give you analytic data about your viewers, give viewers links to places where your music can be purchased, or even monetize your tunes directly, via advertising.

YouTube ContentID

YouTube’s ContentID system

Of course, if you’d like to limit the amount of your material that appears on YouTube so that you can give your fans a real incentive to buy your music if they like what they hear, then you also have the option of removing the offending tracks or videos altogether.

Not long ago, this process was a real drag. As soon as you took down an unauthorized video in one place, it would just crop up again later in another. But more recently, YouTube launched a tool called ContentID, which allows you to identify your music just once, and have it be recognized in perpetuity. From there on out, you can have YouTube automatically block, track or monetize that music, now matter who uploads it and when.

This service is not restricted to the big labels. If you’ve had issues with your music uploaded against your will in the past, you may be eligible to sign up for free. Not to be outdone, Soundcloud has also launched a content identification system of its own.

A Note About Fair Use:

Some might be concerned that these tools could be abused by blocking fair use. But in my personal experience, I have found this not to be the case. When we posted our recent “Studio as an Instrument” panel to YouTube, several American major labels started selling ads on our video, which included brief song snippets. This was done automatically by the Content ID system.

Obviously, I’m all for labels and artists getting their share, but fair use is fair use, so on principle, I contested the claims. Within a day, all the American labels had retracted their claims, basically saying: “Yeah, that’s obviously fair use.” (The only one that didn’t pull their advertising and claim was a label from Germany, where the concept of fair use does not exist.)

I had a similar experience with my own online reel as well, when SoundCloud automatically removed one song for which I had obtained the artist’s permission to include. I replied to the claim using their online dispute center, and within a day, the label had approved the use and the song was quickly restored.

This kind of protection is not only limited to YouTube videos. The DMCA also allows you to have nefarious results removed from Google Search completely. Bear in mind that this won’t shut down the website in question (so direct links will still work) but it at least ensures that users won’t be able to find the stolen work through search engines.

This is great for cutting off websites that sell ads on your music without your consent, or give away torrents of your entire discography. I’ve used it successfully to take down links to unrepentant plagiarists and unauthorized monetizers of my articles as well as my music productions. (There were far more of each than I had expected.)

Today, I’m amazed at how many complete discographies and full albums I’m still able to find on sites like Google Search and YouTube, especially when blocking that kind of behavior has now become so easy. The tools are there, but the word has just not gotten out.

Even if you don’t care about your sales and want your own music to be shared as widely and completely as possible, using these tools can still allow you to learn about and engage with your fans, or to stop unscrupulous companies from monetizing your work without your consent.

Remember that whenever unauthorized websites sell ads on the traffic generated by an artist’s entire discography, whether directly or indirectly, it adds to the bloated bottom line of technology companies while keeping artists, producers and engineers eating table scraps.

Free music can be great. I listen to plenty of it, as ethically as I can. I’ll also be the first to tell you that it’s a good idea for almost any artist to make some of their music available publicly and without charge. But “free” is, and should be, a choice. When that choice is taken away, it becomes a meaningless gesture.

Both the rights and the earning potential of so many artists have been sacrificed in the past ten years as extremely profitable technology companies have lobbied hard to turn ‘Copyright’ into a dirty word. But the truth is that Copyright is your creative bill of rights. It ensures that:

1) No one has the right to take your work and use it for his or her own financial gain without your say.

2) No one has the right to pressure you into working for free if you do not want to.

3) And no one has the right to take your art and use it to support his or her own political agenda without your agreement.

Stand up and respect yourself. If you haven’t set aside a moment to gain some basic semblance of control over your own music online, now is the time.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based audio engineer, college professor, and journalist. He records and mixes all over NYC, masters at JLM, teaches at CUNY, is a regular contributor to SonicScoop, and edits the music blog Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.

Op-Ed: SOPA Blackout – The Morning After

January 19, 2012 by  

Thanks to yesterday’s high-profile blackouts of Wikipedia, Reddit, and others more Americans are familiar with the Stop Online Piracy Act than ever before.

Dozens of websites went dark yesterday to protest the SOPA and Protect IP (PIPA) bills.

If you’re still confused as to what the fuss is about and need a balanced look at the arguments, I recommend my December primer, “SOPA & PIPA: Can We Stop Online Piracy Without Censoring The Internet?”.

But if you don’t feel confused, chances are that you’ve already picked a side in this increasingly polarized debate. If you ask me, that’s a dangerous trap.

Meet The New Boss.

In the battle for hearts and minds, it’s clear that at least for today, the web lobby is winning.

It’s not hard to see why. For starters, the initial version of SOPA had serious flaws that made for ominous headlines. Its worst facets threatened the integrity of the internet, recommended needlessly harsh penalties for petty transgressions, and gave the government power to shut down websites – even bypassing due process in some cases.

On top of these gripes, the web sector showed PR mastery in an age when the entertainment industry has consistently failed to win over public opinion. A new, powerful tech lobby has arrived, and they’ve been able to easily cast their opponents as Orwellian control-freaks.

For their part, the major record labels have made that pretty easy for the tech sector. The 2000s were a notoriously bad time at the major labels. An early anti-piracy campaign focused on slapping average Americans with excessive lawsuits didn’t help them win many fans, and their chronic failure to innovate helped accelerate an already rapidly-shrinking market share.

But in today’s fight for fairness, we shouldn’t be too eager to abandon one lobby’s propaganda in favor of another’s. The truth is that today’s web companies make tremendous amounts of money by selling advertising on the work of content creators – often without paying them a dime.

If yesterday proved anything, it’s that Universal Music Group and the entertainment sector aren’t the fearsome, well-monied, and most effective lobbying machine in the room anymore. Today, that distinction goes to Google and the new technologies sector.

Web Rights vs. Artists’ Rights

It’s easy to get caught up in the anti-SOPA fervor that spread on Wednesday. So easy, that many sympathizers seemed to forget that the majority of prominent companies who have come out against pro-copyright protections are large corporations that have their own bottom-line at stake.

Although raising awareness about SOPA’s most nefarious shortcomings is a noble cause, there’s more than a fair chance that corporate web giants like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Gawker Media, and The Huffington Post won’t stop their crusade once that battle is won. It’s just not in their financial interest to do so.

Right now, I can go to YouTube and dig up clips from many of the most popular television shows ever created. I can listen to most of the rare songs I’d ever want to track down, and I can even watch entire movies. Google makes a fortune in revenue from this kind of YouTube traffic, but in many cases, ad revenues can go to Google and even opportunistic third parties – but not to the content’s creators.

True, there are ways for copyright holders to claim content uploaded without their consent, but the status-quo puts the greatest burden for finding stolen material on to creators rather than on the web publishers and aggregators who make money on the traffic. If stolen content is found and reported by the owner, it is eventually taken down, but lost revenue may be lost forever.

If a record label pulled the same kind of stunt, we’d crucify them.

Infringement Creep

At times, this debate has gone to show just how insidiously copyright infringement has become part of our daily lives.

Yesterday morning, I noticed that the Gawker Media’s Gizmodo website used a drawing of Simpsons character Monty Burns as a central image in their protest of SOPA.  It got me wondering if anyone asked the show’s creator, Matt Groening, whether it we be alright to re-purpose his artwork to support a political cause he may or may not believe in.

(A moderator on the site rationalizes the move by saying “A change in original artistic intent is sufficient to circumvent copyright. Basically he’s not representing Mr. Burns but instead is being used a a graphical representation of politicians/MPAA/Rupert Murdoch.” A mealy-mouthed claim, and a far stretch for the satirical provisions of fair use if I ever heard one.

It begs the question: What if Mitt Romney changed the lyrics to “Imagine” and started using it as his campaign song? Would that be okay too?

Ethically and legally, I think the answer there is a clear no. But on today’s web, things like that happen every day – even  in article headlines and in moderated comments on Gawker Media, a network of professionally staffed news sites that receives over 300 million page views each month and stands as one of the biggest money makers in online news.

There are certainly professional applications where including trademarked images does constitute fair use. When The Daily Show briefly sprinkles branded images into a 30-minute satirical program, that’s a yes. When Gizmodo uses an unpaid artist’s work as the central image on their home page, and uses it to push their own specific political agenda? That should be a big honking NO.

Ask The Right Questions

My point here isn’t to cast internet companies as the villains. If anything, I believe that the most dangerous mistake we can make is to get sucked into a comforting fantasy that there are clear-cut sides for the good guys and the bad guys on this issue.

In the past 24 hours, I’ve seen polarized pro-copyright proponents close their ears to legitimate concerns over SOPA, and I’ve heard charged-up pro-web sympathizers deny that copyright infringement is even a meaningful problem.

But a divisive debate like this one is the last thing we need. The only way to come to a workable solution is to start with the right question. Namely: “How can we rewrite our IP legislation to protect intellectual property rights without destroying the integrity of the web?”

To an objective observer, it should be clear that the original version of SOPA was flawed. It’s unlikely to pass as is, and due to the high-profile campaign against it, the bill stands a poor chance of passing even once revisions are finished.

Unfortunately, when a revised version or a strong alternative does come up for review, there’s a good chance we’ll continue to hear complaints from the web sector. Many of them will be far less noble than the arguments we’ve seen so far. I’ve already noticed, when I talking to technologists with a vested interest in loose copyright laws, that when I explain that I agree with the central arguments against SOPA, I’m welcomed by an entire back pocket full of questionable and self-interested arguments against the broader concept of protecting copyrights on the web. Such questionable arguments include: :

1)“Ugh. We can’t police ourselves for content. That would be so hard!”

I think you’ll find that once we put in place real incentives for online publishers to monitor their content, sites will find creative ways to clean up, faster than you ever imagined. Google is one of the most profitable companies on the web and it rakes in millions in revenue on YouTube traffic alone. If they have to hire a new team of employees to help keep their sites from infringing on the rights and freedoms of others, then so be it.

2) “But stronger copyright laws will hurt startups.”

Only new technology startups that aim to make money off of free content. What about the startups that don’t have a chance under the current system? What about the startup labels and studios and ethical digital distributors that can’t compete with the monopoly of “Hey look! Everything’s free all the time!”  If new regulations prevent the formation of an army of baby YouTubes with even less interest in due diligence than the original, that doesn’t sound so bad at all.

3) “Copyright infringement isn’t actually, you know, a problem.”

Don’t tell me. Tell the thousands upon thousands of diligent craftspeople and creative professionals who’ve lost good, fulfilling jobs to media downsizing over the past decade.

There’s no denying that we need to respect the integrity of the internet.. But we also need to start making some compromises to save jobs and to save new art. After all these years of neglect, we need a real legislative strategy to protect the artists, musicians, authors and other creative professionals who have taken a merciless beating for a full decade at the hands of a completely free and unfettered web.

The status quo on the web is broken. An entirely unregulated internet has offered full free reign to big online publishers, while denying the basic rights and freedoms of the content creators they rely on for traffic. In any other part of our lives, we wouldn’t let that kind of imbalance stand. So why should we accept it on the web?

SOPA is flawed, yes. At the very least it should be (and has been) rewritten.

But today, the larger issue of online copyright protection is in danger of being swept up into the well-intentioned anti-SOPA tide. This larger issue of protecting jobs, art and artists is not one of right vs. left, Republican vs Democrat, freedom vs. censorship, or big business vs. everyday people. To imagine it is would be the most dangerous mistake of all.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn recording engineer and studio journalist. He is a regular contributor to SonicScoop and edits the music blog Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.

Independent Music Publishers Can Opt Into Key YouTube License Agreement, Via NMPA & HFA

November 19, 2011 by  

Licensing for online media saw an important evolution this past August when the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) and YouTube’s parent company, Google, settled an NMPA lawsuit. The resulting settlement paved the way for increased efficiencies for UGC (User Generated Content) to use and legally license copyrighted music on videos that are posted on YouTube.

Music publishers have a limited window to share in royalties of synch licenses for YouTube content.

As a result, the NMPA and The Harry Fox Agency, Inc. (HFA) have announced a time-sensitive development: It offers to all independent music publishers, whether or not they are affiliated with HFA, the opportunity to opt into a direct license agreement with YouTube by going to www.youtubelicenseoffer.com.

Publishers can opt in to the agreement between November 17, 2011 and January 16, 2012. The link at www.youtubelicenseoffer.com provides a significant amount of additional detail and is worth a read for all publishers and artists.

In its announcement, HFA explained that earlier this year the NMPA, HFA and YouTube concluded a landmark agreement whereby independent music publishers may grant the rights necessary for the synchronization of their musical works with certain videos posted by YouTube users.

HFA will administer these direct license agreements between YouTube and publishers. Royalties will be based on advertising revenue collected worldwide by YouTube from ads placed alongside user-generated videos.

Independent publishers who have opted into the License Agreement and the YouTube Licensing Offer (“HFA Participating Publishers”) using HFA as the License Administrator will receive a share of an up to $4,000,000 recoupable advance pool that has been created.

HFA will apply its relationships with the publishing community and deep licensing experience to administer the direct YouTube license agreements.  Participation is available to all independent publishers in the U.S.

Publishers must sign up for the YouTube direct licensing agreement at www.youtubelicenseoffer.com from November 17, 2011 through January 16, 2012 to be eligible for an advance.

Smarter in :60: You Must “Ignore Everybody”

April 20, 2011 by  

There’s an awesome little book I want to hip you to. It’s one that every musician, artist, and otherwise driven creative person should read, and then keep close for reference when the chips of inspiration are down.

This will remind you why you decided to ever create in the first place: It’s called “Ignore Everybody And 39 Other Keys To Creativity” by Hugh Macleod.

Mark Hermann urges us to undertake Hugh Macleod uber urgings.

This book is essentially a conglomeration of 40 blog posts, each of them great little tidbits of life wisdom, that originally appeared on Hugh’s blog, “Gaping Void”. That it’s a book at all that you can buy now on Amazon or Barnes & Noble and read and rave about to your friends — like I’m doing here — is really what the book is all about.

In a nutshell, it says that your creative idea doesn’t have to be big, it just has to be yours. And the sovereignty you have over your truly original work will be far more inspirational to others than the actual content ever will.

Hugh MacLeod’s art is not big. He draws cartoons on the back of business cards. To understand how he got there, you’ll have to read the book. He makes it look really easy. It isn’t. He just put in his 10,000 hours. So he’s really good.

And while there’s really not one chapter worth skipping (it’s a pretty quick read), here are a few of the gems I found inspirational:

Chapter 1. Ignore Everybody (why?) because…

Chapter 23. Nobody Cares. Do it for Yourself.

How many times have you heard this? But did you ever actually listen? It’s true. Nobody gives a fuck. Not about you or your art or your dreams. Nobody has the time.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a recording session, usually with a singer on an original project, and invariably they’ll say, “So who should I sound like on this track?” My response: “Umm, how about like yourself?” As though sounding more like someone else but you (read: someone whose voice is already out there on the radio) at this particular crossroads in the music industry is going to do anything for your career. As opposed to having the courage to forge your own sonic brand, your own creative sovereignty, where no one sounds exactly like you. The real you. And defend it to the death.

There’s nothing wrong with modeling the methods and behaviors of successful people. But when it comes to the art itself, why is it we always want to look for success by copying someone else, who somehow managed to be successful by being completely unlike everyone else in the first place and filling a niche that we didn’t even know existed until they showed up? Which leads me to…

Chapter 4. Good Ideas (and Original Artists) Have Lonely Childhoods

Good ideas alter the power balance in a relationship. This is why they are so often met with resistance. They also come with a heavy burden, which is why they are so rarely executed.

It’s tough to forge new ground, be original, believe in something that doesn’t yet exist and convince people to follow you there. Can you remember a time before Facebook? Google? GaGa? Things we didn’t know we needed until one day when they showed up. Einstein didn’t exactly wow his peers with his crazy theories in his early career. He couldn’t even score a gig as a junior professor. Which dovetails nicely into…

Chapter 12. Don’t Try to Stand Out from the Crowd; Avoid Crowds Altogether.

I always loved this video clip, called How to Start a Movement which I originally got turned onto by Derek Sivers on his blog and ended up being the theme of his talk at the TED conference. Nothing better explains this chapter:

If you want to know what to do with your incredible uniqueness, it’s all spelled out for you in the video. In a nutshell, don’t believe the hype: No one, not record companies, stock pickers, psychics can predict the next big original thing that’s going to change the world. It just happens organically. And then something new and totally unique exists that did not the day before. Watch this video. It’s a gas.

Bottom line: if you’ve truly got it, no matter how far out there on the fringe, you will be found and ultimately supported and your message will spread if it resonates with your core audience.

Chapter 7 (one of my favorites). Everyone is Born Creative; Everyone is Given a Box of Crayons in Kindergarten.

But somewhere in life most folks traded in their crayons for things like careers with responsibilities and they were OK with this because they bought stuff like houses, cars, diapers. Until one day they weren’t OK with it anymore. Something was missing. There was a longing. They wanted their crayons back.

It’s really hard to try and color outside the lines again (i.e. break the rules and follow your muse) after a long chunk of adult life spent making safe, pretty pictures of your safe, ordinary self in your steady job (which should not to be confused with your work). Some call this mid-life crisis. Another suggestion to explain this is…

Chapter 10: Everyone has Their Own Private Mt. Everest That We Were Put on this Earth to Climb.

And somewhere in life we are supposed to give it at least one serious bid to reach that summit and at least get out above base camp. If we fail we will be forgiven but to not go for it at all is to face that day on our deathbed when we will find only emptiness and regret.

Chapter 8: Keep Your Day Job.

(This is tantamount to heresy for the “true” artist, right?)

But every artist has the same fantasy: the big hit song, # 1 app, New York Times Bestseller, etc. that will allow them to stop waiting tables, temping, writing corporate technical manuals, so they can just wake up every morning a wealthy celebrity artist, creating the next big hit.

But the truth is every artist will always have to balance the need to make a good living with maintaining their creative sovereignty. And you will never transcend this duality. No one is exempt. Not the aspiring actor or the Hollywood movie star. The sooner you learn to accept this, I mean really truly accept this, a strange thing happens and your career starts to take off.

This is something Hugh refers to as the Sex & Cash Theory, which states that while, say, a John Travolta may wrangle to do a limited run on Broadway playing Willie Loman for credibility (Sex) you still might be wondering why you saw him in that recent B-movie action thriller that got panned in the press. (Cash)

Everyone is always looking for that shortcut, the quick way out. Anything to avoid hard work. It doesn’t exist. The truth is that if someone is more successful than you at what you do it’s because they worked harder at it. While you were out there at the bar talking to that hottie or the curmudgeon in the corner seat about your soon to be finished screenplay or your incredible new app idea, someone was at home working on the same thing, busting their ass.

It’s a tough pill to swallow when you realize that you are 100% responsible for the life you experience. As an example, Russell Simmons recently spoke at the Learning Annex about how to become rich like him. I have no doubt it was standing room only. No doubt he spoke on how to tap into your true power that allows you to manifest anything at all you desire, no matter how outrageous (Exhibit A: Mr. Simmons’ charmed life). And I’m sure it was inspirational.

But after you walked out and the buzz wore off, where did that leave you? What are you pretending not to know? Rather than concerning yourself with the merits of why a Tom Clancy sells truckloads of books while a Nobel prize winner sells squat, the better question to consider is: “What are you going to do with the short time you have left here on Earth?”

I love this book.

Buy it!


Mark Hermann

NYC-based producer/artist/engineer/more Mark Hermann spends his life in the professional service of music. He has toured the world with rock legends, produced hit artists, and licensed music for numerous TV/film placements. Hermann also owns a recording studio in a 100-year old Harlem Brownstone. Keep up with him at his homepage.

“Mixology” with George Walker Petit: Real Mixers Mix in Headphones

April 3, 2011 by  

I ride the 6 train sometimes, and it’s loud.  The New York subway experience is degrading and filthy at worst, just plain noisy and jarring at best.  Part of the NYC gig.

Now hear this: George Petit Walker is phoning your head.

I also attend a neighborhood gym, and often could do without the ever-present bass thump and moronic lyric of most house dance music. Let’s consider the overly inquisitive child on the flight from JFK to LAX. Remember Bill Cosby’s “Jeffrey”Google it, it’s on YouTube. Hilarious stuff. Or the screaming infant in seat 31C.

Car horns, fire trucks at 2am.  New York is not a gentle and quiet place.  Part of why we love it?  Love it, hate it, love it, hate it, love it, hate it. Evelyn Mulwray to the white courtesy phone, please.

“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Be Quiet, I Can’t Hear You
The world intrudes on my focus and internal space far too often (“…dude, chill.”).  I don’t think I have A.D.D. – HEY, LOOK!  But I do miss the quiet at times. Not even quiet per se.  I lose that focus, that “peace”.  The world seems so full of external noise.  Visually, I can deal, but I am a musician and an engineer: sound helps define my life.  I can’t turn sound off, can’t ignore it.  I hear rhythm in all things, harmony everywhere.  But at some point, some times, I need to control it, at least try to attenuate/filter/regain my focus.

I remember sitting on a train with my wife, on the way to an airport at the close of our vacation.  At Kandersteg station (we were in Switzerland), a significant herd of school kids joined us, hormones a-pumping.  An uncontrollable group-howl of excitement. The look on Donna’s face was one of realization.  Realization that our peaceful vacation was rushing toward a frenzied close.  How this hurt me!

I reached into my briefcase and withdrew my trusty MP3 device and two pair of in ear monitors (IEM)’s with a splitter.  We chose Brahms.  We smiled.  Blood pressures fell, smiles appearing.  Into our own private world, our retreat, peace.

So I have IEM’s.  Lots of IEM’s.  IEM’s that fit well and…don’t fit so well.  IEM’s that sound hyped and sound flat, loud and not loud, cheap and expensive.  And this works!    I can filter out the noise when I want to, when I need to. Nothing like riding the #4 express to Union Square and listening to Tom Waits.  Surreal.  Perfect.  Tolerable.

The sanctuary of it. The sheer delight in not being forced to aurally participate in what is going on around you.  Think of the peace, the seclusion, the focus, the efficiency.

You get it, right?

Let’s move on…

Armed (Eared) and Dangerous
I got that call again back in the Fall, that call to go to Brazil.  I love that call.  “Come on down, George, we need you to engineer a couple of sessions, and while you’re here you can teach our staff a bit, play some gigs, eat churrasco, drink cachaça and unwind, breathe in Brazil.”  I love that call.  It’s kinda quiet tonight.  (hint, hint…)

I think the only bummer about the trip is the sound in their control room.  The live room is a WSDG jewel, it’s gorgeous, huge. They now have the right mics as well, the console from my old studio, a bunch of great outboard, and a kind-hearted cook (‘Neide’) that makes a “corn cake” to MURDER for, and the churrasco nearby at Jardineira is about the best on the planet.  Beats Fogo de Chao hands down.

But the sound of control room A for mixing, and the monitors…not so great.  I track in A and then move the entire session, vibe, bevvies and body count to their B room to mix, hoping that what I tracked translates well.  What a pain, and no, I am certainly not shipping my Proacs down there!  For some reason I don’t fully grok, they don’t want to fix the room, or buy new monitors!  Been to Brazil for work?  Then you know…

So I bring my “SWEG’s”.  Every time.  They save the session for me.  Every time.  My “Secret Weapon Ear Goggles”.  (music: accent here)

The Big Confession
Ok, ok…I blab, I meander.  Let’s get to the point.

Sound advice from any angle.

Look, I mix in headphones, ok?  (enter: cries of derision from the chorus…)

Ok, ok…not all the time, but often, effectively and with a smile.

Ohh, here it comes!  I anticipate sharp intakes of breath, chiding comments about lack of room interaction, the nature of stereophony, proximity of sound to (in) the head, poor frequency response, crosstalk, fatigue and discomfort, exaggerated panorama. Cries of  “INFIDEL!” (“…dude, chill.”).

Yes, it’s true.  I’ve reached the point where I feel that my headphone mixes are 100% valid and of high quality.  Yes, I do take the cans off and check the mix on monitors periodically, as often as I would switch between different sets of monitors.  Normal.

Fact is, there are many things one can learn from mixing in cans, things one can focus on microscopically, other benefits. Let’s talk about that.

Room interaction, stereophony.  Not getting into the nitty on this stuff, ok?  I am going to assume that you are already aware of (or can research) the physics of sound to the point where you understand the effects of a room and monitor placement on your work, how sound reaches your ears, etc… You should have a great and accurate room.  Agreed?  Good. We should spend a lot of time and money on acoustic design.

Acousticians — I know a few and they all deserve white lab coats. These guys and gals are Shamans…Shamen?  Shawomen?  They’re scary gurus.  We all benefit from their knowledge and ability.  But what if the room you are in was not designed by one of said gurus?  What if the sound of the room basically…stinks?  (oh no, surely not YOUR room, of course!)

How about the gear in the room?  What if the studio monitors you have to use for your job are made by…oops!  Almost got me!  Let’s just say they are — less than adequate?  Or maybe you’re just not used to them yet?  What are you going to do?  What are you going to do NOW, immediately?

Hey, what if you’re working in a home studio and you have the dreaded NEIGHBORS??

Ok, go on, lug your Genelecs around with you when you travel for work.  Better yet, lug your Gene’s AND your Hothouse monitors with the matching Hothouse amp and Kimber cables…some do in fact.  I don’t often have that luxury all the time.

Me? I “lug around” my extremely high end “SWEG’s” and their equally dangerous and sneaky “Cansamp” (someone please coin that).  They travel in a small Pelican case.  What exactly do I use?  Tell ya later…

In yo’ FACE!
Over the years, I have enjoyed studying the work of many engineers (still do), getting inside their sound and trying to learn from their approach.  I hope never to stop learning.  We all have our mentors or those from whom we have shamelessly stolen tricks or techniques. Elliot, Al, Bob, James, Bruce.  I could list 50 more.

I’ve found that by donning a great pair of ‘phones, I can really “see” what these greats are doing.  I can hear mic placement, the room, the “digi” effects added, the subtleties of the mix, and the “whys and hows” of their magic. In headphones I can hear that with a closeness and precision that beats monitors.  To get right up on the mic?  To hear the “issues”?  I go to the ‘phones.

Listen to one of Elliot’s mixes or Roger’s mixes: the panning, the detail, the precision.  Instruments are tucked into just about every little nook and cranny of the panorama and soundstage.  I can smell the room.  What about Pink Floyd mixes?  The AM radio transition in “Wish You Were Here”…stuff in the way far distance of a mix moving from ear to ear?  Headphones, baby.  Great engineers might or might not go to headphones for their work (some actually do), but when I want to get downright microscopic on mixes?  I go to the ‘phones.  Find the click, the pop, the mouth noise, the pencil hitting the music stand.  Headphones.  You want to get into this level of detail?  Get the gear.  Tell ya later.

I recently read that “the majority of music is produced to be listened to in rooms with speakers”.  Wow.  As simple as that.  Hell it was in one of those “big” audio magazines!…gotta be gospel, right?  Not really…I looked up at the date of publishing and it was 2003.  These days, the largest amount of produced music is being purchased by and marketed to a generation that chooses to experience their music on various “I-boxes” using “Eargizmos”.  Come on…PLEASE argue with me.  Then go look at the literally hundreds of IEM and portable music players out there.  Every color of the rainbow, every size, models that are endorsed by Hollywood Stars!!  Somehow I doubt the Stars spent hours at the bench testing “their” products.

This is the age of personal music experience, even you audiophiles reading this probably have IEM’s…they might have cost $9000, but you have them, just so that you can debate which model is of higher fidelity.  I submit that we should be mixing at least to some degree with this in mind.  There is not one mix job that I have done in the last ten years where I haven’t gone to earbuds or IEM’s to check the relative levels and low end.

Why?  Come on, didn’t you do that with “Horror-Tones” for years?  Or that little metal speaker on the Studer two-track?  Come on, own up.  Whether or not we are supporters of the quality of the MP3 format (or lack thereof), it’s a format here to stay, at least for a long while.  Remember the big “Digital Debate”?  You still stomping your feet?  I maintain that if you are working with any genre of music that is going to be played on these little gizmos, you should work your mix on them as well.  Get onboard or get left at the station.  Adapt.  Paradigms change. Deal.

Mine is better than yours!

Cranial evolutions continue with the likes of the Focusrite VRM (Virtual Reference Monitoring) system.

Sure it is.  You like it more, it’s better.  Most likely though, you’re just used to it.  There are limitations in headphone design that will impact frequency response, comfort, accuracy and soundstage…funny, just like there are in monitors.  Open back or closed back ‘phones?  What kind of cabling?  What is your source?  Your headphone amp is at least as important as your headphones, surely.  As a caring professional, I have to assume that you do your research, test and compare, settling on gear of the highest possible quality – dictated by your budget and your needs.

The technology is pretty advanced these days.  At the top end of the food chain there is some pretty amazing-sounding equipment.  All along that level and below, manufacturers are constantly developing tools to make your headphone environment more like your “room”.  Some work, some don’t work as well. I urge you to get out there and check some of this stuff out. I bet it will change the way you look at mixing in headphones.

SPL, Focusrite, 112dB. Innovations that control speaker placement and angle, crosstalk, center level response.  It’s impressive, when it works.  And in some cases it certainly does work.  I can say that with my chosen system, I can hear clear, strong and focused low end and smooth hi’s without the fatigue that so many associate with working in headphones.  Times have indeed changed.  And what about “familiarity”?  How long did it take for you to get used to the sound of your best set of monitors so that you knew what to expect from a consumer level system after your work left your room?  Do you not tailor your work to your equipment?  Hell, I’ve heard fantastic mixes come out of rooms with only a set of mid-priced, near-field speakers, by great engineers that knew what they were doing and what to expect.  That’s called experience.

The bottom line here is that you CAN mix in headphones accurately and comfortably now. Whether you need to or not, you can.

What’s more, the idiosyncrasies of headphones can certainly aid the process.  Mixing in headphones works to differing degrees, depending on your level of experience, your equipment and its limitations, your knowledge of what you’re after and what you can expect. Basically it’s the same deal with monitors.

I’d rather mix a project with great headphones, a superior headphone amplifier that boasts such controls as Crosstalk, Speaker Angle and Center Level than mix the same project in a mediocre sounding room with marginal gear.  I believe (and I support) that there is technology available to make this possible now.  Consider getting more into it.  It’s another source of reference.

What I am using…

Fixing to mix: Another perspective on the possibilities.

Well, this is not a review.  I am actually going to write a few of those soon and get FAR more detailed on this whole headphone thing, as well as writing some reviews about other studio gear.  But for now, let’s say that I’ve compared what are considered to be the very top brands at their “flagship” level.  Way up there in the stratosphere they’re all pretty impressive, let’s be clear.

But one has certain needs, and one works with certain types of music.  I’ve settled on what I consider to be the very best combination for my needs and budget, and have found that these choices exhibit exceptional levels of sonic integrity, high quality construction and a sense of “reality” that is just staggering.  What I use has brought me new enjoyment and excitement about my work and about listening to music.  And this has been downright inspiring, and worth twice the price of admission.  I am pretty blown away.  I find it hard to take the ‘phones off these days.

My headphone monitoring system:

IEM’s: Grado GR10 and GR8
Headphones: Grado PS1000, SR325
I have been using Grado products for 20 years.  The Grado product line has a quality and sound character that is present in all their models, true continuity through the line — a LOT more on this in an upcoming review of the Grado Sound.

Amplifier: SPL Phonitor
I am incredibly impressed by this unit, it is a total gamechanger.  I can simply find no better or more flexible headphone amplifier, whether using their controls to effect Crosstalk Center Level and Speaker Angle, or just listening for enjoyment.  The quality is unbeatable (IMNSHO!!).

Thanks for reading. The next installment will be about Mentoring, Teaching and…Theft.

Oh, and if you’re that guy on the #4 train with the HUGE cans with the big ‘b’ on the side?  Could you please turn it down a bit?

Cheers !

George Walker Petit thinks a lot about mixing and many other musical things. An award-winning producer and mixer, he is based in New York City. Visit George at his Website, and keep up with him and the Drew Zingg Debut Album Project here.

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