So you finally managed to write some music that you feel is worthy of release. You want the money, fame, and cultural influence that come with being a professional musician, right? Or maybe you’re ready to make an artistic statement to the population at large.
In any case, you’ll have to transfer your recording to more easily accessible media than reel-to-reel tape. But how are you supposed to choose from the countless formats available today?
You could place your music on any number of discs and tapes or even do away with that all together and use the Internet. And, if you want to retain complete artistic control over your work and self-release, how do you get your music out without the distribution power and PR apparatus of a label behind you?
Luckily for you, there are ways of getting your music out there with nothing behind you but hard work and the honest sweat of your brow, and maybe a few thousand dollars in your wallet as well.
The first step to getting your music heard is recording it, naturally. These days, it’s easier than ever to record decent masters at home, and that doesn’t only mean using a boom box.
All manner of recording equipment is available in quantity on EBay, and computers can now serve in place of a mixing board and allow you to put your master onto CD, which is the easiest format to work with and practical for most people’s needs.
Analog is generally cheaper to start with, however, and many prefer the sound of analog recording to the CD format, which often lacks warmth compared to recordings on tape or vinyl. The best piece of equipment to start with is a four-track recorder, which allows four separate recording inputs (i.e. drum, bass, guitar and vocal). These can be played back while simultaneously recording a next track, which allows one person to effectively play all instruments on a given track.
Once you’ve gotten the tracks down you can begin the mixing process, which involves listening to the playback through headphones or speakers, adjusting the sound levels of each track individually and then sending it to a cassette recorder (or computer) to make the master.
Better equipment is available in the form of 8-and 16-track machines, which are likely to cost quite a lot more, and only worthwhile if you’re interested in recording other people as well as yourself.
To pick up the instruments’ sound, most people use microphones instead of feeding their instruments directly into the multitracker or sound card. The direct plug-in yields a lower fidelity sound than miking, and requires no amp or microphone.
Although the recording itself is relatively simple, musicians with neighbors (especially in the city) may have to deal with the added complication of soundproofing. If there’s no alternative, you can buy foam egg crate padding or carpet to put on the walls, but that will only go so far.
Real soundproofing requires extensive remodeling of the walls and ceiling, involving layers of drywall suspended on metal channels away from the original wall, with layers of specialty soundproofing material between them. Soundproofing quilts are available to hang on walls and put on floors, but their effectiveness is limited. For the most part, effective soundproofing is best left to a professional carpenter since, even with the right materials, the design has to be correct in order for the insulation to work at all.
Once you have your CD, DAT, or cassette, the next steps are mastering and replication. Mastering essentially involves processing the rough mixes and equalizing the sound levels in the mix so that all the tracks sound well together and individually. This is where effects are added and any rough sounds are smoothed out.
If you want to master at home, all you need is a computer with a program like Soundtools, as opposed to using analog compressors to tone down the mix, which requires not only technical skills but a very keen ear.
Once the master is finished, it has to be replicated. Although this can ostensibly be done at home, the cost of buying the equipment to do so is prohibitive and it’s probably best to go through a professional, especially if you’re interested in putting your music to vinyl.
Vinyl replication requires heavy machinery and skilled engineers to cut a lacquer model for the metal plates used to press the records. There are enough places you can go to have this done that it’s really not practical to try and press them yourself.
Independent musicians need not worry, though, as these businesses are often geared towards self-releases and small labels.
“I would say 90 percent of our music clients are independently releasing their albums,” says Mike Yake of Dungeon Replication, one of Portland’s pressing and replication services.
Basically, what Dungeon and similar operations do is take a master (which, these days, is usually on CD) and send it away to a pressing factory, which sends back a test pressing for the customer’s review. If they’re satisfied then the full run is pressed, sent back to Dungeon, labeled and put into sleeves.
“We handle all the printing, replication, and packaging … and give [customers] a retail ready project,” Yake states.