There are four steps to creating recorded music. There are actually about 700 steps, but they can all be broken down into four main activities:
So, you write some music, and if you intend on singing, you write some lyrics. Then you record your music. Simple enough. Then your music is mixed, which means that the various parts that make up your song... the drums, the bass, the guitars, the keyboards, the vocals and so on, are literally mixed together in some way you find pleasing, hopefully. But what the hell is that last step?
Mastering involves taking a mixed piece of music and making it ready for listening on various media, from digital downloads to vinyl albums. It's also a final opportunity to make sure that there's consistency throughout a song, or through a number of songs. You don't want to release music where the volume levels are jumping around, or where one song sounds really dull while another sounds overly crisp and brittle. Or maybe you do, but at least you want to do it on purpose. That's what mastering is. However the master turns out is how it will sound when you upload it to iTunes or Spotify, or gets sent to radio stations, or when you have a bunch of CDs duplicated. The art of mastering involves more than great gear in a great room; it's really about the ears and the skill of the mastering engineer, whose work will end up being the final word on what people will hear when they play your music.
As all of my readers know, I (along with my lady Christina Lee and my pal Bunny Knutson) formed a band called They Stole My Crayon back in 2012. For the first couple of years, we were mostly trying to find our sound as a band as we wrote song after song. Side note: I can't tell you the number of songs we wrote and recorded demos for that we eventually discarded, once we locked into what we really wanted to be. It was in early 2015 that we really gained a focus on our band, and put the pedal to the metal in creating the twelve songs that would be selected for our debut album. Almost all of the instrumental tracks were recorded at mine and Bunny's home studios (Frothy Studios and The Rabbit Hutch, respectively), and then last summer, we recorded all of the album's vocals at a couple of productive sessions at Phil O'Keefe's Sound Sanctuary Recording in Hesperia, CA.
Once everything was recorded, we started sending those tracks to our friend Spencer Crewe in St. John's, NL (that's in Canada, for the geographically impaired). Spencer did a fantastic job, and we continually were still refining little aspects of the songs as we went along. So, steps one, two, and three were handled, but we still needed a solution for that final step. I know plenty of excellent and talented mastering engineers, local and otherwise. We had a limited budget, like most independent bands, and wanted to choose a solution that would fit our high standards of sonic excellence along with the relative lack of money in our pockets. So we made the obvious choice: we're having the album mastered at the world's most famous recording studios... Abbey Road Studios in London, UK.
What the What?!?!?
Yeah, you read it right. Abbey Road Studios. Yes, that Abbey Road Studios. The place where The Beatles created nearly all of their albums and singles. The place where Pink Floyd recorded Dark Side of the Moon. In more recent years, everyone from U2 to Radiohead to Gorillaz to Lady Gaga have used Abbey Road's services. The list of artists who have recorded, mixed, or mastered their music at Abbey Road is astounding. Many of the techniques for creatively recording music that are now in widespread use were literally invented there.
How, then, can some random band that no one has heard of like They Stole My Crayon be able to work with such a prestigious facility? It's very simple. As the music industry has changed drastically over the past 20 or so years in the digital download era, studios like Abbey Road that formerly had a steady flow of high-dollar business coming in from huge record labels and film studios were experiencing a dramatic drop in business. Many studios have gone under as a result. But Abbey Road did something very smart: in 2009, they began making the technologies of digital transmission work for them instead of against them by offering an online mastering program. I think the video below explains exactly how it works very nicely.
And here's the part that helped us make our decision: it's not nearly as expensive as you'd imagine to have your music mastered at Abbey Road. In fact, it's quite a bit less expensive than a number of the options we'd been considering previous to discovering their online mastering service.
Yesterday (Saturday July 30), we uploaded the high-resolution, uncompressed stereo WAV files that Spencer had helped create to Abbey Road. Within a week or so, we will have those twelve songs returned to us after they've been worked on by one of the several acclaimed mastering engineers who work there. And that is when -- pending a few final details -- we can release the album to the public.
It's all very exciting, and somewhat daunting, but we're finally at the end of the long road of making an album of which we're all extraordinarily proud. And if all goes well, sometime in the next couple of weeks or so, you'll get to finally hear it too.