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What Is A Broadcast Quality Recording?
By Jerry Flattum - 11/30/2004 - 05:15 AM EST

I’m going to take an unusual twist to this series of articles on “What Is A Broadcast Quality Recording.” Being a freelance writer, I’ve learned how to write articles that appear as though they are written by an expert. An expert might challenge me, but a novice, worse yet, may interpret something I say as the gospel truth. In many ways, I do possess expert knowledge. But in other ways, despite any reasoning and/or analytical abilities, talents, and experience, some of what I say is pure speculation. And even in other ways, sometimes…I just don’t know.

This confessional approach was born from trying to answer the question, “What Is A Broadcast Quality Recording?” It came to my attention (explained below) that the kinds of recordings I’m making have bearing on my success as a songwriter.

Trying to define what is mean by broadcast quality has taken me on a journey across the entire sound spectrum: from humming a note to what I hear on my car radio. The question also polarizes me as a songwriter and as an artist.

Answering the question took me on a journey through a couple dozen egos, including my own. And what it turned out to be was an excursion into the deepest darkest secrets of the music industry. Instead of asking what is a broadcast quality recording, I ended up asking the bigger questions: How do you make it in the music business? What do record labels want? What does it really mean to go the independent route? What is a demo?

Each of those questions is loaded with myth and hype. Every website on the Internet has a different answer. Every book has a quote that contradicts what is quoted in another book. Something might appear to be based on common sense, only to be contradicted by an example where common sense was thrown out the window.

I am no different than most of the readers who read this article and the articles that follow in the coming weeks. I’m a songwriter that’s never sold a song and an artist that’s never released a commercial CD. I honestly don’t know what works and what doesn’t.

Expert Advice
I’ve become very suspicious and distrustful. I’m not getting advice or help from the people who I believe really know. Superstars, top record label executives, and other “experts” in the field are not giving me the answers I’m looking for. In some cases, I wonder if even they can. Worse yet, no one is reaching out to me. I have to reach out to them.

I held a stack of commercially released CD’s in my hands and asked, “How did these come to be?” What exactly is the machinery behind the making of a superstar? How does a song really become a hit?

For some, the simple answers are the best. A songwriter writes a song, slaps it on a CD, gives it to a guy, and voila! Next thing you know his picture is on the cover of Billboard Magazine, “So and So Signs Deal with Sony.” Word spreads and suddenly he’s pumping out tunes like a factory. No one questions how he made his contacts or what kinds of recordings he made to showcase his tunes. Was it a cheap recording? Did he hire a song-friendly studio in Nashville? Did he mix and master out of his home studio?

A band goes into a studio, cuts a demo, and the drummer’s uncle takes it to an A&R rep at BMG. Three weeks later the band gets a call from BMG, offering a recording contract. Six months later, their poster is plastered on every teenager’s bedroom wall. Did the record company send the band back into the studio, this time, state-of-the-art? If so, why? The music was great but the recording was bad? Or, was the recording so well recorded and mastered it went straight to the manufacturing facility?

Making it really does seem to have a trashy dime store novel feel to it: “They came out of nowhere, only to to become the greatest sensation since the Beatles.” Yeah, that’s wonderful…but how?

Out In the Cold
But if you’re like me, you’re out here in the cold. You don’t have an uncle who mops floors at Sony. Let’s say your uncle was the CEO of Sony. Well, all you have to do is humm a tune and you at least have a decent shot as selling the song. But if you don’t have such an uncle, then you’re lucky to even get in the building.

Instead, do you need an incredible recording to cut through the maze? Some say it’s the song and not the recording. Some say it’s the band or artist. But does a great song or great artist really shine through covered in mud? Is some genius A&R guy with phenomenal ears and a great eye for talent really out there scouring through dirty cheap bars, unlabeled CDs, and poorly compressed mp3’s, searching for the next superstar?

Or are they looking for a finished product?

Clearly, persuasion plays a role in success as much as luck. You might be walking in the doors of a label or publisher, but you don’t necessarily have the full package. You’re screaming, “I’m good, I’m really good. Just give me a chance.” The variables that influence whether you are given a chance or kicked out the door are many. You are throwing yourself up against the wall and hopefully you will stick. Maybe somebody will like you, maybe they won’t.

And what is all this talk about GREAT songs and GREAT artists? You will often hear/read how an A&R rep needs to be "blown away." Is every song and artist out there on the commercial frontier really that great? Believing is seeing…not the other way around. Greatness is often ignored and incompetence is often rewarded.

Attend an industry panel and A&R reps will tell you “no unsolicited recordings.” Go online and read some article—like this one—and somebody tells you, you need an agent. What kind of recordings are agents listening for? Read a product description from a digital recording equipment manufacturer, and they’ll tell ya how to get “killer” drum grooves. Afterall, you’re not going to sell anything without killer drum grooves. Or, go play in a bar somewhere and…hope for the best.

The Goal: Sell A Song Or Sell A Recording
I was in the middle of a recording project. My goal: to sell my songs. I’m not selling myself as an artist even though I am one. I’m not selling a CD direct to consumer. But, I am producing my recordings using a home studio set up.

My intentions were to join SongCatalog.com, an online service, similar in nature to TAXI.com. They serve as an interface between song creators and song buyers. There are other similar services popping up all over the Internet.

In determining the kinds of recordings SongCatalog needed from me, I was told that in the case of advertisers, the recordings must be "broadcast quality." In other words, no demos. The recording must be ready for licensing, as is. No further recording or processing.

Even though I was already trying to make the best possible recordings, the leap from mixing and mastering my own tracks to achieving a finished product that was “broadcast quality” seemed insurmountable. And then I wondered, am I selling songs or licensing recordings?

What Is "Broadcast Quality" and Why Do I Need It?
The question of broadcast quality is also a question of home studio recordings versus major label commercially released recordings. By broadcast quality we are talking about the quality of recording found in major label commercially released recordings and the music we hear on the radio. On the Internet, broadcast quality takes on a different meaning than it’s analog counterpart.

Commercially released recordings have not only been mixed but "mastered" by the top producers and engineers in the world. So, the question of broadcast quality is also a qualitative question about the difference between "master quality" and "broadcast quality."

Commercially released does not mean selling a few dozen CD’s at a gig or launching your own website. But there remains the question: what is the quality of those recordings you are trying to sell independently?

Sense of Direction
I am a songwriter. When it comes to making "demos" or "mastered" recordings, I am not selling a CD directly to the consumer. In fact, I'm not selling myself as an artist. So, the question is, what kind of demo or recording do I need compared to an artist/band trying to go the independent route?

The traditional concept of a demo is also misleading here. A band going the inde route is not trying to secure a recording contract with a major (or even minor) label. The assumption here is that major labels are no longer financing artist development, which has, in part, given rise to the independent movement (so I hear).

In other words, a "demo" will not be re-recorded in preparation for commercial release. If you're going to sign a deal with a major label, it will most likely be a distribution deal. They want a package, ready to go. That same package is ready to be licensed by advertisers, Hollywood music supervisors and other direct to consumer markets.

Going the independent route, it’s not a question of demo versus finished master. The kind of recording an artist/band makes, if choosing the independent route, must rival the quality of already commercially released recordings. We are not talking about songs or talent here. We are talking about the quality of the recording itself.

Myth of the Piano and or Guitar/Vocal Demo
Another assumption to be made here is, that even though I am selling songs and not myself as an artist, a traditional piano and/or guitar vocal demo will hurt me more than help me. This is due to several reasons:

One, I am, in fact, an artist. I have considerable experience playing in bands as a keyboardist and singer. I've done extensive sequencing work and am very adept at creating my own arrangements (all in the digital domain). It is natural for me to want to carry over this experience and ability into making recordings.

Two, even if I wanted to do just a piano/vocal recording, I do not believe the myth that a great song will necessarily shine through regardless of performance or quality of recording.

Yes, in some cases, a great song can be heard with just a simple arrangement, for instance, a country or folk song. From there, you produce and arrange it. But is the arrangement incidental? Would a consumer be able to hear a great song without an arrangement, sung by an unknown singer, sitting on a stool during amateur night?

And, not all songs work with just a simple piano and/or guitar/vocal arrangement. Most any kind of current dance music (techno, house, jungle, etc.) will testify to the folly of trying to convert dance music into a simple solo instrument and voice arrangement.

Many “songwriters” are now, in fact, producer/engineeers, sitting in their home studios playing with samples and loops.

Also, most bands have a sound or style. Without that sound/style the song will not translate. You cannot reduce the entire spectrum of music down to an acoustic or "unplugged" version.

The above statement is particularly critical in terms of before the fact and not after. Perhaps an acoustic version of "Stairway To Heaven" would sell today, but that's only because the song—the recording—has had a commercial life. What would've happened had the original demo been an acoustic version—no John Bonham drums, no Jimmy Page guitar? The song was never released as a single but cover versions have charted.

In other words, a song is not just melody and lyrics. The arrangement, the production, the singer and the quality of recording are as equally important as the song itself. You're not selling a song—you're selling a recording.

Best In the Biz
Anyway, back to the original question: What is broadcast quality and why do I need it?

Despite my self-proclaimed talents as a writer and musician with extensive experience using 24-track sequencers, I would not claim to be an engineer. I never went to a recording engineering school.

But, I did discover RecordProduction.com. This website has proven invaluable in answering many of the questions I have about mixing and mastering. The site features dozens of videos of top record producers, recording engineers and major recording studios from around the world.

Again, my overall issue here is not how good my songs are or how good of an instrumentalist and vocalist I am. The issue is the quality of recording I need to sell my songs, whether I do it through somebody’s uncle or through the Internet.

However, I am convinced, that the song and arrangement play a critical role in how a recording sounds. An assumption must be made that the song was recorded with decent equipment. Even the best recording in the world made in the finest studios by the best engineers cannot hide a bad song, bad vocal or bad musicianship. It may be broadcast quality, but it’s not worth broadcasting.

Part 2 will drill down deeper into the meaning of broadcast quality with an exploration into how to technically and technologically achieve it.

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