Independence Day (Part 1)
First part on how to go about releasing your own electronic record. A D.I.Y. guide.
The ES&CM guide on how to release your own electronic record.
Of all styles of modern music, electronic music is probably the most ideally suited to making records independently, both in terms of cost and in terms of the kind of markets which exist at present for this kind of music. There are however problems involved, and failure to take even the most minor of these into account could result in disaster. This article is intended to point out what some of those problems may be, and to add positive hints and suggestions regarding how you might approach the task.
First of all you need to decide what your intentions are in making your own record. For instance, if you have an act which you wish to promote through extensive radio airplay, club and press coverage, and the blanketing of A&R departments, then you will find it cheaper to produce 500 7" singles, than to send out 500 demo cassettes.
On the other hand, if you see making your own record as a means by which you can begin an independant musical career, you are likely to find the markets far more fertile for LPs than for singles; although it costs more to make an LP, the actual cost per bar of music drops dramatically, and this is reflected in the enthusiasm per £ of the public.
Another idea, if you are serious about being independant, is to make a compilation album with other acts. This is the most economical way of putting your music onto vinyl, and has the advantage of bringing a group of musicians together so that there are more hands to take on the various aspects of administration and promotion involved. The only real disadvantages are on the human relations level. Who for instance will have the first two tracks of the LP?
As far as selling records goes, you are going to have to be aware of the continent since independent British electronic music has a much more favourable reception there than it does in this country; they seem to take it much more seriously over there and want to buy LPs. However, if you have a shortage of material, or you cannot afford the increased recording time of an LP, you could perhaps consider doing a 12" single. This is the most expensive disc format per bar of music, but 12" singles are more sought after abroad than the more 'throwaway' 7" single.
Having decided what type of record you want to make and what you hope to achieve by doing it, you then to consider how to go about the task.
There are three basic stages in making a record; recording, cutting and pressing. Recording needs no explanation I trust. Cutting is the process by which the electronic signal of the master tape is converted into grooves on an acetate disc (also known as a slate or lacquer). Pressing involves the processing of the lacquer, and the subsequent production from it of 'stampers' which actually print the vinyl discs. In addition the production of sleeves, labels and other appended artwork must not be forgotten.
It is of course perfectly plausible for an individual to commission each stage of the work himself, and if you think you have the experience and the organisation to do this you might find that it saves you a great deal of money. The biggest and most dangerous hazard of going about things in this way is the fact that at each stage of the operation faults can occur which, though undetectable at the time, may well result in crackly final pressings, or dead, toneless pressings. The point is, even if you were able to pinpoint at which stage the mistake(s) occurred, each different company you have used will pass the buck onto someone else, and you are unlikely to get any comeback.
The alternative is to go to a company which deals in 'packages', that is to say a deal which covers a substantial part of the record's production. A package deal generally includes all aspects of production beyond the actual recording stage, and the most obvious advantage with it is that it should include complete reprocessing from any stage in production which may have been faulty. Of course you pay more for this insurance, but if the company is half decent it could be worth the extra expense, plus it will save you money on shoe leather, phone bills etc.
So how can you tell if a company is half decent? Record manufacturers fall into two categories, one being a company which actually owns pressing and cutting facilities — or at least if linked by some sort of partnership with those type of concerns. The other category is known as a 'pressing brokerage' and simply co-ordinates the various stages of production. Both types of company are equally likely to offer good quality service, however because brokerages do not generally have much in the way of assets, they have been known to go bankrupt, an event which would provide disastrous if your record was in the process of being made at the time.
Ring up the various companies and go to see them. Find out how long they've been in business, what sort of an operation it is, ask to hear examples of their products, and very importantly, find out if they are used to dealing with orders such as your own. Be ready for a lot of sales pitch — they'll talk the arse off you if they think it will bring in the custom — and don't let them blind you with science.
Next, ask for an itemised, firm quote outlining all the services which you will need, and go over it as many times as necessary to make sure there are no omissions. If they can't or won't do this then you would be well advised to go elsewhere, but in any case do not just go off with a price list and make your order on the basis of your own calculations, you are bound to omit something.
Some companies ask for complete payment upfront, and almost all will require 50% payment in advance, so it is important to make sure the company is the right one to handle your record.
Whether you decide to take responsibility for part or all of the process it is still going to be useful to know what each stage of the operation entails, and what sort of factors are involved, so let's start with...
Making a record is quite different to making a demo. Virtually any signal can be transferred onto magnetic tape, but a record is a mechanical device and there are strict limits as to what can be inscribed onto its surface. Don't take it for granted that as well as looking more impressive than a cassette it will sound more impressive. Unless you are careful it could sound a lot worse.
Having said this I must point out that it is quite possible to make a well ace record from a four track recording. The crucial factor is the signal processing, the quality and consistency of the sounds.
Alan Rider runs Adventures in Reality Recordings, an independant label which has released music by Stress, Attrition, The Legendary Pink Dots, Bourbonese Qualk and others. Many of his recordings are begun on four track, using the Tascam Syncaset 234 via the Studiomaster 8 into 4 mixer. The ability to make disc quality recordings with equipment like this is where electronic music really wins out over other music, since with the use of sequencers and drum machines clocked into one another, with possibly one or more live instruments being added, complete backing tracks in stereo can be laid down on two tracks, leaving two other tracks for vocals and other overdubs. Alan then takes the four track recording into an eight track studio to add reverb, compression and effects while mastering onto two track. As a budget means of recording this method has proved succesful for the label. The choice of studio, should you decide to record in one, will depend on a number of factors, such as the nature of the music you do, and the amount you can afford for recording within your total budget.
When a band make a record with a major company, the whole process takes months; A&R departments are constantly involved with approving master tapes, acetates, test pressings etc, and often a record will be recut or reprocessed two or three times. However a band working on a limited budget has to get it right first time, so it's worth going to a studio that has experience of making master tapes for disc. When you are choosing the studio ask to hear any examples of music on disc which have been recorded at that facility. This is not to say that a studio which cannot produce any discs to show you will not be able to produce a decent master. It depends largely on the capabilities of the engineer, and if you have already made approaches to pressing or cutting companies they will be quite happy to offer advice to the engineer regarding what king of master he should be aiming for.
A lot of bands have been raised on the idea of making it in London, and think it necessary to go to London to record. Human nature being what it is, people capitalize on this and as a result there are hundreds of studios in London only a limited proportion of which are competent at turning out disc standard masters. The fact is, it is not necessary to record in London. Local recording facilities may perhaps be a bit more expensive, and you might imagine that the engineers are less funky than those in London, but they are likely to be better used and thus more experienced than a lot of facilities in London.
You should be looking for a studio that can offer quality sound processing rather than an enormous wealth of advanced facilities. It is therefore preferable to record on an expensive 16 track rather than an apparently bargain rate 24 track. The same goes for 8 track. A quality 8 track with a capable engineer will produce a far better result than an incompetent engineer in a 16 track studio. Another detail to be especially sure of, is comprehensive monitoring including Auratones (miniature monitors designed to show how your recording would sound played on a domestic hi-fi). If you don't hear exactly what's on your master, you are going to be surprised by your test pressings. This may not be such a crucial consideration when making a demo, since you can always remaster. But once you have taken your master to the cutter it's all or nothing; the process is irreversible.
Apart from the fixed cost of the acetate disc, the charge for cutting is an hourly one, so whereas for a single you might expect to pay around £60, the cost for an LP will be closer to £100. A certain amount of adjustment of dynamics can be made at this stage. The cutting engineer can for instance attempt to balance up the songs on an LP so that the levels won't vary too much from song to song. However, unless you ask him, the engineer will only make changes to parts of the recording that are likely to cause cutting problems, so it is absolutely necessary that you are present at the cut to offer advice about how you want the disc to sound.
As far as choosing a cutting plant goes, the place should look clean; the slightest bit of dirt on the acetate goes down for posterity as a crackle. Don't skimp on the pressing or you will end up pouring cutting money down the drain.
Once you have got your acetate take it straight to the pressing plant or company; don't take it out and admire it, and most of all don't try to play it.
Without descending into hyperbole, it should be pointed out that the various pressing plants that exist are all highly experienced and have high professional standards. Unlike recording or cutting, it's an established industry.
Some pressing brokerages use plants on the continent. There seems to be some ambiguity about this, but as far as I can tell the only difference made by having your record pressed on the continent is the time factor; sea transport, import and export take time, plus if there are any problems with the pressing or any stoppages at the plant it's all likely to take some time than it would for a company who use several pressing plants around London and can shift production from one to another to ensure punctuality.
Something taken for granted in the pressing industry but which might surprise someone making a record for the first time, are 'overs'. The pressing plant cannot guarantee to press the exact amount of records that you have ordered and you may find that on an order of a thousand you have either a shortfall or an overrun of, say, twenty. Some companies like SRT reimburse you for the shortfall or simply give you the additional copies, but you need to find out what stance the company takes regarding 'overs' so that you don't find yourself faced with extra charges.
Singles are generally made with old 'wax' (vinyl) and LPs with new 'wax'. Old wax is a reconstitution of faulty LPs or singles and is deemed adequate for the lower quality requirements of a single. You could ask to have your single pressed in new 'wax' but it will cost more and is really not worth worrying about.
If you are depending on your records being ready for some important gig some two or three weeks away, forget it. Although in theory the process should take no longer than three weeks, rush releases are not plausible in low budget operations. However, you can do your bit to see that the record gets there on time by ensuring that all the artwork is submitted on time, and that both you and the company are absolutely clear about any problems that may arise with it.
NEXT MONTH: DISTRIBUTION, PRINTING, PROMOTIONS, ETC
Feature by Richard Walmsley
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