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Tech Notes

By Jim Miller

Just in case you didn't already know this, I'd like to mention that the big record companies are ripping you off. Sure, when compact discs were a brand new technology in the early 1980s, manufacturing a disc was rather expensive. But I certainly didn't mind paying $18 then for a disc that would last for decades. I also understood that building CD factories cost money. Bottom line is I expected these things to be pricey... for a while.

But consider this: You can now take your own music on DAT and have a custom set of 1,000 audio CDs made for under two bucks each! And that includes full color printing of the insert, tray card and two colors on your disc. There are many companies offering these services today (including Sweetwater, as a matter of fact). So how on earth do the big companies expect us to continue paying an average of $16 for an album?

Okay, in fairness, each company has overhead: Office space, staff salaries, utility bills, etc. But that's a lot of overhead per disc if we're talking about a CD that probably wholesales for $8 and actually costs only about a dollar to manufacture in the kind of quantities you'd expect from the "big boys." And I know from my personal contacts in the music industry that very few artists get royalties of more than $1.50 per album, and most get less than that. Folks, somebody's getting rich selling these little silver discs, and it's typically not the person who created the album, either. For what it's worth, it's my opinion that we need to stop shelling out our hard-earned cash until the industry re-evaluates its grossly inflated pricing policies (this is my view, of course, not that of Sweetwater).

The record industry has had a very nice ride for many years on our money. Okay, good for them. But I'm personally not going to throw my money away any longer on overpriced CDs. Instead, I'm going to do what I should have been doing for many years now, which is seriously working on an album of my own. For not much more than I spent last year on buying discs, I could have had my own CD manufactured. Or made a big dent in the cost of a brand new CD recorder.

Make no mistake, I love putting on a new album. But thirty or forty minutes later it's over. What is that in comparison to the hundreds of hours of enjoyment I get from composing and recording my own music? I've said it before in this column: I believe there's more great music being written right now than at any point in history. The unfortunate thing is that most of us never get to hear it. The record companies essentially dictate what gets released and, more importantly, what gets promoted.

Maybe the next step in the evolution of the music business is right around the corner. As the cost of producing CDs has dropped, more musicians will be able to independently get their music released. Then, as people start to hear this music and word gets around, it will hopefully create a whole new market (and profits) for the artist.

A few years ago I would have said I was being naive. However, with the phenomenal growth of the Internet, such a scenario is not out of the question. I regularly communicate now with people all over the world. Who knows what changes this new global community may bring about? I'm guessing it will be pretty interesting as we head into the next millennium.

While I seriously doubt that anyone's going to discover my music and create some huge worldwide demand for it, I definitely think there are huge opportunities for many musicians. It will certainly require a lot of determination and significant expenditures of energy (a six-pack of Jolt Cola will probably help).

If you personally have toyed with the idea of releasing your own album, now might be the perfect time to do it. However, let me pass along a couple words of advice, based on my own experiences, as well as feedback from other musicians.

One: Get your album professionally mastered. Sure, you could just burn a CD right from your DAT, but it will never ever sound as good (or be as loud) as a commercially-released album without all the sonic tricks of the trade available to a qualified mastering engineer like leveling, limiting, compression and equalization. Honest, you won't believe how much better your material will sound after a professional mastering session. What's more, mastering creates all the correct indexing for your songs. The cost varies depending on who does it and where you have it done. At Sweetwater, mastering is available for about $600 per album. Some places charge more, others less. In general, you get what you pay for.

Two: Get someone to do the CD artwork who absolutely knows what they're doing. Just because a friend has a Mac and Pagemaker software doesn't mean they know how to correctly prepare press-ready art. Cool design is one thing, but incorrectly prepared art will end up costing you more time, money and frustration than it's worth. If your artist friend doesn't know that film for CDs should be POS/RR/ED (or doesn't even know what those terms mean), they are not the right person for the job. Most companies who produce CDs can prepare your artwork at a surprisingly low cost, and some even include it as part of their package price along with jewel cases.

While I apologize in advance for the shameless plug, I will nonetheless mention that both of these services are available from Sweetwater Sound Productions, a whole separate division from Sweetwater's retail sales operation. You can call my buddy Dave Hazen there for more information at (219) 432-8176. He's a really nice guy and he'll be glad to give you all the help you need to get your album project successfully completed. While there are plenty of companies who offer such services (including some run by Sweetwater customers), I do know from firsthand experience that the people at Sweetwater really do provide personalized attention to every detail and guarantee a first-rate finished product.

Regardless of who you choose to do this work for you, I hope you'll forward me a copy of your finished album. If it's really cool, I'll be sure share it with everyone here in Tech Notes.

Speaking of Sweetwater, I just returned from a brief visit to Fort Wayne. It's always great to see my friends and hit my favorite area restaurants (and there are tons of them there), but I also get to see, hear and play with some of the latest equipment in the demo rooms.

I mentioned last issue that I was looking forward to checking out the new Oram consoles after using the Oramsonics MWS Microphone Workstation
The Oram Series 24
The stunning Oram Series 24 Mixing Desk: It's big in size, big in sound!
a few months back. Well, I knew this thing was going to be amazing, but I wasn't prepared for exactly how huge the Series 24 is. Tucked into Sweetwater's Studio B, it looked like a small battleship! Being in the same room with this console made me understand for the very first time exactly what the difference is between a mixer and a mixing desk. I mean, there's tons of quality mixers out there, but when you install a piece of equipment this imposing in any studio, your clients are going to know you are serious! Oh, and did I mention that it sounds awesome, too?

I also spent some time at the appropriately-named Sweetwater University getting a first-hand introduction to the new Sony MDM-X4. Up until that point, I saw no reason to pay much attention to this particular machine, but once the Sony product specialist was done, I began to appreciate the thought that went into creating it. The MDM-X4 uses the 2.5" MiniDisc technology and offers 4-track recording, but that's only part of the story. See, you can take your four basic tracks, then mix them onto two tracks, add two more tracks and bounce those four down to two tracks and... well, you get the idea. Because everything essentially takes place in the digital domain, there is very little deterioration of the sound quality (unlike cassette decks), plus there's no audible wow and flutter. Seriously look at this machine if one of the bigger 8-track machines is out of your reach. It's a very useful and superb-sounding recorder and Sweetwater has them at sensational prices right now!

Well, I gotta run. Meet you again here next issue. And don't forget to send those albums, folks.

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