Tag Archives: MUSIC

Life As a Freelance Musician: Part 8: When Is A Song Done?

I’ve heard more than one musician say, “a song is never really done, it’s just good enough to stop working on.” I can relate to this. When I first started trying to get a professional sound, I could never quite know when a song was “done” and ready for the client. On my first few jobs, the deadline ususally dictated when it was done. I just kept thinking, “I could make this better somehow!”

Today, we’ll talk about some of basic things to make sure are in place before delivering a song.

Mixing and Mastering

Drop a professionally mastered song from an album you like into your DAWs and look at the wave form. You'll see that it probably stays at 0db or around -0.2 at all times.
Drop a professionally mastered song from an album you like into your DAWs and look at the wave form. You’ll see that it probably stays at 0db or around -0.2 at all times.

I could (and probably will) do entire articles on how to master and mix songs, but here’s the bare essentials.

Mixing is usually taking things away from a song to make it more cohesive. Helping each instrument to shine through the mix using various tools. Sometimes people refer to doing things like adding echo’s, effects and reverb as mixing, and I guess it sort of is, but to me that’s more of the actual composition phase, and mixing is just getting it to sound nice. Some quick pointers:

-Make sure it sounds like all the instruments are in the same “space”. If you have a bunch of dry chiptunes and then one reverb soaked echoing track, it’s going to sound like its sort of in another place. If you have a bunch of orchestra samples recorded in a large space, putting a vocal you recorder in a tiny closet is going to sound wierd.

-Be careful not to over-mix until everything sounds separated and wimpy. There should be some bleed over between instruments, just not too much.

Mastering is sort of the opposite of mixing, it’s adding things back into the finished song to make it louder, clearer as well as some technical flavorings that will make it sound professional and great even when converted to MP3.

Mastering is things like bringing up the overall volume in a mix without it clipping (getting so loud it distorts), adding harmonics and mastering reverb to sort of “glue” all the sounds together, adding dithering to preserve as much sound as possible when compressing to MP3 or other format.

– My single biggest tip: Take the time to really understand compression. I might do a “compression/multipressor for dummies” article in the future. It was one of the hardest things for me to grasp since those who know what they’re talking about will say things like “decrease dynamic range” and “add loudness” that will leave you scratching your head.

-Most music today is mixed “loud” meaning it’s staying near -.03db at all time. If you want it to sound like something on the radio, it will need to be like this. Of course, you can’t just crank up the volume without horrible distortion, so we’ll talk about this in a future lesson. To get an idea of what this is about, take and song you’ve heard on the radio (even in mp3 form) and drop it in your DAWs and look at how loud it is. There’s not a lot of times when the sound drops low. The picture shown here is actually a very soft and mild song by The Daysleepers, yet even a soft quiet song is pumping the a full palette of sound at you. We’ll learn more about it later.

The “Annoying” Test

I got this from the guys over at IQ Soup, as they told me they do this with every track I send them. Put the song on repeat and just let it play while you work or clean or something. Does the song become unbearable after two or three loops? Is the start-over point for a looping track super obvious? If so, you probably need to add some more variety to the track or fix some mixing problem that is making it annoying.Remember that changes go a long way in making a song interesting…don’t be afraid to pull everything out and let the drums play for a bit, or drop the drums and add some atmospherics. Listen to your favorite songs, most likely the same 4 bars do not play the entire song and if they do, the singer is switching things up to keep it interesting.

 

The Comparison Test

I have heard more than one musician say they like to compare their finished product with a similar track to see if it sort of “feels” the same. I don’t always want my tracks to sound EXACTLY like another song, but it can help you to listen to a professional orchestral song and then listen to your own and ask yourself, “does mine have too much bass? Does something in mine leap out too much?” I find this is really good with orchestral stuff, sometimes not even for entire songs, just instruments. Sometimes when I’m not sure I like the high violin/violas in a mix, I listen to something from a recent movie to hear how they sound there. It gives me mixing ideas to make mine sound more “pro”, as long as I can figure out how they did it. Another trick is to skip around in your track and a track you feel is of similar style and good quality. Does it seem like you switched from a real soundtrack to a cartoon one? Does something sound off when jumping from their track to yours? It can sort of help your ears get a fresh perspective on your mix.

The Bad Speaker Test

This cracked iPod 3G and little wimpy speaker I bought while on vacation from a Walgreens have super powers of exposing mixing problems.
This cracked iPod 3G and little wimpy speaker I bought while on vacation from a Walgreen’s have super powers of exposing mixing problems.

I was recently reading an article and saw that Vampire Weekend listened to their latest album on all kinds of devices with speakers from the best to the cheapest to make sure it sounded good. I was kind of surprised because this seems like something a band of their caliber would have already been doing two albums ago! I have a collection of cheap little devices that I play my songs through. These things expose clipping, distortion and mixing problems way better than my expensive monitors. This is a practice as old as recording from what I hear. It is common for producers to take a tentative final mix out to the car to hear how it sounded through a half-broken old car stereo or from a old boom box.

My favorite tool for really exposing the faults in my mix is my third generation iPod touch (the one with only one speaker on it). That tiny speaker tells me more than all the monitoring tools in my DAWS. If something is too loud in the mix, it’s all you hear. If something is too soft, it vanishes. Of course, you can’t judge bass by these kind of speakers, good monitors and subwoofers are best, but for judging what is too loud or too quiet in the mix, these little guys are my best friends.

Delivering to the Client

Every client will have different formats they want to get their files in. If not specified, I usually give them a few different mp3 compressed at multiple levels, as well as a raw WAV or AIF. It’s a good idea to keep backups since things vanish. Using dropbox is a great way to share huge sets of files when you deliver finished products.

Now, what happens when the client listens to the files? We’ll get into this next. What to do if your client doesn’t like what you delivered, how to proceed in dealing with the client from first sample until finished product.

Next up:
-Clients! Making Music for Someone Else
-The Secret Arts of Coming Up With Melodies
-My Biggest Mistakes as a Freelancer

 

Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 2.36.44 PMBeatscribe is a full time indie composer, musician and writer. By day he creates soundtracks and sfx for various mobile gaming companies, by night creates megaman-inspired chiptunes, in the afternoons he drinks tea. Check out his latest releases, tutorials and retro ruminations at www.beatscribe.com.

Life As a Freelance Musician: Part 7: The Pros of the Freelance Lifestyle

Freelancing definitely has its ups and downs. In some ways, it feels a lot less stable than a regular 9 to 5 job. However, there are some huge benefits to this lifestyle that I thought are worth mentioning. Here’s a few of the very real pros that can benefit you whether you make music, program, make art or whatever else as a freelancer.

No Commute

Sitting in my cozy house looking at a huge storm and 9-to-5'ers stuck in traffic makes me really happy with my choice to become a freelancer.
Sitting in my cozy house looking at a huge storm and 9-to-5’ers stuck in traffic makes me really happy with my choice to become a freelancer.

I think the single biggest advantage of working for myself is no commute. I used to spend 2 hours a day commuting to downtown Chicago on the CTA train. I was forced to spend an hour with obnoxious, rude, loud and even very sick people. Nothing like hearing a 15 second clip of a Jay-Z song on a distorted cell phone speaker over and over at 5:30am in the morning. It was not a fun way to start my day. By the time I got home after 2 hours commuting and 8-10 hours working, I was exhausted.

Now, I get up and walk over to my living room. I can work a 10-hour day by 3pm and still have the rest of the day to do other stuff. The time and money I spent commuting more than make up for the slightly lower income I have when business isn’t booming. I’m not forced to be out in the rain or freezing cold just to go sit at a different computer.

Health

As already mentioned, commuting in public transportation exposes you to a lot of germs. Between that and working with co-workers who refused to take a sick day even when they were near death, I usually got sick about 3 to 5 times a year when I worked downtown. So far, I’ve been sick twice in my almost two years as a freelancer and I recovered in a day or two instead of a week.

When I had an office job, I had to eat out almost every day. There were few healthy choices and I was steadily gaining weight. Add this to drinking way too much coffee to get through the rough days, and it was a downward spiral for my health.

Since leaving I’ve started working out each day. I do Insanity workout and go jogging in my neighborhood. It helps me clear my head, manage stress and sleep well. It gives me a chance to listen to my mixes on different speakers in different environments too. I also use the time to check out what my colleagues are doing by listening to other game soundtracks. I’ve lost weight and feel great.

Flexible Schedule

As I mentioned before, my main reason for getting into this was more to do my volunteer work. The fact that it’s my ‘dream job’ also helps of course! Having essentially no set schedule opens a whole new world to what you can do. I’ve sometimes put in 40-50 hours by Wednesday and then had the rest of the week for volunteer work or whatever else. A 13-hour day doesn’t seem so bad when it’s just sitting in your living room. It also helps not to have to wear ties, dress clothes and all that other pointless office stuff.

Family Time

I’ve noticed by reading blogs and tumblr of other (more successful) freelance composers, programmers and artists that they talk about their family, post pics with their kids way more than folks I used to work in offices with. Since my wife works from the house too, it’s been a totally awesome experience to spend more time together, cook together and not spend 80% of our time apart. I imagine if you have kids it’s even more useful to have a completely open schedule for doctor’s appointments, school and other stuff that doesn’t fit into a 9 to 5 schedule.

Is It Really Less Stable?

A while ago I was giving some serious thought to if it really is less stable to be working for yourself than to be working for a big company. Look at a comparison of two events that happen for an already-established company compared to the same event with an already-established freelancer.

A big company has 3 big clients and various little ones. The 3 big clients account for about $400,000 a year of income. During an economic downturn, they lose two of these clients. Because of this, they can’t pay the salary for half their employees and have to let them go. Despite the sales team working hard to land a new client, 9 people lose their jobs because of this.

A freelancer has 5 major clients. Each one brings in about $12,000 per year. One client goes out of business suddenly and the freelancer loses that income. Despite working hard to find another client, for a time he’s forced to deal with a 20% drop in income.

Which is more traumatic to the worker? Thinking you have a secure job and then one day you and all your coworkers are sent packing, probably with little warning? Or being in business for yourself and having a 20% drop in income? And this doesn’t even take into account things like office politics, being the scapegoat for failure or being the overworked slave that others use to get ahead. Also, you know you didn’t lose your job because the sales team was lazy, or your manager lacks vision, you know you are working for your own money and responsible for its success or failure. In a way, I think it’s validating to accept that and be less dependent on others to keep a business afloat.

Both scenarios are frustrating and sad, but they’re essentially the same. In a big company, you are one cog in the wheel, but essentially the company is just one big freelancing entity looking for clients, landing contracts, and doing work to get paid.

Unless you have some government job that never changes, working for most companies only “seems” more secure than working for yourself. Especially now that many companies are switching away from “traditional” insurance and retirement plans. I’m not saying there aren’t advantages. There clearly are some who have different health situations or larger families that this does not apply to, and there are some companies who will take better care of you than you could on your own as far as medical plans and insurance go, but the fact remains, you still can lose it pretty easily.

So, it freelancing for everyone? Probably not. It took me some time to adjust my thinking and not feel like I had zero security. But seeing what happens with many companies has made me think a lot about what is important in life and what the trade-offs are for having that supposedly secure job.

 

Next few weeks:
-When Is A Song Done?
-The Secret Arts of Coming Up With Melodies
-My Biggest Mistakes as a Freelancer

Life As a Freelance Musician: Part 6: The Business Side of Things

I often get clients who are coming out of a disappointing project with another artist. It’s weird to me that people who have a chance to do what they love, wouldn’t take it serious enough to do the boring parts. Being professional is one of the annoying parts of the job that doesn’t always jive with our artistic side. But it is important. Here’s a few things that are imperative if you want to keep clients.

Honesty and Communication

Some simple organization can go a long way to being a good "business" and composer.
Some simple organization can go a long way to being a good “business” and composer.

Being straightforward and honest with clients is very important. The Internet is a shady place full of people trying to scam you. Just open an Elance job offer and see how many liars immediately appear and start pressuring you to give them an upfront payment. This is what many of your clients are wading through before talking to you. Many have already been scammed by someone who just took off with their money.

Remember, these people are essentially buying un-made art from you on your reputation alone. It’s scary for them to hand over a down payment or sign a contract when they have no idea about how you work, how long it’ll be, what happens if they’re not happy and other things like that. Try to put their mind at ease by being up front about as many of these things as possible. I have a sort of “boiler plate faq” document I email all my new clients to answer questions like these:

-What happens if I don’t like your song?
-How long does it take?
-How many revisions am I allowed?
-What formats do you deliver?
-What if I need a change a few months from now?

Another thing that helps is to make a clear spreadsheet of exactly what is to be delivered, in what format, and when. You can always refer back to this later. It protects both you and the client for forgetting what was agreed on or one party trying to add/remove things dishonestly or unintentionally late in the project.

Organization

Organizing files and contracts and making time tables and a schedule are boring tasks, especially to us creative types. But it’s a necessary evil if you are going to do music for more than a hobby.

I don’t like to schedule every minute of the day, so I tend to group things into, “Do this today”, “Do this sometime during this week”, “Do this by month end” and just work my way through the list taking breaks in between or whatever. Most clients aren’t in a time crunch on music, but they do expect to be kept in the loop and have a general idea of where you are and when you’ll have them something to listen to.

Useful Services

Here’s a few websites I cannot live without as an indie musician:

Soundcloud.com – We’ve already talked about this one obviously. Best place to set up a portfolio, works great on mobile devices, lets you showcase your work.

LegalZoom.com – A great place to get contracts made, incorporate your business and other exciting legal junk.

EchoSign.com – Having e-contracts makes you look more professional, and clients usually sign them with a lot less hesitation than if they have to print something, sign it with a pen, scan it back in and email it to you. I’ve actually lost clients because they were in a country where not everyone has scanners and they just got annoyed with the manual hard copy process.

Webs.com – This might seem like a wimpy little web building site, but it does one thing that soundcloud doesn’t. You can upload MP3’s to the same page and play them with a little play button. Why does this matter? If a client wants to preview SFX, it’s really annoying on Soundcloud since it automatically moves on to the next sound. Also, you can make a nice minimal “soundboard” type page of nothing but a list of your sound files and play buttons next to them.

Elance.com – Great place to find postings and clients. The odds are stacked against you at first of course, but keep at it!

PayPal.com – Obvious one. Quick easy way to transfer money. You can also pretty much build invoices here and not have to mess around with excel or other software for that.

idrive.com – A simple cloud bakcup system. You need to be backing up not only your project files but also your legal documents, quotes and other stuff.

Next few weeks:

-Enjoying the Pros of Freelance Life
-When Is A Song Done?
-My Biggest Mistakes as a Freelancer
-The Secret Arts of Coming Up With Melodies

 

Any other topics you want to hear about? Post in the comments!

 

Life As a Freelance Musician: Part 5: Portfolios, Losing and How Not To Get Ripped Off

Making music for a living is only about 50% actually making music for a living. The rest of the time is marketing, not-so-exciting business stuff and training yourself. Today we’ll take a look at what you want to have on your portfolio, how to handle losing jobs and how not to get ripped off.

 

What To Put On Your Portfolio

 

Soundcloud is the best thing to use for your portfolio when you start out. It’s free, easy to use, has a nice mobile interface (you don’t want your page to show a broken flash icon on someone’s phone), and is pretty much the standard place.  I’d buy the basic membership which opens up the spotlight option and allows you to control what appears first on your page.

 

The best things to put on your portfolio are obviously finished pieces, properly mixed and mastered for different kinds of games and what the music might sound like. It’s best to try to show off the full range of your skillset. If you have three great songs in the same style, put the best one up.

 

It’s also a good idea to make a default “best of” set or use the spotlight option to make sure the first thing they hear is what you want them to hear. It’s also worth getting someone to make you a professional looking logo and also have links to other things like your facebook or website.

 

What Not To Put

 

You want to make a great first impression with your portfolio. It might be the only chance you get. Your portfolio is not the place to put work-in-progress songs or songs that you need help with. As I’ve said before, I’m a huge fan of third-party unbiased criticism of my tracks. I have a separate soundcloud just for posting “Does this sound good?” and “What’s wrong with this mix?” type tracks when I embed them in a forum post or send them to a trusted friend. All musicians need feedback and help, but you don’t need to show your clients that.

 

Live tracks, joke remixes and other things that don’t relate to your most professional material that someone would want in their game probably shouldn’t be on your main soundcloud profile either.

 

You Win Some, You Lose Some

 

One of the hardest things to accept when you start looking for clients is that you aren’t going to get them all. The good news is though, there’s tons of reasons someone won’t pick you that have nothing to do with your skills.

 

-Price – In some countries, $30 USD is a month’s rent, so folks in these countries might be willing to do $1000 USD of work for $200. You can’t beat their prices if you’re in the USA and have normal business expenses.

 

 

-Timing – Some of the people you’re up against might not have jobs at the moment or have more flexible schedules. They might honestly be able to deliver way faster than you.

 

-Niche Skills – If the person is looking for a jazzy spy sound track and you mostly do orchestral RPG songs, chances are, some jazz musician will get the job. You can’t be a master of everything, so don’t sweat it too much.

 

It’s always worth while to be gracious and polite when told you didn’t get the job. Even when some potential clients don’t even say thank you or anything – I just see the job assigned to someone else – I write them a nice email saying thanks for the chance and if they need anything in the future, I’d be happy to work with them.

 

It can be a blow to the ego to lose a job, especially if you can hear the person who got it and think it sounds crappy. But just be cool about it. I have initially lost three different jobs only to have the client come to me three months later and say their chosen artist disappeared off the face of the planet and they are now in a crunch to finish the game.  Help them out now, and you have a client for life.

 

 

How Not To Get Ripped Off

 

So when I first started, I was so eager for work I didn’t think twice about making someone a sample for free. Some guy had a posting for some Mario Bros. styled chiptune tracks, I threw together a chipsounds Mario brothers-theme ripoff and mailed it over to him all excited, sure I’d get the job. He never wrote to me again, but, I noticed a link to his company on Skype. I went to it and found my loop was in his game. He never paid me and I really had no way getting any kind of justice, we never signed a contract or anything.

 

I learned a valuable lesson right there. Some musicians won’t turn over a single bar of music until a contract is signed, but remember, clients are afraid of being ripped off by you too. I think giving samples is totally necessary, but, just make sure your sample isn’t usable in their game. Here’s some ways to do it without ruining the sample:

 

-Add a layer of sound effects over top of it. You can tell them its to help them visualize it in game. Trust me, they love this but they can never use it in game due to the sfx.

 

-Add a repeating loop of a voice recording saying “demo” or something every 10 seconds. Keep it low. They’d never put it in their game because it wouldn’t seem professional.

 

-Add fade-in/fade-outs at the start and end and even some random ones in the middle.

 

Here’s a sample where I put some simple ninja sound effects over the track, so make sure the client didn’t just run off with my sample (he didn’t).

 

 

As you can seem the client gets an idea of what he’d be getting, but this track could never be dropped into his game, effectively ‘stolen’ from me. There’s another way people will try to rip you off. You should never take a job posting like this:

Need twelve tracks in the style of the Inception soundtrack. Must have actual recorded guitar and use Vienna strings or EWQLSO Diamond edition tools. All tracks must be delivered within the next week. Will pay $50 upon completion and full delivery.

Here you have someone asking for thousands of dollars of work for $50. Accept this job and you set a precedent for getting ripped off by this guy. You also devalue the entire market for people making music and make it harder for other musicians to get paid what they deserve. Some work is just not worth accepting. Here’s another one:

Making a new game called Angry Temple Birds of Candy Friends Crush. Need three cool tracks and some sound effects tracks. Please contact me on Skype at thisname and we discuss the prices.

The first time I was contact by someone like this, I thought, sounds weird, but I’ll talk to him. I have seen like ten of these since then, not one has ever panned out to actual work or payment. I seriously have no idea where this stuff comes from, my guess is some scammer out there is selling a e-book called ‘how to make money off SEO on the app store’, which seriously can’t work that great. My experience is these people usually have poor communication skills, try to sidestep whatever site they are working through by contacting you on Skype and usually try to pressure you into delivering without paying and usually just disappear after wasting your time with long, confusing conversations. Just steer clear of this.

There’s a lot more that goes into the business end of things, and we’ll talk about that more next week.