Dos & Don’ts For Open Mikers

The large number of open mikes in the Boston area provides unprecedented opportunities for performers at all levels of skill and experience. For an exhaustive list of local open mikes, check out singer/songwriter Sam Bayer’s website, sambayer.com.

One of my studio’s services is making multi-track recordings of open mikes, so that those who want can get a high quality, studio mixed copy of their set. As a result, I’ve seen over 20,000 open mike performances! That, plus having performed myself back in the 1980s, at both open mikes and concerts, qualifies me to have some possibly worthwhile opinions, and, well, here they are!

  1. An open mike performance consists of 3 parts; the setup, the intro, and the song. All 3 are important, and should be planned and practiced with equal diligence.
  2. Learn to set up quickly, or you’ll lose the audience before you’ve even started. Practice at home with anything you can rig up to simulate a couple of microphones on stands. If you use a direct, check your cord and battery before you leave home. Don’t bring effects boxes, amps, or other outboard gear. Be in tune before you get on stage.
  3. Rehearse your intros. Keep them short and interesting. Don’t say “This is a song I wrote last month about….” First of all, we know it’s a song, you needn’t tell us. Second, we don’t care when you wrote it. Third, if your song needs to be explained, re-write it. Good songs explain themselves.
  4. Keep your songs short. Time your songs. Except for a few classics, any song longer than four minutes would be a better song if it were shorter.
  5. If you have a cheap pickup, use the mike instead. You’ll sound much better.
  6. Learn how to use microphones. Stay close and don’t move around. Practice this at home.
  7. Pay close attention the other open mikers. Analyze what the good ones do and what the bad ones do. Compare yourself to them. Learn. Grow. Improve.

It’s mostly a matter of attitude. Don’t come to open mikes to show off or dump your stuff on others. Come to entertain, share and learn. You’ll have a good time, and become a better performer.

Steve Friedman of Melville Park Studio records the Roslindale and Club Passim open mikes. He also recorded for years at the famous Old Vienna and Colonial Inn open mikes. Two CDs of these recordings have been released (one on Fast Folk) and his live recordings have been used on albums by Vance Gilbert, Lori McKenna, Kevin So, Scott Alarik, Jess Klein, Kerri Powers, Patti DeRosa, Chris & Meredith Thompson, Danielle Miraglia and others.

The Ten Commandments of Recording

Handed down by Steve Friedman of Melville Park Studio

I. Knowest Thy Purpose
Be clear on why you are making the recording and on what you intend to do with it. Artists often waste a lot of time and money because they don’t know what they want, and therefore don’t know what to do or when to stop.

II. Thou Shalt Not Expect Too Much From Thy Recordings
Your career also depends on your song writing, playing & singing skills, gigging, stage presentation, booking, promotion, publicity, distribution, and contacts. An album is only part of the picture.

III. Thou Shalt Not Overspend
Promotion, distribution, gigging and travel cost money. Spending it all on recording is like buying a Ferrari and not having money left to buy gas for it.

IV. Thou Shalt Not Interrupt Thy Career Whilst Recording
Disappear into the studio for six months and nobody will remember you when you emerge. Don’t stop writing and gigging!

V. Thou Shalt Not Rehearse In The Studio
If you can’t play it in your bedroom, you won’t be able to play it in the studio.

VI. Thou Shalt Not Confuse Thy Friends With Studio Musicians
You think your pals sound great jammin’ in your kitchen. Put them under the microscope of a studio mixdown session and you may be in for a shock!

VII.Thou Shalt Not Try To Be Thine Own Engineer
Self-recording is a good way to prepare for a project, but a bad way to do one. I’ve seen artists spend a year on an album at home that could have been made better in a week at my studio. Confucius say “Man who re-invent wheel spend much time going in circles.”

VIII.Thou Shalt Not Expect More Than Thou Payest For
Cheap recordings sound cheap.

IX. Lay Thy Tribute At The Altar of Time, And Not At The Altar of Fancy Gear
It’s better to take all the time you need at a modest studio with rates you can comfortably afford, than to rush and cut corners at a state-of-the-art studio with a high hourly rate.

X. Thou Shalt Remember To Enjoy Thyself
Success in the music business is so rare, it’s foolish to even try if you’re not having fun!

Mastering 101

Why Mastering?

Mastering is the last step before an album is sent out for replication.

If an album were a house, recording would be the foundation, mixing the walls, floors and ceilings, and mastering the utilities and furnishings that make the house livable.

As with the amenities in a house, some aspects of mastering can be esoteric and costly. Others are easily appreciated, and, with today’s technology, simple and inexpensive.

Many low budget albums use only the most basic mastering procedures. That doesn’t mean they sound bad. If properly recorded and mixed, they should still sound fine, just as well built houses need not be luxurious to be comfortable.

Advanced mastering can make the difference between a good sounding album, and a great sounding one that’s more likely to grab the listener’s attention, get radio play, and impress people at record labels.

So, exactly what’s involved in mastering, where should you have it done, and how far should you go?

First, let’s talk about basic mastering. This is a process that all albums should go through if they are to be taken seriously by industry professionals and the general public.

Basic Mastering

Basic mastering consists of sequencing, editing, fading, leveling, and de-glitching.

Sequencing means putting the songs in order, with the right spacing, and making sure each song starts cleanly, with no extraneous noises (like breaths, squeaks, false notes; all that funny stuff musicians do just before they start to play).

Editing includes things like splicing together multiple takes of a song to make one smooth cut, replacing mistakes with correctly played passages from other takes or from elsewhere in the same take, removing a section or riff you accidentally played one time too many, etc. Sometimes these edits are done during mixing, but often it’s more efficient to wait until the mix is ready for mastering.

Fading means making sure each song fades out in a smooth, natural way. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Often artists don’t wait long enough at the end of a take before they speak or make some other noise, and getting a good fade while dodging these artifacts can be tricky.

Leveling means making sure no part of the album sounds too much louder, or too much different from any other part, unless it’s supposed to. A sure giveaway that an album was made by amateurs is when you have to keep adjusting the volume knob to listen comfortably. It’s like living in a house with no thermostat!

De-glitching means removing popped ps, electronic ticks and other non-musical artifacts.

With today’s computer technology, basic mastering can be performed conveniently and inexpensively at many of the same studios that do recording. Some people feel that even basic mastering should be done places that specialize in mastering: so called Mastering Houses, about which I’ll say more shortly. But if the studio engineer is knowledgeable and thorough, for most albums the advantage in using a mastering house for the basic steps will be insignificant.

Advanced Mastering & Mastering Houses

Advanced mastering involves delicate changes in the sound of an album that can make a big difference in its impact on the listener.

A good mastering engineer can lift a vocal out of a slightly murky mix, add sparkle to highs without adding stridency or sibilance, punch up the bass without making it boomy, subdue midrange harshness without losing clarity, and add presence and warmth.

These things are best done at mastering houses. There you will find top quality gear designed especially for mastering. You’ll also find high resolution speakers, and rooms acoustically designed for critical listening.

Most importantly, you’ll find highly skilled and knowledgeable specialists who do nothing but master day in and day out. They are intimately familiar with all kinds of music, and can evaluate yours from a fresh perspective and with a fresh pair of ears.

Most mastering houses are more expensive than most recording studios. That’s why low budget projects often omit advanced mastering.

My advice is to at least have a mastering house listen to your album. A single hour won’t cost you very much, and even if you decide not to make any changes, you’ll probably learn a few things that will help you with your next project. And if they find a problem that you missed, it could save you a lot of trouble!

Four Boston-area mastering houses that have been around for a long time and have excellent reputations are MWorks in Cambridge, Specialized Mastering in Natick, Northeastern Digital in Southborough and Soundmirror in Jamaica Plain.

A Radical Proposition…

Don White (whose first CD I engineered) once said to me, “In the old days, a musician had to know God to make an album. I only had to know you!”

It’s true that, with today’s inexpensive and easily available technology, anyone can make an album. And there are lots of studio owners and engineers like myself who consider it their pleasure, as well as their business, to help you.

The down side of this is that many artists come into the studio with little or no prior recording experience, and expect to come out a short time later with a great sounding album.

These same artists would never dream of taking on a two-set club date for their first gig! They know it would probably be a disaster.

Of course, given enough takes and edits, albums can usually be “salvaged” even if the artist is poorly prepared. But this is small consolation considering the time, effort, money, and shattered egos involved! Though you might avert a train wreck, you’ll still have a fender-bender.

Just like performing, studio recording takes practice.

So, here’s my “radical” proposition:

Instead of looking at studio recording as a “special event,” make it a regular part of your routine, just like practicing, writing, gigging and networking.

Just like you do lots of open mikes, opening sets and split gigs before you expect to “feature,” why not do lots of short recording sessions to get ready for making your first album?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Recording costs money!

Well, I guarantee that the money you save on your album project, by being knowledgeable and proficient in studio recording before you begin, will more than make up for the money you spend on those “practice” recording sessions. You might even get some good material for demos, and for the album as well!

And, studio recording has benefits beyond the creation of albums and demos. By allowing you to hear yourself as others hear you, by objectively and clearly revealing strengths and weaknesses, and by simulating the pressure of live performance without the risk, studio recording informs and enhances every other aspect of your craft.

So, find an inexpensive studio you can conveniently visit on a regular basis (at least every few months) for, say, a one or two hour session. It needn’t even be the studio where you eventually make your album.

Studio recording is an art in itself, requiring its own special techniques, skills, and mindset. The more you do it, the better you’ll get!