Audio source files

There's a lot to digest here. And rightly so. If there's a single FAQ topic that you should pay attention to the most, this would be it. Our mutual happiness depends on our ability to deal with audio files.

I use the term "source files" to refer to all the individual audio files/clips that make up a digital multi-track recording project. They are all the audio files that were created when you were recording your parts. They could also include additional files recorded outside the studio and imported into the arrangement. It's not uncommon for things to be added in post production. 

Source files also include ancillary project files created and used by the recording app. When I begin a recording session, I create individual folders, or subdirectories, that will contain all the files used for each song or project arrangement. These ancillary files would not normally be shared with anyone outside the studio, except in cases where the receiving individual is using the exact same software that I'm using. You would normally "view" the source files with Windows File Explorer (or Apple Finder if you're using a Mac). Once the files are created (during the recording process), they can be copied, moved, deleted and/or archived just like any normal data file. The files can be shared across the internet or handed-off to the client at the end of the session.

This FAQ topic is divided into four separate sections: 

Section A pertains to audio source files created here in my studio. 
Section B
pertains to audio source files which are brought, or sent in, from the outside (such as files originally recorded at another studio, at home, or downloaded from the internet). 
Section C
pertains to "stems" which are clusters - or submixes - of the individual tracks that make up a song project.
Section D pertains to the transmission or transportation of source files (i.e. how do we send files back and forth?)


A. Source files created here.

The most common question related to source files is "Can I get the source files for my recording project to take with me?" Yes! And you should probably consider doing that out of principle no matter where you record. Some artists like to keep the original tracks, or source files, in the event they should ever want to go to another studio for additional recording or editing. Many musicians record parts here (drum tracks for example) and then take the files home to add the finishing touches. Whatever the reason, they belong to you, so don't be afraid to ask for them. 

* The files that I create here are in standard WAV format (uncompressed) and unless you tell me differently, they will be provided to you at the same bit depth and sampling rate as originally recorded (24 bit, 48 kHz for most projects). I can down-convert the WAV files to 16 bit/44kHz if you prefer. I can also provide the source files to you in Apple AIFF format, or MP3. 

* Each WAV file is named or identified based on the instrument or track name (kick drum, snare drum, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, piano, lead vocal, etc.). If you're going to be working with these files at another studio, I will create some track/session notes and contact information in the form of a readme file (a simple text file that can be opened with Wordpad or any generic text editor/viewer). I'll include that with the bundle. This way, the receiving engineer will at least have a reference point to start from, and a way to contact me if there are any problems or questions.

* Audio source files which have been "exported" out of my recording program all start at what I call "time zero". Time zero is just an arbitrary starting point for the song. It could actually be time zero in my recording app but usually it's just a time stamp starting position established before the song performance begins. A song project might start out with the drummer clicking his sticks to establish a tempo for the band. But before that happened, I might have captured some background studio conversations or unwanted noise. The idea is, I establish a starting point a few seconds prior to the "meat" of the performance, and an ending point at the end of the song, well past the actual ending of the music. These positions are referred to as "markers". Once the starting and ending marker positions are established, they can remain permanently fixed at those points in time. I can go back at a later date and export the audio tracks from the exact same positions in time. If there are 16 tracks of audio then I would be creating 16 individual WAV files, all starting at time zero. You would import all those WAV files into your computer or recording device and make sure all the files start at the same exact time and everything will line up. Important to note: this concept of "time zero" means there will be nothing but digital silence in various sections of each WAV file, especially at the start and ending of each file. A lead guitar part might not start until 2 minutes into the song. Before and after that, there is dead silence. It's up to you whether you choose to strip away those silent portions of each WAV file in your audio editor. 

* Unless otherwise specified you are getting the raw, dry, unprocessed WAV files (exception: see the section on Stems below). When I record a band or an artist here, the signal from each microphone or instrument ends up going directly to the computer hard drive. The analog signals are converted to digital, and then sent to the computer and stored on the hard drive as individual WAV files. These raw WAV files don't include all the mixing, panning, EQ settings or effects that I would normally apply to the final stereo mixdown. I generally don't record with outboard effects or any other external processing except maybe a bit of compression, or some slight EQ adjustments if needed. There are plenty of exceptions though. A guitarist might choose to record a guitar track with some effects pedals. Tracks recorded with effects at the source will obviously still have those effects on the recorded track. My point is, if you intend to take the source files to another studio for additional recording or editing, you will have to create/recreate all those "mix" settings from scratch (which is usually the whole point of doing that in the first place). It's not uncommon for an artist to do the tracking in one place, mixing in another and mastering in yet another location. Happens all the time in the big leagues. 

* I archive all the source files for all the projects that I record here. If a client wishes to return for additional recording, generally speaking, all I have to do is load the project files from the original archive and away we go. Please be advised though that things change over time. Projects recorded here ten years ago might not "boot up" correctly because of software/hardware upgrades. That shouldn't/wouldn't affect the actual WAV files though. At worst, we would need to import the WAV files you recorded into my new software and rebuild a mix from the ground up. Rest assured, that's true of almost any studio on earth. I don't know how important this is but the files I am archiving for posterity are not the original files that were recorded the day of the session. They are copies of those files. The original files are eventually deleted to make room for other projects. The archives I create go through a verification process during the backup routine to make sure they are bit-level perfect. The archives are stored on portable USB drives and stored in a safe place. I make one copy. One copy is not a great guarantee or warranty of anything. I don't know what the likelihood is that a hard drive will spin up 10 years from now. I strongly suggest that you keep a secondary archive for yourself. Data doesn't really exist unless it exists in two or more places. Some studios only guarantee an archive for 3 or 4 years. I understand why they do that. My archive set dates back to 2004 but a lot of that was done on optical media. I've not had a problem loading up projects from those older archives but there's never a guarantee of success. So I say again, if you don't want to risk it, bring a drive along and I can copy every.single.thing. associated with your project. It's good insurance.

* The question of who actually owns the source files can be an issue sometimes. It has been an issue here a few times already. It can get ugly. Bands have been known to break up literally during, or right after the recording session, and the issue of who has the legal right of ownership of the songs/source files comes into question. If you're working with a producer, manager, songwriter or 3rd-party sugar daddy, it can get even more complicated. Ownership of the source files is important, because whoever has possession of the source files has the ability to go back and change or edit those files at a later date. It's not uncommon for me to get caught in the middle of band break-ups. Band members will call me long after the project was finished and want me to provide them with the source files. Typically, I have no real way of knowing who actually owns, or has access rights, to the source files. Lacking any specific details, my default position is, the rightful owner is the person who paid me for the session. Even if that person was not an actual band member. If you suspect this could ever become an issue, I suggest you discuss it within the band and decide this before you come here (or anywhere) to record your songs. I will not be held accountable for any legal issues, or gastro-intestinal disorders, arising out of handing over source files to the wrong person. I will attempt to make a good faith effort to contact the band leader, or person who paid me, and confirm ownership. However, all it takes is a disconnected cell phone, or an abandoned Facebook account, and all bets are off.

* I should mention that there are other export/delivery alternatives such as OMF, broadcast WAV, bundled project files, etc. These alternate packaging formats have merit and I can provide the source files to you in one of these if you prefer. If you don't know what any of that means, and you think it might be important, call.

B. Source files created elsewhere.

Clients often bring in audio files for mixing/mastering or additional recording and editing. Sometimes these files were recorded at other studios, or perhaps at home. Sometimes the files were downloaded off the internet. Here are some general comments and observations to consider if you are bringing audio files from other locations.

* I work primarily with WAV files which were recorded and saved in the following formats: 16 or 24 bit, 44.1kHz or 48kHz

* MP3  is also an acceptable format for audio files, and they can be used as part of a multi-track recording project. My recording app will convert an MP3 file into a WAV file before it can be used within the project. The conversion process doesn't change anything about the sound quality that was there in the original MP3 file. If the MP3 audio kind sucked, the WAV file will too (unless I do some post production clean up work to it).

* Make sure the multi-track WAV files you are providing to me all start at what I call "time zero" (see section A for more about time zero). What this generally means is that the engineer has exported (or "bounced") each track of audio to a new file with a common starting point. Each exported WAV file contains some amount of digital silence in the beginning so that when I import the files into my recording program, all the positions of all the audio bits will line up properly. You can usually confirm this is correct by looking at the file sizes of all the WAV files. If they're all the same size, that's a pretty good indicator that the export process was done correctly. If you see a lot of different file sizes, that's usually a warning sign. 

* Usually, in order to export/bounce tracks of audio for sharing, you have to be careful and make certain adjustments in the software to export the tracks correctly. Different programs handle this process differently. I would not take this for granted if I were you. I would spot check the files after you create them (or whoever creates them) by trying to re-import them back into the recording program and actually see, and hear, that the data has been exported correctly. I've gotten lots of files in the past that were "empty", or were dead silent, from start to finish. If you re-import them back into the recording program you should, at very least, see something resembling an audio waveform. If there's nothing there, then obviously there was a problem during the export/bounce process. Broadcast WAV bundles can be different sizes because there is time signature data encoded into the package. I'm always suspicious of Broadcast WAV files but if that's all you got, and they import properly into my recording app, then we're golden.

* Please make sure that the engineer, or person who creates these bundles of files, adds some meaningful informative detail which accompanies the project. For example, I prefer it when the WAV files are given meaningful names like "kickdrum.wav" or "snare.wav", etc. Too often I receive files ambiguously labeled "track1.wav", "track2.wav", etc., which means that I must now sort through each file and try to make heads or tails out of the mess before I can do any meaningful work. A readme file with helpful background information is welcome. Contact information from the original recording engineer is even more welcome in case of questions.

* If the original audio was recorded as a mono file, make sure the exported file is also mono. If it was recorded in stereo, then the exported file should also be stereo. There is no point in exporting everything as stereo files. It just makes the entire project more difficult to transport because the files are twice as large as need be. But that's not even the whole reason. When I see nothing but stereo files, that's a good indicator that the engineer wasn't paying attention when he created the exported WAV files, and there will usually be other problems as well. It's ok to export stereo files as individual left & right mono files but you don't need to do that. A single stereo file is fine.

* If the original files were recorded at 24 bit (or 32 float), then they should stay at 24/32 bit. Don't down-convert the files unless you have to for some reason I can't think of right now. If they were recorded at 16 bit, then leave them at 16 bit. Don't up-convert them. 

* I should also mention portastudios. I get a lot of projects here that were originally recorded at home on a portastudio. The word "portastudio" refers to tabletop multi-track recording machines that have a built-in hard drive, mixer, effects processor, etc. It's basically a studio-in-a-box that you can pick up and carry around. Retrieving audio files from these things is always a fun exercise. It seems no two machines handle audio storage and  retrieval  the same way (even from the same manufacturer). In some cases, you need a special software utility program running on the receiving computer to retrieve the files. It's up to you to make sure you have whatever it is you need to retrieve the files correctly. I would advise you not to wait until you get here and hope for the best. Do your homework ahead of time and make sure you have the tools needed to get the job done. If you're not sure, contact the manufacturer of the portastudio and find out what you need. I'm not an expert on every portastudio ever made. Don't cop an attitude with me if I don't understand exactly what buttons to push to get the audio out of your machine. It's your machine. You figure it out before you get here. Bring the user manual along if you have one, just in case.

THE BOTTOM LINE. I've seen sessions ruined because the files brought, or sent to me, were damaged or improperly formatted. You can't be too careful about the integrity of the source files. Don't trust anyone but yourself. If you don't trust yourself to confirm the validity or integrity of your source files, seek out someone else to help verify things before you go running off half-cocked. It's frustrating and disappointing to schedule studio time and potentially have to drive for hours only to find out what you are bringing is useless. If you're coming from another studio, make sure they don't delete the original files before you've had a chance to confirm everything is OK.

If you're interested, here is a link to a set of guidelines developed by the Producers & Engineers Wing of the Grammy organization (Recording Academy) which goes into a lot of extra detail about all this. Worth reading if you work in this business.

C. Stems

The word "stem" refers to groups, or sub-mixes of tracks, that make up a final song project. Stems are generally required for some sort of multi-media production work (TV, movies, and video game consoles where certain sounds trigger elements of the game). 

Consider this: a typical rock/pop song could include 10 or more tracks of drums (kick, snare, toms, cymbals, etc), a bunch of guitar tracks, a bunch of vocal tracks (including the lead and backing vocals), keyboards, percussion, etc. A multi-media producer or director might require your song arrangement to be provided in the form of pre-mixed or pre-configured stems so they can edit it for a specific scene or purpose.

Here's a typical stem scenario:

Stem 1: kick drum 
Stem 2: snare drum 
Stem 3: all remaining drums in stereo
Stem 4: overhead/cymbals in stereo
Stem 5: bass guitar 
Stem 6: lead guitar
Stem 7: all other guitars in stereo
Stem 8: lead vocal 
Stem 9: all backing vocals in stereo

The idea here is that important elements such as lead vocals, kick, snare, bass guitar, etc are treated as individual files which can be easily adjusted in relation to other elements. When you're mixing for surround sound (for example), you want to be able to pan things in different directions. Or embellish certain sounds for effect. Sometimes the tracks are rendered with whatever effects and other processing were used for the final master, but that depends. The receiving studio or producer will almost always dictate those things. 

The people that you're sending stems to will usually specify how they want these things "stemmed" and what format they want the audio files in (44.1kHz vs 48kHz for example). Often they will provide specific technical instructions in the form of a PDF, or text or HTML file. The gaming console guys usually put this information on their website somewhere. I simply give 'em what they ask for and my job is done. When questions come up, I normally I prefer to talk directly to the engineering staff as opposed to going through an intermediary. Please try to set that up ahead of time with an email or phone contact.


D. Delivery - moving/sharing project files

Transmitting/transporting audio files from here to there. The bane of my existence (lol). What's the best, safest, and most efficient method of delivery? How do I get all your data off my computer and into the hands of those that need it? The answer is: it depends.

The basic problem is the size of the audio files. If the files were really tiny to begin with, I could ZIP them all up and attach it to an email message. Boom. Done!

Sadly, it's not that easy. Not by a long shot. WAV files are large enough to create a headache even in moderate quantities. Even MP3s in large enough quantity can be an issue. Consider this: a four minute mono WAV file, recorded at 24/48 kHz, will end up being approximately 40MB in size. Multiply that by the number of tracks, and the number of songs, and it adds up quickly. Just as an example, a single song's worth of data can be anywhere from 1-2 gigabyte in size. If you want all the alternate (unused) takes, it gets even worse. 

There's almost always some drama or anguish involved in all this. And I know what I'm doing. I'm good at this. I've had people fly off the handle at me for problems they themselves created. Clients that are tech savvy will generally fare better than those who aren't. I have literally ended up making house calls for people that just can't get it together. Not judging. Just saying. 

Here are my suggestions for moving project files back and forth.

Option 1: The obvious first choice: the Internet

It wasn't always the case, but transmitting large amounts of data over the internet has gotten easier thanks to 1) affordable high speed internet service and 2) plenty of on-line data storage solutions. 

Companies such as  Dropbox or Hightail or Microsoft OneDrive or Google Drive offer affordable on-line storage options. All of them involve setting up a subscription. Depending on your needs, you might have to subscribe to a monthly paid account. However, most of these service providers have a freebee "basic" option with a small, but useful, amount of storage space. Dropbox was one of the first guys to market and has been one of the more popular services over the years. I think their basic free account provides 2GB of storage. Start there if you think that's enough. 

The downside to these commercial options is that you have to set up an account first in order for people to "login" and access the files/folders where the data resides. I've seen this process be very easy and very complicated. If you're the receiving party, usually you will get an email with an HTML link directly to the service location along with login/download instructions. But there's a fair amount of coordination that happens between parties before you get to that point. 

My solution is this: I have a modest amount of on-line storage space (5GB) that comes bundled with my host service account (the file server where this website resides). It's perfect for most of the work I do here. Plenty of space for most purposes. Usually it's just MP3 mixes, but I can upload an entire album's worth of WAV files depending on the amount of data involved. I can't leave the WAV files up there forever, but usually it's enough time to allow my client to retrieve the files and download to their PC. After that they can do whatever they want with the data. I remove the files when I know the client has received them.

There's no convoluted sign-in or subscription process involved. I create a special account/folder location on the server (usually the client name or band name or project name). Your files are uploaded to that folder location. An HTML link is provided to you via private email or perhaps via Facebook Messenger. You just click on the link and voila! - you're automatically directed to a page that contains the files. You can click and listen to each file, or download the files directly to your PC. There's no convoluted or confusing sign-in process. It's as easy as it can possibly get. This URL location is private and will not be mapped into a search engine. They are basically hidden from the search engine bots. Very secure, even without a secondary password login. For additional security, I can create a login password requirement. Before the page with the files is opened, you have to type in a password. I determine the password and share it with you in the email. It's up to you to determine who you share the password with. These accounts are usually deleted after the project is over. 

Option 2:  You physically come here to pick up the files, or deliver them to me

Obviously not a great solution if you live in California. lol Maybe not even a great solution if you live more than 20 minutes away.

It's still quite common for me to store data on optical discs (CD-R or DVD-R). So that's an option. But more and more clients are going for internet distribution/file sharing or some sort of portable USB drive.

Bring along a small USB flash drive, sometimes called a thumb drive, jump drive or memory stick. These things use a form of solid state memory (no moving parts). You can get them at Walmart or any decent office supply store. 16GB models are under $10. 32GB under $20. I'll tell you what the total amount of memory you would need based on the size of your project. You can also bring a portable USB hard disk drive (the spinning mechanical type) but the drive has to be formatted for Windows (FAT/NTFS). 

You can also provide any files you bring here on a CD-R or DVD-R disc. Just make sure the discs have been "closed" after the burning process. Double-check them before you leave the house to make sure the data is really there and readable. 

Most clients want to listen to mixes on the way home from the session so you can just bring your thumb drives with you and I'll load them up before you leave.
I can burn you a CD or DVD-R disc too if that's preferable. 

Option 3 - Snail-mail the files

I can put all the files on optical data discs or even better, one of those USB thumb drives and mail them. Not a bad solution. Also not the fastest method. But if you're not too PC-savvy, then this might be the best solution. A lot of times, people don't know how, or where, to download files to their PC. I've seen this happen a lot. 

One big-ass caveat with snail-mail: musicians are notoriously bad when it comes to an actual "dependable" mailing address. If you're living in you car, or the mailman can't find you, or the package ends up on your front porch or communal mail-drop area, there's no guarantee it's going to be there waiting for you when you get home. This has happened more than a few times. Obviously signature request is a solution but if you're not going to be home at that time anyway...

Option 4 - Email.  

The LEAST best option. I loath sending files via email. 

First of all, most email services have a max limit to the size of the attachments (mine is 25MB). Anything over that usually means the attachment gets stripped off the email, or the whole email gets shit-canned completely. Sometimes they make it through, but create a crashing problem. Spam filters... it's just a recipe for heartache.

Then there's the email address itself. Bad penmanship means the email address you scribbled down on that piece of toilet paper before you left might not actually be decipherable, and who knows where that file I tried to send you ended up. Then we end up in a long drawn-out moebius loop trying to send things back and forth. 

It's usually always a hassle. I like email for other things though. Simple messaging back and forth is fine. I actually prefer that over phone text for booking sessions, or for larger technical discussions. Phone text is ok for quicky messages consisting of a couple sentences or less. 

Facebook Messenger is on par with phone text. But who knows who's reading or hacking into FB these days.

In closing: if you got a better idea I'm all ears.


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