Project Files

Sorry for this long-winded manifesto. There's a lot to digest here. And rightly so! If there's a single FAQ topic that you should probably pay the most attention to, this would be it. 

This FAQ topic is divided into four separate sections: 

Section A pertains to project files created here in my studio. These files are created, for the first time, during the recording sessions.

Section B
pertains to project files which are brought in from the outside (files originally recorded another place 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?)

"Project files" refers to all the individual audio files that make up a typical digital multi-track recording project. We're talking about the audio files that were created on my computer when you were recording your parts. They could also include additional files recorded outside the studio and imported into the arrangement. 

One would normally "view" the project 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.

The most common question related to project files is "Can I get the 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 project 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. 

Statistically speaking, not everyone wants the raw WAV files. Most artists are happy to leave with a stereo mix/master in the form of WAV and MP3. The master WAV is used for CD replication and some streaming services. MP3's are used for streaming and music libraries on portable devices. MP3 is a lossy format meaning it loses some of the audio quality during the encoding process. MP3 files are created and encoded directly from the WAV files. The amount of degradation in audio quality is usually unnoticeable unless you're using a high end stereo playback system.

A. Project files created here.

* The project audio files that are created here, the moment we begin recording, are in industry standard WAV format.  WAV files would normally be provided to you at the same bit depth and sampling rate as originally recorded (16 or 24 bit, 44.1 or 48 kHz). 

* I can mix down and/or export tracks as MP3 files if need be. Usually, if I'm uploading "work in progress" mixes for the client to consider, they'll be MP3 files.  Both a stereo WAV and stereo MP3 file would be created for each song at the end of the project.

* Each WAV file will be 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, which is 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.

* Unless otherwise specified you are getting the raw, dry, unprocessed WAV files (exception: see the section on Stems below). When I'm recording, the analog signals from each microphone or audio source 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 master mix. I generally don't record through 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. 

* I archive all the project files for all the projects that I record here.  For more information see the FAQ section on Archives

* The question of who actually owns the project 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/project 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 project files is important, because whoever has possession of the project 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 original files. Typically, I have no real way of knowing who actually owns, or has access rights, to the project files. Lacking any specific details, my default position is, the rightful owner is the person (or persons) 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 start booking studio dates. I will not be held accountable for any legal issues, or gastro-intestinal disorders, arising out of the handing over of 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.

 

B. Project 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. The files can be mono or stereo.

* MP3  is also an acceptable format for audio files, and they can be used as part of a multi-track recording project. Be aware, my recording app automatically converts 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. 

* We need to mutually agree on what "time zero" means. I'm referring to the time ruler at the top of the project window where the project audio begins and ends. Time zero (0:00) is technically all the way to the left in the recording app, but your actual time zero might be a marker located somewhere else along the time line. We need to understand this technicality especially if we're sharing work in progress back and forth. 

* I need to talk about the concept of exporting audio tracks out of recording software. Some people got a handle on this and some don't. Your software might refer to the process as "bouncing" or "rendering". Whatever it's called, it's the process of creating a copy of each WAV file/audio track in the project and placing those new files in a new location where they can be accessed and shared. These new files are often stored on a portable USB drive or uploaded to an internet storage account (I'm using Google Drive). It's been my observation that no two programs handle this process exactly the same way. I would not take this for granted if I were you. The first thing you should do is spot-check the new files after you create them by re-importing them back into the recording program. This way you can actually see, and hear, that the audio has been exported correctly. I've gotten lots of files in the past that were empty (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 exporting process. An even faster option is to look at the files and notice the size of each file. They should all be exactly the same size. If they're not, something went wrong with the exporting process. Stereo files would be exactly twice the size of the mono files. Usually this matter is easily resolved with a phone call.

* If the original audio was recorded as a mono file, it makes sense to export as a mono file. If it was recorded in stereo, then it should be stereo. It's just smart to do that to reduce the size of the package. 

* It would be nice if there was some informative detail included with 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. That means I have to sort through each file before I can begin the mixing work. A readme file with helpful background information is especially welcome. Contact information from the original engineer is even more welcome in case of questions. It's also recommended that we use ZIP files (all the individual files saved in one container called a ZIP file). It's easier to locate and up/download one big file as opposed to dozens or hundreds of smaller files.

* If the original files were recorded at 24 bit (or 32 float), then they can stay at 24/32 bit. You don't need to 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. Stereo masters will usually be encoded at 16/44.1

* I should also mention "portastudios". I get a lot of projects here that were originally recorded at home on a portastudio. The term 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. Bring the user manual along if you have one, just in case.

THE BOTTOM LINE. The reason why I'm harping on these matters is because I've seen sessions ruined because the files I received were damaged or improperly formatted. You can't be too careful about the integrity of the project files. Don't trust anyone but yourself. If you don't trust yourself to confirm the validity or integrity of your files, seek out someone else to help verify things. 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.

https://www.grammy.com/recording-academy/producers-and-engineers/guidelines

https://www.grammypro.com/sites/default/files/delivery_recommendations_for_recorded_music_projects_10_10_17.pdf


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 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 your song files off my computer and into the hands of those that need it? The answer is: it depends.

The basic problem is "size". If the files were really tiny to begin with, I could ZIP them all up and attach the ZIP file 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. 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 who are "tech savvy" 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. 

Services such as  Google DriveMicrosoft OneDriveDropbox or Hightail offer affordable on-line storage options. Most of these service providers have a freebee "basic" option with a small, but useful, amount of storage space. Google has some really nice on-line data storage services that are ridiculously inexpensive. 

You have to set up an account first in order for people to access the files/folders where the data resides. If you're the receiving party, usually you will get an email with an HTML link directly to the folder location along with any login/download instructions. There's a fair amount of coordination that often happens between parties before you get to that point. If your email account has spam protection or some form of virus/security safeguards in place, you may never even get the message. 

Keep in mind these are "temporary" storage solutions. Your files are typically removed soon after you've retrieved them. 

I have a Google Drive account with 15GB of storage. Another 5GB through my website host service. Both of these options require that you have an active email account so I can alert you to the presence and location of files that are ready for you to access. I will not use cell phone text messaging or Facebook Messenger to share this information with you or anyone. Email That's it! 

 Any work in progress remains there until we're done. At the end of the project, I will coordinate with you to make sure you have the final masters or project data, and then the on-line files will be removed. We will definitely have discussions about this during the course of the project. My main goal is to make the process of file sharing as effortless as possible for you. I'm not leaving you in the dark. Even if it means a house call to help you get this set up on your PC.

If I am being tasked to get the files to a 3rd-party producer or engineer, I will need their contact info (email is best but a phone# also helps). They will usually already have a storage solution set up for sending them the files. They will provide me with instructions. I prefer that there is no intermediary involved in this. I insist on having a direct line of communication with the receiving parties. 

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

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

It's still quite common for me to provide data on optical discs (CD-R or DVD-R) or a USB flash drive. Some clients want a hard copy. Makes sense. So that's an option. 

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. Get one with the most amount of memory you can afford. At least 16 GB. 32 GB would be better. 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. 

Option 3 - Snail-mail the files

I can put all the files on optical data discs, or thumb drives, and mail them to you. Not a bad solution. Also, obviously, not the fastest method. And this method will likely incur charges. Whatever I charge you will depend on the shipping costs (how fast do you need the package delivered).

This assumes you have a computer with either a USB port and/or a CD/DVD drive, because you'll be getting materials that you hold in your hand, such as a flash drive or optical media. This should be obvious but there are a lot of netbooks in use out there. 

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 your 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 (including social media/cell phone/text messaging)

In my opinion, traditional email is the LEAST best option for sending files back and forth mainly due to the size limitation of attachments, and spam filters, and whatever else gets in the way. It is, however, the BEST solution for "letter writing" or more complicated forms of electronic text messaging. 

Here's the mega-problem with traditional email: most email services have a maximum limit to the size of the attachments (mine is 25MB). Anything over that usually means the attachment gets stripped off the email, or worse, the whole email gets shit-canned completely. Spam filters are another problem... it's usually just a recipe for heartache. It's the best solution for the more formal method of "letter writing" which in my case includes studio business like booking sessions or inquiries about my abilities or studio solutions.

The various forms of social media messaging (including cell phone texting) have, in many ways, replaced traditional email as a means of communication. However... social media is a poor option when it comes to sharing larger amounts of technical data. If it requires more than a sentence or two, I prefer email. Bands are using Facebook messenger to communicate in a group format. That makes sense. But... there's also risk. Anything "social media" has a very short shelf-life, meaning, messages disappear or are buried quickly. Cell phone texts disappear even faster.  

As long as I'm on this subject, let me just alert you to the fact that I'm now avoiding all forms of social media messaging (including cell phone texting) for booking sessions or anything above a sentence or two. It's too risky. I easy resort to phone calling when things get too complicated lol.

 

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