Turn the Radio Up



Alexandra Gardner

A great piece of practical advice I received in the early stages of my composing career: Always make sure that you get the best performance recordings possible. Whether you are a composer, performer, or conductor, having great recordings of your work goes a long way towards supporting and enhancing your musical career.

As a composer who often works within the realm of electronic music, following this bit of wisdom has translated into my doing increasing amounts of my own recording and production—to the point where I now supplement my composing habit by working as an audio producer and engineer, most recently in the world of public radio. After spending much time listening to and adjusting, restoring, and fixing music performance recordings for radio broadcast on shows such as Performance Today and All Things Considered, I wanted to share with you some tips and tricks to help ensure that recordings of your instrumental and electroacoustic music are broadcast ready.

Critical Listening

Having your music played on the radio is a fantastic way to reach a broader audience than might otherwise be possible in a concert situation. Public radio and college or university radio stations often have time slots devoted to classical and/or contemporary music, and public radio stations use all sorts of music to fill short breaks between programming. In addition to these possibilities is the rapidly expanding number of internet radio stations. Whether an entire composition is played on a show or a 59-second segment of a work is used as a break between programs, the music will be heard by many. In either situation it will also be documented on a playlist (usually available via the web) so that listeners can find out more information about music they like.

The good news is that even if you don’t have a commercial CD release, it is fine to submit unreleased recordings of your music from live concert performances or studio recordings for broadcast consideration (as long as certain rights issues can be cleared with your performers). However, the recordings not only need to represent strong performances but must also be recorded at a level that meets basic quality standards for stereo broadcast as determined by the producers and engineers at the stations. Making a high-quality recording can be arranged for by the performance venue, a hired audio engineer with their own recording gear, or can even be done by the composer if s/he feels comfortable doing so and has the proper equipment.

Producers handle the first stage of choosing music for a program, listening to the quality of the musical performance and determining whether the music is an appropriate fit for their particular show. Next, the chosen recordings are sent to the engineers, who perform additional quality checks and fix the recordings, if necessary and possible. If a poor recording cannot be repaired, the music won’t be used, no matter how fabulous the performance. Listed below are some essential things producers and engineers listen for when evaluating a recording. This is not only specific to radio broadcasting—these are the elements that make up a high-quality recording in any context. You can refer to this list while listening to recordings of your work, in order to assess what condition they are in, and it can provide a benchmark for listening to future recordings.

Quality of Performance

  • How strong is the musical performance overall?

  • Are there any problem spots in the performance, such as synchronization or tuning issues?

Instrumental Character

  • Can all the instruments be heard clearly?

  • Does each instrument sound like it should? If not, what is happening with the sound?

  • Do any instruments “stick out” more than others? In a piano concerto, the piano may at times sound more prominent than the other instruments, but a trombone should not drown out the violas.

Surface Quality

  • Can the full range of frequencies be heard clearly? Does the tuba sound as clear and present as the piccolo?

  • Is the complete dynamic range of the performance represented?

  • Does the recording contain hiss? This is literally a hissing noise (think about how an old cassette recording sounds) that occurs as a result of recording at excessively low levels, or from problematic equipment that adds its own noise into the recording. A small amount of hiss can be fixed in post-production.

  • Is the recording distorted? Distortion happens when recording levels are too high, and the amount of audio signal traveling to the recording device is more than the device can handle. The effect is not unlike the sound of a distorted electric guitar, but in this case the music is lost. Distortion is one problem that cannot be repaired—once there, that’s it. Distortion is a deal-breaker and will cause a recording to be rejected.

Imaging and Compatibility

  • Is the recording in stereo?

  • How wide or narrow is the stereo image? That is, how are the instruments spread out on the sound stage? The stereo image should be wide enough to hear where the instruments are located in the space, but not so wide that it sounds like there is a hole in the center of the recording. An orchestra will have a wider stereo image than a flute and piano duo.

  • Is the stereo image centered? Or does it lean to the left or right?

  • How close or far away do the instruments sound? Ideally, a concert recording should sound as if the listener is sitting in the best seat in the house. It should not sound like the listener is sitting in the lap of the first violin!

Sense of Performance Space

  • What does the performance space sound like? The recording should give some sense of the space, so a small hall will sound like a small hall, and so forth.

  • How much reverberation is present in the recording? Does it sound wet or dry? This is related to the size of the performance space—a cathedral will have more reverberation than a black box theater. The amount of reverb should be appropriate to the size of the space. If a space is excessively dry, a small amount of reverb can be carefully added during the recording process or in post-production. A large amount of reverb can be reduced during the recording process, but unfortunately it cannot be removed after the fact.

  • Is there any extraneous noise, like air conditioning noise (which can sometimes be repaired or minimized) or traffic from outside (which cannot be removed)?

The goal is for the broadcast to sound good on a wide variety of equipment—from a high-end stereo system to an old digital alarm clock with a mono radio. Common adjustments made to recordings include general volume changes, equalization (EQ) to emphasize or lower certain frequencies and eliminate noise, or changing the width and/or balance of the stereo image. Issues that will likely cause a recording to be rejected for broadcast are: a problem CD that will not play properly or that has glitches, distortion, excessive hiss, EQ problems such as missing high or low frequencies, serious stereo image problems, or if the musicians sound very far away.

Here is an example of a high quality live concert recording:

  • Silver Breaths

    And now, a poor recording, taken from a video camera:

  • Coyote (Mvt. 3)

    Hear the difference? The first example is broadcast quality. The second is definitely not.

    Practical Stuff

    Sending an Audio CD: An audio CD containing .wav or .aiff files is usually the best format to send anywhere. Make sure the labeling both on the CD itself and the case is very clear and legible. Be sure to assign track numbers to all the pieces—including movements in multi-movement compositions—and include titles, timings and names of performers/ensembles. Tracks should be properly aligned so that they begin when the music starts!

    Applause and Performance Space Ambience: If your recording is from a live concert performance, be sure to keep all the applause and the space between pieces. Producers may want to include these elements in the broadcast. A small amount of editing to cut out very long pauses or extraneous noises is acceptable, but generally it is best to include everything for a live concert feel.

    Test your CD: Although no one has time to listen all the way through every CD they burn, I highly recommend a quick spot check on a CD player, making sure there are no glitches and that the CD plays properly. It is time well spent!

    Always Include the Program: If your recording is from a public performance, always send a copy of the complete concert program, as it will contain important details such as performer names, composition titles, and information about the venue.

    Just Say No

    MP3s: The discussion continues about the pros and cons of the mp3 file format. My opinion on this issue is that mp3s are great for your iPod and for the internet, but not for presenting your music to the world outside the web. Your audio CD should contain the standard 16 bit, 44.1kHz, full-fidelity renditions of your music. Why? Not only does the mp3 encoding process significantly degrade the quality of the recording, but also because the broadcasting chain of events introduces still more processing, which makes mp3s sound even worse. For this reason many radio programs will reject recordings that arrive as mp3s. You really can hear the difference.

    Even if your music will ultimately be streamed over the web, always send the high-quality files, and let the folks doing the show deal with the encoding process.

    And remember, burning mp3s to a CD does not make CD-quality audio! It puts mp3-quality audio on a CD!

    Over Processing: In many genres of music such as rock, pop, and techno, pumping up the overall volume of a recording as much as possible has become common practice. One result of this sort of processing is that it can greatly reduce the dynamic range of the music, which is generally undesirable in any sort of music that primarily involves acoustic instruments. To avoid doing more harm than good to a recording, great care should be taken if compressing, normalizing, or adding reverb to recorded audio.

    Touring A Mix

    Let’s walk through the process of repairing a problematic recording:

    The Scenario: A composition for nine instruments from a concert in a medium-sized concert hall. Great performance, but the sound quality is a little funky. Taking a closer listen, the following issues emerge:

    • In general, the recording level is low.

    • The sound comes mostly from the left speaker.

    • The violin in particular sounds strangely harsh and metallic.

    • Overall the sound is a bit hollow and “boxy”.

    • Air handling noise from the hall produces a low rumble throughout the recording.

    • What is that thumping noise? It’s the pianist working the pedals.

    These problems can result from a combination of quirks in the performance space, from microphone placement (over which one does not always have complete control) or from choice of microphones. Now to perform a few adjustments:

    The Fixes:

    • Raise the level. The reason the levels are low, it turns out, is because there is one really loud moment in the piece, and so as not to cause distortion during that blast of sound, the remainder of the music has been captured at lower levels. Raising the level of all the music a few decibels except for that loud part will increase the volume without ruining dynamic contrast.

    • Adjust the panning. Move the pan controls to the right until the ensemble sounds centered between the left and right speakers. It’s like taking a photo of a group of people, and moving around with the camera until everyone fits into the picture.

    • Apply equalization (EQ):

      • High: The frequency range of the violin lies between 196Hz-15kHz, and that harsh, scratchy sound exists somewhere around 8kHz, depending on the instrument. Using a parametric EQ or notch filter, reducing that frequency will take the edge off the sound.

      • Medium: That hollow sound occurs at about 500Hz, in the middle of the frequency spectrum. Using EQ to cut that frequency will reduce the boxy effect.

      • Low: Employing a high pass filter somewhere between 40Hz-60Hz will minimize the rumbling and the pedal sounds.

    Everyone has their own opinions on sound quality, and how it can be maximized—these are a few options among many. In the end the most important thing is that the recording appeal to your ears. For those of you who want to try this at home, these operations can be done in ProTools, a stereo audio editor such as Peak with some plugins, or while playing your music through an EQ-equipped mixing board.

    Plan Ahead

    If this is all sounds a bit daunting, don’t despair—it is easy and not necessarily expensive to hire a professional engineer to record your performances. In fact, if your music is programmed on a festival, on a regular concert series, or within an academic setting, chances are it will be recorded. Ask the concert organizer(s) about procedures for recording concerts and how you can get a copy.

    Depending on the performance venue and the applicable union rules (performer and house unions), another option is to arrange for making a concert recording yourself. Audio engineers are everywhere and often work on a freelance basis—call local recording studios and companies that provide live sound reinforcement and ask for recommended engineers who would be interested in recording the type of music you make. Many colleges and universities have audio production programs (or music programs with a recording component) with skilled students and maybe even teachers who would be thrilled to record a performance. Call around or post signs.

    Think of a recording engineer as another musician who will be participating in the performance. If you have a concert scheduled, line up an engineer as soon as possible. If you have recordings that you think need tweaking or repair, a post-production engineer can help. In this case a short visit to a recording studio will likely connect you with the right person.

    It’s All About the Music

    In the end, attaining excellent recordings of your music is well worth the investment of time and money. Not only can your performance recordings be broadcast on the radio, but they are also handy in a variety of other contexts – as demo recordings for record labels, competitions, grant applications, and ensembles interested in playing your music. Great recordings serve to communicate all the nuances of the music as clearly as if the listener—in whatever way they may be listening—were experiencing the concert in person.

    Resources (A Few Links To Get Started)

    Radio Programs (Don’t forget about your local public radio and college stations!)

    Audio-Related Information

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    Composer Alexandra Gardner has worked for National Public Radio for the past three years, and provides digital audio consulting and training services for organizations and individuals. Her own instrumental and electroacoustic music has been performed at festivals and venues including The Aspen Music Festival, Centro de Cultura Contemporanea de Barcelona, the MATA Festival of New Music, and The Kennedy Center. Her most recent CD, Luminoso, is released on Innova Recordings. She currently resides in Washington, D.C.