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Sound Advice

“If It’s Not on Paper, It Doesn’t Exist!” by Doug McClement

Audio engineers by nature enjoy setting up mics, getting sounds, making adjustments to equipment and capturing great performances on their audio storage medium of choice, whether it’s analog, digital tape, or hard-disk. They generally don’t like spending time writing stuff down. If they did, they would have gone into accounting or journalism. Nothing wrong with those occupations, but definitely not enough knobs and coloured lights to keep the readers of this magazine happy!

Yet proper documentation is a crucial part of any production, especially these days when it is common for an album project to do bed tracks in one studio, overdubs in another, mixing in a third, and mastering in yet another facility.

When I receive materials from another studio, I hate having to spend half an hour figuring out what is on the tape and what format was used. Here are some tips on maintaining the proper paper trail:

Tracksheets
Every studio makes up their own custom tracksheets. Many include only the most basic information. The best one I’ve seen was designed by the staff at Power Station in New York. In addition to track number and instrument, their tracksheets contained a box for type of microphone, effects used, EQ settings, comments, engineer, and date of session (for each track). This makes it much easier to duplicate a setup if something needs to be punched in. It also shows you which track has the most recent version of a vocal or solo.

At the top of the form, there were areas to denote song title, counter start number, tape speed or sampling rate, SMPTE frame rate, name of engineer and producer, and date.

On the back, there was a section that allowed you to write down the various verse, chorus sections for each song, and their start times.

The track sheet should contain enough information that the second engineer can pull it out and tell exactly what’s on the tape and where it can be found. Never assume that your studio will be the last place to play back a tape. Someone may have to do a remix 10 years from now, and you may not be around to answer questions. Whenever possible, the tracksheet should stay in the box with the tape. This is more difficult with DA-88 and ADAT formats, due to the size of the medium. At LiveWire, we use white 7″ cardboard boxes originally designed for 4 track ½ inch analog tape. They hold up to four DA-88 tapes and all the documentation in a neat, easy to label package.

Cue Sheets
Cue sheets list the songs contained on the tape, with their times, and whether or not the take is complete (CT) incomplete (IT) or a false start (FS). A column for comments is a good idea as well. (“drummer slowed down”, “guitarist broke a string” etc.) Otherwise, if the band does eight takes of a tune, the odds on you remembering two months from now what makes take six different from take seven will be slim indeed.

Be sure to label which take was the “keeper” and which one was used for the final mix. If you are doing multiple mixes, be sure to label which ones are “vocals up 2db” or “bass down 3db”.

Tape Box Labels
The tape box label serves two purposes: it identifies what is on the tape, and it acts as advertising for your studio. All studios should have their own labels for reels, DA-88s, ADATS, cassettes, and CDs. The tape will end up on a shelf at the band’s management company or at a record label. It might as well have your studio’s name and address on it, as opposed to some big tape manufacturers.

Never let a tape or CD leave your studio without a custom label. You can preprint the most commonly written info, so that the engineer can just check off the appropriate boxes rather than having to write everything out each time (tape speed, sampling rate, SMPTE frame rate, master or dub, number of tracks, etc.). The exterior label should contain enough information that a 12-year-old could pull it out and figure out what is on the tape without having to play it. This would include the name of the artist, client (record label), engineer, date of session, etc.

At LiveWire, our DA-88 labels act as miniature track sheets for each tape. That way, if the overall tracksheet gets lost, you can still figure out what’s on the tape. There is software available from some companies that allow you to print up labels using your own computer, as opposed to using a print shop. Check the classified section of one of the popular recording magazines.

Your studio should also establish a clear method of identifying multiple tapes from the same session, especially in the case of ADATs and DA-88s. Most Toronto studios denote tracks 1-8 as A, 2-16 as B, etc. So if it was a 24-track session, spread over two sets of tapes, the first set would be labelled 1A, 1B, 1C, and the second 2A, 2B, 2C. It doesn’t matter what you use, as long as it makes sense and is consistent. I use coloured dot stickers on the spine of the tape box to make it easier to spot which tapes belong to which set. You can pick them up at any office supply store in the label section. This becomes really important when you are mixing a live album done of 48 tracks of DA88, where the band recorded 10 shows. Now you’ve got 60 tapes to keep track of. Just keeping the right tape in the right box is a chore. Colour coding makes it much easier.

To sum up, the session is not over until the tapes are properly documented. Don’t let the next engineer in the food chain be cursing you at 3 a.m. for not giving him enough information to do his job properly. Professional engineers have professionally labelled tapes. In the end, it makes you and your studio look good, and helps ensure return business from satisfied clients.

Doug McClement is President and Chief Engineer at LiveWire Remote Recorders, one of Canada’s premier audio mobiles. Be sure to check out their Web site at www.livewire-remote.com.

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