As we musical folk gain experience, we develop practices to make our work go more efficiently. Commonly, we learn about or develop templates, charts, checklists, letters, and other types of documents that we reuse and refine, as experience informs us how to make them more useful and effective. Some of these forms have become common, or even more or less standardized, in the music industry.

My new book, Music Industry Forms, is a collection of 75 such forms, snatched from the clipboards of many veterans of the concert hall, control room, film scoring stage, and publishing house. It presents and describes sample forms with annotations and lists of commonly associated terminology and symbols. The book serves as a kind of field guide to the music industry, with many tools to make our work here easier.

If you’ve followed this blog, you might have noticed that I’ve been interviewing authors of Berklee Press new releases. Now, with another book of my own hot off the presses, the tables are turned. To pinch-hit and to keep me from publicly talking to myself, I’ve invited my colleague/friend and former Berklee Press editor Susan Gedutis Lindsay to interview me about this new Berklee Press publication. Sue is the associate director of instructional design at Berklee College of Music. She’s also an author, an ethnomusicologist, and an active performing musician. A total rock star, really.

Here’s our conversation about Music Industry Forms.

Sue: How can forms improve a musician’s career?

Jonathan: They help clarify what work is required and ensure quality control. This helps keep everyone’s efforts focused on completing the project vision efficiently: on time, within budget, and to the highest possible quality standard.

How did you first get the idea for this book?

Originally, I planned to have a few common forms in the appendix of my previous book, Project Management for Musicians. But I kept turning up more and more useful forms that I wanted to write about, and it started taking on its own identity, so we decided to spin off the “forms” concept into its own book.

How did you get the ideas for these forms? Did they come to you in a dream? A vision?

No way, these all come from real life! My favorite form, the stage plot, is one that I lived out of during my days working in concert hall operations. Then, over my years of editing books about the music industry, I’ve learned about many other forms. Often, as an editor, when I try to press my authors to be extremely specific about some dimension of what they are writing about, or to show examples, the conversation ultimately leads them to whip out a form. Like, “spotting sheets” come up periodically in books about film music. A spotting sheet is used when a composer and film director sit down to discuss what type of music will go with each scene. My authors Lalo Schifrin, Richard Davis, and Mark Cross all discuss them in their books. They are standard practice in the film music industry, and people trying to break in need to understand them. So, I’ve found that musicians are using a lot of forms, particularly the ones who have been at it for a while. (Film director/script writer Isaac Ho also helped me come up with some good samples of those, and some others.)

Why are stage plots your favorite?

Beyond evoking fond memories (it was fun being a stagehand/manager), stage plots are great simplifiers. Consider the task of setting up for a 100-piece orchestra. That’s a lot of gear! But the stage plot reveals the location of every chair, music stand, piano, riser, and so on, bringing order to the complexity. Pass around a stage plot, and everyone relaxes.

So, many of the forms in this book were from personal experience as a musician, and others are forms that you pulled from a large catalog of Berklee books that address many aspects of the professional music industry.

Yes. And from my Berklee Online course, Project Management for Musicians. Also, I interviewed quite a few experts, for all these projects. For example, mastering engineer Jonathan Wyner was very generous with his time in showing me around his studio and discussing what forms he found most helpful for organizing audio media. I used models by him and others as starting points for many of the forms that are in the book, doing some additional research with some other engineers, and then tried to present what seems to be a sort of consensus on what is the most useful information to include, for them. And then back to the original experts for a final sniff. That was my usual process.

What sort of musician would this book be best for? How would it help me, a musician who only seeks to play local gigs but makes enough money at it to actually have a separate band bank account? Or a cover band musician, or a GB musican, for that matter?

Oh, I got forms for everybody.

Ha. Okay, okay. I must say that, when I read this book, all these forms opened a window to business possibilities I had not even considered.

For a gigging musician like you, there are sample gear checklists, registers for how to track what merch you’re selling at gigs, some worksheets for putting together set lists or strategically ordering songs on albums…. There’s one that shows you how to figure out how many recordings you need to sell in order to break even financially, given your investment. A zillion others. You read it. Did anything in particular strike your fancy?

I found the telephone tree interesting. Even with five people in a band, that’s a lot of calls to make when you’re stressed right before a gig.

Yes, it’s like a lever, making an odious job easier. That one’s a classic form, and one of just a few here that are used all over the world, from political campaigns to emergency school closings, beyond just in the music industry. Most forms in the book are more music-centric than this, though some have analogues elsewhere. The graphic design spec is another example of a form with longer legs. But musicians manage a lot of graphic design, for album covers, band logos, websites, and such, so it’s a good communication tool to know about.

Tell me about the Nashville chart.  

Nashville notation evolved in the recordings studios of that fine city. It’s a type of numeral-based chord chart optimized for rhythm section players who want to get the essential information for developing their parts, in a form that is very easy to transpose to other keys. So, for studio rhythm-section musicians working with vocalists, it is generally exactly the right amount of information they require, and easily scrawled out on the fly. Very efficient, for certain kinds of players. And utterly cryptic to everyone else! Songwriter/producer/Berklee Online Instructor Shane Adams was a great help with that one.

Will there be a place that someone can download Excel files for some of the forms you mention? Templates?

Now and then, I post a form at Really, though, I think these samples should be seen as starting points for your own forms. People hate forms that are not completely on target for their work at hand, and using templates can sometimes lead to extraneous requests for non-critical information. It’s why so many forms still waste people’s time by requesting fax numbers—or worse, Telex! Also, many of these are ideally scribbled out on the spot, with a pencil, in the heat of battle. So, the concept is often more important than the actual sample.

Right. But what I also know from my own experience is that people love it when you do forms “right.” For example, the press release template you included. Formatting your press release in the right way makes you look more professional to a journalist. They have a way that they expect to see things, and if you deliver it in that format, then they see you as more of a professional and they pay attention. I wonder if that applies to some of the other forms, too? If so, which ones?

There are definitely some standard practices, and I quote chapter and verse when I find it. That said, I find a huge amount of variation. Some organizations do have exacting standards for certain types of forms. Conventions for indicating chairs and music stands on a stage plot are pretty standard everywhere. Spotting sheets, though, have different layouts at different studios. (I give two competing versions of that one.) Industrywide, most of the time, I think it’s more about being neat and organized and easy to figure out. But yes, there are some conventions, and certain places will really insist on their own form being used, like cue sheets for the different PROs. Same, same, only different. I tried throughout to give both standard formats and terminology, and also some common variations.

How did you ever score an endorsement from John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants?

I bribed his wife with an alpaca fleece.

HA! How did you even reach her? I need to hear more.

Isn’t it better if that’s my only answer?

Okay, okay, okay.

I’ll add, though, that Robin Goldwasser is a very gifted artist in her own right: actress, musician, and puppet maker. And she’s crazy for fiber. Fortunately.

And I have to say, I am a bit in awe of my back cover blurbists. John Flansburgh, Gary Burton, Marcus Hummon, and Sean Slade. Ridiculous/earth-shattering talent, back there. Their generous quotes are on the product page.

If there were one person on your birthday list that you would give this book to, who is it? Tell me about that person.

YOU. Because You are so Awesome.

Hahah! There’s a lot there that I can use!

After you, I’d give it to musicians at the beginning of their career, who are trying to figure out this vast, crazy, complex world of the music industry. Especially musicians with a history of bringing me chocolate.

Was this a fun book to write?

Yes, this was probably the most fun book I’ve written. Project Management for Musicians is really a deep, methodical exploration of how to get music projects done, and kind of an epic journey about how to become a professional. Hopefully, it’s useful, but yes, it’s also a bit exhausting. Writing this book, to me, was more like discovering a series of little lightbulbs—almost like compiling a book of cartoons. It was fun because it was eclectic, giving me a chance to talk to performers, engineers, concert operations folks, songwriters—lots of people all around the industry, and everyone here is such a character. These forms are each a delight because they can make life so much easier. It’s a joy to be around them.

The book is like a field guide to the nuts-and-bolts mechanisms that really make the music industry possible. To me, each form was a revelation, giving insight into how to make the magic happen. That’s fun!

What’s next?

Well, I’ve been enjoying presenting live workshops about the creative process and music project management, and there are some interesting opportunities in the works along those lines. I continue teaching my two courses at Berklee Online and editing books for Berklee Press—a few great titles in the works, there. My next freelance writing is actually going to be through as their music education expert. I’m editing my wife Marci’s next book about charter school boards, and I’m hoping to edit a book or two about beekeeping. So, I’m keeping busy, occasionally stepping out of the music industry and then bringing the stolen fire back home. It’s always an adventure.

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Learning to Listen, by Gary Burton

Gary Burton is a seven-time GRAMMY-award winning vibraphonist, bandleader, and educator. In his recent autobiography Learning to Listen (Berklee Press, 2013), he talks about his life and his experiences with a pantheon of the past century’s greatest musicians, including Stan Getz, George Shearing, Chick Corea, Astor Piazzolla, Pat Metheny, John Cage, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Harry Partch, and so many others. He also delves deep into personal dimensions of his life, such as love, aging, and the process of making music. It is truly a must read for any musician or fan.

Closer to home, over the course of three decades, Gary was a Berklee student, professor, dean, and executive vice president. He has played a critical role in the creation of the Berklee Online school, where he continues to teach his course in improvisation, as well as a free Coursera course. A personal note: he was also on the committee that hired me at Berklee Press, back in 1998. So, in addition to being delighted by his answering a few of my lingering questions here, leftover from working on his book, I’m very grateful for his contributions at Berklee, and really quite thrilled to offer this interview. And Learning to Listen was such a fun book for us to publish.

Jonathan: What have been some of the most important learning breakthroughs in your development as an artist?

Gary: I think the most important learning breakthroughs have been new awarenesses resulting from information or influences from other musicians, starting with my first teachers in my teens and at Berklee. Then in my professional career, I can say that I learned about the wonders of harmony from pianist George Shearing, and the strength of melody from saxophonist Stan Getz. From bandoneon maestro Astor Piazzolla, I learned about the possibilities for drama in music.

Sometimes, I think the potential for knowing everything about music is inside our brains, and every now and then, the right stimuli come together, and suddenly, something new is suddenly obvious and clear. That moment is a very inspiring experience.

What types of practice do you find most productive?

I believe in not wasting time when practicing. Endless repetition of boring exercises may provide some improvement, but I think it’s best to have a plan for what you want to accomplish from a practice opportunity, and focus intently on it. Better to practice one hour with great attention and focus than four hours messing around with a little of this and that.

How do you think about the overall shape of your improvisations? Do you imagine or construct the solo’s architecture in advance?

I never plan precisely what may take place in my solo. I want to be as spontaneous as possible. But, to some extent, I envision a general overview of my solo before I get underway. That is, I have a general sense of how long it might be (one chorus, two choruses, etc.), and I have a sense of the emotional character of the song that I want to express in my interpretation of the song. In addition, I have a sense of the compositional structure of the song, which will influence the organization of my solo.

Do you associate any moods or colors or other connotations with any specific notes or tonal centers?

The association of colors with note pitches is an actual human ability called synesthesia. Isaac Newton assigned a primary color to each note of the major scale, supposedly. I have read that British painter David Hockney has a strong sense of color relationship to music. So it obviously is true for some people. I have to say, I have never had a moment where music suggested any color. In fact, I also have never seen music as a literal representation of things like political or social causes, etc. But, certainly some musicians create music specifically intended to be representative of historic events, religious symbols, etc.

What advice do you have for how to audition other musicians, and/or for spotting talent?

Assessing a musician’s abilities is very subjective, and different people will come to different conclusions. Of course, it doesn’t take much time to determine if a musician has his or her basic skills developed: time feel, intonation, sound, sight-reading, harmony, etc.  After that, it becomes a matter of looking for compatible elements of style. A perfectly excellent musician may not necessarily be a good fit for the music I am planning, for instance. Sometimes, I can tell very quickly if a musician is likely to have a good rapport with my music. Other times, it doesn’t become clear until a fair amount of experimentation has taken place.

What advice do you have for forming a band?

The drummer is the most important player in the band. The drummer controls the volume levels, the time feel, the shape of the tunes, etc. As I often say, once I count of a song, the drummer is the one in charge of how the tune gets played. I spend twice as much time talking to the drummer, as any other player in the band. In order to get the results I want on a song, I have to make sure the drummer understands and shares my vision of how to interpret the song.

How do you get the best performances out of other musicians?

It’s a combination of letting players have a lot of freedom, but stepping in to subtly adjust what people are doing to keep the overall group in harmony. It’s a challenge and something of a talent that some leaders have instinctively.

In your book, you describe your associations with a great many other world class artists, many of whom have left us. Who do you miss playing with the most?

I probably miss Astor Piazzolla the most, even though he wasn’t a jazz musician. I learned a tremendous amount about music from him in the limited time we got to play together (most of a year, 1985). The influential musicians I teamed up with early in my career, George Shearing and Stan Getz, were essentially players, not prolific composers. In the case of Piazzolla, not only was tango—the music Piazzolla dominated for fifty years—a totally new genre for me to explore, but I was working with the leading composer of the music as well.

Piazzolla completed over fifty albums of original music during his career, ranging from symphonic works to opera, and countless small ensemble compositions, a number of which remain part of any essential tango repertoire. Imagine, maybe, collaborating with Duke Ellington, the most prominent jazz composer for half a century. That’s what it was like playing with Astor every night. How he described the details of the music he had composed for me, helping me to understand how to interpret his music, that’s an experience I’ll never forget.

Could you share one of your favorite performances?

Sure. This is from a London concert by the Stan Getz Quartet in 1966, near the end of my three years with the band. The other musicians are Steve Swallow on bass, who I ultimately worked with for over twenty years in my own bands, and legendary drummer Roy Haynes, who also played in my group later on. This quartet was an ideal setting for Getz, showing off his lyrical melodic talents. Up to that time, this was the best band I had ever played with, and it wasn’t easy, at age twenty-three, making the decision to strike out on my own.


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If you play jazz guitar, you are sure to appreciate Michael Kaplan’s new book of meticulous transcriptions, Bebop Guitar Solos (Berklee Press, 2014). Michael is the director of the American Guitar Academy in Tokyo. In this interview, he gives some tips about both performing bebop and preparing transcriptions, and then shares one of his favorite Wes Montgomery recordings.

Jonathan: What draws you to bebop? 

Michael: The fact that it swings, and swings hard! In addition, the passion and fire that the musicians play with as well as the constant life long search for more.  We are always practicing, looking for new ideas and ways to do things both harmonically and rhythmically. It is akin to a spiritual pursuit.

What is the role of soloing in bebop?  

Soloing is the essence of bebop.  Typically you have a head (melody) that is played at the beginning and the end of the tune, and the rest is solos by the instrumentalists.

Are there any differences between bebop solos and those of other genres? 

Fundamentally, an improvised solo is an improvised solo, in any genre, be it blues, jazz, rock, etc. However, in jazz, it is actually more about listening than playing.  You need to listen to the other musicians and connect so you can have a coherent conversation with them. Furthermore, a bebop solo should contain some of the characteristic bebop vocabulary.

What are the classic guitar rigs for classic bebop? (Instruments, effects, amps, strings, setup, etc.) 

Basically, a hollow body guitar with heavy gauge strings plugged straight into an amplifier.

What special guitar techniques are particularly useful/characteristic in bebop? 

For me, there is a lot of slurring (hammer-ons and pull-offs) in order to generate a good swing feel and sound more like a horn player. That being said, there are some great guitarists such as Pat Martino who pick almost every note and swing very hard, so it is difficult to say.  It would also be a wise idea to be able to play both vertically, up and down the guitar neck, as well as horizontally, across the guitar neck.  Ideally, you want to combine these two approaches of position playing and vertical playing.

What technical exercises do you recommend for building facility at this type of playing? 

Listen, listen, listen, and when you are done, listen some more!  This is a language that you must get in your head, your ears, and your bones.  In addition, play your instrument as much as possible.  Play along with the famous classic recordings, go to jam sessions, and play.  You must practice communicating with other musicians in real time, not just sitting home and practicing by yourself.

What is your methodology for transcribing solos, particularly complex ones such as these? 

First, I listen to the solo multiple times until I have it in my head and ears.  I then sit down with the guitar and figure out what I can by recalling the solo from memory.  Next, I sit down with the recording, put on a good pair of headphones to get inside the music, and figure out some of the more difficult phrases.  I do not write down the solo until I can play the whole thing on the guitar from memory with the recording.  If I go phrase by phrase, I cannot get a whole sense of the solo.  I also will not remember it in the future.

How do you decide how much detail to include in a written transcription, regarding nuances of rhythm, ornamentation, and articulation? 

I am very meticulous in making sure that the notes and rhythms are notated correctly.  I do my best with the nuances, ornamentations, and articulations.  However, just as it would be easy to transcribe a written speech, it would be very difficult to put in all of the articulation, nuances, and rhythms of the speaker.  The notes on the paper cannot compare to the actual recording. Notation is more or less a guide to get you going in the right direction.  It would be nearly impossible to play the solos correctly with only the written notation having not heard and studied the recording.

Could you recommend one of your famous bebop performances? What should we listen for? 

Here is a version of Wes Montgomery playing “The Way You Look Tonight.” Listen for how effortlessly he plays at this fast tempo, in addition to the bebop vocabulary and his incredible swing feel.


Study Jazz Guitar Online at Berklee!

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Rebecca Cline is author of Latin Jazz Piano Improvisation (Berklee Press, 2013). She is an associate professor in the ensemble and piano departments at Berklee College of Music.

How is playing Afro-Cuban/Latin jazz different from American jazz?

For me, the biggest difference is the language I speak with my colleagues. Usually, when I play Afro-Cuban or Latin jazz with a band, the band members are native Spanish speakers, so we generally speak Spanish to each other. When I play straight-ahead jazz, even though the band members can be from countries other than the U.S., the common language is English. I usually laugh more hanging out with my Spanish-speaking colleagues!

What is the role of clave in a Latin groove?

The rhythmic pattern called “clave” determines the rhythmic patterns that are played by all of the instruments in the ensemble. For more details, check out the first half of my book!

Does the piano have any different kinds of role in Latin music, compared to other genres?

Let’s limit our discussion to Afro-Cuban popular music instead of trying to address the broader category of Latin music. The roots of the piano in Afro-Cuban popular music can be traced to the traditions of danzón and son montuno. In danzón, the piano often plays arpeggios and elegant runs, which can be rhythmically vague. By contrast, the son montuno demands a stronger rhythmic role from the piano by way of the typical piano guajeo (or montuno or tumbao).

Many arrangements of popular Afro-Cuban music begin with a romantic section that calls for fills, comping, and/or arpeggios from the piano. But as the arrangement progresses into a more driving, danceable section, the piano plays a very percussive tumbao.

What struggles or misconceptions are commonly shared by students who come to Latin jazz from outside that culture?

I find that students are sometimes intimidated by the terminology and by the preponderance of sub-genres of Cuban popular and folkloric music. There are often three words for a given item, such as the montuno (also known as tumbao, also known as guajeo). Similarly, a single word can signify more than one thing. Again, the word, “montuno.” It can refer to a pattern played by the piano, a section in an arrangement, or a sub-genre of the Cuban son, as in “son montuno.”

In addition, students often think that in Latin jazz, they should accompany by playing a montuno all the time. While there are some bands that might have the pianist play a montuno from start to finish, it is more common to progress from comping with a sense of clave to a climactic montuno.

The rhythms in this music can be complex, and particularly at up-tempo grooves, it is easy to lose your place in the form. Do you have any tips in finding beat 1?

The main thing to know is that beat 4 can sound like beat 1. This is because the typical bass line anticipates the harmony by a quarter note. If you are used to hearing the root of the chord on the downbeat, as in rock or funk, it can take some practice to recognize beat 4 in Afro-Cuban music as beat 4 instead of mistaking it for beat 1. Chapter 5 in my book addresses this topic. In the book, there is a transcription of a bass line and a piano montuno from one of the tracks on the recording. The reader is encouraged to follow (read) the written-out bass line while listening to the performance in order to see and hear how the bass anticipates the harmony.

Are there differences in how solos are structured or shared, such as how many choruses are typical for a single player, or how many players solo in a tune?

Just as in jazz, this varies according to each bandleader’s taste, and according to context, such as whether the performance is live or in the recording studio, and how big the band is. Players tend to stretch (play longer and with a strong sense of exploration) when playing live, while sometimes players are encouraged to play shorter and/or fewer solos in the studio, in the interest of creating shorter tracks and/or variety between tracks.

Some bandleaders take a traditional approach by presenting the melody, having everybody solo, and playing the head out, and continue to adhere to this formula throughout the set. By contrast, some bandleaders try to achieve variety and an element of unpredictability by featuring different soloists throughout the set.

What issues of ensemble etiquette are there to keep in mind?

One of the most important aspects of ensemble etiquette in the performance of a clave-based tune is to maintain an awareness of the clave throughout. Implying “the wrong clave,” or clave in a different place than where it is, feels like a jazz drummer suddenly playing the hi-hat on beats 1 and 3 (instead of 2 and 4).

Another important consideration is balance. Pianists are rarely offenders in this area, but each musician should listen for how his or her sound balances with the rest of the ensemble. No one instrument should drown out another.

As a pianist, another thing to keep in mind is the level of activity in one’s comping. Be careful not to start off comping with a montuno if the soloist is trying to tell a story with some sort of arc. It’s probably better to start comping with more subtlety and gradually build up to a montuno, if that’s what the music calls for.

One situation in which comping with a montuno is almost always a bad idea is during a bass solo. The montuno is one part of a musical machine, of which another key part is the bass line. If that bass line is absent, the montuno can sound out of context, and it can rob attention from the bass solo.

How did you learn to play Latin jazz piano?

I will always be learning how to play the piano, and how to play Latin jazz piano. But I have learned a lot from transcribing pianists and playing along with recordings, from watching pianists at live performances, and from playing gigs with great players who know more about it than I do.

I did study with the great Jesús “Chucho” Valdés in Cuba in 1996, but I was such a beginner in both jazz and Latin jazz at that time that the main thing that I took from that experience was a sense of the breadth of possibility that awaited me once I got the basics together.

I also had a teacher for a short time toward the end of my years living in Puerto Rico. Pianist Luis Marín generously shared his vast musical knowledge with me.

Were other musicians welcoming?

Perhaps surprisingly, yes! I started playing popular (non-Classical) music shortly after moving to Puerto Rico when I was 22. I was terrified to sit in on a regular gig in Old San Juan that I attended faithfully, week after week, month after month. But the musicians were very encouraging. They assured me that I would never feel ready and that I just had to dive in. They were right, and eventually I did.

For several years, I gigged a lot as a side musician in Puerto Rico and enjoyed a genuine sense of camaraderie with my fellow musicians. That was a wonderful, nurturing environment for my musical growth, and I’m very grateful to those fantastic musicians/human beings.

Did you struggle to find the authentic Latin jazz, rather than more Americanized adaptations?

Not in Puerto Rico or Cuba. Once in a while, I run into that stylized stuff on the Web and I just can’t stand it, so I turn it off.

Who were your most important mentors?

Luis Marín, Bill Gordon and Charlie Banacos.

Do you remember any particularly helpful tips that they shared that revealed to you something profound about the music?

Luis Marín impressed upon me that Eddie Palmieri is great because of his superior sense of time. I had performed for Luis a solo of Palmieri’s that I had transcribed. It was “Bomba de Corazón” from Palo Pa’ Rumba. Luis told me that while the solo was indeed great, it really was not the point. Palmieri’s time was what it all came down to. That was revelatory for me because until that point, my perception had been the complete opposite: that time playing was secondary and that soloing was the real business. I think that is a typical misconception among young players.

What first inspired you to learn to play Latin jazz?

Michel Camilo! I know I am not alone in that.

Could you recommend an inspiring recording? What should we listen for?

A track that has really inspired me lately is Osmany Paredes’ “Tumbaíto Pa’ Tí” from his 2013 album, Trio Time. The track is pure joy from start to finish. I love how Osmany plays with the clave as he improvises, then how he grooves with a funky two-handed clavinet-like rhythmic thing before the band enters. And his tumbao behind the drum solo is killing.


Here the track “Sombras” from the accompanying recording to Latin Jazz Piano Improvisation, which includes a transcription of Rebecca’s piano solo (beginning at 3’30”).


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Harmony, of course, is one of the core components of musical study by all western musicians. It concerns how notes relate to each other, based both on the physical properties of sound and various cultural ways that these interrelationships are put to use expressively. Harmony can define musical genre, and even within individual styles, the nuances of how individuals will handle notes and chords continue to inspire infinite colors, if not opinions.

Berklee Press recently published “The Berklee Book of Jazz Harmony,” an extraordinarily deep and yet practical exploration of jazz harmony and how to use it. Its authors are Joe Mulholland and Tom Hojnacki, the chair and assistant chair of Berklee’s harmony department. Joe and Tom have helped to educate thousands of students, watching them transform their skills and expressive breadth through the study of harmony, so they have a unique perspective on how the study of harmony relates to the evolution of a musician. They both have developed many courses used at Berklee, including Joe’s Berklee Online course, Jazz Composition.

In this interview, Joe and Tom offer some thoughts about key harmonic principles, as well as turn us on to some inspiring music.

How do musicians’ conceptions of harmony typically evolve during the course of their careers?

Joe Mulholland: For most people, it seems there is no straight line. For example, Miles Davis first digested the harmonic intricacies of bebop, he then engaged in a radical simplification of his harmonic envelope during the modal, Kind of Blue period. Next, he embraced the harmonic innovations of Shorter and Hancock in his mid ’60s quintet and then abandoned that in favor of simple vamps and quasi-free tonality in the ’70s. At the end of his career, he chose a lot of simple pop tunes as vehicles for improvisation.

My own development has proceeded on several fronts. I started out playing a mix of blues and rock tunes from the ’60s and ’70s, but always had a parallel interest in jazz and, to a lesser degree, classical music. Being a pianist and amateur guitarist, I loved chord progressions and the power and nuance they brought to music, so I explored each of these areas when I had the time or opportunity to do so. More recently, the best of Brazilian popular music has been a very productive field for new ideas. I love harmonic richness and complexity, but never for its own sake. I am always aware that simplicity and directness of expression are prime values.

Tom Hojnacki:  I think that most of us start out by learning how to play a few chords and using them to harmonize tunes. I had classical piano lessons as a child and had a facility for reading written arrangements but didn’t really consider the vertical or harmonic aspect of the music. Around the age of ten, my cousins taught me to play some folk and rock songs on the guitar. I later got hold of published sheet music for the songs; something like the Time/Life Great Songs of the ’60s collection.  In the back of the book, I discovered a chart that translated chord symbols into piano notation, so I was then able to play these same songs and sing them at the piano independent of the original arrangement. That was the start of my interest in harmony. I think musicians who are attracted to rock and jazz music learn a few simple songs and sense that there are harmonic patterns that occur repeatedly in different songs. As our knowledge of repertoire increases we encounter tunes that are harmonically more complex.  Many of us seek a theory of music that explains the relationships we sense, and helps to explain the various patterns we encounter in the tunes so that we can improvise within them. Ultimately, what the theory helps us to understand is that more complex tunes, even though they have very intricate and exotic sounding surface harmonies, are still at the bedrock level based on the move from tonic to subdominant or dominant and back to tonic.

What is chord scale theory, and how does it make music more effective?

JM: Chord scale theory is a way of organizing, prioritizing, and choosing the notes in a tonal environment. Awareness of functional harmonic categories (tonic/subdominant/dominant, modal interchange, substitute dominant, etc.) guides the process. It is ultimately nothing more than listening carefully to all the possible choices of notes in a given moment of music and choosing the best ones.

TH: In a way, knowledge of chord scales can be like training wheels for your ears. They guide you in your choices until you can pedal off on your own!

What is a tension substitution?

JM: Replacing a chord tone in a voicing with one of the tensions of the chord.

When and why should tensions be substituted?

JM: Tensions substitution is used for a more complex, richer sound in a voicing. It can provide more colors and create opportunities for chromatic voice leading in an arrangement or accompaniment.

TH: But more importantly, we should be asking the question, “What is a tension?”

Okay, what is a tension!

TH: Chords at the most basic level consists of triads (three-note chords: root, 3, and 5) and seventh chords (four-note chords: root, 3, 5, and 7). These chords are conceived as stacks of thirds. Tensions extend the stack with more thirds (up to seven or in some cases eight notes: root, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13). These extensions of the basic chord types add more color or tension to the harmony and also help to clarify the role that each chord will play in a progression. If chords are like actors in a drama, then tensions are like the costumes that they wear to give them added credibility in their roles.

How literally should chord symbols be interpreted?

JM: That depends on the source. A well-vetted fake book or published manuscript can usually be taken at face value, at least as a starting point. Even then, there can be typos or other errors. The other problem is that chord symbols, being shorthand, are inherently ambiguous. Depending on the style of the person compiling the charts, they may be very simple (“C”) or more detailed (CMaj7[9,#11,13]) according to the intent of the book.  Finally, there is the matter of regional variation in how to say the same thing.

TH:  A notated score represents a fixed reality. A lead sheet with chord symbols represents a range of possibilities for how to perform a tune. The more you know about harmony, the more options you have!

What does “outside” mean?

JM: Where you have to live, if you are a freelance jazz musician!

TH: But, seriously folks! Playing “outside” means to play notes consistently that are not directly related to the chords of the tune. To do this skillfully and musically requires that you really understand how those chords work together. You have to know the boundaries before you can step outside of them.

How has jazz harmony evolved, during the history of jazz?

JM: It has evolved in multiple directions; there is no straight line. Currently, the music can include just about anything: no conventional harmony at all, simple modal systems, triadic “folk” harmony, bebop chromaticism, multitonic schemes, and more.

TH: While it is true that there are many eddies and currents in the stream of the music, I think it is fair to say that the history of the development of harmony in jazz over the past hundred years parallels that of European classical music over the last thousand years. The early roots of jazz—the field holler, country blues and the earliest vocal traditions of the African-American church—are roughly equivalent to Gregorian chant through the pre-tonal music in the European tradition, New Orleans jazz, and ragtime mirror Baroque polyphony. The harmony of the Swing era might be compared to the harmony of the classical style of Haydn and Mozart. Bebop is analogous to Wagnerian chromaticism. Modal jazz is similar in conception to the late 19th century Russian and French scalar music known as Impressionism and the sound of the most dissonant free jazz is akin to that of atonality and serial music, what the historians term Expressionism. The Princeton theorist Dmitri Tymoczko in his recent book The Geometry of Music makes the point that jazz is a style in which all of the major historic styles of harmony now co-exist with one another.

What standards or interpretations of standards can you recommend as something that makes particularly effective use of jazz harmonic theory? What should we listen for?

TH: Gosh, there are so many! If I had to choose one starting point, though, I would choose Bill Evans. His performances of tunes like “Emily,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” or “On Green Dolphin Street” embody most of what we discuss in our book. His chord voicings often employ up to seven or eight different notes of the chromatic scale.  His choice of tensions clearly defines the tonality in which he is working while others present striking unexpected surprises. To really appreciate what he does, first seek out the original sheet music of these standard tunes and get to know them before listening to an Evans interpretation. Then, the essence of jazz harmony will be clearly apparent.

Here’s “Emily”:

[Ed.: A good source for legal sheet music is Hal Leonard's Sheet Music Plus, or it's Real Book series.]

Could you suggest a couple excellent interpretations of the same tune to show two different masterful harmonic interpretations? What should we listen for?

TH: First learn Gershwin’s original published sheet music arrangement of “Someone to Watch Over Me” before listening, so that you have a reference point. I would suggest Keith Jarrett’s and Chick Corea’s solo piano performances of this great standard. Each musician harmonizes the tune and arranges it in such a way as to make it a vehicle for his own distinctive solo style.

For his part, Keith makes some of Gershwin’s original chromatic harmonies more diatonic opening up long passages for his warm “open spaces” lyrical approach to melody.  He also chooses diatonic II V’s and substitute dominants to replace Gershwin’s original descending diminished chords giving the tune a more contemporary feel.

Chick on the other hand is a more percussive player. He prefers a brighter piano tone and has a very biting modernist approach to harmony akin to Bartòk and Hindemith. He employs a tonic pedal point superimposed with parallel dissonant harmonies in the A section of the tune.  The result of this combined with the accompanying rhythmic ostinato is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Chick reharmonizes some critical chords in the tune with modal interchange chords voiced in fourths. This allows him to improvise with minor pentatonic melodic patterns and to play rubato cadenzas suggestive of the Debussy preludes.

Standards give us a reference point to investigate and appreciate the individual artistry of different great players!

How about taking us out with some tunes from your book’s accompanying recording?

Sure, we wrote these tunes for the book, specifically to illustrate different aspects of jazz harmony.

1. “Lucky,” (with substitute dominants), by Tom Hojnacki

2. “The Slip-Up,” by Joe Mulholland

3. “Moonlight On Spot Pond,” by Joe Mulholland

4. “The All-Nighter,” by Tom Hojnacki

Piano: Joe Mulholland and Tom Hojnacki

Bass: Bob Nieske

Drums: Bob Tamagni

Engineered by Peter Kontrimas, PBS Studios in Westwood, MA.

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Solo Jazz Piano: The Linear Approach, by Neil Olmstead, is an accessible yet deep and methodical exploration of how to play one of the most sophisticated and beautiful idioms in jazz. We recently released its second edition, and it was fun for me to revisit one of my favorite Berklee Press publications.

Neil was kind enough to answer some questions about learning and playing solo jazz piano. At the end, Neil introduces a breathtaking performance by Lennie Tristano—one of the masters of this kind of playing.

JF: How is playing solo jazz piano different from playing piano within an ensemble?

Neil: Solo piano gives one more freedom: freedom to play without preconceived or rehearsed restraints, freedom to spontaneously begin or end in any manner one wishes, to orchestrate an arrangement on the spot, to reorganize the time feel and groove, or to modulate from key to key at will.

What are some of the common misconceptions students new to playing solo have about the process or format? Any common mistakes?

Everybody comes to it with individual strengths and uniqueness, as well as weaknesses.  A common presumption is that one feels they have to “fill up” the music by constantly playing, not recognizing the value of leaving space. In fact, inserting rest into the improvised line or leaving the bass register open for periods can be very satisfying musically.

How are bass lines different when performed on a piano, as opposed to on an actual bass?

One characteristic of acoustic bass lines is the effective use of arpeggios. But an overreliance on arpeggios in piano bass lines can be hokey sounding. This is why I present a series of left-hand stepwise motives as a basis for developing interesting “forward driving” lines in the bass. Practice tunes with a preponderance of stepwise walking bass motion (as illustrated on pp. 80–81). This will establish an ability to play lines that have more chromatic motion and fewer arpeggiated figures.

When you are performing alone, how much do you create spontaneously, and how much is worked out in advance? Is it the same when you play in an ensemble?

It is fundamentally an improvised performance. However, in preparing for a formal performance, it is helpful to work out a scheme ahead of time. This could include everything from specific notes and inner lines to play during the melody (head) to general temporal considerations including metric modulations, to specific voicings that the player discovers during the preparation process.

What are the qualities of an effective solo? Do you have any thoughts about determining how many choruses of solo to play?

Every tune has its own qualities that the player finds attractive. These qualities are reflected in each solo and are discovered by the pianist during the preparation process either by sketching harmonic or melodic ideas or simply through the memorization process. Some qualities are gleaned from other artists through transcribing. For instance, if one has transcribed the tune from a recording of say Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett, then that sound and ethos may very likely be reflected in the solo—even some specific notes or voicings.

The length of the solo is based purely on the ability of the improviser to “carry the line.” Continuity between phrases is most obvious in motivic development sections. In Solo Jazz Piano: The Linear Approach, we speak of characteristics of motives and variation of those motivic characteristics. Manipulating phrase shape, dynamics, and articulation continuity of a solo can lead the listener down a path of “expectation” and “closure.”

Do you have any advice for developing a concert set of solo piano music?

A simple guideline, whether it is a solo or ensemble set, is that of variation. Make each piece different from the previous. This can involve changing the groove, time signature, key area, texture, or the general ethos of each piece. This keeps the concert interesting and makes it easier for the performer to get engaged in each piece separately. Many players like to begin and end with something energetic, but this is not a requirement, by any means.

What advice do you have for structuring practice time, when learning to play this music?

Practice time for me, whether it is classical or jazz piano, always begins with the physical interface with the piano. The most satisfying practice sessions occur when the physical coordination is tuned up during slow, methodical, and quiet tone-production exercises. For me, this begins with single-tone exercises that involve the entire physical structure from the fingertip to the spine to the foot on the floor. Once the body is tuned and a satisfying tone is produced, creative, energetic, and productive practice can occur and be sustained for a period of time. If one simply jumps into a piece without first engaging the entire body in tone production, the practice session may be short lived and frustrating. Once the body is “tuned up,” pieces can be undertaken and productive creative work can begin, regardless of style.

Are there any particularly useful exercises you recommend for developing independence as a solo jazz pianist?

This is one of the most common challenges in practicing contrapuntal improvisation. Creating independence of voices that occurs often between two hands. Start with simple half notes in the left hand (as mentioned in chapters 3 and 4). This gives you the opportunity to be creative in the right hand. Then, slowly introduce some quarter note motives (as in chapter 5 and 6). There are also many abstract independence exercises to practice in Appendix D.

One writing exercise for the development of multi-voice playing is to write a four-part harmonic sketch of the tune being studied. Then begin adding suspensions and other non-chord tones in order to find interesting harmonies and inner lines that you might not ordinarily consider using. (See pp.185, 186, 187.) Practice this sketch as you might a four-part Bach chorale.

Another playing exercise is to place the melody in a middle voice. Do this without writing it; just play it an octave lower, and add some long-tone harmony notes above it while continuing the bass motion below.

Which solo jazz piano recordings embody the tradition at its quintessential, most inspiring best?

Listen to Lennie Tristano’s “C Minor Complex” from The New Tristano LP. It represents a very high and complex level of improvising contrapuntally. But more practical and easier-to-handle recordings lie in the discography of Dave McKenna, such as “Love Letters” from the Giant Strides LP. Bill Evans’ album Conversations with Myself represent fine multi-voice improvisation, particularly tunes like “Bemsha Swing” and “How About You.” A more contemporary aspect of improvising is heard on Brad Mehldau’s recordings, like The Art of the Trio, with “Blackbird” and “Nobody Else But Me.”

Could you recommend one particularly special track from the literature of solo jazz piano music and tell us what to listen for?

Look at Lenni Tristano’s “Lullaby of the Leaves” from the Copenhagen Concert, 1965. It’s a brief 3 minute rendition that begins at about six minutes into the set.

It’s a fine example of his chordal harmonization of the theme set against a walking bass line. Then, he moves into a deep swinging two-part contrapuntal style—walking bass against an improvisation in his right hand. It’s a fairly conservative performance for Lennie; however, his ending is not. Can you tell the interesting thing he does with the form on the out chorus?

Check out the whole concert for more Lennie.

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You might have seen a chart like the one below, showing all the different components of a project, such as an album. It is a work breakdown structure—a hierarchical view of a project’s “deliverables” (components). Read this one left to right. I talk about these a lot in my Berklee Online course, book, and live workshops about project management for musicians. By drilling down like this, you can see all the required work of your project and take hold of its details.

Album WBS

One of many uses for a WBS is in organizing how you spend your time. Once you’ve figured out your project’s components, you can draw up a list of action steps required to get each part done, and then chart the status or other information related to it. For instance, by filling in the WBS, you realize that you have to get photos of your band members.  Your first step is to ask each band member if they have a good photo you can use. Somehow, you want to track their responses; as you can imagine, gaining control over this level of detail can be a little challenging.

That’s where project management software becomes particularly helpful. The program that I like to use, and teach from, is Smartsheet, which does a great job of combining power with ease of use (and other benefits). Various PM software products work similarly.

So, then, here’s a video showing how to implement a WBS in Smartsheet for use as a task manager. By organizing your tasks (hundreds or thousands, in a project) in this component-based way, you can easily understand your project’s current status, and see what work is yet to be done.

It is where the rubber meets the road: where abstract theory becomes completely practical and makes your life easier and your projects run better. I recommend viewing it in HD on the YouTube site, as big as you can set it, so that you can read the text.

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Audio Post Production

Audio post production is a fascinating discipline of sound engineering that brings together dimensions from many different aspects of film and television. In this interview, Mark Cross, author of Audio Post Production: For Film and Television (Berklee Press, 2013), gives some insight into a world where things go “bump” in the film.

What are the major types of audio used in film and TV?

Audio for film and television is separated into three groups: dialogue, music, and effects. Each element plays a key part in telling the story sonically. The dialogue allows the voice of the character to be heard, the music amplifies the emotion of the moment, and the effects define the actions and general ambiance of the scene.

What exactly is Foley?

Foley is synchronized effect acting. In other words, it when actors reproduce sounds such as footsteps, door slams, head scratches, etc., in sync with the film or television show. This is done to add realism to the soundtrack. Most film locations or sets are designed to be visually accurate to the scene or storyline. But in reality, the marble floors are really made of plywood, as are the massive front doors of a plantation house. So when the actors walk on those floors or close the large door, they will sound very thin and unrealistic. Adding a layer of Foley in the soundtrack bring life and realism back into the overall sound.

Do audio engineers have any contact with actors?

Yes, when they record ADR (dialogue replacement). ADR is done when the original “production” dialogue has been deemed unusable. This could be because an actor knocked over a prop on set, when a plane or helicopter flies overhead, and even when the director wants an opportunity to add dialogue to change the storyline. In such cases, the actor goes to an ADR studio to rerecord the dialogue with an engineer. Although most ADR engineers are seasoned pros, it is always a bit of a thrill when a big name actor or actress is scheduled for ADR.

My wife is a producer of HBO and Comedy Central TV shows. She was recording ADR one day with Michael J Fox, and I kept texting her to ask him about the “flux capacitor” (from Back to the Future). Although she thought that was amusing, she never asked.

What types of audio problems can be fixed in post production?

Many problems can be addressed and remedied in post production. Along with the situations I just described in ADR and Foley, sound effects allow you to really impact an action movie. “Over-the-top” explosions, gunshots, and fights can really benefit from this.

There is a scene in The Bourne Ultimatum when Jason Bourne (the hero) jumps across an alley into an apartment window to save the girl (who is being pursued by the villain). The impact of the window crash as well as the aggressively choreographed fight scene was superbly enhanced with an array of over-the-top sound effects. If you listen closely to this scene, you can identify the addition of whooshes when the characters swing and cartoon-style punch sounds.

I’m sure that an audio purist might snobbishly dismiss this sound effect work, but each time I see this movie, the fight scene leaves me (the viewer) winded, as if I just got off a Disney ride. That’s when you know they did a great job.

What types of jobs are there for audio engineers who want to work in the film/TV industry?

There are numerous employment opportunities in the post-production industry: sound-effect editors, ADR engineers, Foley mixers, scoring mixers, and sound supervisors, to name just a few. Scoring mixers spend their time recording and mixing the music for a film or television show. This could be a simple as recording a solo instrument or small ensemble to recording a 100-piece orchestra, 50-voice choir, along with a host of synths, loops, and clips. They mix this in 5.1 surround sound, which is always a sonic thrill.

Foley mixers spend their days recording Foley actors recreating sounds for the show in a studio that often resembles a garage that hasn’t been cleaned out in decades. They will capture people punching lettuce (for a fight scene), splashing water in a tub for a swimming scene, or wearing a variety of shoes to recreate footsteps across an asphalt parking lot (as well as numerous surfaces). Can you imagine a 275 pound/45 year-old man wearing pumps to recreate the sound of Jennifer Aniston walking down the stairs in a romantic comedy? All in a day’s work.

What kinds of equipment do you need to work in audio post production?

Most of this work is done at a post-production facility. The facility will usually be set up to accommodate a variety of situations, like multiple edit bays equipped with Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) for sound-effects editors, or a Foley stage (as previously described). The ADR stage and scoring stage are usually big enough to allow for both large and small groups. That said, you can get started with little to no gear whatsoever. However, I would recommend owning a laptop with a DAW on it (like Pro Tools or Logic Pro). That can really be handy when doing some of this at home, on your own.

Is most audio post work done by film studio staffers, recording studio staffers, or freelancers?

This work can be done by both. It is not uncommon for major studios and large post houses to have a lot of people on staff with big credits and decades of experience. Post production work is very much a team effort, and it is quite rare to see one person doing everything (unless it is a low-budget independent project).

On the other hand, as people get more experienced and gather more credits and perhaps awards too, they usually go freelance, because they can get more money and sometimes a better pick of projects.

Working on staff also has its benefits, so it depends on where you are in your career.

Can one work in this field without living in Hollywood?

There are several ways you can do this outside of Hollywood. One way is to look to social networks (like Craigslist) to see if there are any local film makers in your area producing independent films/projects. Most of the time, these projects need help with audio in numerous ways: capturing sound on set, editorial, sound design, scoring, mixing, etc.

You could also look to your local cable provider and/or radio stations. They usually do a lot of in-house promos, and those always need help with the audio.

If you are in a bigger market, you may find that there are a few post production facilities that you could intern at to get really learn the trade.

Say a regular recording engineer wants to get into audio post production. What advice do you have for breaking in?

I would recommend looking into a post production facility in your area to see if there are any openings. Even if there is nothing at the time, this could at least be the start of a conversation/relationship that you could build on. Also, engineers know other engineers and tend to hang out in those circles. So, it is good to start chatting it up with your colleagues and co-workers to see if they have some connections as well.

You will find more opportunity in bigger markets (L.A., NY, Chicago, etc). Starting out at the entry level is always a plus too. This gives you the opportunity to get involved in many aspects of the industry with very limited responsibility. It is also a great way to meet people and start a network of post production professionals.


Mark Cross is an award-winning producer, composer, mixer, engineer, author, and educator with an extensive career in audio post production that spans over two decades. His credits include The Last Comic Standing, American Idol, The CBS Evening News, Wow Wow Wubbzy, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Cars, ER, and many others. He is author of Audio Post Production: For Film and Television (Berklee Press, 2013), and teaches audio post production at Berklee College of Music’s online continuing education division, Berklee Online.

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Here’s the current Berklee Press catalog, with the new releases through early 2014. We’re pleased with the new “Biographies and Interviews” category, now that Gary Burton’s autobiography pushed their numbers to the tipping point. Also this year, we’re walking lightly upon the land and only releasing our catalog in digital form, thus:

Berklee Press Catalog 2013-2014

You can also search for our books and DVDs at That’s where to find the most up to date list of what’s in print.

Some recent Berklee Press releases:


You might have noticed that I’ve started interviewing our authors on this blog. That’s been fun, and we’ve had very positive feedback from that, so more interviews will follow. If there’s anyone in particular you’d like me to interview, let me know.

Happy holidays!

P.S. Berklee Press, a publishing activity of Berklee College of Music, is a not-for-profit educational publisher. Available proceeds from the sales of our products are contributed to the scholarship funds of the college.

Join our Facebook page for instant notification when we publish a new book, read some book reviews, or just to say hi.

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Audio mastering is often perceived as a mysterious final phase of the recording process—a kind of pixie-dust that makes our music magically sound somehow more “professional.” In hopes of demystifying the process, I asked Jonathan Wyner a few questions about what goes on behind the curtain. Jonathan is author of the book Audio Mastering: Essential Practices (Berklee Press, 2013), and chief mastering engineer and president of M-Works Mastering Studios—one of the world’s most esteemed and versatile audio mastering studios. He is a Berklee associate professor of MP&E and co-author/instructor of the Berklee Online course Audio Mastering Techniques.

What is audio mastering?

The succinct definition is: Mastering is the final step involving any aesthetic decisions in a recording and the first step in its distribution.

It is the art of optimizing a recording’s sound, finding its ideal levels and tonal quality, and getting all the details right necessary to produce a professional quality distribution-ready master.

What kinds of sound processing will a mastering engineer do to a recording?”

While it’s more about the “right” processing and not so much about the “kinds” of processing per se, mastering engineers use tools that are familiar to most audio engineers: EQs, compressors, limiters, denoisers, etc. However, we often use superlative and/or specialized versions of these tools. The types of setting used are usually different from what might be used by a mixing engineer. It’s critical that the mastering step introduce as little unwanted distortion as possible in the audio chain, and so great care is taken in choosing the tools.

How is a mastering studio different from a recording or mixing studio?

It may sounds trite to say, but a mastering studio has a mastering engineer in it! While mastering engineers use many of the same tools to master records, the art of mastering involves listening somewhat differently.

A professional mastering studio will have speakers that play from 20 Hz to 20 kHz (the entire audible range), and it will be very well balanced, in general. The studio itself will be very, very quiet. Usually, mastering speakers are set some distance away from the listener—further than in the typical modern mix studio.

Can you master in a home studio?

It’s certainly possible to go through the tasks even on a laptop in an airport, yes.  The question is, should you?  The other question: whose home? :)

What will readers learn in your book, Audio Mastering?

Readers learn about the mindset of a mastering engineer.  How they think.  What’s important to them.  What are the tools that get used.  It’s a good survey of the discipline, and they will also find two case studies at the end on CD.

Have you ever seen the mastering process save a project from the brink of fiasco?

Yes. Especially, home mixing environments are rarely excellent and sometimes are quite poor. It’s easy to miss problems that can sabotage the music when it’s uploaded, or broadcast.

How can artists get the most out of the mastering process?

Ask people who are experienced about what they expect from mastering.  Ask for word-of-mouth recommendations. Develop a relationship with the mastering engineer you choose. In the long run, everyone does better work if the music sounds good, so most mastering engineers are happy to give advice when a mix isn’t 100 percent completed to help get it into good shape before mastering—for a reasonable fee, of course.

Does it make sense to master a single?

Absolutely. No recording stands in isolation, and it will inevitably be compared to other music released on many levels. Beyond that, mastering brings along with it an opportunity to fine-tune a record, and in the best cases, a last chance to have a collaboration with an informed perspective on how a recording sounds and how it might be improved.

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