This is a relatively busy week. I’m hoping to “transmit” two Berklee Press book/CD packs into production (meaning, give a production manager the Word and Finale files, for layout in InDesign, and play-along audio CD masters for duplication), and have also been reviewing the printer’s final proofs for my wife’s book that we’re self-publishing.

Pronouncing something “done done done” is a little hard for me, as at these milestones in project lifecycles, I still sometimes find scary, horrendous mistakes. There are just so many inventive ways that mistakes can creep in, by my own hand as much as anyone else’s. Each one gives me a new form of publishing PTSD. The cumulative effect has been to add a level of anxiety to the end game of publishing, for me.

The best way I’ve found to control this is to maintain a series of checklists, for different stages of book and CD production. At this relatively grizzled stage of my career, I’ve got some good lists! So here are a few things I’ve seen that you might look for when finishing up your own project—book, album, concert program, and so on. It might seem like I’m associated with a lot of disasters! But they’ve been accumulating gradually over a long time (and hundreds of projects), so maybe it’s not as bad as it looks….

In no particular order:

1. Typos on the spine. The trick with book/CD jacket spines is that on the proof, they are oriented sideways. If you don’t print it out, it’s particularly difficult to spot typos on them. Some typefaces and letter combinations are especially hard to see in some fonts: li instead of ll, and so on. In one book, no fewer than five competent professionals signed off on the last proof with a typo on the spine, including me. It did go to press with this error, and we spent thousands of dollars reprinting it. I am forever traumatized by this. So, I always print out hard copies to proofread at a late stage of the publishing process and turn the paper sideways to proofread the spine. It’s easier than turning the computer sideways to check. I also proofread covers backwards and forwards—an old proofreading trick that sometimes brings subtle things to light, because you’re not distracted by the content.

2. Leaving a co-author name off the cover. This one fortunately didn’t go to press, but it made it awfully far in the production process. One author was my primary contact on this project, and the graphic designer on that cover was his friend, rather than our usual designer. So, the designer just put his friend’s name on it, and it took me a looong time to notice this. Fortunately, we caught it. That would have been another traumatic disaster, and the forgotten co-author would have never forgiven me.

A way to avoid this kind of thing is to give the designer an explicit “art direction sheet,” which includes a detailed set of instructions about exactly what needs to go on the cover: title, subtitle, author names, CD included icon, logo, and so on. You need to think about this kind of thing away from the heat of the battle, before the proofs come and the deadline is too close, when you can be deliberate and detailed. I could give you my list of excuses for not doing an AD sheet that time, but you’d just scoff at me for them, and you’d be right to do so.

3. Typos in page headers, particularly chapter titles. Left-hand pages have the book title at the top, and right-hand pages have the individual chapter titles. These get typed in by the layout artist and seem to be typo traps, for some reason. I see mistakes in these all the time: headers that don’t match their chapters, wrong chapter numbers, wrong words, wrong punctuation, typos, and so on. Chapter titles need to be cross-checked in three places: the table of contents, the chapter opening page, and the chapter’s header pages. Anything that the production team needs to rekey can be a similar typo trap: title pages, copyright pages, index, etc. In the first book Berklee Press I ever edited, they spelled my name wrong in my editorial credit on the title page. It said something like, “Edited by Some Bozo Who Can’t Spell His Own Name.” We never checked it, and it went to press like that. An excellent lesson for me in humility as well as project management.

4. CDs with files as MP3s, not AIFF or WAV. This is a great danger when people create CD masters in their home studios using iTunes, rather than having a professional engineer do it. That’s very rarely the case with our books, but it’s happened a couple times, when authors have done some professional-level engineering work and want to self-produce their play-along CD. If you Q/C-check CD masters on a computer, you might not catch it, if you don’t deliberately check the file type. But MP3 files won’t play on many CD players, and of course, the sound quality is inferior. See my CD Mastering Checklist for a list of similar things to check on CD masters.

5. Leaving the engineer(s) off of the recording credits. This is a subjective call by the author, but often, the engineer makes a very profound contribution to an accompanying recording, and they deserve to be listed as a key contributor to a project.

6. Notation files with the wrong text. This is a common mistake in pedagogical music books, which we nearly always catch, fortunately, but it’s something easy to overlook. The issue is that layout artists often can’t read music notation, so it’s not always clear to them whether or not the notation logically matches the text. It’s important to have a couple thinking musicians review proofs for the logical flow of the material, rather than just people confirming that the spelling and punctuation are correct.

7. Omitted paragraphs of text. This happens when layout artists transfer Word files into graphic design programs. You have to compare the original text with the layout, to confirm that no text is missing. Like item (6), it’s best for the author to check these, as that’s the person most likely to catch it.

8. Repeated systems of notation. This issue usually happens when there’s a change in the music system layout. Say you have a piece that’s six systems long. At first, two fit on the title page, three on page 2, and one on page 3. We decide to move the header up and squeeze three systems onto page 1. While we might only think we are changing page 1, pages 2 and 3 also readjust automatically, and so we must change the exported graphics for pages 1 and 2 and delete page 3, in order to avoid repeated systems. This is an example of how a relatively small change might have far-reaching repercussions.

9. Roman numerals in front matter. Our house style, shared by most commercial publishers, is to have the copyright page, table of contents, acknowledgements, etc. set in lowercase Roman numerals in italics, and then page 1 is the first page of chapter 1. Designers new to book publishing are often unaware of this publishing convention and start page 1 with the title page.

10. Butt-ugly covers. This is often a failure of vision and patience, more than a proofreading mistake, but the effect on sales can be devastating, even to a really good book or album. Bad covers are sometimes the result of committee syndrome, or just bad communication with the graphic designer. A few times, covers go to press that are really not good enough, and sad to say, sales suffer as a result. In happier news, there have been a few instances when we put better covers on back-catalog books, and sales increased as a result. Everyone judges books by their covers—and by their titles too. It’s worth trying hard to make these really good.

Are you as exhausted by this list as I am? I’m stopping at ten, before the self-loathing gets too thick. So much can go wrong. But for me, the point in publishing is ultimately to make high quality information and art available to people, and making sure it’s all easy to “digest” is a high priority. It’s important to get it right. There’s enough junk out there already, without us piling on more.

Checklists can be a great help in ensuring quality. Developing them is an aspect of management strategy—devoting time to plan how to make the project good, rather than only reacting to what’s in front of you. This is a critical dimension of effective project management, and it can help you avoid some of these nightmares.

CD Master Checklist

Jun 15 2010

For a proper checklist, when you’re trying to approve your CD project, really, you should consult your local mastering engineer. They are the people who have the info on the complete, definitive word on such issues—engineers such as Berklee’s own Jonathan Wyner of M-Works, in Cambridge, MA, who is one of my gurus.

Me, I’m just a hack survivalist, but lately, I’ve found the need to develop my own little checklist. It’s meant to complement what your mastering engineer is doing, not replace it. Mastering engineers are better at this than I am.

So, here’s my own checklist for CD masters—specifically for CDs that accompany books about music. Many of these items have a horrific war story attached to them. If you are the unfortunate recipient of a CD that I had something to do with that doesn’t work due to one of these issues, or something else, please contact me privately about this at jfeist@berklee.edu.

Anyhow, here’s my current list. Let me know if you have other suggestions.

CD Master Checklist

Starting point: CDs should conform to Red Book standard.

Among the things to confirm:

CD:

    74 minutes maximum; less is better
    99 tracks maximum
    1 second or more space between tracks (unless there’s a really good reason not to)
    files are WAV or AIFF and not MP3 (iTunes likes to sneak in MP3s)
    Works in audio-only CD player; don’t test it only on a computer
    CD is labeled with project name and date of CD, what type of CD it is (audio, data, CD-plus, etc.), and whether it is a master or a draft

Content:

    Notes on CD match notation in book
    Examples are repeated in accordance with book’s notation
    Tracks are in the correct order, matching CD Tracks page in the book
    Countoffs/clicks are used consistently
    No distortion
    No pops
    No random talking or other extraneous noise, particularly at beginning and end
    No long spaces of silence at beginning or end of tracks
    Track names are correctly spelled, and rendered just like CD tracks list, if there is one
    Volume levels consistent from track to track

An important check to do is to use the >> button on an audio CD player to begin each track. It is possible for the start points to be out of sync, which you’d only notice by doing this, or otherwise starting each track fresh. (The track would not start at the beginning.)

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Notation isn’t music. It’s a way of writing about music. What’s good about writing out our music, using notation, is that it gets our ideas out of our heads, which makes them both easier to edit and possible to share with others. What’s bad, though, is that it a step between the creative spirit and a usable expression object. Notation is cumbersome. Part of the craft of becoming a musician, of whatever stripe, is to become comfortable enough with notation so that it’s less of a barrier between us and our music. In my experience, this is a lifelong quest.

Analogous struggles exist in other forms of expression. Writers struggle with words, not to mention typing. Photographers struggle with lighting, aperture settings, shutter speed, and so on. I’m going to give you some examples of exercises borrowed and adapted from various genres of art, in hopes that it will help the process become easier, whatever you do.

By the way, this post comes in response to a reflection by my friend Menina, who is a sculptor living in Italy. She was invited on short notice to participate in an exhibition of her work, and in considering what additional work should be created for it, was pondering the question of quality vs. quantity. Of course, it’s the high quality work that cuts through, and is the reason why we’re doing what we do. But sometimes, how much we focus on something or how hard we try doesn’t have much bearing on the quality of the end result. Sometimes in our work, it makes sense to obsess endlessly over details. But other times, it makes more sense to shoot out a lot of stuff quickly, and then stand back to see what sticks.

The exercises I discuss below will likely lead to a lot of mediocre results. That’s good; the point is developing your process, not creating a masterwork.

Try these.

    1. Take a sheet of music manuscript paper and a pen. Take ten minutes, and as fast as you can, fill the page with notation. Don’t think about what it sounds like. Just write. Don’t pause, don’t cross out or erase. Just write. Fill it up. Get crazy. Bored of eighth notes? Write a septuplet. Change time signatures. Change key signatures. Or clef. It’s gibberish. Just fill the page. When you’re done, feel free to just throw it out. Or, wait a day or a week or a year, and then try to play it. This exercise was given to me by my mentor William Thomas McKinley on a day that he felt I was going around in circles, and also that my rhythms were too predictable. He told me to do it while riding the T home, rather than my usual quiet room without distractions. I brought him the results the next week, and being the brilliant pianist he is, he sightread it perfectly, even though to me, it was awfully complex. It was actually the best writing I had done to date—much more rhythmically free. I tried to argue that it didn’t count, as I was writing random stuff without thinking about it, but he asked me, who wrote it, then, if I didn’t? It felt random, but subconsciously, I was still making decisions, if by eye rather than by ear. It was really one of the best teaching moments I ever experienced.
    2. Take just two hours and write and record a song, from beginning to end. After it’s done, stop, and do something else. Weed your garden, maybe, or bake cookies. Don’t listen to it for a while. If you don’t have a complete recording in two hours, you cheated. Do it again the next day, but don’t reuse the material from the first day. This will force you to organize your time. If you’re an hour in and you’re still writing lyrics, you need to change directions and simplify. If you’re just starting recording with twenty minutes left, you probably don’t have time to program in a full band accompaniment into your DAW. Stepping away from this exercise, we have to do similar kinds of time organization all the time, on a larger scale, and it’s good to get a quick snapshot of the process.
    3. Here’s one for songwriting. Write and record one verse. Then write and record five different choruses to go with that verse, using the standard forms. Cut and paste so that you have audio versions of all possible pairings. Wait a day or so and then listen. Which is best? It’s like speed dating. Spend two minutes talking to someone, then switch chairs and try someone new. At the end, who did you like best? Doing this with creative projects is helpful because it teaches non-attachment to our work, which gives us the necessary objectivity to make tough decisions about it. If you’ve written only one song, it’s tough to admit that it stinks and you should chuck it. If you’ve written twenty, that becomes easier. Try to have written twenty songs, if you haven’t already.
    4. Steal something, but disguise it so well nobody will ever notice. Take a favorite song, change its mode, tempo, even its time signature. Change details of the story, like making love hate or he a she, or make it about a penguin instead of a waitress. Change the chord progression and harmonic rhythm. Change the rhyme scheme of the lyrics. Instead of a different second line of the chorus, repeat the first one. Change the title. Make it unrecognizable. Its relationship to the original is your little secret. You just used it as a scaffold to create something new.
    5. I went through a brief period, about fifteen years ago, when I got fed up with music and decided to be a photographer instead. I did a six-month intensive degree in photography. This digression only lasted a couple years, but I found many of the skills transferable, and the best lesson I had was a workshop in studio lighting. It started with a lecture on how to use the various types of studio lighting gear. Getting the relationship right between the power of the various lights (main, fill, hair, background) was a little confusing. We then broke into groups of three, to practice. My compatriots and I devised a really great way to spend an hour. We took turns changing three roles: photographer, timekeeper/assistant, and model. Every two minutes we’d switch, no matter where we were in the process. After a few rounds, we were thinking much less about math and much more about how to make the model look good. It became automatic. I realized, this was like practicing scales. What’s the rock band equivalent? Making the technical become automatic is a really important aspect of creating art, whatever the form.

The big question is, what’s hard for you? Isolate it as best you can, and then create some kind of exercise to make the solution to it automatic. It’s as much a part of writing, or any art, as it is for instrumental technique.