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Panelists: Karl Richter, Steve Barden, Tim Bern
Moderator: Michael Laskow

Karl RichterKarl Richter is founder of Level Two Music, an Australian music supervision company with offices in Melbourne, Sydney, and Auckland. Level Two's commercial work spans the globe including on-airs in Singapore, Turkey, Asia, Pacific, South America, USA, UK, and Europe for brands such as Corona, Heineken, Vodafone, Virgin, Toyota, and Orange. While working as a music supervisor Karl founded DISCO, a music file sharing and workflow platform built specifically for the music industry. In beta for just over a year, DISCO now manages 8 million files for publishers, record labels, managers, artists, and music supervisors across five continents including Warp, Secretly Group, RocNation, Fox Sports, Concord, and Sony Interactive.

Steve BardenSteve Barden is a production music composer for film and television. His music can be heard on television somewhere in the world on a daily basis. His music has aired on ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and dozens of leading cable channels. He’s also scored several animated television series for Saban Entertainment, and recently joined composer Kevin Kiner in writing cues for Season 4 of Jane the Virgin, airing on the CW network. Steve is also the author of the book, Writing Production Music for TV – The Road to Success, available from Hal Leonard.

Tim BernTim Bern started his music industry career in his teens as a jazz saxophonist and music teacher in New Zealand. A taste for international travel drew him toward Tour Management and eventually artist management, winning a few NZ Music Awards along the way (two Best Rock Albums for The Checks). After a number of years bouncing between New York & London he joined Level Two Music to run the Auckland office and focus on building ad agency sync relationships. In 2016 Tim moved to Los Angeles to launch DISCO (a cloud music software platform developed by Level Two Music) across the North American music industry, and here we are today.

Let’s talk about stems for a moment. Let’s start with Karl on this. Can you please describe what stems are, and do you as the supervisor use stems?

Karl: I think you can actually be even beyond sub-mixes and use the actual individual stems themselves. You can have a series of sub-mixes from that, so it might be that you put three or four of the elements in a session. So instead of going out to 24 individual stems, you want to start combining some of those, and that’s not a bad thing to do. A zip folder that has all of those stems in there is pretty useful. Most of the time now it is happening with great regularity that I will have the request, “Yes, we want these songs, and now we want the stems.” Now, half the time they might need instrument and the vocals bounced out separately; and they don’t need anything else. But it becomes such a part of the lexicon, part of the language, “Yes, can we have the stems,” that you sort of need to have them there, even if it’s just for that sort of psychological comfort blanket that you’re providing people with, because it gets you a bit closer to the placement.

That’s good information.
Tim: In the amount of time it takes to bounce out stems, because you have to wait for the engineer that has the files on their computer somewhere, and maybe takes a couple of days to get those stems, it’s often smarter to just get the stems at the same time so that it’s all done.

So how do you keep...and this is a loaded question... And again, I wouldn’t be plugging DISCO if I didn’t believe in it. We haven’t used DISCO for this yet, but I’ve got to believe that it’s a tremendously useful tool for storing all that stuff in one place and being able to send it in an instant. And then being able to send it to somebody else, because you’ve already sent it, you’ve already got that list, as it were. So can you talk about that in a general way.
Tim: I guess specifically within DISCO, you can just upload a Zip file and just drag it on here [showing on the big screen in the ballroom during the panel]. It’s not actually a song... it could be a Zip file that’s full of the stems for that particular song. So you can just drag it in and then send it off.

So let’s say that you want to send some portion of it. You want to only send the vocal stem and the acoustic guitar.
Tim: So in that case, you could upload the stems into DISCO as individual songs. So you could imagine that this is one song, and this is the drum stem, this is the keyboard stem, this is the bass stem, this is the vocals. And then you listen to those... Often you don’t need to listen to them individually like that, but trailer editors and trailer supervisors often do want to actually just listen to the stems individually, in which case they would upload them. Most people just upload the Zip of all the stems and then they send them off to the editor who downloads that Zip, and he or she unpacks it and decides to go through, and they do what they need to do with it.

Right, give them the whole ball of wax, rather than...
Tim: Yeah, because they might find something else that really works.

Karl: The other thing also is that—Tim makes a good point—it’s the time to do your housekeeping when you are at the end of a session and you are bouncing out, so you are getting your full mix that’s gonna be mastered. You’ve got your instrumental bed; you should probably look at the instruments and background vocals and see these as another combination, because that’s useful, and then also the main vocals. You are then bouncing out the individual stems, and amongst all of that make sure that the production (meaning reverb, FX, etc.) that you have applied to those stems gets bounced out with it. So you don’t provide the stems completely dry, you provide them as they have been in the mix. The thing is it also keeps you with a little bit of creative control, too. You’ve got a sense of how you want to sound vocally; you’ve got a sense of how the drums are meant to be sounding on that track. It sort of means that through the process, while you’ve got the flexibility Michael was talking about, where we might want to start with an acoustic and then sort of start bringing in other elements, and then actually we want to use a line from the pre-chorus rather than the chorus. That doesn’t really matter; what does matter is that your vocal and how you’ll represent it in the track is how you had imagined it at the end of that session. You’re not going to have any control on the actual final mix and the things that are done against picture, but at least you’re providing it as you had imagined that song to be done.

A lot of times they want a vocal stem just because they want the vocal down a little bit. You know, maybe you mixed it for a record, and they don’t like the radio mix because they need it to sound different for a commercial.
Karl: You can spend two days in a studio making changes that you can’t even tell on broadcasts, but it makes certain people in the room happy. There’s gonna be changes and then, “What? They spent that long on it? I can’t even tell the difference.” But again, it’s just that psychological comfort blanket of letting the client have their say, and the agency have their say, and the directors have their say, and you are enabling that by providing them with that packet of stems.

Steve, let’s talk about the time element. Let’s say that you’re working on a project with Kevin Kiner. Let’s say he asked you to write something and you’ve got a deadline and you finish it and it’s now 10 o’clock at night, most human beings would go, “Oh crap, now I’ve got to bounce stems, and I’ve got to do metadata.” How to muster the mental energy to do that non-creative work, and how long does that take for a cue?
Steve: Let me start by saying that there is kind of a misnomer in the industry between stems and alternate mixes. A lot of publishers just call everything stems when they really mean alternate mixes. So you really need to clarify that with the publisher. Most of the publishers that I have worked with really just want alt-mixes. I will create stems, meaning individual tracks. And as sort of a backup, I render all my MIDI tracks as audio, so I have them for backing up. However, if a client does request actual stems, I have them available. For alt-mixes, depending on the style of music... But when I was doing all the dramedy stuff for Kevin Kiner, there’s a full mix, which is the entire track, and typically the primary alt-mix is a no-melody mix. The reason for that is melodies can often conflict with dialogue, and the majority of my placements are the no-melody versions, because you have no control of where dialog will be when they use your track. But if you supply them with a full track, with the melody and a version without the melody, they can cross-fade as the need arises. Beyond that, there are different creative decisions of what other versions can I give them, and is it musically interesting, and how useful is it to the end product. So there could be two or three additional alt-mixes in that regard, but also the other final one that you must have is the stinger.

So how do you make the determination as to what is going to be valuable and not get carried away and send them so many options that it actually ends up coming back to hurt you, because it feels a little more laborious on their end? How do you know what the right number of alt-mixes or the right number of the stems to send?
Steve: Not counting the stinger, maybe three or four alternate mixes. If there are too many, then it almost has no meaning. There really has to be a compelling reason to give them a certain alt-mix.

A compelling reason like what?
Steve: Can I play a few samples? So this is a dramedy cue, and these are the particular tracks actually written for [the TV show] The Little Couple. I’ll play the full version, I’ll play the entire track, and any other versions I’ll just play snippets. [music plays]

OK, to give you some point of reference... So that was an A-B-A format, A section repeated at the end, and then a middle B section. The stinger sounds like this. [music plays] So I need that last beat, then just something musical to lead into it. It could be four bars, it could be eight bars, whatever works out, and then the editor can make it work.

OK, so we gave you the stinger, now I’m gonna give you the no-melody version. The melody is the trumpet. [music plays] So that leaves a lot of space for dialogue. Those are pretty typical stems that are alt-mixes that you give them. I’m gonna give you one more alt-mix that’s strings only, because in dramedy, it’s all about the pizzy kind of strings. [music plays] So without the brass it’s very repetitive. It’s useful, it’s used a lot. And that becomes very comedic, that sound.

One last thing about alt-mixes is that drum and bass mixes are in high demand. I was doing a lot of dramedy cues, and I was asked for drum and bass mixes, but it kind of doesn’t work for dramedy. I’m going to give you an example of what I pulled out of this dramedy cue. Here’s the full mix. [music plays] OK, so you get the idea, a typical dramedy cue. So here’s the drum and bass mix of that same cue. And I’ll just say that this cue, this mix produced a lot. This is drum and bass. [music plays] I don’t find it very interesting.

No, but you can hear how it could be useful. Maybe its job is to not be interesting!
Steve: Maybe. But I typically wouldn’t think to create a drum and bass track for a style like that. But I would recommend to always try to create one of those mixes, because they are used a lot.

"I spend a lot of time crafting beautiful melodies, and then they hardly ever use them. It’s almost not worth the effort."Steve Barden

Do you get to know your genre and know what the probable best alt-mixes would be, because you know the genre and you’ve seen how they use your stuff in previous cases?
Steve: Yeah, because it takes a while to see how they are actually using it. That’s why I say that I spend a lot of time crafting beautiful melodies, and then they hardly ever use them. It’s almost not worth the effort.

Karl: Come on, Steve, it’s OK. [lots of laughter] They like it, but they just want one little change. [laughter]

Tim, is there anything that we haven’t touched on? We’ve actually covered more ground than I anticipated in this amount of time. And I’m going to the audience Q&A in a moment, so start getting questions ready. But is there anything metadata-wise that you feel that they should know that I haven’t asked about?
Tim: What I’d show you is just kind of how to use the fields—what supervisors want and kind of what they don’t want. It’s pretty straightforward, there’s a title, artist, album. Fill those out, don’t leave V2.78, whatever, in there—dot, dot, dot, slash, something. So clean it up, make it really nice and clean, because no one wants to look at some long string of characters. If there’s a featured artist, add them in the title; if it’s an instrumental, add that in the title, keep the “artist” field just as the band or you, or if you’re just a composer, you can put your name in there as artist as well. For the composer field, all the composers and their splits, and it’s also good to put the PRO [Performing Rights Organization]. That’s really, really useful. The grouping field can be for lots of different things, but primarily people have put their contact info in there as well as the master and publishing, percentage ownership info. I always double that up in the comments field as well. You can see that I’ve got it here as well—for the band rating control 100% of the master and 100% of the publishing. It is one stop, which means is when you have all of the rights, it’s one phone call to get the clearance done.

"People need to get in touch with you. They might want to call you right now and try and make that clearance happen, so don’t make it ambiguous."Tim Bern

Music to a supervisor’s ear...
Tim: Absolutely, they are very important words—one and stop, put together. Also, your contact information. So I put it here and I put it here. You can even put it in the album field if you want. People need to get in touch with you. They might want to call you right now and try and make that clearance happen, so don’t make it ambiguous. Don’t just put your website, and your website might not even have your contact info on it. So just put your contact info in there. That’s almost the most important thing is your contact information. They can use their ears to find out whether they like the song or not, they don’t have to read about it.

The genre fields—typically stick to genres, and no more than three usually. Some people put in like 500 genres. Just do basic genres, and then you can add extra descriptive information like moods into the comments field down here. You can do sounds-like, but be careful with it. But sounds-like is actually really useful, sometimes.

Karl: But I think for a band, or if you are not actually doing a soundalike, put sounds-like, it’s OK. I think it’s more in the production music world where it becomes a real issue. So if you are a band that’s trying to sound like Coldplay and you’ve been put together just for that purpose, then probably don’t put “sounds like Coldplay.” But if that’s going to be a good indicator, because it’s almost a genre in itself... So it’s that kind of reference of those bands—like The Black Keys, a genre unto itself.

Tim: The other thing is lyrics. If it’s got lyrics, add them. Because often the search is about the theme. They are looking for some kind of theme that’s going on lyrically but you don’t include those, and you send that file to me and I do a search that I want lyrics about crying, then I am not going to find your song. But you might have had the perfect song about crying or whatever it might be. So the words “cry” are somewhere in the metadata of all these songs.

So those are the really basic elements of the metadata for sync. There are other systems that are going to break out, like moods and instrumentation and sounds-like and things like that into totally separate fields. In DISCO, we don’t do that. This information is all customized and it does not travel with the tracks. And we’re just talking about metadata, which travels with the tracks when they are downloaded into another system.

Don’t miss Part 3 of this panel in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!