By Craig Anderton
Your songs are superbly mixed, expertly mastered, and ready to be unleashed on a public thirsting for the soul-stirring slices of artistic triumph that only you can deliver. But before you start thinking about trading in your Toyota Corolla for a Lamborghini, don’t forget the final step of the recording process—assembly.
Although there’s talk about the “death of the CD,” the reality is that it’s still a common form of music distribution, particularly at a band’s merch table. And, it’s still the main way of distributing an entire album in one package. The purpose of assembling a CD is to make sure all the disparate pieces hang together as a cohesive listening experience. There are several elements involved in assembling:
Let’s look at these issues in depth, but first, consider the tools you’ll use to assemble your CD.
The greatest thing ever for album assembly is the portable music player (which of course now includes smartphones). You can do your assembly, create an MP3 or AAC file, and listen in a variety of contexts so you can live with your work until you get it exactly as desired. The same could be said of recordable CDs that you can plan in cars, over various stereo systems, and the like. Either sure beats the old school options—acetate copies you could play only a couple times, or “safety” tapes with more hiss than an ancient PA mic preamp.
Many programs will let you assemble cuts in order and burn a CD, but make sure the software supports Disk At Once (DAO) burning. Track At Once (TAO) burning means you’re stuck with a space between tracks, so you will not be able to do crossfades, or place markers during the applause in a live set without hearing a disturbing gap.
My favorite multitrack programs with sophisticated Red Book CD assembling options are PreSonus Studio One Pro 2 and Magix Samplitude Pro X. Either one is adept at album assembly, but Studio One Pro 2 also has the unusual feature of integrating with its multitrack recording page (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: With Studio One Pro 2, if you make any changes in a multitrack mix, you can update the modified file that's being assembled on the mastering (project) page. Or, as this screen shot shows, you can update the files en masse if multiple changes have been made to the multitrack songs.
What this means is that if while assembling an album you decide, for example, that the vocals are just a little too low on one cut, you can zip over to the multitrack project, make your changes, and they’re automatically reflected on the mastering page. Of course this works only with multitrack projects created in Studio One Pro, but still—it’s pretty slick.
You may already think you have an optimum order, but keep an open mind. In particular, you only get one chance to make a good first impression, so the first few seconds of a CD are crucial. If you don’t grab the ear of the listener/program director/booking agent immediately, they’re going to move on. Sorry, but that song with the long, slow build that ends up with everyone in the house shaking their butts is probably better off as your closer than your opener.
There are some exceptions; dance music often starts off with something more ambient to set a mood before the beat comes in. Or, you may intend your CD to be an experience that should be listened to from start to finish. That’s fine, but understand that these days, it’s by and large a singles-oriented world . . . the stronger your opener, the better the odds a listener will actually hear the rest of the CD.
You also have to plan the overall flow. Will it build over time? Hit a peak in the middle, then cool down? Provide a varied journey from start to finish? Do you want to close with a quiet ballad that will add a sense of completion, or with a rousing number intended to take people to the next level?
One of the best models for album assembly is, well, sex. Sometimes it starts off slow and teasing, then proceeds with increasing intensity. Or there might be that instant, almost desperate attraction, that starts off high-energy but over the course of time, evolves into something more gentle and spiritual. Or hey, maybe we’re just talking straight ahead lust from start to finish! In any event, think whether the CD is making love with your audience or not, and whether it follows that kind of flow.
When I assemble an album, I boot up Open Office and make a spreadsheet. Aside from title, the categories are key, tempo, core emotion (joy, revenge, discovery, longing, etc.), length, and lead instrument (male vocal, female vocal, instrumental, etc.). This can help you discover problems, like having three songs in a row that are all the same key, or which have wild tempo variations that upset the flow. For more information, check out an article I wrote about using spreadsheets to help optimize song orders.
In one project I was able to pretty much start out strong, have the tempo increase over the course of the album (with a few dips in the middle to vary the flow), and have a general upward movement with respect to key, except for a few downward changes to add a little unpredictability. Although there were several instrumental songs, I never had one follow another immediately; they were there to break up strings of songs with vocals.
As a result of all this planning, the album had a good feel—it followed a general pattern, but had some cool variations that kept the experience from becoming too predictable.
With vinyl, coming up with an order was actually a bit easier. Albums were shorter, so you only had to keep someone’s attention for about 35-40 minutes instead of 70 or more. The natural break between album sides gave the opportunity for two “acts,” each with an opener and closer.
Today some people seem to feel that if you don’t use all the available bits in a CD, you’re cheating the consumer. Nonsense. Many people don’t have an hour or more just to sit and listen to music anyway. As a consumer, I’d rather have 40 strong minutes that hang together than 30 minutes of all the best material “front-loaded” at the beginning, followed by 40 minutes of average material that peters out into nothing. As OJ Simpson’s lawyer Johnny Cochran once said, “Less CD time is surely no crime.” (Well okay, he didn’t say that, but you get the point.)
I have to admit to a prejudice here, which is that I like a continuous musical flow more than a collection of unrelated songs. I’ve been doing continuous live sets most of my life, and that carries over into CDs. I want transitions between songs to feel like a smooth downshift on a Porsche as you take a curve, not something that lurches to a stop and then starts up again. As a result, I pay a lot of attention to crossfades and transitions.
On a CD I assembled years ago for the group Function, they had already decided on an order, and it was a good one. However, one song ended with a fading echo; while cool, this had such a sense of completeness that when the next song hit, you weren’t really ready. After wrestling with the problem a bit, I copied the decay, reversed it, and crossfaded it with the end of the tune. So the end result was the tune faded out, but before it was gone, faded back in with the reversed echo effect. As reverse audio tends to do, this ended with a abrupt stop, which turned out to be the perfect setup to launch people right into a butt splice that started the next song.
Be alert for “song pairs” that work well together, then figure out a good way to meld them. One lucky accident was assembling a CD where one song ended with a percussive figure, and the song that followed it started with a different percussive figure. With a space between them, the transition just didn’t work. But I took the beginning of the second tune, matched it to the end of the previous tune, and crossfaded the two sections so that during the crossfade, the two percussion parts played together. Instead of a yawning, awkward gap between the tunes, the first tune pushed you into the second, which was simultaneously pulling you in, thanks to the crossfade.
Don’t be afraid to adjust the default space between songs, either (Fig. 2). If there’s a significant mood change, leave a little space. If there’s a long fade out, you might not want to have any space before the next song begins, lest the listener’s attention drifts.
Fig. 2: In this transition, not only is there not a space between two cuts, but a crossfade has been added. Note that the crossfade curves in Studio One Pro 2 can be customized to a linear, concave, or convex shape—whatever makes for the smoothest transition.
Once you have everything figured out, test each transition (start playback about 20 seconds before the end of a song, then listen to about 20 seconds of the next song and see if the transition works), then listen from start to finish. If you don’t hear the need for any changes, fine. But burn a CD and live with it for a few days. Listen to it in the background, in your car, on an MP3 player while you’re doing the food shopping, whatever. Listen for parts where you lose interest, any awkward transitions, and other glitches.
Next, make all necessary changes, then burn another CD or transfer to a portable music player, and start the process over. At some point, the various strands of the CD will hang together like a well-woven tapestry . . . and assembly is complete.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central and Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.