How good should “stock music” tracks sound? Let your ears tell you.

Posted by Aaron Davison on Thursday, November 1, 2012 Under: November 2012

Hello once again!

            I’m Aaron Saloman, co-creator with Aaron Davison of the course “How to Make Money with Stock Music Libraries” . I thought I would chime in with another guest blog on a frequent topic.

            One of the big discussions that keeps coming up in the music licensing world is track quality. How good should your tracks sound in order to be licensed? What does “broadcast quality” mean? How do I get there?

            First, allow me to be pedantic for a minute :) While the term “broadcast quality” has come to be widely used in stock music to denote some combination of intangible aesthetic qualities in the composition, recording, and mix, it does have a real, technical meaning. As I talk about in the course, when I’m not focused on music licensing I spend much of my time producing, recording, and mixing other artists. Going back and forth between those worlds, it can be disconcerting watching technical terms migrate into non-technical usage, causing confusion in the process. When audio folks talk about “broadcast quality”, all they’re referring to is the bit depth and sample rate of the CD spec; that is to say, 16-bit and 44.1 kHz. So if you recorded a hyper-limited, distorted master, a hissy cassette-to-digital transfer, your worst song ever, or an electrical hum onto a CD.....these would all qualify as “broadcast quality”.

            Obviously this isn’t what stock music libraries are looking for when they say “please make sure your music is broadcast quality before submitting”. What can they possibly mean then? Aaron D. already has a great course on mixing for music licensing , so I won’t duplicate info by getting too deeply into the technical end of it. Instead, I’ll just show you some examples, and you can decide if your ears agree.

            I generally go by the rule that musicians should only show their best work at any given time, but I’ll break that rule for a minute here. Sometimes when you’re trying to help people learn, the best way is to embarrass yourself :)

            In the course, I tell the story about how I first got a taste of music licensing in my teens, when a television production company in my hometown of Ottawa needed instrumental underscore for one of their shows. I got out my Dr. Rhythm drum machine (the pride of the 80’s!), my guitar & bass, and a 4 track recorder, and sent them a disc of instrumentals. By today’s standards, the tracks sound terrible, but the company used them to score almost every episode of the show, which was re-run hundreds of times. The back end royalties helped cover my rent a couple times while I was away at university in Boston – no small feat. Here, as much as it pains me to show you this, is one of those tracks:

       While this may have been fine for stock music in the 90’s, it’s because of tracks like this that libraries started adopting taglines like “we don’t sell stock music here”. The stiff, quantized drum performance, the bad drum machine sounds, and the amateur mix came to define “stock music”. Libraries wanted to get away from that and offer their clients music that was indistinguishable from professional product, like you might hear on an album or on the radio.

            After I finished school and moved to Montréal, and with a lot more recording and mixing experience under my belt, I was trying to build up a small but high-quality catalogue of instrumental pieces for licensing. I wrote a lot of new music, but I knew some of those old compositions were fine.....they just didn’t sound particularly good. The track above may be a bit of a genre throwback, but it works well enough for team sports, winter sports, news stingers, etc. With that in mind, I re-recorded the track from scratch, and did a proper mix. It now sounds like this:

Hear the difference? A pretty big improvement in “quality”, despite being the exact same song. The drums are now real, coming from a loop library of famous session drummers. The guitars are a bit more aggressive, a bit less 80’s. The mixing and mastering are competent. (Oh, and the mistake in the intro is gone too.) Could I have left the track as it was and just submitted it to libraries anyway? Sure, but I probably wouldn’t have landed any big placements with it, and may have been rejected from the libraries that screen tracks. Instead, I put in an extra day’s work, and the track has now been licensed by several reality, documentary, and sports shows.

            Here’s another example of a track I decided to improve upon later: 

 A nice, mellow acoustic track. This version actually did generate some sales in stock libraries, but I was never thrilled with it. Hear how the guitars sound kind of harsh and midrange-y? I was trying out an electric guitar that mimicked the sound of an acoustic guitar through a DI box. It would be fine used in a mix with other instruments (secret: I actually used it on one of my best-selling tracks, “Morning Rain”, that you hear in the course), but given the full spotlight on its own, it doesn’t really hold up. A couple years later, I re-did it by mic-ing up real acoustic guitars. The subtle synth you hear at the end is the same: 


Notice the difference that real acoustic guitars make? It sounds much mellower, more natural, and more relaxing. This track also went on to sell a lot more and generated several TV placements after I made those changes.

            Are these tracks the pinnacle of achievement in audio quality? Of course not. By its very nature, stock music has to be done with an eye for balancing exacting aesthetic standards and time. Because stock music gains financial momentum verrrrrrrry slowwwwwwwwwly, you can’t spend a week or two on a track, or you’ll have long stretches without any income. While I might spend 8 to 12 hours just mixing a song for a client’s album, I rarely spend more than 2 hours mixing a stock music track, and sometimes less. Partly this is because mixing stock music is just easier – you’re often dealing with pre-made stereo drum mixes, and instrumental samples that already sound good. Use your ears.....if you think your sounds are already great right out of the box, then save yourself the time and don’t mess with them. Hopefully someone will tell you if they disagree, or you can just go back and critique your own work as you learn and develop.

            That brings me to the final, and most important point: Something we stress repeatedly in the course is developing the ability to be honest with yourself. If you put your track on next to your favourite album and it doesn’t sound as good, you should know it. Don’t compare yourself to your peers in stock music, compare your compositions and recording quality to your heroes. You may never get there, but at least you’ll be trying, and your stock music will probably stand out from the crowd because of it. No one actually told me those two tracks above didn’t sound good.....I had to tell myself that as my skills gradually developed, and then do what I could to fix it. I’m glad I did, cause I’m sure those songs wouldn’t be appearing on network TV in their original form. The quality of sample libraries and home recording setups is too good these days to settle for stiff machine performances and bad mixes. If the lay usage of the term “broadcast quality” means anything, I guess that’s probably it.


            If you haven’t yet, please check out our course “How to Make Money With Stock Music Libraries”!  As a bonus this weekend only, I’m offering a free 15/30/60 second edit creation for the first 5 people to purchase the course (instrumental or wordless-vocal tracks only).

Happy music licensing!

Aaron Saloman 

In : November 2012 

blog comments powered by Disqus