The Soul & The Science Of Music Production For Licensing

Posted by Aaron Davison on Thursday, March 12, 2015 Under: March 2015

Today's post is a guest post from How To License Your's resident producer, Gary Gray. Over to you Gary...

I’ve been interacting more than ever before with some incredibly talented Indie Musicians from around the world AND some top Music Supervisors in the industry. Many Indie Musicians have come to me via Aaron's website,

Some Indie Musicians have questions while they go through the music production courses Aaron and I produced for licensing music. Some send me tracks to master as part of bonuses they earned by being the first to sign-up for Aaron's Music Licensing Challenges. Some have questions about the International Music Licensing Contest. Some hire me to critique their music or to mix and/or master their tracks.

I’ve been helping Aaron service Indie Musicians in these ways for two years now. Being an avid researcher, I’m continually compiling surveys of what problems most people seem to be running into, and what actions successful individuals are taking to solve those problems and make a living with their music.  I then update our courses and my book “The Home Studio Bible” to reflect a more realistic and workable approach to making it in the licensing world.

More recently, within the last year, I’ve ALSO been compiling a survey of what Music Supervisors are running into as problems and how THEY solve those problems. By continually staying connected with Aaron and following his advice, I’ve been able to network with industry licensing executives to the point where I am now working directly, face-to-face in the studio, co-writing, mixing and mastering for one of the top Music Supervisors in California. Just last month I worked on tracks for HBO, CNN, Disney & Purina. I’m also starting a YouTube Channel Television Series with Mark Haffner, an accomplished composer for Television and Films, who has hooked me up directly with one of the top Music Supervisors on the East Coast.

Not only have I been able to ask questions of Music Supervisors regarding music production, but I’ve been able to observe the real-life, every-day problems and solutions occurring in real time -- face-to-face, in the trenches.

It brings to mind the lessons I’ve learned from Mentors, such as Quincy Jones, and how he continually points out to me that there needs to be a balance between the Soul and The Science of making music. I agree. 

What Problems/Confusions Indie Musicians Are Running Into

1. Frustration. Believe it or not, the number one problem is overcoming frustration. Frustration can be broken down into:

a. Life Challenges. [The Soul] Frustrations from life which spill over into the Home Studio. These are as varied and intense as life itself. How these are managed (or not) can make a huge difference in the speed (or slowness) of achieving one’s goals, or giving up altogether. To me, Aaron's approach of consistently helping Indie Musicians with not only a workable business education, but also by helping them face and solve challenges in life, is both inspiring and USEFUL.  I lost count now of how many times I was sitting in a state of almost overwhelm, when I received one of Aaron’s email blasts and it literally saved my day. 

b. Technical Challenges. [The Science] Problems with learning computer programs, new plug-ins, computer functioning, computer de-bugging, new upgrades of computer programs, installing new programs and/or plug-ins. (Sound familiar?) Technical know-how of music theory, arranging and songwriting/composing.

c. Networking. Doubly fascinating is that it often occurs that (a) and (b) above can hugely affect how well and how much people Network. That’s why I listed (a) and (b) first. Networking is often THE make-break point of a person’s career in music licensing. Not enough can be said about the importance of effective Networking. Having good manners and being professional while Networking and while building, maintaining and expanding relationships is extremely important.

d. How to get “that polished, smooth, punchy, shining, produced” sound of commercially successful licensed music. As mentioned, Aaron and I have produced two courses on mixing and mastering music for production and I’ve written a book called “The Home Studio Bible.” I’m not trying to push these items with this article. I know many of you already have these items. There are also many excellent educational resources on YouTube “University.” However, there ARE a few specific problems and confusions that come up more often than others that Indie Musicians seem to be running into. I’m excited to share these with you now, including their solutions, so that the road can be smoother for you:

Typical Question:

“Should I use any effects on my Stereo Buss Out before Mastering?”

This question, without some people knowing it, is actually TWO separate questions. When you understand these two questions, you will be well on your way to solving them. The first question, really, is this:

1. “Should I mix THROUGH any effects plug-ins on my Stereo Buss Out, starting at the very beginning of my mixing process?”

The other question is,

2. “Should I place a compressor or other attenuating effects plug-in(s) (attenuate means to ‘turn down’ levels) on my Stereo Buss Out when I’m DONE mixing, so the Mastering Engineer (which may be you yourself), has more head room?”

(Head Room means that the overall mix is not so high that it’s kissing the red, ready to clip and distort, that the level of the mix is low enough so that there is some “room” at the top of the meters (the “head”), which will allow the Mastering Engineer to use various processing equipment/plug-ins which invariably bring the levels up. If you start with no head room (with the level of your mix all the way up near the clipping point), anything the Mastering Engineer does will immediately go into the red, and may cause clipping and distortion.

Question 1

1. “Should I mix THROUGH any effects plug-ins on my Stereo Buss Out, starting at the very beginning of my mixing process?”

By just asking this question, many people have unlocked one of the key secrets to getting professional, commercial sounding mixes and masters that will compete for licensing deals.

Many people do their own mixing, spending hours and even days (and sometimes weeks). They then either Master that mix themselves or send it off to a Mastering engineer. Like any online industry these days (most people find a Mastering Engineer online), there are many different approaches to delivering this service based on things like experience, technical expertise, integrity, etc.

I’ve had clients come to me, asking me to master their tracks, after already paying to have them mastered by another person. They explained to me that no Music Supervisors were accepting anything. Not even one word of interest was expressed by Publishers or Music Supervisors.

I listened to their tracks and one time through told me the story. I told them my opinion – that the track itself wasn’t mixed in a way that it was ready for mastering. “Then why did the person I hired master it?” That question I cannot answer. I can say this: the better your production quality, the more likely you will land a licensing deal.

I’ve learned over the years that the way to get “that polished, smooth, punchy, shining, produced” sound of commercially successful licensed music has a lot to do with how much and/or how little you use the tool of a compressor while mixing. (For anyone who would like to see a video of what I’ve been told many times is probably the most thorough and simple definition of what an audio compressor does, CLICK HERE.  

And this is not a new problem. One of the best-selling albums of all time, “The Dark Side of The Moon” by Pink Floyd (year after year it continues to outsell most albums), was held up in the studio for months over the band disagreeing about how much compression to use on the mix. The members of Pink Floyd were very well educated on studio technology as it related to their musical expression and the final product. They knew that too much compression would limit the listener’s enjoyment of the “dynamic range” (the differences between the loud and soft parts of the music). They also knew it would sound “squashed” – where the loud impactful sections would be “squashed down” - made less loud and the softer parts would be “squashed up” – made more loud. This is referred to as “over compressed.”

Sometimes you need to use compression as a tool to fix something – such as a singer who sings inconsistently, some words are too loud, some are too soft – and not on purpose. This can be identified by a vocal track where some words or phrases get lost in the music and some are just too loud compared to the music.  A compressor used correctly (see the video above) in this situation can make the softer parts louder and the louder parts softer. The final vocal take will sound like a much smoother performance, enjoyable and comfortable to listen to.

Sometimes you DON’T want to “fix” a performance – and that could be the right call. Let’s say you have a band performing a style of music that is very acoustic, where instruments are played with more dynamics and less compression will make it sound more realistic. Decisions like this have a lot to do with the intended use of the music. If you’re releasing an album, you may decide to use less compression because you want a more dynamic, natural sounding performance. If you’re aim is to license your track with a large corporate end-user, you may opt for a more smoothed out, “sanded down,” polished version of your mix, as that is often what is asked for in those instances.

When it comes to licensing music, your decisions on how much compression you should use should be based on the intended use. For releasing an album that will get you radio airplay or public airplay, these playback systems have built-in compressors and so you wouldn’t want to over compress things. Many Music Supervisors are not only looking for Songs, but they’re looking for the bands to go along with those songs so that a relationship is made between the consumers of a product and the fans of a band, melding both into each other. If it’s for a major corporate commercial, you’ll probably want to use a little more compression and go straight for that polished sound. The simple way to decide, is to listen closely to tracks that are being released by that corporation or signed by that music supervisor, and use those tracks to A/B your recording.

How do you apply this to your Home Recording scenario?

Compressors can be used on:

Individual Plug-Ins (such as using a compressor ON a Reverb, Delay, Gate, Chorus, etc.)

Individual Tracks (such as vocals, kick drum, snare, hi-hat, bass guitar, synths, etc.)

Group Tracks (such as “all guitars,” “all drums,” “all synths,” “all vocals,” etc.)

Stereo Buss Out (the Stereo Buss Out is the track to which everything in your entire mix is routed)

A Tip, Trick and Secret of Using Compression (and other effects if wanted) on Your Stereo Buss Out.

Let’s revisit Question 1 again:

1. “Should I mix THROUGH any effects plug-ins on my Stereo Buss Out, starting at the very beginning of my mixing process?”

When I first started mixing I didn’t even know you COULD put effects on an entire mix before giving it to the Mastering Engineer. I thought, and was later even told, “leave that alone – let the Mastering Engineer mess with that.” I was also told, “The Mastering Engineer can slap a compressor on the mix at the beginning of his work and that’s the same thing as you mixing through a compressor anyway, so just leave it alone. Don’t put any effects on your Stereo Buss Out.”

This type of advice turned out to be very unwise. I had to learn it the hard way.  But boy, did I learn it.

Let’s make a very clear point here:

Slapping a compressor on your mix, ONCE YOUR DONE MIXING is VERY VERY VERY DIFFERENT than starting out your entire mixing process with a Compressor on the Stereo Buss Out and going to work from there.

Why?  It’s like making a salad. When you slap a compressor when you are finished and ready for mastering, it’s like tossing some croutons and tomato slices on the top of a salad, without tossing the salad. The ingredients underneath the croutons and salad dressing are not particularly affected by the croutons and tomatoes sitting on top.

When you mix THROUGH a compressor from the very beginning of your mixing process, each instrument gets mixed into that compressor and affects every other sound getting mixed into that compressor and the result of those combinations of sounds going through that compressor IS NOT PREDICTABLE. That’s part of the ART OF MIXING. You have to try it to see what will happen. This is one reason why major albums have such a budget attached to them. The producer and engineer need time to practice their art in order to achieve the best results.


This is more like chopping up the tomatoes and throwing them and the croutons in while tossing the salad thoroughly.

I was so excited when I learned this, that my next mix was miles above anything I had ever done.


Here’s how most pro mixers and mastering engineers describe in words what a compressor does to an entire mix: “It sort of ‘glues’ the mix together.” You’ve got to hear it to be able to define it for yourself. It greatly affects the relationships between instruments and vocals and instruments and instruments and vocals and vocals.

Now, here’s a secret that I’ve developed in working with some top Music Supervisors and Corporations who are often picky and will ask for different things, from one company to the next:

The day I tried this out, It increased both the speed and quality of my mixing and mastering for licensing (and for all my other projects as well!)

Before I tell you this secret, let me explain a very important reason why anyone would use a compressor on an entire mix. If you DON’T use a compressor on your entire mix (and sometimes you shouldn’t – there is NO rule that says you ALWAYS HAVE TO USE A COMPRESSOR ON YOUR ENTIRE MIX – USE YOUR EARS TO DECIDE), your loud and soft attacks, instruments and performances will be very noticeably loud and soft. (This, again, is called “Dynamic Range.”)  However, if you listen very closely to many of your favorite commercial recordings, there is this sort of “polished” sound to these recordings. This often times has a lot to do with the fact that the mixes were done THROUGH a compressor and/or some other effects processing (in our case plug-ins).  For a fascinating look at some examples, check out Dave Pensado’s videos on YouTube. I was recently on a panel of producer/engineers with Dave for a “boot camp” for aspiring producer/engineers, and all the producer/engineers agreed strongly with this point about experimenting by mixing through compressors and/or other plug-ins. 

What are you listening for?

What you are listening for is most evident DURING THE MASTERING PROCESS.  And this is where you can decide how much compression to use. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to go back and adjust a mix (more than once if necessary) until it sounds great in the Mastering process. After a while, you will understand how the amount of compression you are using on your mix will affect the mastering process without having to listen to the Master, because you will gather more and more experience listening to your mixes and their resultant mastered versions – either by mastering yourself or listening to your mastering jobs returned to you from a Mastering Engineer.

A Key Point: When songs are mastered in certain genres, which used no compression on the Stereo Buss Out during mixing, the Masters make the loud passages SO loud that in order to get any competitive volume with your recording, the recording will actually start to distort and the overall quality of your track will sound worse. Then, the Mastering engineer HAS to slap more compression on your entire mix to turn down those loud passages, which takes the life out of them, gives them less impact, and changes the entire character of your mix.  If compression is skillfully used during mixing, the Mastering engineer can get more volume with your recording and it won’t sound distorted, the loud passages will still sound loud and not squashed and the overall quality will be higher. 

The Secret.

It’s all about intercepting the entire mix TWICE before it gets to the actual Stereo Buss Out. It was actually the album “Dark Side of The Moon” that inspired my routing experiment. 

Here’s how and why I do it:

Locate every track and ONLY every track that gets routed to the Stereo Buss Out in your mix. There will probably be a few or many tracks in your mix that get routed to an effects buss or a group track or to somewhere other than the Stereo Buss Out before the signal finally gets sent to the Stereo Buss Out. When you’ve located ONLY the tracks that get routed directly to the Stereo Buss Out, you route each one to:

A Buss (or Group Track) Called: SSN STEREO BUSS OUT WITH CMPRSR

This is shorthand for Session Stereo Buss Out With Compressor. Your creating your own internal Stereo Buss Out in essence. Then, route that track to

A 2nd Buss (or Group Track) Called: SSN STEREO BUSS OUT NO CMPRSR

This is shorthand for Session Stereo Buss Out With No Compressor. Then, route that track to the ACTUAL STEREO BUSS OUT in your D.A.W. (Digital Audio Workstation – ProTools, Cubase, Logic, Reason, Ableton, Digital Performer, etc.).

What I started experimenting with, which saved loads of time and gave me great quality mixes was switching each track which had previously been going to the actual Stereo Buss Out, back and forth while listening, to either the W COMPRSR or the NO CMPRSR track.  Amazing results!  This way, you don’t have to commit your entire mix to being compressed or uncompressed. And you have the ability to compare and decide instantaneously. Otherwise this could take hours. You can choose which track goes where right there on the spot, and adjust your mixing while doing so. Since the final stop in the assembly line is NO CMPRSR, that track does not, in any way affect the WITH CMPRSR track, allowing both compressed sounds to stay compressed and uncompressed sounds to say uncompressed.

You’ll be amazed at how the character and feel of your mix can change by trying various tracks through either WITH CMPRSR or NO CMPRSR.

And by the way, Pink Floyd finally decided to hire an outside set of ears, producer Chris Thomas, to help them to decide on whether to go with a compressed or uncompressed sound on “Dark Side of The Moon.”  The initial producer of the album, Alan Parsons, was asked this question concerning the compression of the album:

You’ve said in the past that you’re not a big fan of compression, except for managing out-of-control dynamics. Did you use much compression on the Dark Side of the Moon mixdown?
“What generally tended to happen was either no compression or compression on everything except the drums, because I totally hate—with a vengeance—compressing drums. So, although [producer] Chris Thomas wanted to compress everything, I talked him into compressing just the instruments and vocals, but not the drums.
” – Alan Parsons

Try out the routing tip above and let me know what kind of results you get!

What Problems Music Supervisors Are Running Into And Their Solutions

One Top California Music Supervisor I work with in my studio as co-writer and mixing and mastering engineer (part of my contract with him does not allow me to use his name in publications) was approached by ReverbNation to offer opportunities through his website. He agreed. The next week he received more than 1,000 submissions. He called a ReverbNation executive on the phone and told them, “There is no way I can listen to all these submissions.” Their answer? Listen to as many as you can. He did – it was about 20. This was because he already had so much on his plate.

Every Music Supervisor I’ve worked with or submitted to is very, very busy – UNTIL – they hear a great piece of music which is produced really well. THEN, all of a sudden they have time. They brighten up, they no longer talk about the overwhelm of their job, they get excited, they communicate carefully and thoroughly with the creators of the music and the potential end-user client.

There are two things from the production side of life that you can do to get yourself and/or your music in front of successful Music Supervisors.

1. Follow the teachings and advice of Aaron Davison. This includes Networking. I have a personal motto: “I’m Either Networking Or Notworking!” Every time I apply it, it works.

2. Take the care to write great music and observe attention to detail in producing great recordings, whether you do them yourself or whether you hire people to help you.

Music Supervisors are people. The more successful they are, the more money you can potentially make by working with them. One submission we made last week was for a major company’s YouTube world-wide advertising campaign. The budget for the writers and producers of the music? $50K. It’s not every day that you find these opportunities, but they are out there.

Another opportunity actually accepted demos.  I didn’t know this until I worked directly with a Music Supervisor in the studio.  However, their definition of a demo was not a scratchy, piano/vocal recording. It was a majorly well-produced track that only lacked all the instrumentation. It did NOT lack the production quality of a finished track. But, knowing that we could submit this type of demo, definitely helped us get our submission in on time. Budget? Between $2K and $5K to the writers. If they took the recording and you were asked to complete the production, an additional $10K was in the budget for writers/producers.

Some of the best paid Licensing opportunities are recordings which are asked for within a 24 hour notice – or less! (No kidding). This is a good goal to work towards – either learning how to produce your tracks so well that you can kick out a final product within 24 hours – or setting up an assembly line of people, a team, that you work with who can do the same thing. When you do, you’ll be competing for some of the highest top dollar jobs that exist. But you don’t have to produce music within 24 hours to make a very good living at music licensing. Plenty of other opportunities exist. 

If you create instrumental music, there is another thing I learned that can help you right now: Getting licensing deals where your music is used on Movie Trailers can be extremely lucrative. I found that every Music Supervisor that I work with told me a very similar story: “People turn in music to me for trailers. Some of it is not so good, some of it is OK and sometimes I get some really great sounding tracks – but most all of it lacks a simple formula that can be discovered by listening and watching many trailers for major movies. The music for licensing doesn’t have to tell a story – but it better paint an emotional landscape. For example, many trailer clients ask for action type music. When I find something that really sets a mood and then builds and builds and builds an awesome emotional landscape, I’m all over it. But I wish I received more tracks like that. The tracks I hear don’t really set a mood to begin with and then they don’t really build emotionally. They might get louder, but they don’t build emotionally. The composers think they do, but when I play their tracks along with a video for a trailer, it just doesn’t quite cut it emotionally.”

So, if you are going to submit music for trailers, hopefully the above will help you.

This all brings us back to the Soul and The Science of Music Production for Licensing. The most successful path is a balance between both.

If you have any questions about producing, mixing or mastering your music for licensing, feel free to email me at


Gary Gray

Los Angeles, CA

March 7, 2015

Related Courses:

How To Produce Music That Will Get Licensed And Make You Money

Mysteries Of Mastering Solved

In : March 2015 

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