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'Dancing In the Street' with Laya Fisher
By Laya Fisher
(more articles from this author)
2001-06-10
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If there was one thing in the world singer/songwriter Laya Fisher wanted most, it was to put out her songs on her own CD without having to sign her life away to someone else's recording label. But there was a problem. In fact, there were many problems. She had no studio, no band, no money and no idea about where to start. What she did have was a collection of great songs and a burning desire. This is the story of how Laya got it all.

LAYA: First I asked local music producer, Ross McLennan, to become my Music Mentor as part of a Government Arts Initiative I'd read about in the local musician's trade paper. Ross was at first a little hesitant, but when I insisted on performing my songs for him on my acoustic guitar, he was blown away enough to give in and say yes.

Luckily, the Government went along with my project proposal after a lengthy round of paperwork and PAID US to record my debut EP and create its accompanying website. I finally had a little money in my pocket to spend on some gear, so after countless hours of deliberation with Ross, I purchased a second-hand Pentium II PC with a built-in CD burner and 128 MB of RAM ($1000), an Emagic Audiowerk 2 production kit ($499.00), a Behringer Eurorack 8 channel mixer ($399.00) and Acid Rock software ($99.00). I already owned a Roland XP30 synth, a semi acoustic guitar, a home stereo and an SM48 microphone. And my boyfriend was kind enough to build me an ergonomic studio desk on which to store my new studio equipment.

I was ready to record...but was unsure where to begin. I had won an ACID CD loop library a month earlier after winning a contest Sonic Foundry's website hosted online. After being introduced to such an amazing composition tool in that lucky way, I fell in love with Acid the minute I started using it. It has enabled me to be my own band and has saved me having to deal with other musicians' neuroses. I have too many of my own.

So I spent the first few months arranging my songs in Acid but it soon became clear that the six hundred or so loops that came with Acid Rock were not going to cut it. The answer was simple. I just bit the bullet and bought a few more. The people at Sonic Foundry are really on the ball. Their Acid sample library is one of a kind and relatively cheap. I also downloaded other license-free loops from the net, many in low resolution and eventually started making my own loops, which was great.

ROSS: Once the arrangements were done, the completed Acid loops were mixed down and imported into the free version of Logic Audio that came with the Audiowerk 2 Production Kit. These loops were tempo-matched using the "adjust tempo to locators" function in Logic and then MIDI tracks were easily added using the Roland XP30.

The vocals were recorded with Laya's SM48 dynamic microphone and a $20 pop shield. Laya had no compressor and had to use all the mic technique she could muster to stop clipping on the way into her Audiowerk 2 soundcard. The result was patchy, to say the least.

LAYA: The vocals ended up being really noisy and the dynamics were all over the place. But I was really happy with my vocal sound and my performance in general and really didn't want to re-record them. So I rang Ross and he came over and magically fixed them.

ROSS: When I heard the vocal tracks I initially thought "Oh my God...I had better lend her my compressor and do these again." However, Laya refused to use any outside gear, so I was forced to put on my thinking cap and come up with a solution. I ended up downloading a demo of Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge and firstly loaded each vocal in and silenced all of the noise between the singing. I then added a hiss reduction filter to the track to cut some of the noise above 10K. This worked well but tended to cut out some of the sparkle. To give the impression of "sparkle" I added a bit of chorus to the vocals and then limited them to -6dB to even out the dynamics. Finally, I added a little reverb to the backing tracks and normalised each track to -3dB...just in case I needed to do more. I did. The tracks were still a little noisy so I downloaded a demo of Cool Edit and used the noise reduction tool to totally wipe out the noise. Amazing! Hey presto, the vocal tracks sounded great!

LAYA: Ross stepped in after the vocal dilemma to help me do the final mixing and mastering. It was relatively simple though, as all of the mixing was performed within Logic Audio.

ROSS: And with no plug-in effects too, because for some reason they stopped working halfway through the project. Luckily, the vocal track work in Sound Forge resolved this problem to some extent. The automated mixing facilities in Logic are really great so it was a pretty painless exercise to get all the elements of each mix sitting sweetly. Mastering was also relatively simple. To get that finished professional sheen on the master, we used Steinberg's Free Filter plug-in. It's a stunning final mastering solution for the budget recordist. Basically, it copies the levels and EQ settings from your favourite album on to your tracks. It is tricky at first, but absolutely miraculous when it works.

LAYA: We're not saying whose album we used but let me say that when we A/B tested ours against hers at the end of the day, ours sounded heaps better! The CD was now complete and it sounded very cool. But we hadn't even started the website. I had no idea how to make one so I got Ross to show me.

ROSS: We used the free WYSIWYG (WIZEEWIG - WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET) Netscape Composer software that comes with the Netscape Communicator package. It is powerful enough to create and upload stunning websites, but does not allow for Javascript or Java or DHTML or any of the other stuff. It's just HTML. But Laya wanted a simple site that was guaranteed to load easily and that's what Composer's great at. It took about eight hours to complete the site, including design, encoding of Real Audio and MP3 files using Sound Forge and Goldwave (another great shareware program from the net.) The album artwork and photographs were compressed for the web using a demo of Ulead's Smartsave program, which is a total must. Finally the HTML, the graphics, the audio files, plus the metafiles to load the Real Audio plug-in were uploaded in one batch to Laya's web host using WS FTP software (another essential freebie!)

LAYA: It only took 1 day of watching Ross use Netscape Composer for me to be up and running with web design. Ross created the tables and basic layout, while I chose the color scheme. After that initial set-up, I am now able to add, subtract and delete the content of my website and upload it to the internet by myself.

I had already purchased my domain name, www.layafisher.com, from www.networksolutions.com for $US70. The cost is for a year of registration and was really easy to do with my credit card.

Choosing a Web Host was next on the list and after researching the options available to me, I found the most cost-effective way was using HOSTBABY (www.hostbaby.com) which is a company specifically geared towards musicians. It has ample space for audio and graphic files and they were really helpful. It costs $US20 per month and the first month is free to try it out.

ROSS: Laya has become a real web guru through the government grant thing, which is way cool because there's nothing groovier than a cyber chick, in my opinion. From the beginning of the project, Laya had always been aiming to use the internet as her main weapon of self promotion.

LAYA: I didn't' want my songs to be available for download b/c that defeats the purpose of making a living through my music. So I researched the various online music distributors and settled on MP3.com because they have the option of having your music available ONLY as streaming files. They also have a pay for play program which enables the musician to earn royalties for every song that gets listened to. The drawback is that a lot of artists swap plays just to gain momentum on the charts and money. I would not say the charts at MP3.com are an accurate reflection of the best music out there, but at least artists are earning some profit for their work. If you can't afford a webhost provider and/or domain name, MP3 also enables you to set up your own site with the URL of www.mp3.com/layafisher. You can sell directly from there too, which has saved me having to get into e-commerce. There is a link from my homepage that takes you directly to the page where you can purchase the CD with a credit card.

ROSS: Laya didn't have the money to get her own CDs pressed so it was important to find a suitable solution. While downloadable digital music is starting to take off with the masses, physical CDs are still the way to go.

LAYA: This was indeed another aspect that drew me to Mp3.com. They will press a physical CD of your songs on demand, which saves me from pressing the standard minimum of 500 CDs and having a surplus of product sitting in the corner of my bedroom. When someone purchases my CD, I get 50 percent of the profits. It's still better than the 7 cents per album sold that artists signed to major labels make. I have been the 5th highest-selling alternative artist on MP3.com and people from around the world are buying my music. Finding out someone I don't know has purchased my music, is the biggest rush I've ever had.

ROSS: Other similar sites like garageband.com, starpolish.com, artist direct, peoplesound and hundreds more are cropping up daily, so a great part of Laya's working week is spent researching the best avenues to getting herself and her music known.

LAYA: The other part of my week is spent promoting. Some of the best things I've discovered about online promotion is that you can get instant feedback via email, music charts, guestbooks, and CD sales. In addition, there are a lot of business related industry sites that have incredibly helpful tips for independent musicians. Two invaluable sites are www.musicdish.com and www.getsigned.com where different key players in the industry have weekly articles. Bob Baker, who also has his own site called www.thebuzzfactor.com, has the most amazing and inspiring articles for those determined to make a dent in the music world. There are also some books on the market that deal specifically with online music promotion. One that I purchased and have learned a lot from is "The Complete Guide to Internet Promotion for Artists, Musicians and Songwriters," by John Dawes and Tim Sweeney.

ROSS: Laya started as my student but now she is teaching me, especially when it comes to web promotion.

LAYA: Six months ago all I had were dreams. Now I have my own EP, my own website, my own studio and the tools to make a living doing what I love. I am literally dancing in the street. You'd think it would only get easier from here, wouldn't you?

Stay tuned for Part 2 "Singin' In The Rain"


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