Five Questions: Maureen Droney

The managing director of the Recording Academy's P&E Wing talks about ways new production and delivery guidelines raise the bar for music making
By Sarah Jones ,

Last November, the Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing released recommendations for best practices for high-res audio production and updated its guidelines for the delivery of recordings (available at producersandengineers.com).

The Recording Academy’s AES panel “High-Resolution Record Production and Why It Matters” (L to R): Maureen Droney, Michael Romanowski, Marc Finer, Leslie Ann Jones, Bob Ludwig, Chuck Ainlay, and Phil Wagner.

The P&E Wing’s “Recommendations for Hi-Resolution Music Production” couldn’t be more timely: We’re at a point where music consumers can finally experience uncompressed, full-resolution audio without compromising convenience; yet, on the creation side, we’ve had no working standards for high-resolution production.

At the same time, the recording industry has been plagued by poor documentation practices in the digital age. The new delivery guidelines will go a long way toward streamlining everything from archiving to royalty tracking.

I talked to the Managing Director of the Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing, Maureen Droney, to learn what’s inside these recommendations and why it’s so important to adopt these practices.

What’s revealed when audio is created and played back in high resolution, and what are the implications for music creators and listeners?

When we do playbacks of hi-res recordings that are familiar to people—on good speakers or headphones—inevitably, listeners remark that they hear actual musical parts they haven’t heard before, or that they’ve forgotten about, because they’ve been listening to sonically inferior versions. In general, though, you will tend to hear much more detail in the music, and a wider frequency response that can actually cause a more intense physical reaction to the music.

Engineers, producers, and artists work hard to put that sonic detail into their recordings; it’s really a shame that these days so much of it doesn’t make it through to listeners.

The P&E Wing spent three years developing these guidelines. What factors did you consider?

Our committee, chaired by Leslie Ann Jones, included industry veterans Chuck Ainlay, Bob Ludwig, Phil Wagner, Rick Plushner, and Marc Finer. They wanted to get a sense of how professionals—cross format, cross genre and cross discipline—are recording these days, what their workflows are like, and what their challenges are.

There are still people recording in high-end commercial studios, in relatively controlled situations with good acoustics, on DAWs equipped with the latest software, working with a dedicated producer and engineer. But, as we all know, many more are recording in home studios and other nontraditional environments, often on low budgets and using older hardware and software. Plus, of course, everyone has their own sonic and format preferences. They know what they like, and they know which tools are convenient and realistic for them to get their work done in a timely way.

In pop and urban music especially, but in any genre, there can be many people involved in a single song, including multiple producers and engineers, with musical parts being created on all sorts of systems and in all sorts of formats. People are creating tracks and parts of tracks in all sorts of situations, and sending them off to others to combine into the song—and then maybe an album. We wanted to have frank discussions about the concerns and issues people are facing in their day-to-day work. To that end, we had many, many conversations with producers, engineers, mixers, mastering engineers, label representatives, studio owners, managers, and techs, in genres from pop to rock, rap, urban, dance, and country. We were very thorough!

How will these recommendations remain “future proof” as technology evolves?

The guidelines and recommendations that the Producers & Engineers Wing has published will get periodically reviewed, with input from members, and updated as a group to reflect current best practices.

The P&E Wing also released updated recommendations for delivery that include recommended file structure. Why is documentation so important now?

Today’s engineers have an enormous amount of file management to do. It seems you have to keep every part you’ve ever recorded, every rough mix you’ve ever made, plus every file that was sent to you by those you are working with, and you have to produce an end result that includes multiple versions and stems, all labeled so you can find them!

A very diverse group of our members got together and shared their file-management strategies, and it was great to see them get so excited about this subject. We combined their ideas into a suggested File Hierarchy, which is included in both our Delivery and Hi-Res Music Recommendations. People seem to love it!

The Recording Academy is not a standards organization; these guidelines are ultimately recommendations. How easy is it for recording musicians to adopt these practices?

We worked hard to make the Hi-Res Recommendations very user-friendly. P&E Wing member Bill Gibson is a producer/engineer who is also an author and a Hal Leonard training specialist. He did a great job of humanizing the technical information. He also pulled out the essential information as bullet-point recommendations in every chapter, making for an easy read.

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