One of the biggest mistakes that I see musicians make is not keeping a copy their master session file when they finish a recording.
Now you may be thinking, “I always walk away from a session with my masters,” but are you sure? There is a big difference between Masters and Master Session Files.
Let’s start by distinguishing a few commonly used recording terms:
- This is the final mix of your song. It’s also referred to as the Master Mix, the Stereo Mix, the 2-Track Mix. It’s the version that you’ll put on a CD, share on social media, and send to your mom.
- These are the individual elements that make up the recording. If you record lead vocals, that is the “Lead Vocal Track.” If you record bass on your song, that is the “Bass Track.” A drumset consists of multiple individual drums and cymbals. Generally, each one gets its own track (Kick Drum Track, Snare Drum Track, Hi-Hat Track, etc…).
- These individual tracks allow the mix engineer to adjust and blend each instrument during the mixing phase.
- Master Session File:
- This is the file that contains all the audio and mix elements that make up your recording. It is in the format of whatever DAW you are recording onto (ProTools, Digital Performer, Logic, Studio One, Reason, Live, etc). Depending on the amount of tracks that make up your song, these Master Session Files can be multiple-gigabytes in size.
Look In The Vaults
Traditionally, record labels paid for the recording studio, engineer, producer, and all the other costs incurred in recording an album. Because of this, not only do they own the master recording (the mix that would end up on the record), they also own all the tapes/harddrives/etc used in the recording process. Record labels have vaults where they store all the tapes, harddrives, and files from those recording sessions.
The individual or entity who pays for the recording owns all the master recordings. If you are the one incurring those costs, you are entitled to those Master Session Files.
Get On The Same Page
Unfortunately, not everyone who works in the industry understands this fact, and this is a great conversation to have when you are interviewing potential producers, engineers, and studios. Make sure it is understood that once your recording is complete, and the invoice is paid, you will be leaving with your master files. It only costs about $50 to buy a 1 Terabyte Hard Drive, so there’s no excuse on your end.
You can’t count on a studio, producer, or engineer to hold on to these for you either, no matter how much you trust them. Hard Drives crash, data gets deleted… and if you haven’t been a client of theirs for a while, it’s easy for them to assume there's no longer a need to keep your files on hand. If you ever want to revisit your recordings and create new mixes, you need those master session files.
The Value of Retaining Your Master Files
I was recently asked to turn in stem mixes for a song that I wrote back in 2009. There was an opportunity to get this track placed in a commercial, but in 2009 I wasn’t delivering stem mixes of my music (I do now... it's a key component of the 2nd step in my 4 Step Plan to Licensing Success).
So, the company representing this song reached out to me and asked for them. Note: In the commercial/advertising world, it’s very common for the music editor to ask for stem mixes.
It took about 5 minutes to look through my box of old hard drives and find the one with the master session file. Even though my DAW (ProTools) has gone through many upgrades in the last 9 years, the latest versions have no trouble opening up older files. The mix opened and was only missing a specific compressor plug-in that I no longer have. After another 5-10 minutes of updating those tracks with new compressor settings, it sounded just as it did 9 years ago. I had all the stems burned out and uploaded to the admin company within 45 minutes of getting the call.
Don’t Lose an Opportunity!
Even if you don’t have the technical ability, or the gear, to reopen your old master sessions, don’t worry. Having the files on-hand is 95% of the process. It’s not hard to find someone, or call up your producer/engineer, transfer the original session file to them, and have them burn whatever versions you need. But you must have those files… they’re yours to begin with anyway. It’d be a shame to miss out on a great opportunity, and/or lose the original tracks of your recording, because you don't have access to them, or someone deleted them.
Don't lose an opportunity... Always retain your masters!
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