Kenny Rogers Was Talking About Music Publishing

Kenny Rogers was talking about Music Publishing.

Ok, not really, but guess what. The lyrics apply to Music Publishing!

“You’ve got to know when to hold'em

Know when to fold ‘em

Know when to walk away

Know when to run”

The term “Music Publishing” has got to be the least understood term by most artists I meet who are pursuing a career in the music industry. I think the confusion comes from the word Publishing and how it is generally defined in non-music fields. So, first of all, we must change the way we think of the word “Publishing”. In music, “publishing” does not mean the same thing as it does in books, literature, papers and pamphlets. When you hear the word “publish” you associate that with “releasing” or “sharing” or “making available for sale” just like you would use the word for publishing a book. Please realize before you realize anything else that “Music Publishing” does not mean the same thing as “Making your music Public”. Not the same thing. Got it?

There is a commonly used word that does mean “making your music public” and that word is Distribution. Publishing is not the same thing as Distribution.

Distribution Companies are the middleman-guys that digitally distribute your music to all of the online platforms: iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Deezer, etc. This guy Ari Herstand maintains the best, up to date comparison of all of the Distribution Companies so that you can make the best, most informed decision about what company to use to distribute.

These Distribution Companies are NOT the same thing as Publishing Companies, though they do offer Publishing Options or more properly termed, Admin Publishing Deals. More on that later.

So, what is Music Publishing then? I’m so confused!!!

When you write a song (let’s say it’s just you and only you that has written the song) you immediately own the whole song. Seems obvious. But the song is automatically split into two halves; The Songwriter Half and the Publishing Half. Think of it as a pie:

You are automatically the owner of both halves.

Both halves are valuable in the world of royalties owed and paid.

Both halves are yours to keep and yours to give up.

Let’s say you decide to invest some money into this song of yours because it is awesome. You hire a producer, and together, you work on perfecting the mix until it is absolutely perfect. In this example, you hired the producer as a “work for hire” without sharing any portion of your song-pie so you still own the whole pie completely.

Now, let’s say a music library is interested in including your song in their catalog for sync placements (film/TV licenses). They will undoubtedly ask for the publishing half of your pie.

Now comes the Kenny Rogers “Gambling” analogy.

Is it worth giving up half of your pie (which also means half of the potential money the song will make in certain royalties)? For most indie artists getting started, the answer is YES. Because getting half of something is better than all of nothing, right? Let’s say your song has become crazy popular on spotify because your song is so Bad-A and now EVERYONE wants it. Every music library, every publishing company, every Ad Agency wants to snag it for their client’s national ad campaign, etc. Now that it’s a hit song, you may have the bargaining power to hang on to some of that publishing. You could say, yeah, sure you can use it in your hit TV series but you can only have 25% of the publishing. See how this works?

A Publishing Company and a Music Library generally only offer publishing agreements to songs that they believe they can pitch with success. Think of it like a grocery store. There is only so much room on their shelves so they only want to fill their shelves with product they know they can move. Publishing companies want to make money, therefore, they will only offer you a publishing deal if they are pretty confident they can find good placements for your song.

Let’s get back to those Distribution Companies. There are many of these companies are now “offering” to collect all of your royalties for a portion of your publishing share. Now, here’s the thing with your publishing half. Just like a real life pie, if you give even just half of that publishing share of your pie away to your neighbor, it’s gone (at least until the end of the agreement which could be 1 year, 2 years or more). You can’t give it to your other neighbor, or to yourself. There are publishing companies that will sign a non-exclusive publishing agreement with you which means you magically can assign that publishing half to another publishing company and/or library. Yay for non-exclusive publishing deals!

You must understand that what you are giving them is valuable. Just like the bargaining chip at the gambling table; it’s yours to hold or to give away. What you have to consider is what you may get in return. These distribution companies are adding hundreds of thousands of songs into their publishing catalog where a music library might max out at 5,000 (adding and shedding music all the time) and a publisher might only have 100 songs. What makes you think these distribution companies are “working” your song at the same level? I guarantee, they are not. But, in most cases, you have given them the exclusive right to your song, keeping you from other opportunities that may be around the corner for sync deals.

When you read Ari’s blog about the comparison, he sees the Digital Distribution Companies admin publishing deals as a plus, where I don’t. What irks me is that they are definitely taking advantage of the millions of artists with a dream but no knowledge of what they are signing away when they sign up for those publishing deals. I think it’s sneaky and unethical. You can collect all of your songwriting and publishing royalties yourself, if you just know how (future blog post with all of the up to date info on that!) without giving half of your income away.

PS - I am NOT A MUSIC ATTORNEY so please take all of this as one person’s opinion and understanding of the workings of the music industry, not as legal advice! Thanks!

Reverse Engineering - the Best Way to get Started in Music Production!

I am often asked how to get started with music production. Many of these people already have the recording equipment and a basic idea of how to record and mix. But they don’t at all know how to create a song from scratch.

Blank Canvas Syndrome: BCS

As a songwriter or producer, having a “blank canvas” in front of you, whether it be white lined paper waiting for lyrics, the 88 keys staring up at you or the 24 audio/24 midi blank template in your DAW, it can be a total creativity-killer. If you have BCS, the answer is as simple as knowing where to start. And to learn to produce music, where to start is where someone else finished. In other words, we’re going to “Reverse-Engineer” a song.

Why would you want to copy what someone else produced? “I want to be a creative producer, not a copy producer!”, right? Well, because reverse-engineering trains your ear to hear the detail in every sound that makes up the song. The length of the reverb tail. The frequency boost on the kick. The panning movement on the oscillating synth...Every. Freaking. Detail. And until you hear those details in other songs, you won’t know how to create the sounds you hear in your head. Got it?

Since this article is aimed at folks hoping to learn how to produce music, I’ll share with you my process. After reverse-engineering for close to a decade now, I’ve found that there is a process that makes it flow the best for me. It goes like this:

Pick a song

First, select a song that you know you have the ability to recreate*. I don’t play guitar so I’m obviously not going to choose a guitar heavy song. Virtual instruments are pretty darn amazing, however. If you are still learning your software and aren’t quite sure what instruments you have and can create legit sounds from yet, that’s ok. This is how you will learn what you have and don’t have!

Don’t forget the vocals. If you are a singer, make sure to pick a song you can sing. If not, find a singer and pick a song they know how to sing. Give yourself the best chance of being able to replicate the song in every detail. If you don’t have Kelly Clarkson chops or know someone who does, don’t pick a Kelly Clarkson song.

Now that you’ve chosen your song, import it into your DAW. Set the tempo, create markers at all of the verses, pre-choruses, choruses, interludes, notable moments (drops), bridges, etc.

*I strongly recommend starting with the song “Meant to Be” by Florida Georgia Line featuring Bebe Rexha because….it’s quite simple behind the vocals. Even if you don’t have vocalists that can sing it, just recreate the music and you’ll end up with a karaoke track!



Start with the kick pattern throughout the entire song. If you are using a kick sample (which I usually use rather than programming a midi note and then tweak/EQ/Compress the crap out of the synthesized kick...I have samples that already sound pretty close to the way I want the kick to sound, especially for modern music so, why not?) I find the absolute closest sound to it that I can, knowing that I might still need to play with EQ/Comp before it’s right.

Then I go through the same process with the snare hats, cymbal crashes and swells, other percussion and sound effects.

What if you missed something? No biggie. You may notice later on when you are programming keyboards or synthesizers that there was this little triangle blip you didn’t notice before. Go ahead and add it as soon as you hear it. Get it in there. What if it takes 2 hours and you still haven’t gotten the kick drum to sound right? Move on. Get it as close as you can and take note about what you couldn’t get right. Then when you listen back and you can tell that your version sounds different than the original, you’ll remember what obstacles you encountered and hear what a difference those “little” differences make in the final product. This is part of the “learning to listen” process.

*Trick: Use your eyes when copying drum patterns. You can often see in the audio file of the original where drum hits are because there’s a big spike!


But I don’t play the bass! So what. One of the best discoveries I made when I started programming/producing music was that the bass is the coolest instrument of all! But you can still replicate it which eventually will help you figure out what your bass should do in a song you are producing from scratch. There will be some nuances that you will never be able to recreate using a virtual bass, even though you can get close. Most virtual instruments have amazing sounds including slides, string squeaks, string hits, etc. You can get pretty dang close. The point is that you are learning what a bass player does, what the tone of the bass is and how that sound adds to the character of the song. If you do play the bass, good on ya. Focus on getting the tone and the feel to match the song you are recreating.

Other Instruments

Begin programming all of the “inner” instruments. If you are freaking out because you can’t tell what instruments are there, just start with the most obvious one first. You’ll probably experience something I call the  “zooming in” phenomena. The closer you listen, the more you hear. As you listen carefully, you’ll notice more sounds. And then more. Again, it’s ok if you now hear a synth sound that you didn’t hear 5 days ago or even 5 minutes ago. Keep “zooming in” until you think you’ve gotten everything.

Since matching synthesizer sounds exactly can be…”hard”, to put it simply, program the notes first then flip through synthesizer presets and find the closest one. Sound design is going deeper than what you’ll want to worry about at this stage, so don’t get hung up on matching the sound exactly for now. Just get as close as you can. This will help you to become familiar with your synths which is imperative. Once you know what your synth presets do and sound like, you can work toward learning how to shape and design the pre-set sounds to your desired sound.

A note about electric guitar tone: like I said, I don’t play guitar. But I worked closely with a guitarist for over 10 years and learned something very important. Guitar tone is king. And nailing the tone just right can be an elusive moving target. There are literally thousands of combinations of settings when you consider every guitar knob, pickup switch, mic placement, amp knob, pedal possibility, effects’s mind numbing. Needless to say, you could spend years just figuring out how to match guitar tone to your favorite songs. Just like the synths, get it as close as you can and then move on. You’ll get better and better every time you tackle this reverse-engineering exercise.

Trick: Make note of places in the song where there are breakdowns, soft choruses, intros and outros. Often times these are the sections where you can better hear patterns or sounds that may be going on throughout the song but aren’t as easy to hear in other sections of the song. In “meant to be” there’s an a cappella break down where you can clearly hear the harmony happening during the hook which is harder to hear during the “full” choruses.


Begin with the lead vocal. Make sure the recording is clean and “uncolored” with room acoustics or outboard hardware that may add specific coloring to the track. You can add processing later. Once you have your lead vocal track you are happy with (I hope you’ve read my blog post about getting the best vocal performance from your singer in the studio before you do this) now you get to listen to the processing of the vocal and try to match the processing on your copy song.  

Now, work on the backing vocals. Zoom in closer and closer and notice every harmony, double and stack. If you are not a singer, this might be difficult for you to hear at first. Work with your singer to pick out all of the parts and get them recorded. Don’t over complicate it! The harmony notes will MOST LIKELY fit the underlying chords going on so make sure to follow the chords and you should be in good shape.

For all elements now in your song, make sure you have addressed panning, EQ, compression, reverbs and delays and other fun spatial processing. As with everything in music production, you will get better the more you do this.

In case you didn’t notice, you started from the bottom and worked your way up. This is what I’ve found works the best for me. See if it works for you! If not, try it the other way.

Share with me your first “reverse-engineering” project and I’ll offer feedback if you’d like. Best of luck!

Getting the best performance from your singer in the studio

I’ve read a lot of articles titled something like “tricks for recording stellar vocals” or something along those lines, as I’m sure you have as well. I stopped reading them a while ago because they were all saying the same thing; what preamps to use, the best vocal mic, mic placement, acoustic space treatment, mic technique, etc. rather than addressing what I think is the most important element: getting the best emotional, confident and believable performance out of your vocalists! As important as the equipment and recording techniques are, what good does it do if the singer has not given their best performance? I know you already knew that. But what you might not know is that you, as the engineer and/or producer, can absolutely make or break the emotion/mental state of the singer in your studio.


Here’s the thing. Most singers are incredibly nervous or at the very least, a bit anxious when they come to record vocals. They usually have inner demons waiting to hammer them with all the worst words of self doubt a demon can muster just as soon as they open their mouths. Your singers will love working with you if you can put them at ease in every way possible. What it comes down to is you need to wear other hats besides just “engineer” and “producer”. You must also be a therapist, life coach, cheerleader, bff and psychic.


Now, you can complain all day long that singers need to be professional and just deal with the stress and blah blah blah. But have you not figured out that the vocals are the most important part of the song? It doesn’t matter if you have the best drum sounds on the planet or the coolest guitar solo ever created. If the vocal falls flat, the song will not connect with people.


Do you want your singer (whether they are Kelly Clarkson good or not) to give the best vocal performance of their life in your recording session? Do you??? Yes. I know you do! So shift your mindset from being the dude/dudette at the console to being the singer’s advocate. Here is my list of the top eleven things you must do to get the best vocal performance from your singer ever.


  1. Provide a low stress, comfortable environment. Do what you can to make the temperature comfortable (for us home studio owners, this can be difficult but do your best with space heaters, fans, windows open between takes, etc.) This also means making sure they know ahead of time if you are going to have any visitors or observers. And if possible, keep your schedule open enough to where they don’t feel rushed in or out.

  2. Start with one run through the entire song as a “warm up”. Record that first take, but tell them it’s just a warm up. Because it is. But it’s also a take. I’m surprised at how often I go back to that warm up take to use a word or a phrase at comping time because it was the best take.

  3. Let them hear themselves back after the warm up take (whether it sounded good or bad) with some compression and EQ and a bit of sweetening so that they sound legit. I’m not sure how or why this happens, but when they hear themselves played back the first time, it gives them the confidence they need to sing better once you start doing real “takes”. Especially if they sang that first take timidly, they’ll hear themselves singing all wimpy and tell themselves, “Wait. I totally got this.”

  4. Be willing to adjust the input gain, but do it carefully. Some singers are very dynamic and will about blow the roof off on their loudest notes and be whisper soft during the quiet spots. Others will be more even. You can figure this out very quickly during the warm up take. As you decide what sections to record (see #6), if you need to adjust gain for the different sections, then coordinate it so you will only need to adjust the gain once; maybe twice so as to not have level change issues.

  5. Don’t do takes just for the sake of getting takes. I’ve had vocal files sent to me recorded at another studio where I had 8...9...10 takes of the entire song. And guess what? They all sounded pretty much the same. Sometimes it does take a singer a few takes to get into their groove, and that’s fine. But if you are working with a pretty seasoned singer, after the warm up take, you might only need 3 or 4 to make sure you can comp the best vocal take ever. Going through the entire song and having them do 10 to 12 takes will make them pretty tired. The takes will diminish in quality and won’t be useable anyway.

  6. Record the song in sections. Ninety-nine percent of the time, this is the best way to go when recording a vocalist. When they are singing the warm up take, make note of sections that seem harder for them, places where they have to take a catch breath in the middle of a phrase, parts that might be too high or too low. Most singers have a harder time singing low when their voice is more warmed up so have them start with the low sections. Cheerleader hat comes on for the hard parts. Get really good at punching in and punching out so that they can get a great take on difficult notes that might need a focused breath right before or a vocal “placeholder” (more on that later). If there is a section that is especially hard or taxing on them vocally, only get a few good takes, then move on, go back again later if needed.

  7. Take a break if they seem tired (either you can see fatigue or you can hear fatigue). Chit chat, offer them water, start asking questions about them so you can get to know them better. Get their mind off of it for a bit.

  8. For crying out loud, don’t get mad at them when they are not meeting your expectations! Need I say more? Really. Yelling at them, showing frustration with passive aggressive comments, mocking them or whatever will most definitely not help the session go any better.

  9. Emotionally engage with the song they are recording. It seems like a no-brainer but one thing I hear from vocalists who love to record with me is that most engineers “just hit record and check out”. If the singer is struggling with getting the emotion to come across or they can’t decide between two different deliveries, they could use your opinion! They may even ask for it and if all they get is a shrug from you, they take that as a sign that they are completely on their own with this. Listen to the lyrics. Discuss hidden meanings or motivations behind the song with the singer. If they wrote it, have them tell you the story behind the song. If they are creating a music video, have them tell you the visual concept and let that help drive the vocal decisions. Help them explore ways to sing this song in a way that will “make” people listen.

  10. Let them do “vocal placeholders” if needed. The first word of a verse can sometimes be the hardest to hit perfectly. A little trick for singers is to sing the note while the pre-roll is playing to keep the note in their voice. Then at the last second, they take their breath and begin singing the phrase. You’ll obviously need to edit out the placeholder note later. This can also be a great help when they are singing harmonies as sometimes the melody is so stuck in their mind, coming in on a harmony note accurately can be tricky.

  11. Have a good idea of where you will want doubles and multiple stacks of vocals before recording starts. You might get more than your 3 or 4 good takes in spots where you will want a fuller stacked sound, like in the chorus. It’s easier to get a few extra takes when you are first tracking that section than later when you are recording backing vocals. Sometimes you may not know what you’ll need until after the singer is gone. Once you have your lead vocal comped, use other good takes as doubles and stacks when inspiration strikes. You’d be surprised at how many times I decide quite far into the production process, long after the singer is gone that I a double of that one phrase would bring the right emphasis to it. I use 2 of the other good takes (maybe even from the warm up take) and add them to the final lead comped vocal - pan one hard left and the other hard right and there you have it.


***A word about auto-tune - The use of some type of tuning plug-in has become the industry standard, whether you like it or not. The problem is that the music we hear on our streaming playlists is littered with singers that sing un-humanly-possibly pitch perfect. For your mix to stand scrutiny next to Selena Gomez and Shawn Mendez mixes, auto-tune must be used. It is not just about perfecting pitch within an inch of it’s life but it is a processing effect that listeners, without realizing it, expect to hear on polished productions. Expecting a singer to sing as perfectly as the pop music coming from major labels is like expecting a model to walk into a photo shoot “photoshop perfect”. “Why do you have blemishes and scars? I don’t see those on any of the models in the Victoria Secret catalog.”


Not all productions call for the tightest auto-tune you can get, however. This is where you as the producer of the vocals must know the genre you are working in and stay true to that genre. I think of it on a scale of 1 to 10. Adele, as far as I can tell uses no to very little auto-tune (because she’s pretty pitchy haha). Similarly, some genres such as indie rock or alt rock (think of Brandon Flowers from The Killers or Dan Reynolds from Imagine Dragons) require the singer to have some natural imperfections to keep the raw, emotional element of the song. You’d better believe their backing vocals are pitched, however. So if you’ve got a more soulful singer in a genre that is more forgiving of that effect, then keep the pitching loose and natural. If you are aiming for hit song on the charts, you must learn how to massage auto-tune to where the singer still sounds “natural” (meaning, not robotic like T-Pain) but has no pitch imperfections.


There you have it! I hope you can all become the singer’s favorite recording engineer by being their advocate in the studio. You’ll both benefit when the end product is something you can both be proud of!


Becky Willard

Vox Fox Studios

Music Musings - Old

Music Musings - Old

I just turned 46 the other day. Wha???? There’s something about looking down the barrel at 50 that gets you thinking about things differently. My sweet husband then reminds me that I could live another 40 more years. Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about that! It’s been a bumpy 46 years indeed. If I do have another 40-ish years ahead of me, I’d really like them to be a bit smoother, please.

The Process of Producing a Song: It’s harder than you think

The Process of Producing a Song: It’s harder than you think

A few months ago, I watched the movie “Sing Street”. The movie kept showing up on the “what to watch now on Netflix” lists, and it was written and directed by John Carney, the one who brought us “Once”, one of the most beautiful and brilliant movie musicals ever (which later became a Broadway Musical and cleaned up the Tony’s). So, of course I had to watch it. It was only slightly annoying that John completely disregarded the enormous problem these kids would have had back in the 80’s of recording these catchy tunes they were writing. John showed the kids recording in this teeny living room by a large window … with … a …. portable …. cassette…...recorder……

Artist Tip: Writers Block? Make a Title List

Artist Tip: Writers Block? Make a Title List

Let’s talk about writer’s block. Have you ever felt all of the creativity that once flowed freely just stop? I’m not talking about hitting a wall on a particular song that you can’t seem to move past, until you clear your head and go back to it the next week. I’m talking about, straight up “I don’t think I can create any more” type of phase? It happened to me once.

Why it's OK to do covers (and probably a good idea)

Why it's OK to do covers (and probably a good idea)

here is a big difference between being a "singer" and being an "artist". The journey toward authentic artistry can seem not only daunting but abstract . While you can develop vocal chops by singing along and imitating your favorite singers, as soon as you are able, you should detach yourself from the training wheels and explore your individuality.

Music Review - The Great Fall

Music Review - The Great Fall

You can’t stress the importance of professionalism in this industry enough. And these guys embody the word in all of the areas that matter completely. Wouldn’t it be nice if, before someone heard a single note of music coming from you, they already liked you?

Artist Tip of the Month - Preparing for the Studio

Artist Tip of the Month - Preparing for the Studio

No doubt that you’ve already read an article or two on the subject of preparing for a recording session. It probably listed a good amount of “Do’s” and “Don’ts”. I’m venturing out a little to the left of the playing field to give you some beyond-the-basics advice.

The Worst Kind of Fear for Music Makers

The Worst Kind of Fear for Music Makers

After thousands of conversations with artists, musicians and singers I’ve come to realize that the greatest enemy we all face as we pursue this career path in music is fear.

What is Music Production?

What is Music Production?

This segment is all about the language of music production. If you are an artist that hopes to someday create an album, this entire segment is focused on teaching YOU the artist all you need to know in order to select the right producer for you and to speak their language so that you can best convey what you need and want in your music.