So about 2 days ago, I had an intriguing conversation with a rapper at an open mic show here in Chicago. After he found out that i was a professional audio engineer who worked out of Studio 11, he claimed he didn’t need to go to a recording studio to work on his music since he had one at home. He disputed the fact that professional music studios aren’t needed anymore due to the fact that the quality equipment needed to record, mix and master has become not only inexpensive, but easy to use. So lets outline this debate. Do musicians still need the services of professional recording studios? Most of the salesmen and women at Sweetwater Sound or Guitar Center would love for you to think that if you purchase a certain DAW system, microphone, audio interface and descent pre-amp, that you can in fact produce a professional, ready for radio sounding recording. In all reality, it is in fact technically possible, so this rapper’s claims when we spoke aren’t that far off base. However, the real question is, is it possible for you to do so? When i listened to one of his songs that he recorded and produced at home, the quality was terrible compared to the quality that myself and the rest of our staff aspire to here at Studio 11. The art of audio engineering is a skill just like playing the drums, piano or training to sing. To be frank, it probably takes much much longer to become savvy with all the aspects and techniques that are involved in audio engineering than learning an instrument. 99.9% of all audio engineers aren’t very good when they first start out in the profession. Many start learning the craft by going to a school, interning at one or several recording studios, and shadowing other skilled audio engineers in the field. When it comes to myself, i interned at 3 different studios after my first year at college. After leaving college during the middle of my sophomore year, this internship i had eventually led to an assistant job, where i met and shadowed many different highly skilled audio engineers and producers. I was literally at the studio 7 days a week, 12-14 hours a day learning everything i could from them. You could really call these people my mentors. 24 years later, i am still friends with some of the engineers and producers i assisted for. And i still ask them questions from time to time, however, they also ask me questions from time to time now too. Overall, it can take aspiring engineers anywhere from 5-10 years or longer to acquire the skill set that will allow them to swim in the same waters as other highly skilled engineers when it comes to proficiency and client satisfaction. A lot of aspiring engineers never become good at the profession. I would say it took me about 6 years to understand and utilize the skills i learned to become proficient enough to produce high level recordings for clients. When it comes to musicians, they are used to purchasing music equipment to sound better. Purchase a nicer guitar, it sounds better. Purchase a nice amp, its gonna sound better than a cheaper amp. So to these musicians, that mindset should translate to when they purchase a good microphone and recording equipment. Their recordings are gonna sound better since they have nice gear. But is that really gonna be the case? NOT REALLY When it comes down to it, you could purchase the best gear available and still sound like ass. What a lot of musicians seem to forget is that when you’re purchasing gear, you’re just purchasing the gear. The gear you purchase is just one link on the chain. Its as if a kid who never made a beat before spent 20k on a system to make beats. Then Timbaland comes in with a $100 casio drum machine. Who do you think is gonna make a better beat? The quality of the system used to make the beat doesn’t make the kid magically better, its the skills learned over time that do so. Shortly after most people purchase recording equipment to establish a home studio, they begin to find that the recordings they are producing don’t stand up to the recordings they listen to on a daily basis from their favorite bands and recording artists. So what do these dotards do? They go out and purchase even more expensive recording equipment and systems. Its as if they say to themselves, “Well, I just need a better microphone, preamp, audio interface, speakers, plugins, etc, then I’ll get it right”. IT'S THE EAR NOT THE GEAR!! The truth is, what these home studio cowboys need to understand is that they have to learn how to record and mix their audio properly through what they already own. When it comes to proper engineering, any good engineer that does their work from a DAW can produce a great mix with only the stock plug ins that come with the software. The idea would be slightly different with engineers that only work on analog systems. But, because the principles of recording and mixing are pretty much the same for both the analog and digital world, engineers that prefer using all analog systems would still be able to produce a great sounding mix on a DAW. The only hindrance would be the engineers lack of knowledge in how to use the software. It wasn’t that long ago when recording anything would require a large amount of money to do so. To start a recording studio, you’d have to spend at least 100K on all the gear. This doesn’t include the money required for the space the studio would occupy, nor does it include the money needed to develop the correct acoustics while building the studio. Proper acoustics mean everything when it comes to producing professional recordings and mixes. Here in 2022, really all you need to start recording your music is a descent laptop, microphone, interface and studio monitors. The bar to get in on the ground floor of recording is considerably lower than what it used to be back when i was younger. In all honesty, most musicians can learn pretty quickly how to make decent demo recordings at home on any average DAW. But keep in mind, the keyword to that last sentence was demo, not professional. Its like i tell clients of mine, use your home studio to record, practice and perfect your ideas. This way, when you come into our studio to record and bring these ideas to life, you’ll know exactly whats gonna sound good while doing so. Truthfully, i make most of my clients rerecord their material here at the studio when they bring me projects to mix that they recorded at home. Not only do we have significantly better gear here at the studio that we use when we record, but the experience myself and the rest of our staff have in producing a great sounding recording is light years ahead of the experience our clients have. The end result always produces a much better mix. Sometimes it can be a challenge convincing them to rerecord their material, but once we convince them there is no turning back. GETTING PLAYED Its pretty typical for musicians to react emotionally. To them, if they like the music they are making then other people should like it too. But the real question is, will these other people ever get a chance to hear it. Will they purchase it? Will they listen to it while in their car, on their earbuds, or in the club. Just because your home produced song sounds good to you doesn’t mean it will sound good to other people on whatever medium they listen to music through. A song that is mixed poorly doesn’t translate well to other formats and systems. Ever since radio began, it was used as a medium to get music to a mass audience. Over time, this eventually led to a standard on how each of the different genres of music should sound. If a song doesn’t fit into the acoustical standards of other comparable music in the same genre, then the chances are pretty small that it will be considered for a radio playlist. That not only includes AM/FM radio, but streaming services such as Spotify, Soundcloud, etc. Even club DJ’s depend on the music they are playing to sound as good as possible. They want their set to have the most impact they can get with the patrons on their dance floor. Once again, if the sound quality of the song is lacking, then the chances are slim that DJ’s would play it or give it any attention. Releasing a poorly mixed song doesn’t necessarily mean that people won’t hear it, but it can affect whether people will like it or even remember it. A normal listener either likes a song or doesn’t. Usually these people won’t be able to tell you why they like it or not. However, if your song lacks transparency or punch, if key elements that drive the song can’t be heard clearly, if the vocals are not in tune with the music, or the song is too quiet compared to the playback of other songs, then any or all of these issues can turn someone off to your song. The convenience of having a professional engineer and producer work on your music is that he or she can offer you direction, help you deliver a better performance while recording as well as make suggestions to improve your songs to make them more marketable. Most artists on major record labels work in the recording studio with a professional engineer and or a producer. The studio may not always provide the engineer or producer, regardless one or both of these kinds of people will usually be present during the project. Since many musicians and recording artists record their music at home, that not only means that they are wearing the hat of the recording artist, but they are also wearing the engineer and producer hat as well. But what they always forget is that in the music marketplace, they are competing against songs that are professionally engineered and produced. And these producers really understand the trends in the marketability of each genre. ENVIRONMENT High quality recording and mixing equipment isn’t the only thing that makes going to a professional studio better than doing things at home. The environment which the recording, mixing, and mastering is occurring in is equally important, maybe even more important than the quality of the gear you are using. If you don’t want to be recording the sound of your neighbors fucking upstairs, traffic whizzing by outside, construction on the building next door, then you will need proper isolation and sound proofing in order to do so. Most of the time when people build their little home studio setups, they do so without thinking about the ramifications of properly isolating and sound proofing their recording space. If you can hear all these extra sounds coming into your home while your recording, that means the equipment you are using to record can pick it up too. So not only are you recording yourself but you are recording the environment around as well. In big music cities where opportunities for a music career actually exist, most people live inside apartments or condominiums. These apartments and condos are usually made out of various constructions of drywall and wooden frames, flooring and ceilings. Other weak points in construction also include entry ways, doors and windows. These weak points mean you’re going to get a lot of external ambience and noise coming into your apartment, as well as going out of your apartment. Isolating the space you record in Another thing that is important when it comes to the space the studio resides is acoustics. Most amateur home studio setups either incorporate no acoustic treatment at all, or the treatment that is done is very minimal and/or improperly done. This means you’re not just recording the source, but also recording the sound reflections of the room. In addition, it means the accuracy of the sound you are hearing coming out of your monitors will be low in quality, which even for the most experienced professional engineers could make it hard to produce a mix that translates over a number of different audio systems. The accuracy of the sound you are hearing is everything. Depending on what genre of music you are working on, the size of the studio could even be an issue. If you’re just recording vocals and producing beats on your computer then an average sized room should be sufficient. However, if you’re recording full bands, they’ll probably want to play and record their songs together. Most apartments and condos aren’t large enough to fit an entire band in to do a proper recording. In addition, your neighbors probably won’t be to happy with you either. THE EQUIPMENT When it comes down to the gear, most professional studios usually have amazing choices of gear thats way in excess of what most people have in their home studio setups. Choices in microphones, pre amps, outboard eq’s, dynamics processors, digital converters, effects, speakers and more can really define the quality of sound a recording studio can capture. Not withstanding, the divide between the home and professional studio market keeps shrinking. But still, the range of gear alone will most likely bump up the quality. When finding the right gear for the right application, the ability of the engineer to audition and select different equipment is essential in capturing the right color and timbre of the sound sources being recorded. The seasoned abilities of the audio engineer in addition to the combination of acoustics, isolation, and gear of a professional studio will produce a far greater quality than most people can get at home. This goes for most high and mid priced recording studios. Even if you purchase all the recording equipment in the world, you’ll more than likely still need a professional studio because that is in fact where professional audio engineers work out of. The main contrast between a serious home recording studio and a professional recording studio is most definitely the set of skills the audio engineer has. Based on that skill set, the difference between the end product produced is usually quite drastic. So in summary, after all the arguments i presented, is it wise to build a home recording studio if you’re a musician or recording artist? You’re probably thinking that because of the positive points i made about professional recording studios that my answer to that question would be no. But in all actuality, i definitely think it’s important for aspiring musicians and recording artists to have some kind of home studio setup. Why is that? For the benefits of songwriting and to help deliver confidence while performing when recording. Writing and performing in a professional studio under pressure can be quite stressful, and expensive. The more you write and rehearse at home, the less stressful going to a professional studio can be. Once again, what i always tell my clients is write, record and flesh out your ideas at home before you come into our studio to record them. This way, you’ll have a better concept of how you’ll wanna record your project since you’ll already know how your performances sound playing back through the speakers. Whether you’re a singer, rapper, or musician, having an idea of how things sound will help perfect your writing and performance of that writing before going to a professional studio. The only way to know how you sound and whether your ideas are good or not is by recording those ideas. Cause at the end of the day, how will you really know if what you wrote is good or not if you don’t hear it back after performing it? How will you know how to perfect and tweak what you wrote if you don’t hear it back? In the long run, this will only make you more prepared when coming to a professional studio such as ours to record.
Today, we are going to comment on a very common inquiry we get from many young producers who come through our studio in Chicago and book time. It is the question of whether it is useful or not to go to an audio school to pursue a career in music. With so much of the younger generation discovering a passion for music production (largely due to the affordability of powerful audio & production software), the natural move for a small percentage of them is to want to make a living engineering and producing music full time.
So just like many careers out there, the natural logic is to presume a degree is needed not only for the skill and insight but for the resume, proof of effort, etc. In addition, the idea of going to school to learn how to play around with mixing consoles, top end audio gear and microphones is pretty enticing. So if you’ve toyed around with these questions, let us give you a few thoughts to take into consideration. Remember, the ultimate decision though is up to you and no one else, don’t ever forget that.
No Degree Is Needed To Make A Living In Audio Engineering
We’ll just get right to the point here. No degree is needed to make a successful living recording, mixing, mastering, or producing music. As a matter of fact, it wouldn’t be all that shocking to discover that most of the top level audio engineers currently in the field didn’t go to school for a career in audio. It would even be fair to say that a decent amount didn’t even go to school at all.
Audio engineering and music production is not just a field of study. It is an artform, a craft. The typical method of training for a career in audio is an internship where an aspiring engineer learns and works under a seasoned audio engineer, studies and actively employs his or her techniques and philosophies in order to one day develop into a skilled successful engineer. Its been like this since the earliest days of recording. The two things that matter most in this business in order to induce ultra success are connections and experience. These days, one can go to any studio around the world, beg like a dog for an unpaid internship, and start the long and somewhat brutal process of planting one foot in the door. Of course you’ll make a lot of coffee, clean a lot of toilets and answer a lot of phones, but its all for that one day when you might be able to assist a session for the first time or be relied upon to edit some audio in Pro Tools before an important mix. Then before you know it, you’ll be sitting in more sessions, learning more techniques, asked to do more important things in order to make the engineer or engineers lives that you are interning under exponentially easier in the studio.
Go To School If You Can Pay
With all that was just previously said talking down the idea of going to school for audio engineering, a college education can be invaluable for an aspiring young engineer, giving you hands on experience with recording equipment and real world situations commonly found in most professional studios around the world. You see, its more than just recording and mixing. It’s learning the process to meet deadlines, proper session flow, understanding your clients or client psychology, the art of effective promotion, business management and so much more. Some of these things can be hard for an intern to learn in the studio. Having a firm grasp on all these concepts before beginning what is the usual mandatory internship makes it easier to get both feet in the door at a studio and thrown into everyday studio life.
The one unfortunate thing about going to school these days is the amount of money that one must shell out in order to get that piece of paper at the end that confirms you did it. So if you have the money to go or your family or relatives are willing to pay for it so you don’t have student loans, go to school, it would be silly not to. The amount of people you’ll meet, relationships you’ll develop, and life experiences you’ll have are ultimately important for personal growth and development. And you can apply these life lessons and relationships to the world of professional audio. Good people skills and relationships can lead to more networking, more networking can lead to more connections, and more connections can ultimately lead to more clients and business.
However, if you have to take out loans to go to school, it’s tough to advocate putting yourself in serious financial debt for a degree in audio. Why? At the end of the day, the sad fact is that even with an esteemed degree from a top college, you still have to be accepted into the school of ‘hard knocks’ as an intern in a recording studio. As we said before, the education should help give you a one up with your experience and knowledge over the rest of the interns. Engineers may turn to you more often to assist or sit in on their sessions, but that’s not always a guarantee. At the end, you’ll have to ask yourself if its really worth spending all that time and money on a degree only to do what you could have done for free without that certified piece of paper.
So in summary, going away to school for an education in audio is a great thing. As we said before, the relationships you’ll build and life experiences you’ll have are not only important for self-development and growth, but they will also help out in the real world environment of professional audio. However, not going to school shouldn’t be the excuse one uses for not pursuing a career audio engineering. Going back, most top-level engineers didn’t go to school for audio. They got in the door and advanced their careers because of their motivation, dedication, hard work ethic, reliability, and personality. They also advanced their careers because of their extraordinary hearing abilities. All these qualities are vitally important in the profession of audio engineering and can’t necessarily be learned in school. Plus, a seasoned engineer might be more willing to take a chance on a person with these qualities versus someone with a degree. You’ll never know though until you give it a try.
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Recording A Song In Chicago
Back in the day there was simply no other option to record a song than to go to the recording studio. These days with the advent of digital technology, it seems that everyone is under the belief that they can record their own songs. The unfortunate aspect of this logic is that most people are not skilled and trained to record very well. Let’s look at the reasons why heading to the recording studio is your best option when looking to record your next song.
Audio quality is the most important aspect of your next recording following the music. If your recording sounds sub-par, listeners will not take your work seriously. The recording studio brings you the combination of top quality equipment and engineering. These forces combine to do wonders for your sound and success.
Focus On Music
Let’s face it, if you’ve got your head buried in a computer screen you’re likely not making much music. Engineering audio and making music are married forces that are in fact quite departed. As a musician your goal should be to focus on the music. Imagine the difference between cutting your own hair and going to a salon. You need to sound your best, and the studio will insure that you have the focus to do that.
While many people think they are saving money by spending thousands on home recording setups, they are in fact throwing money out the window. These home setups end up worthless after just a few years of use and yield no professional results. For the same amount of money dozens of songs could have been recorded professionally. Time is a valuable resource, and the recording studio insures that you’re making the best use of it.
If you’re looking to record a song in Chicago you’ve landed at the right place. After 20 years of servicing Chicago, Studio 11 brings you the best combination of recording equipment and engineering. Call us for a consultation on your project at 312-372-4460.
9 times out of 10 in the studio, the most frequent question we get asked on an everyday basis would have to be “what are you doing to the vocals to make them sound so good in the mix?” Sometimes clients word it a little differently, but it all leads back to the same question
Here at Studio 11, we mix a new rap vocal anywhere from four to six times a day — much more if there are multiple rappers on the same track. Over the years recording and mixing rap and hip hop in Chicago, we have developed an approach that genuinely works, and works extremely fast. In fairness, we understand that all songs, their track makeup, vocal styling and performance can be quite different. Truthfully, there can never be one formula to mix all vocals effectively. In the genre of rap and hip hop, there are many approaches to conceptualizing a vocal treatment. Ours is just one of many.
It all starts with the approach. We say this time and time again, and every time we say it, it only gets more true: in order to mix anything music related, you need an end game. There has to be some kind of idea of what the song is going to sound like when it is finished, where the vocal is going to go sonically in the song before you start getting it there. More than likely, your initial approach can and probably will change along the way, but there has to be some kind of guiding direction or else why do anything at all.
The biggest issue most people have when mixing rap vocals is that they think of the word “vocals” without considering the word “rap.” Rap is a supremely general term — there are big differences between 1994 LA style rap vocals and 2015 Chicago style rap vocals.
The point being, when it comes to mixing vocals, the ‘what’ and ‘why’ are just as critical as the ‘how’. Important things to consider before the mix are: what is the artist’s style, where is the song being played, who exactly is the artist’s audience, and how can you, the engineer, tie all that together and bring the song to life?
So that you have an overall approach to the song, how exactly do you get it there?
Cleaning Things Up
After all the rap lead’s, overdubs, and adlibs are recorded in the song, many of them are going to need a bit of cleaning before the mix process can begin. There are many related issues that can occur during any given vocal tracking session.
One common issue we hear all the time when clients send us projects to mix is their vocal tracks were recorded in a terrible spot. One such place is the closet (we get that one a lot) or in the crapper. We know its crazy, but a legend has gone around that it’s a good idea to record in a closet or bathroom. Lets be clear, it is never a good idea. However, if a closet receives the proper acoustic treatment, it can work just fine. But only with proper acoustic treatment is it possible.
The other common problem we get all the time from our clients is that the vocal tracks were recorded too hot or are clipping. Again, a myth has persisted that it’s a good idea to record the vocal signal or any signal for that matter as loud as possible. This is completely not true, particularly in the era of 24-bit audio.
Cleaning things up can be a little rough sometimes because the capacity of what can be done to the audio in question can be quite restricted. One useful tool for audio files that are clipped out is iZotope’s distortion removal software called Rx De-Clipper.
Another thing to keep in mind is the distortion on the audio file will create resonances in the center frequencies. This can be corrected with precise parametric equalization.
For vocals recorded in reverberant spaces, subtle gating, expansion and careful equalization can contain the sound of the room — or you can use software like SPL De-Verb. Another trick we incorporate is to mix the track in a way that utilizes the reverb printed with the vocal. A good way to do this is heavy compression
For vocals recorded in closets or corners, the main issue will be comb filtering.
One simple idea we use for reducing comb filtering is if there are doubles of the vocal, pitch shift each one up or down a slight amount. This will slightly alter the frequency bands that are being filtered, so that when stacked with the main vocal, the same bands will not be missing entirely. The doubles or overdubs will “fill in” the missing frequencies. At the end of the day, the comb filtering will still be there, but it won’t be as noticeable.
Another noticeable problem we frequently get when clients send us projects to mix is that the vocals will be poorly edited, containing clicks, pops, noises, jumpy or unnatural cuts. At Studio 11, we always go through all the vocal tracks one by one and delete the dead space and fix all the editing so each performance is as smooth and natural as possible. If the breaths are real loud on the vocal track you might want to gain them down or delete them. If the vocals are stacked and there is no particular lead, the best idea is to just delete the breaths all together.
Lastly, if the artist is in the studio with you for the mix process, it might be a good idea to mention these problems to them if they exist and just rerecord all the vocals or just the ones that are in question.
The Power of Processing
Now that the vocals have been cleaned up (or maybe they came in clean to begin with), it’s time to decide what to do with them in the mix.
Now, its not really our style to tell you how you should or should not process the vocals in your mix, but we can give you a couple of pointers to consider and think about.
First and foremost, when it comes to mixing Rap and Hip-Hop, especially Chicago Rap and Hip-Hop, it is extremely important to understand and figure out the relationship between the vocals and other instruments that fall in the same frequency range.
Typically, Chicago Rap and Hip-Hop is all about the relationship between the level of the vocals and drums. The number one contender with the voice is usually the snare. Discovering a way to make both the vocals and the snare prominent and pocket without getting in each other’s way will make the rest of the mix fall nicely into place.
Rap and Hip-Hop vocals generally do not have much in the way of reverb.
There are three main reasons for this:
1. Rap vocals tend to hold more of a rhythmic function and generally move faster than sung vocals — long reverb tails can smear the rhythm and articulation and even dull out vocal presence.
2. Typically, the idea in Hip-Hop is that the vocal needs to be “up front and in your face,” whereas reverb tends to push things back into the stereo field.
3. All the dogs and cats are mixing vocals that way. Not necessarily an okay reason, but resonates with truth.
However, Rap and Hip-Hop vocals usually do profit from a slight sense of three dimensional sculpting, or what is known as “air.” This is a sense of space around the vocal that makes it more vivid and exciting. Very small, wide, quiet reverbs can really do the vocal a lot of justice here.
Another thing that we do that helps out a lot is use a small amount of delay (echo), keeping it in the background, with a lot of high-end rolled off. This creates the sense of a very deep three dimensional space, which by contrast makes the vocal seem even more present and forward.
Lastly, if you are recording the vocals in a really nice professionally designed tracking room, carefully bringing out the natural space of the room on the vocal track can be a good way to add a bit of “air” and realism to super dry vocals.
Mid to heavy compression with a very fast attack, relatively quick release, and a boost to the super-treble range can often help accentuate the natural “airiness” in the vocal.
Consistency and Shape
A little compression often works well with vocals, just to tame them, place them into a mix and add a smidge of tone.
On a mix with few tracks, a small amount of compression will usually get the job done, unless you are truly going for that over-compressed sound where there is little dynamics. However, the most common error most people do make when processing Rap and Hip-Hop vocals is over-compression. Extreme levels of compression really only works well within in a mix when there is a lot of stuff fighting for frequency space. When you hear about rapper’s vocals going through three different compressors it’s probably because there are many things already occurring in the mix, and the compression is necessary for the vocals to cut through. Or because it’s a stylistic choice to really crunch the vocals and get that over compressed ‘in your mouth’ kind of sound.
Filter Cats Ho!
What’s happening around the vocals music wise is just as important to the vocals as the vocals themselves. Carefully choosing what frequencies to keep and get rid in the mix is very important in helping the vocals sit or pocket just right. For example, a lot of engineers choose to high-pass filter almost all the tracks in the mix except the kick and bass. That helps create room for the low frequency information. Often though, the importance of low-pass filtering is overlooked. Synthesizers, even bass synths, can contain a lot of upper frequency information that just isn’t needed in the mix, leaving the “air” range around the vocals feeling stuffy.
A couple of well utilized low-pass filters could very well bring your vocals to life.
Also, a little more on high-pass filtering, unless you are going for that thin mid rangy thing, you really don’t need to high pass filter your vocals past 120-130 Hz. Both the male and female human voice has chest resonance that on average goes down to 80 Hz (and sometimes even lower). Try applying a moderate high-pass filter at around 70 or 80 Hz to start with if you’re just trying to clear up the vocals. This will usually remove any microphone boom that might be on the vocal track or tracks. This will definitely your low end instruments push through the mix better too.
Presence not Presents
Deciding where the vocal sits in the frequency spectrum is important. Mid heavy vocals (telephonic sound) can be really cool at times, low-mid “warm” sounding vocals certainly have their place, add charm, and moisten panties. Most of the time, we like to hype the natural presence of the vocals through subtractive equalization of the “throat” tones and proximity buildup which generally occurs around the 230-650 Hz range. As a result, this will over exaggerate the head and chest sound— particularly the consonants that form at the front of the mouth, tongue, and teeth — which is what we use to pronounce our words. These consonant sounds generally live in the upper midrange (2k-5k).
Although these are the methods we use to get vocals to stand out in a Rap or Hip-Hop track, at the end of the day, there really is no correct way. Remember to use your ears, because as long as the client is happy and the mix sounds good and translates, then you, the engineer did his or her job. Then maybe just maybe, someone will throw you a cookie at the end of the session for a job well done.