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A sound engineer has a vital role in all fields of entertainment and media, whether it is in film, television, radio, live music or most notably the recording studio. In each case, the engineer has a large number of roles and responsibilities which they need to go about with the best if their abilities, in order to get the best possible job completed, whether it be recording music or creating sound for a movie. Sound engineers must have a “toolbox of skills” – ranging from creative, to technical, in interpersonal – in order to communicate with others and to best utilize their knowledge and equipment to the best of their ability. The sound engineer is often the “middle man” between producers and the band or artist which brings about the title of the “creative mediator”, especially in studio environments.
Arguably the most important aspect of the recording process; a detailed and thorough pre-production plan and research is essential in making the audio engineer’s job in the studio considerably easier. Having a detailed plan of the more technical concerns will allow the engineer to have more time being creative when it comes time to record as they will have already had an idea on what sound they are going for and how to accurately achieve that sound. However, before creating a plan, the sound engineer must make contact with the band in order to get a sound idea of what both parties want out of this recording project. Researching the band beforehand will make the sound engineer’s job easier in the studio as, if they are unfamiliar with the genre of music that is to be recorded or how to capture that sound to the best quality, the engineer has time to do further research.
When contacting the band, the sound engineer should ask questions relevant to the band and the recording itself, like the band’s goals and aims for the recording and the end product, the equipment that they will bring into the studio (giving them time for any maintenance needed for their equipment), and if they need to hire any equipment for the recording process. It is a good idea to try and listen to the band before entering the studio (for example; a gig or a rehearsal). This will allow the engineer to gain a sense of the band’s sound as well as they will be able to tell whether the band is ready and serious about recording before the come into the studio and waste time and money for both parties (Care, R. 2013)
it is at this meeting with the band that all technical and artistic concerns should be voiced and considered by both parties so that the engineer and band are both happy with the development and overall end product of the project. It is here where the engineer, if the band is inexperienced in studio recordings, can give tips to the band in order for them to be prepared correctly for when they come into the studio and not waste any time where they could be laying down tracks. Some tips given may be to learn their own parts back-to-front so that they can record separately and are able to start recording from any point within a given song, also recommending putting fresh strings on the guitars/bass a few days before recording so that they are stretched and won’t fall out of tune quickly, yet they will still have the warm tone that new strings have (Care, R. 2013)
After the engineer has made contact and heard/seen the band play they must research the equipment available at the recording studio as to make sure all of the equipment needed for the recording can be utilized. Furthermore, the engineer must plan the session, including microphone selection for individual instruments as well as an input/output list and schedule for everyone to follow so that no one is confused about what they should be doing, when they should be doing it. this schedule and planning will result in not wasting any time in the recording space and allow time for the creative aspects of the recording process. It is the engineer’s responsibility to learn how to use the studio’s equipment in order to get the best sound possible from the available equipment. It is key to “master your equipment, not just ten percent of different equipment” (Keaton, G. 2013) in the studio so that if you are limited in equipment available, the engineer can still get the best sound possible from the equipment ay their hands.
On the day of the recording, it is imperative that the sound engineer takes time to set up the band/equipment and the placement of microphones correctly to avoid having to re-record tracks because there was spill or the microphone wasn’t picking up the right sound. If the engineer has done a comprehensive plan before the session, the initial set-up will be quick as the band layout and choice of microphone will have already been set out so that the engineer can spend more time on the placement of the microphones rather than trying to decide which microphone to use on which instrument.
The engineer is responsible for setting up the band according to the band’s experience and equipment as well as making them comfortable in the space. If the band has minimal experience in the studio environment and fall apart when they are put in separate rooms, the engineer must think on their feet and use their skills/knowledge in order to make them comfortable to get a good recording. In this instance, the engineer may choose to put the guitar and bass amplifiers in a separate isolation booth and have a headphone feed into the live room so that the guitarists/bass player can hear themselves playing while only the drum kit is being recorded in the live room and the amplifiers are being recorded in isolation. (Care, R. 2013)
If the performer isn’t comfortable in the recording space, generally because of nerves or the perception of pressure, they will not give the performance that is needed for the recording to sound its best. Therefore, it is the role of the sound engineer to do what they can to make the performer comfortable, psychology skills can come into play in these instances. Tricks like having the amplifier in the live room and have the guitarist(s) or bass player sit in the live room so that they feel less pressured when sitting with the sound engineer and listening through the monitor speakers. Also, covering the “recording” light in the studio can relieve pressure on the musicians so that they don’t actually know when the engineer has pressed record. (Weiss, J. 2012)
Microphone placement needs to be given quite a lot of time and focus to get it right before starting to record. The placement of microphones will inevitably affect the tones and sounds that the microphones pick up, spending a lot of time on microphone placement before recording is better than having to stop recording and constantly change the microphones and have to re-record. While recording Paul Kelly’s newest album in Mawson Hall, J, Walker spent time working on just two microphones so to “minimize guitar spill” and “catch the best angle of tone out of Paul’s mouth, while not getting in his line of sight for lyric reading and straight (vision) lines to Dan (Kelly) and myself (Walker)”. (Walker, J. 2013) Getting this placement right meant that Walker got the best sound possible from Kelly as well as the best isolation from other sound sources in the hall.
All through these aspects of setting up, the engineer should have the band playing through their songs so that they can get the sound that they want from their amplifiers as well as they begin to feel comfortable playing in the environment. Meanwhile, the engineer should be listening to the overall sound of the music to get an understanding of how it should sound and how best to capture that sound with microphone choice and placement.
Once the engineer is happy with the sound coming in from the microphone placement and selection, they are able to begin setting levels through the mixing console so that both parties are ready to start the recording process. Once the more technical concerns and skills have been used, the engineer can allow themselves to concentrate on the more creative aspect of recording and getting the signals coming through to sound the best aesthetically, according to the sound that the band wants. Getting the best sound coming into the machine can help the engineer immensely in cutting down the time it takes to edit, mix and master the track in the end. “garbage in, garbage out” (Keaton, G. 2013) is the rule of thumb for engineers and can make your skills plus your focus more potent on how to get the signal sounding the best quality when coming in from the microphones.
Making the most of the studio limitations is important in this aspect of the recording process as it can develop your skills as an audio engineer further as you will be able to think on your feet and know how to capture the best sound with what equipment is readily available. The ability to think on your feet is important again, especially in older styles of recording with limited tracks to record onto, much like Brian Holland did in order to record more than seven musicians/instruments with only three tracks accessible to record on. Holland was able to group and separate the instruments, according to the microphone positions within the room, in order to capture the right levels and sound for the song before beginning to record. He was able to record the sounds so that they were equal and were not fighting with each other within the mix. (Buskin, R. 2008)
Thinking on your feet is a skill that is very effective in the studio environment. The engineer must be prepared for at least one thing to go wrong within the recording session and the pressure that goes on them in order to correct the issue as fast as possible. Not only should the engineer be able to fix problems, they must also be able to change the way that they usually record if the methods that they are using are not working to obtain the sound that the artist envisioned. Butch Vig needed to change his approach to his recording process when the Nirvana song “Something in the Way” was not sounding the way Kurt Cobain wanted it to. Vig instead had to manipulate the control room into a space that Cobain could record his guitar and vocals in, in order to get the quiet, eerie sound Cobain wanted. Vig recorded Cobain’s whispered vocals and beaten, out-of-tune guitar while he was laying on the control room couch and then had to change the way he went about recording the drums and bass (which was tuned to Cobain’s out-of-tune guitar) so that they were in-line with Cobain’s tracks, many of which had to be recorded bar by bar in order to get the changing of tempo correct. (Vig, B. n.d.)
Interpersonal skills are extremely important in the recording session in order to accurately convey ideas as well as to keep the musicians creatively focused and happy/positive. Sound engineering is “ninety percent people – ten percent engineering” (Lord, C. 2013) so it is important that, in the absence of a music producer, the sound engineer must be able to take on the producer role to “act as a catalyst for the development period” and to spur on the artists on, “trying not to interfere with the processâ€¦ and to encourage ideas”. (Hannan, M. 2003) the sound engineer must be able to voice technical and creative concerns to the artists, bringing about a variety of ideas; however, must do it in a way that is constructive and are not seen to be “taking over” the project. Engineers must be able to be “constructively critical” without “upsetting or demoralizing” the artist. (Hannan, M. 2003) engineers should never pin-point one particular bad instrument in a take; (Care, R. 2013) however, should be “enthusiastic about the fact that you think they can do a better job”. (Weiss, J. 2012) All artists are different in the way that they record and can be the most temperamental people to work with. An engineer must be able to work with different types of people and must be able to quickly learn individual artists to get the best performance from them. (Keaton, G. 2013) learning an individual artist allows you to work best specifically to their needs and will allow a mutual respect and will result in the best end takes.
Engineers should also note down key elements of the recording (microphone models chosen on instruments, effects and levels applied on specific tracks, for example) so that they can refer back to it in the future in case they may need to alter or re-record and they can achieve the exact sound again in a different session. Not only can this be useful for any changes to the session recorded, engineers can also use these key settings as bases for other recording projects if they find a specific sound that they really like. (Care, R. 2013)
A “rough mix” should also be completed after the recording is complete, preferably when the band is not around so that it is only the engineer’s ideas, in order to get a good overall sound and feel for how the track should sound altogether which, again, highlights the engineer’s need for creative skills, to get the single tracks sounding good together.
The objective of the mixdown is to bring the tracks and instruments together, in line with each other accordingly with the goals and direction that the band wanted the end result to be. The engineer should leave a couple of days, ideally a week, between recording the tracks and doing the mixdown in order to have a break from the studio mindset and to be able to listen to the tracks with an objective mindset. Once the engineer is happy with the mix, they should listen to the track on many different types of speakers to ensure that they have not only mixed to a certain room, and when the song is taken to another place it is not lacking or overbearing in parts, to ensure a good overall mix. (Care, R. 2013) in the mixdown the technical and creative skills of the engineer entwine in order to create the best sounding overall sound that is most pleasing for the audience to listen to.
A rule of thumb during mixdown that award-winning sound engineer Young Guru goes by is that the engineer should give the band/producer a limited amount of mixes to choose from in order to avoid the process of having to constantly re-mix the song because everyone involved has a different vision for how the track should sound. (Keaton, G. 2013) All through the process of recording and mixing, the engineer should keep the goals and aims of the band, that were covered in the per-production meetings, so that at the end of the project both the band and engineer leave happy with the work that they have created.
The best sound engineers are the ones who are able to combine their creative, technical and interpersonal skills in order to do the best job they can; for both themselves and the artists. Sound engineers should know the equipment they are using thoroughly, speak positively and constructively as well as be able to speak in musical terms with the artist in order to be successful. They must be organized and be able to be creative in the many roles and responsibilities during the recording process. The ideal engineer should have a “keen sense of music appreciationâ€¦a strong knowledge of electronics and acousticsâ€¦a thorough understanding of microphones and their applications” (Sandiford, S. 2011) in addition to be able to relate to and communicate with everyone that they come in contact with, and treat everyone in the process equally and with respect.
Buskin, R. (2008) The Four Tops: ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ | Classic Tracks. Sound on Sound, [online]. 208, pg.169-173. Available at: http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/feb08/articles/classictracks_0208.htm [Accessed: 30 March 2013]
Care, R. (2013) (TOPIC OF CLASS) (WEEK __ class notes. JMC Academy
Hannan, M. (2003) The Australian Guide to Careers in Music. Australia: University of New South Wales Press, p.86 – 88.
Keaton, G. (2013) Young Guru Q&A Session. [in person] JMC Academy, Melbourne, March 21st.
Lord, C. (2013) GRAMMY-Winning Mixer/Audio Engineer Chris Lord-Alge at Full Sail University – Youtube, [online]. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGUcBhbyoF4 [Accessed: 01 April 2013]
Sandiford, S. (2011) SoundStageXtreme.com | UltraAudio.com | SoundStageXtreme.com | UltraAudio.com. [online] Available at: http://www.ultraaudio.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=95 [Accessed: 17 Mar 2013].
Vig, B. (n.d.) SOMETHING IN THE WAY: NEVERMIND (CLASSIC ALBUMS) SUBTITULOS. [online] Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HL56CeuhZds [Accessed: 25 Mar 2013].
Walker, J. (2013) Kelly Country. Audio Technology, 92, pg. 58-62
Weiss, J. (2012) Psychology and the Music Producer – an audio engineer often has to do it all. Insight for Independent Artists, [blog] April 24th, Available at: http://blog.discmakers.com/2012/04/psychology-and-the-music-producer/ [Accessed: 21st Mar 2013].
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