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The role of the recording engineer

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Producers who started their careers as engineers are obviously perfectly capable
of doing the engineering themselves, and some do. In a decent studio, there
will be an assistant engineer available to handle all the menial tasks of setting
up mic stands and plugging in cables, so the producer will be able to concentrate
on getting a good sound whenever he wears his engineer's hat.

The problem with this arrangement is that being a great engineer is a very
difficult and demanding job, and so is being a producer. Anyone who can fulfil
both roles 100% is obviously some kind of genius, and I don't deny that some
producers are.

There are also many producers who probably wouldn't know what a knob was let
along know how to twiddle it, so obviously an engineer is necessary, and not
just the studio junior taking a break from his coffee making duties either.

With a first class engineer at the desk, a musically orientated producer can
concentrate fully on creating a good arrangement and maximising the potential
of the performance while the engineer deals with the sound.

In this situation, you might think that the producer takes a superior position
to the engineer and tells him what to do, but where top professionals are involved
this is unlikely to be the case.

The engineer may take a couple of hours getting a drum kit sound while the
producer occasionally listens, talks to the other members of the band, makes
phone calls, drinks coffee and paces up and down a bit.

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Unless he has very specific requirements, he will trust the engineer's judgment,
and the only comment he may make is, “OK – it's good enough now, let's
start recording!”. Engineers, being dedicated to achieving the ultimate
in recorded sound, sometimes don't know when to stop!

One problem about being an engineer/producer is that you have no-one to ask
what they think about something. You could ask a member of the band, to which
the reply would probably be, “I don't know, you're meant to be the producer”.

Having an engineer as a sounding board for your ideas and opinions is a great
help because you can rely on a good engineer being able to give you good advice,
and they will probably have the psychological skills to know when to disagree
with you openly, and when to give you the answer you are looking for, regardless
of what they really think.

An established engineer may even suggest to you that something isn't working
well musically. You may regard this as an intrusion into your role, but you
would be unwise not to pay attention to the advice of someone who has probably
worked on literally thousands of sessions and, without being able to play an
instrument or sing a note, has almost certainly achieved an understanding of
music equal – perhaps superior – to your own.

If, as a producer, you don't have any engineering knowledge or skills to speak
of, then at the very least you should develop an awareness of what the engineer
can do for you, what tricks and techniques the engineer can employ, and gain
a feeling for how long something you ask for may take to set up or perform.

One of the worst things that will happen to an engineer is for a producer to
bring in a demo cassette and say, “I want it to sound like this”.
This situation isn't as common as it used to be, but it is still very easy for
a musician to be working in his or her home studio and come upon a particular
sound just by chance, which they then develop into a major feature of the song.

The problems may be: that the song structure may change, the key may change,
or the multitrack tape of the demo may be of poor quality or may have been lost.
Any of these factors will mean that the sound will have to be recreated somehow,
and anyone who has any experience of this will tell you that it is sometimes
very very difficult.

You may have to accept that it could take a long time to work out how the sound
was achieved, unless the musician concerned has a very good memory, or you may
have to settle for a near alternative.

Of course, you won't settle for second best, but sometimes trying to recreate
a sound – sometimes the sound of another artist's work – may prove impossible,
but along the way you will stumble upon something equally interesting or even
better that you would not have thought of if you had just started from scratch.

At the mixing stage, producers often just leave the engineer to get on with
it in his or her own time. You might have thought that if the producer is supposed
to be in charge of the recording, then he or she should supervise every aspect
of the recording process, including every detail of the mixing. Of course, any
engineer will tell you that you do have to be an engineer to appreciate fully
the subtle art of mixing.

Having a producer in the studio in the early stages of mixing would only be
inhibiting. If the engineer is left to his own devices for two or three hours,
then the producer can come in and apply his fresh ears to the mix and comment
on what is going well, what isn't working etc.

There is a balance to be made between how much the engineer will stick to what's
on the tape and how much he will alter the sound of the individual tracks with
EQ and effects. I'll have more to say about this later.

David Mellor

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David Mellor