It will be 40 years ago this June that I first went into a recording studio. It was called Track Studios in Silver Spring, MD, and to me it looked like the inside of a jet cockpit. The unmistakable odor of cork on the walls made an indelible impression on my sense of smell. When I saw where I would be “working” (the beautiful grand piano), I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
The band I was recording with was much older than me and had recorded before. But as it was my first recording experience, I was soaking it all in and watching everything the engineer and second engineer did. Granted, it was an 8 track studio but a well known room in the Washington, D.C. area. Their attention to the mic placement, baffle placement, recording levels and equalization represented a skillset as deft as the musicians performing.
Fast forward 40 years later. I post the digital files (most recently the equivalent of 38 tracks) on the ftp site for my mixing engineer to load into his computer before I meet him to mix a promo we had done for a large broadcast group. The jet cockpit analogy continues, however, what hardware once filled an entire room is now contained as software within a single computer.
Still, a good recording and mixing engineer is as vital to a project as the artist, composer and musicians. Why? It is his job to bring all of the recorded elements to a place that best enhances the recording and content. The variables are almost infinite. But when well done, every track has its own definable pocket. The vocals or lead instrument sit perfectly in between anything and everything that’s performing around it. Compression, echoes, eqs and pans have all been set track by track (or file by file). It sounds natural and in balance.
In addition to being able to make their way around whatever technical gear is in their toolbox, I think another attribute of a great engineer is their musical sense. Everything from understanding a musical arrangement to why an instrument voiced played in one register won’t conflict with another (unless it should) can yield valuable input from an engineer. My experience has been that this combination of skills is not that common.
So with all of the extraordinary technology that comes in popular software used by musicians today, the final ingredient in a great recording often comes from the person wearing the engineer’s hat.
In an upcoming posting, I’m going to interview an engineer who I’ve worked with for a long time, Bob Bullock. Going back from working on a Steely Dan album to his experiences with Mutt Lange, George Strait and Reba, I’ll attempt to sound smarter than I really am and ask some technical questions which some may find of interest. But as soon as we get some of that out of the way, I’ll get him to share some very entertaining stories. Stay tuned!