Engineer reach down and pull the slider

Chris JonesFirst of all, I should apologize for being a day late with this. Even though we gained an hour over the weekend when we returned to Standard Time, I seem to have lost a whole day in the process. It’s a long story that involved a horse named “Rascal,” a snowstorm, and possibly a girl named “Nellie” who lost her way. It’s all a little hazy now. In any case, thanks for your patience.

We were discussing the psychology of the studio experience, and we’ve come now to the critically important matter of the engineer.

When we last left the studio, our engineer was mixing an album with 6 different self-producers surrounding him, all telling him to turn their instrument and/or voice up. A lot of people are talking and milling around, while the engineer is sitting down, banging his head against the console and softly moaning “I want my mommy.”

Audio engineering is not for the faint of heart, to be sure, and when you go about selecting one for your project, you want to find someone who is not only competent, quick, and good at coming up with acoustic tone, you also need to find someone who is positive, patient, and who has a minimum of anger management issues. Remember this is a person who has to get along well with the producer and the various other personalities involved in order for the sessions to run smoothly.

Considering all those requirements, and the skills necessary to do the job, there’s no doubt in my mind that many engineers in Nashville are underpaid (and please don’t tell them I said that). I mention Nashville specifically only because the abundance of new studios there (and the engineers who live in them) have tended to drive the price of these services down.

Still, though my sympathies are with the engineers, you do have to pick them carefully, and it’s good to observe them in action before you start working with one.

A big problem to look out for ahead of time is engineers “putting their oar in” about the music or the performance. If that runs into conflict with the producer or the musicians, you have a problem.

I’ve worked with more than one engineer whose opinions I solicit throughout the  process because I really value them, and that’s a good thing. It’s only when they decide, uninvited, to be a second producer that things get troublesome.

This is not always the engineer’s fault, it should be said. Engineers often work with inexperienced artists or bands, with no outside producer present, that not only don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t seem to even know what they’re trying to do. The engineer will then step in out of a sheer desire to salvage the recording project, and then maybe even get to end his or her work day before 2:00 a.m. After enough situations like that, they may get used to being in that role.

Mutual respect is important between both the engineer and the producer, and between the engineer and the recording artist. If the artist, for example, treats the engineer like an incompetent who doesn’t know anything about the music, you definitely won’t get the best work out of that engineer.

Likewise, if the engineer conveys to the artists that they’re amateurish, or very small time compared to other people they’ve worked with (“I just had Paisley in last week. Now there’s a pro. Best I’ve worked with since Faith”), things aren’t going to go well.

Ideally, the producer should be able to handle the engineer and the musicians, and be able to foster that atmosphere of respect. That’s why they earn the big bucks (is that the sound of laughter I hear in the distance?).

Now that you’ve selected a studio, the engineer, and a producer, you’re well on your way to making your next album a reality. And yet, there are still so many ways a project can go wrong. 

Below is a list of signs your recording project is in trouble:

  • The producer is spending two to three hours per session (that you’re paying for) discussing the football season, and reminiscing about the last album he did with people he thinks are way better than you are.
  • You’ve had more than two band personnel changes since the project started.
  • After you’ve already spent over $14,000 on your project, you find out from your label that your budget was actually $1,500, not the $15,000 you thought it was.
  • The engineer has walked off the job because he or she “didn’t feel appreciated.”
  • The replacement engineer arrives, looks at the mixing board and says, “Are those slidey things the faders? Cool!”
  • The producer keeps saying “That was good! Let’s keep that,” after takes in which you didn’t play anything at all.
  • The engineer has started calling everyone in your band, male or female, “Bob.”
  • You haven’t seen daylight, or eaten anything but pizza, for 16 straight days.