After a really great recording session this week, I’ve been reflecting on what makes a good audio engineer and what skills they possess. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some great engineers who aren’t with major studios or production companies, who continue to improve and learn their craft on their own and provide quality service and final products. I decided to make this list for the following:
- Students interested in pursuing an education in studying audio engineering
- Current audio students
- Anyone looking for audio engineers to work with who aren’t sure what they are looking for!
You want an audio engineer who…
- Likes your music. Now, you may be thinking, “Why does that matter? As long as they record me and make me sound good, I don’t care if they like it…I’m paying them!” If the engineer likes your music and understands you as an artist/band/ensemble, then they are more likely to sense what direction you want to go in, what overall sound you are going for, and how to execute the recording and mixing process to meet your needs. An engineer who doesn’t care for your music may produce a solid product, but they also could have conflicting goals for your end product too. Audio engineers should take note of what musical genres they like, and what genres they understand, which could either be a very short list or it could have variety. Every engineer is different, and every engineer will cater to someone’s needs, but a good match is important.
- Has composition and arranging knowledge. For songwriters in particular, working with an engineer who has some composition and arranging background will be of great benefit. Firstly, you may be recording something differently than how you would perform it live, so you suddenly have a lot more flexibility in the studio than you did on stage. If your engineer has a writing background, they can suggest some background vocals, or additional instrumental accompaniment. From personal experience, I’ve been working with a really talented engineer, who also happens to be a former classmate/choir friend of mine from Clemson, who used to be the music director of Tigeroar, Clemson’s male a cappella group. He did the majority of the arranging, and really had a knack for it. Because he understood arranging and how to fit certain lines of music together, he was able to come up with some clever background vocal lines for some of my songs that I had never even thought of or considered. It’s always good to have an engineer whose ear is simultaneously hearing what is there and what could be there.
- Knows how the small details fit the big picture. A good audio engineer will be highly detail oriented making sure every note is in tune, that everything is rhythmically stable, and every effect and plugin is properly used and set correctly. However, while still paying attention to detail, a good engineer knows how those details fit into the overall product. I recorded a song this week using only ukelele and vocals, and I considered putting a shaker and some other percussion to make it sound full and complete. Drew, my classmate turned engineer, thought differently. “This is the type of piece you want to be bare bones…keep it raw. The other pieces all have a different fullness to them.” Sure enough, the final mix is in fact bare bones, but what he did with those two parts still makes it sound full. The details of the ukelele and vocal tracks fit the big picture.
- Is proficient/knowledgeable on multiple instruments. This isn’t entirely a necessity, but it can surely be to your benefit. Not only can the engineer be listening for tuning issues or other mistakes, but they’ll be able to offer suggestions to improve your performance. “Make sure you aren’t strumming the higher strings.” “I don’t think you are reaching the high D in tune. Watch your fingering.” “Hit the drum more in the center for the bass sound.” “Change your vowels for a darker sound.” “Enunciate a little more, your words are getting lost.” Another way an engineer can come in handy is if you are considering putting in tracks that you personally can’t play or sing. Not proficient on the djembe? Maybe your engineer can add a beat for you. Want lower/higher harmonies that aren’t in your range? Maybe your engineer can sing them for you.
- Is professional. Though a general statement, I apply to it several aspects of a good engineer. Firstly, they should be using high quality software and equipment (not necessarily the most expensive) and know how to properly use them. ProTools is usually the go-to recording software for professional engineers. Next, they should have a designated studio, and a name for it. Maybe their studio is in their garage, or in the back of a coffee shop, or a room in their house…it should still possess the qualities of a professional studio and in order to properly advertise their services they should name it (for email/website reasons especially!). Lastly, a good engineer has a professional attitude. That doesn’t mean they are stern and serious the entire session! They should be encouraging, friendly, and helpful, while still conducting a professional business.
If you are in the southeast area and are looking for a quality audio engineer to record your band/ensemble, I highly recommend Drew Cyphers at Outlier Studios. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Also, check out his band Fusebox Poet and follow Drew on twitter.
Photo Credit: http://www.revolutionmyspace.com