AUDIO ENGINEERS: Kings and Queens Behind Your Sound

This modern generation of musicians is inevitably doused in novice artists that merely pick up a microphone one day and say, “Hey, I want to be an artist.” The problem with this random, haphazard decision typically lies in the lack of fundamental education around the music recording process – that’s where it all begins. There are few things in life that most people attempt without seeking basic knowledge in its regards. For example, you don’t just begin to assemble your TV stand without at least skimming through the instructions. You don’t just hop in a car one day and hope you know how to drive thus why do new musicians, specifically in this era, just pop up one morning and decide they want to be a recording artist without at least attempting to educate themselves on the basics of the music recording process and its caretakers? Why, because we live in the “Google It” generation but in this line of work that’s a start but it’s certainly not the finish line.

New artists are mostly concerned with creating content, picking beats off YouTube and recording their “music.” However, the name of the game in any lucrative industry is networking. Networking is essential to ensuring the success of any musician. There’s nothing wrong with creating music and releasing it on Soundcloud or YouTube but how much time was spent looking to connect with music producers or experienced engineers? Artists don’t always see the true complexities of the music business early on; they only see their love for music or overnight fame and riches. There are many moving parts related to the success of any musician, but it starts in the studio. It doesn’t start with management or public relations or marketing. It starts with finding producers that create quality production and songwriters, if need be. It starts with finding a recording engineer and then finding a mixing and mastering engineer, if they are not one in the same. Furthermore, this is not a one-time event. Engineers are an artist’s best friends and sometimes the first pick isn’t the best fit and sometimes neither is the second and so on. It takes time to find someone who understands an artist sound and it takes time for an artist to develop that sound but with the addition of a seasoned engineer that time can be cut in half.

Music is a career. It may begin as a hobby but if an artist wants to make music their legacy, education is paramount, especially in the vital realm of audio engineers. The infancy of an artist’s sound is constructed, shaped and honed through their tutelage. Audio engineers, from a general sense, are responsible for recording, creating and editing sound. It’s important to note that audio engineers break into three broad umbrellas for musicians – recording, mixing and mastering engineers. Too many artists believe that they are one in the same and in some instances, they are if that engineer specializes in all facets but in most cases, they are three very different people.

Recording Engineers

The duty of a recording engineer is in their title but let’s delve deeper than surface monikers. Let’s say, you have a friend who knows how to utilize Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Mixed In Key, plugins etc. that does not certify them as a true recording engineer. Attaching engineer to the end of this title is what makes it a specialty. These are engineers that study and understand sound, how to manipulate it, how to adjust it and level it, how to record it on myriad mediums, how to troubleshoot sound issues in a studio setting and much more. They must also know intimately about the different microphones, recording equipment essentials and proper cording.

Recording, simply put, is transmitting a performance of a song onto the desired medium. More importantly, the engineer that completes this act must be well versed in sound and vocals. For example, an engineer may specialize in recording rappers but have no idea how to record and control the sound of a live band in-studio session. Getting to know the engineer also coincides with getting to know and listen to their previous works, delving into their genre of clientele and learning from them in the process. Engineers that merely press “record” are not invested in the evolution, maturity and success of an artist’s sound. True engineers are vocal not mute. The one’s merely collecting their hourly rate will never make an artist better because they are not invested in artist development or their own development. A recording engineer is only as notable as their catalog. Radio stations, record labels and blogs can break an artist but so can the right engineer.

Mixing and Mastering Engineers

The mixing and mastering process is what makes a record “radio ready.” Mixing is the act of taking the multiple tracks from original recording sessions and balancing the sounds and instrumentals together to achieve a stellar well-leveled outcome. Prior to the mixing of the record, there needs to be a conversation between the artist and engineer about the intended sound for the record. It’s best not to assume that either party knows what the other wants to hear or intends for the record’s final sonic result. Would the artist prefer for the record to be heavy in bass? What effects are desired? What does the artist want the lead vocals to sound-like? These questions are essential and save time for the artist and the engineer. Mixing involves thorough knowledge of editing methods, intense attention to detail, an isolated environment and an articulate ear. This process differs from recording in that it focuses excessively on precision and clarity.

Mastering also focuses on accuracy but welcomes in another layer of it. This is the most intricate of steps and readies the recording for its final formatting rather that be streaming, physical copies or live shows in some instances. The level of detail is in the title; it takes a master of sound to master a record. Therefore mastering, for most novice artist, is skipped because they believe that mixing and mastering are one in the same, but they are not. This final step places the record or records on another playing field sonically. It can be what separates a mediocre record from a hit record. Mastering is all about preparing songs to sound crisp on any listening device rather that’s headphones, car speakers or in a nightclub.

This multilayered process for finalizing music can be rather expensive. Mixing and mastering engineers have a higher ticket but it’s well worth it. A polished sound sells. This is the music business and a money business. Mixing and mastering engineers are vital to an artist’s potential rise to notoriety. A solid mix and mastering can catapult a record to top-charting heights. A bad mix and mastering could be the record’s undoing.

Good Sound Doesn’t Come Cheap

Artists pay engineers for their ear. An audio engineer must have an articulate ear that’s able to pick up on sonic intricacies the average ear cannot – that’s what makes them an expert in their craft. Specialists always cost more, as they should. Quality is not birthed from cheap equipment and certainly is not enhanced by a fly-by-night, makeshift engineer. However, there is one caveat: just because an engineer charges a higher price, it does not always equivocate to a higher quality. Studying the engineer, listening to their previous works, inquiring about their engineering experience and observing their professionalism should lead to a sound decision, however, this is the music business thus there are no absolutes.

Most recording studio’s charge around $40-$125.00 an hour – it’s not cheap. Very few people make that amount of money per hour and most rookie musicians surely do not thus it’s best to ensure an educational return on that investment as well. Great engineers are also great teachers. Paying someone $40-$125.00 an hour, on the low end, to just record without being the least bit inquisitive or verbal is a waste of both parties’ time. The “button pusher” comes cheap but the vocal engineer, the engineer that guides an artist, asks them to come out and take a listen, adds effects as they record, encourages the artist to do it again – they can be pricier but worth it. That thorough engineer is the one who believes that this is his or her career. Iconic audio engineers like Young Guru, DJ Swivel, Susan Rogers and Phil Tan, to name a few, have worked with the likes of JAY-Z, Beyoncé, Prince and Rihanna but those weren’t their first clients. Each of these engineers were birthed from humble beginnings and they certainly weren’t just pressing the “record” button. True engineers are not mutes.

Investing in engineers equivocates to a true investment in the evolution and quality of an artist's sound. It's a small price to pay for what could turn into a record that sells a million copies.

Be Prepared for the Knock

Engineers are the silent partners, the yin to an artist’s yang, the Kings and Queens of an artist’s sound. It’s easy to just mention the musician but behind every artist is a team of equipped engineers that gift records everything they are from their inception to their distribution. Engineers are the Alpha and the Omega of the music recording process and their skills are idiosyncratic to their personal beings and natural ear. They cannot be replicated, for each one is unique. Music is a process, one that can take years before it bears any fruit.

This generation’s swift influence from overnight viral sensations and pop-up Instagram artists makes them believe that it’s that simple but it’s much more detailed than that. The recording process and finalization of music is only the beginning, after that the complexities branch off into marketing, public relations, record labels, management, strategic social media development, accountants and more. When an artist wins, the engineer wins, and that cross-pollination grows into a strong seed of an artist that with the proper watering can sprout into international levels of success and acclaim. Engineers are just as plugged in as music producers and record label executives. Developing that awesome and distinct sound, creating a buzz and fostering a deep relationship with them will bring the other music industry subsets to an artist’s front door – be prepared for the knock.

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