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The Role of the Engineer in the Studio

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This post is part of a series called Creative Session: The Business of Music.
The Role of the Producer in the Studio
The Role of the Musician in the Studio

The producer, whose role we discussed last week, usually has a henchman that we call the studio engineer. In some cases, particularly those cases where the budget is limited or the producer likes to be involved in all aspects of the production, the one person fulfills both roles.

This article was previously published on the AudioJungle blog, which is moving on to a new format in 2010. We'll be bringing you an article from the AudioJungle archives each Sunday.

If we separate the two roles and look solely at the engineer, their role is much less “big picture”-oriented and rarely involves any of the headology (yeah, I know, I read too much Pratchett) and hand-holding that the producer needs to carry out with the artist. The engineer is about the details: setting up the mics in the right spot, dialing in the EQ and compression settings on that nice Avalon pre-amp in the rack, and pushing the record button.

In doing this, the engineer frees the producer—who probably learned their trade as the engineer first—to focus on the song, the artists, and the performance. It enables them to keep a clear head and guide the direction of the song without getting bogged down in these details. The details are insanely important to the song, but they’re also a distraction if you’re producing since it means switching between the detail-oriented mode and the big picture mode.

A good engineer is priceless. They’re often referred to as minions of the producer and I even introduced them in this post as the producer’s henchman; but this is a vast oversimplification of their role. If they can’t place mics and dial in settings that produce a great sound, they’re useless. An engineer’s ear and skill is just as important as the producer’s ear and skill.

It’s best for the engineer to keep out of the way, try to be somewhat invisible and just keep things functioning smoothly. When things go wrong, artists—who are probably already a bit skittish—get freaked out. That said, you can never truly be invisible and you need to make the artist comfortable. Be positive, encouraging and approachable; you don’t want to be the brooding engineer in the corner who never talks. You want to assist the producer in making the artist feel comfortable enough to bare their soul to the microphone during their producer. But that’s usually about as far as the engineer’s “headology” role needs to go.

The engineer needs to be on the ball when it comes to both technology and technique, or they can’t effectively fulfill their role. That means getting familiar with new mics in the studio, learning new micing techniques, improving their knowledge about how things such as EQ, compression, reverb, and distortion work. The producer can impart a lot of knowledge to the engineer thanks to their years of experience, but you don’t want to rely on that—much of it needs to be self-motivated autodidactism. You also don’t want to be constantly asking the producer whether the ratio on the compression is too high; try your best to free his or her mind while there’s an active session going on.

The engineer is often tasked with mixing a track according to the producer or artist’s vision. This mix is usually a preliminary of sorts, and after it is completed the producer comes in to finish the job—the basic work having been done, they can then focus on getting the specific sounds and textures out of the mix rather than on fixing automation problems and flashing red lights.

The engineer as a minion? I don’t think so—they’re one of the most important people to take part in the recording process!

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