Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Role Of A Sound Engineer - An answer from the bottom of a box

I am currently revisiting the material that was used to make the Shaping Your Sound Videos. Thompson Publishing, who continues to distribute the videos asked me if I would write a book on microphones and how to use them. Sort of a long overdue companion to the microphone video. For the past 9 months I’ve been working on it. Recently I was looking for some background material that I thought was in a box of stuff that, for various reasons, I’ve kept over the years. As often happens, I became distracted reading other bits of paper including a short essay to a question I would ask in the final of a recording course I once ran. Judging from the aging colour of the paper it must be 15- 20 years old. It was written by a student named Krishan, I don’t remember his last name.

Every few years I find myself in that box, and rediscover Krishan’s answer, and rereading it, I decide to continue to keep it. I think it remains an amusing read with insight seldom found in some one just starting out, which is why I kept it. I always wonder if Krishan made it in the business.

With its age in mind, and allowing for the references to tape, This is the first time I’ve shared it.

The role of the studio sound engineer by Krishan
The role of an engineer in a studio session is just that – to engineer. By definition it is his or her job to know how to operate all the machinery and equipment found in the studio and make competent and satisfactory recordings for the client. However to follow only this stiff definition would really be unsatisfactory in the “too cool” world of rock and roll.

Firstly - You must try to get some idea of the music you will be recording – going to gigs of the bands is a good start, and you will get to meet the members of the band outside of the sometimes scary realm of the recording studio.

Then - Know before hand who you will be working with. E.g. Tape ops, assistants, etc. Will the band have a producer? (If not will you be expected to produce?) Try to get an idea of what the band wants to achieve before you begin to record e.g.: a single eight track demo, or the big break, multi-platinum, 48 track, number one charting EP.

Know the studio equipment. Being familiar with all regular gear is the studio is very important. Do they want to use any weird stuff? If they really want to use that new fangled multi-splitter electro auto gold maker effect box, get them to bring one in so you can learn what the heck it does.

When you begin to record make sure that everyone relevant to the project has been introduced. Having some sort of a goal, for the day, and/ or talking through the desires of the producer/band (apart from drugs, food, and women) can be helpful.

Now you can begin to record. That’s your job. You must work with the creative process, yet still follow the formulated recording process.

Cool: - “Being Cool”. Everyone wants to be “cool”. You must try to be cool with the band and their way of working. Being perceived as a “Cool Dude” is a sure way to gain respect from the band and their producer. From there it is only a short step to being “Cool” together. Mutual coolness works wonders in the “juice” department (more on that later).

However: Being “Cold”. Loosing your “Cool” or even worse, blowing someone else’s “Cool” can have terrible consequences.

Girlfriends: Inevitably the bands hangers on will want to observe the “amazing” recording process. You can expect: girlfriends, friends, parents, pets, friend’s friends, the pizza boy, and the inevitable bands “official” drug dealer all wanting to hang out. This could be “Cool” up to a stage but the moment it starts infringing on the creative process, it’s time for them to leave. Sometimes turning up the speakers just won’t be enough, and you will just have to turn down the speakers and as “Cooly” as possible point them to the door (minus any mics, leads, effects boxes that they were “just checking out man”).

Drugs: It is almost inevitable that at some stage in the recording process, drug use will amalgamate itself with “Cool”. Using drugs is a personal decision and studios being the places they are, with plenty of razor blades, glass tables, dimable lights, and not to mention being the “coolest place in town”, are often conducive to such behaviours. Keep in mind, however, that drugs affect the way you work, not to mention the way you hear, so abstinence is often the best policy.

Creative Input: Most bands will have a producer, and producers come in as many assorted varieties as drugs. Some will be emotionally involving, some insightful, some distant, some exciting, some draining, uplifting, some will put you to sleep and nearly all, if experienced too often, will drive you crazy!!! However, they are in control of the creative direction. And you must work out where you stand. Do they want your opinion? Sometimes? All the time? Never!? Working within their (and the bands) creative parameters will help you succeed in your job?

Read on:

The Juice: The most elusive and yet important part of any album, its recording, is the only way you can even hope for success. Yet how to capture and record that elusive beast?
Well, to quote Hermann Hesse “No true knowledge can ever be communicated”, so you only hope to be “Cool”. Seriously. Being on the correct level of communication with the artists, almost telepathy, is one sure way to get any juices that they have, flowing. To get to this stage a careful combination of the previous suggestions will help incredibly.
Good Luck