5 Tips You Need to Excel as an Audio Engineer

How to excel as an audio engineerToday we have a contributed piece by Joshua Small, MEd, professor of audio engineering/live sound at Husson University on his thoughts on how to get the best out of your sessions in your home studio or during live sets. If you’ve ever been stuck, or just hung up on the technicalities of audio engineering, this will certainly be a refreshing read to give some well needed perspective. Check it out!

My students ask me, “What is the best microphone for a given situation?” I will also get technical questions about compression. I’ve noticed that engineers with limited experience focus on technical issues, losing touch with the most important factor – the artist.

Without the performance, there is no session. Audio engineers need to remember that having the specialized skills to successfully navigate a recording session is important, but without the song that makes everybody feel good or bad, there is nothing. Very few people who listen to music buy records because of the way they are recorded. They simply like the song. Audio engineering is a service industry. We need to assist the artist in capturing his or her vision and be ready to catch lightning in a jar.

As an engineer, I understand that our technical skills get us in the door, but it’s our people skills that keep us there. The engineer that is willing to help the artist, no matter what it takes, will be the person who gets the call for the next session. This might mean unorthodox recording sessions, or possible compromises in protocol to get the performance, but that’s the job. When going into a session, especially with people I have never worked with, I try to limit my expectations. No expectations, good or bad, will help to limit my impact on the session. If I decide before the session that it is going to be great, then I may be setting myself up for disappointment. If I decide the session will be bad, I may stifle any magic that might happen. In other words, I try to be totally neutral, ready to help, and enthusiastic about being in the studio.

These days I spend most of my tracking time on an API Vision recording console. We have an extremely nice microphone collection at Husson University’s New England School of Communications and an acoustically designed recording space. I have all the tools I need to make world-class recordings. While the right combination of recording studio elements – the console, the microphones, and the room – can achieve great results, an extraordinary recording space is more than that. Remember, anyone with the money can build a space and purchase the equipment. A remarkable session has to be more than that.

Think of it this way. A good engineer is one who understands the technical aspects of their job so that it’s almost second nature. An outstanding engineer is one who focuses on the musicians and who understands that stellar performances only come along once in a while. This is the recording professional who can make sessions exceptional.

Listed below are some practical tips for helping your session move efficiently.

Tips for Maximizing Your Sessions

Headphone Mix. Remember, the artists’ first impression of your engineering skill is the headphone mix. Test the headphones to make sure they are clear. Make sure talkback is working. If the artist cannot hear, chances are you will not get an inspired performance.

Communication. Good communication is paramount. Taking five minutes to track down a noisy preamp is part of the job, but be sure to let the artist know what’s going on. As a person who has been on both sides of the glass, I have felt the pain of being the engineer and an artist. If the headphone mix is poor and the communication is bad, the artist will get the impression that the engineer is inexperienced or worse, incompetent.

Pre-Planning. You can save yourself a lot of headache by asking the artist what kind of sound they are going for. I ask about favorite records. This gives me a sense of what the artist is looking for and helps me plan out things like microphone selection, isolation of the instruments, and production.

Set Up Early. Try to have all of your microphones ready before the artist gets there. If you are not sure about placement, there is no harm in getting the mics on stands, plugged in, and placed in the general vicinity of where you think they’re going to go. (But not in the way of people moving in gear.) Have the hear-back system tested and in place. This will give the artist an idea of where they should unpack and settle in for the session.

Be Flexible. I realize that last night you spent two hours on your input list, but the drummer got in a fight with the singer’s girlfriend and now the band has a Cajon player that they just met this morning. Some engineers will leave spaces in the input list between instruments. Maybe a couple of channels between the drums and the bass. A few more between the guitars and the vocals. This will allow for sudden changes in the input list that does not disrupt every instrument after the inserted track.

Finally, recording techniques and quality sounds are all somewhat subjective. A kick drum track that is perfect for a heavy metal recording would not necessarily suit a reggae session. The choices we make determine the effectiveness of the recording.

When we listen to music and acclimate ourselves to the culture, we can determine the best course of action for the production. Microphone choice and production methods are not the first consideration when beginning a project. Of course, we need to determine which microphones to use. To have consistent results across multiple genres, however, with different musicians, we have to first understand the artists’ vision.

Working closely with the artist while giving careful attention to their needs will lead to better microphone choices and sound production decisions. So, get out there and keep practicing. Record as much as possible. Work with as many different styles as you can. Remember to listen to what the artist wants and do not be afraid to be creative.

About the Author:

Joshua Small, MEd, audio instructor and the program coordinator for the audio engineering/live sound concentrations at Husson University’s New England School of Communications.

Joshua Small, MEd, is an audio instructor and the program coordinator for the audio engineering/live sound concentrations at Husson University’s New England School of Communications (NESCom). In addition to his work at NESCom, Small owned and operated Nightcrawler Studios as an audio engineer from 1995-2010. When he is not teaching, Small is a professional musician and accomplished guitarist and has performed at venues and festivals all along the Eastern Seaboard. To learn more about Husson University’s New England School of Communications visit Husson.edu/nescom.