The Secret Double-Identity of a Recording Engineer

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Image by Jason Lander. Licensed for free commercial use via Creative Commons.

Image by Jason Lander.

Anyone who has spent some time in the music business would probably agree that it’s a pretty strange way to make a living.

But even in spite of all its strangeness (or maybe because of it) I can think of no better and more fulfilling way to carve out my little slice of life than helping a band, facilitating an artist’s vision, or being a supportive-yet-driving force in the creation of music.

I rarely have a problem getting myself motivated to get to work on a project. Without having any supporting data in front of me, I would guess that there are few other industries where this is the norm. I guess that means we’re lucky, right?

It’s no secret that the vast majority of professionals on the production end of music were either players or artists themselves at some point in their lives. For many of us, the desire to be on the other side of the glass, or backstage, or otherwise behind-the-scenes, became the new focus of our musical ambitions.

For this reason, most of us who switch sides have a clear understanding about what an artist wants, needs, and expects to achieve when they embark on a project. This is no small detail. It seems reasonable to assume that those who better understand these drives firsthand are better at helping an artist achieve what they want, with a high degree of success.

If you read enough interviews with successful producers, recording engineers, live front-of-house mixers and the like, you will find a common thread between them all: They listen to the artist and try to give them what they want, while taking care of what they need.

But there is another side of this “service to the artist” that isn’t discussed as often, especially not with the general public. It has to do with the strange duality that comes from working for an artist while working with an artist. On the surface, those two roles seem like they should be similar, but when it comes to your level of personal investment in a project, they couldn’t be more different.

Are Your Collaborators Working “With” You or Working “For” You?

Let me give you an example:

I still vividly remember an encounter I had with a studio manager many years ago, when my inexperienced band and I were scouting “real” studios in which to make a high-quality demo.

We had money to spend and knew it would cost a lot to do it right. We looked at several of our options, and set up meetings to discuss the rates, the recording process, and what our expected outcomes could be. We were green, admittedly, but were respectful, curious, and intent on choosing the best studio for our session.

When we arrived at one of these prospective studios for one such meeting, to put it bluntly, this guy couldn’t have chased us out the door more quickly if he’d been wielding a machete. Beyond collecting a paycheck for his services, he wanted nothing to do with us and made no bones about it. We went somewhere else.

In a nutshell, if we had booked his studio, he would have worked for us, but there was no way he was going to work with us.

This experience always stuck with me and provided a guiding principle when I moved to the other side of the glass. I felt that it was important to be engaged and interested, and to always look out for the artist’s interest if I got the gig. This sentiment had to be sincere. I couldn’t just pretend to care about their project—I had to really be invested in the project and always give them my best effort.

But this kind of deep investment can come at a price, which is where the duality comes in.

When I’m hired for a project, I always make sure that I fully immerse myself in the songs and the performances. I try to gain an understanding of the music equivalent to the level at which the band understands their music.

It’s not just about knowing the arrangement (intro, verse, chorus, bridge) it’s also about paying attention to the interplay between the instruments; paying attention to the way each musician does what they do; paying attention to what the focal point is at each part of the song; and so on.

To do, this I have to become a fan of the music and, in a way, a temporary member of the band. The proverbial Fifth Beatle. This allows me to get more wrapped up in the song, and to feel more motivated and conscious of how to get it right for the artist.

A logical byproduct of this level of personal commitment is that I will likely have strong opinions and convictions about the way the songs will ultimately turn out. I have to take ownership of the outcome of the project do my best work. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to some trying situations for the “fully-invested-for-hire” guy.

Take, for instance, when I’m mixing a song: I know it’s done when I feel that I can’t improve the mix anymore, but also when my head is bopping along with the song because it’s got me.

I need to be able to listen to and enjoy the music as a fan might. Once I reach that point, I can then send the mix to the client and await their notes and revisions with nervous anticipation.

This is where it things can get a bit uncomfortable.

Dealing with Disagreement

It’s extremely rare for a band to not have notes and revisions on a mix, no matter how good a job I (think I) did. There’s just no way to account for everything that they may want or deem to be important.

But even knowing and anticipating this, when you’ve been immersed in a song for many hours and feel a connection to it, it’s not always easy to then have that worked judged—and sometimes judged harshly.

This kind of judgment, of course, comes with the territory and anyone who does this professionally has to learn to accept the criticism, make the changes, make it right, and move on.

The duality lies in the fact that there is no way to do superior work in music without caring a great deal about the outcome. But once you’ve completed your specific task, you have to suddenly be objective and professional. Like, right now!

When you’re on the receiving end of this kind of feedback, you have to become a facilitator and operator again, and not so much of a personally-invested co-creator anymore.

You have to let go of the many details that were so near and dear to you a short time ago, and give the artist exactly what they want and whatever they ask for. And you have to do it graciously, because it’s their music, not yours—even though, earlier, it felt like it was your music. Weird, huh?

All The Way To the Top

I had the pleasure of producing a record that was mixed by Andy Wallace many years ago. At the time, Andy was responsible for mixing about 30% of everything that was in the Top 40 on the rock charts. Needless to say, he was on top of his game. Andy was wonderful to work with and was very receptive to my input and never made me feel like what I was saying was not valid or worthwhile. But all in all, I pretty much just had to let Andy do what Andy does.

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  • Kelley Kelley

    Great article! I can totally identify with everything you said. I love the process, but nice to hear what we think in our heads written by someone else.

  • Nice article.
    reminds me my very first years touring with a band as a FOH mixer and asking myself in the van what was my own place, how much should i invest myself, should i say “when do you play” or “when do we play” and such. Personnal investment vs being a service

  • Fried Shipping

    Great article.

  • Mike Major

    Yup, that’s what made me write it. I figured I wasn’t the only one. Thanks!

  • Love this. Really hits home for me as I’ve grown as an engineer and producer.

    I often find myself getting heavily invested in the projects I work on a personal level. So much so, that I want to help artists way beyond just recording and mixing the record.

    A lot of artists will post a couple singles, or the whole album online. It’s a very “throw it and see what sticks approach.” Which pains me, because I know they deserve better for their music!

    I find money a weird dimension as well. I charge my rates and get paid, no problems there.

    But it can be an internal struggle of investing myself in a session. When a session clicks and we’re making great work together, the ride is lovely.

    Then there’s the bill. Which is cool with me. But it feels like the jump from “collaborators” to “business transactors” for the client.

    Still more fun than an office job though 😉

  • Well said and i wish more of today’s engineers felt this way instead of being Time-stressed and conflicted about using great ANALOG GEAR instead of noodling with plugins!!!