Pro Audio Files

How Many of the ‘Same’ Albums Have You Recorded?

As a follow up to my last article, “Listen, And They Will Come”, I’d like to discuss a few ideas that some engineers and producers gloss over. Again, these ideas can fall under the general category of ‘listening’.

What’s the first thing you do when you get a new artist in the studio?

Of course, you want to be prepared and ready to go when they arrive.  But beyond that, do you listen to their tracks first?  Do you talk to them in the lobby and get to know them personally first? Do you start laying down scratch tracks right away? Fill in the blank with your own idea, then read on…

To me, the absolute most important way to make a great recording and have a happy client is to find out what motivates the artist, why they write music, and what they want to communicate.  If you don’t know these details, it will be impossible for you to realize what the artist has in mind. It will be impossible for you to guide them through the creative process of recording.  Many engineers and ‘producers’ always work a certain way. They always get a certain sound.  And you know what, every artist or band that comes to them ends up sounding the same.  Before you know it, the local scene has 10 bands that all put out the ‘same’ album. Now where do the fans go? To a new, inspired, talented act.  And it’s not because the band or artist isn’t good, it’s because they were pulled in a different direction than where they really groove and where they really feel the music. I believe fans are aware of this subconsciously.

Our job in the studio is not to ‘push’ all of our artists into the sound that we personally like. No! Our job is to listen! Listen and help the artist make music in their own way, in the way that they can feel best. And you can’t do that until you put yourself in the artist’s shoes and learn what drives them forward.

So next time you’re setting up for a session and you pull out your favorite microphone for guitar, your favorite microphone for vocals, and so on… think about your artist first. Do they really need or want that sound?  Does their music require something different? Do you need to try something you’ve never tried before?  No one can tell you these answers except you and your ears. Do yourself and your artists a favor and listen first, before you make the same album you’ve made for the last 10 years.  I know plenty of engineers who fall in that category.  Let’s not add another…

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Charles Szczepanek

Charles Szczepanek

Internationally awarded and recognized, Charles Szczepanek has enjoyed performing for diverse audiences as well as engineering and producing for many highly-respected artists across multiple genres. Hailed a ‘Whiz’ and ‘Genius’ by some, Charles has collaborated with Grammy Award winners. Additional personal achievements include: multiple international prizes for piano performance, recognition by Steinway for ‘Outstanding Piano Performance’, as well as awards in music composition, ensemble direction, and vocal performance.

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  • Hi Charles,

    I think this is true – more of producers than engineers – but always true to a certain extent. In my experience the band/artist is generally very difficult to reach out to on this level. I generally try to ascertain at least utilitarian information like general genre and instrumentation before a session – but even this can be difficult. I try to engage some kind of dialogue about a session before hand, but often don’t get much of a response if any. Any tips for getting artists/bands to stay in communication?

    -Matt.

    • My thoughts don’t necessarily have to do with familiarizing with a band before a session, but I think a lot of bands/musicians might assume a recording engineer is limited in their musical knowledge/input, when in reality they may actually be an extremely talented musician or producer, but with even more wisdom because they’ve worked both sides of the glass before.

      I guess it all depends on what you were hired for though. In the end they could be paying you to be just an engineer, in which case you may not want to step on their toes.

  • Matt: Thanks for reading! I’ve found that learning about an artist and their music has more to do with observations, study of personality, and general appeal of their music, rather than actual verbal communication. Unless an artist has had years of formal training, they usually can’t translate their intentions into words. So, at least in my opinion, a good engineer and/or producer must be able to read their clients to learn what steps to take. Other than that, ask questions without being intrusive… usually just asking for reference material can go a very long way.

    Dan: I agree. Many clients I’ve worked with have been unhappy in previous recording experiences when an engineer couldn’t also produce. And many people just don’t have the budget to hire a seperate engineer and producer. That being said, I almost always take on the role of producer, even if I was only hired to engineer; unless there is someone else in the session who I can see is providing valued feedback and guidance. But still… those of us who have been on ‘both sides of the glass’ like you mention, usually have much more experience and can more readily help an artist achieve their goals than someone just coming in off the street.

    –Charles Szczepanek

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