Pro Audio Files

A Philosophical Guide to the Role(s) of an Audio Engineer

I’m going to start this article with a big disclaimer: This may be one of those articles that isn’t readily searched. It’s not a “sexy” topic but nevertheless I feel it’s extremely important. In the art of sound engineering, all of our techniques hinge on how we perceive our role. In fact, the techniques are meaningless if we aren’t aware of the context of what we are accomplishing both within the music and within the interpersonal relationships between us and the artist.

This article will outline my take on what I really do as a sound engineer and can be used as a model for what you want to do within your field. Even if you find yourself in disagreement I think this article will be extremely helpful.

Anyway …

Record production is a team sport. From writers to producers to artist to engineers to managers and A&Rs, the goal is to create a song, cement it in time, and get it out to listeners. So where does the engineer fit into this picture? What exactly is our role, what are our boundaries and what are our expectations?

1. The Silent Operator Is Dead

On rare occasion the job of the engineer is to be completely silent and simply act as an extension of the producer’s hand. But for the most part that side of engineering died with the titles “tape operator” and “Pro Tools operator.” We are now involved in the process and that means we need to understand communication the way a producer is supposed to understand communication. Setting up the mics really needs to be second nature. The real skill is encouraging the best performance. There are a number of questions I’ve seen bouncing about the internet that I think this philosophy answers.

a. Do We Charge for Setup Time?

Yes and no. We build necessities into our rate to ensure we are compensated, but, we do not explicitly bill for set up time. We come in early to set up as much as possible before the band/artist arrives and we are happy to do so. The important side of this is that setup time while the musicians are present is minimized so that they can get to doing their gig without getting in a funk.

b. Do We Give the Performers Subjective Feedback on Their Takes?

If there is no producer in the room: absolutely. Without a producer present, we are the default producer because we are the only one on that side of the glass with an educated take on the production process. If there is a producer present we can certainly give feedback — just not to the performers. Feedback should be directed toward the producer. It’s not that we shouldn’t say anything to the performers, we just need to be aware that the producer is the one responsible for the outcome of the product.

If I disagree with the producer, I may mention something to the producer privately if I feel really compelled. If I agree with the producer, I’m more than happy to reinforce what they say to the band. “That was a great take”; “I agree, that take was awesome.” This kind of encouragement keeps things positive which helps the performers with their confidence and enthusiasm.

c. Do We Comp/Edit/Mix on the Fly?

Depends on the relationship with the client. For one-off gigs — no. We give the client their recordings in full and let them do what they will with it. For clients with a more personal relationship — 100%. If we know what the artists are going for and have a good flow going, then we get as much done for them as possible.

2. Record Like There is No Mix Phase

I will admit there are different takes on this bit of philosophy. However, I believe my take is correct and I am the one writing the article. My belief is that the tracking engineer’s job is to get the sound committed as closely to the final product as possible. That means the mic choice, placement, preamps, EQ, compression, reverb, autotune, whatever, we are making as many solid decisions as possible and sticking to them. This, of course, requires great communication with the producer. If we don’t have that, well, that’s a pretty good argument against my philosophy. Here are my reasonings:

a. There Will Still Be Plenty to Do in the Mix

There will always be a ton of creative decisions to be made in the mix, no matter how much foresight we have. We aren’t going to have time to do all the rides and tweaks in the tracking phase, even if we try to do it all. In fact, when the mixers hit faders-unity and the playback sounds great, that just gives them more flexibility. It’s counterintuitive but I do my best creative work as a mixer when the tracking engineer sent me something I can just balance and call a day.

b. Infinite Decisions Lead to Incomplete Songs

This is important. The earlier the vision of the record is made, the more complete the end result will be. If every decision is saved for the mix stage, no decisions ever really get made. All you get is twenty revisions of the mix and an angry mix engineer. The ideal chain of events is that at the inception of the song, the producer gets on board and figures out the direction of the record. This is communicated to the tracking engineer, and finalized with the mixer and mastering engineer.

As a mixer, I would much rather focus on executing one idea exceptionally well, rather than trying to make a million decisions and hope everyone sees it my way. As a tracking engineer, I want to give the mixer the most complete version of that one idea possible so that they can take that idea and run with it.

c. Give the Artist What They Need to Hear

The artist just finished putting their heart into their performance. When they hear the initial playback which do you think they’d rather hear? “This sounds like it’s ready to go to mastering!” or “Well, it still needs to be mixed.” Music is a world of insecurities — nothing gives the artist a better feeling than hearing their record back and immediately feeling like magic is happening.

d. Trust Your Mixer

A good mixing engineer is going to make it work. As a tracking engineer, I f*k up from time to time. Not often, but it happens. As a mixer, I get tracking that is vastly more f#*ed up than even my f*k ups are. And I make it work. If you over-compress the snare or add too much top to a vocal on the way in — a good mixer will make it work.

It’s better than sending a bunch of bland tracks that don’t really sound right. Then the mixer has to make everything work.

3. The Mixer’s Job Is Everything

The mixer is really the last station on the train schedule. Technically, the mastering engineer is, but, the mastering engineer doesn’t have the same access to the production that the mixer does. This means that as mixers, our job is everything. Even if it shouldn’t be. That means that everything is fair game — editing, tuning, dubbing in parts, creative effects, having the artist in to recut a part. Now, this philosophy is very dangerous.

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It’s important to really understand the producer’s vision and to start from the assumption that the way the record was sent was correct. Replacing parts is very dicey, and it can and will result in losing clients. I have lost clients doing this. My philosophy here looks at the much bigger picture. The clients that win by being assertive and contributing to the end result are more important than the clients we lose. Thinking this way requires the confidence to know when we are right, the humility to admit when we are wrong and the experience to understand which is happening as it unfolds.

We cannot escape our own aesthetic, we can only develop it. If our aesthetic is incorrect for a client, we are the wrong engineer. If our aesthetic is correct for a client, we are one of the only engineers and cannot really be replaced.

4. The Producer Is Boss

That said, we are really here to act on behalf of the producer.

A lot of mixers prefer the session track-outs to be sent dry before they mix. I do not. If the producer worked on that demo mix and likes that demo mix, I don’t want to erase what they did. That’s more work for me and diminishes the time and effort the producer put in. I would much rather work off of what the producer is doing and formulate something that’s truly great within their framework. Let the producer load up the bases, then hit the home run.

5. The END GOAL

So all of that is great, except it really pertains more toward my approach to the process, not my approach to what I want from a record. This last entry will be a little divergence and move more toward what I want artistically.

My philosophy hinges on the idea that a song is a series of moments. It plays out from beginning to end and takes us on a little journey along the way. A live performance in its nature is dynamic, but a recording is static. When I’m engineering I’m looking to create the illusion of emotional dynamics by contrasting between a “hypnotic” state and a “surprise” state. I do this on three levels.

a. Clarifying What’s There

Most of the emotional dynamics are already within the construction of the record. My main mission is to simply allow these things to shine and translate. The better I can do this, the better the experience for the listener.

b. Microvariations

Once I get in touch with the record I find little places to create ear candy. Whether I’m dropping a drum, or automating up a delay or reverb, I’m just finding subtle places to place little earworms that help add color to whatever hypnotic parts are in place. This helps the record feel fresh while at the same time maintains whatever pattern is in place.

c. Punches

I’m also looking for pivotal moments in the song — like when the verse moves into the chorus. In these places, I’m usually looking to break the hypnotic parts of the song with some kind of a surprise. My friend Samik calls these the “oh sh*t!” moments, and I think that description is accurate.

If the hypnotic state of a record is achieved through balance and clarity, the surprise moments are achieved by introducing imbalance and distortion. Rather than subtly intriguing the listener, my goal here is to grab the listener by the ears and yank them back into the song. It would be like suddenly putting SHKDOY something that doesn’t fit into a sentence to wake the reader up 🙂

All of this approximately encapsulates my take on the engineering process. Most of it is really dedicated to the interaction between myself and the artist and how I bridge my core ideology with everyone else’s. Of course, the wonderful thing about art is that it can be approached many different ways. I’m not saying that my philosophy is correct, only that I believe it is.

More importantly, understanding my own principles and ideas helps me define who I am artistically, which is important in general, but especially important in sound recording. Our art as sound engineers exists within the parameter of someone else’s art: the musicians. Having self-awareness is paramount in navigating that little paradox.

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.

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