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What is an Audio Engineer?

Transcript
Hello, I hope you’re doing marvelously well. So this question, yowza. This question gets asked all the time. What is an audio engineer? [mimics music] Cue music.

So I thought I’d do a little search. So I went online and went to YouTube and typed it in, and woo! There’s about 4,000 different interesting and sometimes conflicting pieces of information.

So I think the answer to the question gets complicated by this; that there is a traditional view of a recording engineer, and then of course, there’s the modern one. So let’s tread lightly.

First of all, what is an audio engineer? These days, it is pretty much anybody that makes music. Why do I say that? Because whether you have an iPhone, or an Android, or a laptop, or a desktop computer, or a huge tape machine, it doesn’t matter what you are, you can record music these days.

So when you’re recording music, you are audio engineering.

Now, the traditional view of an audio engineer still works to a certain extent, don’t get me wrong, I started off as a traditional audio engineer, but it’s expanded so much. So these days, if you make music, you play music, you just love music, and you have the tools, everybody is capturing now, they’re capturing ideas.

So it doesn’t matter what your setup is. It can be really, really simple. Your number one job — your number one job as an audio engineer is to capture performances.

So it means you can have your cell phone, you can have your little Audient two input. Just a mic, no compressors, no EQ, just a mic and an IO. A two input IO. You’re engineering! Your job to capture good performance is to make sure it doesn’t distort, and you get a great, clean signal in.

The quality of IOs these days is leaps and bounds above where it was five or ten years ago, so no matter what you’ve got, you can record music really well. You just need to apply some simple ideas to it. No clipping, clean signal in, and you’re doing an audio engineering job.

Number one most important thing for an audio engineer is to capture a great performance, so be ready to go.

Which leads me to number two. It doesn’t matter what the equipment is. It could be this, it could be the SSL console, it could be your little IO. If you know it really well, it’s much better than having all of the gear in the world, so know your equipment.

Audio engineers — an audio engineer knows his equipment. They know when and how to capture something They know to have a microphone available at all times, just in case an idea comes up. That’s great audio engineering.

So an audio engineer knows their equipment.

Number three, not only do they know their equipment really well, however expansive or limited it might be, number three, they know how to edit these days. It used to be, when I first started making records, there was a producer and an engineer and an assistant, and we would edit on tape. And it was time consuming.

Then ADATs came in and you could stagger them, and you could do all kinds of crazy things. As digital audio workstations came in, otherwise known as DAWs, we started to be able to edit, even on the simplest terms, we started to be able to edit audio.

It made vocal comping, for instance, really easy. Suddenly, I could have like, four or eight tracks of vocals, which these days seems very small, but in those days was amazing! There I was, like, 21 years old and able to edit. It was really fantastic. A huge deal.

Now of course, you can edit drums in groups, like 40 mics. Whatever you want to do! You can edit any instrument. So an engineer’s job, an audio engineer’s job now includes editing. There was a time in the late 90’s and early 2000’s where we had a producer, an engineer, and an editor. Sometimes two editors! And the assistant engineer.

These days, with a very few exceptions, most of the time, even the bigger budget records, it’s just two guys. It’s just a producer and an engineer. Or two girls!

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Number four, the audio engineer works for the client. The client could be an artist. You could be in your home studio, you could be in a big studio, whatever it is. A client comes in, it could be the artist, they ask you to capture something. They have an idea of the production, they just want you to engineer it to record it, to capture it.

Also, your client could be a producer! Somebody could hear your work and hire you to be the engineer to record the artist, and so you’ll have to know who your client is, and remember that your job is you’re working for them.

If you’re a producer, yeah, you can have some back and forth with the client. You’re trying to get great performances out of them. Sometimes, that’s an easier event, and other times, it’s really difficult. Trust me, I’ve done many, many records where getting artists to be motivated, to turn up to the studio is a lot of work, and when they get here, getting them to perform is a lot of work, but an audio engineer, that’s not your job.

However, let’s cross over. We’ll get that for another time. As an engineer, an audio engineer, your job is to serve your client, which could be a producer or an artist.

Number five, last but no means least, an audio engineer understands his role. Now, this is a big one, and will cause lots of consternation. Loads of discussion. I almost invite you to debate me on this. You have to know your place. There has been so many records where I was hired as the engineer, and I’ve ended up sitting there with the guitar player working on guitar parts, tuning the guitars, fixing issues, like your chord sequences and all of this kind of stuff, but the point is I was hired as the engineer.

So if I want to do those extra things, which could be “production,” you know, that’s my choice. I work on albums whether I’m the producer, the engineer, the mixer, the song writer, the guitar — whatever my role is, I go there to bring my best work, and if my best work means that I’m helping in a job description outside of engineering, I can’t have a resentment. I’ve seen that many, many times. I’ve seen guys and girls go in and engineer something, and help with something, and then feel slighted because they didn’t get like, a co-production credit.

That’s tough. I mean, if you’re suggesting something and you have an environment when you can suggest it, if the artist chooses to use it, that’s really their choice. We have to know our roles. I’ve seen lots of relationships break down when people have created resentments out of something.

I have gone in, and to be honest, I have gone into records — I can tell you so many records where I’ve co-written the songs, I have actually ended up co-writing stuff, but I’ve gone in there, and I’ve replayed parts, and I’ve showed the guitar player or the piano player the parts, and the drummer, but I was hired as the engineer, and I’ve continued to have relationships with those guys.

Those artists, those producers that I work with continue to hire me, because — not because they think they’re going to get something for free, but because they know I’m going to come in there and I’m going to give it my all.

The last thing you want to do as an engineer is to be hired as an engineer, help out on something, and then be a seething ball of resentment because you didn’t get this massive credit because you gave them one idea. I’ve seen it and heard it so many times. You have to be a worker amongst workers. If you’re hired to do a job and you decide, and I hope that you do, to excel at it and bring more to it, it’s really, really important that you understand your role, because you’ll get more work by being humble and working hard than you will by getting all disgruntled.

Anyway, big job. What is an audio engineer. It’s a lot of things. These days, as you know, it’s primarily capturing great performances, knowing your equipment, understanding your role and just generally bringing a lot of positivity to the session, and just being a great person to be around.

One of the traditional roles of an engineer is not only to capture that great performance and to not mess it up, but it’s also to help shape the sound, which is basically to capture the vision of the producer and the artist, which sometimes are one and the same, sometimes is independent.

If somebody gives you an idea of what they want, a producer might say that they want this track to have a Motown feel. They might want it to sound lush. So there’s lots of different things that come to mind. Layering ideas. But reverbs obviously springs to mind, plates and chambers from the studios of the 50s and the 60s.

So as an engineer, you do help shape the sound. You’re not taking on the production as such, IE, you’re telling the artist, “Hey, I think we should do a Motown sounding track,” but you’ll listen to the artist or the producer who brings that idea to you, and you are there to help them with their vision.

So having a larger skill set, knowing music really well, listening to lots of other genres, practicing different ways of recording, different recording techniques will help you help them.

Alright, have a marvelous time recording and mixing. I hope that’s helpful. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of debate, because there’s tons of other things that we can talk about, but this is just something that I get asked all the time, like, what is an audio engineer?

So to me, that’s the essentials of what an audio engineer does.

Have a marvelous time recording and mixing, and I’ll speak to you all again very, very soon.

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Warren Huart

Warren Huart

Warren Huart is an English record producer/musician/composer and recording engineer based in Los Angeles, California. Learn more at producelikeapro.com.

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