7 Commandments of Audio Engineering

If you are wondering what you have to do to break into the music industry as an audio engineer in Chicago, have no fear. Recording in Chicago is no different than pretty much anywhere else on the planet, except for language. Here is a comprehensive list of skills that you can aim to develop to position yourself as a top engineer in the future. Notice that four of these skills are what can be defined as “base skills,” meaning they are imperative for any job in the music industry or elsewhere. The other set of skills are known as “job specific skills” and relate categorically to your work in the studio.

BASE SKILLS

1. Ability to read, write, and follow directions. So why is it so critical to follow instructions in a recording studio? For starters, you could fuck up the gear in the studio. You are also working with client’s master recordings that are the result of perhaps thousands of hours in time and financial investment. In Chicago, some of those clients might not be to happy if their masters get messed up, so it could potentially mean your life. More over, following instructions also means that you are reliable and dependable, which in turn brings confidence to the head engineer or manager that you can be developed and mentored to integrate and properly accomplish client requests. Following directions is crucial to discovering how to work successfully in any recording or production studio, let alone life.

2. Communication. There have been many times when I was engineering a session when the artist or producer turned to me and said, “It just doesn’t sound right. I’m not sure really what it is about it, but it is not grabbing me.” We often spend long hours trying to figure out how to understand our clients. In a way, one could say we are quasi-pyschologists. The ability to communicate clearly is crucial in order to be as productive as possible in the studio. Many delays and fuck ups in the studio are a result of a lack or breakdown in communication. Knowing when to and not to speak out comes over time through patience and practice, and understanding.

3. Ability to stay cool and calm. Musicians can get pretty emotional in the studio. In essence, they are dumping their emotional well being into their performance for all to hear. So they get very emotional. A good engineer must know how to stay calm and reserved when a musician voices their frustrations. I have seen many sessions where fights break out in the control room between band members or band members and management. These people have actually swung at each other, which generally is not helpful to the whole creative process. Remember, your job is to keep the project on track at all times, so it is important for you to always remain calm and relaxed, especially in Chicago. May the force be with you.

4. Basic computer knowledge. So, how much do you really need to know about computers to become a good recording engineer? Well, many ambitious producers and sound engineers have a good deal of experience and knowledge operating sound recording and editing software on a computer. It’s certainly a bonus. The more you know about computers, the more valuable your service will be in the studio. It is important to master the basics, such as word processing and data entry, as well as understanding spreadsheet functions so you can use the computer to do simple math. It is important to be comfortable with these basic three applications as well as the computers recording and production software. A basic computer course at your local community college can teach you these fundamentals. It’s also important to know both the Macintosh and PC platforms. Macintosh more so for composing, recording, and mixing. PC’s for business management and data entry. Initally, all the best computer editing software for sound and music was found on a Mac, but over the last couple years, the PC has been making strides in the audio department. Many programs that were once exclusive to Mac are now available on PC as well.

JOB-SPECIFIC SKILLS

5. Critical auditory skills. If you haven’t heard or experienced sound in an acoustic setting, you might not know what you are listening for which can bring you problems as an engineer. You’ve got to use your ears and really listen to the sound or music. As an engineer, it is important to get out there in the real world and experience every type of music that there is in a concert setting, from country to jazz, rock to big band, and opera to blues, etc. Remember, musical recordings are really just sonic paintings. In order to be a competent recording engineer, you have to come to really understand what instruments sound like naturally, by themselves or together in ensembles. Look at your time spent developing these skills just as you would if you were doing homework. Go out as much as possible because it is important to hear it all. You never know when that time is going to come when a client steps into the studio with a certain kind of instrument, sound or musical skill that you might not be familiar with. This unfamiliarity can lead to poor engineering decisions’ which in turn lead to poor or undesirable recordings. That is why it is important to know how each instrument sounds naturally.

6. Audio aptitude. It is important to develop a comprehensive knowledge of audio, such as level, signal flow, phase, frequency spectrum, microphone selection/placement, and acoustics. Whether you went to a reputable audio school or learned on your own, it is important learn and understand the basic concepts of how to make a recording, do overdubs, correctly edit, manage a mix-down properly, and master. Even the knowing the process of duplication and distribution to stores and online retail outlets sure doesn’t hurt either.

7. Studio Chi. The overall tone or vibe that an engineer brings into a session with a client is vitally important to the overall energy and creative workflow in the studio. Some of the best engineers out there are the ones who create a climate that is conducive to positive and creative workflow. The equipment doesn’t really mean much if the vibe of the session is no good. Even with a half million dollar recording console, is it really doing any good if a client walks in and doesn’t feel right. When artists are babied or pampered in the studio, they tend to lose their inhibitions, open up, and perform much better overall. A good engineer will be able to help generate that vibe in the studio in order to capture and bring it out in the song.

Now you know the basic skill set needed to a good career in field of audio engineering. The first six you can learn in school, whereas, the seventh takes time and experience. It’s important, not only as an aspiring engineer/producer but also as a musician, to sit in sessions and watch how other engineers do their thing. Internships at major recording facilities are a great opportunity to see how things really work in a professional studio. After awhile, you will find that every session and client is different as well as what is specifically needed to create the right mood and vibe for each session. At the end of the day, you’ll probably find yourself playing psychologist as much as you are being an engineer, producer, songwriter, mentor, friend, fan. The list can go on and on.

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