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The Role of the Sound Engineer

Article from Sound International, May 1979

Steve Hall bandies about words like involvement, commitment and encouragement as he argues that the engineer should take a more active role in the everyday process of recording.

This Isn't Steve Hall: it's what we call a 'Mood Pic' and depicts Tony Platt at Pebble Beach Recorders (hi Tony)

Why isn't this article entitled the 'Job' of the engineer?

In the old school of broadcasting and recording, based on the traditions of the BBC, the person in charge of the recording operation was known as a 'balance engineer' — and the job carried the status of technician. But to be more relevant to today's music, the job of engineer needs to be an all-round activity — not limited to button pushing and calling the 'takes'. The Germans had the right idea when, in the late Sixties, they created a sound recording course called Tonmeister, which trains students in both the technical and artistic sides of the recording game.

Since my own experiences within the music business have been a patchwork of performing, composing, teaching, engineering and producing, understandably my own view of the engineer's task is as an all-round technical and artistic activity. Obviously in large scale recordings (live concerts, orchestral etc), many pairs of hands are necessary — all with their own tightly-defined jobs to do: this departmentalisation is always necessary with large scale organisation. But most of today's rock is recorded in a smaller scale — and often by only one or two pairs of hands!

And this is where I would like to make my first big assumption: If you notice in the following article that the job of 'tape operator' is not recognised, it is because I believe this job should not exist; the tape-op should be regarded as an engineer's assistant — thus my discussion is aimed broadly at the engineer... or the assistant!

Recording equipment has no life of its own, and thanks to modern technology, it is often quite cold. So when you enter a control room and get caught up in the warm and compelling sounds coming from the studio monitors, it is well to remember that it is not the equipment that you are hearing; you are listening to musicians who are no doubt highly accomplished in their particular field and possibly performing well-written music; and what is more to the point, you are probably hearing the results of an experienced engineer who, over many years, has gained a good understanding of equipment and can confidently feel the way around its limitations and potentials. More often than not this engineer will also have a fair grounding in music and a natural feeling for time and pitch — an invaluable asset in identifying trouble-spots in a production.

Until a few years ago musicians would only see the inside of a recording studio when they were directly involved with making demos for a publisher, or with the more elite activity of producing LPs or singles for release. However in the last few years the price of small but good studios has come well within the range of most musicians' pockets. At the top end of the studio market there is enough money to employ, at least most of the time, top-class engineers; at the budget end of the market, however, the quality of engineer is more of a hit-and-miss affair. Yet with this end of the market steadily working its way into every corner of the music business, the results of poor engineering can give disappointment to an ever increasing number of hard-working musicians.

The greater accessibility of recording studios has brought with it a slow but definite change in their general function in the music business; more artists are using them as a form of workshop where not only good masters and demos can be made, but also where musical ideas can be tested out, thrown around, and generally shaped up (or discarded) as a process of discovery. It is logical, then, that with the change in use of studios must also come a change in the function of the engineer; after all, one group of musicians may arrive with a fully conceptualised and rehearsed piece of music, with the prime need for a skilled technician — another group may arrive having never played together before and who would welcome confident direction and advice about arrangement and production.

But one must not forget that where a studio is becoming an extension of a composer's writing abilities, sessions can accordingly become highly charged and sometimes fraught occasions. But this is understandable since one is, after all, dealing with a vital combination of an artist's hopes and dreams on the one hand, and on the other a highly sophisticated yet sometimes temperamental collection of mechanical and electronic equipment. So trying to make all facets of a recording session run smoothly — including reconciling one's personal musical tastes — is no mean task! This is why I think that the job of engineering can be a highly delicate activity that can have great repercussions on artistic output.

If we consider for a moment the way in which other artists work, in order to put brush to canvas or pen to paper, we see that they have always needed the freedom to isolate themselves from the company of others to concentrate sufficiently on their work — away from the distractions of everyday life. Yet for recording artists to get their work down on to tape it is necessary to be confronted with a strange array of equipment and often with an engineer they have never met before; clearly the engineer can represent something of a barrier between artists and their art. This is why I would like to begin by suggesting that one of the main functions of a sound engineer is to minimise the distractions of the recording process in order to release the artistic concentration on to that of the creative process — or in other words, the microphone placement, positioning of musicians, organisation of dubbing etc, should not dictate too much about the method of performance. Of course a great deal of imaginative and inspired recording is done where the studio technology itself becomes an integral part of the creative process — but this is a territory with its own rules and techniques, and is certainly an area of recording that would justify discussion at greater length than could be afforded in this article.

Ideally musicians should be free to choose their own work space in a studio that will allow the best rapport with other players; however the best working position for a musician is often the worst for a sound engineer since a crowded multi-mic environment is liable to create problems of spill, phasing and general image-blur — suffice to say that these in turn can cause muddiness in a finally mixed production. And if we consider that an acoustic guitar or piano can sometimes need up to three or four mics in noise-free conditions in order to recreate it convincingly on tape, we can begin to understand the complex problems that arise when trying to organise mics and musicians in larger group recordings.

A lot of today's rock music demands not only a large line-up of musicians, but also the necessity to record in smaller studios; yet much of this music is recorded in such a way as to remove many of the multi-mic problems. A large and complicated musical production is often started with a three or four piece 'rhythm section' consisting of, for instance, drums, bass, keyboards and guitar. A fair degree of isolation is possible with these small groups of musicians, and with careful use of acoustic screens a rhythm section can play as close together as is necessary to give, and to get, the right buzzes. Building up complex productions in this way will give the sound engineer complete clarity and control of subsequent overdubs — which of course can be carried out one at a time if necessary. I freely admit to finding great satisfaction when working in this 'building block' manner — yet this desire for complete sound isolation and track-control can often become obsessive and can indeed interfere with the quality of musical performance. An otherwise convincing and energetic performance can finish up as a collection of well-recorded but lifeless, clinical and inappropriate sounds. This is where engineers are tested to the limit: they will be confronted with recording situations that call for far from 'perfect' microphone and musician positioning in order to achieve a good performing environment; they will constantly need to assess the fine balance between a high quality of recording and a high level of performance!

As an engineer brought up on multimic and multichannel technology, it still comes as a surprise when a relatively disorganised recording situation produces a good quality sound which seems to owe more to the comfort of the musicians than the technique used. Recently I had a band in to record a musical Christmas message for a businessman who intended to send out records to his customers rather than Christmas cards. 'Costs almost a quid-a-card these days,' he confided through his brandy and cigar moustache. He owned two nightclubs in town and had contracted the musicians from both of them to do the job; however, the clubs being very different from one another meant that the mixture of musicians was very strange — a couple of 'strolling' table players and the usual complement of rock musos.

So while the mandolin player, the pianist, the accordion player, the bassist and the percussionist sat around the studio routining their material, I hovered around neurotically trying to rationalise musos into corners, behind screens, into booths and firmly tucked under headphones. But then one of the guys murmured out of the side of his mouth: 'What are you trying so hard for? You're going to be paid for the day anyway — and we all just want to do the gig and split.' I winced a bit and then proceeded to stick a mic roughly in front of each instrument, regardless of the relative positions of the instruments, and just stuck a screen between the pianist and drummer. Individually the mics were picking up large doses of sound beyond the actual instruments they were serving, yet when they were all mixed together the total effect was very pleasing. At the time I felt that not only had my technique of recording been demystified, but that my cover had been blown!

But if you've ever been sensitive about problems of spill and phasing, read on with caution. This particular session concluded with the club-owner himself providing a lead vocal; his normally boisterous vintage tenor voice was definitely showing strain with the prospect of a real 'take' under the cans. Eventually I managed to get a happy performance from him by playing the foldback live into the studio through a small monitor speaker; next to this stood his strolling mandolin player (who managed to perform for the 'take' standing still, thank goodness) who then proceeded to re-play his part all over again as a confidence booster for the singer — so the mandolin followed the live monitor speaker, and the singer followed the mandolin! A vocal mic was somewhere in the vicinity of the tenor voice, and managed somehow to pick up enough of it to give a convincing mix at the end of the day... (Gulp!)

So far I have been considering the fine line that the engineer treads between, on the one hand achieving a good performance, and on the other a high quality of recorded sound. Another delicate path for an engineer to tread, and one that is a major influence on most recordings, is the problem of time. This one factor can affect the goodwill, the success, or the failure of a session. While musicians are not only having to work hard to overcome the impositions of the recording process, and also having to confront the sobering and Ultimate Truth of Playback, they are also obliged to be working against the clock.

A well-organised engineer can do much to take the sting out of this oft-dreaded time factor. What sting? Well the bit that hurts is all that waiting around to get a decent drum sound, or holding up a session while the right mains adaptor is being found, or disturbing players while the engineer crawls around trying to trace a spaghetti cable through to a faulty connector. So if one of the prime functions of the engineer is to smooth over the intrinsic problems of recording, this will not be able to be done effectively if there is also a struggle with the unnecessary distractions of faulty, mishandled or mislaid equipment in an untidily cluttered studio. It all boils down to Good Housekeeping!

Certainly the efficiency and organisation of a studio will have great bearing on how effectively it can cope with the extremely varied material that it will sometimes have to deal with. And clearly it must fall squarely on the shoulders of the engineer to create this organisation, regardless of how many ancillary staff are employed to help run the session; of course only too often in smaller studios the jobs of many have to be carried out by only one or two pairs of hands — and this is where the pressure can build up in sessions. An engineer is often having to split up concentration between answering the 'phone, setting up microphones, pulling together a sound on the mixer, looking for bottle-openers and ashtrays, distributing headphones, mending the odd fuse or jack-lead — and still trying to allow time for normal friendly interaction! I think my adrenalin level must be at its highest in the first hour of a session — sound engineers with high blood pressure beware...

Another important factor affecting a session is the way in which equipment is set up, handled and stored — and this of course in turn can affect the reliability of this gear. Interestingly enough I find it as important to be clearing gear away during a session as it is to be setting it up; it is very easy to find a session turning into an obstacle course amongst gear that is not only distracting from a performance but is also easily damaged or lost!

Therefore it is important that all equipment is stored methodically and is easily accessible, so that when the pressure builds up in the studio the engineer will have everything to hand — and of course in working order. Exactly the same methodical approach should apply to tape storage; most studios need a 'library' system to store new and used tape. Some studios offer the use of second-hand master tape, and obviously this will then need re-cycling after a certain period has elapsed; other studios offer storage facilities where customers are in the process of completing tape projects. Needless to say, the wrong tape erased or lost must be the biggest disaster imaginable for a musician — and of course to the studio concerned.

The system of foldback through headphones is one part of the recording process which is often overlooked by studios — certainly a lot of time is spent in every session organising headphone distribution, balancing the mix for foldback, repairing broken leads and plugs, and of course complaining about the balance in the cans! Nevertheless it is well to realise how much of a lifeline this system is to the musicians; it represents almost the only link between them and accurate timing and pitching, and it can grossly impede their performances if the 'phones are ill-fitting, heavy, or connected with awkwardly-arranged cable. I believe headphones are something of an evil in the recording process, and am ready to ditch their use at the slightest provocation in favour of 'live' foldback through studio or control-room monitors. Certainly this latter does create a certain amount of spill, but a little bit of experimenting often reveals an undetectable difference between monitoring through cans, and monitoring through a speaker situated close to the performing microphone.

I know that I am happiest when overdubbing if I can perform in the control-room itself, using a full live stereo spread as foldback rather than staying hidden under the deceiving sound of headphones. However, many multitrack recordings do need the isolation of sound to be found with headphones; so given that they are a necessary evil, it is important to organise them to minimise their physical awkwardness to the performer, and to ensure that they will not break down midsession. A length of curly lead can be inserted into the ordinary straight lead coming from the cans, for example. Before making the leads up in this way, it was almost a fortnightly occurrence that a pair of cans would go on the blink due to an internal break in the lead, or a broken cable in a connect. A lightweight lead from the cans — long enough to reach the floor — gives the wearer the least weight to carry and creates less strain on the cans' connections; the curly part of the lead cushions the inevitable pulls and jerks that a crowded studio will inflict.

While I'm on the subject of cable failure, I would like to jump on to my hobby horse: cable care. A good quality cable that has been well looked after can be a joy to work with; it will not only lie flat and tidily around any obstacle you may wish to circumvent, but will also sit more co-operatively when coiled for storage. And as far as I am concerned there is but one major factor in cable care, and that is to do with the way it is coiled; it is easy to do a quick hand-and-elbow job on a long cable and finish up with a good tight knot to secure it.

It's also easy to coil a cable tightly around the palm of the hand in order to store it away in a nice small space — but both these methods are ruinous to the cable, and indeed will emerge as kinks and distortion that will prevent the cable from lying flat and safely out of the way of heavy roadie-boots. So this is how a cable should be coiled:

Hold the end of the cable in the left hand and about two feet along it with the right hand; bring the right hand up to the left, twisting it clockwise between thumb and forefinger as you do so — you will notice that the cable will naturally fall into a large loop and this can be caught up in the left hand. Repeat this looping operation (about 8-12 inches diameter is recommended) until the complete cable is hanging in the left hand. To secure the other free end, form a gentle spiral around the coil with it — and remember, do not form any tight curves or knots in any part of the cable: A well coiled cable will lie flat and inert without the need to even catch up the end in a spiral. Needless to say, a cable well looked after will easily outlast its deprived PA brother!

Keeping properly updated track-sheets that are both visually clear and consistent can seem a bit of a nuisance to a busy engineer; yet to miss out this essential activity of record keeping, especially in a multitrack session, will inevitably lead to either a lack of tracking flexibility at the final stages of overdubbing, or to unintentional erasure... the Big Sin of the recording studio. Also keeping careful notes of which takes are to be used — and which are to be discarded — is another important part of the track-sheet. I remember using a wrong take where some horns were finding great difficulty in getting their parts right; after maybe an hour of dubbing and double tracking the horn players filed into the control room with great relief and satisfaction... only to find that they had to start all over again — I had used the wrong take! At the time I felt like disappearing under the mixer, I was so embarrassed.

Since some tape counters tend to be unreliable, it is sometimes necessary to mark the tape position in a more definitive way. Some engineers mark the tape with a felt-tip pen — a long line can be produced by holding it up to the back of the tape while it is in motion. I, on the other hand, like to mark the tape in a way that can be more easily changed — I put a 100 Hz tone at the start of each take for a duration of about eight secs. This is then easily recognised, when fast winding, as a 'peep' that shows above the general high-speed chatter of normally recorded material.

So while good track-sheets will contribute greatly to the efficiency of a session, this is only the tip of the organisational iceberg when we consider the amount of discussion, planning and decision-making that should precede a multitrack recording. The endless permutations of track positioning and order of dubbing can do so much to either hinder or help a particular production, so it is necessary to plan a definite line of approach that will suit the material being recorded.

For instance, should the recording be essentially live, or should it be organised to start with just a basic backing track? And what sort of guide tracks can be added in order to help achieve a performance that is both comfortable and convincing? And which instruments should be recorded at the same time, and which cause enough troublesome spill to merit an empty studio and a lone overdub? But this is where more questions start emerging than there are answers. For instance, should an engineer develop opinions about the music being recorded, or merely remain a transparent medium for the artist so that the engineer's tastes and preferences will not serve to cloud the final concept?

I believe that the role of the sound engineer, contrary to how it may have been in the past, is one of involvement, commitment and encouragement: involvement with the material, a commitment to definite opinions about it, and encouragement to the artists who are performing it. Of course it must be remembered that the engineer exists solely to reflect the wishes of the recording artist — and also as a translator of these wishes into dBs and special effects; nevertheless, in the words of a muso friend of mine, it would also be a disservice to the musician to offer all the options of a studio at every stage in the session — there are just not that many minutes or seconds in a day. So speed is the essence of catching a performance that is still fresh and spontaneous — plus of course that secret X-Factor that will encourage musicians to perform their best and to feel at home in a recording environment which, at the best of times, can be quite alien to that elusive process of creativity.

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Publisher: Sound International - Link House Publications

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Sound International - May 1979

Donated by: Richard Elen



Feature by Steve Hall

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