Why Recording Engineers Matter

9 08 2013

andy-johnsI watched an interview last year with legendary recording engineer and producer, the late Andy Johns (shown in the above photo).  He sat behind the mixing desk for a lot very famous rock and roll albums.  Seminal Led Zeppelin albums (II, III, IV, Physical Graffiti). Rolling Stones (Exile on Main Street, Sticky Fingers, and others).  Plus a host of great artists.  Rod Stewart, Eddie Money, Blind Faith, Joe Cocker.  The list is endless.

In the course of the interview, Andy discussed microphone placement on drums and guitar amps.  I’ve spent a very modest amount of time in recording studios over the past 31 years, not least with the inimitable Peter Hopper, veteran who has engineered over 6000 recordings and worked with the best in the music business.  I must tell you I’ve been highly privileged to see that skilled engineers are a breed apart.

Garage Band® and Pro Tools® can give musicians an incredible palette with which to create.  What these and other technological marvels cannot give is expertise–the knowledge gained by spending years and years behind a recording console.  Knowing which mics to use and exactly how to place them.  It makes all the difference in the world.   Great engineers and producers know these and a thousand other things.  Read Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music (Phil Ramone & Charles Granata) for a lot more.

What is their secret?  Mastery

We have a cliché we use about people who dabble in all sorts of things: “He’s a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.”  It’s not very complimentary.  There is something majestic and profoundly inspiring when you are in the presence of a master.  Someone who knows his craft cold.  Can answer any question.

To become a master, a journeyman in any discipline takes long years of diligent effort.  You’ve got to love what you do.  As a friend of mine has said many times, “If you love something, it will show you its secrets.”

Here are some things to ponder:

  • What do you love so much that you’d do it without pay?  Remember it was Babe Ruth who was overwhelmed by the fact he was getting a salary to play baseball.  A master who made history.  Pay attention to what you do in your free time.  It is a clue.
  • Go to those who know.  To learn from the best is both fruitful and incredibly efficient.  To reinvent the wheel is foolish and a waste of time.  Study at the feet of the masters.  I’ve learned guitar from Jimmy Page, Phil Keaggy, Julian Bream and Wes Montgomery.   I’ve honed my writing with the aid of Strunk & White, Sol Stein, George Will and Daniel Silva.
  • Work very hard and never, ever lose your hunger.  Complacency will neuter you.  Coasting will set you back.  Resting on your laurels will make you a has-been.  Seek to learn something new every single day.

Excellence and expertise come at a price.  It costs one’s life but is a sound investment!

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