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Today I want your opinion on something.

What makes a “great recording engineer”? If you hang around recording circles, you hear people talk about folks like Eddie Kramer and Bruce Swedien, who recorded great acts like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Michael Jackson.

What made these engineers great? Was it their engineering skills? Or was it the fact that they had the opportunity to record these amazing musicians?

Wouldn’t Jimi have been famous regardless of who set up the mics and hit record?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. If I was in the right place at the right time, and I got the chance to record the next U2…would my skills (or lack thereof) really make a difference? Or would the talent of the musicians, and the quality of the song and performance outshine anything I bring to the table?

I know there’s no simple answer. And I’m certainly not suggesting that Eddie Kramer isn’t dripping with talent. But there’s an important lesson here:

You will never be a great engineer if you never record great music.

A great recording will always begin and end with a great song performed by a great musician. Your job as an engineer isn’t to take a mediocre song and make it great. That simply isn’t possible.

Does that mean you should ONLY record great songs and great musicians? Not at all. Use whatever talent you have available to hone your skills, but realize that your greatest work will likely be when you’re dealing with the most talented musicians.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, get it right at the source. Once you find a great musician with great songs, your job is to simply get it recorded and get out of the way.

COMMENT TIME

Leave a comment below and answer these two questions:

1. Do “great recording engineers” really exist?

2. What are you going to do (specifically) to find your next “great musician” to record?

[Photo Credit]

  • Pabloesquire

    You are viewing this from a fame stand point. Great engineers do exist, plenty of them in fact. The audio community listens in a completely different manner than the public audience or even musicians for that matter. For example. One may listen Led Zeppelins “bron yr aur” from a subjective level one may feel something from it, surfacing emotions. A musician may listen to it for Jimmy Page’s guitar and trying to understand his compostion. An engineer or audiophile will listen for how it was mixed. Was it eq’ed in a unusual way? Does the mic/pre amp that was used bring out a warm tone or was it a brittle tone. Also that song in particular has a engineering phase technique that when listened to through head phones the guitar swirles around the listeners head. Usually the directions in stereo are left, right, up close or far away and all areas in between. So I’m sure when that came out people were freaked out. In conclusion, the instruments that are recorded are colors in a engineers palet. He can make them darker, lighter, he can paint a audio portrait with it or create an abstract picture.

    • Pabloesquire

      Also I might add, musicians for the most part don’t know anything about what it takes to create a good mix, they just either want to hear things subjectively (like I want this guitar to sound creamy-er) or they would like to hear the guitar louder, which in some cases starts to ruin a mix. Most of the time they don’t help the process. In the case of Hendrix he was very hands on in expressing the sounds he wanted to hear. Jimmy page also was the bands producer so he also navigated mixes and tracking. For the most part a new up and coming band recording their first ep or lp doesn’t care from a audio perspective because they are not listening to the music in that way.

      • Pabloesquire

        Sorry I apparently can’t shut up lol. To clarify Page was Led Zeppelins producer. Sorry if that was confusing. A producers role is to take a mediocre song and make it great. If a song just isn’t punching the way he or she feels then they may suggest add drums, increasing tempo, changing the key, adding strings, maybe put a guitar lick after the chorus, ect. The engineers job is to make it sound pleasing in a aural way. Like honestly I’m sure it’s a bitch to record, eq and mix axel roses voice. His voice gives off a lot of odd numbered harmonics. Odd numbered harmonics are more objectional to the human ear. It’s probably not fun trying to smooth that out. But if someone didn’t. It would sound harsher than it does.

        • I disagree with “A producers role is to take a mediocre song and make it great.” That implies that the song isn’t all that important, as long as the producer is good. I’d rather have a producer make my great song sound great. 🙂

    • I totally agree!

  • To my opinion, by learning the rest, an artist will only get closer to the sound (s)he represents knowing the wonders and limitations of the frequency spectrum. In order to create the best soup, you need to know the secrets that are in it but also know how to cook.

    Where’s the challenge, when you only see a tiny bit of the gigantic world out there?

    I love the technicalities of all these processes which brings
    self-education towards a new level through trial-and-error, not only
    understanding the build and internals of a track, but also how to treat
    it before .. and see it glorified after, often finding out years later
    not everything was correctly done, to get better in the process.

    OK, not everyone likes to open up their gear (and get GAS as result .. lol), but theory through practice never grows old and there is not a single day where you won’t learn something new from anothers experience.

    That’s worth golden for anyones future.

    When all possibilities and boundaries are known and understood; these experiences can be used to reach “that idea” even better towards the end. You can *never* be enough amateur before you’ll advance to become professional in the field.

  • Andrew – Shed Studio Sydney

    Being great engineer to me means that I need to do treat the sound with respect, not the musicians skill level or how good the track is. If I’m presented with a mediocre product, be it lacking in performance or material, I consider the audience of the end result and, if my client walks away with a smile, then I’m a great engineer … to them, and I’ve treated the sounds with respect.
    If the talent and material are outstanding it makes my job much easier, and the end result is only better because of the performance, which forces the creative enjoyment to engineer, I want to say better but I think I mean, more.
    Greatness inspires creatively but in essence only provides a sound that requires it’s own respect.
    Great engineers do exist … it’s the lucky ones that get the recognition if the performance and material are worthy of notice to “Joe Public” and the critical masses.
    I’ll keep an ear out and hopefully stumble across the greatness that can survive my engineering, and remember that you can polish a turd … It’ll still smell but it will be shiny!

  • Olivier

    That’s what I tell myself when I’m unhappy with my recording job.
    But I don’t really agree, especially since I’m also the musician whom I’m recording.
    :o}

    • Ah…the Catch-22 of wearing so many hats in the studio. 🙂

  • Raphael Cassis

    Wonderfull point of view… I’m going to start saying this to my clients that have afraid of giving me the job 🙂 Thanks…

  • Huck

    1. I think that with all the new softwear (pro-tools) platforms that are being offered now almost everyone has the ability the create a Good recording. I also think that the small studio owners need to wear many hats (engineer, producer, manager, and lawyer) so staff your weaknesses. But raising your recordings to to the level of Great that will stand the test of time still takes a Team Effort to achive. 
    2. I am still finding out how to find the next great Recording Acts. I have been looking at smaller clubs where I live in Laughlin as well as am afraid to say it Karaoke in my local bars.
    I have also wondered about all of the Idol runners-ups. The top 2000 I’am sure have the basic talents to be a Singer in a Rockin’ Roll Band.

    Keep It Rockin’

       Huck  

     

  • Noah Copeland

    Yes, there is a such a thing great engineer! Hear the difference between AC/DC’s Vanda and Young album’s compared to when Tony Platt came in on Highway to Hell and Back In Black. Ofcourse Mutt had a huge role in those, but if you read all things Tony did to engineer those albums, wow. Tony is responsible for the absolutely jaw-dropping snare sound on Back in Black. Phil Rudd has played almost every AC/DC album, yet his drums sound best on the Tony Platt albums. Why? nothing the musician did. Phil plays like exactly the same on every album lol.
    And yes, you also need great musicians. But great musicians sound even better with a great engineer.
    just my two cents.

  • I see all that as a really GOOD thing. It means there is still a place in the world for an engineer with a good set of ears. Musicians don’t really want to be engineers. They want to play music and have it sound good. That’s where we come in. 🙂

  • Determination and passion are great to have…when combined with musicians who have that same determination and passion, you’ll get something AWESOME. When combined with mediocre musicians, you’ll get some good practice, I suppose.

  • See, I’ve heard musicians comment on how great their engineer was on session before they hear a complete mix! Purely based on how the engineer interacts with the band, how they work with the producer to get the best out of the musicians and give them exactly what they need to do the job.

    As I see it in the classical world the distinction is much clearer, a ‘great’ engineer will know exactly the sound to look for before the orchestra arrives, then compare that to the sound they actually hear and know how best to bridge the gap between the two. In the pop world it’s more undefined because it’s a process that is much more focused on creating the sound rather than capturing it if you see my point?

    • I disagree. As long as a microphone is being set up in front of an instrument/voice, a sound is being captured, and it’s the engineer’s job to do that right.

      While some music has more electronic elements than others…it still has to blend together into one, cohesive mix.

      • ah no, sorry didn’t mean quite that. I agree with you that once sound is being captured then it has to be done right, absolutely. But I’ve found that pop engineering gives you a different set of decisions to classical. In pop, it’s more… Could this sound ‘better’ or punchier… maybe a dynamic mic, maybe closer etc. 
        and classical is more… Does this sound match my preconceived idea of how a cello sounds, has my mic placement properly balanced the direct to reverberant sound etc.
        I just meant the word ‘great’ has a subtly different application in classical and pop, and also from a listener’s point of view to the session musicians.
        Do you see what I mean?

        An interesting question to ask though! Like it.

        • Ahhh…..gotcha. Yeah, that makes sense.

          Although, I recently overheard one of the big nashville engineers of the 70s say (when asked how he got his kick drum sound) that he would place his head in the kick drum, listen, then go in the control room and make it sound like what he heard.

          There’s something to be said for accurately capturing the source rather than trying to force it to sound like something else.

          Rather than EQ-ing a Les Paul to sound like a Tele, just use a Tele…for example.

          • could not agree more!

            There was an engineer who used to record all the drum sounds himself in secret, and he actually got the kick sound using a bath tub and a rubber plunger! Horses for courses I guess

  • Astewart

    It is a package deal. Put great musicians in a studio with a great engineer and magic happens over and over and over. One can have a great engineer, but if the musician is not that good, at best you have an above average product. And the same holds true with having a great musician but the engineer is not really good, you again have an above average product. The two go hand in hand I think.
       Now for the 2nd question, as soon as I practice more on my guitar, and learn things that my fingers just can’t do and make them do it, I will record myself as the next great musician.. …. untill then, I will just record myself and work on both aspects of the craft to turn out something good.

  • Great question !

    I would say:

    Great engineers do exist – they can lift great music and musicians to new heights, like the names you mentioned.

    But

    Great music and musicians don’t *need* great engineers. They can shine despite mediocre engineering. Whereas a great engineer needs great music and musicians to shine.

    However

    An “OK” engineer can get a great reputation from regularly working with great acts, whereas only a great engineer gets a great reputation even when working with mediocre acts.

    And finally, I do think there’s an important distinction to be made between producers and engineers. Some producers are engineers, others aren’t. A producer with vision and people skills can make up for an “OK” engineer, and vice versa !

    This reminds me of something to do with chickens and eggs… ;-p

    Ian

  • Amberlight

    I think Jimi would have been great, might have taken a little longer but it would have happened.The question might be how many could be great bands were never heard of because of less than great engineers.Then they gave up because the dream just went south.

    • That’s a great twist on the question. I’m sure there are plenty of musicians/bands out there who never get heard because they don’t have access to a decent recording engineer.

  • Yes, great recording engineers really exist!
    While it’s really hard to tell who did what (on most cases), should we consider the
    possibility that “The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd” could ever be what
    it was “only” with the raw musical ideas from the band?
    If I’m not mistaken, the maximum number of audio tracks available at the time was largely
    exceeded, with the analogue “audio bounce” to achieve the all the complexity in
    a 1973.
    There’s no doubt that Pink Floyd was a great band, but when they were writing / rehearsing
    the song “Time”, do they had all those sounds and ambiance that were
    immortalized in the album?

    I have myserious doubts !
    In this simple example, we are talking about a recording that was one of the
    first remixed and remastered versions for SACD, a few decades after its release…
    😉

  • Senseamp

    I was going to ask the same question. Not only do I handle the equipment and recording, but also compose, arrange, sequence midi instruments, and edit the final result. But then I’m just an amateur.

  • Midiman

    Yes! I certainly believe there are great engineers in the music industry and the very next person I get to record, I will use all of the kmowledge I have gained from everyone I know to make it the best recording ever!

  • Glibby

    Great recording engineers do exist.  They have musical knowledge.  And they have
    great gear.  The difference between the latest Hendrix release and Electric Ladyland tells
    me that an engineer’s contribution made EL the shimmering musical masterpiece that
    it is.  It is more than the sound of a guitar through a marshall.

    I have to go to different performance venues  to find the players I want to record.

  • Anonymous

    Oh yes, they exist – and my two biggest heroes are Bruce Swedien and Roger Nichols (R.I.P). They happens to be my favorite mixers too. They both often had total control of the recordings, knowing their gear in and out and having ears that was insanely sensitive. Their weapon in the loudness war was not compressors, it was about doing everything right from the beginning – of course they used compressors everywhere, but not in way people do it the last 10-25 years.

    I will find my next great musician by continue to improve what I strive for: -Hi-Fi, dynamics and transparency. Hopefully, more and more musicians and listeners will continue to fight bad sound, and i hope that noise will continue to fade out in mp3 player and car stereo environments. Then the audiophiles will take over the music world again 😉  I hope my ears are not to old when than happens…

  • hmmm, this is a good, and very timely post for me. i just recorded a high school aged metal band in my basement. i know i could have printed better sounds to tape if we’d had more time, a better space, etc, but they were absolutely THRILLED at just the thought (and sound) of a halfway decent recording. as far as their skill level and the quality of their music–not too shabby for a bunch of kids, but definitely NOT “great!” and certainly i’m learning a lot about recoding (particularly rescuing horrible sounds!) in doing this.  but my point is, it got me thinking about recording up-and-coming  bands with songs that need demos cheap. plenty of demand there i imagine.  but i REALLY want to record great musicians in great spaces, so you’ve got me thinking Joe, it’s fine to help out the little guys, but at the same time maybe i should aim a little higher and try for some established acts too.  as far as HOW, i think i’ll do a few demos for free, then start charging once i have a bit of a portfolio, then as my chops get sharper, i’ll go for some folks that maybe i’ll meet through being in a band myself.

    thanks for the post Joe.

    • And don’t forget you can always rent out a nicer studio for those bigger acts if you need to, so you’re not recording them in your home studio if it doesn’t fit well.

  • Jlird808

    …..oh and the mythbusters did actually prove that u CAN polish a turd lol….so I’m thinking a great engineer can spice up (within limits) some bad takes from a bad take with fx and eq lol

  • Jlird808

    There’s a not so famous story about a great Jamaican artist Big Youth (who Bob Marley even sed he was a fan of) that delivered amazing live performances that engineers/producers could never deliver on studio albums (unti the end of his career). Sure it coulda been BY’s vibe in the studio but a great eng/prod should also be able tyo “prod out” those great takes…not just set levels n knobs

  • Larry

    A good engineer & studio turn out a product that sounds better than any individual recorded performance. We are used to listening to highly processed enhanced music.

    I realized this when my earlier home recordings fell short of professional ones. I think this is partly access to quality hardware to process the sound and partly the historical knowledge on what to do with it.

    Listen to any of the dr77music videos on YouTube to learn some of these techniques. He has a really good one on vocal processing tricks that I have tried and it works. There is really a lot of engineering involved in commercial recordings.

  • Illsoulproductions

    I agree wit hall the above statements! great engineers exist and will always exist for all those reasons previously stated. Right place right time right knowledge when the right questions are asked and Bam! A Grammy! So what does that men for the rest of us who aren’t as well known yet? We keep working with who ever when we can and use the great talent as our example of our skills to the world!

  • That’s a great question (and a good topic for another article). In the past, the two were very distinct and different. More and more the two are merging into one. Producers need to be able to engineer (to a degree), and lots of producers end up engineering and mixing the projects.

  • Skippydelic

    A great engineer *has* to understand the ART of both music *and* engineering, not *just* the technical aspects!

    There’s no doubt that skills are *very* important, but there has to be *chemistry* as well. A great engineer *has* to be able to *connect* with the artist on a *creative* level. For example, Eddie Kramer *understood* what Jimi Hendrix wanted, and was able and willing to *experiment* to get the *right* results; those results speak for themselves!

    To find your “Next Great Musician”? Find someone who’s not *just* an excellent musician, but who you can get along with, *and* who’s able to experiment to find something *great*!

  • You’re right, Craig. Engineers have to find out how to develop relationships DIRECTLY with the musicians, rather than with a big studio. Independent artists (I think) are where most engineers should focus. There’s less money there, but there’s also no label taking a bit chunk of that money.

  • Good point, Mike. I do think, though, that a great song/performance tends to be more forgiving of a mediocre engineering job. As long as the engineering is adequate, the song shines through.

    But you’re right. Ideally, the engineering and performance are both top shelf.

  • Anonymous

    I would say that “great” engineers do exist. The main difference between “really good” and “great” (in my opinion) isn’t in their technical skills but in their ability to work with the producer and to do their job in a way that keeps the artists in their most productive/creative state. Someone who is a master of mic placement but pisses off everyone in the studio is never going to be considered a “great” engineer.

    • Amen to that. People skills will take you much further in life than technical skills.

  • There are several parts to a piece of music: the performance, the arrangement, the melody, the beat, etc., and the actual recording of it is an important part because it determines whether or not it “sounds” good. In some cases this matters more than others. Roger Nichols (RIP) was a HUGE part of Steely Dan’s sound back in the 70s. Those records wouldn’t have turned out the same without him.

  • Wild Weezil

    There a many terrific engineers, and I agree that it’s a joy when given a chance to work with wonderfully talented artists.   But to me, a really great engineer has learned to listen to each individual track, EQ and process it perfectly, with an understanding of just how and where it’s going to ultimately fit in the mix.  It takes a lot of practice and if  you have someone to show you how to do it, some of the techniques and “tricks”, your going to save yourself a lot of time and aggravation.   A really good engineer (studio or live) can make a band sound better than they are!  We’ve certainly all been witness to that!

  • This got me thinking, can “great” also mean remembered, Loads of people in my family can answer who producers are for certain songs and sometimes where the album was recorded but non of them know who the engineer’s names.

    hmmm better get some coffee for this one guys, I’m feeling philosophical today.

  • Sean Wolf Salthouse

    This is Very Very true…

  • “Wouldn’t Jimi have been famous regardless of who set up the mics and hit record?”

    I agree with this statement, or rather vehemently say “yes” to the question. I think there are hundreds, if not *thousands* of “great” engineers and producers out there, the same as there are millions of great songwriters and artists. Only a few get recognised simply because that is how the music industry works. Success is not due to talent, it is due to knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time.

    The “great” engineers we all adore are definitely talented, you don’t stand a chance if you have no talent at all. But once we get into the pool of those with enough talent, the ones who become famous and earn millions are simply the ones who were lucky enough to get the opportunity or a great gig which has thrust them into ‘stardom’ amongst the recording industry. There are still loads of others with just as much talent, they just never had the opportunity or luck to get to that point.

    • And you have to assume that they were smart enough to know how to be in the right places at the right times to land those opportunities.

      • Exactly – you gotta know the game in order to play the system, so if you want to get far in the industry you have to know the Industry! But a little talent and a Portfolio doesn’t hurt your chances either.

        • Absolutely. And I would encourage people not to confuse talent with knowing how to use Pro Tools. I know engineers who get lots of work and do great work, but they don’t really have a deep understanding of Pro Tools. Their talent transcends their technical ability.

          • Jim Simmons

            I think pro tools has it’s purpose but if you are a good recording engineer you should be able to make quality recordings on a 4 track cassette multitrack recorder also.