You Don't Need An Engineer To Engineer

2014 Dec 01, 2014

We all want the same thing – great recordings of our music. Where we might differ is what we think it takes to get there.

I’ve shared before how I feel recording and mixing is more art than science, more music than math, more creativity than calculations. And that’s good news for most of us.

Simply for the fact that most of us are musicians first, engineers second. In other words, we learn to engineer as a means to an end – creating our music.


Via Steve Spinks Flickr

Counterintuitive Encouragement For The Home Studio Owner

A buddy of mine recently passed on a great article from Sound On Sound a few years back in which legendary producer/engineer John Simon (of “The Band”) downplays the need for highly skilled engineers to get a great recording.

Listen to his words with an open mind. Think of it less as a critical comment, but rather a form of encouragement:

I myself don’t think engineers are that important when it comes to making music. I honestly don’t.

I’m happy listening to a very scratchy old recording of Robert Johnson or Bessie Smith or Bix Biederbecke — I’m much more interested in the music.

And of course it’s lovely if you can get a sound that’s just gorgeous and feels like you’re in a concert hall when you hear a full symphonic orchestra — that requires an engineer, because I think the real challenge for engineers is recording large ensembles.

I don’t think there’s much to recording a small group, especially one instrument at a time — there’s hardly anything to it!

I’ve spent so much time in studios wasting time, waiting for an engineer to fiddle with this and fiddle with that, whereas all I care about is that there’s no break-up, no feedback, no distortion.

That’s all the engineer’s supposed to do. And that’s all they ever had to do when I broke into the business.

The engineer was just responsible for a clean sound, nothing special. I mean, some of the great, classic blues tracks that came out of Chess in Chicago were down to just two microphones in a room!

Did you let that sink in? Let’s take just a moment to absorb a few takeaways that might fill us with perspective and freedom in our music making

People Are Much More Interested In Music

No matter how much time and attention to detail we pay in the recording and mixing phases, all that matters to the final listener is the music. Is it good? Is it moving? Is it memorable?

No one really cares about how perfectly panned your drums stereo image is during that tom fill, or how much air is on the lead vocal. No one.  Except people like us, the audio nerds of the world.

And that’s fine. We should make music the way we like to hear it.

But just remember, in the end all that matters is that people can hear the MUSIC. So don’t kill yourself to make something perfect. Just give them the music in the best light you can.

Our Job Is To Eliminate Distractions

Notice how Simons focuses on the one and only thing an engineer was “supposed” to do? Simply get rid of distortion or crackling. Get a clean signal.

Wow. I’m pretty sure I can get that with a single microphone plugged into my USB interface. Done!

His point is that since the music is what matters, an engineer should focus on eliminating any and all distractions from the music. So get rid of any noise or interference that is covering up the song.

There is MUCH wisdom in thinking like this in the recording and mixing phase. It helps you stay on track instead of losing 4 hours to tweaking a kick drum sound.

Go for the big wins, eliminate any and all distractions from what makes that song shine.

Simplicity Is A Great Goal

I think we are all way to addicted to complexity. We live as though the more complex our recording or mixing setup, the more professional it must be.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The more microphones, tracks, and plugins you introduce into the equation – the greater the risk of phase issues, masking, vague arranging, and overload to the listener.

In most music, less is more.

And it’s faster and more enjoyable too.

Re-thinking Your Job In The Studio

In the end, I take away a lot of encouragement from this quote. It reminds me of what I’m really trying to do in my studio: create great sounding music for people to enjoy.

It’s all too easy for us to get distracted in our “engineering” that we forget what is most important: the music.

I hope you find refreshment and renewed vision in today’s post. Here’s to making better music now!

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