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September 15, 2012

Simple Suggestions for Being a Better Engineer

I engineer the majority of my own sessions but occasionally I'll just produce and let someone else engineer. Whenever I'm engineering, I'm constantly striving to be as efficient as I can while capturing the highest quality sound possible. I always hope that when I'm working with another engineer that they can do the same. The key to having great sessions is to keep the session flowing and keep the creative energy up.

Here's a few suggestions I find myself telling my engineers/assistants all the time:

Be fast but don't rush – The client is paying you to capture their creative output not test out every microphone before you commit to a sound and finally press record. If it sounds good, it sounds good, don't think about it too hard. At the same time be sure that you don't cut corners. If something sounds bad or wrong, say something and fix it now, I hate nothing more than a "fix it in the mix" attitude. Never be in such a hurry that you miss details, they always come back to bite you in the ass later.

Change one thing, keep one thing – I like to constantly be experimenting with my recordings and productions. However if I'm always changing everything I'll have no reference point for which to judge what the subtle differences between different pieces of gear or mic positions are. For example, after recording vocals on one song, we may want just a slightly different tone for the next song, so I like to change one thing at a time until we arrive on the new tone and I make a mental note of what I did and how it changed the sound. If I change the microphone then I'll keep the same preamp so I can hear what the differences between the two mics are. After doing this for years I have a pretty good idea of how each piece of gear I own impacts sounds. With all of these mental notes of placements, mic choices, preamps, etc I'm now able to get the sounds I'm looking for really quickly (see suggestion #1) as well as where to look for new combinations.

Sound as good as possible as early as possible – Hearing "we can fix it in the mix" makes me feel ill, I can count on one hand how many times I've said that in my career. It's not that hard to get things sounding good on the way into the DAW. This is just as much a technical thing as it is having a vision for where the song should be heading sonically. Quit delaying the decision making process for an unspecified later date, commit to what feels good now and move on with your life.

Please always start playback at beginning the bar – Too many engineers out there haven't had the experience of being on the other side of the glass. It's really awkward for musicians if playback starts anywhere but the downbeat of the bar, it can take another whole bar for the musician to figure out exactly where they are and then all of a sudden they have to start playing, usually resulting in a wasted take. Even when a song isn't recorded to a click you can usually see approximately where the 1st beat of a bar is (hint: look at the kick drum or bass tracks) and if in doubt just give them a longer pre-roll.

Never stop learning – "Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning." – Albert Einstein. No matter how hard you try, it is impossible to literally know everything. I'm always reading books and magazines, checking out blogs, watching tutorial videos, and experimenting with my own music. One of the keys to growing yourself in this industry is to always keep you eyes and ears open for new tricks and techniques.

Don't be afraid to share what you know – Whenever someone declines to share their knowledge or "secret" techniques they are just telling me that they are insecure and afraid that their career is hinged solely on leveraging their "special" techniques. Instead of worrying about other people ripping you off, encourage it and use it as inspiration to push yourself to find and try new things to add to your "secret" technique stash.

Great engineering makes all the difference, not only in the final recorded product but also the whole recording experience. Engineering isn't just throwing microphones in front of things and pressing record, it's about being part of the creative team. As an engineer when you show up to a session with not just talent but a great work attitude you'll find that every session is both enjoyable and fruitful. The more energy and knowledge you bring with you to your sessions the more you'll inspire the people you're working with to do the same.

If you would like to see more, please go to Ben Lindell's website