Any accomplished recording engineer will tell you the job requires wearing a lot of hats. Why does Pharrell choose to do the multiple hat thing? I have no idea. But recording engineers walk into a unique set of circumstances every day, with a goal of capturing someone's art and inspiration before it fades into oblivion. It's stressful, multifaceted, and often involves way more than just pressing buttons. If you're thinking about being a recording engineer as a profession, or if you're wondering how to start wowing more clients, put some consideration into improving these skills if you haven't already.
Artists for the most part vary between mildly peculiar to batshit crazy. Think about how many amazing singers and MCs have had a reputation for hostility, depression, anxiety and so forth. Combine that with the pressure of having just paid for studio time with the expectation of a great piece of art to appear, and it's a recipe for all types of potential drama. Often the biggest hurdle keeping a session from charging forward is the heavy heart or mind of the recording artist.
When working with an artist for the first time, consider meeting up ahead of the session for a meal instead of ordering food at the studio. It may take you more time, but it'll give you a chance to see where their head is at and to start to develop some trust. Be sincere in asking how things are going, and offer positive advice and reinforcement at all times. Reading a bit on conversational skills and psychology can go a long way here if you struggle talking to people.
Even if you have the most open-dialogue, bomb ass pre session meal ever, you're probably still going to play the psychologist role while recording. Every bad take or flubbed word starts wearing on an artist's confidence, and it's often up to you to hold them up when needed. Never call a recording bad. Say "I know you've got an even stronger take in you, I can feel it". More so, really mean it. I ride hard for the artists I work with. I want them to feel like the greatest in the world when that red record light is on.
In a magical world, every artist you record will have a manager willing to take care of all of the little tasks that might be necessary so you and the artist can focus on recording. That happens way less often than you think. There will be days where you may have to order cabs, find weed, arrange food, ship packages, consult calendars, and a whole ton of other stuff you don't want to. If you're lucky, you'll tap an intern for most of this. But you may not have that convenience if you're just starting up. Until you do, be ready and willing to play PA. It'll make sure you get the type of return clients that will allow you to hire interns and assistants down the line.
I often say the most important thing in a studio is the vibe. When a client walks into a room that has a good feel, they sink into the studio. It becomes home when you do it right. I've made all types of changes to an environment to make things vibe better, and it's almost always worth it. When working with an indie band with a hippy vibe that liked to write everything in the studio, I noticed they ignored the couch and wrote on the floor a lot. So I brought in beanbags and floor pillows to keep them comfy. It turns out, they'd been college roomies, and used to sit on the floor near each other to write, so it makes them comfortable. Night two's writing was quickly sped up by the added Target furniture.
I once had a talented but shy singer who recorded with her manager present. Her manager made it worse by talking too much and not letting her zone out. I'd watch her either lose interest or confidence every time they talked, but he refused to not be present. A few days into recording, I hung a sheer sheet over the window to the vocal booth and brought in a cart with water, mints, grapes, tissue and all the things she'd normally have to leave the booth for. Back in the control room with her manager, I left an assortment of magazines, lit sage and most importantly, lit the room with candles instead of the overhead lights. The vocalist was allowed to zone out more because of the sheet and darkness, while the magazines busied the manager until he fell asleep in the dim lighting. We knocked out two songs and a rough demo that night.
By the time you finish reading this article, a new piece of software or hardware will come out. Aside from that, a smash single will be released utilizing some technique that your next client will ask about. A good recording engineer knows about the new tools of the trade so they can tell an artist exactly what they need without wasting time. They also know about the current big songs, artist, and trends and have an idea on how to get to that sound.
When someone says, "give me the Travis Scott vibe while recording", do you want to look clueless? Of course not. You want to say "Ok, I'm going to need Auto-Tune running into some kind of distortion and an amp sim with some convolution reverb. The worst response to "can you make me sound like Singer X?" is "who is Singer X?" Don't be that person. Listen to music you're not working on whenever you can.
It's not always pretty, properly credited, nor respected enough, but the work of a recording engineer is essential. Up until recent technology allowed artists to record themselves, the skill of your engineer could literally be the difference between getting a record done or not. So the next time you revisit a classic, give some silent thanks to the person who tracked it. Furthermore, put yourself in their shoes and think "what steps would I take to make sure this session went smooth had I been at the helm". Visualizing is half the battle.
SentZ is a Brooklyn raised writer and producer who hasn't been the same since his 1st Helio phone