By: Tony Williamette
So much of what we do in the studio is non-technical. Walking into a new (to you) studio presents all sorts of challenges, beyond routing questions and acoustics.
Where do drums sound best?
What’s the quickest way to record the Rhodes?
Oh, I didn’t realize the headphone mixer could do that.
I like to talk about this from the perspective of an intern/assistant engineer because that’s the best way to learn new rooms; one gets an opportunity to shadow and assist someone who knows the DNA of the room. These skills aren’t limited to assistant engineers but tools I use every day while in studio.
When we train interns, we have to teach them the basic room-specific elements to our studio:
-How do you make tea/coffee?
-Where do you keep the tools?
-In what order are things powered up/down? This is important! Don’t blow our speakers.
-What are the temperature idiosyncrasies of our rooms?
-Where is the room temp water for vocalists kept?
-Which microphone stands are best for our heaviest mics?
-Which microphone has the broken pad switch?
These things can’t be taught anywhere but our specific studio, though they remain incredibly important to our day-to-day operation.
Then there is intangible and interpersonal:
-Where’s the best place to sit when a 5-piece band is in the control room listening to playback?
-How much, if at all, should I talk?
-When is a good time to ask questions? During down time and after the session. Write your questions down, you’re going to forget them.
-How do I stay out of the way, but stay involved?
-What is the general vibe of the session?
Much of this is client specific; not everyone wants to joke or socialize. For both the engineer and assistant, it’s vital to understand the cadence of each session and move forward accordingly.
There is also basic physical studio workflow:
-Un-record-enable microphones before moving them! We don’t want to blow speakers/ears.
-Is phantom power turned off when setting up and tearing down mics? God willing.
-Does the guitar player want to stand or sit? Sit on what- a tall stool? A bench? Our couch? The player being comfortable will yield a bigger difference then me switching one dynamic mic for another.
-Is the mic stand in an intuitive place or will we be running into it all day? Adjust accordingly.
-Is that Coles 4038 going to make that mic stand sag? Adjust accordingly.
-Are our cables run neatly? This tells the client that we know what we’re doing.
-Can we set this up so the guitar player can overdub while in the control room with us? Communication will be so much easier.
This stuff generally isn’t taught in schools and almost impossible to garner from YouTube videos. This only happens through experience.
The most important thing is that the recording process doesn’t get in the way of inspiration.
A great engineer/producer isn’t just someone that can make a sonically sound recording. It’s someone who is in control of their space.
They intuitively know how to get to where the session needs to go.
They know the drawbacks of their room.
They know how to exploit the best parts of their space.
They have ergonomic systems in place that allow for seamless, intuitive, transition into capturing whatever sound necessary.