The Invisibility of the Recording Engineer

The Invisibility of the Recording Engineer

David Beer, University of York.

They try to be invisible. They try not to be noticed. They describe themselves as background figures occupied solely with realizing the ideals of others. Their role is one of mediator, ensuring the capture of the audio dimensions of special moments and aligning technological functionality with human imagination. In many ways recording engineers can be thought of as the hidden figures of cultural production. They try to realize the sounds that artists envision – they are the ‘enablers’. A central part of their role is to work around the parameters of technical possibility, to capture sounds and facilitate the recording of artistic and expressive moments. Given that they play such a central role in defining and realising our cultural soundscape, it is amazing that we know so little about recording engineers. We know about musicians and performers, and we sometimes even know about producers, yet recording engineers tend to achieve their objective of remaining an anonymous but influential part of cultural production.

There are some reasons for this apparent anonymity. As well as the lack of attention they draw to themselves as they quietly enable the recording process, the category ‘recording engineer’ is actually a really broad and loose umbrella term that is used to describe a diverse range of occupations, activities and practices. Recording engineering is not the comfortable and homogenous label that we might imagine it to be. It does not refer, as we might expect, to a neat and tidy set of people with lots in common, nor does it easily hold together a group of people who are doing the same type of job in the same type of way. Far from it in fact.

I was recently involved in a project that used various sized focus groups to consult with around 200 recording engineers at various stages of their careers. This ranged from students through to experienced engineers, some of whom had worked with well-known international musicians. We found that one way of understanding some of the core differences in the practices and approaches of recording engineers was to focus on the balance of the artistic and the technical in their approaches. This balance is at the centre of much of what they do. It is a balancing act, from the outset of their careers, one that is central in shaping their biography and identity.

Qualifications in the area vary somewhat, with some orientated towards logistics and technical know-how and others more focused on artistry and artistic vision. As a result, recording engineers, depending on their biography, tend to be trained to have different ratios of the technical and the artistic. This balance then becomes a part of their identity and how they understand and place themselves in the field of recording engineering. The sense is that recording engineering becomes a kind of spectrum of activities ranging between the extremes of technicality and artistry. Recording engineers position themselves, or are positioned by others, across this spectrum.

When in the studio, or recording on location, the recording engineer has to strike a balance between managing the technical properties and affordance of the equipment and managing the vision and expectations of those who are being recorded. One focus group member described their role as the ‘enabler’, they enable the visions of others and find technical means by which these visions might be realised. The recording engineer may in some cases be working out where to place a microphone, which software plug-in to us or working out how to position the set-up in order to get the best fidelity. They are, after all, under pressure to capture the moment. But they are also part of the recording relations that occur as people come together to create sound. They are interacting with both people and technologies, sometimes simultaneously, and trying to find some balance between the two. They need to have an innate understanding of both technical affordances and a feel for the artistic sensibilities of the musicians. This is engineering with feel.

The recording engineer is likely to have problems if they neglect one of these dimensions and therefore lose sight of either the practicalities or the expected sonic horizon. Yet they are also experienced in finding different ways of approaching the problems they face. At the heart of recording engineering, of course, is technical know-how. Operating the equipment is crucial. As the recording engineers frequently described, there is a pressing need and urgency for them to capture the sound in an audible form. Even in these technical acts we find variations in practice and the presentation of the role of the recording engineer. For some, often those who have done the types of qualifications that involve a focus on the logistics and technical side of recording, there is a need to have a scientific understanding of the physics of recorded sound. On the other end of the scale, we find technical know-how built up in the materiality of practice and in response to a developing feel for the technology. For these engineers, knowledge of the equipment and the recording assemblage is built and accumulated as a tacit part of their practices. It is a knowledge that accumulates from practice and from getting a feel for the capacities and limits of the technology – and also from stretching those limits.

On one hand then the recording engineer is the ‘enabler’, working to find the technical possibilities using their tacitly accumulated knowledge or their professional and formal training, but on the other hand they also describe themselves as ‘the link’. This is to say that they become a kind of hub of communication during the recording process [1]. They facilitate technical systems whilst also acting as a lynchpin to human interaction. They build, facilitate and maintain both technical and social networks. They often see their job as being to ensure that the collaborative relations of the recording process work smoothly, as well as capturing the desired sounds by operating the apparatus correctly. Here we might begin to imagine the set of skills that the recording engineer deploys, and the careful balance of the technical and artistic that is needed in their work. Recording engineers vary a good deal, some pride themselves on logistics and precision whereas others foreground their feel for the music and their innate understanding of the musician and their artistic vision. Despite these differences, all are involved in this careful interplay of the material and immaterial in the connectivity and functioning of the recording process. As such, this makes recording engineers a central and influential part of the cultural soundscape that we find ourselves in.

One way of understanding how recording engineers develop a sense of identity, how they place themselves amongst their contemporaries and the role they play in recording is to use the precarious balance between the artistic and the technical as a focal point. We quickly then begin to see the variegated nature of recording engineering, whilst also being able to understand these differences and how they translate into the sonic dimensions of cultural forms. These recording engineers are, in their own words, both the ‘link’ and the ‘enabler’, they engage with sonic imaginations and then try to find ways of making them happen. These practices are based upon a difficult set of interwoven material and immaterial relations, based on an understanding of the objective and subjective values of music and sound. They may work with software and hardware, but they also work within the social connections of the recording process.

The recording engineer may reside in the shadows of cultural production, trying to be an invisible catalyst in sound capture, but they play a central part in the mediated world that we hear. If we want to understand sound, including music, then we might want to return to the recording engineer and focus on this balance between the artistic and the technical.  It is this balancing act, managed on a personal level, that translates into the capacity that recording engineers are able to find in both the material apparatus of the recording equipment and in the sonic visions they encounter. The recording engineer plays a central part in giving us the world we hear. Our soundscape is a product of how they negotiate the tricky balancing act that is at the centre of their practice.

Note

1. Around the time that I was working on this project Alan Watson at Staffordshire University was involved in a separate project that focused on the relations and emotional labour of the recording studio. An open access version of one of the articles from his project can be found here.

 

David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York, UK. His publications include Punk Sociology, Popular Culture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation, and New Media: The Key Concepts (with Nicholas Gane). The project behind this article was led by Jezz Wells and was funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering. You can read more about the material covered in this piece in the recently published article ‘The Precarious Double Life of the Recording Engineer

3 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    July 02, 2014

    Interesting to compare with classical music and jazz since I have come across recording engineers when pursuing these music interests.
    You can’t go far learning about recording without coming across HMV’s Fred Gaisburg who recorded Caruso in a hotel room in 1906 and many famous live operas from Covent Garden sessions in 1936-1938.
    Keith Hardwick who became a 78 rpm remastering genius at emi followed by Dutton (now has his own label) Mark Obert-Thorn (Naxos) and others. In 1950s and 1960s engineers were well known (e.g. Douglas Larter and Christopher something come to mind) especially the iconic Decca guy who recorded the first complete studio ring cycle in Vienna. Decca also made some famous recordings at Bayreuth and the engineers have their stories published with the latest editions. Gramophone magazine used to run a Sounds in Retrospect (?) theme where quality of the recording was strictly assessed and engineers named as such.
    Were it not for their work the history of singing particularly would be in a dire state. Using modern technology the sounds of these singers is still thrilling. One of my favourite recordings in a 1941 Toscanini concert recorded on three minute masters by engineers with a double master cutting machine underneath the stage at Carnegie Hall. The sound of orchestra and singers is marvellous. Incidently, I think Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s 1947 Carnegie Hall concert was recorded using this equipment although legend has it that it was recorded from the public address system.

    HiFi world covers famous recording sessions of the beatles etc linked to latest ‘audiophile’ versions Other magazines cover recording techniques linked to the release of Miles Davis’ mono albums last year.

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  2. Avatar
    July 15, 2014

    What a great piece. Made me think of the artistry of Tom Dowd the brilliant Atlantic Records engineer responsible for the Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and countless other sessions. He really is an exemplar for what Beer calls a ‘sonic vision.’

    I think engineers hear things in the music differently from musicians and performers. So many musicians I know make suggestions on how to alter the sound or their voice that are not to the benefit of the whole as a whole. Have just seen this with a recording sessions where a singer wanted to hide her beautiful voice in a swamp of reverb. I think that’s why musicians – maybe even sociological writers too – are not often the best judges of their own work. It makes the work of the engineer or the producer even more important.

    I think the other thing that Beer’s piece made me think about is the terrible professional state of recording engineers. It’s is an art form that has been made more or less obsolete – with the exemption of some elite studios – in the era of Garage Band and high quality home recording. Where will there skills go?

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  3. Avatar
    July 17, 2014

    An error in my account of Carnegie Hall recording process is corrected in this:
    http://www.auldworks.com/bbandrecord/bbandrec1.htm#bgcarnegie

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