How Recording Engineers Work

Skills Required of a Recording Engineer

Many recording engineers start out as musicians. Singer Malverde, standing, rehearses with engineer Eric J. Dubowsky, playing guitar.
Many recording engineers start out as musicians. Singer Malverde, standing, rehearses with engineer Eric J. Dubowsky, playing guitar.
© John Shearer/WireImage/Getty Images

It requires a unique set of skills to be a successful recording engineer. You need to be part musician and part computer geek. You need to have a trained ear for the subtleties of sound, a mastery of tons of complex analog and digital equipment and the ability to use technology to achieve specific creative results.

Not surprisingly, most recording engineers are musicians themselves. Many were once aspiring musicians who realized that their true love was being in the studio, working behind the scenes to help other artists make the most out of their recordings.

The most desired skill in a recording engineer is a sense of balance. Pretty much everything a recording engineer does during and after a recording session has to do with attaining balance. The drums can't be too loud. The vocals can't be too soft. What's the point of having a 10-piece string section if they're lost in the mix?

A good ear for balance is useless unless you know how to use the tools to achieve it. An experienced recording engineer feels like the control board is an extension of himself. Legendary recording engineers could grab ten faders for ten different tracks and push them into balance simultaneously [source: YouTube].

Nowadays, with powerful digital audio packages like Pro Tools, there's a temptation to use every trick in the book on every track. A good recording engineer not only knows how to balance the levels in a recording session, but how to balance the use of effects and compression available through a nearly endless variety of software plug-ins and virtual instruments. There is, after all, such a thing as being overproduced.

A recording engineer must be intimately familiar with all of the equipment in the studio and how each piece of equipment affects the sound of the recorded audio. He must be an expert on different types of microphones -- compressor, dynamic, ribbon, et cetera -- as well as every type of electric guitar, amplifier and microphone pre-amp. If the drummer says he wants the cymbals to sound sweeter, then the engineer must know to hang a ribbon microphone from the ceiling [source: YouTube].

A recording engineer needs a strong work ethic and an incredible attention to detail. Recording sessions don't always conform to a nine-to-five schedule. It's not uncommon for recording engineers to undertake marathon recording sessions that last several days straight. No matter the working conditions, the engineer is expected to capture the best recordings possible and keep everything running smoothly.

A good recording engineer also must learn to work fast. The engineer must never be an obstacle to the creative process. If an artist gets a new idea for a vocal and the engineer isn't ready to record, then people are going to get frustrated. Even though an engineer's work can be incredibly complicated -- juggling several different crucial tasks at once -- it should never be the focus of the recording session. The focus should always be on the client.

Which brings up the final, and perhaps most essential skill of the recording engineer: communication. Recording engineers have the difficult job of working with recording artists, who each have their own communication style. The recording engineer must learn when to speak up and when to shut up. He must gauge the personality and mood of the artist to know when to make suggestions and when to let it rest. A good recording engineer will establish himself early as a helpful partner in the process, not a referee pointing out mistakes.

So how exactly do you break into this exciting career? Keep reading to find out.