The real role of the producer/engineer

The Park Studios owner Tobin Jones on why it’s important to have good people skills and not just technical know-how if you want to get the best out of the artists.

Let’s face it, we engineers love to geek out about equipment and yes, knowing how to use the equipment is vitally important, but the thing that supersedes the technical aspects of engineering is knowing how to relate to artists and musicians – making them feel relaxed and in a creative mental space.

An artist friend of mine who also runs creative workshops recently posted a tongue-in-cheek comment: “I’m going to be launching a new course: ‘People Skills for Sound Engineers’.” It’s a joke, but serves to point out that engineering is so much more than how you use equipment to capture sound; it’s just as important if not more so to have techniques at your disposal to help the artists create amazing performances and to ease any tensions that may arise. If you can help maintain a creative environment and inspire creativity, your job as an engineer will be easy – well, easier!

So how do you get them to deliver an amazing take or performance? How do you get the artists to that place where they produce something magical? How do you inspire creativity? How do you get an artist to a position where they inspire their own creativity? Traditionally this would be the role of the producer – who sits between the artist and the engineer and leaves the engineer to just worry about the technical aspects of the recording process – but today, with shrinking budgets, the roles of producer/engineer have become more intertwined.

The desire to inspire

Being a great engineer is far more than knowing how the equipment works or how to mic up instruments; it’s about how you use that knowledge to inspire and capture bursts of creativity. Creating a relaxed, creative vibe and environment even when time is limited is paramount. Many engineers focus too much on whether a studio space has equipment they would like to use – I too am guilty of this one. More time needs to be spent choosing a space that is relaxing, not intimidating, easy to use and puts people at ease.

Budget for this is unimportant; I have worked in many high-end studios which have felt sterile and uninspiring and likewise many smaller spaces that have felt dark and dingy. If you are using a studio space on a budget, which might not feel particularly great, spend some time making the space look nice with lamps or decorations to help artists feel at home. It may seem like a gimmick but having lights you can change the colour of depending on the mood for the song makes a big difference and if you have been in the studio for 12 hours straight, altering the lighting makes the whole studio feel refreshed. If things are not working out take a break, move on to something else, have a tea break and don’t talk about what’s not working. Come back to it later and nine times out of ten the result will be infinitely better.

With limited budgets, recording sessions can often feel rushed and artists are under pressure to suddenly become creative; more often than not this sort of pressure actually has a detrimental effect on performance. A trick of mine is to have a stack of funny hats lying around the studio, so when things feel a bit too serious I just put on a silly hat to lighten the mood. People feel relaxed when you make them a tea – don’t just leave it to the assistant (if you are lucky enough to have one) – and hang out with them in the kitchen/lounge even if only for the start of the day; it takes five minutes and really helps break the ice, especially if it’s your first time working with an artist.

Communication is key

We have to make time to talk and chat with the artist to help them feel at ease; take interest in what they’re talking about, have a laugh, talk about their music and what they want to do. If the artist is at ease with you they are far more likely to be at ease with themselves and their performance. Be relaxed yourself; if you seem rushed for time or panicked the artists around you are never going to be relaxed and you will never get a good take. Get in touch with your emotions too. Music is about emotion regardless of the genre – the artist is reflecting something of his or her own emotional being – so take a bit of time to understand what this emotion is. If you can’t relate to it you are never going to know if you have captured a good take. A trick I use when recording vocals is after about four takes I ask the singer what the song is about, what they felt when they wrote it and how they would like the listener to feel when hearing it. Throughout the production and recording process artists can sometimes become disconnected from the original emotion behind why they wrote the song; getting them to remind themselves of this really helps them reconnect with that initial emotion and creative spark.

Above all, sort the business first. Get prices, deposit and contracts sorted before the session begins. I’ve lost count of the amount of projects that I’ve heard go sour because expectations were different on both sides. If everyone knows where they stand beforehand, the whole project will feel more relaxed and therefore more creative.

Tobin Jones is owner and head engineer at The Park Studios, a recording studio in Wembley, London.