Popping on your favourite album, you might begin to revel in the history of how that music was made.
This is how the normal daydream can sometimes go: A couple of friends decide to form a band. They practice in a basement or garage a couple of their favourite tunes before starting to write their own music. They get their first gig, then a few more, and maybe open for a much bigger name. They rent out proper jam space, beef up their gear, and begin to develop their sound. One night, they make a contact of someone who wants to produce their music and make an album.
After several months in the studio, with the band rocking their hearts out and the producer shaping their sound, style and image, the much-anticipated album is released. Now it's got a permanent spot on your mp3 player.
This formula is most likely an over-simplification; although there must be some cases in musical history that somewhat resemble this story. But there is one player missing from this equation.
We've mentioned the musicians, and we've talked a bit about the producer, but the figure who brings together the band's sound and the producer's vision is the audio engineer.
During that time spent in the recording studio, the audio engineer is indispensable. These people are highly trained and skilled individuals who have spent years learning their crafts in audio engineering school and beyond. But what exactly is the role of the audio engineer as opposed to the producer?
The biggest distinction is that, while the producer, along with the musicians, agrees on how they want their music to sound, it is up to the audio engineer to achieve that specific sound. For this, one must have a much larger technical expertise than the producer. While both need a good ear, and imagination, for sound, the audio engineer knows how to tweak the analog, digital, and other recording parameters to turn the audio into that sound.
Some of an audio engineer's areas of expertise surrounding a recording session are:
- Microphones: what kind of microphones, how to position the microphones, the use of microphone filters, shields and screens, etc.
- Space: the size and shape of the room, the level of padding on the walls, how many musicians can play together in the same room, etc?
- Instruments: knowing the difference between digital and analog instruments, recording them with microphones or running the signal through wires, etc.
- Performer: style of singing and style of playing, setting up monitors for the performers to hear themselves while recording, capturing the specifics of their unique sound, etc.
These four things form the basic setup for the audio engineer before going into much more technical work throughout the recording and post-mixing processes. Learning these fundamentals are some of the first things taught in audio engineering classes.
While everything still starts and ends with the musicians, and the producer certainly does have a very important role, it is up to the audio engineer to truly bring together all that talent, technique and professionalism that results in a fantastic sound and amazing music.