Who Moved Our Water Cooler

The career arc of today's professional audio engineer seems to be a particularly interesting one.
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The career arc of today's professional audio engineer seems to be a particularly interesting one.

The career arc of today's professional audio engineer seems to be a particularly interesting one. The changes affecting us are profound and not likely to reverse: constant "game-changing" technological advances; severe recording budget reductions, thus subsequent squeezing and "downsizing" of projects; and, most specifically, the trend of more audio production being done in small, often private, facilities. It's the latter I feel will continue to impact us in ways yet to be understood, as it seems the audio engineer is rapidly becoming a loner.

It Took a Village

Traditionally, producing music required a large, specialized team. The record label had a studio, producers, engineering staff, writers, session players, graphic artists and publicists, each contributing specific talents to make an album successful. A studio had a trademark sound, defined by its engineer's practices and the gear and system they primarily designed. Engineers improved their skills through a combination of cooperation, testing, looking over shoulders, stealing/co-opting methods and simply complying with house standards and practices.

Now, "producer/engineer X" is hired directly by the band itself at bargain (and literally basement) prices to record a number of self-penned songs for a "virtual release" as MP3s. Producer X engineers the sessions in his well-equipped residential studio, and the band performs all their own parts; X's DAW-based time-stretching and pitch-correcting will make up for any deficiencies. Then, X's promotions company (some exrecord label folks) will even promote the release. Thus, X successfully consolidates about 20 jobs down to about three, all in the name of squeaking by in these tight times. Missing in this new business model are the many positive results of traditional teamwork.

My experiences may be similar to your own. In the early '90s, I was a staff engineer, then later chief engineer at a large, multi-room commercial recording facility. We tracked to analog tape, mixed to those new, fancy and convenient DAT machines, and had analog mixing consoles with modular channels. Each of us had a specialty — one of us was in maintenance, one deep in MIDI, and another into all things guitars, for example — but we all worked on the same projects, which created the need for standardized practices, record keeping and repeatability.

Such cooperation wasn't stagnant. This was a highly competitive environment, one that rewarded and encouraged improvement. We had to achieve a single voice to best solicit our bosses for new gear; this process of discussion, compromise and unification really forced us to align our production priorities and methodologies. We had engineering staff meetings where we could align ourselves as a unit and realize our common goals within the organization. Determining our goals and methodologies was a highly educational process that taught me of the strengths in other engineers' work, the weaknesses in my own and the path I needed to follow for self-improvement.

Today — just as, but not necessarily with, legions of others — I record music for independent artists in my residential studio. Here I track, overdub and mix these recordings in relative solitude, affected only by the intermittent presences of the artists themselves — sometimes a blessing, often a curse. When equipment fails, for example, I whip out a soldering gun to fix things myself as the session comes to a screeching halt. When a MIDI problem baffles me, I no longer turn to my co-worker; it's time to log on to the web and see if my problem is mirrored in a forum or FAQ. When that pesky snare sound manages to elude capture, I no longer turn to my trusty engineer/drummer friend for rescue; I just do my best, often resigning myself to later drum triggering and replacement.

Wolves in a Post-Pack Wilderness

Sure, forward-thinking veterans can survive at somewhat less than full potential in this solo environment, as a lone wolf can get by on experience alone. So it's not them, but the aspiring pros that I'm concerned about. In 2011, how do you grow, mature and properly expand your horizons without the powerful and present guidance the pack provided to those same heroes we strive to emulate and subsequently surpass?

In the mid '90s, I found myself at another multi-room facility as a staff engineer, and the pressures there were significant, although they spurred my greatest growth. I'll never forget being grilled about my improper piano miking methods (when I went in close and spaced apart, while the chief preferred Blumlein (polar pattern opposites, I guess). To this day, I can't mic a piano without a brief, wise, options-considering pause for thought — a little scolding only makes us better!

For those of you who still have a water cooler and co-workers to share with around it, let me remind you to enjoy every minute, milking the opportunity for all it's worth. For those who are expecting a future of solo flights in their career, read the mags, hit those forums, seek out compatriots, try to interact with other studios, form alliances and find ways to connect to something beyond your DAW. In these transitionary times, our collective future in audio offers more questions than answers, and our journeys will be a bit easier with peers to occasionally lean on.

Rob Tavaglione in a Charlotte-based producer, engineer and mixer. Connect with him via e-mail at rob@catalystrecording.com.