Chet McCracken — Recording Engineers, As Seen From A Musician's Point Of View

Guest Editorial by Chet McCracken

Recording Engineers — As Seen From A Musician's Point Of View

When we enter the recording studio to make music, someone has the job of getting our music recorded properly. It's not an easy job, and the recording engineers are usually trying to accomplish this while dealing with all kinds of personalities in the room, differing political agendas, and having to satisfy the "wants" and "have-to-haves" of the artists, producers and musicians.

While trying to do their job, engineers even find time to answer tough questions like "Where's the bathroom?" or "Can I use the phone?" as well as my favorite, "Where should my girlfriend sit?" Recording engineers come in all sizes, shapes and egos. Some are strictly "wireheads" who can spout technical wisdom in amazing proportions. A "wirehead" can tell the second engineer (an assistant, usually working for free or close to it) to "bring up the level 5 dB at 400 Hz, widen the bandwidth, adjust the azimuth and replace the capacitor" all in one breath! Strict "wireheads" can be very useful and definitely have their place in the recording studio. But when it's time to record and create, I do not find them very musical, and yet — that's why I'm in the studio, to make music.

The other kind of engineer is the musical engineer — my favorite. He is usually a musician as well as a sound engineer and understands a musician having to deal with the uptight world of the recording studio. He knows what it is like to get on a creative roll and will not do anything to disrupt the flow.

Make the recording engineer your best friend. He can make you sound great, or he can make you sound like crap if — for some reason — he doesn't like you. He can help you solve a sound problem with your instrument and even suggest ways to make your instrument sound better in the future. If he is a musical engineer, many times he can even help with your performance.

Here's a story for you. I'm in the studio with some of L.A.'s finest musicians, and we've got all the sounds set to go to tape. The producer, artist and musicians are discussing musical ideas and the creative juices are starting to flow. Just about every time we begin to record an idea, the engineer interrupts with some comment like, "Should we try a different mic on the piano?" or "Hey Chet — can I hear your second rack tom for a minute?" This totally aborts any creativity that was about to happen. As it turned out, we never recorded anything as well as we could have that day. The engineer was also the studio owner! This guy was not a "musical engineer." He had no clue about the creative process. He did not
understand the term "creative flow."

Another story? Sure, why not? I remember the time when a compassionate "musical and technical" engineer did me a huge favor that has lasted my entire career! I was very young, it may have been my first or near-first time inside a recording studio, and he could sense the pressure I was feeling. I was a member of a band called "The Evergreen Blueshoes" that had rehearsed, rehearsed, and rehearsed some more. I was having a little trouble satisfying Skip and
AI, the leaders of the band, with my drumming abilities. Skip, AI and the producer, the legendary Mike Post, even went so far as to have a studio pro drummer, the legendary Jim Gordon, standing on the sideline waiting for me to crash and burn! This was a very logical thing to do considering their insecurity about me.

So here we are doing some takes and getting tracks. Engineer Mic Lietz from Amos Engineering Inc. approaches me on a break and says that the best thing I can do for him is to "make the needles on the meters hit in the same spot every time you hit a drum" (with the exception of musical dynamics, of course). "The kick drum should hit the
same level every time you kick it, and the snare should hit the same level every time you smack it."

Following his advice I came up with very smooth and consistent drum tracks, and the stand-by studio pro drummer went home!

Not long ago I pulled this album out (I hadn't listened to it in 30 years) and gave it a spin. In my opinion I was one of the best musicians on the record! I owe Mic Lietz quite a lot for his quick but brief "musical as well as technical" advice.

I have great respect for recording engineers. Their job carries many problems most of us don't recognize while we are in
the studio recording our musical treasures. As I enter the studio, if I don't know the engineer, I ask for his or her name, and I don't forget it. I always treat them with the utmost respect, leave them alone to do their job and never, ever ask them where my girlfriend should sit!!!

Chet McCracken is a Los Angeles session musician (for a zillion years), studio owner/operator (Studio C&C) and recording engineer/producer.

Chet McCracken plays Pearl Drums, Zildjian Cymbals, Remo Drum Heads, Regal Tip Jazz Drum Sticks
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