The Functional Roles of the Recordist
The recordist can have many roles in making a recording. There are many steps and phases in recording projects, and the recordist may be involved in any one of those phases, some of the phases, or in all.
Many recordists specialize; for instance, one person’s work may be dedicated to only mastering, and another may specialize in tracking, but will mix if the project requires it. Some recordists become producers and engage projects from the spark of the idea, nurturing them all the way to release— and perhaps beyond. Today’s recordist will often carry the combined roles of audio engineer and producer, sometimes equally and at times weighted in one role over the other.
The recordist may have their role change as the project progresses. It is common for one person to cover many tasks, and it is also common to hand off a task to another recordist at mid-project. Flexibility in being able to cover various roles is invaluable—as is keeping careful documentation of the project, so handing it off to another can be relatively seamless and as efficient as possible.
Recordists do not work in a vacuum. The recordist will directly interact with performers during some phases and not on others. There is very significant interaction in tracking sessions, or direct-to-two-track sessions. Working directly with artists in preproduction is common, and highly desirable preceding tracking sessions.
All artists are rarely present for entire mixing sessions; the presence of lead artists, producers, or other interested parties varies with the project. Often the mix engineer will have some significant interaction with artists and/or the producer during the process of making mix decisions, and also work a significant amount of time alone.
Mastering is often largely solitary. Interaction with clients may often not include direct contact with artists. No matter the extent, how the recordist interacts with clients and artists impacts the project and/or the performance that creates the project.
Facilitating the Creation of Music
Among the recordist’s most significant functions is to create a work environment where the magic of making art can happen. No matter what phase of the project, the recordist usually sets the tone for recording projects and can control many things, including a project’s pace and how people interact. The recordist is usually largely responsible for guiding recording projects, whether or not the others involved acknowledge this or are even aware of it. Recordists are often responsible for keeping the creative process moving effectively, efficiently, and invisibly, giving guidance to the artists or giving them enough space and support so they are free to be creative.
It has often been said that the recordist should first be a psychologist. While this statement may be somewhat extreme, the recordist needs to be sensitive to interpersonal relations. How they work with performers and others will shape the project as much as their actual recording duties. And sometimes they may be needed to facilitate in helping people get along, working together productively.
The ways people normally treat one another in everyday living, and especially in standard business environments, are often nonproductive (at best) in the recording studio. Recordists should consider how they speak with the artists about the project, and how they interact with the artists socially and during the creative processes. The type of image the recordist presents to the artist will influence the artist’s comfort level and ability to trust them as they work together. The recordist will typically strive to keep artists relaxed in the studio environment and focused on the project.
Recordists strive to get creative people to do their best work, while attempting to perform their own tasks at the highest standard. The process of creating art (a music recording) is an emotional roller coaster of ecstasy of what has just been discovered and anguish over not having an equally brilliant idea for “what comes next?” Time and financial constraints further stress artists (clients).
Musicians/creative people are exposed and vulnerable in the recording process. The recordist must be certain to do nothing, and not to allow anything to happen within the session environment, or by anyone else, to make artists feel exposed, unprotected, or, worse, threatened. Musicians must have the freedom to be creative around the recording studio, without feeling that their every move is watched or evaluated. Allow artists to fail privately, even if you witness the off performance, mistake, or idea that didn’t “work.” At times they will need to feel they are alone. At times they may need to feel they are in their own home rehearsal space, or some other “safe” location. The recordist should be sensitive to the need of the performer to feel they belong in the recording space, and are in a risk-free environment where they can take chances and know there is a safety net (aka, the delete key).
The expressive nature of performing music will often involve taking chances, stretching performance abilities to their limits or beyond, and making mistakes. These necessary activities can potentially embarrass confident (let alone less than confident) performers if they are critically judged at this vulnerable time. Performers need to be confident to perform well. The recordist is attempting to get the performers to exceed the height of their ability. Nothing should be allowed to happen that would diminish the confidence level of the performers and to take away from the trust that the performers must have in the recordist.
While evaluations have an important place in the recording process, judgments—especially those of a negative nature—rarely can be used constructively and are often destructive to the process.
The Roles of the Recordist in the Phases of the Project
There are distinct phases to the recording project, and the recordist has a different function in each of those phases. Exactly what the role will be varies by project, and the needs and wishes of the artists, producer, and others involved. The four primary phases of a typical recording project are: preproduction, tracking, mixing, and mastering.
Preproduction is about planning the project, and making certain the project is ready to move forward in a productive, effective, and efficient way. It includes getting to know the artists and their material. The material may be complete and rehearsed, or in need of adjustments; the album may be ready, or at any stage of completion. Preproduction brings clarity to the artist’s core concept of the project, with the recordist providing detail and a roadmap to realize it. A preproduction demo of a song or two can be useful to bring focus to the project.
This roadmap is a plan from this beginning stage through completion. Not only will it involve the goals, approach, and sound qualities of the finished project, it also involves money, budgeting, and making estimates. Financials will impact many decisions.
A host of logistics bridge preproduction and tracking: timeline for the project, schedules of performers and studios; selecting a tracking studio, selecting a mix studio, and deciding on a mix engineer; determining the content and orderings of sessions and how they will be run; session protocol; and so much more. All logistics relate back to what will best serve the core concept of the project, efficient and effective workflow, and keep people on track and maintain even temperaments. Notice: The recordist has yet to actually start recording.
Tracking is recording. The recordist records the music at this stage. The sound qualities of the final recording, and many of the relationships of those sounds, are impacted by the decisions made here; some of these decisions will not be able to be changed in the future. The plan established in preproduction, of what parts get recorded when and how, is executed in the studio. Any number of approaches can take place here, as parts/performers can be tracked separately or in groups, as complete songs are eventually compiled. This process can be quite involved, as parts are repeated, performances evaluated and repeated, then combined, and so much more.
After the tracks are recorded, the project is sent off for mixing. Before the project is ready to go on, tracks must be prepared for mixing. Tracks should be completely finished before delivery to the mix engineer. The project should no longer need editing, arranging, tuning, etc. Notes about effects and processing to be added and documentation of the contents and specifications of the tracks must also be complete.
The mix engineer selectively combines the elements recorded in tracking to shape much of the sound of the final recording. The mix brings all of the artistic elements into play and balanced according to the needs of the project and to complement the music. This balance can be dynamics, as is readily apparent; it will also be balancing the sound stage in lateral and distance imaging, placing sounds for pitch density and sound qualities, and giving space to the recording. The mix is where the sound qualities of the recording are crafted and the recording receives its performance.
The recordist as mastering engineer is responsible for catching any problems with the project, the result of tracking or mixing. Those problems that can be fixed are, and all of the songs or parts of the project are combined into a single recording. The mastering engineer also gives overall shape to the project, and can fine tune individual songs. Often working in exacting ways but in broad strokes, the mastering engineer subtly tweaks gain, compression, and equalization to craft the overall character of the recording. Mastering is the last step of the project, and completes it.
Excerpt from Understanding and Crafting the Mix by William Moylan © 2014 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.
About the Author
Dr. William Moylan has worked with leading artists across the full spectrum of jazz, popular, and classical genres. His recordings have been released by major and independent record labels, resulting in wide recognition, including several GRAMMY award nominations. A leading educator and an active recording engineer and producer for over 30 years, he is a Professor and Coordinator of Sound Recording Technology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.