In this age of the ‘DYI’ artist, the music making process has become much easier, but not necessarily better. Indie artists are now capable of finding their own beats, recording themselves and posting tracks to SoundCloud. They can promote their work on social media, send their own email blasts and perform at open mics everywhere. However, all this comes at a price, and that price is lack of sound quality! I am a SoundCloud junkie and I have heard many amazing songs from talented Indie’s…. but they are often overlooked or not shared because they are not properly recorded or mixed down. Bummer.
Now I know most indie artists think hiring an engineer isn’t an option because of the expense, but that is a major part of getting your music legitimately off the ground. Hiring a good engineer is not always cheap, but there are many excellent engineers that are happy to adjust their rates to work with a talented artist. Once you have decided to get an engineer on you team, don’t be afraid to shop around. I’ve seen many indie artists approached by big name producers/engineers with big name credits – but they come with a big name fee! This is not necessary and will probably do more damage then good – especially if you have blow your whole album budget to do so. Remember, having a project out with a big name does not garuntee stardom. The truth is, you can get pretty much anyone and work in any studio you want if you have the money to pay for it. The most important thing artists should know about the recording process is that it’s not who works on your album that matters, it is the way the final project sounds that is important.
That being said, let’s get into the 3 types of engineers and why you need them:
The recording engineer. This is guy or girl is typically the one you will see running the session in most recording studios. After determining the setup with the artist and/or producer for the project, the recording engineer – or their assistant – will have mics, drums and whatever else is needed for your room setup ready to go. The more experienced recording engineer should already have your session open and ready to go. The more prepared you are as an artist for your studio session, the better. Warm up your vocals, have your lyrics and melodies memorized and stick to the songs you came to record. This makes it easier for you recording engineer to work with you, plus will save you valuable time and more importantly, money!
To me, the mixing engineer is probably the most overlooked yet most important part of the record making process – and you team. A great engineer can take a crappy record and make it sound like a Billboard top 100. They are responsible combing the “mix” of your vocals, instruments, sound effects etc. They will make all the elements of your recorded piece come together as one with a good balance of volume, panning and other effects. The mixing engineer will ultimately control what your overall “sound” will be, so it is important to choose one wisely.
The best mixing engineers have years of experience and training in audio, audio equipment and technology. Personally, I consider an great engineer to be half artist, half scientist. Once you find a great mixer that you can vibe with, keep them around. Trust me, it will be worth it once you hear the difference in your sound quality.
Ah the mastering engineer, the mecca, el jefe. This engineer is responsible for the final edit of your music, preparing it for manufacturing and releasing copies. Yes, there is a difference between a “mix” and a “mastered” track or album. And if you are truly serious about your music career, be prepared to spend some money to have your album mastered. A great mastering engineer should have COMPLETE knowledge of the audio engineering. Most top mastering engineers hold a degree in audio or acoustic engineering and the BEST mastering engineers will posses arrangement, recording and mixing skills. These engineers are able to fully troubleshoot a mixing issue and give you the best final sound possible. Generally, great mastering skills come from years and years of experience.
Previously in my second opening paragraph, I mentioned not spending excessive amounts for a big name producer/engineer. This is where it is ok to go BIG. In the world of mastering engineers, great ones come only by the handful. And they are not cheap. If you choose to go with a major name, expect to pay anywhere between $2,000-$4,000 to have your album properly mastered. And that is the Indie price! You can of course have you records sent out for mastering via a distribution company such as TuneCore for a low price, but if you can I recommend finding someone on your own.
Over time most engineers are capable of at least the first two engineer types, but few train themselves enough to do mastering. Just like any other career field, the longer you are actively engineering, the better trained your ear will be.