Deciphering Recording Engineerspeak ... a Reminiscence

Recently, I had a great time reminiscing with an old friend in the recording industry from the 1970s. We spent most of the time swapping stories of the best and worst sessions and projects we engineered.

Then he asked if I had any career regrets. Yes, actually. I tend to be an idealist. Don’t be an idealist. Good advice. Trust me. Take the cynical approach to business.

Anyway: During my training, I saw the Big Labels turn down bands I thought sounded excellent and who had tremendous talent. Seeing them locked out bothered me, so I decided that when I had my own label, I’d sign up all the talented bands who the labels rejected and give them a chance.

Great idea, yes?

No.

It wasn’t.

What I didn’t understand was that the labels looked for more than just musical talent. They also looked for drive, commitment, and that intangible between great and superstar.

What did I achieve signing up the Big Labels’ rejects? Nothing. Well, some excellent recordings of unsellable music, mostly as unfinished albums (a disaster in the days before downloads). Selling them as EPs didn’t help. It was amazing and discouraging how few bands would follow through, or complete the record, or even buckle down and rehearse adequately. This is one of the reasons I shut down my studio.

Will I ever reopen a studio? That’ll be a tough sell. Having a studio for educational and technology demonstration, especially analog techniques, is more appealing. We’ll see. Don’t wait, though, you might fossilize.

But on to other topics.

First, some background: A recording studio in the analog era had two kinds of projects, generally: record label projects and vanity projects.

The best projects were those from the record labels because they had bigger budgets, better management, and involved the most-talented and best-trained musicians, writers, arrangers and producers. These projects demanded the highest technical and artistic standards.

My motivation for being in the recording industry was to advance the art and practice, so the creative freedom afforded by the record labels was a joy. The only downside was the high pressure to stay under budget and on schedule.

Vanity projects also were often a pleasure because the band would let you do what you felt was needed, because they just wanted to make music. Budgets were often small, but that made you become more creative to get them that big label sound on a small budget. The challenge was fun, and the bands enjoyed learning from what you did. These projects were mostly free of the pressures associated with record label projects.

Sometimes, though, the band felt they knew more than the studio staff, creating a nightmare because the band themselves undertook every aspect of the project. While this shouldn’t have been a problem, the band’s insistence that they control every aspect of the project meant the inadequate budgets, lesser talented musicians (to be polite), and no support from professional writers, arrangers, or producers combined to create the studio equivalent of hell on Earth. Technical and artistic standards became nonexistent, or were based on emotion or unrealistic expectations — an inevitable result of the lack of training and experience of the band. These projects required you to detach yourself emotionally and take a more mercenary attitude. I found this not only unfulfilling but odious.

My motives for sharing these anecdotes are that I want you to understand that music isn’t always glamorous, that a good work ethic combined with dedication and practice prevents these situations from ever occurring, and you just may find some of these funny.

Apologies in advance for the sarcastic tone of the rest of this post. It’s rather dark — but if you’ve ever worked in a “Big Label” recording studio, or a budget commercial studio, especially during the 1970s, then you’ll actually understand the grim humor. (Note that the following depicts the “dark side” of professional recording. When you’re in the midst of an excellent recording it’s blissful, and the creativity that flows is intoxicating.)

So, here’s a primer on the dark side of the recording industry.

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Reading Between The Lines, Recording Studio Edition

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What The Engineer Says To The Band: WOW, you have a fresh sound.

What The Engineer Is Really Thinking: Okay, so you scream your profanity-laced vocals so loudly that the microphone overloads, you have so much distortion on your guitar that no one can tell which note you’re playing (which is just as well because you can’t play); your bassist plays each string open then slaps the twelfth fret to “show off his chops,” and your drummer is an epileptic who has grand mal seizures all over his drums and thinks he’s Phil Collins afterwards. Meanwhile, the drummer couldn’t keep time if you glued him to a metronome — he keeps getting ahead of the beat, the bassist is so strung out he has no idea where the beat is, the guitarist is ignoring everyone and just doing his own thing, and the vocalist is under the delusion he’s the front man.

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What The Engineer Says To The Band: Hey, you’re so close. That was a great take. Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in the mix.

What The Engineer Is Really Thinking: You suck, you’ll never get it right, if I hear another sound out of you then I’m going to club you senseless with a 664. I guarantee no jury would ever convict me once they hear the tapes. They’d rule it self defense. No worries, I’ll hire studio musicians to re-record your album. It’s cheaper than burning up untold hours of valuable studio time in fruitless attempts to wring a halfway decent take out of you. Then I’ll let you actually think it’s you on the finished recording. Afterward, when you congratulate me for “fixing” your mix, I’ll smile and say, “I’m a professional.”

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What The Engineer Says To The Band: it’s good enough for rock-n-roll..

What The Engineer Is Really Thinking:: Why did the label sign you? No way will we get a good selling album out of you, but we’re up against the too-small budget, and we’re out of time — the masters have to go to pressing and tape dupe next week. So, I’m going with it as-is, and if A&R doesn’t like it, tough. I’ve done my best, it’s not my fault they signed such a mediocre talent. Oh well, the boys in marketing have their work cut out for them. You’re their problem now.

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What The Engineer Says To The Band (in response to their complaints about the sound): I’ll talk to the producer/management/owner.

A. What The Engineer (Record Label) Is Really Thinking: Too bad, cry me a river. A&R calls the shots anyway. You actually thought you had a say in this?? What, you think you’re Phil Spector now? Shut up and enjoy the royalty checks.
B. What The Engineer (Budget Commercial Studio ) Is Really Thinking: Whatever. Sue me. You’re out of money and the next booking is here and ready to go. You suck anyway and I don’t get paid enough to put up with your whining. Once you actually have some good music, call me. I’m not holding my breath. Don’t forget your “masters.”

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What The Engineer Says To The Band: Here, try this guitar. It’s vintage and you’ll sound great playing it.

What The Engineer Is Really Thinking: You walk in here with a banged up CBS Strat you bought at a pawnshop and some clapped out “boutique“ copy of a Twin Reverb the local music store bilked you out of a lot of money for— you can hear frets buzz and the amp’s pots crackle when you touch them. Let’s not forget the loud hum from the cheap pickups. You haven’t intonated the guitar nor have you given it a decent setup. You put new strings on this morning that you bought based on a magazine review and not what actually has the right tone on a Strat. And you are seriously thinking this sounds good? Worse, you expect to be able to play on pitch without retuning after every chorus? I’m not getting paid enough for this.

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What The Engineer Says To The Band: I have an aggressive marketing campaign planned.

What The Engineer Is Really Thinking: Great. You sound like Demi Lovato strung out, and no amount of AutoTune will help. You also act like Demi. All those tweets and Facebook posts you’re spreading? The hashtag-wedontsuckyourearssuck ones? Well, the backlash is killing you. But don’t worry. Whenever E! or Buzzfeed calls, I deny everything then claim you’ve been stressed out under the schedule of long sessions, partying and doing public appearances. Then I deny that, and claim that they’re trying to start rumors. Guess what. E! and Buzzfeed will then go into overdrive creating rumors, spreading them, then denying they spread the rumors, while creating new rumors to explain the previous rumors. By the time we drop the videos on Vevo, you’ll be in the top ten trending on Twitter and iTunes sales will skyrocket. I’ll make great money and move to Tuxedo Park to get away from it all, and you’ll put all your money up your nose.

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What The Engineer Says To The Band: Here, let’s try this mike. It’ll really bring your sound to life.

What The Engineer Is Really Thinking: You suck, hopefully a giant asteroid will hit and wipe mankind out before the next take. We don’t have the budget to hire studio musicians to redo your &/(*$$#@&*, so I’m going to use this decades-old worn out microphone to try to cover up how awful you sound. Then, maybe listeners high on crack will actually think it sounds good.


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What The Engineer Says To The Band: Oops, the [console/tape deck/some other piece of equipment] just crashed. We’ll have to call it a day.

What The Engineer Is Really Thinking: You suck, I can’t take it anymore. I have a migraine nothing short of decapitation will fix. Thanks to you, I now hate music. Get out. Now. Please. The money no longer matters. Calling you a waste of time is an insult to wastes of time. Hopefully, you’ll decide to take your business elsewhere. I’m actually tempted to refund your money, then put all my microphones on a bonfire and dance around the flames chanting something in Latin that sounds vaguely Druid.

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What The Engineer Says To The Band: Yeah, that’s a great idea, you’re a natural at mixing.

What The Engineer Is Really Thinking: You suck, but I don’t care. You’re paying by the hour to record this, and I need the money to pay off the new Mercedes S Class I bought to impress clients. So whatever stupid idea you have, I’m going with it because it’s easier than arguing with you to try to get you to do the right thing — and nothing will make you not suck anyway. Afterwards I’m going to flatter you so you buy a thousand CDs, download cards, tee shirts and other merch that you’ll never sell except to that bunch of drunks who show up to hear you at open mike night at the local bar that’s too cheap to hire real musicians. The rest will eventually end up on eBay selling for ninety-nine cents each, listed as “Rare Unreleased Albums of....”

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What The Engineer Says To The Band: Thank you for sharing with me your creative vision. I can’t wait to work with you on the project.

What The Engineer Is Really Thinking: Oh goody, you took riffs out of several songs from your favorite bands, jammed them all together into one song, creating musical mulch, and somehow you think this is a creative vision. Well, I’ve just had a creative vision. You’re going to waste hundreds of hours in the studio, wandering through your life vainly seeking success you’ll never achieve because you’re never going to finish your magnum opus. You’ll try new arrangement after new arrangement, never settling on a final version and never recognizing how truly awful your music has become. It’s the closest thing to perpetual motion that humankind will ever see. Meanwhile, I’m getting rich from the studio time, and I don’t have to listen to the tracks, because you’ll just want to scrap them and start over. Again. Eventually, when you quit the project — unfinished — after running out of money, no one will remember you. Except your wife who left you because your music was more important to you than her, and your kids who resent you for having infinite time for every stupid musical “inspiration” that popped into your head while having no time for them. Good job, good job.

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What The Producer Says To Studio Staff: Don’t worry, I have a plan to make huge money.

What The Producer Is Really Thinking: I know a guy in China and a CPA who moonlights for the mob. We’re going to start running cleans out the back. Enjoy the bucks, babes, and blow — while you can. Because eventually the Feds will sniff it out and your future is three hots and a cot. Now may be a good time to consider a career change.

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What The Engineer Says To The Band: OK, I think it’s time we quit for the day.

What The Engineer Is Really Thinking: Hey man, that bleach blonde groupie with the skin tight jeans you brought to the session had already snorted quite a few lines, but then she took a handful of pills while you were showing off — now she’s comatose. You better get her to a hospital, now. Call a good lawyer and a bail bondsman. Once you walk in and Admitting sees her, they’re calling the cops, and you’re going away for at least a dime on possession, distribution, and contributing. And no, there’s no purpose in running, they’ve got you on CCTV, and the local newspaper crime beat reporter happened to be hanging out in the hospital lobby looking for a good story. You just gave it to him. He got a snapshot of you carrying her in, and he’s on the phone letting Editorial know. If you leave her and run they’ll add flight, evading arrest, endangerment and callous disregard to the rap sheet. But look at the bright side, the negative publicity and your conviction will add to your street cred, which is good for sales.
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What The Engineer Says To The Band: Thanks, just put it on my desk, I’ll listen to it later.

What The Engineer Is Really Thinking: So you walk in with a stack of platters, then expect me to put time on my boxcar and tell you which is the best sounding band that you should be “inspired” by. Not a chance. If you don't know how to write and arrange, find someone who does. You were supposed to have done that before you came in for your sessions. So, you're off to a really good start, I predict a spectacular fail. Besides, I've already heard these albums, you're not that band, and you're not good enough to do their music. To quote the great W. C. Fields, "go away kid you bother me."