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Industries & Professions /
Audio Recording Engineers
Audio recording engineers operate and maintain the equipment used in a sound recording studio. They record the following: music, live and in studios; speech, such as dramatic readings of novels or radio advertisements; and sound effects and dialogue used in television and film. They work in control rooms at master console boards often containing hundreds of dials, switches, meters, and lights, which the engineer reads and adjusts to achieve desired results during a recording. They also use computer hardware and software such as Pro Tools to edit and otherwise manipulate recordings. Today, the recording studio is often considered an extra instrument, and thus, the audio recording engineer becomes an extra musician in his or her ability to dramatically alter the final sound of the recording.
As recording engineers prepare to record a session, they ask the musicians and producer what style of music they will be playing and what type of sound and emotion they want reflected in the final recording. Audio recording engineers must find out what types of instruments and orchestration will be recorded to determine how to manage the recording session and what additional equipment will be needed. For example, each instrument or vocalist may require a special microphone. The recording of dialogue will take considerably less preparation.
Before the recording session, audio recording engineers test all microphones, chords, recording equipment, and amplifiers to ensure everything is operating correctly. They load tape players or prepare digital recording equipment and set recording levels. Microphones must be positioned in precise locations near the instrument or amplifier. They experiment with several different positions of the microphone and listen in the control room for the best sound. Depending on the size of the studio and the number of musicians or vocalists, audio recording engineers position musicians in various arrangements to obtain the best sound for the production. For smaller projects, such as three- to eight-piece bands, each instrument may be sectioned off in soundproof rooms to ensure the sounds of one instrument do not "bleed" into the recording of another instrument. For more complex recording of larger orchestration, specialized microphones must be placed in exact locations to record one or several instruments.
Once audio recording engineers have the musicians in place and the microphones set, they instruct musicians to play a sample of their music. At the main console, they read the gauges and set recording levels for each instrument. Recording engineers must listen for sound imperfections, such as hissing, popping, "mike bleeding," and any other extraneous noises, and pinpoint their source. They turn console dials or change settings in software programs to adjust recording level, volume, tone, and effects. Depending on the problem, they may have to reposition either the microphone or the musician.
With the right sound and recording level of each microphone set, audio recording engineers prepare the recording equipment (either tape or digital). During the recording of a song or voiceover, they monitor the recording level of each microphone to ensure none of the tracks are too high, which results in distortion, or too low, which results in weak sound quality. Recording engineers usually record more than one "take" of a song. Before the mixing process, they listen to each take carefully and determine which one has the best sound. They often combine the best part of one take with the best part of another take.
In some recording sessions, two engineers work in the control room. One usually works with the recording equipment, and the other takes instruction from the producer. The engineers coordinate the ideas of the producer to create the desired sound. During each session, the volume, speed, intensity, and tone quality must be carefully monitored. Producers may delegate more responsibility to the recording engineer. Engineers often tell the musicians when to start and stop playing or when to redo a certain section. They may ask musicians or other studio technicians to move microphones or other equipment in the studio to improve sound quality.
After the recording is made, the individual tracks must be mixed to a master recording. When mixing, they balance each instrument in relation to the others. Together with the producer and the musicians, recording engineers listen to the song or piece several times with the instruments at different levels and decide on the best sound and consistency. At this stage, they also set equalization and manipulate sound, tone, intensity, effects, and speed of the recording. Mixing a record is often a tedious, time-consuming task that can take several weeks to complete, especially with some recordings that are 24 or more tracks. Modern software programs such as Pro Tools have significantly reduced the time it takes to mix a recording. At a larger studio, this may be done exclusively by a sound mixer. Sound mixers exclusively study various mixing methodologies.
Audio recording engineers frequently perform maintenance and repair on their equipment. They must identify and solve common technical problems in the studio. They may have to rewire or move equipment when updating the studio with new equipment. They may write proposals for equipment purchases and studio design changes. Engineers are often assisted in many of the basic sound recording tasks by apprentices, also known as studio technicians.
Recording engineers at smaller studios may set studio times for musicians. They must keep a thorough account of the band or performer scheduled to play, the musical style of the band or performer, the specific equipment that will be needed, and any other special arrangements needed to make the session run smoothly. They make sure the studio is stocked with the right working accessory equipment, including cords, cables, microphones, amplifiers, tuners, and effects pedals.