Studio engineers

Black and white photograph of a sound engineer at a mixing desk

Elena Goodrum, studio engineer at Parr Street Studios
© yousoundhollow

The recording process has always required specialist personnel. These have generally been split into distinct roles: engineers and producers. Engineers are technical staff who manage the technological aspects of capturing sounds. On a basic level their role is to ensure that the technical qualities of a given recording are of an appropriate standard and that the sounds captured on a recording are clear and audible. Therefore the engineer generally has a clear understanding of the qualities and operation of technical equipment such as the desk, tape machines, microphones and amplifiers, as well as audio effects such as compressors and reverb units. Engineers usually also have a working knowledge of acoustics and the physical and mathematical properties of sound.

The engineer's in-depth knowledge of equipment has an effect on the overall sound of a recording. For instance, specialist knowledge of microphones helps them to achieve certain outcomes. This might be through the choice of which microphone to use on a particular instrument to gain a particular sound, or it might be the placement, angle and distance of a microphone in relation to an instrument or singer. As Thomas Porcello's (2004) observation of studio engineers has shown, their role involves a constant translation of the artistic desires of musicians and producers for certain sounds into very specific technical language and solutions.

The roles within a recording studio are not static or entirely discrete. As recording technologies have changed, so the role of recording personnel has shifted accordingly. The job of early recordists (as they were known) required very different skills to the producers and engineers of today. Their expertise lay firmly within the realm of the technician, as it relied on such specialist knowledge as the correct thickness of diaphragm, or the composition and conditioning of wax, or the placement of instruments and voices before the recording horn.

As new technologies were introduced engineers often developed their own methods of working on the job. Horning (2004) notes that these individual techniques were often based upon knowledge gained through makeshift innovations and trial and error. For these early recording professionals, these techniques were highly prized and closely guarded and the industry was governed by a strict unionisation right up until the 1960s. Within the large studios owned by the major recording companies this meant that roles tended to be highly prescribed and there were strict rules regarding what could be done by whom within a recording session.