In Part 1 of this blog entry, I covered the importance of understanding the role of the multitrack recording, composer, sound design, vocal compatibility, song length, genre understanding, and filling out a track.
Let's get right back to the rest of the list of important factors to consider in the real cost of production of a project.
The sound engineer is usually the person who sits behind the mixing board and twists knobs and slides levers. In today's studio, that person would be operating a mouse with software like Logic or Pro Tools open on the monitor. They understand the importance of capturing the best audio possible. They are concerned about the quality of the mic used for capturing live instruments likes drums or acoustic guitars and pianos. They also care about a $300 vocal mic versus a $20,000 vocal mic. The dynamic range of the mic can capture low or high end tones that can make a song sound like radio quality or Radio Shack mic quality. This leads to the question of what is good gear for recording. The simple fact is that software on a computer doesn't capture anything other than the audio being fed into it. The fact is that your cell phone has enough horsepower to record quality sound, but lacks the gear connected to it in order for the quality of that sound to be good. So beyond the know-how of wires and cables connecting a studio together, there is the importance of the quality of hardware and gear used before the signal ever reaches the recording device. This is what a good studio engineer can ensure so that the best possible raw audio is captured.
The confusion with today's music industry and producing a song is that a producer isn't like the old days. It used to be that a producer may just observe a recording session and act as the director of the session the way a movie director would watch actors and crew play out a scene and provide guidance. While a producer still does this today, many wear multiple hats. Many are artists themselves or used to be. Many are composers. Many are skilled musicians or vocalists. Frankly, many producers are good with a computer and working with software. They can create music from a computer and then make sure it is recorded the way their mind envisioned it. The bottom line is that a good producer is definitely an expert in the genre you're recording if you expect to have a commercially viable product.
This person is a great asset to have when recording in a studio. Not only is a composer needed for finding the best sounds to use and having an understanding of a good balance of vocals in a song, a vocal producer can take a song to a whole different level. Imagine the game of basketball. A player has to transition from offense to defense and back and forth. It is imperative that the player have a good balance of playing both sides in order for a team to have success. In music production, a strong music track can be great but will come undone if the vocals aren't as strong and visa-versa. A vocal producer can often assist an artist in creating the vocals to suit the emotion and dynamics of a track. Some vocalists can be sloppy in their recording. Some can be overpowering and not understand how to back off when needed. A vocal producer can guide and help create magic moments in a recording session.
A mixing engineer is a specialist in taking what the studio engineer recorded and mixing it into a pleasant song that sounds even and put together. A mixing engineer may also be the studio engineer or a producer. But in reality, the industry is full of mixing engineers that ONLY mix audio that was recorded by someone else. In fact, a large portion of a recording budget can be allocated solely to a mix engineer. This budget has nothing to do with renting a studio and studio engineer. It has nothing to do with paying session players (musicians who are paid to play in the studio for a song or project). A mixing engineer's job is to take the elements they are given, and churn out a work of art.
A mastering engineer can be completely different than a mixing engineer and studio engineer. Sometimes it's the same person, but in more situations of a major label project, a mastering house is used to master a project. Mastering is simply the process of watching the sound peaks of a song and make sure that no spots peak out too high or too low. They are the ones who spend incredible energy making sure the sound wave spectrum of low to high tones are balanced and leveled well. Imagine the audio of an A.M. radio station compared to an F.M. radio station. A tweeter speaker sounds tinty, a bass speaker sounds rumbly. A master engineer makes sure that the sound waves coming from a song are not going to distort on a speaker and that the amount of volume that comes out of a song is balanced throughout the song. If you've ever had a playlist on your phone or ipod, you sometimes notice that some songs are quieter or have more bass or treble than the previous one. This is what mastering does. If you're producing an entire album, you spend time making sure track 1 and track 2, etc. are balanced and when played consecutively, they don't require the listener to mess with their EQ or volume knob. It starts with a single track and then that track is mastered against the other tracks on a project. A good mix and master can make or break a song's production.
REPUTATION AND EXPERIENCE
Like any product creation in any industry, the more experienced the production team, the better chance at a quality product being made. Sometimes an artist cuts corners and tries to produce a song without essential people in the mix. Sometimes creative control (or power struggles depending on who is paying the bill) can make or break a song's production. Having a reputable and experienced studio and staff to work with can make a huge difference in the quality of the product being made. The artist's reputation is at stake because the impression left by the end product will make or break their image in an already highly competitive industry.
There are so many nuances to consider when training your ear. Sometimes a song's lyrical content can conflict with the musical content. Sometimes a song's mix can waste a good potential hit. Sometimes a song's performance quality can be attested to being rushed in a studio rental clock ticking away. Artists may just accept what they got recorded because their budget expired after 8 hours in the studio. Sometimes the all-in-one song price from some studios means that a jack of all trades is running every aspect of the project when they are probably experienced in a couple areas and novices in others. When listening to some new music from emerging artists, it's easy to tell where they spent the money on the song or project. A bad mix and master is evident when you listen on three or four types of speakers. For example, one producer I've worked with turns his studio monitor speakers to almost inaudible levels and listens. It brings out glaring mix issues at that low volume level that may go undiscovered when blaring loud in headphones or car speakers. This technique is just one aspect of the importance of an experienced mix engineer in the process. They try to replicate the various speakers that may be used to listen to the song. It's a very important nuance that can be heard if you take the time to focus your ears on the mix.
The cost of production is often calculated on where you invest your budget and time. Creativity will always be subjective to the listener, but indifference to the notes in a song and focus on what the ear is hearing is a different prospect altogether.
The worst feeling for me is to see the dedication and focus of an aspiring artist be disrespected because they didn't pay attention to the production of their music. For them, it may cost them everything.