Engineering Ears

I worked for my dad’s studio in Boston, and I learned to hear doing tape copies.

I worked for my dad’s studio in Boston, and I learned to hear doing tape copies. That ear training stayed with me for life. Getting a job in New York at A&R Recording and assisting Roy Cicala and other great engineers was the beginning of me learning to make competitive records.

I learned that I am not the group, the producer, record label, or the A&R guy. I am a recording engineer and mixer, and my job is to get what’s in the producer’s head to come out of the speakers. From my early days of assisting many different engineers, I experienced some of them trying to make what I call an “engineers record.” They ignore the producer and make it sound great to them. It doesn’t work.

Working closely with the producer allows me to make the right choices in mics, tonalities, power, etc.

Sometimes when the producer hears the outcome, he realizes it’s not working. Then my job is to be “Columbo” and figure out what changes I can make so he says, “That’s it! We’ve got it.” Very early in my career, I had a major artist/producer say to me, “What I’m hearing sounds miles away from what we’re looking for.” I had to figure out how to get what they were hearing—because if I couldn’t figure it out, they weren’t going to ask for me again.

As an assistant engineer, make sure the food order is right before you leave the restaurant. Don’t get discouraged; perseverance is the key. As an engineer, know your place. Keep a friendly business relationship with the people you work with in the studio. If it’s too friendly, they won’t be comfortable expressing their needs when they differ from yours. And if you’re offered a joint, don’t take it. Because in about 30 seconds, someone in the group will realize that no one is flying this kite.

Shelly “Golden Ears” Yakus is the Vice President of Audio Engineering at MyStudio Audio Labs mastering facility in Hollywood. He has engineered and mixed recordings for John Lennon, Stevie Nicks, Alice Cooper, Tom Petty, Dire Straits, U2, and Madonna.


Watch music videos and close your eyes for 30 seconds, and the audio will change sound to you. Open your eyes and the audio will change again. Then, listen to just the hi-hat and focus on that hi-hat until it becomes louder than anything. Then do that with other instruments. Finally, zoom out and listen to the whole piece of music, then zoom back in and listen to one instrument again. Keep doing these exercises, and it will improve how you listen.