The Best of Times or the Worst of Times?

The fraternity of recording engineers used to be a pretty rarefied club consisting of those men (hardly any women, alas) who were dedicated enough to
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The fraternity of recording engineers used to be a pretty rarefied club consisting of those men (hardly any women, alas) who were dedicated enough to break in as a studio "gofer" and stick with it until, if they had talent and applied themselves, they became well-trained and seasoned professionals. Today, recording is much more democratic: almost anyone can put a small studio together and record in their own home.

The proliferation of the professional personal studio (or project studio) is a mixed blessing, with some things gained and some lost. Some aspects cut both ways. For instance, consider the project studio's relatively isolated working environment.

In the days when serious recording couldn't be done at home, people learning the craft of audio engineering did so under the tutelage of experienced senior engineers in a commercial studio. Well-developed techniques of miking, recording, and mixing were passed on through observation and instruction. Systems of organization, documentation, and procedures were impressed on the newbie as much as professional conduct and client-handling tricks.

In contrast, most project-studio practitioners work largely on their own. The down side is the number of "engineers" who can edit in Pro Tools all day long but know only about the one or two microphones they own and even then know only how to use them for guitar and vocal overdubs and perhaps for drums. Don't ask most of them to record a woodwind quartet, and don't expect them to keep their composure when a piece of equipment dies while a client is present.

On the other hand, working on one's own fosters individualistic approaches that can become one's stock- in-trade, as well as a deep mastery of the tools that are present in that studio.

Working in a traditional studio means operating as part of a team, which entails both cooperation and collaboration. New artistic and technical challenges are met by the collective application of several or all of the studio staff's brains. It also entails a degree of compromise, whereas the project studio offers the possibility of realizing an artistic or commercial vision in pure, undiluted form.

The old way requires entry to the recording world in relatively menial jobs, fetching coffee and the like. Slowly, aspiring engineers work their way up to second engineer and then, after thoroughly learning the whole studio and participating in many sessions, graduate to being a first engineer. Sometimes this last step means waiting until one of the established engineers moves on, leaving an opening. In contrast, the project studio is hands-on from the get-go and requires users to do everything themselves, including troubleshooting problems that arise.

So, is one environment better than another? That's a tough call. In the end, I think we're better off with the way things are now because it is possible to have the best of both worlds, but getting the best of the "old" world today requires some definite and directed effort. As much information as one can glean from magazines and online interaction, a good deal of recording knowledge, especially that involving microphones, rooms, and speakers, can really only happen "in the flesh." Getting this sort of knowledge, along with the benefits of collaboration, requires that project-studio practitioners get out of their studios and into those of others-and get others into their own.

This can mean more involvement with one's peers, but it seems to me much more difficult today to create situations where one can learn from people who are much more experienced. One way is to try and get jobs assisting more experienced engineers, but the fact is that those are hard connections to make.

Times have certainly changed, but it is not clear that they have changed for the better... or for the worse.