Craft your Ears!
A Sound Engineering Technician is no Less a Craftsman than a Carpenter
Recently I’ve been quite obsessed with an old PBS show called The New Yankee Workshop…Maybe you’ve seen it, the show where master carpenter Norm Abram builds these beautiful home furnishings based on classic American craftsmen designs. If you haven’t seen it, check it out on You Tube, his thick New England accent alone is enough to entertain you for a few hours. But what does that have to do with your ears?
Now I know you are reading this blog because you are interested in audio engineering, so why am I talking about a carpenter? Well, the way I see it, a sound engineering technician or audio engineer is no less a craftsman than a carpenter. While our tools and skill sets differ greatly (unless you happen to be an engineer at a certain studio in Rockville, MD….but that’s for another blog), mastery over both crafts is achieved through the same tried and true methods of apprenticeship, trial and error, and study of other respected works.
The inspiration for this blog entry came to me as I was pondering the one question students in Omega’s audio production school ask me the most, “How do I make Instrument X sound more like Record Y?” Most students ask this question half expecting me to show them a magic button in Pro Tools, or a hidden switch behind the console that transforms any sound into whatever we want it to be. THANKFULLY, it is not that easy (yet…)! In trying to answer this question, I return to my earlier example of Norm the carpenter. At the beginning of each episode of The New Yankee Workshop, Norm travels to an antique store or museum to locate and study a classic example of whatever it is that he intends to build that day. In his study of each piece, Norm takes some measurements, notes the construction and make-up, and finally he draws up his own build plan which often includes a few of his own design improvements. Norm is conducting his own independent study of a piece that he intends to recreate with his own twist on it. This is the mentality that we all (students, hobbyists, professionals) should take in honing our craft as recording engineers and sound engineering technicians. We all have records that we respect and love, and it is with these records that we can begin to create our own benchmarks for sonic quality, our own models to base our work off of. We should be studying them, getting to know them inside and out.
So, my young music production school students, how can you re-create the sound you’re looking for in the engineering studio, you ask?
Now, when I am asked the million dollar question “How do I make Instrument X sound more like Record Y?,” I simply reply, “What can you tell me about Record Y?” The year is 2014, the wealth of knowledge available to us is almost infinite. There is no excuse for not knowing where your favorite record was recorded, who recorded it, or who produced it. Chances are there is probably a blog entry somewhere that explains exactly how the record was made, what mics were used, what the room looked like. Search the web, learn as much as you can about that record’s construction, and of course LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN. This way, when the time comes for you to make your own recordings, you will have some meaningful basis of comparison.
Whether you’re an audio engineering student just starting out trying to craft your ear, or a veteran sound engineer looking to sharpen their skills, we should all take a page out of the craftsman’s book in our approach to becoming better engineers. Keep listening!