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Sounding Off
Published September 1997

Engineers still wet behind the ears who do a Tyson (chew off your ear) about their extensive knowledge of audio — Big George Webley hates 'em. He states his case...

Frankly, I'm sick to death of my own company in my studio. I've heard all my own jokes, I don't impress myself with my dazzling mastery of studio techniques any more and, most importantly, I can't stand the taste of my own coffee. So why is it that I cringe at the thought of booking myself into a recording studio which has three times the amount of gear that I've got, at a ridiculously low hourly rate?

The reason is simple: newly qualified engineers.

The standard of in‑house engineers has changed beyond all recognition over the last decade. Whereas engineers used to spend the first two or three years of their working lives as tape ops, sweeping up studio floors and making coffee when they weren't nipping to the shops, these days every studio seems to employ a graduate from an audio school of excellence. Now I'm not saying they don't know the name of the inventor of EQ and the quantisation rates of every groove parameter in sequential history: they do. The trouble is that they never miss the chance of telling you. When I go into a studio and pay hard currency to have someone plug my modules into their patchbay and DI the congas, I don't want to hear their opinion on a new gizmo which has been reviewed in this magazine. I can read it for myself (and as anyone who reads the equipment reviews in this magazine knows, they are comprehensive, accurate, and not a matter for discussion, especially when you're paying 50p a minute).

In the studio's social structure, engineers are servants, producers are where the buck stops, artists always want more of themselves in the headphones and the payer of the bill is God. That doesn't mean engineers are there to be abused (some of my best friends are engineers...), but it also doesn't mean they're there to show their comprehensive knowledge of advanced sequencing or explain the concept of nearfield monitoring, unless asked to do so. Engineers are there to organise the best and most efficient means of recording what you want recorded, the way you want it recorded, and make coffee (if there isn't a tape op available).

Good engineers, like any other professionals in the business, are distinguished by the calibre of their work and the way they conduct themselves, not by the fact that they have done a two‑year course. Nothing counts like experience, and experience is gained by keeping ears open, minds alert and mouths shut, unless it's a good joke or the offer of a cup of coffee. What a heartless bastard I sound — as if I care: I'm paying. If I work with a good engineer, who voices their opinion when it's called for and not whenever they can tell you what they know (in theory), I find myself going back to that studio time and time again. I'll even follow a particular engineer to their new place of work, if it's in my price range.

Most of the good engineers I've worked with have gone on to become either one of the £750‑a‑day elite, or fully fledged record producers, or, in one case, the head of Sony's remastering studio in Hollywood, California (a long way from the £5‑an‑hour 4‑track demo studio in Stourbridge a dozen years ago). These days he works with the likes of Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Diamond — and it's not because he's eager to tell whoever's booking time in the studio about how he once routed a gated flanger through a compressor to trigger the limiter, but because he's cool. He does his job (brilliantly but modestly) and only makes suggestions if they'll produce a better result. These days he doesn't have to make coffee — his assistant has that important responsibility — but he is prepared to work to the client's timetable. This is a business that everyone wants to be part of, and if you're in it you must make sacrifices. If the session has to start at midnight because the artist wants to get that certain 'pissed‑up late‑night vibe' into their music, that's what they're paying for. Try telling Keith Richards it would be better if the session started at midday and he'd probably shoot you. Similarly, if the session needs to be done in three hours, there's no point miking up every individual tom‑tom above and below because that's the way you were taught. I want an engineer to be my flexible friend, not my theoretical enemy.

In the old days, when a pop single was seven inches of black plastic containing one song per side, EMI's Abbey Road had a system where engineers wore grey lab coats and producers wore white ones (it was something to do with engineers doing wax masters which could stain clothing but didn't show up on grey that much). Producers never plugged a microphone in or linked up the echo room; that was the engineer's job. The engineer never had an opinion on whether the bongos needed spring reverb; that was left to the men in white coats to decide. It might sound like an Ealing comedy, but at least we had a film industry in those days.

I'm not against students making good, or people who have something to offer getting on — we all have to start somewhere. But Quincy Jones didn't become Count Basie's arranger on the Frank Sinatra sessions by telling Ray Charles how to play piano when he was in his band as a 15‑year‑old. He simply played killer trumpet and made the occasional apt suggestion and Ray Charles saw his talent for himself. The rest, as they say, is history.

If the future of the industry is in the quality of its training, it might be worth saying in the curriculum that even if the client is a big‑headed, talentless, loud‑mouthed moron, the last thing I'll want to put up with in the studio is an engineer (with a certificate on which the ink is barely dry) telling me the best way to get my job done. By the way, strong, white with one sugar, but no sugar if it's tea.