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Sounding Off: Mike Newbon

Where Will You Learn?
Published April 2007

Looking through the classified ad pages of SOS, you'd think that a career as a sound engineer was still a healthy option. There are so many colleges with courses teaching the basic techniques that, as we all know, must be further developed in the 'real world'. But where are those real-world experiences going to come from?

About The Author: The Reverend Mike Newbon was trained as a studio engineer, and despite being recently ordained, still finds time to keep in touch with the music industry, by getting a group together and making music.About The Author: The Reverend Mike Newbon was trained as a studio engineer, and despite being recently ordained, still finds time to keep in touch with the music industry, by getting a group together and making music.

For us 'old timers', both the training and the development of our careers took place in the recording studio. But with professional studios closing weekly, victims of the home recording revolution, that path is proving increasingly difficult. So where will all these eager and sometimes talented engineers go? Sadly, I suspect most will fall into other careers with recording as a hobby, and only some professional output, if any. But my greatest worry is that for many young engineers, their careers will be defined by one album, recorded in someone's bedroom, and that will be it.

Working day in and day out in a pro studio, as I did, on the other hand, you learned to record a variety of styles with players of varying abilities. Sometimes you'd be working with the best musicians on the most creative recordings, other times with far less capable musicians, where the task was to get something out of the session that they would be thrilled with, and, hopefully, would help them grow as artists.

We recorded the professional and the amateur; stuff that would sell, and stuff that no one would ever hear, but we would try to get something out of every session. Often you'd be pleased with a guitar sound or a drum fill that you worked hard on, other times the hairs on the back of your neck stood up because everything was so good. There were times when the music was terrible, but you got on great with the people and, in the worst cases, it was only the sandwiches that saved the day! Every session was unique, every group of musicians was a challenge in their own right, but the variety of experiences bolstered your engineering and, just as importantly, your people skills.

So how can our currently up-and-coming engineers gain that professional richness? Many of them will never walk into a great recording room and be thrilled at the possibilities. I now suspect that I may have been involved in studio work through the heyday of the recording industry. I was weaned on two-inch, 24-track tape machines and analogue desks. The studio had a plate reverb in one room and an AKG spring in another; posh sessions would see both reverbs in use! In today's world of limitless options, with plug-ins and digital modelling, many things seem easier, but I feel something has been lost with the move away from the traditional studio-based training ground.

Don't get me wrong — there are still great songs being recorded, and some good studios still survive, allowing the classic techniques to live on, but the same question remains: where will hands-on experience come from? Perhaps engineering prowess will be lost forever, perhaps the skills the engineers learn today will be different but valid in their own way. However, I don't think that less practical involvement in professional surroundings is going to positively develop careers for new engineers and producers.

If we use the analogy of the medical profession, surgical techniques have changed over the last decade or so, and, on the whole, yield better results. But the surgeons still work in a professional environment. I'm sure no one would accept surgeons, however well equipped, operating in their spare bedrooms. I suspect the professional environment of the recording studio is the most suitable for musicians to give their best, and it's certainly the optimum place for engineers to learn what a career in recording is all about.

Musicians, producers and record companies need to rediscover the value of musician-centred studio environments, where technology is there to help get the best from people and real musicianship shines, because of that special creative vibe that only studios possess. It's here where bands can draw on the rich experiences of engineers and producers who have knowledge of many different styles and have learnt from the best and worst real-world sessions: things that can never be taught at college. I believe that the recording studio will eventually be seen as the most cost-effective way to produce music of the highest marketable quality, and the one that gives the most back to the engineers who work inside it. At least, I hope so. 

Published April 2007