We’ve conducted two interviews with hip-hop/pop engineer Joe The Engineer, and a few weeks ago faithful Idolator commentarian Captain Wrong suggested that he construct a glossary of commonly used recording terms, so people out there can tell their producing from their mastering from their punching from their flying. Well, Joe thought that was a splendid idea. Part one, after the jump!
Engineer: In the most basic sense, someone who realizes the sonic vision of his clients (typically, one or all of the following: artist, producer, A&R/record label). This means various things in the various types of sessions. In recording (or tracking) sessions, the engineer devises the microphone/equipment set up and determines how the musicians will be arranged in the studio. In the digital age, an engineer is usually running the computer while recording, although in most sessions using tape, an assistant is charged with operating the tape machine. In a mixing session, the engineer operates a console and other pieces of gear (or sometimes, only a computer) to blend and fine-tune all the individual tracks for a song down to just a stereo track (sometimes surround).
Producer: An amorphous term that has been evolving since the beginning of the recorded-music era. Depending on the session, a producer may be equal parts writer, A&R, arranger, and psychologist. In the setting of a session, producers’ all-encompassing job is to make sure the label and artist get a finished product. Duties may include, but are not limited to, making sure the engineer is getting the proper sounds; ensuring that the musicans are giving the right performance; keeping the artist happy/comfortable; filling out all session-related paperwork for the session is filled out; executing the session in a timely manner; and delivering the final version of the song to the record label or mastering company. In an urban music setting, a producer has come to mean the person who provides the music (beat/track/instrumental) for a song. They also must wear sunglasses in the studio and make videos of themselves to post on YouTube.
Mixing: The process in which an engineer combines a song’s individual tracks (anywhere from a few to hundreds) and blends them into their final medium. This is usually a stereo track for CDs, MP3s, vinyl, etc, or a surround track for film or any of the high-end surround music formats. Engineers and producers employ a host of techniques such as equalization, compression and effects during the mixing process.
Mastering: In most cases, the final process before a song/album is turned over to a record label to be distributed. A mastering engineer takes the stereo or surround mixes from the mix engineer and tweaks them in a more subtle way. They work in very high-end listening environments so they can more precisely judging a song’s sonic character and are typically performing additional EQ and compression. They also try to create cohesion to an album by making the songs match each other in volume and sound. Mastering has gained more and more notoriety over the past few years as being a process where mixes are made as loud as possible through compression and limiting.
Punching: A recording technique where an engineer can drop into recording over a previous take. This is helpful while recording a difficult passage and need to record it in sections rather than all at once, or in the case of a great performance with just one mistake; an engineer can punch in for just that one mistake, and save the rest of the performance. Example: If I’m recording Celine Dion doing the theme to Titanic, and she’s singing “Near, far, whereeeeeeeeeever you are”, but she keeps blowing it on the “whereeeeeever”, we can just punch in for that word, while keeping the “near, far” and “you are” from her previous take.
Flying: An editing technique in which an engineer copies the tracks from one section of a song to another. In modern recording, artists often record one take of the chorus of a song and simply fly it to where the other choruses belong in the song. Before the advent of digital recording, this was a somewhat arduous process, but it can now be done in seconds using any of the present day’s leading digital workstations.
Distortion: The change in character of a sound, usually due to sending too much signal into a component in the audio chain. Every device, when sent too much audio, will reach a point at which it which it distorts. In many settings this is undesirable in the studio, as it can create some very rude sounds, although it’s desirable in other settings, like a guitar amp or as an effect on keyboards, vocals, etc.
Compression: The process of shrinking the dynamic range of audio. A compressor reduces the volume of the loudest portions of recorded material, bringing them closer in level to the quieter portions. This can be used on any instrument, and often is. A sample application: Let’s say a lead vocal in a pop setting is very dynamic, with nearly whispered verses and a belted-out chorus. The vocal needs to be loud enough on the verse so it’s audible, but the chorus cannot be abrasive. Put a compressor on the vocal track with the proper settings, and the chorus vocal is automatically brought down during its loudest bits so the overall volume of the track can go up. Compression is often done to entire mixes so the loudest portions of a song are more manageable, allowing the entire mix to be louder.
If there are any more terms out there that confuse you, let us know! Joe’s on the case.