An audio engineer and a producer are both exciting careers. If you have a love for music this might be for you. Say you’re sitting in the car flipping through radio stations and this amazing riff or groovy rhythm catches your ear. Who’s that song by? What you mean by the question is, “who are those artists singing and playing the instruments?”
But really there are a lot of creative professionals playing a role in the music we hear, including the producer and the audio engineer as well as the artists themselves.
Both producing and audio engineering are artistic disciplines of their own. Each plays a distinct, unique role in bringing a song to life. We sometimes assume that the artists we love are making their music all on their own with only minimal help from other kinds of professionals. Some recording artists do retain a lot of control over the way their music is produced, but most rely on help.
Without the help of an audio engineer, some of the most popular mixing effects and techniques would be unavailable to all but the few singers and songwriters with the technical understanding to produce them. And since learning these skills takes years, artists would frequently have to teach themselves these skills or else spend years to get the technical training they need.
Likewise, while some musical artists are their own producers, the job of a producer is a demanding, full-time position that requires an enormous amount of insight, knowledge and technical prowess. A great producer can elevate an already talented group of performers and make them into a powerful money-making operation. Few have the talent to operate at this level, and even fewer can do it alone.
So what exactly is the difference between a producer and a sound engineer? The answer can be tricky since the two professionals sometimes play overlapping roles. A producer is typically the person directing the sound engineer as well as the musicians. However, the sound engineer can also assert their own authority over the production, especially with changes in technology.
WHAT IS A PRODUCER?
A producer isn’t simply one thing. He or she wears many hats and plays many roles. The producer has enormous control over the recording studio. But before a recording session even begins, the producer is often spending dozens or even hundreds of hours writing music with the artist. A producer might write or suggest song lyrics, melodies, add or subtract musical elements, etc.
Sometimes producers write and compose complete songs on their own and then look for artists who have the right vocal qualities, reputation, or style to perform the song. A producer might also gather together a group of musicians to form a band or change the lineup of an existing band if he or she isn’t happy with some artist in the group. The producer may even play an instrument.
When a band or artist is ready to make an album, the producer is the one who runs the control booth. The artist sings and plays music in an acoustically excellent enclosed stage space filled with sound recording equipment. The recording equipment is controlled from a second room where the producer and audio engineer work.
The producer and audio engineer can see the musicians through the glass, and they can also communicate directly with them using microphones and sound equipment. Before and after recording sessions begin, producers will work with talent to develop their voices through vocal training.
Vocal training sessions are designed to expand the performance range of singers so they can mature to utilize the best of their abilities. The producer can coach the vocalist so that their diction and pitch improves. However, the audio engineer can also play a role in this process, as will be explained further below.
Executive producers control not only many creative aspects of the production but also financial concerns as well. It’s the executive producer’s job to create a budget and allocate funds, so the needs of the production are met. If a solo performer needs vocalists to accompany them for certain songs or “tracks”, then the producer often finds, vets, and hires these vocalists or other artists.
There is an incredible amount of sensitive equipment for which the audio engineer is responsible. Microphones require sophisticated calibration to achieve the desired effect, and it’s the audio engineer’s job to know how each piece of recording equipment works and how it can be used to manipulate the vocals and instrumentals on the track.
If any piece of equipment is not properly functioning, it’s the job of the audio engineer to identify and remedy the problem. This is a big job, so often an audio production will have multiple audio engineers who work in tandem.
Before a recording session begins, the engineer or engineers will set up all the equipment and run sound checks to make sure that the audio comes through sounding clear and without any background noise coming from outside the studio or interference caused by equipment.
During the recording process, the audio team records multiple “takes” or repetitions of the same song. Sessions might involve musicians all performing together at the same time, but this isn’t always necessary. Sometimes scheduling conflicts make it impossible for bandmates to appear in the same place at the same time, or it may be simply easier to record separate tracks to be combined later.
The audio engineer combines or “mixes” together tracks, so it sounds to the listener as if the music is being performed at the same time and place. Audio engineers also change the sound of recorded audio, for example by creating distortion. The audio engineer can compose electronic sounds which can be mixed into the tracks as well.
PRODUCER VS. ENGINEER – WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?
Producers and sound engineers often develop overlapping roles, but there are several key distinctions between them. Many producers are self-taught. Some experiment with producing music by themselves from a very young age.
Because audio software is readily available today that can do the work of expensive equipment cheaply and easily, more aspiring producers are entering the field than ever before. However, they are finding a highly competitive marketplace where it’s incredibly difficult to stand out and make a name for one’s self as a producer.
To inspire the confidence of top talent, a producer must demonstrate their knowledge in a number of different areas. They need a working knowledge of music theory, business acumen, an agreeable personality so they can collaborate constructively and many other skills. To be a producer requires having the confidence and competence to run the whole show.
For those who can succeed in all of these different areas, the compensation can be highly lucrative. Some music producers are self-employed and attract top musical talent and take a portion of the royalties from a song. However, many producers work on a salary basis and don’t earn exorbitant sums for their services. They’re simply employees who have bosses they answer to.
Audio engineers are typically paid this way as well. Many audio engineers are graduates of university audio engineering programs or trade schools. They are sometimes hired by producers as part of the team, or they may be employed by a record company. Even without a degree, an audio engineer might be self-taught, like producers, or have specific certifications.
Some engineers have advanced degrees and choose to work outside of the recording business. There is a whole class of audio engineers who don’t work in the studio. Instead, they do research and develop hardware and software performers and producers use to make music with.
As technology changes, so too do the roles of both producers and audio engineers. Previously, vocal coaching was the exclusive domain of producers. However, the software has now supplanted much of what vocal coaches once did, like arranging harmonies. This means that audio engineers now have the chance to assert more control in an area that was previously left to the producer.
There is a degree of fluidity to the roles that audio engineers and producers play. Some audio engineers might become producers as they gain more skills. Likewise, some producers will step into the role of audio engineers and manipulate tracks themselves. Some producers see themselves as managers and prefer to step back while others would rather take a more hands-on approach.
The media is highly individualistic, and those who hope to compete in the crowded job market of music production need to have knowledge and skills which help them to stand out among their peers. Both producers and audio engineers play huge, but often invisible, roles in the production of the songs we all know and love.