How to Develop a Positive Working Relationship with an Engineer

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By Mike Irish of MuseWorks Audio

Building a strong relationship with an audio engineer is an integral part of your creative process, your end product, and ultimately, your success as an artist. There are countless nuances that go into finalizing your vision, finding someone who speaks the same language, knows which buttons to press and cares enough to put the same love and attention to detail that you do, is vitally important.

It all comes down to hiring the right person with whom you can communicate and compromise easily. Let’s talk about how to do that, as well as other ways to build your relationship with your engineer below.

But first, we absolutely must remind you that if you’re seeking to learn how to mix either your music or that of your artist clients, you can learn everything there is to know with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses, Modern Mix Techniques and Advanced Mix Techniques. Preview either course for free, and subscribe for unlimited access.

1. Hiring the Right Engineer in the First Place

This is likely very intimate work for you.

You’ve put your heart into a musical project, questioned every lyric and every snare hit. You need to find someone you can trust to commit a similar attention to detail. But there are so many engineers out there, with smashing portfolios and glowing reviews; it can be hard to come to a decision.

Nowadays, most folks have a solid portfolio online you can view, plus customer reviews on their Facebook Business page. In my eyes, that is the bare minimum, beyond that you should look for similar values. If you love analog sounds and gear, you may want to find someone with an impressive gear list. Perhaps you love the crystal clarity and rich low end of modern electronic pop music. Either way, try to find someone who reflects your interests and obsessions.

If they pass the portfolio, website, and Facebook tests, it ultimately comes down to a human question: Is this someone you can trust?

Chat with them on the phone (or hop on a Zoom call), and feel them out to see if they are the right fit. Some things to keep in mind during your conversation:

  • Do they listen to you?
  • Are they professional?
  • Are they willing to compromise?

As an aside, if your engineer has no music in your genre in their portfolio, this doesn’t mean they’re incapable of the work. Many engineers niche themselves into a single genre because they know the genre well and are connected within it. If you like their website, their reviews, and their work, it’s worth emailing them to connect and see if they’re interested in stepping out of their comfort zone.

2. Communication

No matter how much you like their portfolio however, if you’re both speaking different languages, it’s going to be tough to communicate effectively.

Describing the sounds that you’re hearing in your head to another person can be extraordinarily difficult. Effective communication in this sense is about removing grey areas, and being as clear and definitive as possible. Examples and reference tracks are great, especially when you explain specifically what you like about the record. If you don’t like the reference track as a whole, but are drawn to the guitar tone specifically, be sure to communicate that.

Using definitive language like “high end” as opposed to “brightness,” or “distortion” instead of “dirty” can clear up misunderstandings before they happen.

I’m also a fan of having casual conversations with those working with me. It’s good to get to know one another on a slightly deeper level than just technicals. Talking favorite music and other inspiration can really help with the subtler forms of communication. As well, it’s nice to have something human to fall back on in case there are any bumps along the way in your relationship-building experience.

3. Revisions

Before signing a contract, you must clarify how many rounds of revisions are offered with your mix — this is a key step in the process. Three free revisions is a fair shake to me. Anything less is questionable in my opinion. Anything more is generous, and can often lead to procrastination through perfectionism.

Don’t panic if the first draft that is sent isn’t exactly what you were hoping to hear. This is what the revision process is for, and it’s normal. Now that you have something concrete in front of you, you can tell with certainty where communication may have failed. Continue to invest in clarifying your ideas, reference tracks if need be, and you’ll get there.

4. Compromise

This is the tough part. You’ve worked your tail off on your project and put everything into it. You have an idea of what it sounds like in your head and you might be attached to that. Unfortunately, sometimes adjustments need to be made, frequencies can be clashing that you weren’t expecting.

Of course, there’s a difference between an engineer who is set in their ways and refuses to see your vision, and an engineer who knows their stuff and is trying to help make your recording sound as good as possible. Hopefully you’ve done a good job vetting the engineer, and you can trust them, in this most delicate part of the process.

Good compromise to me looks like:

“There are a few frequencies clashing, I’m going to do what I can to preserve your vision, but some sacrifices will probably need to be made to accommodate all the sounds.”

A stubborn engineer looks more like:

“Sorry but The Beatles did it this way in 1965 and thus, it is the only way I will ever do things.”

I’ll finish off by saying all of the most successful, and enjoyable, projects I’ve worked on are with artists who came in with a vision, communicated it to me, and were able to compromise when necessary. I consider most of the people I work with friends which shows how intimate this process can be.

Hopefully this will help you hire the right person for the job, and work to communicate and compromise; don’t fail at the finish line.

Good luck out there, and keep creating no matter what. Your work is important.

Continue learning with hundreds more lessons on mixing, DIY home audio production, electronic music recording, beat making, and so much more, with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses, like Modern Pop Vocal ProductionAdvanced Synths & Patch Designand Faders Up: Modern Mix Techniques (to name a few). Subscribe to get unlimited access here.

Mike Irish is an audio engineer, artist and podcast host in the town of Vernon, BC. You can check out his website and his podcast “The Conscious Creative” featuring interviews with artists discussing different artistic philosophies, giving you brand new tools to bring back to your creative spaces and build a community of artists dedicated to deepening their relationship with their craft.  

Elijah Fox at the piano

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