How to Collaborate with an Engineer Like a Boss // Laura Donohue

Music-making is rarely a solo venture. Even singer-songwriters and artists who accompany themselves will work with other musicians in the studio and/or on stage at some point in their musical careers.  As a result, an essential part of every music student’s education involves learning to work with other musicians. A strong base of musical knowledge and the ability to clearly communicate such knowledge sets our students up for the most positive collaborative experiences. The confidently-collaborative vocalist is able to discuss such aspects of music-making as tempo, rhythm/groove, dynamics, phrasing, arrangements, and parts, to name a few.

In addition to guitarists, pianists, drummers, and background vocalists, there is another musician who will play a very important role in the commercial vocalist’s music: the audio engineer.  Engineers do not simply turn up the volume on the voice and other instruments; rather, engineers have an enormous influence on everything the listeners and the performers hear, from the overall sound quality to the tones and timbres of the sound to the mix of all the different sounds together.  It can be helpful to think of the engineer as a painter creating a work of art with the colors (sounds) produced by the vocalist and other musicians.  The tools of audio technology are the painter’s brushes. Our students will work with engineers in most live and recording studio settings, and these settings can vary tremendously.

So how do we, as voice teachers, help our vocalists collaborate effectively with engineers?

It is important to note that before successful collaboration can happen, a strong foundation must be laid.  A vocalist who is not confident in her ability to navigate unfamiliar sonic environments will not be able to move beyond the challenges they present into communicating her needs to an engineer.  She must have a finely-developed muscle-memory of what it feels like to sing well. Two important steps to help her achieve this strong foundation— cultivating Objective Listening and singing based on feel— are detailed in my previous blog post on the auditory feedback loop.

Once that strong foundation has been established we can guide our students in the following three essential ingredients toward effective collaboration with engineers.

Number One: Educate

Vocalists must be educated in the role of the engineer and taught how to communicate using the lexicon of audio technology.  Just as a vocalist must learn to count off the band using the language of tempo (bpms) and explain a chord chart using the language of measures, phrases, and sections, a vocalist benefits greatly from knowing how to talk to an engineer about levels in monitors & headphones, use of reverb & compression, and even microphone types.  When a vocalist understands that the microphone and the other components of the signal chain are actually extensions of her voice, she will understand the importance of working closely with the engineer at the other end of that chain.  Sharing our own knowledge with our students is important, but they must also be encouraged to educate themselves in this area and learn “on the job” whenever possible.  There are countless opportunities to learn if vocalists will approach each performance and recording situation with curiosity and openness.  In my experience, engineers love to talk about their work and their gear.  My interest in the type of microphone being used has always been met with an enthusiastic response! Audio engineering is an enormous topic and the motivated learner should be encouraged to follow her interests. All vocalists, however, should be familiar with the basic components of the signal chain and how they interact with the human voice.

Number Two:  Practice

We can help our students by giving them hands-on opportunities to work with technology whenever possible. If you teach in a popular music program in higher education, try to give your students opportunities to sing on mic as much as possible. If you lead an ensemble, let your students set up the PA and encourage dialogue between music students and students of engineering. If you are a private studio teacher, consider investing in a small PA system for your studio and let your vocalists experiment with the setup. In addition, you can look into partnering with local recording studios or rehearsal spaces to provide workshops in working with technology and engineers.

Because of its volume, amplified music typically requires an additional way for the vocalist and other musicians to hear themselves.  There are two main types of monitors used in live performance:  wedge monitors (or simply “wedges”) and in-ear monitors (IEMs).  When recording, vocalists will almost always wear headphones.  These different methods of hearing the voice as it returns to the ears can be quite difficult for the vocalist to get accustomed to; therefore, ample practice time is invaluable.  Two practical ways to get comfortable with changes in the auditory feedback loop are to practice singing with both ears plugged, then one ear, then switching ears, then both open, and also to practice singing with an accompaniment track of some kind that is listened to through earbuds.  Recording that practice time and listening objectively for changes in the voice is still more helpful.  It is important to remind students to be careful with listening volume levels, in order to protect the health of their ears, whether using wedges, IEMs, headphones, or earbuds.

A note about adjusting microphones:  While vocalists need to be very comfortable adjusting mics in performances, I always instruct them to ask for permission before adjusting microphones in recording studios.  Some engineers are comfortable allowing others to adjust their mics but many prefer to handle that themselves, as studio microphones are often worth thousands of dollars and are very sensitive. Asking before adjusting a studio mic shows a respect for the microphone and for the engineer.

Number Three:  Communicate

A solid understanding of the signal chain and the terminology used by engineers empowers the vocalist to advocate for herself and communicate her needs.  I cannot stress enough the importance of respectful and compassionate communication.  In my research and in personal experience I have found that engineers often feel taken for granted, as vocalists frequently do not understand the complexity of the job and the many needs that an engineer might be managing at one time.

In the recording studio, engineering entails preparing and overseeing all of the recording equipment for all of the musicians (including problem-solving when the technology doesn’t cooperate or breaks), keeping an eye on the clock in order to work efficiently and save time/money, and also managing the expectations and emotions that the musicians bring to the recording process, not to mention the expectations of additional stakeholders in the process such as managers and record label execs.  Some engineers also simultaneously produce the recording session, which is another job set of responsibilities altogether.

Live engineers will typically be managing auditory feedback loops for all of the musicians on stage in addition to the mix of sound the audience hears, as well as trouble-shooting problems encountered with the technology in that particular space and managing the emotions, nerves, and expectations of the performers, all in a limited amount of time.  I find that focusing on a spirit of gratitude is incredibly helpful when I am working with other musicians, including engineers, and I try to pass this along to my students.  Just as I am aware that, when performing with a band, I cannot be on stage singing without the talent and efforts of my band members, the same awareness applies to the engineer.  Commercial vocalists simply cannot do what we do without them.  Like all humans, engineers that feel seen and appreciated have a tendency to work harder and show up in other ways that engender further positive collaboration.  Learning to communicate clearly and respectfully facilitates ease and connection when working with experienced, committed engineers.  When the engineer is inexperienced or not interested in collaborating, the ability to speak up with confidence and advocate for her needs will help the vocalist navigate the challenges of that situation.

It is helpful to be aware of, and to talk with our students about, the following scenarios they will need to learn to navigate as they work with audio technology.  These different scenarios will influence the type of communication the vocalist will have with the engineer:

  • Venues in which there is no engineer and the vocalist (or another band member) will be responsible for setting up the P.A. and even “running sound”. This is a very common scenario for vocalists who are just starting out and performing at casual venues, such as coffee shops and restaurants.
  • Performances in which there is an engineer but no “sound check”. Sound check is the time before the performance that is designated for the vocalist and other performers to get used to how that particular room feels and sounds.  This is a very common scenario and one that can be quite challenging, as there is limited time to get comfortable in the space or to communicate with the engineer.
  • Performances in which there is a sound check and at least one engineer running sound. Sound checks can vary in length and sometimes can be quite chaotic depending on the time available, the number of musicians on stage, and other factors.  This is the time in which the vocalist will be able to communicate the most with the engineer, however, so it must be used wisely.  Most larger-scale performances will have two engineers – a front of house engineer, who mixes sound for the audience, and a monitor engineer, who is responsible for the monitor mixes for the vocalist and the other musicians(If you are Beyoncé or another superstar-level performer, you will have a monitor engineer dedicated solely to vocals! Here is a fun glimpse into that world: Daniel Gonzales on mixing in-ear monitors for Beyoncé.
  • Recording studios, in which there is typically ample time to communicate with the engineer, both before recording and during the process itself. While studio time is valuable, vocalists should be encouraged to always take the time to get comfortable and to ask the engineer for what they need in order to perform at their best.  This usually involves spending some time on the mix of sounds in the vocalist’s headphones, but it can also include things like adjusting the temperature in the room and even the people present in the studio!  The kind of communication that happens between vocalist and engineer and/or producer while the vocal is being recorded has a tremendous impact on performance.  Vocalists have every right to advocate for themselves in order to be comfortable, and again, this can be done thoughtfully and respectfully.

To summarize, a vocalist who is accustomed to hearing herself in many different settings and who trusts her body (and the memorized physical “feels” associated with her singing), will be able to relax into the performance or recording situation and meet any challenges it brings.  When she is equipped with a basic knowledge of the signal chain, an awareness of the role of the engineer, and ample time to practice with the technology, she will be empowered to communicate her needs.  When we help our students develop a strong relationship with audio technology and engineers, we give them the tools for meaningful collaboration that will serve them throughout their careers.

(For more on helping singers prepare for different sound and microphone scenarios, check out Laura’s last post.)

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