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In The Studio: “Music 101” For Recording Engineers

We work with sound. We work with music. We work with feelings. We must arrive in the musical moment.

By Bruce A. Miller July 13, 2017

Image courtesy of Ben Kerckx/Pixabay.com

This article is provided by BAMaudioschool.com.

If you’re a doctor, you can’t operate if you do not know what you should and should not cut. If you’re a mechanic, you can’t repair a car unless you know how the engine parts work together to move the car.

As an engineer, you are a technician, but one that works with creative material. Yes, you can approach it purely like a technician, but you won’t be able to perform as well as if you know a bit about music. Notice that I used the word “perform” rather than work.

We work with sound. We work with music. We work with feelings. If you don’t know anything about any of these things, you have no business calling yourself an engineer.

If you only know about sound and not music (and more importantly the feelings that music can express) then you may be able to spit out work that looks good on a meter, covers all the requirements, but has no musicality and feeling. In addition, you need someone to translate what the musicians say so you understand what’s happening.

The best engineers are IN THE MUSICAL MOMENT ALONG WITH THE MUSICIANS and can discuss not only things like sound volume but also things like sound dynamics, harmonic or rhythmic support, musical timing, and instrument functions. The best engineers recognize, encourage, and capture musical creativity.

Dynamics

“The main job of the recording engineer is to capture as much musical dynamics as possible. The mixing engineer should utilize those dynamics to enhance the expression of the song.”

Dynamics refers to the interplay and “give and take” between different instruments based on their changes in volume or other characteristics.

Dynamics means change, which can occur on many different levels. Even a single instrument can have dynamics that change over time.

There is emotion in dynamics. When someone speaks loudly, it impacts you one way, but if they speak softly, you find yourself listening harder and perhaps even leaning in to hear better…this greatly changes how you will perceive what you are listening to. This is an example of dynamics as applied to volume.

Dynamics not only applies to volume but also to any other kind of change or movement such as tonal change, intensity (how hard one plays), rhythmic feel, etc. Sounds can have different dynamics at different frequencies.

Dynamics can be felt in single instruments, relationships between instruments and even the combined sound of a finished mix.  Although these days everyone seems to want their music as loud as possible with no break, music often has important dynamics between instruments that help to convey the emotions of the song that can be lost when mixes are squashed and pumped for the sake of volume.

You do not have to know how to play an instrument or read music in order to push a fader, but it really does help to know what the musicians on the other side of the glass are going through.

Arrangement

A song is based on a melody (and often lyrics) and occurs through time. Songs have musical chords that support the melody (but may not necessarily be played in full).

Songs also have other parts that can support the melody and chords (such as drums for rhythm, bass to both support the low end and also to provide a low counter melody, guitars to play chords in rhythmic ways, etc).

It’s possible for a single musical element to take the role of others; for example, a song can be sung in a way that gives a strong rhythmic feeling without having drums. Arrangements are maps that indicate not only the song’s sections and their order but also which instruments will play particular parts. Although many people use the term to only mean the sections of the song, it also relates to how the different musical parts interact with each other as they support the main melody.

Typical arrangement sections include:

Intro: Song beginning
Verse: The “story”
Chorus: The repeating part of the “story”
Bridge: The part when everything changes for a short while before returning to the “story”
Tag (Outro): Song ending

In order for recording and mixing engineers to be able to effectively capture, edit and then mix music they must have a basic understanding of music, arrangements and instruments.

Instrumentation

Instrumentation refers to the actual instruments that are used in a song.  Musical elements / instruments are both rhythmic and harmonic, as even drums have musical pitch and a violin note has rhythm.

Commonly used instruments include:

Drums (Kick, Snare, Hat, Toms, Cymbals, and also Room Tracks)
Percussion (Conga, Bongo, Timbale, Clave, Maraca, Shaker, Clap, Go-Go, Cowbell, etc)
Bass (Upright, Electric, Synthesizer)
Guitar (Acoustic, 12-String, Electric, Distorted, Wah-Wah, etc)
Piano
Organ
Strings (Ensembles/Orchestras, Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass)
Horns (Trumpet, Trombone, French Horn, Tuba)
Woodwinds (Flute, Clarinet, Oboe, Bassoon, Saxaphone)
Synthesizers & Drum Machines
Background Vocals
Lead Vocals
Lead Instruments (any of the above)

Certain instruments have particular sounds that make them optimal for specific song functions, such as a percussion instrument to make a beat. However, most instruments can perform the functions of others.

Rhythmic Elements

Rhythmic Elements are accentuated points along a repeating pulse. The pulse itself is a rhythmic element called the BEAT.

A BEAT is a repeated heavy point in time that you can feel with your body. A song’s TEMPO is how fast the beat is going. Tempo is measured in BPM (beats per minute).

When the rhythm repeats, it is called a MEASURE or BAR. The DOWNBEAT is the first beat when the rhythm repeats (i.e., the “ one” of “one – two – three – four – one – two – three – four”).

Much music is made of repeating groups of four beats. When a note lasts for a whole measure it is called a WHOLE NOTE. Notes that last for half a measure (two beats of a four-beat measure) are called HALF NOTES. Notes that last only a quarter of a measure (a single beat of a four-beat measure) are called QUARTER NOTES. The “one – two – three – four“ are all each quarter note beats.

An EIGHTH NOTE is half of a quarter-note beat, while a SIXTEENTH NOTE is a quarter of a quarter-note beat (there are 16 sixteenth notes in a measure). And so on…

A TRIPLET is a measure of four beats that have been divided into tjhree beats (actually that is a half-note triplet).

TIME SIGNATURES show how the beats repeat and how fast the beats are. If they feel as if they repeat after every fourth beat, the song is most likely has a time signature of 4/4 (four quarter notes per measure). Waltzes are written with a time signature of 3/4. Some songs are 5/4, 6/8, etc.


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About Bruce

Bruce A. Miller
Bruce A. Miller

Recording Engineer
Bruce A. Miller is an acclaimed recording engineer who operates an independent recording studio and the BAM Audio School website.
http://bamaudioschool.com

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