The Battle Of Being Both The Engineer And Musician

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Music production in the home studio is hard. But not for the reason most people claim. It’s not for lack of quality gear or because of the room sonics. Quality gear is more affordable than ever, and if you know what you’re doing the sound of your room won’t get in your way.

No, the real reason producing great music out of your home studio is hard is because you are doing it all alone. You are playing the role of the musician and the engineer.


TRR214 The Battle Of Being Both The Engineer And Musician

Via Marc Wathieu Flickr

Be Honest About Your Bias

Can we be honest for a moment? You and I, as engineer/musicians, are biased about our songs. Since we are the artist, we think our songs are great. They might be pretty good, but they aren’t great by default. For them to be great we need to tear them down to their core, make the sure the foundation is strong, and patch in any holes. What I’m talking about is honest self critique.

After writing and demoing your songs you have to shift over into critical mode. You need to think like a producer or engineer, listening to the songs for the first few times. Try to get past your bias (thinking your songs sound awesome) and ask good questions like: What is this song missing? What is the weakest thing about this song? What is the strongest thing? Does the arrangement hold my attention from start to finish?

Work On A Stronger Arrangement

I always say that good arranging is good recording and mixing. What I mean is that so much of what makes a great song great is the arrangement. All the great parts and moments of our favorite songs are arrangement decisions, not recording or mixing decisions. It’s the arrangement (which instruments, which parts, and the relationship between them during the song) that pulls the listener in and captures her attention.

So before hitting the record button you need to move from musician mode to engineer mode and begin building an even stronger arrangement. Think about what the best instrumentation would be for the song. Cut out weak parts of the song. Tighten up the chorus. Flip the bridge around. Add vocal harmonies that are missing. You get the idea. You are enhancing the song before it’s even captured in your DAW.

Choose Musician Over Engineer

The typical home studio owner starts out in the musician mindset, creating and writing songs. This is likely inspired him or her to buy some recording equipment in the first place. But then he must put on his engineer hat in order to critically assess the songs strengths and weaknesses and to record them with sonic professionalism and clarity. Ironically, though, in order to get an incredible recording and mix, the home studio owner needs to shift his mindset back to that of the musician.

We’re creating a piece of art, not a science project. So when the rubber meets the road I choose the musician side of my brain over the engineer side, because the art (the music) will drive a great recording, not the engineering. We need both, but at the end of the day, one is more critical to the success of your home recording goals.

If you find yourself becoming too technical with recording or mixing, it’s time to step back and think like a musician. Does the music move you? Does it pull out the desired emotion? Is it fun? If not, get back to work. If yes, call it day. A successful day.


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22 Responses to “The Battle Of Being Both The Engineer And Musician”

  1. John

    Getting at least one other person to give you honest feedback will go a long way in making your songs that much better. The more people you get involved, the better your songs and recordings will become. It’s just a fact. Many of the greatest albums and songs had a lot of people working together to produce an amazing piece of art.

    Thanks for the article!

  2. Dinosaur David B.

    Whole-heartedly agree with all of this. I would also add the following: Before you even think about recording, a great song will be evident without ANY production value at all. A great song will be obvious with just an acoustic guitar or a piano, and voice. If the song works with just a guitar or piano and voice, everything you add to it in the recording and production process will be gravy. Famous producers have said things like: “give me a great song, and I can do wonders with it using nothing more than a pair of room mics.”

    Conversely, the best producers and gear in the world will never compensate for bad songs.

  3. Roojam

    Graham, Excellent point! I would suggest that a songwriter should partner with a critic whose opinion has merit and let them help decide when the arrangement is fit for recording. For me thats my wife, a tough critic I might add, but someone who has repeatedly validated concerns of mine on some original works that I had ignored, and had allowed my bias to get in the way.

    The ears of a casual listener in your genre of music can be more discerning and honest than yours will be with regards to your own creations.

  4. Jonathan Harder

    So true.
    After almost 10 years of homerecording (and I’m almost 25ys old) I totally agree with that.
    What helps is to find someone else who’s got a good ear to listen to the songs and who can name directly what’s good and where the problems are.

    But, of course, the heart is most important, more than technical knowledge.

    Great Job Graham

  5. Morten

    When in musician mode, I record the parts that I want to be in the song. When in engineer mode I arrange the parts to form the song. Often the arrangement is almost done in the recording. But true, it’s hard to play both roles, and I sure could be more self critic.

    Thanks, G

  6. Brian

    I do agree if your song or musical idea
    sound nice or good on guitar,voice or piano
    the rest is just added bonus
    but I was wondering
    before you even push the record
    button as you mention

    it’s thier a creative way to
    just get a feel for music ideas without
    having to go to the daw?

    I could be wrong since I still new
    but what playing over a made up or already made
    backing track
    or some kind looper pedal
    where you can add musical ideas too

    what other ideas am I missing

    God Bless

    if for example

  7. Anthony

    Aside from the song, I find it much easier to have another person to act as the recording engineer or tape operator. Going from player to DAW driver is definitely an unwanted distraction for me and seems to be opposite sides of the brain. I can track a difficult part better and faster if I’m not hitting record, stop, back…just focus on the musicians role.

    For the song I think its best to have it fully developed before even starting recording so I can have a clear plan of what needs to be recorded. Once its recorded I can go back to producer hat and look at what might need to be changed.

  8. Hein

    As a songwriter, if you believe in WHAT you are saying, it will be more credible to the artist and the listener. As an artist, if you believe in HOW you say it, it will be easier for the engineer to add the musical dimensions in the right proportion. Or so it seems to me…

  9. Walter P.o.p. Matthews IV

    I’m going to sum up a great example great songs meets great engineering, recording and mixing. Let’s rewind 22 years ago and I think of Nirvana’s Nevermind. That album personally inspired me to buy a guitar and write songs. I was a rapper at the time so you can only imagine how much that shifted me musically. My point is Nevermind was the best of amazing songwriting and engineering. Butch Vig took simple songs and then produced and engineered the hell out of them. I do agree the song has to be the heart of the process but once you have that the mix in my opinion feels just as artistic. The mix of Nevermind made me want to mix just as much as I wanted to be a musician.

  10. Jeff

    I’ve always thought this was the case. Be honest and don’t just get jazzed cuz you think it’s awesome because you recorded it. I mean, is it a song? Or, is it just a bunch of parts that you hooked together to try to make a song?

    I used to write like that..trying to write cool bits of songs and try to tie them together because I wanted to write the all time coolest riff…or something like that. Now I just let the song roll inside my head and get that out. More organic and results are way better.

    I mean, if your own song isn’t stuck in your head, why would it get stuck in someone else’s? I supposed something to be mindful of before hitting record.

    • Brian

      Jeff I too sometimes find doing this trying to make up cool things and add it together
      what is your process for starting to get away from that aprroch and start let the music come from the heart flow more organic?

  11. earlvis

    Nice one Graham, I am one of your beneficiaries. your tutorials have really helped. Thanks

  12. jack morefield

    One of the best articles I have read…and comes at a perfect time for me. I have lately been getting bogged down with the whole mastering process, easy to forget that I am just a guitar player who wants to write a song or two.
    Sometimes though (and I am thinking of guitar soloing – which I probably waaay over use) I find that while editing you can act as a musician as well, much like how some of the old school guitarists did, the arranging being almost as important…just glad that a razor blade and scotch tape are no longer needed!

  13. HairyScaryMark

    Some fairly typical problems I’ve noticed with songwriting and arrangement………

    The chorus is not easily distinguishable from the rest of the song.

    The chorus has too many words in it and doesn’t make use of repetition in the way a chorus typically does.

    The verse sounds more like a chorus than the chorus does.

    There is no meaningful distinction between the verse and the chorus

    The lead vocal doesn’t naturally jump out in front and carry above all the instruments – especially important during the choruses.

    The instrumentation is too busy and gets in the way of the vocal parts.

    The differences in singing style between sections isn’t properly worked into the arrangement of the song or vice versea. For example, a singer might attempt a ‘soft’ part on the first chorus and a ‘full-on’ part on the final chorus, despite the other instruments playing exactly the same thing. This sort of thing typically needs to coordinated

    A musician doesn’t ‘support the song’ or leaves insufficient ‘room’ for other musicians and effectively ‘dominates’ the band.

    Musician(s) are not sufficiently concerned with writing memorable songs and are only concerned with elaborate parts on their own instrument, irrespective of the musical context.



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