If someone asks you what you do, you're likely to say, “I make records,” or “I mix concerts.” After all, it's a natural tendency for us to focus on external actions. But the complementary, and possibly more important, companion to that external action is the internal thought processing that goes into deciding what to do — in other words, listening. If you are engaged in creating recordings or live audio events, then you are, essentially, a professional listener.
If we really want to be good at making records or mixing concerts, then it's crucial to understand our work's true nature. The essence of recording, and other audio and video production, is communication. We realize thoughts, emotions, ambiences, words, melodies, rhythms, etc., for others to experience. As a communication form, creating and recording music is a multilayered process: on the one side, conjuring, encoding and sending the message, and at the other end, decoding, receiving and internalizing it. For this process to be meaningful, compelling and, hopefully, commercially viable, there must be a high level of listening at every stage.
MUSIC AND SOUND IN GENERAL
The most important aspect of becoming a professional sonic artist is developing an educated and analytical ear. A recording engineer, for example, should be familiar with the sounds of all eras of recording. Today, artists draw from that legacy to create their music. Mastery of the sonic identities distinctive to each era facilitates better communication with clients and their music. And if you intend to create something new, it's useful to know what has already been done.
If an engineer takes a project in a particular direction without first communicating with the others involved, then he or she is guilty of questionable business and creative practices — as well as risking alienating them. Communication is key in a collaborative process. The better you are at listening and expressing yourself — at all levels — to your fellow adventurers, the more coherent the direction will be, the better the results and the happier your clients.
As we learn to capture and manipulate sounds, we accumulate knowledge about what methods and tools tend to work well in different applications. However, it's important to resist the tendency to habitually use that technique. One of the few real rules of recording is to listen to the player and his or her instrument before placing microphones. Have them play their part and walk around them while listening. Where does it sound like what you imagine it should? What do you like about it, and what would you like to change?
YOUR INTERNAL EAR AND HEART
The process of recording, in some ways, is comparing the way your work is coming out to what you imagine it should sound like. Perhaps what distinguishes an artist from a technician is how attuned the artist is to his or her inner ear and instincts. The place from which songs seem to come to their writers might be the same place that tells the sonic artist what something should sound like.
The art of listening develops over a lifetime. To the same extent that we need to listen with an ear toward the way the public will hear the piece, we also need to encourage the practice of deep listening in our audiences, our fellow music-makers, our students, protégés and, of course, ourselves.
Mark Rubel, a member of The Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing, has been making records since 1980 at his Pogo Studio (www.pogostudio.net) in Champaign, Ill. With the help of his beloved wife, Nancy, he cultivates many songs, musicians, audiences, students` — and cats!