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The METAlliance Report: Let’s Not Lose the Art in Engineering

By Chuck Ainlay. METAlliance co-founder and multiple Grammy-winning producer/engineer Chuck Ainlay discusses what the art in engineering is and can be, offering suggestions on how to develop one’s engineering chops while finding inspiration along the way.

The METAlliance—Al Schmitt, Chuck Ainlay, Ed Cherney, Elliot Scheiner, Frank Filipetti and George Massenburg—has the dual goals of mentoring through “In Session” events, and conveying to audio professionals and semi-professionals our choices for the highest quality hardware and software by shining a light on products worthy of consideration through a certification process and product reviews in this column. Its mission is to promote the highest quality in the art and science of recording music.

Wikipedia defines art as “a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author’s imaginative, conceptual ideas, or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.”

Going by this definition, it’s easy to see how recording engineering can and should be considered art. I grew up listening to recordings and marveled at the imagination and technical skill that my favorite engineers had acquired that enabled them to make such emotive records. I would follow their work and when I’d see a new recording one of them had done, I’d buy it because I knew it would take me on an amazing journey through sonic wonderlands. Sometimes the music itself would let me down, but the recordings were always something special. I’m so fortunate that many of those engineers that I followed I now consider friends, as they make up the METAlliance.

Okay, I’m going to show my age a bit, but in part I’m bragging as well, since I feel like I grew up through the Golden Age of Recording. I was about 10 years old when I began to understand that there were differences in the quality of the recordings I listened to. This was about the time The Beatles arrived in the United States. From then on, the impact and imagination of recorded music exploded, partly due to technological changes. Within a few short years recordings transitioned from a few microphones recorded directly to mono to incorporating multichannel recording and overdubs. I began to hear huge setups with multiple, synchronized multitrack machines and mixes done using automation on massive analog consoles.

FM radio played a big part in the album becoming the main release medium. The longer format fostered bolder exploration, as artists had a chance to create music that wasn’t just for mainstream consumption. Engineers were creating new sounds and became important contributors to the creation of the music. The engineering craft became more of an art itself, and the skills and knowledge required to operate all the equipment was very specialized.

The METAlliance Report: Walk the Room

The METAlliance Report: What’s Next?

The METAlliance Report: Where We Are

The METAlliance Report: Critical Listening and Critical Evaluation

This brings me back to our definition of art. The art in engineering is not just the imaginative interpretation, but also the required technical skill necessary to actualize the creation and to capture the musical creation in a manner that doesn’t compromise the intent.

Just having a pair of ears, an Apollo and a multitude of plug-ins on every track doesn’t make a great recording. It takes years of experience to gain the knowledge of what mic to use and where to put it, as well as when and how to apply those plug-ins.

I’ve had many conversations over the years with Mark Knopfler about working on projects that were, shall we say, less than desirable. He would wonder why I would accept work on some of these projects, and my reply was that they prepared me to have the necessary skills to make his recordings.

I guess it helps to love what you do, and working nearly every day for over 40 years has allowed me to adapt to new technology and stay dialed in. Here’s an idea: Try introducing something new into your workflow every day—like a new microphone or preamp while recording, a technique that you may have heard or read about, a different plug-in or piece of outboard gear while mixing, or maybe just try reversing the panning from the way you usually do it. You’ll find a new perspective and maybe some new inspiration for the project you’re working on.

Here’s where I get into trouble, but it just has to be said: I feel there’s a lack of respect for the art of engineering borne from the convenience of the workstation approach to recording and mixing. Practically everyone now thinks they can engineer, and judging by some of the recordings that are sent to me to fix—oops, I mean mix—I think that’s fair to say.

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I’m not suggesting that things should go back to yesteryear, but what I’m hoping to convey is that recordings are a sum of what goes into them. If every component is recorded skillfully and with some sort of concept, then the final outcome is so much greater.

New streaming technology with MQA allows for Hi-Res Audio, and Dolby Atmos brings us total immersive sound. My hope is that the applied art of engineering prevails and fosters great new listening experiences that will reengage the listener.

METAlliance •

With four Grammys, two CMAs and 10 ACM awards, producer/engineer Chuck Ainlay has recorded and/or mixed well over 300 albums, including work with legendary and current country artists such as George Strait, Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, Lee Ann Womack, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris and the Dixie Chicks. Chuck has placed his distinctive production and engineering stamp on projects with mainstream pop artists such as Dire Straits and the near entirety of Mark Knopfler’s solo career, as well as Peter Frampton, Lionel Richie, James Taylor, Jewel, Bob Seger, Pentatonix and Sheryl Crow. His work in immersive audio has resulted in groundbreaking projects such as the 25th anniversary remix of Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive and the Grammy Award-winning 20th anniversary remix of the Dire Straits album Brothers in Arms.