A Little Knowledge Can Be A Dangerous Thing
On most projects that I produce, I prefer to engineer as well I feel more attached to the project with my hands on the equipment, and I can get my point across more easily by demonstrating my ideas, rather than always expressing them verbally. The downside: An engineer gets advice — whether he needs it or not.
On a recent project I was producing, the manager of the artist was a former live sound engineer who loved to sit in the control room. He was pleasant at first and had a sense of humor. But little by little, he began to make distracting comments while I was concentrating on various mix ideas. He had no way of knowing what my intentions were, whether or not an idea was finished, or what stage of development it was in. While I was working on a string sound, for example, he only heard the basic patch. I knew my intention was to play the string line, triple it across four octaves, distort it like hell, and gate it though the hi-hat track. But as producer, I didn’t feel the need to explain myself.
After ignoring him a couple of times during these episodes, I figured he would get the hint. No such luck. He was determined to speak his mind despite the fact that his comments were often irrelevant. Once, after a major edit to the song — I extended the chorus an extra two bars and rearranged bridge — I threw him a bone. I turned to him and asked, “What do you think?”
When you ask a question like that, you’d better be prepared for the answer. I wasn’t. I immediately regretted asking the question and felt I had opened a floodgate. It’s not that I mind comments. I usually appreciate the feedback when I ask for it. Well, I asked for it. After all the extensive edits, his first comment was, “The shaker needs more EQ,”
Since I wasn’t anywhere near the mixing stage, my raised-eyebrow response was ‘Whaa?” He jumped at the chance to go on. “Hmm,” he continued, “I’d say 150 Hz, 400 Hz, 850 Hz, 1.5 k, and 1.8 k — no, better make that 1.7 k.” Now he was pleased with himself. I decided that this was quickly becoming an exercise in psychological warfare, and I saw two options. For one, I could tell him nicely that I didn’t need any more suggestions, and that he didn’t know a sine wave from a French wave. But I knew that this approach would alienate him, and he would make it his business to dog the track because the shaker “didn’t have enough EQ” — whatever that meant. Also, managers can make strong adversaries. Saying the wrong thing could turn a promising project into a never ending exercise in frustration.
The second option was one I learned from my brother Larry, the Freudian psychotherapist. He had told me early on, when I was butting heads with the drummer in my band, that the secret to dealing with dominant personalities was to give the person something to be in charge of. This way, the person’s importance would be recognized, and he or she wouldn’t feel the need to challenge every comment and decision. So I took this road, and gave the soundman/manager a job well-suited to his skills: Manager in Charge of EQ on the Shaker Track during the tracking phase of production.
Every once in a while I would turn to him and say, “Is the shaker too loud? Does it have enough 746 Hz?” With this critical decision in his hands alone, he stayed busy, and every once in a while I’d even ask him about the compression on the wood block. He seemed content with this, and didn’t make any more comments, leaving me free to experiment and create. (Thank you, Dr. Larry.)
When the artist arrived at the studio a few hours late the manager was raving about how hot the track sounded. He now had a personal stake in it, having contributed to the overall production in the form of shaker EQ and wood block compression. The manager was happy, the artist was happy, I was happy. Happy people. Ahh, the power of empowerment.