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No Country for Old (Rap) Men: Three Cheers For The Engineer

Has modern-day music consumption sent good album mixing to the trash?

Posted by Robbie Ettelson

In terms of unheralded, largely thankless roles in the music industry, the humble engineer would have to be right up there alongside managers and publicists. Traditionally, a recording engineer is responsible for ensuring that recording levels are properly set, microphones are optimally positioned, any effects are finely tuned and the final mixes are on point – but it’s the kind of role that can vary enormously from case to case. When rock bands began to experiment with manipulating sounds and looping tape in the late ’60s, the engineers were the ones who executed the ideas for them as best they could, creating new techniques – often completely by accident – along the way.

Within the rap world, the engineer was of particular importance during the period when digital samplers began to infiltrate recording studios and the tools used to create hip-hop records developed beyond the classic drum machine and two turntables set-up. The period up until the early nineties saw a very blurry line between the role of the ‘producer’ and the engineer, where exceptional talents such as Ivan ‘DJ Doc’ Rodriguez and Paul C. McKasty were pivotal in the creation of many seminal rap records yet were only given a minor technical credit on the label of the 12-inch, if at all.

The role of a producer with instrument based music is usually more akin to that of a film director, whereby they bring together the elements of songwriting, performance, and atmosphere into a coherent whole (unless you’re Rick Rubin and your method just involves popping by the studio once a fortnight with the odd barefoot nap on your couch if you’re one of his ‘special’ clients). Rap music now considers the producer of a record to be whoever put together the beat and emailed it to the rapper, but it wasn’t always that way.

In the case of Marley Marl, who was originally billed as ‘The Engineer All-Star’, he was the guy who had the equipment and technical know-how to program the machines to make the magic happen. For the last twenty-odd years, every Juice Crew member (bar MC Shan) has been banging on about how they supplied most of the loops used on their first albums but didn’t get any credit. I can’t blame them for wanting a co-production credit of some sort, but it’s important not to undervalue the importance of what these engineers/producers/studio wizards actually bring to the table.

Finding a great loop or drum break is nothing to be sniffed at, but hand the same record to 20 people with a MPC in front of them and the results will all be different, even if the variations are only subtle. And that’s only at the beatmaking stage – there’s still vocals to be recorded, effects added and mixes to be carried out. All of this shapes the final result and colours the sound. Consider the importance of the legendary SSL (Solid State Logic) analog studio console on the sound and feel of Biggie’s Ready To Die and Mobb Deep’s Hell On Earth.  Even when a drum break is chopped-up, the way that the empty space is used can shape the finished result. The precision that Paul C. and CJ Moore would bring to the table is a big part of why Ultramagnetic’s first album still sounds to unique, as is the way that DJ Doc’s fingerprints make By All Means Necessary a classic; and the unmistakable ‘project’ sound that Marley gave Rakim, Biz, and Shan in his sister’s Queensbridge flat.

When I interviewed veteran engineer Mario Rodriguez in 2010, he shared his thoughts on the modern recording process: “Music’s becoming so sterile and homogenised because the sounds are not coming from the box and the acoustics are being taken away from the equation. There are things that could be done that were absolutely unique to a studio, because of the actual acoustics of the room. Maybe for musicians it’s a good thing because they can deal with the music more directly without having to deal with the acoustics, but the creation of the sound the old-fashioned way was a very big part of the excitement of the music of all. Whenever I’m working on a mix these days, if I happen to work in a space that has some acoustical interest I will always find an instrument that I can feed through a speaker and mic to get a unique sound that’s never gonna be recreated anyplace else. Somebody’s bathroom, for example.”

Ever since the end of the era of record company excess and big budget professional recording studios, the role of the recording engineer in rap music has almost become extinct. The freedom and room to experiment that laptop recording has offered for the past decade has come at a price – the quality of the final mix. There are still some artists who have the money or the artistic pride to insist on sticking with more traditional mixing and mastering methods, but for the majority it’s neither cost effective nor something that most of their audience even notices. Some of the blame can be placed on the way that music consumption has evolved, where a lot of fans are listening to everything on headphones through their computer, phone, or tablet rather than in their Jeeps, Lex Coups, Bimaz, and Benz. Combine this with the gradual acceptance of overly compressed sound, due to the rise of the MP3 format, the ultra-loud mastering trend and an apparent lack of reliable monitor speakers in home studios and the end result is a huge pile of poorly mixed rap albums floating about.

Perhaps more people need to take a leaf out of DJ Premier’s book and test all final mixes in a van, or adopt the previously quoted Mario’s tactic: “I used to have a set of car speakers that I put in a cardboard box, filled it with sawdust and a little cork. I would put that in the middle of the console, and go to that when I was checking the mixes. It was actually a pair of Pioneer speakers that I had in my old Volkswagen Scirocco.” While there’s little chance of a return to the glory days of professional studios, the least we can hope for is that more people check their final mix-downs through sand-filled speakers or cheap clock radios!

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