This is a copy of the opening editorial from EQ Magazine, May 1998, written by Lynn Fuston. It was the first time a guest (non-editorial staff writer) was offered the opening editorial in the magazine.


Are Engineers Obsolete?


Back in 1988, I got a call to record the lead vocals for an album. The vocals wouldn't be recorded in a studio, though; the producer had rented a condo and installed a console and Akai 12-track recorder. They only wanted me for one session - to get the vocal settings. When I asked who would be engineering, the producer assured me he was quite capable of punching three buttons: Play, Record and Stop. I bit my tongue and didn't say what I knew to be true: that there is much more to engineering than punching buttons. At the time, I didn't realize that this session marked the beginning of a disturbing trend that continues to escalate.


These days, it seems everybody is an artist/producer/player/programmer/studio owner/and (of course) engineer. Low-cost recording equipment initiated this revolution, and one of the side effects is that engineering may be turning into a lost art. Some artist/producers who put studios in their homes really think that engineers are a luxury, and prefer to spend their engineering budget on equipment. Is an engineer's only contribution to a project knowing when to punch, and how much equalization to add? Does buying better equipment instead of hiring an engineer ultimately produce a better-sounding album? I don't think so.


A great engineer doesn't just make sonic improvements. He or she also provides an experienced second opinion for the artist/producer. An engineer frees up the artist from thinking about technical issues while trying to enhance the creative process. It's simply not possible to give 100 percent of one's attention to the creative and technical aspects of recording at the same time. Biology dictates that we use different hemispheres of our brain for analytical and creative tasks; one or the other will suffer, depending upon our current area of focus.


Is the current state of engineering the result of ego, technology or financial constraints? Some think engineers were necessary "back when we used analog tape and had to worry about tape noise and alignment," asserting that engineers were needed due to primitive recording equipment. These people believe that today's superior recording tools have rendered engineers nonessential. Another factor is shrinking budgets. Many artists who spent enormous amounts of money on studio time and engineers are now buying equipment with the $50K previously budgeted for engineering. This way they are investing in technology, but that investment is not always a "sound" decision.


We should ask ourselves whether we are making better music, and better sounding music, as the result of these changes. History reminds us that string players panicked when string synths appeared, and some thought the LINN drum would threaten drummers' livelihoods. Some commercial studios are still crying about lost business due to home recording. Now it seems the last bastion of expensive high technology, the mastering facilities, are feeling the desktop revolution's financial impact. With each of these successive technological strides, we have gained some things and lost others. Who among us can't tell the difference between sampled and real strings? But financial restrictions discourage spending $5,000 when a $300 synth overdub will satisfy 99 percent of the buyers. Nonetheless, cost isn't everything. The key issue is whether or not we are making better-sounding recordings.


Should engineers reinvent themselves to prove their value? The adage "Diversify or Die," used in the mid-80s to encourage studio owners to broaden their services, seems appropriate for engineers today. Some engineers are setting up workstations for clients, optimizing computers for audio, or getting sounds on a per-project basis. Other engineers are turning to graphics and album artwork or offering editing and mastering services for project recordings. Surround sound and new data-compression technologies also offer new areas where expertise will be crucial.


Ultimately, I strongly believe that the sonic tide will turn. People will realize that the "Emperor's New Digital 8-Track" is not what makes a record sound great, and that inexpensive equipment is a bad substitute for talent and years of experience. Drastic changes are coming in the way we make and mix music and in the technology we use. The future belongs to those who can adapt, and offer services that are perceived as having or adding value. That value must be demanding the absolute best in sonic quality.


-Lynn Fuston

3D Audio Inc


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updated 12:00AM CST on 1.14.2002

*All writing and content is Copyright 2002 by 3D Audio Inc.