This post was originally published on Audio-Issues.
As an engineer or producer, you have to do a lot of different kinds of listening.
You have to listen carefully to the raw sounds that your microphones are capturing. You have to listen to the balance of sounds when you mix. You have to listen to reference tracks to make sure you’re working in the right direction. You might also have to listen to your artist’s other recordings so you can produce a consistent sound.
All these kinds of listening have something in common: they’re all about focussing closely and carefully on the sound. After all, that’s why you get paid the big bucks – because you can hear things at mere mortals would never notice, and you understand how that translates to settings on your gear.
But there’s another kind of listening that’s just as important.
It’s the kind of listening where you’re not focussing on the sound. Instead, you’re focussing on the meaning of the words. Not the lyrics of the song, but the things the artist or musician says to you before, during and after the session.
It can seem simple when you’re in them, but the conversations you have with your artists are complex and multi-dimensional. On the surface, you probably discuss creative direction – issues like style, instrumentation, your own creative input, etc. You probably also discuss project management details such as schedules, budget, payment arrangements, contact expectations, deliverables, etc.
But there’s another level below the surface. If music is what happens between the notes, meaning is what happens between the words.
Whether your artist explicitly verbalises it or not, s/he is also telling you about their project sensitivities (lots of time but not much money? Or the opposite?), flexibility, preferred balance of leadership/followership, level of ambition, work ethic, etc. Your ability to read these can make all the difference between establishing a productive long-term relationship or never seeing the artist again and not knowing why. You probably won’t be told when you cross an invisible line. You probably won’t notice when you unknowingly insult or offend someone. All you’ll see is that the artist doesn’t call you back.
On the other hand, knowing the artist’s sensitivities means you can make sure you stay on their good side. It doesn’t necessarily mean addressing those sensitivities explicitly or even obviously by raising them as conversation topics. Often, being sensitive is as subtle as knowing what not to say. It means projecting that you share similar values to the artist. When done well, it helps build trust, openness and understanding.
It’s not about being fake. You shouldn’t pretend to be something you’re not. But if you’re working with like-minded artists, being fake isn’t necessary (and if you do have to be fake, chances are you shouldn’t be working with that person anyway). It’s about being a trustworthy professional. It’s about being the kind of person that artists are proud to recommend to their friends. It’s about making people feel comfortable.
And you can only do it by listening.
You’re already good at listening to sound. Don’t forget to also listen to meaning.