Sunday, March 8, 2009

FFW06: Relativity & the whispering Chinese engineer of the year

In mid 1999 I was invited to be a judge for the categories of Engineer of the Year and Producer of the Year for the ARIA Awards (Australian Recording Industry Association). These are very important awards within the small Australian music industry, so I took this invitation seriously. The winners can look forward to regular work for the coming 12 months or so if they play their cards right.

Chinese Whispers is a game where a message is passed from one person to another by word of mouth; typically by whispering so that no-one else can hear it. After passing through five or more people, the message delivered at the end is quite different to that at the beginning.

Relativity & the whispering Chinese engineer of the year
Wednesday, 8th June, 1999. 10:30AM. The following telephone conversation takes place:

Philip: “Hi Greg. There’s a letter here for you from ARIA.”
Greg: “What’s it say?”

Philip: “Um, something about voting and Engineer and Producer Of The Year. You’ve been selected…”

Greg: “Oh, cool! ARIA’s Engineer and Producer of the Year awards, huh? I accept!”

Philip: “Okay, gotta go, got some clients here at the office, we’re designing ads for them.”

Greg: “Thanks mate, see you later…”

I was taking a break from giving a lecture at Sydney’s JMC Academy, and some of the students in the room must have overheard my side of the conversation. Likewise, the clients back in the office must have overheard Philip’s side of the conversation. Well, word spreads quickly in a small industry, and this was no exception. Like a game of Chinese Whispers, the message got more and more distorted until I started getting congratulated for winning all kinds of things.

Let me put an end to this rumour right now. I was not nominated for Engineer Of The Year, I was not nominated for Producer Of The Year, and I was not nominated for anything else – much to my regret! The letter was, in fact, an invitation to vote for the categories of Producer Of The Year and Engineer Of The Year for the 13th Annual ARIA Music Awards. I was flattered.

Here’s how the voting system works. ARIA send out forms with all the preliminary nominations listed on them (approximately 30 entries for each category). Each preliminary nomination includes the name of the engineer or producer and the recordings to judge them by. It’s a preferential voting system in which you list your top three candidates – in order of preference – on the supplied voting form and send it off to an independent auditing firm who tally up the scores. Immaculate procedure!

I don’t know how or why ARIA chose me to be part of their ‘Specialist Voting Panel’. Perhaps because I’m always preaching sound quality in the pages of AudioTechnology, perhaps in recognition of the support we gave them during their fight against the Parallel Imports bill, or perhaps because someone else dobbed me in. Either way, I considered it an honour. But with that honour came a certain responsibility, and the more I thought about it, the heavier that responsibility became. How do you determine who should be awarded Engineer or Producer Of The Year? What criteria do you use? It’s not as simple as it seems.

Consider the category of Engineer Of The Year. Scanning the list of preliminary nominations revealed a decent cross-section of recordings to judge by, from big budget mainstream artists to low budget ‘indie’ artists. And therein lay my first problem. A big budget recording, by its very nature, is likely to have a better overall sound quality than a low budget recording. Bigger budgets mean more time and better equipment at your disposal – both important contributors to creating a good sound. So, a low budget recording that sounds ‘just okay’ may actually represent better engineering skill than a big budget recording that sounds ‘brilliant’. It’s all relative.

Big budget recording artists usually have better quality instruments and a lot more studio experience under their belts - more factors that make it easier to get a good sound. Conversely, lower budget recording artists generally have less studio experience, cheaper musical instruments, and greater time constraints. All these things conspire against getting a good sound, and make the engineer’s job that much harder. Getting a commercially acceptable sound under these circumstances requires an enormous amount of engineering skill. Once again, it’s all relative. (And we haven’t even touched on the benefits of big budget mastering…)

Then I thought about what goes on during a session. Without being there, how can you really tell who was a good engineer and who wasn’t? Engineering involves much more than just getting a great sound. It’s also about handling the numerous stresses of a session, internalising your own frustrations while outwardly projecting a positive vibe, and continually applying the right psychology – all with the aim of extracting the best performance from the artist. Without a good performance, a great sound is meaningless.

There’s also the style of music to consider, and its context. Some styles lend themselves far more readily to good sound than others. For example, a female vocalist crooning love songs is likely to sound better than a thrash guitar band screaming angst! Yet, each one has to be considered in the context of the market it is aimed at, and how well the recording meets that market’s expectations.

Each nominated engineer’s level of involvement also had to be taken into account. While some engineers tracked, mixed and produced the complete recording, others were only credited for tracking (the mixing was invariably credited to an international engineer or producer). How do you judge an engineer who was not credited for mixing, or whose only engineering credits are shared with a handful of US-based engineers?

Finally, I thought long and hard about what it meant to be voted Engineer Of The Year. In a small market like Australia it probably means you’ve got a guaranteed income for the next 12 months. And if you’re smart you’ll choose your clients wisely, aiming to firmly establish your reputation as a ‘hit maker’ (or whatever you want to be) so the work doesn’t suddenly dry up when the next Engineer Of The Year is announced.

Considering all these points, I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of judging Engineer Of The Year purely on the basis of recorded sound quality. So, for each preliminary nomination, I also considered: 1) the facilities used for recording, mixing and mastering; 2) the engineer’s studio experience and history; 3) the artist’s studio experience and history; 4) the engineer’s level of involvement; and 5) how well the recording met the market’s expectations. I applied a similar thought process when voting for Producer Of The Year.

After many hours researching and listening to the nominated recordings, and considering all the other factors listed herein, I think I made the right decisions. I don’t know who the other members of the Specialist Voting Panel are or what methods they used to choose their preferences, but I’ll be thrilled if I’ve managed to pick a winner or two. Either way, I’m convinced I took the best and fairest approach I possibly could.

What would you do?

In the following years I became increasingly disillusioned with the voting process for these awards, as later First Words will show...

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