It’s difficult to define what a studio engineer is without drowning in jargon. Put simply, it’s their job to ensure that, when the music gets to your ears, it sounds as good as possible.
They’re responsible for managing studio equipment to capture sound at the desired quality. Once the recordings are arranged, an engineer (often the same person working during the studio sessions) will mix and master the resulting tracks. It’s their technical know-how that brings an artist’s vision to fruition. Because of the unique position they occupy, engineers become technical problem solvers, artistic enablers and repositories of fascinating studio stories. The best engineers have, as well as an exceptional pair of ears, the soft skills needed to gain an artist’s trust as they turn visions to vibrations.
Yet, despite their outsize influence on what the listener ultimately hears, engineers tend to forgo the public plaudits directed towards their colleagues.
Here, we attempt to redress the imbalance.
Dr. Susan Rogers
Among the world’s most revered engineers is Susan Rogers, best known as the staff engineer who helmed the tapes for Prince during his whirlwind mid-80s period – a run which produced Purple Rain, Sign o’ the Times, and The Black Album, among others. Rogers’ work, and her reflections on it, highlight the critical role of the studio engineer.
Speaking with Chal Ravens on the latest episode of Unsung, Crack Magazine’s podcast with Sonos, Rogers says she can hear how her recording processes have rippled throughout the ages. She recalls listening to 2020 Mercury Prize-winner Michael Kiwanuka and recognising echoes of the work she did on Robben Ford’s 1999 track If – not in the composition, but in the specific recording techniques and processes she developed over thousands of studio hours. She says it’s these moments – in which she can hear her influence radiating out – that she feels most proud to have had the opportunity to inspire others.
When Rogers started out, the role of the engineer was deeply intertwined with the analogue functions of the studio. It was the engineer’s responsibility to ensure that everything the producer wanted to be recorded was captured on the reel. Technology has since had a dramatic impact on how the job is done and has, in some ways, lowered the barrier to entry. But Rogers worries that a shift towards people trying to do everything themselves, simply because the technology allows it, is insidious: these are specialist skills, she says, and spreading your skill set too thinly makes it difficult to become truly world class at any one thing.
In recent years, Rogers has turned her attention to teaching and academia, gaining a PhD in music and psychology, and working as an associate professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Michalis ‘MsM Engineer’ Michael
Childhood friends with JME, Michalis Michael – whose ‘MsM Engineer’ moniker you’ll hear Skepta ad libbing with on any number of sets and songs – has been a core member of the Adenugas’ Boy Better Know collective since before the BBK name was solidified.
MsM made a name for himself sharpening a whole raft of now-classic grime mixtapes, including Frisco’s Back 2 Da Lab series, Neckle Camp’s Straight Necklin’ and Wiley’s Tunnel Vision tapes.
Sessions took place in his bedroom at his mum and dad’s house, with a blanket-draped wardrobe serving as a makeshift vocal booth. He’s been Skepta’s go-to ever since, and more recently has become the engineer of choice for the UK’s new wave of rap talent – credited on tracks with the likes of Mist, Headie One, slowthai, Young T & Bugsey and Pa Salieu.
One-time B-boy, sometime actor, longtime graffiti artist and, more recently, a committed yoga practitioner, Goldie’s most indelible mark has been left on the drum’n’bass scene. But his process of writing music has always had an engineer at its core.
The Metalheadz lynchpin has worked with numerous engineers and producers over the years – including Heist and 4Hero – but his work with Rob Playford on his debut album, 1995’s Timeless, is arguably the sound that most will know him for. Timeless was written with Goldie coming up with ideas and arrangements that Playford would use his programming and production expertise to translate.
As the founder of the Moving Shadow imprint, Playford was already an influential member of the jungle scene. Speaking with Sound On Sound magazine in 1998, Playford described the unique chemistry he had with the golden-toothed creative: “[Goldie] could describe things to me that others wouldn’t begin to understand. I would then have a go at it, and he’d get excited that here was somebody who could turn this sound or style in his head into something that he could actually hear.”
Playford’s description of the pair’s working process is, in many ways, an apt summation of the engineer’s function. “I was like an interface, but an interactive one; I could see the direction he was going in and try and take him that little bit further with my knowledge of the gear. Then that extra step would kick him up on to another level,” he said at the time. “That’s my role; being able to understand what someone is telling me and not just doing it, but showing them what else the technology is capable of, based on that seed of an idea.”
If there’s a left-field pop record you’ve liked in the last half a decade or so, there’s a good chance that Italian producer, mixer and engineer Marta Salogni has had a hand in it somewhere. Her credits list runs from Björk to Goldfrapp, via The xx, Frank Ocean, Sampha, FKA twigs and any number of other acts for whom artful precision has become a calling card.
Salogni retains a deep connection with the analogue origins of her craft. She possesses a collection of Revox and Ferrograph reel-to-reel tape recorders, and experiments with loop-based songwriting under her Sister Static alias. Last year, she produced a haunting reflection on Donald Trump’s impeachment trials – running tapes and live loops as the proceedings were broadcast. Salogni’s love of analogue isn’t limited to how she makes music, either: she landed her first studio role after dropping off handwritten, wax-stamped letters at studios around London.
Yet Salogni, like Rogers before her, remains a rarity in the audio industry by her very existence. Hers is a profession still mired by an extraordinary gender imbalance, with as few as five percent of positions in the industry occupied by women. Organisations such as SoundGirls and Saffron are working to address this disparity.
Fumez The Engineer
The UK drill scene is making stars of its engineers.
Abstract beat tags common in hip-hop and grime have been replaced by more functional identifiers. Fumez is a good example: his tag is just his name and his professional title (“The Engineer”). It’s an approach that befits the flattened digital landscape in which rappers rip ‘Type Beat’ instrumentals from YouTube first, then go looking for the person who made it.
Like many modern engineers, Fumez and his peers often act as producers too – writing and arranging beats and recording with MCs directly, before mixing and mastering. Some, like Fumez or south Londoner Tweeko – who also run their own studio spaces – will have helped shape far more songs than even the most dedicated scene devotees would recognise.
Discover more unknown pioneers in Unsung, our new podcast with Sonos Radio. Subscribe here.