About Being a Good Recording Engineer, Thanks to Malcolm Cecil

Malcolm Cecil is a noted audio engineer, producer, technical consultant, musician, arranger, composer and a pioneer of electronic music. He is particularly known for his work with Stevie Wonder. Among his many accolades, he was awarded a GRAMMY for best engineered non-classical recording for “Innervisions.”

In the fall of 2011, he was the Larry Berk artist-in-residence at SUNY Ulster, Stone Ridge, NY. Here are some tips about being a good recording engineer that were gleaned from one of his public presentations at the college.

  • •Understand the three points of view that make up a recording, namely that of the artist, producer and engineer.
  • •The engineer captures the performance coaxed out of the artist by the producer, while not interfering with the creative process. To be a good engineer you have to know what it’s like to be an artist or producer.
  • •An engineer must be transparent. Hold your tongue, Cecil said, and think about what you are going to say before you say it. The artist and producer do not want to deal with negative vibes or problems.
  • •Good engineering is about being 100% present. An engineer should notice everything, and if something needs to be addressed, that should be brought to the attention of the appropriate person whose job it is to deal with it.
  • •Cecil observed that a lot of people want to be seen engineering. He advised that you have to suppress your ego. Let the producer and artist battle it out for ego.
  • •Keep tape rolling or the hard disk recording. As an engineer, your responsibility is to make sure you don’t miss anything. Catch a performance on the first take. Artists are often blown away that you recorded that first take, even without their knowledge. Often that’s the take they like best. Cecil said that many of the hits he worked on were first takes.
  • •If the artist wants to re-do a track that you as the engineer think is good, don’t record over it or erase it. Record the next track, but keep the first, and make a note of the one you liked.
  • •And speaking of notes, keep prodigious notes about the entire session, and document everything you do minute by minute.