It's easy to think that amassing a pile of recording equipment is all one needs to do in order to run a successful commercial studio, but it's only a small part of the equation. What are the true skills and mindsets that all successful (and busy) audio professionals really bring to the table?
* Learn how to stay focused while hearing the same song over and over. If you want to imagine this as a career, sit in a room for 10 hours listening to the same song on repeat. I'm totally serious. In fact, pick a song that you personally don't care for or want to hear. Focus on different aspects of the song on each pass and take notes.
* You must be a dedicated music fan. As a producer and engineer I feel it is important to try to know about more music than my clients. Understanding and absorbing a wide variety of genres, artists, and albums, as well as knowing the history behind most of this music allows me to talk intelligently about music referenced during a session, including how it was created and recorded.
* Watch bands live and understand the interaction that is happening on stage. If a bassist turns to the drummer with a smile or a scowl, figure out why and what happened. Is the singer's glance across the stage a warning not to mess up or a subtle encouragement to keep playing as well as they are?
* You need to know when to have an opinion, and when to express it. I can remember every instance where I feel I should have kept my mouth shut. The wrong statement at the wrong time can derail everything. It is your job to know when your thoughts are not needed, and if they are, who to express them to. Not everyone needs to hear everything said during a session.
* You'd better have (or develop) some people skills. Can you read the mood of a room? Can you pick up on individual people's moods? Can you get a group of people to work together on a project without coming across like a bully or dictator? Are you able to control a situation without others suspecting what you are doing? Can you integrate into a group of people you've just met? Can you do that for a limited time? Understanding people and personal dynamics within a recording session is key.
* Keeping sessions on track and productive is so important, even if you are not labeled as the producer. Learning how to curtail recording ideas that will simply waste time without insulting the idea's originator is important. But, then again, accepting outside ideas is important as well. It's certainly a balancing act!
* Can you let everything go at the end of the day? Criticism thrown your way might be simply an artist's insecurity or fears. Or maybe they really did catch you messing up. You'd better be able to reset your brain and walk in the next day with a smile on your face.
* Remember this one thing: It's not about YOU. It's never about YOU. As a producer, engineer, musician – whatever capacity you are in outside of being the artist – we are there to serve the music, the songs, and the artist. I've seen too many inexperienced producers dive into a project and practically destroy everything good because they are not keeping this in mind. You are only here now to help the situation in front of you, and to help create the best music possible.
* Listen to all conversations and anticipate everything. Have open mics in the live room and listen in between takes to hear what the client's needs and worries are. Then, if you have time, act on these needs before anyone asks. At least be ready to act, and have the problem solved (in your head) in advance whenever humanly possible.
* Train your pitch. This was my weakest skill going into professional recording. Now I can spot bad (relative) pitch a mile away. Record yourself singing and then play it back into a tuner. Play with Auto-tune and see what it needs to do to “correct” a bum note. Look at vocals, violin, or slide guitars on a spectral audio analyzer; you can see where the pitch drifts. Then decide when sharp or flat is actually emotional, or if it's just plain distracting.
* It's not about your music. You don't want to know how many times an intern or assistant on a session has started blathering on about their band, recording project, or some such thing without any real prompting or need to discuss.
Do not be this person.
* Know when to shut up, but know when to speak up. Know when to document and take notes, but also know when things should be sorted out later. Know when to produce, but also know when to simply press record. In other words, keep working, and keep learning, from both your successes and mistakes. Knowledge will come the longer you stay on your path.
This End Rant was modified from my outline for a Project Studio Expo talk that I gave on October 31, 2015, at the 139th AES convention in New York City. Thanks to the fine folks at Sound On Sound Magazine for having me involved over the last few years!