Bobby Owsinski is a long time musician and producer, but is best known as an author, coach and educator. He has written 32 books including his 10-volume “Handbook” series. I first learned about Bobby when he was a guest panelist on the AudioNowcast, and he has since become a regular contributor. Many of his books are perennially on my Christmas list and I now have both the Recording and Mixing Engineer’s Handbooks. Since the format and aim of the books are similar, I decided to review them together.
Bobby’s philosophy for his books is consistent and very sound. He has had, over the course of his career, the opportunity to interact with and interview many of the top names in the business, such as Al Schmitt, Ed Cherney, George Massenberg and Bruce Swedien. He has also observed that changes in the studio system have led to the virtual elimination of the master/apprentice format for training the next generation of audio engineers. Many schools have opened or added audio engineering coursework to fill the gap, but for many of us, especially hobbyists, we are left trying to figure things out on our own.
Bobby’s Handbook series takes interviews with the top professionals and distills them down to the most helpful tips and insights, arranging them in a format that makes things easy to find, digest and apply. Then, to top it all off, the second half of the book is the entire text of the relevant interviews. There is a wealth of usable information and inspiration in these books that I find hard to describe without resorting to what sounds like hyperbole.
(Review note: I have the second edition of each of these books – currently the third edition is available. The primary difference between the editions is that additional interviews have been added and the tips and practices from those interviews incorporated into the text. The material has also been slightly rearranged in ways that make a lot of sense to me – ways that tend to eliminate the few critiques I had about these books.)
The Recording Engineer’s Handbook
This volume starts with a basic introduction to recording equipment, spending the majority of time on microphones. Bobby gives a good history of the device along with why different microphone types sound different and how to use those differences to advantage in recording. He also covers a lot of other types of outboard gear that can come into play in recording, such as equalizers and compressors with notes on how these are typically used. The last “equipment” chapter is about DAW recording, providing a fundamental description of what is going on “inside the box”.
Once the equipment is introduced, Bobby gets into the meat of the book – microphone placement. Starting with basic principals of mic placement and stereo mic’ing techniques, he dedicates two whole chapters to setting up and mic’ing drum kits. This is followed by the longest chapter of the technical half of the book, where he covers methods for mic’ing up individual instruments – everything from accordion to djembe to vocals. It should be noted that Bobby makes it very clear that these are presented as starting points – the sound of the instrument and the sound of the room are the most important factors in determining exactly where to place a microphone, so the use of one’s ears is mandatory.
The next several chapters cover the basics of a recording session. These are some technical tips as well as some of the “soft skills” so necessary in working closely with other people. He talks about setting up cue mixes for the musicians, how to conduct a tracking session, and how to record overdubs.
The last chapter in the first section of the book is dedicated to surround recording. While this has not taken off like Bobby expected it to, it is still good knowledge to have – especially if you ever end up doing any recording for picture, which is the most frequent expression of surround sound.
The second section of the book is 50 pages of transcripts of the interviews where Bobby pulled the information for the first section of the book. There are 11 interviews with the likes of Chuck Ainlay (George Straight, Dire Staits), Steve Albini (Nirvana, Cheap Trick), Frank Filipetti (Foreigner, Barbra Streisand), and Al Schmitt (Steely Dan, Ray Charles). The interviews are both educational and inspirational. Reading them made me want to go and record something.
The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook
The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook is laid out with the same philosophy as the Recording Engineer’s Handbook. In this volume Bobby starts out with what mixing is with some philosophy, as well as pointing out characteristics of some popular styles (Nashville, London, etc.). The next step is the preparation for mixing, which many new and hobbyist engineers likely overlook. Topics include monitoring and the nuts and bolts of preparing a mix session in your recording software, introducing topics such as editing, effects and subgroups.
From here he gets into the act of mixing itself, breaking the mix down into 6 elements that need to be addressed when making mix decisions. These elements are balance (loud to soft), panorama (left to right), frequency (fitting the puzzle pieces), dimension (front to back and other effects), dynamics (consistency of volume) and interest, which is as much an artistic arranging function as mixing.
The last technical chapters are advanced techniques, such as automation and gain staging (another overlooked, very important lesson), and a final chapter on Mastering. This last chapter is a very brief overview, as Bobby has another book, The Audio Mastering Handbook, that covers that topic in detail.
Similar to the Recording Engineer’s Handbook, this volume is completed by transcripts of the interviews that were used to glean the techniques and tips for the rest of the book. Weighing in at 22 interviews and over 100 pages, these words are just as inspiring as the previous book.
In summary, you can’t go wrong with these books. Bobby O maintains the conviction that no matter what he teaches you, you still have to try things for yourself to find out what works in each situation. These are just starting points, but they will save you a lot of heartache. My own personal favorite moment came when I applied a lesson from the Mixing Engineer’s Handbook to a piano part I was remixing from a friend’s tracks and his response – “what the heck did you do with the piano? It sounds great!”
What more can I say?