Photo: Courtesy of Gena Johnson
Producer & Engineer Gena Johnson: How To Create Total Harmony In A Recording Session
In a brand-new editorial series, the Recording Academy has asked its membership to reflect on their their career journey, the current state of the music industry and what we can do to collectively and positively move forward in the current social climate. Below, producer and engineer and Nashville chapter member Gena Johnson shares her open letter with GRAMMY.com readers.
Moving to Nashville not knowing a soul (like most young engineers), I discovered it takes a while to find your footing. It takes even longer to feel a part of a true community, to build your tribe and to carve out a slice of the pie that tastes best to you. For me, it happened in waves. The community I love and connect with continues to grow more lush and empathetic as the years go by.
When artists and I collaborate, we strive to create music that represents them—not to just get songs on the radio. Before we even begin working on music, the focus and energy has to be right. Whatever it takes to get there, I’m in. When the energy is right, the music will be right. Every record or side I’m a part of is unique, and in turn moves the needle toward my internal growth as a human and as an engineer.
I feel exorbitantly fortunate to have been in the rooms that I have. Sometimes I have to pinch myself even dreaming up what that would be like to my younger self. Starting off as an intern, then assistant engineer, to production assistant and then making the transition to head engineer and producer, there are so many things to consider.
Each one of these roles, at the most basic level, is a customer service job. The most important thing to remember is: the artist must feel heard and respected in all ways. If you care about each person in the room, whether you are at the bottom or at the top of the "hierarchy," you will go far. I’m not saying that you must care about every intimate detail of everyone’s lives. But to care for someone in a recording situation is to ensure their comfort and anticipate their needs. Get out of your own head and tune into the signs around you. Perspective is a blessing. Give your complete self every time, or you could miss something really important. Even simple things like getting hot tea for the artist instead of having them get it themselves contributes to keeping the artist in the moment. It is their day. Customer service. Kindness, caring, positive energy, vibe.
With each new project, endeavor, new producer or new artist, be sure to keep an open mind. If you don’t know how to do something, even technically, show up as your absolute best self—no one can fault you for that. Leave all personal drama at the door. Be honest with yourself and others. If there is something going on in your personal life that will affect your role, express that prior to beginning of the session and, in advance, find a substitute that has greater or equal skill to you. It happens. Be a pro and handle it professionally.
As an engineer, the way something sounds is your opinion. If the producer isn’t digging what the engineer is providing as a soundscape for the record, the producer will let the engineer know. The producer’s job is to be the "adult" in the room—the person who is responsible for bringing the artist’s vision to life. It’s a team effort. It has to be a team effort, a “we” effort. As a “we” effort, ego goes out the window and coziness is allowed to settle in. Creativity and vulnerability become tangible. The vibe is set, the candles are lit, the fragrance of palo santo is in the room, the lighting is on point and we’re ready to begin.
Every session is different. You don't always have the time to set the scene quite as described, but it’s essential to find ways that will be special to each individual client. What is best for the situation at hand? Think about it and find a way to make it happen. Maybe it’s making sure the drummer has the right kind of creamer for his coffee or that the artist feels a part of the old inside jokes the musicians are telling. Create unity and keep the artist as the central focus.
Once a project is finished, all that the world hears is the music. The artist leaves with the experience, a combination of all the small details and how you and others made them feel, in addition to the music. I believe that if the experience is special, the music will be that much better—maybe even next-level magic. The little things ARE the big things.