sound engineering

How to Get into Sound Engineering: Advice from Prince Charles Alexander

World-renowned GRAMMY-winning Record Producer and Sound Engineer Prince Charles Alexander shares advice for young musicians, aspiring Engineers and Record Producers, talks about what Engineers and Producers do, how to prepare for a career as a Producer and Engineer, and his own career path as a prominent Engineer and Record Producer on the global stage.

What does an Engineer/Producer do? In this article, we’ll take a look at:

  1. The job duties of an Engineer
  2. A day on the job for a Producer or Engineer
  3. How young musicians should prepare for a career as sound Engineer or Producer
  4. The challenges and rewards of being an Engineer and Producer
  5. Finding work as a Producer
  6. Crossing over between musical styles

Prince Charles Alexander is a Recording Artist and 3x Grammy-winning, multi-platinum Music Producer and Mixing Engineer. With his group Prince Charles and the City Beat Band, he recorded three albums on Virgin Records from the early to mid-’80s and achieved their biggest successes on the European charts. Charles fronted the group as the Lead Singer and multi-instrumentalist using the futuristic wind synthesizer called the “Lyricon.”

With the emergence of rap as the dominant reflection of street culture, Prince Charles disbanded his funk group and began focusing on audio engineering. After the switch, “Prince Charles Alexander” became a multi-platinum Producer, Mixing Engineer and Recording Engineer for a large client base including Mary J. Blige, the Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, Usher, Boyz II Men, Brandy, Babyface, Sting, Aretha Franklin and many more. Sean “Puffy” Combs utilized Prince Charles’ technical expertise to launch and sustain the Bad Boy record label throughout the ‘90s. Charles’ accolades include more than 40 Platinum and Gold certifications from the RIAA, 3 Grammy wins and 7 Grammy nominations from NARAS, and a Victoire de la Musique (the French equivalent of a Grammy).

Prince Charles is currently an active Producer/Engineer as well as a Professor in the Music Production & Engineering Department at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts where he created their Commercial Record Production curriculum and Berklee Online Vocal Production undergraduate and graduate courses. Simultaneously, for nine years, he also held an Adjunct Instructor position at NYU’s Clive Davis Dept. of Recorded Music, teaching Music Production.

Prince Charles is involved in the following organizations:

Prince Charles recommends students interested in audio engineering and production get involved with the Recording Academy here.

(The following interview with Prince Charles Alexander was conducted by Tom Stein on October 1, 2019. Note: Answers have been edited for clarity and length.)

How did you become a Producer and Engineer?

My first real step was spending money to make a record in a recording studio. The record was successful mainly because it was co-produced by Maurice Starr (from New Kids on the Block fame. This was in 1979, the name of the record was In The Streets and I was the artist. At that time, Maurice had a hit record in Boston and I was in his band. I asked him to co-produce my record because I wanted it to be a commercial success.

Backtracking a bit, I was a musician first. I played clarinet from age 11 and started working as a professional saxophonist at 15. When I started college at Brandeis University I would gig in Boston at night and on the weekends, so my grades suffered. Once I pulled together academically, I started a jazz group at college and made a record with them in 1978. Though I learned a lot about the recording process, I knew that jazz was not going to appeal to a large audience, so that’s why I hired Maurice to work with me, so I could make a recording that would be more appealing to a wider audience. I had to invest the money to make it happen.

Through these early experiences, I learned that producing a record is a team effort. I learned about the painstaking work that goes into making a record sound really good.

“Another thing I do is spend time listening to reference source materials, for inspiration, and to define the feeling or vibe I am wanting to recreate in my own music. I gather all these other pieces of music to discover some emotional content that inspires me to create a similar vibe. This is a very important part of the process for me.” — Prince Charles Alexander

What does a Producer do?

The main role of the Producer is to create an overall vision of what the record will sound like and to harness the efforts of the team to bring that vision to life. There are three areas, or levels, of being a Producer: an Executive Producer provides funding, the Creative Producer is what we usually think of when we use the word “Producer,” whose job is to set the artistic direction, and the Technical Engineer. The first two kinds of Producers are relatively straightforward, but the Technical Engineer can actually be divided into three realms: recording, mixing, and mastering.

So, the Engineer is a part of the production team, and their role is highly technical. Most Engineers specialize, to some degree in one of those areas, especially Mastering Engineers.

Describe a typical working day for a Producer or Engineer.

As I stated earlier, there are three different technical processes related to the creative production: recording, mixing, and mastering. Much of the work that we used to do in a studio can now be done at home on a computer with audio interfaces or a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). On any given day, I might be working in one of those areas primarily. Mostly I’m using Logic or Ableton Live to work on tracks that I am creating for a piece.

Another thing I do is spend time listening to reference source materials, for inspiration, and to define the feeling or vibe I am wanting to recreate in my own music. I gather all these other pieces of music to discover some emotional content that inspires me to create a similar vibe. This is a very important part of the process for me. I’m never really starting with a blank slate; I always am seeking to create something new based on something that came before.

Say something about technique or technical skills required.

It’s important to be able to play music to a click track. It’s much more efficient if you can play tracks into the computer in real-time. I might use a keyboard or drum controller for this. I’m usually starting from sounds, not lyrics, so I need to build a scaffold using cyclical patterns in the center. This might be comprised of melodic, rhythmic, or even harmonic patterns, which could also be implied harmony. I’m working with a musical vocabulary, moving from articulations of notes to syllables, language, and ultimately lyrics.

What should a young person do to prepare for a career as a Producer?

Be attracted to music, like music, and listen to a LOT of music. When I was 13 years old I would listen to artists like Isaac Hayes over and over again, and then deconstruct what was in the music. I would play the bass lines on my clarinet. Play the melodies, and even try to recreate the harmonies, though it was hard to do, on clarinet.

Listening to music is one kind of “muscle” but the deconstructing muscle might be even more important. Now, it’s not a requirement to be a musician to be a great Engineer; some of my colleagues here at Berklee have proven this, but I think it does help. People often learn music on their own and have wrong understandings, but being a trained musician provides a more efficient way to understand music and how it is created.

The Engineer thinks of musical notes as frequencies, and this analogy is not always perfect. So I would tell most young people who want to be Producers or audio Engineers to undertake a rigorous training in music. It opens up many opportunities to do incredible musical things, like adding a classical orchestra to pop or jazz, something I have done successfully.

What schools would you recommend (besides Berklee) and what should students consider when looking for a program of study?

NYU has two schools: Steinhardt and Clive Davis. There is Frost School at University of Miami, and Thornton at University of Southern California (USC). These are all top schools. Berklee is perhaps the most progressive, meaning that we are up-to-date with teaching and learning in the digital sound environment. Some of the more conservatory-style programs are more focused on engineering in the pre-digital sound era. Music production and engineering really shifted in a big way after 1980 with the digital sound coming in. This changed the required skillset to include manipulating sound digitally, for example using MIDI, drum machines, synths, and samplers.

One thing to consider might relate to the kind of music you want to produce. It’s a very different world to record acoustic instruments such as large orchestras or jazz groups, versus pop, hip hop, and more modern digitally recorded music. 1980 was really the turning point that began our digital era, and it’s good to be well-versed in both kinds of recording environments, acoustic and digital.

What are some positives and negatives of the job?

A positive is that your career will not be hostage to the fickle nature of audiences, meaning you can make a bad record and still get work. There’s also a certain empowerment, as technology changes – and it always does, so as Engineers we are positioned to embrace these changes better than the artists typically are. We don’t get stuck in a certain way of doing things because we can realize the benefits of the new tech as soon as it appears and is available.

A negative is the long hours and lack of sleep. There is so much to do and never enough time to do it in, so we tend to sacrifice our sleep, and sometimes health and even relationships. Another drawback is that Engineers tend to be typecast as functional, but not creative. There is a certain stereotype for the Engineer that is really unfair, because we are creative, too. We aren’t just there to push buttons.

How does a Producer find work?

Let’s remember that the end-goal of any Producer is to create recordings that are successful in the market. Producing and engineering recordings is extremely results-oriented, and to get the calls to work, we need to achieve good results in the marketplace. Since we are so results-driven, we must create work that connects to a target audience and is not solely artistic. I think we must have an objective “third eye” looking at the quality of our work, judging whether or not if it will have the intended result. Getting results equals getting work in this field.

“You should understand that for a business to be successful it must create and sell great products or services. Engineering and producing music is ultimately a service business. “ — Prince Charles Alexander

What’s the biggest problem Producers face today?

We often face a lack of credits on released product we created. It’s difficult because there is this lack of documentation across all platforms, including streaming platforms and YouTube so that nobody knows what songs the Engineer worked on. There’s this huge lack of accuracy in the documentation of our work and it can be frustrating as a Producer or Engineer to not be credited for the work you did. We need the visibility to get more work, after all.

Additionally, there are issues around viable and binding contracts for our work. We often have ongoing working relationships with the artists, and they can be affected negatively by the introduction of a legal contract. All of a sudden, it’s like they are thinking differently about our work together because of the contract, but at the same time, we need to have these viable binding contracts to protect our interests and clarify terms of engagement. It’s tricky to navigate this aspect, but successful Engineers and Producers manage to make all these parts work well.

Are there special challenges for people of color, women, and other underrepresented constituencies?

Yes, there most certainly are significant challenges for people of color, women, and other marginalized groups in this industry. For one thing, we are expected to be two or three times as good as our white male counterparts. We have to really know the tech and be better than anyone in the room in order to be accepted and appreciated. There are certain stereotypes about competence that make it harder for us to develop our own persona and to fit in with the team.

For example, white males are generally viewed as being more competent in the technology aspect. If someone walks into a studio control booth and sees a white man and a black man, they are likely to assume that the white man is the Engineer and the black man is the artist. We need to work extra hard to develop the right kind of personality that allows us to fit in and be seen for our talents and capabilities.

Working in many styles as you do, crossing over from pop and jazz to other contemporary styles, does it help or hurt your professional opportunities? Tell me about the styles you cover and what it’s like for you crossing over between styles.

I work in so many styles: Funk, Soul, R&B, Hip Hop, EDM, Rock, Blues, Jazz, Country, Reggae, and so on. I’ve also recorded classical orchestras to enhance recordings of pop and R&B. This all really helps my career because I can move seamlessly between the acoustic and electronic environments, and fuse them together.

If you could tell your son or daughter (or students) just one thing, what would it be?

Music is a business, just like any other business. You have to be accountable for your financial health. I got my second degree in marketing. You should understand that for a business to be successful it must create and sell great products or services. Engineering and producing music is ultimately a service business.

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