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Recording Engineer Talks Craftsmanship Li Jun, one of the leading recording and mixing engineer, sat with us to discuss his job.

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If you type “Li Jun” into google, you are not going to find a lot of information on him.  But as a well-known recording and mixing engineer in China, a deputy director on the Music Professional Committee of the China Association of Recording Engineers, and a visiting professor at the Beijing Contemporary Music Acadamy. His work has won the best album of the year many times. He also won the best recording engineer on Beijing Music Radio Chart and Chinese Music Awards. 

He has recorded albums for famous singers such as Wang Feng, Faye Wong, and Pu Shu, and his works include Wang Feng’s “Flying Higher” and “Living Life”; Faye Wong’s “Love” and “Legend”; Li Jian’s “Legend” and “Still” etc.

Most of the audience see the performances on stage, listen to the finished songs on the streaming platforms, and very few of them are interested in the story behind the scenes. Occasionally, some of them would look into how the lyrics or the music came into being. But the recording engineer, however renown in the industry, rarely gets any attention from the public. 

CMBN met Mr. Li Jun in a cafe in Beijing on a beautiful winter morning. We thought sound engineers all work late and wake up late, but to our surprise, he doesn’t fit into the stereotype. 

“Have you been busy lately?” Our reporter asked. “It’s always been like this, and there’s nothing special.” Li Jun, who asked for a cup of American style, sat down and replied calmly.

In the past summer, he was busy with the mixing work of a band competition variety show. During the four months production of the program, he could only rest for 4 to 5 hours a day. 

“We assume you at this point in your career; you can choose what projects you take on, right?”

“I mostly work with people who I’ve been working with for a long time. Work that comes from those who are relatively unfamiliar, I reject them. If I can’t refuse, the project stays in the pipeline for a long time. My colleagues know that I have a lot of work to do, so they don’t push me too hard.

Li Jun has been this busy for many many years now. Singles, albums, live concert recordings, music variety show recordings, producers, and musicians never stop coming to him for help.

Although many record labels no longer invest a lot of money and energy to produce records, singers care about the quality of their work because it’s their reputation on the line. They always need a new song to promote their concert or satisfy their anticipating fans.

Therefore, the importance of the recording engineer didn’t diminish with the album era. As the audience becomes more sophisticated, the producers have to focus more on quality to keep up. As a result, the production cycles of albums are getting longer, and the processes of music recording are becoming more and more sophisticated.

According to Li Jun, recording engineers are like craftsmen. Even though the media people listen to songs on have changed from vinyl, tape, CD, mp3 to streaming platforms, the sound engineer’s standard for quality of recordings has never changed since he started his career in the 1990s. 

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CMBN: How did you become a recording and mixing engineer?

 

Li Jun: I’m good at science and math, and I like music. 

Although I have loved music since childhood and many members of my family were in music education, I did not have formal training in music before college. I studied engineering at Beihang University, and I would have gone into the aerospace industry. I didn’t want to do mechanical and electronic related work, and there were opportunities in other areas in Beijing at the time too, so I thought when I graduated, I might do something else.

Because I liked music and Beijing offers a lot of opportunities in the music industry at that time, so I took advantage of these opportunities. I took a class in electronic music just before I graduated. 

Electronic music at the time was a new frontier in the industry. I mainly studied synthesizer and MIDI production. After graduation, I did not go to the job I assigned by my university. Instead, I found a job at a company that traded electronic music equipment.

I started as a sales and an assistant and gradually got in touch with the forefront of music production.

When I first joined the company, I was not a recording engineer, but technical support and sales. In the early ’90s, many people who work in the music industry were not good at English, so I translated the manuals of the devices we sold.

Some musicians don’t remember what I translated for them, so I started helping them out while they are recording in studios or at home. So it only took me around half a year in the industry before I got in touch with the best music producers in the area. 

The most cutting-edge MIDI technology at that time was a sequencer. The arrangers and composers program the music into it so that the right sound gets triggered at the right time. Without a computer, they use this equipment to control the other equipment. 

 

CMBN: How did the music industry change?

 

Li Jun: When I first started my career in the 1990s, the entire industry had no funds, no information, and no distribution channels. I could not find any right musical instruments or recording equipment, and the Chinese music production industry was quite far behind its western counterpart.

The equipment we used at the time was not as good as now, the recording technology and the performance skills of musicians were not as good either. At that time, there were limited ways to learn from the world’s top musicians. We could only listen to imported records and try to reverse-engineer it, with moderate success. 

At the time, most of those recording studios in Beijing were owned by government agencies because one recording studio would cost hundreds of thousands or millions of yuan. Only government-owned radio stations, television channels, and record labels could afford recording studios. Private recording studios were rare. 

At that time, the cost of the sound engineer and the recording studio accounted for 1/5 to 1/6 of the production cost. Our recording studio cost 1,500 yuan per day, at most 2,000 yuan. The ratio of recording cost to total production costs has not changed much. Still, the amount of money people invests in song and album production has continued to grow with the economy.

I started with singles and TV music when I first started recording. Music was recorded at a much faster pace. Arrangement artists mostly use sound that already exists, and they program the whole song and then record it track by track in the studio. 

It’s very quick. I remember it took me only one day and one night to record all ten songs in an album, including real instruments and MIDI instruments. Then on the second and third days, we recorded the singing. On the fourth and fifth days, we mixed it. The whole album can be completed in five, six days. 

Now it takes more than five or six days to record even one song. We apply different standards and different working methods now. Although the production process is similar in structure as before, it is more detailed. On top of it, people usually work on many projects at the same time, so the entire process takes longer.

Let’s use Wang Feng as an example. After he writes the music and the lyrics, the arranger makes the instrumental demo at home. This process takes a long time, possibly ten days to a half months. If the demo is mostly ok, you refine it. If the first draft is not good, it will be discarded. And the whole process starts over. It’s hard to predict how long it’s going to take.

After the demo of the arrangement is done, we start recording, which means replacing all the synthesizer guitars, bass, drums, strings with real instruments. Sometimes we need to add parts to the arrangement in the process. After that, we record the human voice is recorded and edit it. Finally, we do the mixing, and then the mastering.

Now we record real instruments, unlike before, when we program 80% of the instruments. The producers stay in the studios to work out details little by little with the instrument players in the studio.

The aesthetics and technology at the time determined that we could only do that, people think the synthesizers sound very good already. But if you do it now, people will think it’s too ordinary and unprofessional.

As the production cycle lengthens, the cost also rises. Of course, there isn’t necessarily a cause and effect relationship. In the 90s, recording one single cost 10,000 yuan, the extravagant projects cost 30,000 yuan, such as Faye Wong and Pu Shu’s songs. Now it cost many times that number. However, people make more money as well. 

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CMBN: What’s your view of recording engineer as a career?

 

Li Jun: Training for young recording engineers have evolved. There are a lot more professional recording engineers now than in the 90s. Besides us music recording engineers, there are recording engineers for movies, tv, and radio.

The first higher education institutions that provide vocational education for sound engineers in China are Beijing Film Academy and Communication University.  The film academy focuses on the film and television recording, and the Communication University focuses on the recording of classical music and sending professional technicians to major radio stations, television stations, and recording studios.

In recent years, Beijing Contemporary Music Academy has also carried out some training for aspiring sound engineers, and they focus on pop music. Their graduates are active in many music recording studios and even in live performances.

Unlike before, students can acquire knowledge from the internet in addition to their classes and books. There are also masterclasses online and offline available for students. The schools are more and more well-equipped. Students can better study with lots of opportunities to practice their craft.

To become a qualified recording engineer, you have to have some basic knowledge of science and engineering, such as electrical circuits, so that you can understand how the recording devices work. You also need to learn the science of acoustics and music theory. Classical music recording engineers sometimes need to be able to read the score as well.

And then there is aesthetics. You need an overall control over the feeling of the song. That’s the hardest part. The aesthetic is where many seasoned recording engineers get stuck. A lack of aesthetic ability usually limits their career advancement.

What do you do with this part? How do you make it sound the best? It all depends on feeling. The sound would manifest itself in your head according to your feeling, and then you use technical means to realize the sound in your head. Part of the aesthetic ability you’re born with, the other part you learn by paying attention.

For a long time, the market condition requires us, Chinese sound engineers, to be reasonably familiar with different types of music. For different genres, the mixing method, sometimes even the equipment and plug-in, are different. But as the industry matures, subdivisions are forming. More and more sound engineers now have the luxury to focus on one type of music and work with musicians they are familiar with.

Sound engineer does auxiliary work for the music. 

For me, the music itself is the most important, the sound quality is secondary. Sound cannot exist independent of the music. Sound engineer’s job is to best present the song in its original glory.

Working in a recording studio is very different from working on a live performance or a variety show.

Studio work is the most relaxed. There’s enough time for you to take things slow. The most stressful is live broadcasting. And variety shows are somewhere in between. Variety shows give you a period within which you complete your work. If you don’t finish, the show cannot air according to schedule. 

Live broadcast work is the hardest. It places high standards for your mental and physical strength. You have to concentrate. When the volume of singing or the instrument differs from the rehearsal, you have to adjust on the spot. You need to be able to react in real-time and make decisions very quickly. But for me, it’s also nice because once you’re done, you’re done. 

On the contrary, variety shows are the most tiring and challenging work because the production cycles are relatively long. I have to be there recording the whole time. And after the recording, I have to rush out the music before the program is broadcast. I can’t rest or get sick, or the program wouldn’t be aired. So I’m usually very cautious about taking on variety show projects. Because there are too many stakeholders who would be there to influence your work, but more importantly, if you don’t like the show you’re working on, it would be excruciating to endure the strenuous work.

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CMBN: Tell us about your experience working on the popular band survival variety show The Big Band.

 

Li Jun:  I’ve always loved bands. I started recording and mixing for bands two or three years into my career. I participated in many early albums produced by Modern Sky, for big-name bands like Sober, New Pants, Supermarket, and later Wang Feng and his band 43 Baijia Street. 

At the end of 2018, Mr. Jin Shaogang asked me if I was interested in working for a survival variety show for bands, and I decided to take the offer after careful consideration because I like band music, and I am good at it.

The most important thing about mixing for The Big Band was first, emphasize the passion and vigor of the performers and making the audiences feel like they are not watching tv, but sitting next to the stage. 

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Even though I can go back and edit out the imperfections, I like keeping the rawness and some minor mistakes to give the audience the feeling of authenticity and closeness. 

While I was working on the show, from April to August, I slept about four to five hours a day and didn’t have any breaks. 

After receiving the recording file, my assistant will first archive the file, including the rehearsal file and the official performance file, for later editing. Then create a Pro Tools file.

Because the process is very tedious, I gave the files to two assistants for pitch correction, editing, and premix. And then I do the mixing and send the first edition to the band for comments. They send their feedback to me, and I modify it once. Then I give the finished product to the video editing team. And then the directors will review the whole thing, and then I’ll do very little revision on specific songs. 

However much we try, the sound coming out of tv screens is not going to be the same as the live performance. During the taping of the show, the more passionate, noisier performances tend to get more votes, and the quieter, more emotional ones don’t get as much reaction from the audiences.

One example of this effect is the competition between Miserable Faith’s “I Will” performance and The Face. The Face performed a powerful, energetic heavy metal song, which was very impactful for the audiences on set, so it won. But the tv audiences mostly liked “I Will” more because of the delicate emotions in the song.  

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CMBN: What advice would you give to young sound engineers?

 

Li Jun: You have to be very patient. 

Sound engineering is a slow, manual type of work. I don’t see the process of making music as producing something on an assembly line. If you view music as a lifeless product, you will lose your love for this job very quickly.

The basic principles, knowledge, and techniques you may be able to master within one or two years fully, but how do you choose what to apply to different situations take years of practice, thinking, and learning from other people.

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