The role of the recording engineer
Producers who started their careers as engineers are obviously perfectly capable of doing the engineering themselves, and some do. In a decent studio, there will be an assistant engineer available to handle all the menial tasks of setting up mic stands and plugging in cables, so the producer will be able to concentrate on getting a good sound whenever he wears his engineer's hat.
The problem with this arrangement is that being a great engineer is a very difficult and demanding job, and so is being a producer. Anyone who can fulfil both roles 100% is obviously some kind of genius, and I don't deny that some producers are.
There are also many producers who probably wouldn't know what a knob was let along know how to twiddle it, so obviously an engineer is necessary, and not just the studio junior taking a break from his coffee making duties either.
With a first class engineer at the desk, a musically orientated producer can concentrate fully on creating a good arrangement and maximising the potential of the performance while the engineer deals with the sound.
In this situation, you might think that the producer takes a superior position to the engineer and tells him what to do, but where top professionals are involved this is unlikely to be the case.
The engineer may take a couple of hours getting a drum kit sound while the producer occasionally listens, talks to the other members of the band, makes phone calls, drinks coffee and paces up and down a bit.
Unless he has very specific requirements, he will trust the engineer's judgment, and the only comment he may make is, "OK - it's good enough now, let's start recording!". Engineers, being dedicated to achieving the ultimate in recorded sound, sometimes don't know when to stop!
One problem about being an engineer/producer is that you have no-one to ask what they think about something. You could ask a member of the band, to which the reply would probably be, "I don't know, you're meant to be the producer".
Having an engineer as a sounding board for your ideas and opinions is a great help because you can rely on a good engineer being able to give you good advice, and they will probably have the psychological skills to know when to disagree with you openly, and when to give you the answer you are looking for, regardless of what they really think.
An established engineer may even suggest to you that something isn't working well musically. You may regard this as an intrusion into your role, but you would be unwise not to pay attention to the advice of someone who has probably worked on literally thousands of sessions and, without being able to play an instrument or sing a note, has almost certainly achieved an understanding of music equal - perhaps superior - to your own.
If, as a producer, you don't have any engineering knowledge or skills to speak of, then at the very least you should develop an awareness of what the engineer can do for you, what tricks and techniques the engineer can employ, and gain a feeling for how long something you ask for may take to set up or perform.
One of the worst things that will happen to an engineer is for a producer to bring in a demo cassette and say, "I want it to sound like this". This situation isn't as common as it used to be, but it is still very easy for a musician to be working in his or her home studio and come upon a particular sound just by chance, which they then develop into a major feature of the song.
The problems may be: that the song structure may change, the key may change, or the multitrack tape of the demo may be of poor quality or may have been lost. Any of these factors will mean that the sound will have to be recreated somehow, and anyone who has any experience of this will tell you that it is sometimes very very difficult.
You may have to accept that it could take a long time to work out how the sound was achieved, unless the musician concerned has a very good memory, or you may have to settle for a near alternative.
Of course, you won't settle for second best, but sometimes trying to recreate a sound - sometimes the sound of another artist's work - may prove impossible, but along the way you will stumble upon something equally interesting or even better that you would not have thought of if you had just started from scratch.
At the mixing stage, producers often just leave the engineer to get on with it in his or her own time. You might have thought that if the producer is supposed to be in charge of the recording, then he or she should supervise every aspect of the recording process, including every detail of the mixing. Of course, any engineer will tell you that you do have to be an engineer to appreciate fully the subtle art of mixing.
Having a producer in the studio in the early stages of mixing would only be inhibiting. If the engineer is left to his own devices for two or three hours, then the producer can come in and apply his fresh ears to the mix and comment on what is going well, what isn't working etc.
There is a balance to be made between how much the engineer will stick to what's on the tape and how much he will alter the sound of the individual tracks with EQ and effects. I'll have more to say about this later.