According to Wikipedia (today at least!), “engineering is the use of scientific principles to design and build machines, structures, and other items.” Luckily, the ‘other items’ section is so broad; we can include the perfect audio mix as one of the targets of a special kind of engineer – the sound engineer.
So if you’re wondering, “What is a sound engineer and how do I become one?” you don’t need to look any further. I’ll explain what sound engineers do and what sorts of training and experience it takes to get into this field. So if you’re ready for some career counseling, read on…
Audio Engineer, Sound Engineer, and Recording Engineer
In case you’ve come across any or all of these terms before, let’s clear something up right away. There’s no difference. That’s right – all of these three terms mean the same thing.
In all three cases, we’re talking about a person whose job is to produce a live sound or a recording by balancing, mixing, and adding effects to sound input. In other words, the person who makes a band sound its best.
This could be the person who sets up microphones and sits behind the mixing console at a live concert. It can also be the person in the booth managing the board and levels in a recording studio.
But a sound engineer’s work isn’t limited to music
Sound engineers also record, mix, and master audio for TV and movies, too. To get an idea of the specific things a sound engineer does, let’s look at some of their tasks in detail…
Jobs of a Sound Engineer
Recording music, dialogue for film, or any other sound isn’t simply a matter of pressing Record and Pause on a machine. Sound engineers need to understand the way individual sounds can be recorded to give the best results.
This can mean managing the types and positions of microphones to capture different instruments. It can also mean choosing whether to record tracks individually or during a “live” session when a band plays altogether.
When performers make sounds, whether it’s playing through a song or making sound effects for films, they usually record multiple takes. Editing is choosing which sound recordings to keep and which to throw away. It can also involve splicing together (digitally or even using old school tape) the best parts of different takes into the best complete possible.
Mixing is the real art of a sound engineer. This is exactly the way it sounds – the sound engineer gets on the mixing board (either an actual hardware board or a virtual board on a computer) and adjusts levels to perfection. For music, this can include bringing forward solos and then dropping those instruments back down into the mix.
It can also include assigning different sounds to different parts of the stereo balance so that some sounds come through the right channel and others through the left, for example. As well as equalizing every instrument so that nothing clashes with each other (unless that is required?), as well as adding dynamics and effects to bring out the best in the piece of music.
There’s a whole lot more to mixing; in fact, numerous whole books have been written on the subject. Two great examples are Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio and Recording Secrets for the Small Studio.
But needless to say, this is a task for someone with a great ear, good technical knowledge, and an excellent understanding of the final product they’re trying to produce. Poorly mixed recordings can ruin whole albums, while quality mixing will really make them pop.
We’ve all heard of “re-mastered” tracks, so what is mastering in the first place? Quite simply, mastering means producing the final end product of a recording session. This can include cleaning up some sounds and removing noise, adding effects like compression or limiting, overall final equalization, setting the final levels, and distilling the whole thing into a finished product.
When someone re-masters music or movie soundtracks, this means they’re producing a new master recording from the old recordings. Think of this as making cookies using the same ingredients but adjusting the proportions of them and even the time and temperature they’re baked at.
In the same way, re-mastered tracks have all the same sounds but different mix levels and enhancements to the original.
Now you know What Is A Sound Engineer And How Do I Become One…
Due to the lack of space, this article is only a very basic overview of what a sound engineer does. But, I should mention that larger recording projects almost never rely on just a single engineer. Instead, they use teams of assistants who will work under the head engineer or collaborate equally.
It’s clear that sound engineers need to love working with sound but also have a lot of technical know-how and the ability to learn and work with new equipment. If you think that might be right up your alley, here’s how to get into the industry.
How to Become a Sound Engineer
Just like most any discipline these days, you can go to college to become a sound engineer. Colleges and technical schools around the world provide courses in sound engineering and normally require you to study for one to two years.
In North America, the most recognized programs for sound engineering can be found at the Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida, as well as the Ontario Institute of Audio Recording Technology in London, Ontario, Canada.
Whether or not school is your thing, it’s comforting to know that many of the most recognized sound engineers are self-taught.
You can’t beat experience…
Either way, audio engineering is a truly hands-on, experienced-based field to get into. Whether you learn better through formal education or hands-on training is up to you. But you have to learn. Do you know the difference between a Sony C-800G Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone and a Sennheiser MD 441-U Dynamic Super-Cardioid Microphone? Do you know your way around a 56-input Yamaha 02R96VCM Digital Mixing Console?
One of the best ways to get into sound engineering is to make connections with people in the industry. Chat with the sound guy at the next live concert you go to and see if he’ll show you the ropes. Ask local musicians who recorded them and contact those studios. Chances are they’ll be happy to have a volunteer or even a poorly paid intern to help them work in exchange for some hands-on experience.
Invest in yourself…
If you’ve got one foot in the door already, consider investing in some equipment like a recording laptop, a smaller mixing console, and a few good microphones. Offer to produce recordings for local musicians or filmmakers for free in exchange for the experience.
Eventually, once your skills improve and your products sound better and better, you’ll start to make a name for yourself. From then on, people looking to record will start to come to you.
A fantastic book that everyone who is interested in or indeed is already a sound engineer should read is Alan Parsons’ Art & Science of Sound Recording: The Book (Technical Reference).
Alan was the engineer behind one of the most sonically amazing and biggest-selling records of all time, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. His ability to explain basic (and not so basic) concepts easily is excellent. Highly recommended.
Other great reads include, Behind the Glass: Top Record Producers Tell How They Craft the Hits, Geoff Ereicks’s Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, Glyn Johns’s Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits with The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Eric Clapton, the Faces, and the incredibly entertaining Recording Unhinged: Creative and Unconventional Music Recording Techniques by the extremely talented but slightly unconventional Sylvia Massey.
So, here are some of the things that you will need on your journey
To record, you’ll need an interface, so check out our in-depth reviews of the Best iPad Audio Interface, the Best USB Audio Interfaces, as well as the Best Audio Interface. And when you’re ready to upgrade from the preamps in your interface, check out our reviews of the Best Microphone Preamps you can buy in 2023.
And always remember that a great microphone is the most important part of your recording signal chain. So, check out our reviews of the Best Vocal Mics, the Best Shure Microphones, the Best Dynamic Microphones, the Best Microphones Recording Electric Guitar, the Best Condenser Microphones, and the Best Microphones for Recording Rap Vocals currently on the market.
What Is A Sound Engineer And How Do I Become One – Final Thoughts
Now that you know exactly what a sound engineer does and how to become one, we hope you’ll be able to decide if this is the right career for you.
Sound engineering takes technical know-how, a great ear, and also a lot of creativity to help produce the best sounding products possible. And just so you know, there are Grammy Awards up for grabs here as well. The best sound engineers are highly sought after, and fame and fortune could be just around the corner.