A sound engineer is one of those great jobs for people interested in both technology and the arts. It requires a lot of technical expertise, but also requires a creative bent that helps musicians and performers realize their artistic intent.
If you have a sensitive, well-trained ear and enjoy messing around with electronics, becoming a sound engineer may be just the career for you.
Duties of a sound engineer
Alright, so what exactly does a sound engineer do? The typical visual is of someone in front of a huge soundboard with all its levers, dials and panels. That's part of it. In truth, the person sitting at the soundboard may be a sound engineer or an audio engineer. The roles are similar, but a sound engineer has more responsibility for the success of a project than does an audio engineer. In fact, spending time as an audio engineer may be a stepping stone to becoming a sound engineer.
A sound engineer is responsible for the technical side of a recording or live performance. The sound engineer designs and manages sound levels and outputs, and is responsible for maintaining the physical sound equipment, like amps and microphones.
When a sound engineer is working on a recording, the responsibility doesn't end with the act of recording the performance. The sound engineer is then responsible for editing, mixing and mastering the tracks so they present the best performance consistent with the artist's vision. Everyone pretty much gets what "recording" is. Let's get more precise about these other phases:
- "Editing" a track is the process arranging what's been recorded. Recorded performances are rarely played once, full through. Instead, different movements and passages will be repeatedly performed. Editing is the process of selecting the best pieces and putting them together into one single, coherent performance. Indeed, not every performer may even be recorded at the same time.
- "Mixing" a track is the technical work of adjusting sound levels through the entire recording. So if the piano track overtakes the cello track in a recording of Schubert's Serenade, the sound engineer can fix that during the mixing stage.
- "Mastering" is the last step in of audio post-production. It's basically all the technical work that needs to be done to ready a recording for distribution. Most recordings include multiple songs and performances, and mastering the recording brings consistency of sonic levels and quality to them all. Mastering a recording eliminates this. Mastering a recording is also the stage where the sound engineer technically prepares the recording to be reproduced, manufactured and downloaded. The steps required vary based on how the publishers intend to distribute the recording.
Most projects are large enough that there won't be just one person taking on all these roles. Yet someone must hold ultimate responsibility for the sound quality of the recording. That's the sound engineer, even as more junior sound engineers may be taking on specific roles or phases within the project.
Now, this isn't to say that sound engineering is only needed for recordings. Sound engineers are also used in live performances, whether a public speech or orchestral performance. In these cases, the initial duties of a sound engineer remain the same – managing output levels, equipment maintenance and setup, and ensuring the highest quality of sound reaching the audience.
Getting on track to becoming a sound engineer
The tools of sound engineering are sophisticated. Like every other technology, they are also constantly evolving and improving. The point is – a sound engineer must have top notch computer and mechanical skills.
There are often physical demands in moving and setting up equipment. Yet the most physically demanding skills may be the need to expertly align your hand-eye coordination to operate a soundboard during a performance with your well-tuned ear.
Sound engineering is a field where nothing is needed so much as hands-on experience. There are colleges offering programs in sound engineering, and there are associate degree and vocational certificate programs as well. Earning one of these certificates or degrees may help with getting a first job. Whether you want to invest in a full 4-year degree or stick with a vocational degree you can complete in less than two years is a call everyone needs to make for themselves.
If you've gathered enough practical experience, have samples to provide, and don't mind being assertive in your job search, you may be able to break into paying sound engineer work without a degree.
The easy access to simple sound engineering software, such as GarageBand and WaveGenix, means you have the opportunity to start learning and getting sound engineering experience right now. Jumping in immediately is also a great way to figure out if sound engineering is really something you want to pursue. You can also check this out to hear sound engineers talk about their work.
Grab some friends and start recording performances. Volunteer to do the sound engineering at school or a community organization. Build up some knowledge and experience so you can decide if sound engineering is the route for you.