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Just What The Heck Is A Sound Engineer Anyway?

If you hop to attention when a big action movie gets just the right mix of thrumming music, crystal clear dialogue, and rocking explosions, or cringe when the lead guitar overpowers the singer’s vocals at a concert, you might have the makings of a sound engineer.

Sound engineers are not engineers in the way others designated with the title are engineers. To become one, you don’t have to hold an engineering degree.

But the components are all there.

An engineer is defined as someone who uses scientific knowledge in a practical manner. And that’s exactly what a sound engineer does.

What is sound engineering?

Sound engineering is using a deep understanding of acoustics (a branch of physics) to create a working product.

Or, in other words, it’s taking audio from numerous sources (usually multiple microphones or audio clips) and turning it into a harmonious mix.

The end goal of sound engineering is to create a sound that is both easy to understand and pleasing to the ear. So, it’s part scientific discipline and part art.

What does a sound engineer actually do?

Generally speaking, a sound engineer is the project manager of the sound aspect of any project. That might mean a film project, a commercial, a podcast, or a live performance.

Basically, the sound engineer is responsible for getting live sound or a recording just right, or for editing and mixing that sound in a studio so it meets the vision of the overall project director or recording artist.

However, what a sound engineer actually does on a day-to-day basis depends highly on what type of project they are working on. Namely, whether it’s a small project or a big project.

Sound Engineer Duties – Small Audio Projects

A concert in a small venue or an indie film might have a single sound engineer. This engineer might set up all audio equipment, test equipment levels, control the soundboard during a performance, and edit and mix the sound in the studio.

On this size project, a sound engineer typically has far more control over (and impact on) the sound than the engineer would have on a larger project.

Responsibilities for a lone-working project engineer might include:

  • Managing sound equipment (including mixing boards, amps, cables, microphones, and recorders)
  • Setting up sound equipment in a venue, studio, or on a set
  • Performing soundchecks to ensure equipment positions work in the space
  • Using a soundboard or mixer to control sound levels and manipulate sound during a live performance or recording
  • Capturing the audio through a recording device
  • Editing a recording (taking the multiple “takes” or recordings of the same piece of audio – a song, voice over, etc. – and arranging the best parts into a single piece)
  • Mixing a recording (adjusting sound levels, tone, etc. of audio clips to ensure they flow seamlessly together and meet the artist or director’s artistic vision)
  • Mastering a recording (preparing a recording for distribution and creating a final product or master file)

Sound Engineer Duties – Large Audio Projects

Large scale projects, like studio movies and video games, often have multiple sound engineers responsible for different aspects of their soundtracks – dialogue, music, sound effects, etc. Though, they typically employ a lead engineer who is responsible for the overall sound design.

In projects of this size, a sound engineer may take on a far more managerial role and have far less control over the final sound as a whole.

The engineer may have multiple people working under them. These people are typically called audio technicians and take on the day-to-day tasks of sound work.

Depending on a sound engineer’s duties, the engineer may end up being listed as “Sound Editor,” “Sound Designer,” or by some other title in a film or project’s credits.

Where Do Sound Engineers Work?

There are two main places where sound engineers work – a studio or a venue.

A studio is a sound-controlled room (or rooms) where sound engineers capture, edit, mix and master audio.

A venue can be any number of locations. Anywhere sound equipment is used might employ a sound engineer.

Some common venues/locations where sound engineers work include:

  • Concert halls
  • Theaters
  • Outdoor music venues
  • Film and TV sets
  • Convention and event centers

They might handle equipment and operate a soundboard for:

  • Concerts
  • Stage plays
  • Film or TV shoots
  • Conventions
  • Lectures
  • Business events

Even some mega churches (usually those with live bands and certainly those who broadcast their sermons on TV) might have a sound engineer on staff.

There are a many vastly different employment opportunities for a person with audio engineering skills.

Live Sound Engineer vs. Studio Sound Engineer

Probably the biggest determining factor in how (and where) a sound engineer works depends on whether the person is a live engineer or a studio engineer.

Live sound engineers typically work in venues, like concert halls, setting up sound equipment and working the soundboard.

Studio sound engineers typically do their work, both recording and post-production, in a studio environment.

Live engineers tend to have less traditional work schedules since many events, like concerts and conventions, take place at night or last all day.

What skills do you need to be a sound engineer?

Great ears.

Seriously, when it comes to sound engineering your ears are your moneymakers.

You’ll also need to know how to operate a soundboard/mixer or work in an audio-editing software. Though, you don’t necessarily need to know how to do both of those things.

Depending on your job, you may just need to operate a soundboard/mixer (live performance) or work in an audio software (editing/mixing.)

If you want to work as a live engineer, you’ll need to know how sound equipment works together. That means knowing how to properly connect an amp to an instrument or a microphone through a soundboard.

If you want to work on the recording side of sound engineering, you need to know how to connect equipment, how to use a mixer, and how to operate recording devices.

Making it to the top of the industry requires all of these skills combined. Plus a hearty dose of creativity to help you stand out from the crowd.

How do you become a sound engineer?

Starting a career as a sound engineer isn’t as simple as earning a degree and applying for the job. Though a degree proves you have some background and experience in the field and can help you get your foot in the door as an audio technician.

Experience is the real backbone of sound engineering. And this is where it’s a great idea to think of sound engineering as an art and not just an academic discipline.

When it comes to artistic fields, you don’t sell yourself on the basis of your degree. Your portfolio is your calling card. The sooner you start building your portfolio, the better.

There are multiple free audio-editing and recording applications. Start working with these programs now. Practice, practice, practice. Create your own audio projects and work on projects on a volunteer basis to build up samples of your work.

When it comes to sound engineering, a potential employer doesn’t just want to know that you know how to use a mixer or a recorder. They want to hear your sound and know that you can give them a better end product than the next applicant.

Networking is also a huge part of gaining employment in sound engineering. Sound work is a fun, creative job that a lot of people want to do. So, start making those contacts now.

Is sound engineering a good career?

It depends on what you think of as a “good career.”

The sound engineering field is ultra-competitive and networking is key. So, it’s possible you’ll go through a four-year program, earn your degree, and still not find a job if you don’t know someone who can give you an “in.”

If you love sound and want to spend your days immersed in it, it’s a great gig if you can get it. But you should be prepared to compete.

Sound Engineer Salary

The salary for a sound engineer is good in many industries. On average, an engineer can expect to make $73,470 per year in the movie industry. But that’s an average, and most people don’t start out as engineers.

Plus, the majority of films are still shot in Los Angeles, where an annual income of $74,371 is the estimated salary you need to comfortably live.

Thinking about sound engineering on a more local basis can give you a better idea of what kind of career and salary prospects you might have.

What’s the difference between an audio engineer and a sound engineer?

There isn’t any. The terms can be used interchangeably.

However, there is a difference between the terms “sound engineer” and “audio/sound technician” as discussed above under “What does a sound engineer actually do?”

Terms like sound engineer, audio engineer, sound designer, and sound technician are used in different ways on different projects, though. Which makes all these terms somewhat convoluted.

What’s the difference between a sound engineer and a music producer?

A music producer is largely the “ideas person” or creative leader on an album who decides the artistic style and direction of the music.

A sound engineer is largely the “technical person” on an album, responsible for translating the producer’s ideas into actions.

Think of it this way:

A record producer and a sound engineer sit side by side at a mixing console in a studio, recording a singer’s vocals.

The producer wants the vocals to sound a little bit richer.

The sound engineer knows which controls to slide or turn on the console to make that happen.

Sound engineering isn’t an easy job to get, but it can be a rewarding one if sound is your jam.

If you’re planning to pursue a career in audio engineering, it’s never too early to start making those contacts and building that portfolio.

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