After the digital revolution completely reshaped the music industry in the 2000s, the big studios and top producers and engineers have been fighting to survive the rise of independent studios and professionals. Modern technology and recording equipment allow hit records to be made by anybody, anywhere. With some foundational knowledge, a lot of practice, and a great song, an unknown new artist or engineer can be producing competitive recordings entirely by themselves!
The hard part is finding the right sources for the knowledge and skills. Traditionally, new engineers and producers would learn on-the-job while sweeping floors at a recording studio in some major music city. By paying close attention to sessions and hopefully working with a mentor, they could pick up little nuggets of info over many years before being able to call themselves a professional.
Preparing for Sound Engineering School
Since much of modern music is no longer reliant on these major studios, this can make it tricky for a new engineer or producer to figure out how to learn the basic skills and connect with solid mentorship. This is where modern audio engineering schools enter.
By learning these skills in a focused environment, these new engineers can leap ahead years in their journey. In a great school, (ahem… Dark Horse Institute) instructors are working professionals that can provide individual guidance and mentorship to succeed.
However, any good sound engineering school will move fast. Many young students will take some time to adjust to this new fast-paced environment, especially when compared to the attitude and pace many are acclimated to in high school. To get the most out of any education, the student must be not only passionate and dedicated but also prepared.
This article will discuss some of the ways you can begin this journey immediately, before even beginning the journey through an sound engineering school.
1) Listen to Music Like A Professional
Perhaps the most important skill to be developed by any aspiring engineer or producer is the ability to listen critically. “Golden Ears” is a term for an audio engineer with a seemingly intuitive understanding of how sounds should fit together. But “Golden Ears” isn’t just something a person is born with, they are a result of years of intentional listening and ear training.
At Dark Horse Institute, we teach how to use the Six Mix Tools. These are:
- and Effects.
By learning to listen for the way other albums are using these tools, you can reverse engineer (pun fully intended) another mixer’s style and technique.
As a producer, you can listen to the musical choices made by the artist, band, and producer. When is a piano a better or worse choice than a guitar? What sort of instrumental parts create different feelings and how do the different instruments complement each other. Listen for how densely packed with instrumental parts songs tend to be in each of the major genres.
There are many styles, so keep an open mind when listening to see what works for you and what doesn’t, because ultimately an engineer and producer are making music for other people and their unique taste in music.
2) Start Learning An Instrument (or another one!)
As an audio engineer or producer, it is entirely possible to maintain a long career without being able to play an instrument, but…why would you want to? It is a HUGE advantage to have at least enough knowledge of the various instruments used in the studio that you can speak fluently with the musicians. Often, the job of a producer is to help an artist catch mistakes in their performance or tone, and functional knowledge of playing that instrument can sometimes be the only way to do that.
These days, there is no excuse to not be able to play an instrument or two at least a little bit! Resources from all over the world can provide entry-level instruction on any instrument.
For an engineer or producer, the piano is often the best place to start, since it is the simplest to visualize the structures of music theory on which everything in the music will be built on. The guitar is another excellent and useful instrument, but the string layouts can require more memorization of shapes and patterns.
If you already play an instrument well, consider starting another, or two! Being bilingual in this way can be beneficial when trying to figure out how all the parts of a song will work together. If you can get good enough, your skills as a musician can be invaluable to an artist without the funds to hire a full band, and allow you to get paid for more parts of the same process!
3) Learn Computer Basics
The days of purely analog recording have long since disappeared, so using computers as the studio’s centerpiece is inevitable. A majority of the time spent making a record involves sitting at a computer.
Conversely, the biggest problem a session can face is when the computer or software fails! Being able to troubleshoot, update software, install software, and maybe even update hardware can save a ton of money and time.
While the recording industry is diverse, and both Windows and Macs are fully functional for recording and mixing, major studios are nearly all using Mac-based systems with Pro Tools. Because of this, most sound engineering schools will be using Mac OSx-based systems. If you have been primarily using Windows computers that may be a difficult transition. Picking up a Mac to practice with (even a cheap used Mac!) could help ensure a seamless transition to class.
There are tons of resources available for learning these sorts of computer fundamentals.
4) Start Recording, Anything!
Pro Tools may be the industry standard, due to its entrenchment in the major studios and its complicated feature set, but it’s far from the only way to record.
Many other Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) provide the ability to record, make beats, play with loops and virtual instruments, etc. Some of the free options, like GarageBand, are a ton of fun and very user-friendly. They also are fully capable of producing professional-level music.
Pro Tools also offers a free (although limited) version, which is a great option to start the process of mastering this dense software. After you are enrolled in a sound engineering school, you can also get the Avid Pro Tools software at roughly half price.
To record something like vocals or guitar, you will need a microphone and an Audio Interface. These can be found very cheap at any major music retailer. You can purchase a bundle of microphones, interfaces, cables, and maybe even headphones for very affordable prices!
Be aware that as you become a professional, this cheaper equipment will likely need to be replaced, and there isn’t usually much difference in quality between the very cheap and medium-cheap options. So don’t feel the need to break the bank until you can make a well-informed decision on professional-level equipment. If you aren’t sure, ask your instructor when you begin school. They should have some great recommendations on gear that will last.
Getting started with anything will start the long process of understanding how music works. By getting started, you will figure out new tools and techniques entirely on your own. Sometimes creativity is even easier without too many rules or preconceptions of how music is SUPPOSED to be made.
Along with this, keep an ongoing list of questions and problems you are facing. Many of those will get answered in your school, but coming to class with great questions is the best way to get the most out of an education.
5) Build A Playlist Of Inspiration And References
A common trait amongst successful engineers and producers is that their taste exceeds their ability. This means that because they have great taste in music and talent they will be on a life-long journey of learning to put out music that is going to meet their high standards.
The best way to develop your taste is by listening to the greats! Streaming services provide access to nearly all recorded music at this point, so there are no excuses for a professional to not know and collect some of the best sounding and feeling records of all time.
Most professionals tend to build playlists with musical and sonic inspirations to draw from in their work. As many engineers walk into a new studio, they will have a short list of songs that they know intimately to play to gauge the speakers and room acoustics. Some songs may provide a nice low-frequency reference, while others are sparse or layered enough to hear the subtle nuance in the speakers. Or they may have perfect vocal/drum/guitar/piano tonality to reorient their ears to the highest possible standards.
Every engineer will find their hearing adapting to whatever environment they are in, which will lead to some big mistakes in the work. Having these references handy is a great way to reset your perspective and compare against the very best.
6) Get Familiar With Professionals In The Industry
Eventually, everybody will have to leave the safety of the nest and go make a living in the industry! The best way to start is by finding an entry-level spot next to people already thriving in the industry, especially if they are making the type of music you hope to focus on.
These connections can be very difficult to make, as there are plenty of other eager professionals looking for the same thing. This means it would be foolish to wait for the end of your audio engineering courses before reaching out to find assistant engineer positions. The worst thing you can be doing after graduating is wasting time and forgetting everything you just learned in school.
Social media makes it remarkably easy to follow the progress of musicians and industry professionals, and this also means any aspiring professional should maintain a robust presence. Keep in mind that before they accept any friend requests they may snoop on your feed, so be interesting! Post about your musical journey, rather than the parties you attend.
Anybody picking up an assistant is most likely not expecting mastery, they are hoping for humility and enthusiasm — so be honest and show your passion for music! This works drastically better than trying to fake expertise.
Many top professionals will get huge amounts of random friend requests, so if you want to get on their radar be sure to introduce yourself with a quick and professional direct message. Don’t make them uncomfortable or ask for anything other than the opportunity to keep up with their work.
You’ll get much better results if they feel like you are more interested in learning than you are in trying to use them for your success!
Once You Get There
When you finally arrive at an sound engineering school, be prepared to work! Any creative industry is going to have lots of competition for the work, so be ready to start standing out from day 1!
Sleep plenty, eat well, be on time, take notes for everything (then rewrite them all!), ask lots of questions, and volunteer at every opportunity. If you want to thrive in this industry, it will be entirely due to your efforts and habits of hard work. Before you get to work hard in the industry you will need to work hard in school. And before that? What are you waiting for?!
If you are interested in a career in the music industry, Dark Horse Institute’s music programs: Composition and Songwriting, Audio Engineering, or Music Business are a great way to take things to the next level!