Audio Engineering Careers
There was a bumper sticker going ‘round in the ‘80s that said, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” I’d suggest an edit that says, “if you’ve heard a great song, or been to a killer live concert, or been rocked out of your gaming chair, or been pinned against the wall by a dragon fly-over during Game of Thrones, thank an Audio Engineer.”
Every bit of music and sound you hear on a record, on a stage, or on a screen is captured, manipulated and ear-wormed into your brain thanks to an Audio Engineer. No wonder so many people want to know how it’s done—and whether they can make a living doing it!
This is the first in a series of Dark Horse Institute blogs covering some of the dozens of jobs available to a person who has the skills, ears and passion to pursue a career as an Audio Engineer.
The controlled acoustical environment and yards of electronic gear make the recording studio a recording engineer’s dreamland. On any given session there might be one person doing all of the following jobs, or there could be a whole army of sound engineers:
1.) Tracking Engineer
Tasked with getting great sounds out of the instruments employed to lay down the basic tracks, typically drums or hand percussion, bass (whether electric, upright or keyboard), guitars (both electric and acoustic), and keys (pianos, organs, synths, midi controllers). Determining the proper mic, it’s placement relative to the source, the signal path, and the judicious use of compression and EQ, are all in the purview of the Tracking Engineer during a recording session.
2.) Second Engineer
If you’ve ever worked in any kind of hierarchy, you already know that it’s the assistants who actually do most of the heavy work. In a studio, the Second Engineer, also known as the assistant engineer, is charged with set-up—running cables, moving mics, patching and generally doing all of the dirty work that the First Engineer doesn’t want to be bothered with while he or she is hanging out with the band. It can be a tiresome and thankless job, but it also can be an opportunity to learn from the pros in the room and make mental notes about the mistakes you’re definitely, never, ever going to make again. Oh, and go get me some coffee, and a pack of American Spirit cigarettes.
3.) Overdub Engineer
Once the musical foundation is there, it’s time to add some color. Often a different engineer will be brought in to add guitar or keyboard leads, horns, strings or keyboard pads, and auxiliary instruments like a Moog, Theremin, or a variety of found instruments that make curious noises such as a 6-foot I-beam, a beat-up metal trash can, or the occasional flushing toilet.
Stylistically, ‘tis the season for beats, breaks, loops, tracks and all manner of pre-programmed goodies that need to be added to the production. Whether these are laid down first, before any other instruments, or added in later, you better save a seat at the desk for one or two of these groove jockeys.
5.) Vocal Engineer
It takes special technical, not to mention psychological skills, to get a great vocal take. Singers are burdened with not only remembering the words and hitting the right notes, but they’ve actually got to emote in a way that makes the lyric believable. Once again, the right mic, the right mood, and the right mix in the vocalist’s headphones are key.
Since the advent of the Digital Audio Workstations like Pro Tools and an endless array of plug-ins, a considerable amount of tinkering if not out-right doctoring usually happens next in the form of pitch and beat adjustment, not to mention moving entire sections of the song around. Plus, somebody has got to listen to all those vocal takes and comp together the best phrases from each pass into one seamless performance.
7.) Mix Engineer
OK, you did it. You’ve got 125 discreet audio tracks (kick, snare top, snare bottom, hi-hat, toms 1, 2 and 3, 2 overheads, bass direct, bass mic’d, piano left and right, synth left and right, close and room mics on guitar cabs, lead vocal, background vocals doubled, background vocals tripled, wind chimes, rain stick, tambourine, and for gosh sakes don’t forget the cowbell… oh yeah, now where is there a smidgen of sonic space left for the lead vocal?). Now it’s time to mix that all down to 2 stereo tracks. Where to put everything in the stereo spectrum? Front to back? Dry to wet sound effects? What about the relative volume of the vocal to the track? And is the EQ on that string pad blurring into the background vocals? You have to be a sensei and a magician to do this job, and the best mix engineers have both unlimited patience and years of experience.
8.) Mastering Engineer
Think you’re done? Not so fast, Einstein. Before your recording is ever going to sound like a “record” you’re going to have to send it out to a Mastering Engineer. These guys are the cream of the crop, the top of the heap of audio engineers, and their pay rate proves it. Sequencing, adjusting the volume from track to track, tweaking the overall EQ, adding the right kind of compression—these final adjustments make the difference between an expensive demo and a potentially successful commercial recording, ready for duplication, manufacturing, streaming and the radio, much less the kind of consumer listening experience that turns casual listeners into superfans.
9.) Studio Tech
Somebody’s got to keep all this gear running. A good maintenance tech is worth their weight in solder if a piece of software, gear or cable goes on the fritz during your session. That pesky hum, buzz or crackle probably means you need to take a break and let a qualified troubleshooter come in and shoot your troubles. It could just require a reboot, or swapping out a derelict channel strip on your console, or you might be looking at a major train wreck. They don’t call these guys Engineers for nothing.
Music matters. It’s pervasiveness and power in our lives cannot be overestimated. It inspires, energizes, calms, motivates, it can bring us together, and as science has recently proven, make us smarter. Plus, the music industry is a huge part of the entertainment economy, accounting for 50 “Billion with a B” dollars in 2018. And because of music’s importance, those who capture, manipulate and distribute it are among our most valued artists, scientists, craftsmen and citizens.
Want to know if you’ve got the stuff to be a successful Audio Engineer? Call us to set up a tour of our studios and classrooms, or attend an Open House. Our instructors are award-winning professionals with credits out the proverbial wazoo, and our gear is made up of over $1,000,000.00 worth of industry-standard, state-of-the-art, analog, and digital tools. Study Audio Engineering at Dark Horse Institute and start making your dreams come true.