Sound engineers combine technical knowledge with creativity and an excellent ear to produce high quality live or recorded sound
Sound engineers are responsible for manipulating acoustics to achieve a desired result. You may work in many different contexts, including live events (music concerts, theatre performances and sporting events), weddings or graduation ceremonies. As a sound engineer you could also work in a studio, recording for commercial music, film, TV, radio, advertising, gaming or interactive media purposes.
In a live context, your role could involve setting up and testing sound equipment, conducting sound checks and combining signals from the various instruments and microphones to make a mix for the audience and performers to listen to.
As a front-of-house live sound engineer, you're responsible for audience satisfaction, ensuring that every member of the audience can hear the show and that the sound is balanced and controlled in a specified way. This may involve adding sound effects. Monitor engineers also work in live sound and mix the sound that performers will hear through a stage monitor system.
As a studio sound engineer you could be responsible for planning a recording session with an artist or musician, setting up the required equipment, recording each instrument separately and then editing and mixing recorded tracks, enhancing the sound to achieve a high quality recording. You may also master the sound, which involves listening to the mixed tracks in a good acoustic environment and then working on the edited mix to refine and perfect the audio. A master engineer strives to ensure consistency of sound across different playback formats and produces a master copy, which is a final, replicable, version of the track.
Sound engineers may also be known by other titles, such as audio engineer, recording engineer, mastering engineer or audio technology executive.
Types of sound engineering
It's usual to specialise in one area of sound engineering, such as:
- front of house, live sound
- monitor or foldback, live sound
- live events, such as sports games or ceremonies
- broadcast, for radio or TV
- computer games
- studio recording
- studio mixing
- studio mastering.
Tasks will vary depending on whether you're working in live or recorded sound, and according to the size of the team, but generally you'll be expected to:
- communicate with the performers, director or producer to understand their artistic vision and contribute your own creative ideas
- design, set up and test audio equipment including microphones and the speaker system, often with the assistance of a system technician
- conduct individual recordings of each instrument and vocal in a studio context
- conduct sound checks for front of house (audio for the audience) and the stage monitor or foldback system (audio for the performers), before the performance in live sound
- liaise with other departments, such as lighting
- use a mixing console during the performance to create a live mix which balances sound levels
- add sound effects during a performance such as echo and equalisation
- resolve any audio-related technical problems that arise during the performance
- dismantle all audio equipment after the performance or studio session, reporting and resolving any faults to ensure equipment is safely maintained
- enhance, edit and mix studio recorded tracks
- master the mixed and edited tracks by listening to them and then using specialist equipment, such as equalizers or filters, to create a final, completed version, which realizes the artist's vision and is ready for release
- log and archive the studio recording.
- Your income will vary depending on which industry you specialise in, if you're working in a small or large studio, a small venue or on a live music tour.
- Starting salaries are generally low at around £15,000, until you've gained a reputation and have some experience.
- More experienced sound engineers can expect to earn between £20,000 and £40,000. Engineers working with very successful artists may command higher salaries.
Freelance work is increasingly common. Experienced freelancers can expect a daily rate of £150-250. Touring is the most profitable way to freelance, where your pay will include travel time and days off.
These figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours are long and irregular. Working days of 10-14 hours are commonplace. You're likely to work evenings, nights and weekends according to the live performance schedule, or when artists are available to be recorded in the studio.
What to expect
- Digital technology has resulted in many larger recording studios downsizing to smaller premises and employing fewer full-time staff.
- The majority of jobs are in live sound and are usually freelance, short-term contracts involving national or international travel.
- To work in live sound you should have a genuine love of live music and travel.
- The environment will be noisy and a good level of fitness is required for arranging equipment and stamina for long shifts.
- Dress code is casual.
The majority of new entrants to the industry have a degree in a relevant music technology subject, such as sound recording or audio engineering. The level of knowledge expected is high as the equipment used is increasingly complex.
Entry is possible with an undergraduate degree in music, mathematics, physics or engineering, followed by a postgraduate level qualification in music technology.
A foundation degree or HND in the subject may also provide an entry route, however this is a highly competitive field and additional relevant experience in a studio or on a live tour would be essential.
You'll need to show:
- a positive attitude with enthusiasm for the role and working environment
- a good ear for pitch, timing and musical sound
- a high degree of technical competence and an excellent knowledge of musical recording technology
- a creative and logical approach to problem solving
- patience, particularly for working in the studio where achieving the perfect sound may take time
- a calm response to the pressures of live performance
- strong interpersonal skills
- attention to detail
- the ability to respond well to, and act on, criticism
- teamwork as you will work collaboratively with other technical staff and performers
- resilience in the face of setbacks
- an awareness of studio management and financing
- budgeting and negotiating skills - particularly needed if you're working freelance.
Sound engineering is a competitive industry, where your reputation is important and work experience is essential. Very few structured work experience or training schemes exist, so it's important to get involved, seeking out as many opportunities as you can.
Get involved in student audio visual societies, including radio, TV or theatre. Consider volunteering for a local hospital or community radio, local music venues or assisting at community music events. If you're a musician, record your own materials or offer to record local bands in a home studio. Attend live music shows to familiarise yourself with the way music ought to sound.
Send speculative applications to recording studios, local pubs, clubs or theatres showing an enthusiasm for their output and ask if they can offer you work experience. Sound equipment companies which are warehouse based and maintain rental stock are also a good place to learn and make contacts - you can approach these by speculative application.
Few jobs in this industry are advertised. Much recruiting is done by word of mouth. Networking at events, through volunteering or work experience is important. Speculative applications to studios are advised. Self-employment is also possible in a home-based studio.
Look for job vacancies at:
Keeping up to date with emerging technologies is essential in this fast-moving field. If you're working freelance, it's up to you to maintain your professional development. Training courses are a good way to network with like-minded professionals and build up contacts as well as learning new skills.
The industry has a union, BECTU, which provides conferences, events and information about training for professionals.
There's no set career path in sound engineering but typically you'll enter the field as a runner or technical assistant and work your way up to the level of an engineer, focusing on a particular specialism within either live or recorded sound.
From the level of a studio engineer you could move to a senior engineer or master engineer position. You may start in a smaller studio and move to a larger studio with experience. Setting up your own studio is also a possibility and some sound engineers progress into studio management.
In live sound, you may start on smaller live shows and progress to large scale international tours, which may involve management of an audio team. As a freelancer your rates will increase with experience, reputation and the success of the artists you work with.
Promotion depends on hard work, the right attitude and ability, but also to some degree, being in the right place at the right time. Networking, making a good impression and building a reputation are therefore important for developing your career. Maintaining an online presence may also be helpful, such as having your own website.