So You want to be an Audio Engineer?
It’s no secret that it is notoriously difficult to get your foot through the door of the music industry. The old business model of how records are made has been thrown out the window, and the purists who hold on to the past are quickly dying out. For those of us who dream of being involved in the process of making records, those changes have made it even more difficult. For various reasons, which I will leave for a different day, we’ve seen a shrinking industry, low job growth, and a saturated job market. As you start your journey towards becoming an audio engineer the future may seem bleak, but for those of us who are fueled by true passion and unwavering dedication, there is still hope.
The first step of every journey is to decide on a destination. If you are reading this, it is fair to assume that your chosen destination is to become a successful recording or mixing engineer. Success can differ from person to person, but for most of us it means being able to support ourselves financially while doing what we love. When choosing a destination, you MUST do your research, because to truly succeed, you must treat this as a one-way ticket. Why do you want to go there? What attracts you to that specific location? Will I be happy there? Will I be able to stay at that destination long-term? You should be able to look towards the horizon and have the confidence that you will not be tempted to look back and give in to doubt.
Do not become an audio engineer if:
- If you are expecting to be paid well. You will work for free as an intern for a very long time and get paid on average around $13 an hour when you begin to assist. You will only start making somewhat of a decent living 5-8 years into it.
- If you can not work in a high stress environment. People are paying a lot of money, so if something goes wrong, you better fix it fast.
- Expecting a glamorous job. Most of the time you will be working with projects you hate that has nothing to with music you enjoy or sometimes even music.
- Expect to have a “Normal” Social life. You will be expected to work any time a session is booked whether it’s on the weekend, holidays, early, or late. This makes it difficult to plan anything with family, friends, or with your significant other.
- Not willing/able to move to a major market. Most of the big studios and audio jobs are located in L.A, NYC, and Nashville.
Once you’ve decided on a destination, the next step should be to pick a route. There is almost always more than one way to reach a destination, and every route should examined carefully. Traditionally, there are two starting points for your journey. Some will choose to pursue an audio education, whether it is a college degree or certificate, and some will not. Both ways are valid, but from personal experience, it is always easier to reach a destination when you are equipped with the necessary tools and skills at the beginning of the journey rather than learning it on your way.
I have chosen the path of pursuing an education, and in retrospect, I personally believe to have made the right choice. The job market is saturated with individuals pursuing a career as audio engineers and the recording studio industry is shrinking. As a result, there are less jobs available and more people competing for them. I’ve had the pleasure of interning or working as an engineer at some incredible studios including Electric Lady Studios, Sear Sound, and Terminus Studios.
During that time I’ve gained insight into the hiring process. Although there are always exceptions, almost all recording studios require interns to have a formal audio education. The reasoning behind this is simple: To thin out the hundreds of applications they receive and to have the confidence that the intern will have the skills needed to actually assist with the recording process. Recording studio employees are aware that learning is apart of the internship, but they expect to be teaching their interns advanced concepts and not the basics. (And yes, you will absolutely be doing a lot of cleaning, answering phones, and going on runs.) There are plenty of audio programs out there, but do your research and decide what program best fits your needs.
I’ve already briefly touched upon it, but your next step will be to secure an internship. This might be your most difficult obstacle in reaching your destination. Competition for internships at a reputable and established recording studios is high. Recording studios receive at least +20 applications a week, some studios much more. I can not stress how important it is to write a professionally written email and resume. The email and resume are the studio manager’s first impression of you. Do not make it a bad one. Andrew Koss from Terminus Studios provided some great information on what studio managers look for when hiring interns. My advice for you once you receive an offer to begin an internship is to work hard, be punctual, and do not become jaded. This phase of your journey will truly test your resilience. You will be broke, tired, and doing a lot of tasks that have nothing to do with audio. Use this time to build a relationship with studio employees, show your reliability, and to study every piece of gear the studio has. The time will eventually come when you will be expected to setup sessions for the in-house engineer. Do not be caught off guard when that time arrives.
Hopefully by this point you have gained an internship and have proven your worth and dedication. The next natural step and final stretch towards reaching your destination will be as an assistant recording engineer, or if you are in a smaller studio, to become one of the in-house engineers. By now, you should be making a decent living, although not much at all. The studio manager has come to see that you are reliable and proficient and will start providing you with clients looking to record. At this stage, every job you do, whether you do a good or bad job, directly reflects the studio’s reputation. You are now the face and voice of the studio and you should act accordingly. Be professional, polite, and most importantly, be someone who the client enjoys working with. A client will always expect an engineer to provide a high quality product, but to have a client return for your services will almost always depend on whether or not they enjoyed working with you.
This is also the time to set yourself apart from other recording engineers. The best way to accomplish this will be to focus on a genre of music you want to be associated with. If you love Rock, be the engineer who all the local rock bands want to work with. If you love Hip-Hop and Rap, be the engineer all the rappers want to work with. Start building a name for yourself in that scene. Go to shows, talk to people and bands, and have a presence. Another way of setting yourself apart is sonically. Use all the knowledge you have accumulated thus far to fuel your creativity. Try something new if time permits. Start the wave instead of being apart of one. You want artists to approach you because they want “your sound”. Be aware that defining your sound may take years, but when you get to that point you can almost be certain you have reached your destination.
After years of studying, interning, assisting, and engineering countless projects, you have finally reached your destination. You did not give up. You are now able to make a good living doing what you love. You have mastered your art and have defined your sound. Artists are now asking you to record their records. You may even have famous musicians asking to work with you. There are so many job offers that you are able to pick and chose who you want to work with. All the hard work, long hours, and low paying positions now seem worth it. You do not take it for granted. You continue to strive for excellence and get better at your profession and remember that is is a privilege to have a career doing what you love.