Eight Steps To Becoming A Sound Engineer

As a Partner at Dalton Koss HQ (DKHQ), I regularly visit educational institutions around the world to give Master Classes and lectures on careers in the audio, music and creative industries. Over the past 36 years I’ve earned my living as a live sound engineer, tour manager, studio engineer, record producer, artist manager, A&R consultant, rehearsal/recording studio owner, record label executive and more recently as an educator. Discussions with early career professionals always trigger the question, how did I get started on my 36-year career in the music industry? What was my personal journey? One of my most frequently asked questions is, “how do I become an audio engineer?” It’s an interesting question as there is no standard route into the profession. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever see a mainstream advertisement in the jobs pages of a newspaper for an audio engineer. I maintain that working in the audio production/music industry is not a job or even a career, but it’s actually a lifestyle, which requires a huge amount of personal commitment. If you are looking for high pay, hedonism and fame then a career in music and audio production definitely won’t be for you.

The music industry does an incredibly clever smoke and mirrors trick where it tries to make itself appear revolutionary and anti-establishment. In reality the music industry is probably the world’s most compliant, conservative and least revolutionary art form on the planet. If you want to be creatively cutting edge and revolutionary then try fine art, fashion or architecture as an art form. To help re-align perceptions of both employers and students, I have organised a number of speed dating with industry events in the UK, USA and Australia. At these very popular events students meet music industry managers and owners and speak to them one-to-one. Results are always positive from both sides of the table. Students start to realize that the product may be music, but ultimately, they will experience a very similar working life to everyone else. The job description may include activities that might seem like social occasions e.g. going to shows, visits to the studio, riding on a tour bus, but being involved in these activities from a work perspective is very different from hanging out with your mates.

The music industry is first and foremost a business and a very serious financially focused one at that. Whether you end up working in the independent music world or for a major international music label, you will be expected to work very long hours in a highly competitive work environment to achieve measurable successes often under difficult circumstances. You may get to wear skinny black jeans and Converse to work, but this doesn’t mean that you are working any less then your friends who have to wear a suit and tie to work in their office jobs. There will be long hours, with the potential for advancement if you perform well, the potential for dismissal if you don’t, good bosses, bad bosses, troublesome clients, all the standard workplace related experiences will apply. There will definitely be some cool perks, but trust my 36 years of experience, they will be very few and far between and they’ll definitely be hard earned. Anyone who is hard working, creative, passionate and motivated will fair extremely well in a music industry career. Here is my personal eight-step guide to become an audio engineer: –

  1. Start working with sound equipment: Audio equipment has never been so cheap and much of it these days is software based. Get your hands on as much equipment as possible and practice your skills. If you believe Malcolm Gladwell’s theory (I do) then 10,000 hours is the magic number. Start clocking up those hours now. Audition microphones, recorders, effects, plug-ins; work out what they do and how they can be used creatively and correctively. Spend all day mucking about with audio equipment, discuss audio equipment with like-minded folk when you’re not mucking about with audio equipment and then when you go to sleep dream about audio equipment – it’s a lifestyle remember?
  2. Enrol on an appropriate audio degree:There are a plethora of different degree options out there so find one that suits you. The role of audio engineer is a diverse one e.g. live audio, post-production, programming, maintenance, design installation, broadcast, mastering, music production, etc. Go and visit the different institutions, that’s what open days are for, and see what they have to offer in terms of degrees/diplomas structure, equipment, exit qualification and consider teaching staff experience. Ideally the educational institution that you choose will have lots and lots of project work (remember that 10,000 hour rule?) so you’ll get plenty of hands on time. A degree in audio production on its own will not be enough to secure you some work so in addition go to a recording studio, rehearsal room, music venue or local theatre and try to make friends with the sound crew. Tell them you’re interested in what they do, and ask if you can hang out and watch them work. Find out about the job and then work out what you want to do and start doing it.
  3. Read some books:There are lots of books (I’m currently writing my third one), magazines and web sites out there. Read as much as possible about audio engineering, music production, mastering, equipment and everything connected to audio and music production. Audio engineering is an incredibly complex industry but the information is out there but it will require you to actively research the industry. By reading you’ll understand the history and context of the industry and that will make you a much better and more employable engineer. Become familiar with different kinds of sound equipment; do lots of research on the Internet, check out the websites of sound companies, studios, record companies, producers, etc.
  4. Learn to use different audio software: You probably already have a favourite piece of software, which you love to use. As a professional you need to be confident in using all of the tools available. Find out about the other software packages available that you don’t use including: ProTools, Cubase, Reason, Cakewalk, Sibelius, Digital Performer, Live, Ableton and Logic.Most of the manufacturers of these products have free demos available on the Internet. Go on the different forums and speak to the audio gurus about issues that you are having. Watch lots of Youtube videos that show you the shortcuts and hacks.
  5. Get familiar with lots of different types of music: As a music industry professional you’ll be working with music that may not be to your taste. It’s vital you critically listen to as many different types of music as possible. No one is asking you to like this music but you do need to understand the mechanics and how it operates. Spend lots of time critically analysing different musical genres that you wouldn’t normally listen too. This is probably the most single important skill you can train yourself to do. A good educational institution will have critical listening sessions as part of their program. When learning how to record, mix and edit music you should also know about the wide variety of music available in the world. Here are some of my learning principles:
    • Listen to different types of songs.
    • Analyse different types of sounds.
    • Try to catch each and every beat.
    • Think “how did they do that?
    • Learn to create your favourite music and even the music you don’t like.
  6. Be honest with your weaknesses and commit to improving yourself:
    After you have completed a project, look back and critically reflect on what went well and what didn’t. Critically discuss with your peers, employers, and teachers about what you have created and work out how you can make it better. Commit to being better next time by adjusting your workflow or being better prepared. Where necessary, make amends with the parties at the receiving end of your mistakes (e.g. musician, performers, a missed cue on stage or in the mix).
  7. Expose yourself to the ever-changing audio technologies:
    Chances are, there’s a better way or better tools to get your job done today than there were 6 months ago. However, whatever technology you are considering to use needs to be thought through in the context of what your project actually needs. Technology should always serve what you are trying to achieve in the project, not the other way around. Think of technology as the tools of the trade but do not become technology obsessed because it should be about the music and not the tech. If you apply a piece of tech to a project ask yourself is it helping the artists express whatever it is they are trying to express? If the answer is NO then you probably don’t need that side chained, frequency sensitive plug-in gate ducking the out-of-phase room microphone in the mix.
  8. Be entrepreneurial and become the CEO of your own brand. Just like Bonds sells upmarket underwear and JB HiFi sells electronics, you sell something that is unique — YOU.  This includes your identity, personality, work ethic, goals, aspirations, fears and much more. Think of yourself as a brand, as your own public relations, sales and marketing department all in one, and you need to be the CEO of that brand. In the creative industries, self employment and working on short term contracts is the norm so know how to sell the best version of yourself and position your image that will be favourable to all. Your digital footprint (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc.) may be a huge factor in you getting that vital paying gig, so actively manage your brand.

Tim will be hosting the following music industry sessions over the next three weeks:

Tim Dalton is a Partner at Dalton Koss HQ with over 38 years of international experience as an audio engineer, record producer, record company executive, A&R consultant and educator. Originally from the UK, Tim has worked internationally with David Bowie, Sir Paul McCartney, Simple Minds, Elvis Costello, Faith No More, The Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Transvision Vamp, Primus, De La Soul, and Atomic Kitten.

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