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.

Why Study For A Music Degree?

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” (Confucius)

Over the last couple of months I’ve spoken at a number of careers fairs around Australia, where I’m described as a “music industry veteran”. This is actually quite an accurate description because over the last 36 years I’ve had a number of different international roles in the music industry ranging from stage hand, live sound engineer, studio engineer, record producer, tour manager, artist manager, entrepreneur,  music company owner and operator, A&R consultant and record company executive. As well as all this hands-on international industry experience I’ve spent a lot of time as an academic studying and teaching about the music industry. So I must be some kind of expert?

At these careers fairs I’ve really enjoyed talking to potential degree students and their parents. It’s an interesting conversation because there are two completely different narratives being discussed simultaneously. Firstly, there’s the conversation with the potential teenage student and secondly there’s the conversation with the accompanying parent(s). In most cases it’s the teenager that’s desperate to work in the music industry and it’s the parent putting on the brakes. The big problem here is that many parents would prefer their offspring to have a “real job”. A degree in any music industry subject e.g. audio production, performance, music business, etc. is probably going to be the second most expensive item bought during anyone’s life time, second only to property. At around +$40,000 (Aus) it’s a tough decision on how best to invest this money so early on in a career.

The music industry is a viable career option for many people, but only for those that are educated and trained to work in the industry. The modern music industry is a complex and multi-faceted operation with a need for a wide variety of skill-sets. For example, the Australian venue based live music industry entertains over 41 million patrons, contributes $1.21 billion to the national economy and employs almost 15,000 full time jobs (Music Victoria and City of Melbourne, Live Music Censure, 2012). On top of the live music venue-based industry there are other very vibrant sectors within the cultural industries such as audio production, events management, theatre, arts management, broadcasting management, content management and intellectual property management. As with any modern industry the correct education and training is vital if you want a career within these sectors. Various educational institutions provide high-quality, professional arts and entertainment education combined with training in an integrated, socially inclusive environment that allows for a diversity of voices and collaboration between individuals. Students should be encouraged to pursue excellence and innovation through creativity, critical reflection, individual endeavour, exploration and experimentation, unconstrained by style or genre and informed by scholarship and best practice. Any worthwhile educational institution should value its artistic and academic integrity, as well as its engagement with the entertainment industry to ensure currency of its programs. My advice would be to undertake some research and visit the institutions that appeal on open days. All their programs differ; as do their campuses and their staff.

Tim Dalton backstage and on stage with students at 5 Seconds of Summer.
Tim Dalton backstage and on stage with students and industry practioners learning about tour logistics, audio and lighting for 5 Seconds of Summer.

There are two educational routes that can be taken here. The traditional ‘sandstone’ universities and TAFEs where initially uptake was fairly slow but now a significant number of three-year degrees are on offer. The other route is via the plethora of private institutions. The private institutions tend to condense a degree into two years and are slightly more expensive than the traditional institutions. I’ve worked in both types of institutions and there are pros and cons to both. Whatever institution is chosen the teaching staff involved in the delivery of music industry degrees should ideally be a combination of industry practitioners, professional qualified educators and to a certain extent academics.

While traditional manufacturing industries in Australia and throughout the western world are in rapid decline, the music industry is a viable career choice. 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 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 their office.

Music industry degrees, as we know them today, have only being available for the past 20 years. Prior to this, particularly in the UK, education in the music industry came indirectly from various art school degrees. This non-direct form of music industry education worked very well if we look at the evidence; The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Roxy Music, Pink Floyd, Cream, The Clash, etc. Simon Frith in his 1988 book Art Into Pop tells the intriguing and culturally complex story of the art school influence on post-war British popular music. Art Into Pop tells the story of how artists went from life drawing classes to the recording studio and to the top of the charts all over the world. It’s a story of how rock and blues infected youth music with Bohemian dreams. The late 1970’s was a unique time when punk musicians emerged from graphic design, fine art courses and fashion departments to disrupt what were, by then, art-rock routines. I know because I was there. The other way into the music industry was by accident e.g. brother of drummer becomes drum tech etc. In the very early stage of the developing music industry this route was viable, but definitely not any more.

Tim Dalton teaching music students how to create fantastic mixes.
Tim Dalton teaching music students how to create fantastic mixes.

Much of my work is what I call ‘stakeholder engagement’, ‘knowledge brokering’ and ‘thought architecture’. This involves engaging in active dialogue with music industry employers and connecting them to the higher education institutions where I work. The industry tells me what type of people they want and I tell industry what types of people we are outputting. Ideally we meet in the middle somewhere. This can be difficult as it takes 2 to 3 years for institutions to educate a student. On top of this we need to be mindful that the students we are currently producing will be in the job pool until 2065 and onwards. With this type of time frame it’s virtually impossible to guess what skills will be needed in the music industry 30 or 40 years from now. What is known is that students that have developed skills such as: Learning to Learn (L2L), independent research and critical analysis, oral and written communication, time management and are creatively entrepreneurial will always be in demand. These are pretty much the skills that the music industry has always wanted and are the skills of those traditionally exiting from the art into pop route.

A number of employers are sceptical of degrees in this field and I’m often confronted by CEO’s telling me that they don’t have a degree and that they don’t see the need for them. This happened to me at one of Europe’s largest audio hire companies. The managing director told me that he thought the best route into the industry was through mentoring and working your way up through the ranks “just like we did”. I did point out to him that 90% of his employees had degrees and that while I had worked my way through the ranks I also had a good first degree and a number of postgraduate degrees. I made my point by walking around his very large warehouse with him pointing out the ex-students that I had taught. A degree is a starting point to an accelerated career in any given field.

The above-mentioned audio company starts all of their new employees on the bottom rung of the ladder, but their assent is much more rapid than those without degrees. I once popped into this same company after a Glastonbury festival to find all the ‘newbies’ in the car park with buckets of hot soapy water and sponges cleaning the mud off 100 metre long multi-cores. One ex-student made it clear to me his disdain for this type of job stating “I didn’t spend three years at university to end up doing this”. A few years later I met the same ex-student mixing front of house sound for an international mega star band playing at the local enormo-dome gig in Melbourne. I reminded him of how his BA Honours Audio Technology and his practical experience had landed him this top job. He rather bashfully agreed.

Music students jamming in a creative and supported music environment.
Music students jamming in a creative and supported music environment.

One issue confronting high school students contemplating undertaking a degree in the music industry is their perception of the music industry. Often this is solely grounded in media representations of the music industry and as such is an inaccurate one. The music industry does a clever smoke and mirrors trick where it tries to make itself appear all revolutionary and anti-establishment. In reality the music industry is probably the worlds most compliant, conservative and least revolutionary art form on the planet. If you want to be 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, Dalton Koss HQ has organised a number speed dating events with industry in the UK and Australia. At these very popular events students get to meet music industry managers and owners and speak to them one-on-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. They’ll have long hours, with the potential for advancement if they perform well, the potential for dismissal if you don’t, good bosses, bad bosses, troublesome clients, all the standard workplace related experiences. There will definitely be some cool perks, but trust my 36 years of experience when I state that they’ll definitely be earned. Anyone who is hard working, creative, passionate and motivated will fair very well in a music industry career.

Working in the music industry is not a job, it’s probably not a career, rather it’s a lifestyle and as such you can’t measure it with the standard metrics. Many of the young adults I meet at career fairs aren’t sure what they want to do. Indeed I’d be very skeptical of any 15 year old that has a clear life and career plan. If you are planning to spend/invest a heap of money on a degree then my advice would be “Do what you love and love what you do”. It doesn’t really matter if that degree doesn’t become your final career. Use the time to indulge your passion; it’s probably the only time in your life when you can do this. How many English literature students become famous poets? Not many but any degree is always going to open doors in the future. Over the course of your professional life that investment/spend will be repaid many times over.