If you have ever imagined being a Sound Engineer, you probably have envisioned working in a casual atmosphere, sitting behind a big console of dials and directing your favourite artist as they belt out their next big single. It's probably this image, of collaborating with famous performers in a creative profession, which has made the occupation of 'Sound Engineer' so popular among career planners.
Sound Engineers are involved in a lot more than just the music industry. Technically, their job is to 'produce and record the best quality sound' whether that be for television, radio, live performances, movies or CD's. They may create original works (production) or enhance finished products with music, sound effects and dialog (post-production).
Sound Engineers are typically responsible for setting up equipment, capturing sound, recording individual 'tracks' and then mixing those tracks together to complete the project. For example, a movie might have a dialog track carrying actor's voices, a second track of background sounds and perhaps a third with ambient music all mixed together to create a whole scene.
Naturally, career planners focused on the music industry wonder if there are any real jobs out there. We asked the folks at a local studio. The company is involved in many aspects of Sound Engineering including: original production of music, advertising, and post production work for movies or television.
John is the Chief Sound Engineer at the studio. His interest in electronics and technology lead him to pursue an education in that direction. As classes wore on, he realized that his interests lay less in fixing equipment and more in using electronics to create interesting sounds; he switched his training to a recording arts program. Like many people, he was interested in the music industry, but struggled to find work after completing his training. 'I sent out resumes everywhere' John says 'but it was tough.' There wasn't a big music industry presence in the city.
In movies and TV, the pictures tell the story... music and sound creates the emotion.
To get a foot in the door, John approached a local news radio program where, for the better part of a year, he volunteered as a production assistant. The experience he gained there and the contacts he made helped land his first paid position: production at a local radio station. Similarly, contacts eventually lead him to join one of the city's first recording studios. 'It was less money, but it was really where I wanted to be.' He worked at that studio for about six years, picking up skills as computers and digital technology became a big part of the recording process. As John's abilities and reputation grew, he established his own studio.
John credits his success to following his passion and delivering more than people expect. 'I was given opportunities because of my commitment to do whatever it took: long hours, working for free and doing grunt work.' To break into the business, John did plenty of 'gopher' work which he says: 'didn't really boost my ego, but put me in the right place with the right people.'
Critical to success is being personable and self-motivated. According to John, 'You create your own success' by keeping current with the latest technologies and getting to know people in the industry. The 'personable' part comes in when working on a project. When an Engineer is in a studio with a client for days or weeks at a time it's important to make that person feel comfortable. Sound Engineers collaborate with a variety of directors, producers and performers of different personalities and styles. Those that feel they had a good experience and connected personally with the Sound Engineer will bring repeat business to the studio.
Where John resides, there is more work available in post-production and advertising than in the music industry. In John's experience: 'A client with a thirty second radio commercial pays way more than spending a month with a band recording their entire album.' For Sound Engineers who are self-employed, there isn't really an limit to their income.
John's studio works on a variety of projects. In larger cities, studios tend to specialize. Some of the specialties include:
- Broadcast Engineers: managing sound for radio and television production
- Foley Artists: creating sound effects
- Track recorders: recording individual instrument or voice recordings
- Mixers: Combining individual tracks together into a seamless whole
- Mastering: putting finishing touches on a 'mixed' track
- Location Recording: capturing audio in settings outside of a studio
- Live performance engineering: balancing sound levels in for live performances
The education path to becoming a Sound Engineer isn't very straightforward. Unlike some occupations, becoming an Sound Engineer isn't just a matter of taking a particular training program and then getting a job in the field. To find work in the industry you must establish a name for yourself. Training can provide people with the basic skills, but getting established may mean:
- volunteering your time
- putting in extra hours
- spending free time updating your knowledge of equipment
- really getting to know people in the industry
The people who are most successful in the field are those who are committed and passionate about their work.
As far as choosing a school, it's important to carefully research before investing any money. You will want to talk to employers in your community about the skills they are looking for and get their suggestions for schools that are out there. A number of private schools have recently popped up, offering recording arts training. Get as much information as you can before signing on the dotted line. Make sure that you will be learning skills that make an impression. Carefully research your career options before you decide.
Despite the rise of work in Post-Production and Advertising, the environment is still competitive. Training programs are expensive and even after completing one, you may still have to prove yourself to an employer as a volunteer. Before taking a training program, try some recording and sound mixing at home in your spare time. If your computer has a microphone (or you're willing to buy one) you can download one of the free digital mixing programs on the web and try your hand at the Sound Engineer's craft. While it won't land you a job, it can give you a vague feel for what the work is like. If over time you find that it's fun and you are still really interested, some formal training might be your next step.
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