Much of our multimedia experience consists of sound, even though we might not be aware of it. Try watching a horror movie without sound - it won’t be anywhere near as scary. Playing a video game without sound is like eating soup with a fork: It just doesn’t work. Therefore, it stands to reason the importance of audio engineering is far greater than we might realize.
There is a certain magic in creating a sound image - you are literally making noise from silence.
But what is audio engineering? Where can I learn how to do it? How long does it take to catch on, and how profitable is it? If you wish to know the answers to these questions, you are in the right place.
What Exactly Is Audio Engineering?
Bluntly put, audio engineering, by definition, would be any process that allows us to manipulate and record sound. It doesn’t matter if you are miking a recording booth or stage, doing sound checks, or mixing, editing, and mastering your tracks in the studio. If you’re playing with audio signals in any way, it’s audio engineering.
An audio engineer knows their way around the studio, the stage, all the tools they have at hand - DAWs, monitors, mics, amps, and speakers - and how to get the best sound quality in every audio format.
Audio Production and Engineering
It’s necessary to differentiate a producer from an engineer. A producer is someone who guides the artist, meaning they brainstorm and find the best ways to use the artist’s talents. An audio engineer, also known as a sound engineer or recording engineer, is the person that brings those ideas to life.
A professional sound engineer has a vast technical knowledge of sound engineering technologies (old and new) and sound itself, but the main thing to understand is that they, more often than not, have an artistic and creative understanding of the project. In other words, they can often act as a producer thanks to that exact knowledge.
Not every producer has the same technical knowledge as an engineer, however. That means that in audio engineering, the responsibilities are far greater than those of a producer.
But what’s the difference between audio engineering and music production? Many people are mixing up these terms, so let’s break it down.
While music production focuses strictly on music (as the name suggests), audio engineering focuses on every aspect of a sound image, be it in a song, movie, TV show, game, in the theatre, at a concert, convention, or festival.
Music production is one of the many subcategories of audio engineering. If you are attracted to a profession in this particular branch of science, you must first get familiar with the various disciplines of audio engineering.
What Does an Audio Engineer Do?
There are two main types of audio engineers. On one side, you have professionals who manipulate sound, such as music producers, video game sound designers, and live coverage sound engineers. Even DJs are considered audio engineers, as they use the best turntables they can get their hands on to live mix and modulate frequencies and volume of their tracks and samples.
These professions are widely known as very lucrative, as there is practically no limit to how much an audio engineer can earn, especially in the music industry, where the top players regularly rake in seven figures.
The fundamentals skills required to become an audio engineer of this level are:
- Audio and acoustics - What audio signals are, how they are transmitted, and how much influence room treatment has on the sound.
- Knowledge of musical instruments - How to record a specific instrument and what frequency it resonates on.
- Mastery of audio technology - Staying in tune with current technological and industry breakthroughs, and experience with adapting those to your music production software of choice.
- Live coverage - how sound works in the outdoors, how it spreads, what influences it, and how to cover a surface so everybody can hear the sound properly. As an audio engineer, you’ll need to hear all the nuance in the audio, usually with the help of top-notch in-ear monitors.
Apart from making sure a project reaches the highest quality possible, due to the same understanding of the creative process we’ve mentioned earlier, the role of an audio engineer is also to ensure good communication with the artist. They need to understand what the artist is looking to get from the song, explain to them how realistic their vision is, and whether they can achieve it.
There are also professionals whose job is to create or teach about the tools used for sound manipulation. The people who work in these professions are teachers, scientists, and device manufacturers, and they deal with the scientific and mathematical aspects of audio engineering, creating Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), MIDI synths, studio, and in-ear monitors.
If you are interested in pursuing a career in these branches of audio engineering, you will need to get through an audio engineering curriculum where you will accumulate the knowledge you will need.
How To Become an Audio Engineer
Know that it is far from an easy path. Like we said before, it is a science, and like any science, it requires study. Colleges like Berkley have some of the best facilities for audio engineering degree programs worldwide and offer scholarships for the best candidates. Sub-disciplines one can choose to specialize in are:
- Audio-signal processing
- Musical acoustics
- Architectural acoustics
If you want to become a music producer, a sound designer for films, movies, or games, or dabble in musical engineering, then a simple course might be cheaper and just as beneficial.
While you won’t have the same spectrum of knowledge, you will have the basics, which are more than enough to propel you to practice on your own and improve over time. Whatever aspect of audio engineering you choose, you will have to work immensely hard to get your break. Starting as an intern who mainly spends their time getting coffee and scheduling meetings and studio time is to be expected.
Salaries of audio engineers vary. Professional audio engineers’ salaries can get up to an annual $350,000, but the lowest salaries, usually for those that just got out of college, are around $35,000 a year.
The only question left would be if the career of an audio engineer is for you. The job isn’t just sitting at a desk, turning knobs, moving faders to engineer music, or “vibing” to it. It is far more complex, but not all tasks are fun, especially if you’re listening to the same segment of a project over and over, trying to get that “oomph.”
In the beginning, you will probably be running errands, but that’s how it goes. Whether you are in college or not, stay consistent, because many others will not, and that will be your ticket in. Where most will just give up and move on, you will make connections, learn and gain valuable insight into the audio-engineering world that will significantly benefit you in the long run.
Frequently Asked Questions
An audio engineer does everything from setting up the stage for a concert and mixing music, to evolving technologies like speakers, microphones, headphones, DAWs, synthesizers, etc.
That depends. What is audio engineering to you? If you are not willing to be sat down next to a computer day after day, “listening to noise,” we would not recommend it. However, if you’re passionate about creating new and exciting tracks you can share with everyone, this is the best job for that.
With hard work and a lot of dedication, it can be a very lucrative career. The median salary of a professional audio engineer is between $50,000 and $150,000. Some even reach seven-figure paychecks from royalties and masters.
Apart from a refined ear, an audio engineer would need to have audio and acoustic education, at least some basic knowledge of musical instruments, know their way around current audio technologies, and experience in live coverage.
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While Damjan started his career in humanities, his interests quickly moved on to the tech and IT world. VPNs, antiviruses, firewalls, password managers - cybersecurity is what he knows best. When Damjan’s not losing hair over the dwindling of our collective sense of tech safety, you’ll find him looking for solace in 100-hour-long RPGs and rage-inducing MOBAs.