Sound Engineer (Recording Industry)

The Job and What's Involved

Sound engineers work in recording and audio post-production studios making high quality sound recordings. They operate sophisticated electronic equipment to record music, speech, sound and other audio effects. They record sound for many different uses, including: music CDs; radio, film and TV; commercials; corporate productions; websites; computer games and other interactive media.

The sound engineer is responsible for what the audience hears. Depending on the type of recording, they may:

  • Plan recording sessions with producers and artists.
  • Position microphones.
  • Help to set up the artists' instruments.
  • Set and maintain the right sound levels and dynamics.
  • Operate equipment for recording, mixing, sequencing.
  • Balance sound and add effects.
  • Mix tracks to produce a final 'master' track.

Sound engineers record the sound onto a multitrack tape machine or a hard disk drive, before mixing and mastering the final production master. The master can then be made into various formats, such as: CD; mini-disc; DVD-A (Digital Versatile Disc-Audio); SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc); MP3 or digital audio files in different formats.

The sound engineer works closely with producers and artists to create the right sound. In film and TV, where they are putting sound to images, they may also work with the director, editor and other members of the post-production team. The process may involve a number of versions, each requiring further refinement of the audio mix, until the final soundtrack is achieved.

Hours can be long and unpredictable, and night and weekend work is common. Sound engineers need to be flexible as their hours may depend on the availability of artists and producers, and the needs of the production project.

Most of the work is carried out in a recording or post-production studio. Conditions vary: larger facilities are air-conditioned, comfortable, spacious and well-equipped, but smaller studios may be uncomfortable.

Control rooms are often small, crowded and lit by artificial light. This can be uncomfortable, especially when the work lasts for many hours. Recording sessions can be quite intense, particularly as deadlines approach.

A new sound engineer may earn around £15,000 a year and an experienced sound engineer may earn about £20,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Sound engineers are employed by commercial recording and audio post-production studios. Most of the major employers are based in London, but there are many smaller independent studios around the country.

Many sound engineers are freelance, working on short-term contracts or for the duration of a project. Changes in technology have resulted in the wider availability of professional quality equipment, with a significant increase in self-employment.

Competition for jobs as a sound engineer is fierce. Networking, the ability to make personal contacts, and experience in the industry are vital.

Sound engineers also register in trade directories and post their details on trade association websites. Many find work through word of mouth or by recommendation.

Education and Training

It may be possible to enter the industry without formal qualifications. Some commercial studios and audio post-production facilities houses take on runners or assistants who perform routine tasks. If they show promise they may get the chance to use studio equipment and assist on sessions, and eventually work their way up to become an engineer.

Practical experience is essential. Some people start off by working as unpaid volunteers in a studio; other relevant experience can be gained from recording and mixing music in a home studio, hospital radio or community media, or involvement in community music projects.

Larger studios may require applicants to have a related qualification. There is a wide range of relevant courses at various levels, including:

- City & Guilds
- National Certificates and Diplomas
- HNC's/HND's
- Foundation degrees
- Degrees

Course titles include music production, music technology, audio technology, media and sound technology, sound engineering and electronics.

There may be specific subject requirements for entry onto diploma and degree courses. Relevant subjects include maths, physics and music. Entry requirements vary so check with the college or university.

The Joint Audio Media Education Services (JAMES), which represents the main industry organisations, accredits some courses. Details are available on its website.

Some students go on to specialise in sound at postgraduate level. The University of Westminster offers an MA in audio production and the National Film and Television School offers a Diploma in Sound Recording and an MA in Sound Design for Film and Television.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Even with a qualification, most sound engineers start their careers at a junior level, eg as a runner or assistant, and learn on the job.

Sound engineers need to keep up to date with changes in technology throughout their careers.

Short courses and masterclasses may be available through local colleges, trade associations, the BBC, and establishments such as the National Film and Television School.

Training should involve a lot of practical studio time, so when choosing a course it is important to consider how much access there will be to studios and equipment.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A sound engineer should have:

  • Excellent hearing.
  • The ability to listen to and differentiate between sounds.
  • A good sense of pitch, timing and rhythm.
  • Knowledge of sound recording and post-production processes.
  • A good knowledge of different types of music.
  • An understanding of electronics and acoustics.
  • The ability to cope with long hours and tight deadlines.
  • Excellent communication skills.
  • Patience, tact and negotiation skills.
  • The ability to work effectively under pressure.
  • Knowledge of health and safety procedures.

Your Long Term Prospects

This is primarily a creative profession, where personal skills, experience and the ability to make contacts are just as important as qualifications.

Sound engineers who have built up a reputation may become producers. Others, once they have experience and can afford the set-up costs, may open their own recording studios.

The skills learnt as a sound engineer are highly transferable and can be used in radio, film, television, the theatre and for multimedia work.

With experience, some sound engineers specialise in a particular area. Others may go on to work for equipment retailers or manufacturers.

Get Further Information

Association of Professional Recording Services (APRS),
PO Box 22, Totnes, Devon TQ9 7YZ
Tel: 01803 868600

BPI, Riverside Building, County Hall,
Westminster Bridge Rd, London SE1 7JA
Tel: 020 7803 1300

Community Media Association, the Workstation,
15 Paternoster Row, Sheffield S1 2BX
Tel: 0114 279 5219

Hospital Broadcasting Association

Joint Audio Media Education Services (JAMES),
1 Printing House Yard, London E2 7PR

Music Producers Guild (MPG),
4 Wheelwrights Corner, Cossack Square,
Nailsworth, Gloucestershire GL6 0DB

Professional Lighting and Sound Association (PLASA),
Redoubt House, 1 Edward Road,
Eastbourne BN23 8AS
Tel: 01323 524120

Skillset, Focus Point,
21 Caledonian Road, London N1 9GB
Free careers helpline: 08080 300 900

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