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The Role of an Audio Engineer

Audio engineers are some of the most important team members working in the film production, television and music industries today. Audio engineers are responsible for the sound design and construction that enhances voices, sound effects, and music to create a rich experience that compliments the visuals on screen. An audio engineer (also referred to as a sound engineer) is responsible for setting up and operating equipment used to capture sound. They must be tech-savvy, and have a deep understanding of how to best capture the recorded experience. They must also take concepts (like emotion) that only exist in words and translate them into sound. Improperly recorded sound can completely change the audience experience when they watch a movie, television show or musical performance.

Pursuing a career as an audio engineer gives you two major avenues to explore: you can choose to work in music production or film and television. In the music field, an audio engineer is responsible for setting up and operating audio equipment used to capture and shape an album. Working very closely with a record producer, the audio engineer provides valuable input into how sound is captured, which directly affects what people hear when a final product is released.

Though film and television are inherently visual mediums, audio engineers are valuable members of these production teams as well. There's a reason why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gives out not one but two Oscars for sound each year- Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Design. How sound is recorded, mixed, and ultimately put together can drastically shape the overall film experience, affecting everything from how scary a moment is to how heartfelt it can possibly become.

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Learn Formal Concepts and Methods

Audio Engineers Must Learn How to Record and Mix Sound

The most important formal concept that sound engineers use throughout their work day is one of relationship. They must not only understand how sound relates to and complements other senses like sight (in terms of visual mediums like film and television) but also how the different types of sound all work together to accomplish a much larger whole.

Take film, for example. On a movie set, sound engineers are essentially working with three different concepts: human voices (which takes the form of a dialog), sound effects (an explosion or roaring ocean waves), and music. These three different types of sound need to be recorded and mixed in a way where they're balanced with one another, making sure they can all be properly experienced, often at the same time. However, how those types of sounds are balanced will also change the meaning behind the sound in the first place. How sound is recorded can change the way a long speech by an actor feels, adding as much weight as possible and allowing the original intention behind the scene to be more easily conveyed. 

The same is true in the music production arena. How each individual instrument is recorded can affect how well they are all mixed together, which can ultimately help shape an album in a very precise and insightful way. 

The daily life of a sound engineer is powered both by hardware and software. On the hardware end, everything from recorders to microphones to different types of microphones, like a lavalier versus a boom mic, all play an important role in how audio is captured. In a way, it's a bit like the idea behind golf. You don't have one golf club; you have many – a different type and shape for each unique task in front of you. The variety of microphones and other recording devices available to sound engineers essentially sets the same precedent. Afterward, sound is fed into computer software like Ableton Live or Logic Pro, where it is manipulated even further.

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Build a Strong Portfolio

A Strong Portfolio Is Essential Regardless If You Are Self-Taught or Have a Degree

As with many other creative professions, the question of whether or not to pursue a formal education as an audio engineer or to attempt to build a career without a degree is one that can be hotly debated. In the end, gainful employment is all about the connections that you make and the portfolio that you build to show off your skills. It is possible to build that portfolio on your own by teaming with like-minded individuals in your area and using consumer-level products to show off the skills you've learned. Non-linear sound editing software comes as a standard inclusion on computers running the Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X operating systems. Likewise, with the Internet, it is easier than ever to reach out to professionals for everything from advice to connections, though it will obviously take a certain amount of time to do so.

However, education cannot be overlooked as a valuable experience. It may give you access to the type of equipment that you otherwise can't afford on your own, or put you within reach of other creative types if none exist in your local area. As stated, little else matters beyond your portfolio, which is something you will develop as a requirement to complete most college and university programs. Other classes typically offered through a college program include lighting and sound technology, scenic design, film music, and modern theater history. You will gain hands-on experience developing your portfolio and work with your advisor to connect with clubs and opportunities in college theater, as well as mixing, producing dialog and sound effects for music and film, theater and campus radio productions, as well as mastering CDs. An education helps you create, build and hone a portfolio, as well as master skills sometimes difficult to hone on your own. It opens opportunities for employment as a studio engineer, musical mixer, live sound engineer, foley engineer, and film sound effects editor.

In terms of employment, sound engineering is a profession that is ripe with possibilities. In addition to film, television, and album production environments, sound engineers can also find work in places like sporting arenas, theater productions, television stations, and more. United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, (BLS) reports that between 2014 – 2024 the job outlook for audio engineers is expected to grow 7-percent, which is as fast as average for all career fields. There were roughly 13,840 audio engineers in the United States in 2015, which is an increase of about 4.4-percent from the year prior. The median pay a audio engineer can expect with a few years of experience is $41,780. Of course, individuals just starting out will make less, and those with a great deal of experience and a great reputation in the industry will make much more. Location, education, and chosen career field (motion pictures vs. radio) also affect overall salary and opportunities for work.

Get to Know Our Experts

Matt Longoria

  • Title:
    Sound Designer
  • Company:
    Beatstreet Productions
  • Where:
    New York, NY
  • Experience:
    11 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I had a passion for sound and technology from a young age. As a teenager in California, I got really into music and played drums in local bands, which led to going into recording studios for band demos. The experience planted the idea of doing audio work for a living.After high school and a short stint in college, I moved to NYC and played around in the music scene. A couple years later I enrolled in the SAE Institute of Technology with the intention of becoming a music producer/ audio engineer. It was there that I learned of a related audio career: sound design and audio post-production.

    While at SAE, I first had an internship at a music production studio in New York and got a taste of the music production world. After graduation, I began a new internship at Beatstreet Productions, an audio post facility. As this internship progressed, I was given small sound design assignments and did well; this lead to further assignments. Eventually, I became the go-to sound designer at Beatstreet, was promoted to full engineer, and was able to quit my side job as a waiter (yay!).

    Although I originally pursued a career in audio with the idea of becoming a music producer, I soon found that sound design, Foley, and other aspects of audio post-production can be just as creative – if not more.

    I am currently chief engineer at Beatstreet. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredibly talented voice talents, producers, and songwriters, which usually helps the long studio sessions go by quickly!

    After a couple nominations, I won an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing for The Electric Company on PBS in 2010. That was definitely a high point in my career so far!

    Advice

    Stay in school

    Internships and entry level jobs are really where most audio engineers learn the ropes. Audio schools, like the one that I went to, are great for general skills, for networking, and for considering career paths, but schooling like this is not always essential.

    Be ready to pay your dues

    In my case, I was very lucky to find a position that I was well suited for right out of school, but I also had room to grow beyond the entry level job. For anyone interested in this field, be ready to pay your dues in the early years – make coffee for clients, answer phones, clean up after a session, and practice, practice, practice your technical skills.

    Keep an open mind

    Be open-minded about what kinds of audio jobs you will go after. You may find a job that is very different than what you imagined you’d be doing and end up falling in love with it.

    Excel at customer service

    Treat your clients with care and respect. You need to make them feel well taken care of during the process. Doing the job well is not enough to ensure repeat business.

    Be accessible

    Have a presence on social media. Have a website. When you get an email from a prospective client, respond immediately.

    Stand out

    Having some projects under your belt is crucial to separating yourself from other applicants. People post no-pay crew positions to mandy.com and Craigslist. Those can be a great way to start developing sound design technique. It can also be a good way to start making connections.

    Wendy Grimm

  • Title:
    Sound Designer
  • Company:
    Freelancer
  • Where:
    Gasburg, VA
  • Experience:
    5 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I first truly fell in love with sound after a high school friend convinced me to join the tech team for the school play. I had known for a while that I wanted to work in the film industry but hadn’t found any particular position that felt right until I was put behind a soundboard.My high school art teacher introduced me to Savannah College of Art and Design because she had heard they had some kind of sound program. I had never heard of the school before then. Their program looked fun and exciting, so I enrolled. I got much more than I had expected. Their facilities and professors are world-class. From the first day of my first sound design class, I was already editing and designing.

    Loving all aspects of sound design, I became heavily involved in the college’s radio station, SCAD Radio. In addition to being a DJ, I also became the station’s Sports Director and produced a variety of sporting events and a weekly sports talk show.

    I next interned with Clear Channel radio during my senior year and was offered a job after graduation. I declined it though, aiming for something in the film industry instead. In 2009, I received my B.F.A. in Sound Design from SCAD.

    My first break was complete chance. I was on a plane coming back from a trip, and the man across the aisle started up a conversation with me about my sweatshirt. It ended up that the man’s brother-in-law was a prominent music re-recording mixer in the L.A. area. I gave the man my card and asked him to please pass it along to his brother-in-law. About a month later when I had moved to CA, I received an email from the brother-in-law asking to interview me for a position as his personal assistant. From working with him, I was able to learn first-hand a lot of information about the industry, go to studios, and meet people that would have been virtually impossible otherwise.

    My next job was at Kings Soundworks. Here, I got to learn a lot about post-production sound for television, in addition to film sound. I loved working in the studio, but the hours could be tough. Vacations and travel are hard to plan since you’re at the mercy of the production’s schedule. If their plans changed, yours had to change. I love traveling, so I knew this would be a problem. That’s when I made the move to freelance.

    I have been freelancing for a few years now, and I enjoy it. You have to diligently seek new projects, or work has a tendency to get sparse. Freelancing has its own unique set of challenges, but being able to choose which projects you work on and set your hours makes it worth it. Unless I find a studio that lets me work remotely, I will likely be sticking with freelancing for the foreseeable future.

    Advice

    Education is important

    With audio editing software and other resources becoming more readily available, you certainly don’t have to have a formal education to get into the industry, but it definitely helps. It’s worth the time and money just for the connections that you’ll make and your friendships with your classmates will turn into assets when you are all working in the industry.

    Then there’s the professors- Not only have these guys been out there and done it, they know a lot of other people who are still in the trenches and can help you advance your career. At SCAD, I got to spend time with Oscar and Emmy winners on a regular basis. They were all always happy to share names and numbers of other professionals for me to contact, Personal recommendations like those are priceless.

    Make friends

    The top of my list is to build relationships. Make friends. The old adage of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” couldn’t be more true. Every job I have had in the field of sound has come directly from a personal connection that I’ve had with someone. People hire people they like, plain and simple. Go to industry events and talk to people, but also talk to people at your neighbor’s cookout. You never know who knows someone that will be able to recommend you for a project.

    You’re going to need a demo reel

    Have a great demo reel. Résumés are great, but what everyone is really going to be looking at, or listening to rather, is your demo reel. Keep it short, one to three minutes, but use it to really showcase your skills. If your focus is on dialogue editing, include before and after clips. This is your chance to wow them. Use your best stuff.

    Keep learning

    Never stop learning your craft. The sound design industry has gone digital, which means it changes daily. Keep up with what’s going on in the industry and what new tools are being developed. Pay attention to the innovations of your peers. If you’re in a position where you don’t have much creative license, take on a side project that will let you experiment with new sounds and processing techniques.

    Get an internship

    There are always unpaid projects available. They’re easy enough to find online, but if you’re still having trouble, reach out to a film school. Working on student projects gives you the opportunity to build your demo reel and make connections with people.

    You might have to have another job on the side for a while to pay the bills, but that’s common. Once you have a great demo reel, start reaching out to people directly. If you’re interested in freelance, reach out to producers and directors. Find out what projects they have coming up and see if your services could benefit them.

    If you’d rather go the studio route, reach out to editors and mixers within the studios themselves. Request a personal meeting to learn more about what they do and for advice, or take them to lunch. Most people will be happy to oblige. Establishing a relationship with an editor will get you much farther than sending a résumé to the hiring department.

    Sam Crutcher

  • Title:
    Sound Designer
  • Company:
    Independent
  • Where:
    Los Angeles, CA
  • Experience:
    44 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    My father’s father and my father both had careers in the motion picture film industry (my grandfather in the negative labs and my father in picture and sound editing). I began going with my father in the mid ‘50’s to the “studio” editing rooms and watching him work as a very young boy. I would play with film reels, cores and film equipment. I wanted to work in the “industry” despite my father’s admonitions not to and had my first apprentice position when I was 18 years old (which he helped me to get).I worked hard and had a knowledge of the ‘tools and equipment’ thus enabling me to work quickly and efficiently. I was so fast and efficient at being a good assistant that I moved up to an editing position. This also meant the team or crew could not easily replace me with someone of equal abilities without some difficulty. I continued to show an ability to understand and communicate what was required to be an editor and eventually had my first paid position as an editor after 10 years first as an apprentice and then an assistant.

    I was fortunate enough to work in feature films for over 20 years as a sound editor and sound designer with and for some very talented and knowledgeable sound editors who had a variety of well known clients and worked on some very big-budget, well directed and highly regarded films of the day (late 70’s to the mid 90’s). After the industry experienced a complete gear change technologically (going from analog to digital in the feature film area primarily) I ‘re-learned’ my craft on those new tools (editing platforms/stations/programs) and found work in the television part of the business.

    Overall, I worked in the post-production sound business for 44 years, 35 years as a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild (MPEG) and just recently retired (mid 2014).

    Advice

    On education

    I do not recommend it as a necessity, but I do encourage it. Primarily for the expertise you can gain with the newest technologies that are always evolving and changing (and perhaps improving?) and the ability to ‘network’ with other like-minded persons, as well as others who will eventually work in other parts of the business. Also, if you are not 100% sure of which part of the industry you are especially suited for, this may a good way to explore and discover what works for each individual. The equipment and tools are so inexpensive now and you can do so much at home without having to lay out tens of thousands of dollars. With that you should get some software and start experimenting on your own… Take a class if you can at a local vocational school/college.

    Just get in there

    Find out where the work is being done, and ask if you can sit in and watch and ask questions. Get an intern position on a studio lot (this goes for ANY job you might want in the “biz”), paid or unpaid, and start investigating the process involved in learning what it is you would need to know to get someone interested in helping you.

    More ideas

    Perhaps cut some tracks/sound effects for a ‘portfolio’ piece so that maybe someone might notice or take an interest in your abilities. Find ‘Mom & Pop’ dub and or foley facilities and beg for a janitorial job (no really, anything to get your foot in the door right?).

    Sound Designer Infographic