Audio Engineer

What Is an Audio Engineer?

An audio engineer adjusts, fine-tunes, regulates and modifies sounds for films, movies, video games and other projects that rely on rich sensory experiences. And, while a sound engineers work largely with speech and music, they also create and add other sound effects, such as the sound of thunder on a rainy day, or the sound of creepy footsteps in the horror scene of a movie. Professional audio engineers help end users, audiences, and gamers experience more realistic and immersive events, adding to the overall quality and approach of the project. 

Sometimes the jobs of sound engineers, audio technicians, and audio engineers overlap, as the technical knowledge needed on the job is very similar. In fact, titles such as audio technologist, recording engineer, and sound mixer are sometimes used interchangeably, and depending on the circumstance, may be synonymous with an audio engineer. What distinguishes them from each other is that an audio technician captures sound for recordings, live music, broadcasting, etc., whereas a sound engineer is responsible for the artistic intent in a recording, usually via a sound system at a live concert. An audio engineer, on the other hand, works on the technical aspects of recording, such as adjusting microphones, or the tuning of pre-amp knobs. They manipulate a recording using mixing, reproduction, electronic sound effects, equalization, and reinforcement of sound. In other words, the physical recording of a project is done by an audio engineer. Alternatively, an audio engineer can also be a professional engineer or scientist who develops, designs, and builds audio technologies and holds a degree in acoustical engineering. 

Much of the confusion in job titles is in the term engineer. This is because certain jurisdictions restrict individuals from using the title ‘engineer’ if they are not a registered member of a professional engineering licensing body.  Audio engineers are not performers, sound producers or writers; they strictly deal with the mechanical and technical aspects of music and sound – nothing else. 

That said, audio engineers do work with record producers and musicians to give their work the sound they hope to achieve.  For instance, an audio engineer might piece together parts of a song, add synthetic sounds to the track, or use auto-tune on a recording.  Throughout their careers, audio engineers may even explore several other subfields of audio engineering, such as:

  • Recording engineer
  • Studio engineer
  • Game and audio design engineer
  • Mix engineer
  • Live sound engineer
  • Mastering engineer
  • Monitor engineer
  • Systems engineer
  • Audio post engineer

There are a number of skills that all audio engineers must have in order to be successful in this competitive field. These include artistic ability, active listening and critical thinking skills. They must have a love for music, and a curiosity for making new or different sounds. They must have attention to details, must be dependable, cooperative, and tolerate stress and criticism well.  They must also be able to work alone or in a team environment.  Innovation, creative thinking, social orientation, adaptability, and leadership are also important traits to have as an audio engineer. 

For individuals who are passionate about new and advancing technology, audio engineering can offer the chance to use technology every day but also develop new equipment and techniques. It is a competitive industry and takes leadership and perseverance (as well as a good ear) to succeed.

Audio Engineer Job Description & Work Environment

Audio engineers are responsible for maintaining and operating sound recording and/or broadcast equipment. On any given day, they may work with musical artists, television news stations, movie directors, radio stations, or video game companies, with the ultimate goal of producing high-quality, crystal-clear sounds. They set-up, operate and repair audio recording/broadcast equipment, stay informed of new development in sound engineering technologies, coordinate with editors, directors, video operators, and other sound engineers when necessary, choose appropriate audio equipment for use in various situations, and plan and schedule work in an effective and efficient manner. 

In order to perform their duties, audio engineers typically work in a studio or office where they have access to computers and computer-aided sound effects software. They may also meet with other department heads or management, music artist, producers, etc., outside of the studio to ensure the overall vision for the project is realized, or travel to different locations to perform on-site tasks. 

They may design and control sound at concerts, conferences, and in theaters, or any other venue that requires sound projection. Audio engineers can be found at corporate and sporting events, at live music concerts, and on movie sets. Audio engineers may even go on tour with a musical group and travel overseas or across the US, recording, mixing, editing, and mastering the sound the audience hears. 

In an office or studio, or on location an audio engineer will use amplifiers, audio lines, microphones, monitors, and mixing boards to direct and control the various sounds emitted by a musical group, actors, voice-over professionals, radio personalities, or any other person(s) who requires the audio of a performance enhanced or altered. At times, it takes a team to stage a live concert, and an audio engineer is part of that team, so they must be able to communicate to be effective in their job.

Audio Engineer Education & Degree Requirements

Audio engineers come from a wide array of educational backgrounds that require both technological skills and creativity. Most audio engineers are trained at community colleges, vocational schools, or four-year colleges or universities. Undergraduate majors include audio technology, music production, broadcast technology. Usually, audio engineering coursework at most universities or four-year colleges falls into two categories: Training in engineering or science, which allows students to apply these concepts as they pursue a career developing new audio technologies. Or, training in the creative use of audio as an audio engineer. 

A typical audio engineering degree program combines hands-on experience and classroom lectures covering all aspects of audio equipment, analog technology, microphone placement, surround sound, mixing consoles, studio maintenance, music theory, and other relevant coursework. Students also spend a great deal of time in a laboratory setting gaining experience with audio technology like mixing boards and oscilloscopes. They also learn and gain training in audio software like Pro Tools, Ableton Live, and Sonoris Professional Mastering Software. Students pursuing an audio engineering degree will also learn audio transmission theory, music industry law, musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) technology. 

Standard coursework in a bachelor’s degree programs includes:

  • Fundamentals of Audiology
  • Introduction to audio engineering
  • Audio post-production
  • Music producing and recording
  • Film and video audio engineering
  • Fundamentals of music theory

Audio engineers who choose to work in research and development typically possess a bachelor’s degree (or master’s degree) in physics, computer science, acoustics, computer science or another engineering discipline, such as electrical engineering and electronics. Audio engineers in this area may work in acoustic consultancy or architectural acoustics. They may work designing headphones for a headphone manufacturer or an automobile manufacturer designing car audio systems. If they go on to earn their master’s degree, they may carry out research in a university setting or teach. 

Although generally not required, certification is available through organizations like the Society of Broadcast Engineers or Certified Audio Engineer for individuals who want to enhance their job opportunities and increase their salary as certification documents educational levels and competence to employers. 

There are a number of sub-disciplines in the field of audio engineering that students may want to explore upon graduation or while in school. They include audio signal processing, architectural acoustics, electroacoustics, musical acoustics, speech, and psychoacoustics.  Each sub-discipline plays an important role in the audio engineering industry.

Audio Engineer Salary and Job Outlook

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not record salary or job outlook information for audio engineers.  However, they do list information for broadcast and sound engineering technicians, which loosely covers audio engineers.  The BLS lists the median annual pay for a sound engineering technician as $55,810, or just over $26.00 per hour.  Between 2014 and 2024, jobs are predicted to grow eight percent, or slightly faster than average for all occupations.  This is due in part because of the television and film industries, as well as the gaming industry’s need for trained audio engineers to improve the sound quality of games, shows, and movies. 

Of course, many things affect how much an audio engineer can earn, such as educational level, industry, geographic location, and employer.  The top ten percent of audio engineers or those with experience and a degree in hand earned about $125,000, and the lowest ten percent, or those just out of college earns about $25,000 per year.  The states with the highest employment of audio engineers include California, New York, Florida, Texas, and New Jersey. 

Audio engineers typically work full-time during regular business hours, but it’s not uncommon to work overtime, weekends, holidays, and evenings. This is especially true of engineers who work in the television or radio industries as programs are broadcast 24/7.  Individuals who work in the motion picture industry are often on a tight schedule and may work additional hours to meet studio deadlines.

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Audio Engineer Jobs