While the focus when it comes to music and film is almost always solely on those singing or speaking the dialogue, there are countless jobs that go into supporting those players, and there is an entire industry that works in the background, one which is incredibly important, but not well understood. The people who develop audio technology, set up speakers and microphones at shows and concerts, record vocals and instruments in a studio, smooth everything out and mix together singing with drums, guitar, and so on: these are the Audio Engineers. They are the ones responsible for getting the beautiful singing or the heart-wrenching words from a performer’s mouth to your ears, and it’s all a lot more complicated than it may seem. If you’re curious about audio engineering, what those in the field do, what it takes to get there and how you may be able to study and one day find your place in this world, read on!
Here’s what we’ll cover in this basic overview of audio engineering:
- What is audio engineering?
- What is an Audio Engineer?
- What do Audio Engineers actually do?
- Other job titles
- The four specializations you need to know
- Studying audio engineering
- What degrees and certifications do Audio Engineers need?
- What’s the average Audio Engineer salary?
- Staying on top of technology
What Is Audio Engineering?
First things first! What actually is audio engineering? Well, at its most basic level, audio engineering is the act of producing a sound recording of any kind. That’s pretty vague, but it’s good to let you know it applies to many different fields to begin with.
What Is an Audio Engineer?
When someone says they are an Audio Engineer, this can mean many different things, but they likely fit into one of two general categories. The first is probably what most of the people who clicked this article are looking for, but there is another, one which isn’t talked about as often, but which is also important and worth mentioning.
As most people think of them, Audio Engineers use a wide variety of tools and technology to take sound coming from one initial source, such as a Singer on stage or in a recording studio or an Actor on set, and get it to the audience. That audience can be standing right in front of them, such as is the case at a concert or a musical, or we can be talking about someone sitting at home watching TV. Both of these scenarios will require a person with an understanding of audio engineering.
The second kind of Audio Engineer is one who is actually a scientist. This type of Audio Engineer is one who researches, designs, and possibly even builds new technology that allows other sound professionals to improve the live and recorded experience. These are the people who have improved the sound quality in TV and film throughout the decades, and the ones who ensure that even if you have the cheapest seat at a show or concert, you can hear much better today than you would have years ago.
The two types of Audio Engineers work together, in a sense, though not often actually on any specific projects. Typically, when someone uses the phrase “audio engineering” in the music industry, they are referring to the former option.
It’s also worth mentioning if a student wants to focus on working in studios and on the road, as opposed to sticking to the more scientific route, a four-year degree might not be necessary at all. There are plenty of instances of people being hired straight out of high school to begin apprenticeships and internships and learning what they need from experience.
What Do Audio Engineers Actually Do?
Audio Engineers are the ones who need to understand everything from the latest technology for improving sound to where to place microphones for a performance. They work on the technical aspect of sound and recording, which can be very technical.
In addition to actually placing the microphones around a stage for a concert or on the dress of the woman who will be starring in a big Broadway musical, Audio Engineers need to make sure everything is perfect during sound check, they need to stand behind a console and sometimes mix audio live to ensure everyone can hear properly. Sometimes they do this in a studio, while other times, they’re working at a rapid-fire pace, just like the performers…though they often don’t receive the same recognition for their work.
Other Job Titles
While the phrase Audio Engineer is correct, there are other job titles these professionals can be called, and, for the most part, they are actually interchangeable (though not always…but that’s a much more intricate conversation we don’t need to have right now). Audio Engineers can also be referred to as Audio Technicians, Sound Technicians, Audio Technologists, Recording Engineers, Sound Mixers, Studio Technicians, and even Sound Engineers, depending on what they’re doing.
The Four Specializations
While many Audio Engineers may be proficient in every stage of their job, there are four general areas where a professional may focus, and it’s good for everyone to at least understand what all of them are. When it comes to capturing commercial audio (working in a recording studio, essentially), Audio Engineers are needed for recording, editing, mixing and mastering. It’s tough for laypeople to recognize and understand the difference between them all, but Audio Engineers certainly will.
Each one of these specialties can be a job on its own, and there are those who stick to one lane and stay there, while others pick up the responsibility for more than one, if not all of them. These categories can be broken down even further, and depending on the industry (film versus live versus the music world), there can be a handful of people working within each…but again, that’s much more complicated, and it would require a completely separate piece to go over them all.
Studying Audio Engineering
Before diving into what schools offer audio engineering classes or what degrees may be necessary, a prospective student has to decide what kind of Audio Engineer they’d like to be one day. It can be a tough choice, especially for someone so young who may not have had the opportunity to explore either road yet, but leaning into one or the other is required because it dictates what type of courses one will sign up for.
The Audio Engineer who mics people, works behind the boards in a recording studio, and who actually sets levels and makes sure everything sounds perfect before somebody begins singing will focus more on practice, gaining a lot of real-world experience as they learn. Those who opt to go for the more scientifically-inclined option will need to pass more classes rooted in math and science, as they will go on to work in labs developing new technologies.
Those who stick with the former will not have the training to simply switch over to the latter.
The best Audio Engineers in the world, whether they be the ones who are more hands-on or those who stick to the scientific field of study, are the ones who understand both the latest developments and the origins of the job.
What Degrees and Certifications Do Audio Engineers Need?
While the actual classes and experience students will take and garner during their time studying audio engineering may not differ wildly from school to school, the name of the focus of study might. Unlike some professions where everyone receives the same type of degree, but just at different schools, Audio Engineers can learn what they need and end up with diplomas with varying phrases.
Audio engineering programs across the U.S. come disguised with names like Music Production and Engineering, Music & Technology, Music Audio Production, Recording Arts & Technology, Sound Recording Technology, Recording Arts, and so on. The more scientific options may be called something else, and they typically fall under the engineering umbrella, as opposed to one focused on the arts.
Many Audio Engineers will work toward a bachelor’s degree in whatever their school of choice offers — this should usually be enough. Those who work in the scientific side of the field may have to go on to earn a master’s. Audio Engineers who want to be at the top of their industry or who want to teach others may then be required to earn a doctorate, though it’s not common.
It’s also worth mentioning if a student wants to focus on working in studios and on the road, as opposed to sticking to the more scientific route, a four-year degree might not be necessary at all. There are plenty of instances of people being hired straight out of high school to begin apprenticeships and internships and learning what they need from experience. Others opt to go for associate’s degrees, which typically only require two years of study instead of four, and while that’s not often an option for many other professions, audio engineering is one where gainful employment can still be found with an AD.
What’s the Average Audio Engineer Salary?
Salaries for Audio Engineers vary widely, as is the case with most professions, but there is a general range. According to one informed source, Audio Engineers can expect to make somewhere between $31,000 and $70,000 in the U.S., with the average coming in around $56,000.
The same site states there is something of a hierarchy in the industry, with those working in the theater industry pulling in the lowest salaries, while those who work in studios and in the music industry typically make more per year. Audio Engineers who typically focus on films are usually on the higher end. Those Audio Engineers who are classified as scientists can bring in even higher sums.
Staying on Top of Technology
The best Audio Engineers in the world, whether they be the ones who are more hands-on or those who stick to the scientific field of study, are the ones who understand both the latest developments and the origins of the job. Sound used to be recorded on tape, now it’s done digitally, and there are countless programs and apps and pieces of equipment available these days that didn’t exist only a few years back.
It’s tough to stay on top of what’s happening now and what’s coming next, but this is why the best stand out. Throughout college, it’s important all up-and-coming Audio Engineers do their best to not only look forward but backward as well. The new tech being employed today wouldn’t exist without the original, and understanding how both function, as well as where they fit into today’s landscape (since some artists still prefer older methods) is key.
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