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How to Become an Audio Engineer

audio engineeringIf you’ve ever dreamed about being a part of the creative process behind a hit single that you’ve heard. Or wondered what it would be like to work with an artist or group that you’ve grown up listening to.

Then it’s likely that you’ve considered music production as a possible career.

Becoming an Audio Engineer is a tough road and can be very competitive. However, there is a reason why it’s so tough to get into. Simply, the job is awesome!

If you like music, the creative process, or creating something from nothing than this may be the profession for you.

This guide was written to help beginners navigate the confusing road you will take to land your dream audio job.  

We will highlight the skills and personal attributes that will help you as well as point you towards higher education.

Audio Engineer Job Description

What is an audio engineer?

An audio engineer is the person responsible for recording, mixing, and mastering audio. The better the final track sounds, typically the better the engineer. Learn morehere

But more than that, the one thing that every audio engineer has in common is an undying passion for the art and a desire to constantly experiment, collaborate, learn, and invest time, energy, and money into honing one’s skill in this dynamic field.

More importantly, understanding what sound really is, how to capture it, and how to shape it into something that is aesthetically pleasing and memorable.

Look Before You Leap

Before we begin, you need to know what you are in for. Learning how to become a quality engineer takes time and money. You will not become good at this overnight, and in the end, you will likely spend several thousands of dollars.

But if you have what it takes to continue practicing and improving, in the end, you will be able to say that you get paid doing what you love. How sweet is that?

How to Read This Guide

This guide is broken into a few sections:

  • Skills You Need
  • Industry Intro
  • How to Get an Education
  • Technical Stuff: What is Sound?
  • Additional Resources for Further Reading

what does it take

At the end of the day, audio engineering is a profession that requires passion, determination, persistence, lots of patience, and the desire to constantly learn and improve upon your knowledge and skill set.

You have to be able to think on your feet and learn quickly when it comes down to troubleshooting, meeting deadlines, keeping yourself up to date on all the developments taking place within the audio and music industries.

As well as constantly expanding and nurturing your network of contacts as much as possible.

However, without passion, your best work won’t come through as well as another engineer who’s that much more dedicated and determined than you are!

Audio Job Opportunities

As far as job opportunities are concerned, the audio industry is known for being extremely competitive, and acquiring an internship at a quality studio is a great way to start, as it is one of the most traditional roles that aspiring audio engineers can use to kick-start their careers.

You can also volunteer to run cables, learn to become an audio technician and get jobs doing that. The key here is to get your foot in the door however you can.

Just like most other jobs, networking and relationships can dramatically improve your chances of success.

Building Your Own Studio

Music StudioWith the advent of advanced recording technology and software that has steadily become more affordable to the general public, the best way to ensure your future success right now is having constant, uninterrupted access to your own equipment and developing your network early on with like-minded.

Sometimes reality can take a big bite out of your plans, and you’ll end up having to work a 9-to-5 on the side (or whatever else you can do to make a decent living) in the meantime to pay rent and all, but don’t give up!

The key lies in getting your own setup so you don’t have to rely on someone else’s facility to get the job done when an opportunity presents itself.

Your Home Studio Checklist:

  • Computer
  • DAW
  • Microphone(s)
  • Audio Interface
  • Monitor Speakers and Headphones
  • MIDI Controller/Keyboard
  • Acoustic Treatment

Additional Add-Ons:

  • Plugins
  • Speaker Stands
  • Stock Music

audio engineering schools

If you made it this far in the article, chances are you’ve got the wherewithal necessary to learn the tricks and tools of the trade.

However, don’t be mistaken; this is not a profession for the faint of heart or people who can’t stay motivated and committed for the long haul.

If you only have a passing interest in audio and nothing more, I highly recommend that you consider another career path because developing the skill sets needed to work successfully in this industry takes years of constant practice.

Of course, you can shorten those years of practice by attending audio engineering schools.

Some of the Best Audio Engineering Schools Include:

  • Dark Horse Institute
  • SAE
  • Full Sail University
  • Dubspot
  • Pyramind
  • Berklee College of Music

Each school carries a broad range of programs besides just audio engineering that you can enroll in as well as a diverse team of instructors who have years of experience in the industry.

For students who are strictly interested in audio engineering, Dark Horse Institute would be a great place to attend, but for those who would like to learn about audio engineering while majoring in guitar or music theory, then attending Berklee College of Music or Full Sail University would be an excellent start.

Up next is a little introduction into the technical side of the job.  

what is sound

Important!

This is a brief introduction into the technical aspects of audio engineering. You do not have to understand this, but if you want to, then you are probably perfect for this profession.

Let’s Begin:

What is it that makes that guitar solo sound so pristine or that synth lead so fat and warm?

Sound is simply nothing more than a series of vibrations that our ears register within a certain range of frequencies. Although the way these vibrations can be manipulated and synthesized is virtually boundless.

Sound travels through the air by way of two physical processes known as compression and rarefaction. When sound is generated, air molecules are displaced, causing them to squeeze in together (compression) and then expand (rarefaction) with varying degrees of intensity (amplitude) and at varying rates (pitch).

What Are Hertz?

The complete process of compression and rarefaction, as it is measured within the timespan of a second, is known as a cycle, and the measurement of a certain cycle or series of cycles is referred to as Hertz (Hz).

The more cycles that are generated within a second, the higher (in terms of pitch) a sound is perceived to be.

Though most sounds that we hear (such as our own voices) are a combination of a very complex series of harmonic and partial overtones that cover a very wide range of frequencies at varying amplitudes. Which are measured and expressed in decibels (dB). Below is a picture of a pure sine tone measured at 60 Hz.

Figure 01 – Sine Wave @ 60 Hz

Sine Wave
So, let’s quickly review what we just learned using the picture above:

● In the image displayed above, you see a sine wave that’s oscillating at 60 Hz (60 cycles per second).

● One cycle represents a complete process of both compression (air molecules being squeezed together) and rarefaction (air molecules expanding), which is similar to stretching a rubber band and letting it go. In both instances, energy is being created and transferred through a medium.

● In the picture of the sine wave, the process of compression is represented by the positive cycle as it curves upwards and gives way to rarefaction, which is represented by the downward slope. The arrows in the picture denote the different degrees that the sine wave crosses as it completes a single cycle.

Sounds and Sine Waves

Mathematically speaking, the most basic form of sound that can be generated is the sine wave, and according to the Fourier Theorem, every sound that you hear is essentially made up of sine waves of varying pitches and amplitudes.

Once combined together, these sine waves produce what are called overtones, which can either be classified as harmonic (musical) or partial (non-musical) depending on where exactly they fall within the harmonic series.

For example, the reference (or fundamental) tone that we use in Western music is 440 Hz, or the key of A (which is a relative minor of C), and the second harmonic of that frequency would be 880 Hz, an octave higher than the fundamental.

From there, we get the third harmonic (a.k.a. the perfect fifth), which is three times the fundamental (1.32 kHz) and bears the strongest relationship to the fundamental aside from the octave as well as the fourth harmonic, which is a perfect fourth up from the third and two octaves higher than the fundamental (1.76 kHz).

However, in the real world, you’ll rarely find instruments that sound that precise aside from a synthesizer that generates pure sine waves.

Furthermore, as a corollary to the interaction that occurs between that overtones present in any sound as well as the acoustic relationship between sounds themselves, there is another aspect to sound that plays a significant role, which is phase.

Phase In, Phase Out

Oftentimes, when you hear audio engineers talk about problems regarding the quality of a signal being recorded, if there are multiple microphones involved or if the source is placed next a reflective surface, then it’s most likely related to phase.

So, what is phase?

In order to demonstrate this principle, I combined the sine wave displayed above in the first example with an exact duplicate sine wave at the same exact starting point, in which they would be in a state referred to as “in phase”, like so:

Figure 02 – Sine Waves 1 And 2 In Phase

Sine Waves in Phase

When I played the first sine wave tone all by itself, it was measured at the following dB level:

dB level

When combined with an exact duplicate, the signal rises by 6 dB, like so:

dB Signal Rise

Of course, the opposite of two waveforms being in-phase would be out-of-phase, which would result in what’s called complete phase cancellation, like so:

Figure 3 – Sine Wave 2 Being Phase-Inverted With Sine Wave 1

Inverted Sine Wave

Figure 4 – Sine Wave 2 Being Phase-Inverted With Sine Wave 1

Sine Wave 2

As you noticed in the first example, there is signal coming out of each of the two channels labeled “Sine Wave 1” and “Sine Wave 2”, respectively, but there’s no signal coming out of the master channel.

Why is this?

The Science of Sound

If you skip back to the paragraph above Figure 01, you’ll note that I mentioned that there were two physical processes that occur whenever molecules in the air are displaced; compression and rarefaction.

If a sound source induces compression on a set of air molecules while an equal and opposite force induces rarefaction on the same set at exactly the same time, then what happens to the molecules?

You guessed it; they don’t move!

Think of it in terms of someone trying to open a door, and somebody else trying to keep it shut. If both individuals are equal in terms of strength, the door won’t move until one of them gives up.

Of course, being that we don’t live in a world where perfect sine waves are generated aside from being deliberately synthesized using a synth or tone generator, there is never really a moment where in which a sound will be naturally canceled out completely because of poor microphone placement, for example.

This is because not every sound is naturally created in the exact same way and whenever two signals are combined in any form or fashion, there will always be phasing of some sort.

Audio engineer Ben Lindell wrote an excellent and informative article that plainly explains how you can make phase work to your advantage during any recording session as well as avoid common problems presented by phasing.

Do I Really Need To Know All This Stuff?

At this point, you’re probably wondering whether you need to know all these things to be an excellent audio engineer.

Unless you’re looking to get into building guitars, tuning pianos, or making synthesizers, you don’t really need to know all the math to understand the concepts as they’re related to audio engineering.

However, what’s important is that you understand the concepts in relation to practical concerns and scenarios that you will face on a regular basis as an audio engineer so that you’ll have a good idea about how to troubleshoot them.

More importantly, if you are still reading this, then you understand the value of knowing how your equipment works and are a perfect candidate to become an audio engineer.

Conclusion

This guide was meant to demonstrate all that is involved with becoming an audio engineer.

The process:

  • Learn the technical side of music
  • Find a professional education opportunity
  • Get your foot in the door (Intern, volunteer, run cables…)

Audio production isn’t an easy profession to get into, but the ones that do, get to make music all day. And I think that’s worth fighting for.

Good Luck

I wish you the best of luck on your journey, and don’t forget to stop by our blog for tutorials, guides, and product info.

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