So You Want To Be A Sound Engineer?
That’s great! Being a sound engineer is a really rewarding (and fun) job to do, but have you really got what it takes?
If you think that all you’ll be doing is setting up microphones and programming beats, think again.
Say goodbye to your social life
Are you happy to work long and unsociable hours? I mean really long and unsociable hours? If so, congratulations! Your life now belongs to the recording studio. Expect to work most weekday evenings (including Friday night), and all day Saturday and Sunday too. If you prefer to work a more regular nine-to-five, get a job at Tesco.
Say goodbye to your bed
You may find yourself working throughout the night on a project, only to realise that you’ve also got a session booked for the following day. If that’s the case, two hours’ sleep and a bucketload of coffee should be more than sufficient. And yes, this really does happen.
Take the rough with the smooth
Don’t like country and western? Tough luck! Only like one genre of music? Then you’ve got no chance! The likelihood is that at some point, you’ll find yourself working on project that really isn’t your cup of tea. The long and short of it is: no one cares! Being a professional, you’ll take on every session with the same level of interest and enthusiasm as the next, with head-nodding and foot-tapping aplenty. As far as the client is concerned, you’re totally into whatever genre you happen to be working on, and listen to it all the time. If they suspect otherwise, things could quickly get awkward.
Grin and bear it
At some point you will hear a performance that is so ridiculous – whether it be out of tune, of bad taste, or generally badly executed – you will want to laugh out loud. Funny noises are funny, after all. DO NOT DO THIS UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE. You’ll risk jeopardising the bond of trust between you and your client, and your working relationship could quickly turn sour. In time, you’ll hopefully become desensitised to this kind of thing, but in the meantime, do whatever you can to keep whatever wants to come out, in.
Indulge in ego pampering
Sometimes people just want to hear that they’re great (even if they’re not), and it’s your job to make that happen. This generally occurs around people who are new to the recording studio, and are after some kind of validation of their song-writing and/or performance skills. Note: when asked ‘do you like my music?’ the answer is always most definitely ‘yes’! There is no other answer.
Be the ultimate host
- First-timers in the recording environment are generally quite nervous.
- Nervous people don’t make very good recordings.
Your job here is to make any newcomers feel relaxed and at ease, in what can be a very intimidating and sterile environment. A high degree of social skills and empathy really wouldn’t go amiss here. And excellent tea-making skills.
Be the ultimate diplomat
Think your client has just done a rubbish take? For God’s sake don’t say so! There are many, many different (and creative) ways to help improve someone’s performance; crushing their spirit is not one of them. This is even more imperative when working with a group or a band, as different people react differently to criticism; be as constructive as possible at all times.
Be a jack of all trades
On a practical level, sound engineering duties can range from soldering cables and fixing broken equipment, to installing and updating computer software. However, you may also be called upon to talk to potential customers about projects, liaise with other studios, update social networks, and design flyers and posters for offline promotion. Add counselling and life coaching skills into the mix (for when that band member has a breakdown during the 249th take of a song), and you realise that sound engineers have to be pretty well-rounded individuals, in order to carry out their job effectively.
Be an excellent troubleshooter
When equipment goes wrong (and it will), you’ll need to be able to find the root of the problem, and fast. There’s a nasty buzzing sound coming from somewhere in the studio, and it’s holding up recording. Can you locate its source and fix it without disrupting the flow of the session? A logical mind is essential; the studio has no place for panic.
Be prepared to be criticised
While not as harsh an environment as, say, the fashion industry, your work will be criticised. It can be demoralising having the client voice their disapproval of something you’ve laboured over for hours (if not days). The best course of action is to take it on the chin, then move onwards and upwards.
Work only when required
You may be required to work seven days a week; in that case, great! But what if work dries up? You’ll still need to pay the bills. Sound engineers are generally self-employed (don’t get me started on self-assessment tax returns), so you may well need to supplement your income elsewhere. It can be a delicate task trying to balance multiple jobs, so be careful, as too many double shifts will quickly lead to burn-out.
Personal Qualities Required
Manage expectations like a boss
Everybody comes into the studio with some level of expectation. Some people are seasoned pros; for some it is their first time. For the former, they may have worked with many different engineers in the past, so you’ll have to be at the top of your game at all times, in able to impress. For the latter, they may well be nervous, so will need a helping a reassuring hand at all stages of the process. If you’re working with a group, there may be a whole multitude of expectations that you need to cater for!
Amazing time management
If a client is booked in for a two/five/twenty hour session, you need to be able to maximise their time, so that everything is wrapped up nicely at the end. Ensure that the client knows exactly what’s attainable in the time given, and keep a keen eye on the clock, so if things take longer than expected, you can rebudget accordingly.
Excellent people skills
Not only do you need to be helpful and informative at all times, you need to be able to effectively communicate with people of all ages, and musical/cultural/ethnic backgrounds. Be sensitive to different peoples’ requirements, and retain open body language as much as possible.
Excellent interpretational skills
A client says they want something to sound ‘bolder’. What does that mean? Does it mean brighter? Does it mean louder? More compressed? They may not know themselves, so it’s up to you to be able to instinctively know what they want, and make it happen with as little fuss as possible. Can you turn the words ‘spacey’ and ‘spooky’ into sound? What effects would you reach for?
While listening to the same song for eight hours straight may seem like some people’s idea of hell, try listening to the same four bars for eight hours! You may be required to do just that, and stay focused during the many hundreds of takes you hear, as well as staying objective (not just making do with a performance because you want to move on), and remain positive throughout the whole experience.
Just finished a session with a jazz trio? Great! What’s next? Death metal? Great! Every session presents its own set of challenges, so leave your preconceptions at the door, and always be ready to bring something new to the table, no matter what the genre.
Don’t be afraid to experiment
Music production is an ever-changing beast. Try out new things – from mic positions and equipment selection, to your mind set whilst mixing, and try to break things (figuratively, of course). I once tried mic’ing up the studio’s toilet bowl whilst tracking drums, to see how sounded. In short, it was absolutely rubbish, but at least I know that now!
The producer wants to know if it was it take 23 or take 24 that had the best verse 2 groove? Do you know? Can you remember? Did you write anything down?! A good sound engineer will be on top of all this, plus a whole multitude of other bits of information related to the project. The smoother the studio session goes, the more likely you are to impress all those involved.
Positive and approachable
The studio is a creative environment, so having a staff member moping around isn’t going to help anyone. You may need to mediate between band members if there’s a tiff, or even counsel at times, so the right attitude is essential. Don’t come to work with your grumpy face on. Ever.
While not essential, a sound engineer with playing experience is more likely to be empathetic to the musicians and their parts. Speaking the language will also help speed things up, and make communication easier. Do you know what a ‘reed’, a ‘humbucker’, and a ‘flam’ are? How about string gauge, bowing techniques, and breath control? The more you know about the specific needs of different groups of musicians, the better you will become at being able to help and guide them.
Good music theory knowledge
If you can understand what’s going on behind the music, you’ll certainly be able to contribute more, and ultimately appear more useful as an engineer. Being able to talk in terms of harmony theory to clients has proved invaluable to me, and many have appreciated my understanding of music theory, in order to help embellish and augment their recordings.
Fluent in reading and writing music
Hand in hand with a solid knowledge of music theory comes the ability to read and write music. There are certainly engineers that get by without being able to read music, but having another string to your bow is certainly no bad thing. You never know when you may be called upon to fill in for someone, or write out a vocal harmony part in manuscript, so it really pays to know your stuff.
If you’re working on sessions late into the night, you’re not going to be able to jump on the bus or train at 3am. Being a driver gives you much greater flexibility as to when you can come and go, and makes you more employable, as some studios aren’t very well connected by the public transport network.
Tea maker extraordinaire
And finally, where would the recording industry be without mountains and mountains of beautiful tea?! Surely the kingpin of any successful studio session, it’s well worth putting the practise in to this vital skill before embarking on any musically-related career path.