How to Become a Sound Engineer

There are numerous paths to becoming a professional sound engineer--it all depends on your background, experience, and work environment desires. The job market can be roughly broken down into two categories: Live Sound Engineers and Studio Sound Engineers. Following are two possible jobs in professional audio and what they require.

Recording Engineer

A recording engineer works in a studio environment and is responsible for accurately capturing audio data and subsequently mixing and effecting the audio to reach a desired sonic outcome. Translating artists' sometimes ambiguous aural descriptions into a finished audio product is the main creative outlet for this position.

Recording engineers tend to be perfectionists with vast music collections and extensive knowledge of software, outboard hardware, and microphone use. Although there are specialized programs at some colleges for this type of work, a large percentage of engineers working in the field are not formally schooled.

To break into recording, an exceptional ear for music is essential. A person must be able to reference a wide variety of pre-recorded music and techniques used to attain "classic" or "modern" sounds in order to quickly capture similar sounds from available instruments, microphones, and effects.

Many recording engineers start out learning the ropes in a home studio. However, interning at a larger recording studio is the fastest way to get hands-on experience, learn the workflow, and become accustomed to the idiosyncratic profiles of recording gear.

Once you have significant experience working with label-signed bands, create a demo reel which highlights your recording experience, making it as broad as possible. Armed with experience, your demo reel, and a good resume, you are positioned to get a well-paying job at an established studio, or launch your own studio and attract clients through previous work.

Live FOH Sound Engineer

This is the job for you if you love music and the excitement and unpredictability of live performance. Live Front of House (FOH) Sound Engineers setup and manage the delivery of live sound in venues ranging from 20-person clubs to 50,000-person arenas.

The basic skill set includes a highly developed understanding of acoustics (which becomes increasingly important if the venue changes every night, i.e. during a tour) and the properties of all the equipment used--microphones, large consoles, speaker arrays and displacement, power sources, and effects.

An offshoot of this job is the Foldback, or Monitor Engineer, who mixes and manages sound for the performers on stage. Again, specialized training programs exist for live sound engineers, but most ascend the ranks through experience.

Live Sound Engineers usually start out by working for small clubs with very few inputs and small systems. This is a great way to learn the basics of live sound production. A fast way to break into this career is to purchase a small used PA system, several all-purpose mics, and necessary stands, and then advertise as a sound engineer for small bands, outdoor events, and other group events. Another option is to approach a club with a vacant weeknight and suggest an open mic, during which you provide sound.

Once you understand the basics, interning or shadowing at a larger venue is the next step. Here you will learn about multi-array speaker displacement, crossover frequencies, multi-aux mixing consoles, feedback prevention, and all of the techniques used to deliver clean, clear audio.

After working with larger venues, regional and national bands, and outdoor events, you are prepared to apply for a permanent position with one of the nation's large sound reinforcement companies.