November 7, 2019

How to become a sound engineer

Written by Julian New

Ever wanted to know how to become a sound engineer? Luckily for you, you’re in the right place! This blog will provide all (ok, most) of the information about sound engineering that you’ll ever need. So you can answer the question, what does a sound engineer do? From guidance on a sound engineer salary to tips on how to become a sound engineer for concerts, we’ve got you covered.

And if you are already a freelance sound engineer, why not check out our flexible insurance for freelance sound engineers?   

What does a sound engineer do?

Always a good place to start. To put it relatively simply, a sound engineer (also often referred to as an audio engineer) is someone who mixes, reproduces, and manipulates the equalisation and electronic effects of sound. Although the natural assumption among many of us might well be that sound engineers work exclusively in the music industry, this isn’t the case.

Sound engineering is a broad church. You might end up designing the sound for huge conferences, or you might put your skills to work in the theatre (or any other venue or place that requires sound projection for an audience – like an art gallery).

You could find your niche in recording – whether that’s vocals for a song, dialogue or background music. Or could become involved in mixing – adjusting levels, compressing and so on. There’s also sound design and foley work – recording (or finding pre-recorded) sounds and layering and manipulating them to create something to fit what you need.

You might choose to focus on mastering – the preparation of mixed audio for release on and in various formats, each of which will have its own disciplines and limitations. Or you could find your calling in the field of live sound. That could be making sure a band sounds great in a venue – from a tiny club to a huge stadium – as well as providing them with the right onstage monitoring and making sure the mix is good for the audience. And then there’s broadcast – from live sports events on tv to songs playing on the radio.

See – we weren’t kidding about the broad church thing. Which path you go down is up to you, but it’s nice to know there are so many to choose from.

Studio

How to become a sound engineer

Now that you have a better idea of what a sound engineer does, it’s a good time for us to take a look at how to get there in the first place. Although this piece is specifically about how to become a sound engineer in the UK, it’s a career that will give you the opportunity to travel all over the world. And, as with most careers, there are several ways you could learn the tools of your trade.

DJ Decks

Offer a helping hand

You could opt to go down the route of picking up hands-on experience. There’s often no substitute for simply getting out in the proverbial field and seeing how things happen. Get yourself out there and watch sound engineers at work. It could be at a club or bar where live music is happening, or in the sound booth at a theatrical production. Watch what they do. See what their set-up is like. See what impact their actions have (the adjustment of certain levels, for example).

Don’t be afraid to make connections too. Will you get the occasional rejection? Of course. But the vast majority of people will be more than happy to give you a tip here or there. Ask a sound engineer if you can help them. The experience will be invaluable, even if you start out with the absolute basics. Getting a foot in the door and building connections will likely lead to greater participation down the line.

Try not to be too picky. Before you choose your niche, sound engineering is a perfect example of an industry where you should take any opportunity you can get. It takes a while to rise up the ranks, and learning on every rung of the ladder is essential. An array of experiences will stand you in good stead later on.

Carrying equipment might lead into a chance to help in getting everything set up. That might then move into an opportunity to run a sound check. Every action taken is a step forward. Be someone people can trust and the openings will come your way.

Another key element of hands-on learning might come from interning at recording or production companies. The main benefit here is consistency – you will likely learn a lot more than helping out at gigs, simply because you will always be working. Contact a local studio and see if they’d be willing to take you on.

Guitar Boxes

Back to school

If diving straight in at the deep end isn’t your style, then there are numerous ways you can learn about what sound engineering involves.

The essentially limitless amount of information on the Internet means that self-teaching is a real option today. Do some digging – research speakers, research cords and mics and soundboards and amps. Watch videos. Find tutorials. It’s all there at your fingertips.

It’s also a great idea to familiarise yourself with the most-used music software. Whether it’s Pro Tools or Cubase, if you’re able to then purchase a copy and get practicing. Editing songs, splitting them into parts and rebuilding them will give you a real grounding in how different sounds work together – even if mixing music tracks isn’t the specific area you want to focus on later down the line.

What else? It might seem boring but researching the ins and outs of safety when it comes to sound engineering is important. If you weren’t paying attention in physics class, then give yourself a crash course in the basics of electricity. Do you know the difference between voltage and current, for example? It’s these basics that could prevent you fusing or ruining a piece of equipment by accidentally overloading it.

There’s also ‘back to school’ in a more literal sense. If you’re still in secondary school (that’s high school for our American readers), then try and get involved and make the most of the opportunities that will likely be available there. For example, your school is likely to put on some kind of production at some point in the year and sound engineering will be central to that. Why not raise a hand and ask to help?

If you’re a little older, then a degree might be the better option for you. Learning on the job might be great from an experiential point of view, but holding a degree will give you a significant cachet when it comes to applying for roles. The title of the degree is likely to differ depending on your chosen institution, but it’ll almost certainly have ‘audio engineering’ or ‘sound engineering’ somewhere in the title. Going down this route should provide you with a well-rounded education in all aspects of the industry.

Band in Studio

How much do sound engineers make?

You know what a sound engineer does. You’ve learnt about the steps you should take to become one. Now it’s time for the most important question – how much money do sound engineers make?

If you choose to go freelance, your sound engineer day rate will be intrinsically linked to your experience. The more work you do, the more your reputation and skillset increase, and the more you can charge.

As with most freelance roles, your day rate will also be linked to where you’ll be working. There will be certain areas in the UK where demand is higher – London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and so on. You’ll be able to charge more here – and the people relying on your services are likely to be more established – but the competition for jobs will also be greater.

As it stands currently, the UK median day rate for an audio engineer is £425. It’s a role that is becoming increasingly in demand, so as long as the economy remains relatively stable you can expect that number to slowly increase.

As with everything else, when you’re starting out it’s best to do your research here. It’s important that you don’t sell yourself short – it sets a bad precedent for you, and isn’t good for the industry in general. Take a look on specific forums. There are numerous threads about how much to charge on Reddit, for example. Quora is also a useful resource – although be aware that a lot of questions on there are USA-centric. PayScale provides good general information too, although their figures are generally based more around ‘traditional’ employment as opposed to freelance work.

What you decide to charge in the end is ultimately up to you. But many sound engineers make a good living from their skills, and it’s one of relatively few professions where there is always demand – not to mention a wide variety of possible jobs.

Women listening to music

Oh, and one last thing. Once you’ve made that leap and you’re on your way as a freelance sound engineer, make sure you’ve got the right insurance cover in place. Hopefully nothing will ever go wrong, but it’s nice to know you’ve got protection in place just in case you need it.

At Dinghy we offer specialised, flexible sound engineer insurance cover. Turn it on or off, up or down. You can have it whenever you need it. Getting a quote takes less than 60 seconds. Get your freelance sound engineer insurance quote here


About Julian New

Julian is a freelance marketing consultant, having worked previously at The Times and The Sunday Times before joining Kingsbridge group, and now Dinghy. Amongst other things he enjoys travel, photography and playing guitar and even sailed across the Atlantic before becoming one of the Dinghy crew.

Read more blog posts by Julian New


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