Studio People
How to become a star
The Producer
Bad People
Funny People
A Career in Audio
Presenting yourself
How to have a no.1 Hit

           A Career in Audio         

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Before I begin to discuss the alternatives, let me deal with the nasty topic of private schools teaching audio engineer.
Every studio owner I have ever met gets angry over this subject.

Why? Because every month we get hundreds and in some cases thousands of emails, letters, telephone calls and the like asking for jobs, internships, work experience, whatever.

We are watching a whole generation of kids far too young to be in a position to judge what is the right thing to do, being sold a line by  private and very profitable companies.  The line is that there are jobs out there and if you attend their colleges, you stand a good chance of getting those jobs.  They also imply that you will network with people from within the industry.

There are no jobs out there. The only job you will get is the one you create yourself.

The only people you will network with are other losers.

You will sink into a sad 'valley of despair' as class after class begin to realise that every thing that people within the industry have been telling anyone prepared to listen, was so very true.

Soon you and your classmates will be sending me your emails and I with a heavy heart will send you my standard reply, pointing out that the industry needs all sorts of people, computer programmers, electrical engineers, lawyers, economists, business grads, you name it and we need it. But I shall be telling you in that email that the very last thing we need is more kids with a passing knowledge of ProTools.

Playing with software is NOT a qualification.

Playing with recording equipment is also NOT a qualification.

Graduating in electrical or electronic engineering is a qualification. Graduating in computer science is a qualification. Graduating in music is a qualification. Indeed, graduating in any of the subjects I listed above, law, science, business, economics, whatever, is a qualification.

So this begs the question, "What is recording music?"

Recording music today has become a consumer activity.

These programmes, tools, microphones, etc., have become so very cheap, in part, in order to widen their market and put them in the hands of consumers - in the hands of any and every person wishing to become musically creative - in the hands of anybody who can afford a PC or Mac, some software, a soundcard and a microphone.

This does not mean that nobody now earns a living by recording music.  But they are very few and very far between and jobs doing just that go only to the very, very best.  People who can read a circuit diagram and a musical score. By attending 'The Wysuckie College for the Totally Dumb' you are making sure that you stand no chance of ever becoming one of them.

So if you believe that you can get a job in a studio or elsewhere in the music industry by attending one of these private schools, I can assure you that you will be far too busy stacking the shelves at Walmart or Tesco to pay off that student loan, to worry about which pre-amp or microphone to use.

When I began in this business, getting a job was hard, but far from impossible.  A basic technical aptitude or qualification, some knowledge of music and a general positive and willing manner was all that was required.  You might add a bit of luck and some persistence and, well, you were all set to go!

When I first wrote about the job of recording engineer some years later, it was remarkably difficult to get a job or build a career of any sort. You needed a good technical background, a thorough knowledge of music and you had to have the persistence of a mule.  Only a very few, very, very good candidates managed to carve a career out of becoming a recording engineer.

Now, in the year 2007, I can honestly state that, unless you attend one of the very top schools in music technology in the World (or you happen to have deep inside contacts within the industry) you stand pretty much no chance of a career as a recording engineer whatsoever.

What has changed is the rapid growth of home recording and project studios on the one hand and the unbelievable rush by so many youngsters to become recording engineers.  Schools like Full Sail and the SAE (and of course literally thousands of other public and private colleges of all types) churn out thousands and thousands and thousands of graduates each and every year.

Not only has the market shrunk, but the old guard (i.e. geezers like myself) are far from retiring age.  Add to that, a significant number of relatively wealthy baby-boomers who have opened studios of professional standard, more or less as a hobby and you have a big problem for any young person trying to get a foothold.

Although the music industry as a whole is doing very well, the conventional label-driven record industry is not doing at all well and that means that the large number of engineers, producers and studios who in the past relied on the labels for work are struggling.

The upshot of all this is as poor prospects for anyone trying for a career as sound engineer as can be imagined.  It’s a bit like the job of the photographer, as soon as easy-to-load film was invented and cameras became cheap and cheerful, everyone could take photographs. The job of the photographer remained, but limited to specialist fields such as sport, technical photography and advertising.

After the War, photography became a consumer activity.  Today, recording music has become a consumer activity.

That means that anyone aspiring to become a recording engineer has to bring a great deal more to the party than just a knowledge of the equipment and where to place the microphones.


Do The Right Thing

It comes as a surprise to most that there are hundreds of different career paths in audio and many of them are quite easy to get into - given the right qualifications. The right qualification usually means a university degree or it's equivalent in one of the four main fields (acoustics, electronics, use of equipment and music) with lesser qualifications or work experience in the other three.

Most candidates think in terms of sitting behind a mixing desk in one situation or another. The BBC gets 80,000 job applications a year and at peak times, about a quarter of those ask for jobs as audio engineers. The chances of getting one of the handful of jobs that come available are slim indeed - even with the highest qualifications.

But there are thousands of jobs available in sales, maintenance, R&D, software development, equipment design and basic acoustic research for building and auto design. The engineer who commissioned our Amek desk, has travelled the World and visited every continent, installing equipment.

Some of those who have designed successful plug-ins have become millionaires. Those who developed the mixing desk such as Rupert Neve (Neve and Amek) and Graham Langley (Amek) have become legends.  Film sound designers have received Oscars and location sound recordists travel the World from Antarctica to the jungles of South America.

By specialising in one of the four subjects, you naturally 'tilt' towards different careers.  If music is your thing, you can become a producer. If the use and application of equipment interests you most, you could go into sales.  Electronics leads to design and maintenance and acoustics could see you ending up helping to design the next Ford or Mercedes.

It is, however, very difficult to become a recording engineer and there are very few jobs available.  You must also have a good working knowledge of four fields: acoustics, studio hardware, music and electronics.  All four are required and all four are equally important. In today's multimedia world, you will notice that the audio engineer has not escaped the requirement of multitasking and he or she will also have to know how to work with video.

Colleges all over the World provide courses in every one of these fields, but very few put all four into a single study programme.  In the UK, it is possible to gain HNC and HND certificates in the three technical subjects and there is no shortage of courses in music.   But right at the top, the Tonmeister course from Surrey University is seen as the best course to attend, but also the hardest to get onto.
Audio engineering is a very academic subject and takes many years to cover.  Some would-be students of audio engineering see it as an easy option: a bit of music and learning how to use all that cool equipment. 
The truth is exactly the opposite:  if you cannot read music and you were bad at physics and maths at school, then this is not the career field for you.  Here are some of the main fields and a random collection of the types of subjects that will arise:

The nature of sound, the decibel and all its variants (dBA, dBm, dB-Phone, dBV, etc.), the mathematics of sound (logarithms, speed of sound, coefficients of refraction and reflection of materials, etc.), theory of public address (line arrays, temperature inversion, delay towers, monitoring) microphone types, types of stereo (M/S, Kunstkopf, X'ed pairs) theory of delay effects (flanging, phasing, pitch correction and harmonizing, reverberation).

Basic analogue circuitry, theory of filters, phase correction theory, Ohm's law, power law, theory of routing and bussing, use of analogue ICs, theory of VCA circuitry, conduction and induction theory, electro-magnetics and motors, theory of analogue radio and television and its transmission.. Digital theory including quantification, sampling speeds, storage media, loss and lossless compression and error correction (Reed-Solomon codes), digital radio and television transmission (COFDM etc.) and digital networking of audio and video material. Simple fault-finding, servicing of equipment, quality control and testing of equipment. Soldering techniques.

Use of Equipment

Types and makes of microphones, use of large-frame analogue mixing desks, use of digital mixing, desk automation types and applications, use of popular multipurpose effects, use of dynamic processors, programming of synthesizers, MIDI file usage, use of hard-disc recording and editing packages (ProTools, Logic, Radar, etc.), use of  plug-ins.  Installation of Mac and PC computer systems with networking. Use of video editing (Avid, Speed-Razor, Premier) layering of video, SMPTE and Word Clock time code, camera technique including use of dollies and jibs. Theory and practice of studio and stage lighting. CD and DVD mastering.

Basic harmony theory, following a simple score, arrangement and composition theory, types of music, types of rhythms, history of classical and popular music, construction principles of musical instruments including traditional, orchestral, electronic and electric instruments. The German Tonmeister course requires the candidate to be able to play two musical instruments with proficiency and an ability to play music is usually seen as a major advantage.

The ideal career path in the UK would be to specialize in one of the above to as high a level as your abilities will take you - and gain as good an education as possible in the rest. In Germany there is the Tonmeister qualification and in the US there are several universities that specialize in careers in pro audio.

If you are in the UK, you can take one of the four fields to diploma level (e.g. HND or BSc) and the others to a lower level (e.g. HNC or similar). In this way the electronics engineer could become an audio equipment designer, the music major can become a producer and so on.

If you want to sit behind the desk, be it for live events or in the studio, you will need some proper education in the use of standard professional equipment. This means in the UK that you will have to find a college or university that has a professional studio set-up, as well as all the other facilities needed for video, PA, electronics, multi-media, etc.

Trends in Education

Many, many, many years ago, when the Earth was young and dinosaurs ruled the World, you could not get an education in audio engineering. Once you had some kind of education (technical or musical) young hopefuls tried to get jobs as tape-ops. This was short for tape operators and meant that you had to do all the menial tasks around the studio. In London, these creatures are often called runners - particularly in the video and film industries - because they have to run with tape/film/video cassette from one facility to the next. In the US they are called gophers because they have to go for the coffee, go for the papers, go for pizzas - well, you get the idea.

Sadly, those days are gone for ever. Many thought that this was the very best start one could get in the business. Firstly, you got to see every part of the business and you were able to work on real (and reel) equipment right from the beginning. Secondly, if you were able to get in at a larger studio, you got to meet all the good and great of the industry. This meant that you might be on nodding acquaintance with giant rock-stars, World famous producers and (most important) record company executives. You could 'network' brilliantly!

The disadvantage was that (unless you went to night-school) you did not receive a fundamental education. Many old-timers today still are not too sure what the difference is between dBv and dBV or what is meant by dBm. But then today too many pro-audio graduates know even less! So what's going on?

It's kewl!

Pro-audio is a really kewl subject to study. It's so kewl that nearly every college and university seems to offer some sort of course in 'music technology.'

But the main criticism is that whereas a few years ago it required a large investment for 24-track reel-to-reel machines and massive mixing desks to just teach the basics, today cheap editing software on a PC (that can be used to teach other courses) costs nothing or very little.  So some colleges have been accused to jumping on the band-waggon, just to earn a quick Buck.

Unlike the old 'chalk-and-talk' subjects, pro-audio is both fashionable and popular, but many colleges are said to be cashing in by catering to the illusions of the students, without really preparing them for life at the rockface.

Learn to do what?

If all you want to do is learn how to use the equipment for your own enjoyment or to use your own equipment in your home or project studio, then a simple introduction into the software-hardware package of your choice is all you need. (See our Home Recording page.)

But learning for the rockface of getting a job in pro-audio will require a qualification that is full accredited by a university accreditation board or a body such as The Institute of Incorporated Engineers. It also requires access to the kind of technology that many colleges just do not have.

There are two philosophies to pro-audio education:

1. Learning to record and use the equipment. This requires the college to use the latest in studio and/or P.A. equipment and have the latest in digital audio workstations (DAW).

2. Learning how to research and find answers to technical questions. This might involve developing new pug-ins for Cakewalk or ProTools or new methods of compressing audio or creating new sounds.

Both types of education are valid and both should provide the student with a fair chance of gaining employment. Both have moved to involving video and film into traditional audio education. The student must decide before beginning his higher education, which part of the industry he wishes to enter.


Here is some first rate advise written by Hugh Robjohns, technology editor of 'Sound on Sound' magazine to a prospective audio student who did not understand why the industry does not take some courses and colleges seriously

You wrote: Has anyone criticising these courses done their research and bothered to find out what is offered?

It's a fair question, and in my case the answer is YES.

I taught sound operations to radio and TV staff (from new recruits to experienced senior practitioners) for seven years at the BBC's technical training centre. Since leaving the beeb five years ago I have been approached repeatedly by a remarkably large number of colleges and 'universities' to help develop, expand or run various media and sound engineering courses.

I have always tried to maintain an open mind with such things, but despite always investigating each request I have declined to become involved with any of them beyond taking the odd session as a guest lecturer on specific subjects. The reason? I have yet to find a course which I have felt has anything valid to offer its students. The majority of these courses appear to be poorly equipped and poorly structured, and taught by tutors with little more than a hobbyist's understanding of the topics involved. I don't wish to insult anyone currently undertaking or working on such courses, but I report as I have found.

I really don't feel that most of these media and sound-engineering courses offer their graduates any significant advantage over a keen amateur who has spent time and effort reading and understanding relevant magazines and text books, with some practical experience gained from working (usually as an unpaid 'observer') in a local radio station, TV studio or recording studio.

There are some excellent courses available -- but not many -- and most of the good ones are academically selective, and with very good reason. The Tonmeister course at Guildford is certainly one of the best in the country, as is LIPA, and the NFTS.

I've little detailed knowledge of SAE, but am aware that standards seem to vary considerably with the different colleges. I've also met and taught many graduates of recording schools including SAE, Gateway and others, and while some have been highly competent, many had very patchy and confused understanding of fundamental audio physics and engineering principles, and a very narrow range of practical experience. The latter can be forgiven, but not the former -- especially after a two or three year course, in some cases!

You wrote: The Certificate IV in Audio Engineering covers the following subjects: Sound theory, acoustics, microphones, effects theory, 8-track recording, psycho acoustics, auditory perception, basic and advanced electronics, live sound, digital theory, digital editing, analogue theory, analogue tape editing, music theory, 16 track recording, advanced mic techniques, MIDI, film sound and post production, noise reduction, advanced acoustics, 24 track recording, compact disk and DVD production, mastering, and advanced music theory.

With respect, I have written and taught similar (as well as rather more comprehensive) syllabuses to this myself on many occasions, and the contents lists of many decent books on pro-audio covers exactly the same ground.

However, It's not the words in the syllabus that matter, it is the depth and breadth of the underlying course material; the quality, understanding and ability of the tutors to explain these subjects; the physical resources and equipment available to demonstrate the issues involved; and the nature and availability of practical facilities for students to experiment and hone their understanding and skills in practical, realistic situations, for themselves, under skilled supervision.

I have to say, if I were seeking a career in professional audio today, I would start by going to a traditional university to study electronics and computing. Before the holidays I would write to radio and TV stations, recording studios, theatres, independent outside broadcast companies, dubbing houses, film studios, live sound companies, hire companies, mobile recording companies, freelance sound engineers in all disciplines and anyone else I could think of asking for the opportunity for *unpaid* work experience. During the holidays I would work my butt off to be a keen, reliable, useful, interested member of the staff, while learning as much as possible about every aspect of everyone's job. The more places you have experience of, the better, and the more contacts you will make.

By the time you graduate your degree course, you will have a useful and recognised qualification which proves your intellect, your ability to learn, and your self-motivation. Your work experience will have provided you with a broad and useful background knowledge, realistic expectations of the industry, and a lot of contacts.

With luck, one of those contacts may well turn into a job offer, but if not, you will have a CV which will be taken far more seriously than most media or sound engineering course graduates.

Sad, but true, I'm afraid.

Finally, the audio industry is contracting at an alarming rate. Most of the big studios in London have either closed, or are up for sale. Most of the mid-range studios are struggling to survive, and those that are still afloat have only managed it by diversifying into other areas such as Audio for Video post-production, mastering, and DVD authoring, for example.

That means there are already more experienced people with proven track records looking for work than there are vacancies. So, other than being cheaper to employ (initially at least) novices (regardless of which audio course they have attended) will have a very difficult task in trying to find employment in the industry.

I don't want to put anyone off trying, and it can be a great industry to work in, but approach it with realism. If you want to attend a sound engineering course, look at all aspects very carefully before deciding whether it really will offer anything useful in terms of starting you on a viable career path.



The Byre Recording Studio