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How to become a sound engineer

Breaking the sound barrier

Ever seen an audio console up close? The sheer number of knobs and buttons they adorn strike fear into the hearts of most musicians or technicians who have never worked with one. A sound engineer is in charge of ensuring that a sound performance goes smoothly. All technical as well as mechanical aspects of sound fall under the sound engineer’s hat.

A typical sound engineer’s console can get very complicated for those unfamiliar with it.

The terms sound engineer and music producer are often used as synonyms when in reality the two are as different as chalk and cheese.

Generally associated with music, the term sound engineers encompasses many more industries. Their presence is integral in designing and executing conferences, sports matches, theatres, live music concerts, computer games, as well as, the more obvious, film, television and radio shows.

The different types of sound engineers

Sound engineers are usually identified as long-haired dudes standing at the massive console in a concert, mixing the sounds that get carried out to the audience. Is this guy, who makes what the industry calls ‘front of house’ sounds, the same as the guy who handles the monitors on the stage?

If you’re still wondering what a monitor is, read on.

  • Monitor Engineer:
    The gigantic speakers facing musicians on a stage are monitors. It’s the monitor engineer’s job to ensure the musicians can hear themselves while they’re performing, to make necessary pitch and pace alterations live in concert.
  • Live Sound Engineers:
    A live event needs one or more of these to ensure that the sound reaching the audiences is that of high quality and utmost clarity.

    Live sound engineers have the added pressure of their results being judged in real time.
  • Systems Engineers:
    These outdoorsy folk help setting up the rather complex PA systems that assist other sound engineers to do what they do! Managing the monitor engineers as well as the live sound engineers, they are the ringmasters of the whole act.
  • Wireless Microphone Engineers:
    It is the job of these engineers to ensure that all wireless microphones are working without a hitch, especially at live events.
  • Studio Sound Engineers:
    They work in a studio on recorded pieces and are responsible for churning out high-quality recordings of music, sounds or any other special effects as demanded by the client.
  • Mix Engineer:
    As the name suggests, a mix engineer does just that – he/she mixes tracks and creates a brand new track.
  • Mastering Engineer:
    The master of the mixer, their task is no cakewalk. They smoothen the track provided by the mix engineer, giving you the final product.
  • R&D Audio Engineers:
    Their sole responsibility is conducting research and development on new and exciting techniques and innovations in the field of sound engineering.
  • Game Audio Designers:
    Game Audio designers enhance your entire gaming experience with their expertise in audio engineering.

None of these roles is carved in stone. A successful sound engineer should be able to work in all of these roles interchangeably.

Awesome! How do I start?

Don’t understand the difference between a bar and a block? My friend, I have some news for you… You can still be a sound engineer!

There are formal certification courses that teach you all you need to know about sounds, music and its soul. In India, a 12th standard science student with physics, chemistry and mathematics as compulsory subjects can pursue sound engineering as a bachelor degree. Post that, there are a Masters and Doctoral level courses available from Indian and foreign institutes.

Premier institutes offering sound engineering as a bachelor degree course in India include IIT-Kharagpur, FTI-Pune, National Institute of Film and Fine Arts-Kolkata to name a few. Foreign institutes are a dime a dozen in this industry.

Sound engineering is a field where your academic qualifications are enough to land you an entry-level job at a production house. To make a mark in this industry the work and projects you have taken up speak volumes (no pun intended).

As a sound recordist, you will be working out of a recording studio, most likely for a recording label.

Even if you are not a science student, fret not. There are multiple industry-acknowledged private certifications you can pursue from Indian and international universities. The final and most difficult route is directly on the job. You will face a steep learning curve and have to work that much harder, but it is certainly possible.

Jonathan Rebeiro, who followed an unconventional route to becoming a sound engineer, says, “I began by working in a friend’s studio and spent a year just honing my skills till I met an engineer/studio owner at an engineering seminar who hired me. That’s when I technically began my professional career as an assistant engineer and worked my way up”. He was an aspiring musician before he switched roles and has worked on the audio engineering of ad campaigns like Vodafone and Pepsi. His body of work also includes movies like 2 States and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.

To be a good sound engineer, you will need to possess a working understanding of computers and electronics, electronic equipment, computer applications etc. It will be helpful to have an understanding of the theory and techniques required to compose, produce, and perform works of music, dance and other art forms that require sound.

Want to be a sound engineer from your couch?
There are a number of apps out there that will let you mix a few tracks from the comfort of your phone. Try these free sound editing apps for fun and feel the music. This could be your first step into the world of sound engineering. Some apps you can use are Acoustica, Audacity, Audio Tool, Tunekitten Audio Editor. It’s time for some funky tunes!

Ok so far so good, now where do I work?

The industries, where you would typically be working, are media and entertainment, production houses, hotels/ malls etc.

As a sound engineer, you have a plethora of roles to choose from. Your options include – Sound Recordist, Music Arranger, Sound Designer, Mixing Engineer, Sound Engineer, Live Sound Engineer, Audio Engineer, Studio Manager, Location Recordist, Promo Producer, Radio Sound Engineer or Studio Designer.

“My advice is don’t try to do everything. Find out your niche and excel in it”, said Rohit Pradhan, winner of a Filmfare award and sound designer for the upcoming movie Thackeray.

You can even find yourself working with architects as an acoustical consultant.

The rise of usage and development of voice assistant apps like Google Now, Siri, Cortana etc. have opened up avenues that require a professional sound engineer on the team giving rise to a new age industry for sound engineers to shine in. Another new and interesting role is that of an acoustical consultant where you will work with architects to manage and control the noises and vibrations at home and workplace. A demanding yet highly-paid and satisfying job.

A typical day in the life of a sound engineer

Here’s what a day in the life of most sound engineers would look like especially if you work out of a recording studio, which is where most start off to hone their skills.

We would think that a sound engineer would be sitting behind a large mixing board for the most part of the day but a large chunk of their day is spent on creating a feel-good environment for the artist to ensure good recording on the artist’s part. The engineer has to be in charge of all his equipment and ensure that the artist is being heard clearly and that the client’s brief is being fulfilled during the recording.

During the editing phase, it is the sound engineer’s responsibility to mix and match the best takes of the recording. Editing is where most of the magic happens. Mixing the track comes next. At this stage, the sound engineer will attempt to get the balance right without letting anyone single aspect overpower the others. An arduous task, but rewarding nonetheless.

A smart audio engineer will leave time out at the end of the day to network. Networking brings recommendations and works your way. For all you know, one day you could be sitting in the studio and the next day you could be on tour with a music legend.
The one piece of advice Jonathan offers to aspirants is, “Be Patient, Be Calm, Work Hard”.

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Sanket Nikte