How To Get Into Music Engineering
Music engineering is an often underpraised skill in the recording studio, but it’s definitely one of the most important.
If no one knows how to record high-quality music by bringing out the best in each piece of recording equipment, how will any good music get made?
If you’re looking to fill this important role, here are some things you should know.
What Is a Music Engineer?
Basically, a Music Engineer sets up the recording equipment and records the musicians, making sure all the levels are set correctly so there’s no clipping. This includes placing the microphones perfectly and ensuring the surrounding area is ideal for recording. Depending on your role in a given project, you may be required to mix the music in post-production using EQ, compression, reverb, delay, and other effects.
As an Engineer, you also want to make the artists feel at home and comfortable. Try to do what you can to make them feel special — it boosts their confidence and helps them play better and make more compelling music. Just generally put out some good vibes.
On the other hand, you don’t want to overstep your boundaries into Record Producer territory. Usually, a band will self-produce an album or hire their own Producer. But that doesn’t mean you, as the Engineer, can’t give your input on how things sound.
What’s the Music Engineering Lifestyle Like?
If you think you might want to become a Music Engineer, some of the first questions you may ask are, “What will my life look like?” and “How much money can I make?”
Both great questions. First, let’s look at the typical salary of a Recording Engineer.
A usual annual salary for an Engineer is $40,000, but it can range from $25,000 to $150,000 or more, depending on how good you are and how much experience you have.
As for the lifestyle, Recording Engineer Lenise Bent explains it plainly.
“If you want to be an Engineer, the idea of getting married and having a family is off the table — at least when you’re starting out,” she says. “I’ll be in the studio tonight from eight to God knows when. Music industry people work 24/7.”
There you have it — the answer right from the mouth of a real-life Engineer. Now you know what to expect. The question now is how committed and passionate are you about this career?
Now let’s talk about things you should do to really get into music engineering.
Knowledge is only the beginning of getting good at something. You can’t just get all the head knowledge and then do everything right immediately. That’s why practicing is so important. Record and mix music as much as you possibly can, even if it’s just you making up some random song.
Inhale knowledge — that’s the first step in learning a new skill or craft. Learn from others.
When you first start out, read as many articles (like this one) and watch as many YouTube videos on music engineering as you can. Try to gain both practical knowledge (how to engineer music) and business knowledge (what the career potential is).
Set that firm foundation for future success. Doing this will also help you understand if this is the right career path for you.
Get Some Gear
I think the best way to learn a skill is to do the thing. I’m an advocate for hands-on learning.
So the next step is to buy some recording equipment so you can start actually engineering music.
The Basic Gear You’ll Need
To become a successful Audio Engineer, you should become familiar with the basic equipment. So, assuming you already own a desk and a chair, here are the basic things you’ll need.
Computer and DAW
You most likely already have a computer, but you’ll also need a digital audio workstation (DAW) — also known as recording software. The most well-known DAWs right now are probably Pro Tools and Ableton Live, but you can find comparable DAWs for much cheaper (or free).
For example, if you own an Apple computer, you already have a program called Garageband (it comes preloaded on every single Apple computer). This is a DAW and a mighty fine one at that. I would suggest starting with Garageband.
Another free DAW is Reaper. It’s a fantastic piece of software, and you can get the full version for free with no strings attached. Now, in order to get a license (and be an honest person), Reaper asks that you pay a certain amount, depending on whether you use it for personal use or commercial use.
An audio interface is a device into which you’d plug your microphone and instrument. The interface then plugs into your computer via USB or Firewire.
If you’re just getting into recording music, you may want to get an affordable yet reliable interface. Then, as time goes on and you earn more and more money, you can upgrade to better and more advanced equipment.
Here some of the best audio interfaces for beginners:
- Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 or Solo
- PreSonus AudioBox USB 96
- Behringer U-Phoria UMC22
Microphone + XLR Cable + mic stand + pop filter
If you’re recording any live instruments (like acoustic guitar or vocals), you’ll need a decent mic. And if you get a mic, you’ll obviously need a mic cable (aka XLR cable), a microphone stand, and a pop filter for recording vocals.
When it comes to XLR cables, mic stands, and pop filters, you can find good quality items for relatively cheap. But they’re not as important as the mic itself.
So here are some of best microphones that are both affordable and high-quality:
- Shure SM58
- Audio-Technica AT2035
- Shure SM48-LC
You can’t just rely on your earbuds when engineering music, especially if you’re serious about becoming an Engineer.
It’s crucial to invest in a decent pair of over-ear headphones. There are two types, depending on whether you’re recording or mixing: closed-back (for recording) and open-back (mixing).
When tracking, you want isolation, which is what closed-back headphones give you. When mixing, you don’t want isolation as that lessens the audio quality of the music — hence, why they’re good for mixing.
And because you’ll probably be recording or mixing other artists, you’ll want a second pair of headphones.
Here some nice headphones you can check out:
- Sennheiser HD280PRO (closed-back)
- Sony MDR-7506 (closed-back)
- Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro (open-back)
Going from zero clients to one or two clients is going to involve you offering free work. If you have no experience and no portfolio to show potential clients, you won’t be able to also charge them money. Here’s how you can get started: reach out to your musician friends and offer to record and/or mix one or two songs for them for free.
Practice Like Crazy
Knowledge is only the beginning of getting good at something. You can’t just get all the head knowledge and then do everything right immediately.
That’s why practicing is so important. Record and mix music as much as you possibly can, even if it’s just you making up some random song.
This is also a chance for you to get really familiar with your equipment. That way, when you get your first client, you won’t be fumbling around with knobs and switches, not knowing what exactly you’re doing. That will kill any confidence the artist may have had in you.
Take on Free Clients
Going from zero clients to one or two clients is going to involve you offering free work. If you have no experience and no portfolio to show potential clients, you won’t be able to also charge them money.
Here’s how you can get started: reach out to your musician friends and offer to record and/or mix one or two songs for them for free. Instead of presenting it in a way that sounds like you’re asking them for a favor, let them know that releasing one or two singles in between albums can help keep up their fan engagement.
Then deliver the best mixes you possibly can, not just because they’re your friends but also because these are your first portfolio items. You can then take those songs to other musicians you’d like to work with and say, “Hey, check out these songs I worked on. I can do the same for you!”
And from there, you’re off to the races making money as a Music Engineer.
Earn a Music Engineering Degree
Making money as a freelance Music Engineer is all well and good, but you may not be able to really break through the noise unless you invest in yourself and your future.
One way you can do that is by earning a Recording Engineer degree. It’s a chance to learn from some of the masters, people who have been doing this for decades. This typically includes info that can be hard to find online.
Bent says that “getting a certificate or a degree from a school indicates that you are able to complete tasks, have social skills and can complete challenges.”
This means it can give you more leverage in the job market. If you apply for an engineering job at a recording studio and you have experience plus a degree from Berklee College while the other applicants have only the experience, you’d definitely be a leading candidate.
Also, don’t overlook your cover letter.
“Your cover letter is actually more important than your resume, kind of,” Bent says. “Make sure it’s grammatically correct. There’s no excuse for poor spelling and grammar. All of these things indicate that you have attention to detail.”
When Bent first started out, she saved a ton of money because she expected to work for little or no money. She says every beginner Engineer should expect to do this as well.
“Get an internship,” she says. “Be available all day. If you pick an internship that’s only 3-4 hours long, you’ll just make coffee, cut vegetables, sweep, and you’re gone” for the day.
But that’s a necessary step in climbing the ladder in the corporate music world.
“A studio needs to know if they can trust you and if you’re a good fit,” she says.
So ask yourself, is being a Music Engineer a good fit for you?
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