How To Become a Recording Engineer
Q&A - Quick Answers
The Recording Engineer, sometimes also called a Sound Engineer or Audio Engineer, is responsible for capturing and shaping sound, usually music, using a combination of microphones, direct inputs from electronic instruments, and recording equipment, sometimes also using computer software. They are expected to take music being played by musicians and coming directly from electronic sound sources and convert it into a recording, usually with separate tracks for each instrument.
These tracks can later be edited and manipulated further using signal processing and effects, and then mixed and mastered into a final recording for release, usually for streaming, film, television, radio, events, or other purposes. In many studios, Engineers are also Producers who shape the sound of an album by overseeing the artistic and creative elements of the recording session in addition to the technical aspects. They might also do live sound engineering at concerts or record sound in the field.
Recording Engineers are well-versed in all kinds of recording technology, from analog tape to digital multitrack recording programs like Ableton and Pro Tools. They record, edit, and mix sound through their choice of microphones, setting levels and using sound manipulation techniques such as equalization and signal processing.
Recording Engineers work with Recording Artists, Producers, Session Musicians, and Assistant Engineers to create recordings for the music industry. They often have creative input to the production process and may sometimes even handle business aspects such as budgets and personnel.
Recording Engineers also work to record live music at concerts, corporate events, festivals, or other gatherings, setting up and running the sound systems, conducting a soundcheck, and mixing the live sound for stage and audience.
In this article, you’ll be hearing from Recording/Audio Engineers working in rock, classical, and film scoring:
- Lenise Bent (Blondie, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan)
- Geoff Foster (The Lion King, The Dark Knight Rises, The Pirates of the Caribbean)
- Mary Mazurek(John Bruce Yeh, Lara Downes, Fareed Haque)
What does a Recording Engineer do?
That depends. We all work with audio but in a variety of contexts. An Audio Engineer can record for album release, can record audio for streaming, can work with audio for broadcast, can do podcasts, work on TV, work on movies. There are a variety of ways in which Audio Engineers work.
The job, in essence, is to facilitate recording music. You’ve got musicians that sit on one side of the glass recording environment, and then we have the Producers and the Engineers, and in the case of recording film, the filmmakers that sit on the other side. I try to make it so the stuff that gets played by the musicians is sounding good in the control room where we all are. That’s the job.
In terms of what that actually involves, there are a few stages. The first is usually a discussion with, in the case of a pop record, the Producer and the band or the artist. In the case of film, it would be with the Composers. A conversation on what kind of sound they’re looking to make–what kind of record or what kind of mood the music is supposed to conjure up.
This usually involves a fair amount of referencing other people’s recordings and going, “Well a little bit like that, but we also want a little bit of that, and we also want an overarching bit of this.” So, [it’s] drawing a picture of what the recording is supposed to sound like and do.
Once we’ve had that conversation, then I think about the practicalities of what we’re going to record. For instance, if we’re recording a band, once we know the lineup–if it’s bass, drums, guitar, and keyboards–how do we set the room up so that these musicians can see each other, can hear each other, and then communicate–not just musically but also talk in between takes? If your instrument is an electric bass, you can’t talk to your mates down the mic because the instrument itself comes out of a wire.
Having set up an environment in the studio where the musicians can talk to each other, everyone in the control room will also need to be able to talk to them and vice versa–sometimes individually, sometimes as a group. So I would spend time, knowing which studio I’m recording in, working out how we facilitate that.
Then we get to the bit that’s generally perceived as the sexiest bit, which is putting what gear where: which microphones, pre-amps, compressors & EQ should be used so that we get the best sound. Certainly, for the gear addicts, that’s the most exciting part.
Once we’ve done all of that, we go back to planning the the control room. Next there’s a setup stage. The setup stage is taking all those microphones, taking all those communication channels, and making them work, which, inevitably, is not as easy as you might think. Nine times out of ten, you’ll plug it in and go, “Actually that’s not going to work, ‘cause this is gonna feedback on that,” or the console isn’t big enough, or the microphones the studio has don’t work without phantom power, or whatever it might be.
There are things that one has to look at in situ because it’s only when you lug stuff up that some errors make themselves apparent. “Best-laid plans of mice and men”–inevitably something won’t work and then you have to rethink it.
Then you come to the session itself. Usually, there’s a degree of negotiating. Whose headphones don’t work? Musicians saying: “I don’t hear enough of myself.” “Can I have a little bit more of the click?” “Can I have a bit more drums?” Whatever it might be. Eventually, we get to a point where musicians can hear what they need to perform, and then we actually start to record.
At that point, there’s a sort of hazy area as to my level of involvement. Depending on who I’m engineering for, there’s a degree of Producer input. Some clients don’t want any input from the Engineer at all.
And there are other clients, who are the ones I like working for most, that go, “What do you think?” On those projects you get to engage on a creative level and say, “I really like that take,” or, “I’m wondering if we can maybe do it a little bit faster,” or whatever the idea might be.
The responsibility for the end product fundamentally lies with the Producer, or Composer/Film Director if you’re doing film music. Over the recording process, conversations evolve and often happen whilst the band is recording.
Once we get to the end of a take there’s an immediate review and ideas such as “That was great, but maybe it’s a little bit busy here,” or, “Drums: instead of being on the ride cymbal, could you try it on the high hat?” get aired. Whatever creative push brings us closer to what people were imagining.
Once we have a take that we love and everybody is happy with we move on to the next piece. Sometimes we’ll come back and layer more instruments on top of the basic take. This is normally referred to as “overdubbing” and it involves playing along with whatever was recorded in the previous recording.
For instance, you might take an acoustic guitar and double track it, so the Guitarist is listening to the original performance of their guitar and they play along with themselves. When double tracking, you create a much thicker and fuller sound but at the expense of some loss of performance detail.
With a band, quite often you get into doing vocals. You have the lead Vocalist who might want to sing multiple times to get a performance they’re happy with. If that happens I will often do a thing called “comping,” where we make a composite of the best bits of each of those performances.
It might be that the first verse was fantastic but the second verse we weren’t happy with in one take, so we take the second verse from another performance and then glue those together, so when you send the song for mixing you get the best bits from each of the performances. That happens to all instruments, not just Singers–orchestras, guitars, etc.
Once we have that finalised “comp” of the instruments that are going to make up the song or the cues in a film, what we do is come to the point of mixing. Mixing Engineers and Recording Engineers are sometimes the same person, but not always.
Sometimes they are different people doing different gigs. On a lot of the more expensive records, record companies won’t spend the huge amount on Recording Engineers, but they’ll spend a fortune on mixing, and it’s because the perception is that a name Mix Engineer is where the magic happens. It’s not true.
Generally speaking, Mix Engineers do bring an amazing amount to the party, but if the core elements recorded are not very good, there’s nothing they can do to make them good. One of the things a good Mix Engineer will do is, after reviewing the material, come back and say, “You need to get a better version of the vocal,” or the guitars, or whatever it might be.
Part of what the record labels will engage with is the idea that the Mix Engineer has a Producer-y role. There’s a level of Producer involvement that record companies want their Mix Engineers to have to make sure the record is as good as it can be.
A half-decent Recording Engineer will have caught all of that at the recording stage. The hidden truth is that the magic happens at every stage, all the way down the line: song/musician/instrument/recording process/producorial guidance/mix/mastering.
So at the mix we take all those elements and finely balance them, and sometimes we add reverb, and delays, and we add EQ, and we add compression. We basically mess with the sound in as many ways as the human mind can think of in an attempt to make the record or the tune sound better, to have a vibe to it. Fundamentally it’s all about balance.
To demonstrate consider an extreme example. If you had a vocal and an acoustic guitar, and you pushed the acoustic guitar very, very loudly whilst turning the vocal down so that you couldn’t hear the words or the melody, that mix wouldn’t do what the listener would expect from a different balance, where you might have the guitar giving you the chordal and harmonic support, and the vocals sitting on top and singing the melody.
This is an extreme example of two very simple elements, but the essence of engineering is bringing in new elements and sending out a blend of those elements that work.
Each time you bring in new elements, each one has to be balanced against the others. If the drums are too loud, for example, you can’t hear the harmonies in the piano. If the drums are too quiet, you don’t get the rhythmic vibe–you don’t get the groove. There are many elements that can come into play. The Mix Engineer balances those elements so that the song or the tune does what you, or the Composer, was hoping it would emotionally.
In some instances, the Mix Engineer and the Sound Engineer can be the same person. I’m actually a big fan of the Recording Engineer’s mix if they’re half decent at mixing, because they know the conversations that were had whilst the music was being recorded. They were in the room.
For a better way of putting it, “They know where the bodies are buried.” They know what the creative people involved want. So if, when recording, you have a conversation where a Director says “We want the orchestra really, really quiet here,” and you get a Mix Engineer who wasn’t in the room, they may turn it up, and miss the creative point of that musical moment.
Particularly in film, it’s very useful to have a Recording Engineer mix the score because they know the conversations that were had; they understand the expectation for the score and for the cue.
One of the nice things about being a Recording Engineer is that, if you’re on a project and you see it from inception to the finished mix, you can bring something to it at every stage. One of the things that people often ask is, “Where can I best spend my time, effort, and money to get a great recording? Should I use a great mic? Should I use a great studio?”
And one of the things that I always say is, there’s no one element that makes a great record or a great score. It’s a cumulative thing. If the notes on the page are rubbish, it doesn’t matter how good the musicians are–they can’t make it sound good. Even without a great player, if the notes on the page are good, it doesn’t matter how good the instrument is–you need a good player. A great musician will make the music sound better than a poor musician on any instrument.
In fact, one of my favourite comments on this come from were from [Itzhak] Pearlman, the Violinist. After a concert a fan said, “That’s an amazing sounding violin,” and he shook it and held it up to his head shook it and said, “I hear nothing.”
The reason I mention that is I had a similar thing. I was doing guitar with Mark Knopfler many, many years ago at the start of my career. His Roadie delivered and set up his guitar and amp and started playing on it. I put the mics where I thought they should go, went back into the control room and listened.
To my horror it just didn’t sound very good and I thought, “Oh no, I’m going to be the Engineer that couldn’t get a good sound for Mark Knopfler. What a way to start/end my career.” Then Mark comes in, picks up the guitar, starts to play, and it sounds stunning all of a sudden. For me, that was a seminal moment of going, “Okay, actually it’s not the instruments and the mics in the room, it’s also the player.” In fact, it’s always mostly the player.
But it’s kind of like there’s a bottleneck at every turn. As an Engineer, the task is to facilitate getting a great recording and that means knowing where problems lie in a particular process. So engineering is not just about gear. It’s not just about how fast you are on a computer. It’s not just whether you can hear up to 20 kHz.
It’s about understanding where the problems lie and preparing a situation where the problems don’t impede the creative process. If you have musicians who are able to play and willing to play you have to make it so they can play. People often forget that.
As an artist, particularly if you’re a Singer, giving a hugely emotional performance that touches people…you have to pour your soul to do it. You have to give part of yourself. The great musicians all give a sizeable chunk of themselves to every performance.
That means that you [the Engineer] have to create an environment where they feel safe and willing to make that outpouring. It might be that you have a Singer and you have to clear everybody out of the control room, and leave just the Singer, the Engineer, and the Producer so that the artist can give their all, screw up and be supported through it so that they are ready to give it another go.
It might be that you monitor the fact that you have an orchestra that gives a performance, and 40, 50, 60 people have given their all, and when they finish, you don’t then leave them with silence in the headphones whilst you discuss what you think they did or didn’t do right or wrong. Instead, you engage with them and acknowledge that it was great take, then ask them to bear with you a moment, while you discuss a couple things.
That understanding of the human side of the recording process, is a significant part of engineering. Perhaps the most significant. And indeed, Engineers often go on to become Producers because they’ve learned that craft.
What skills are needed to be a Recording Engineer?
I think the big thing is attention to detail. We have to listen for the details and the nuances in the recording process to capture good quality sound.
You want to have a signature sound for that artist. When you hear a Black Keys song, you know immediately by the sound of the guitars.
Technology is there to serve the art and not the other way around. Time is money. If you want to do this for a living, you have to do this in a timely fashion. You have to commit to a vocal. You have to commit to a take.
The Producer and the musicians will be speaking in emotional terms and you’ll have to be able to interpret technically what they’re expressing to get an emotional response. I like to create with others. A good Engineer is somebody who’s easy to get along with–because you’re on a team. You have to be a people person. But you don’t want a real chatty Engineer. You gotta get work done.”
Use your head and make it [the studio session] like a five-star hotel, whether it’s your own studio or you’re working at Capitol. You want to be an asset to the session and not a liability.
In terms of academic qualifications, you should be able to read and write. You should be able to do some simple maths. I know there’s a lot of people that say you have to train up and there are various Tonmeister courses and what have you that exist.
I think they kind of sell something; they sell pots of gold at the end of the rainbow instead of saying, the reality is, “We give you 3 weeks of training, charge an arm and a leg for it, and you’re good to go.” And ACTUALLY, you’re not good to go. What they teach you is basic microphone technique and the physics.
Yes, it helps and great Engineers do understand some of the physics, some of the electronics, and some of the musical theory. But actually, many great groundbreaking Engineers like Geoff Emerick–who basically was the sound of the Beatles–use their ears.
Geoff wrote the rulebook for how you record pop records. Anything that we do now was done on Sgt. Pepper’s. You show me any trick you like and I can show you where it is on Sgt. Pepper’s. But what he did, he did with his ears. He felt it. He understood it. If you asked him how a compressor worked, he’d have no idea…but he played an 1176 like a fiddle.
I remember I recorded an orchestra for Paul McCartney and Geoff [Emerick] was producing. When I asked him how he wanted it recorded he said. “Geoff, you do it better than I do, do your thing,” and so I recorded the orchestra following my instincts. Meanwhile, Paul McCartney was chatting to camera to a film crew that he’d happily do a percussion part on a dustbin, and sure enough, when the orchestra was done, there was a bin out, and he wanted to play it and I put a mic out with a compressor on it.
Geoff [Emerick] said, “Do you mind if I do this?” and I said, “No no no, please do.” And he played with the 1176–I couldn’t tell you what he did–and suddenly it sounded magical. Paul McCartney hitting a bin! That particular compressor has two knobs on it, in and out, and 4 compression switches and he tweaked and listened and tweaked and made it sound amazing.
And I sat there and thought, “Yeah. That’s why those records sounded so incredible.” But he had no idea about how the electronics work, the math, the physics, and such.
So I would say there’s a sort of a myth that to be a great Engineer, you have to have all these things SAE teaches, but actually in my experience, the great Engineers, they listen…to both people & the machinery. They react to the musicians and they understand that there is so much more than just the technology.
As an Engineer, you need to be relatively literate. These days you need to be computer-literate if you’re working on Pro Tools, Cubase, or Logic. You need to learn how those programs work.
There are courses that give you diplomas and all sorts. From what I can see, from people who’ve been through those courses, all the colleges do is hand you the manual and say, “Read this.” So I would say you don’t necessarily need to do those courses to become a great Engineer.
I think it’s one of the myths that has emerged. I think it’s partly because academic institutions want people to come and learn stuff. They don’t care what they come and learn as long as they’re billing for it. And so it becomes a perception that you need to have done these courses. If you look at the great Engineers, the great Musicians in pop, most of them didn’t follow the rules and were rebellious, and just had a heart, a feel, and a passion for it.
I have to say the most important thing you have to have as an Engineer is passion for engineering. Because the reality is, if you are any good, you’re going to be doing 12, 14, 18-hour days for weeks at a go. And the ones that produce the great, great results are the ones that go the extra mile and say, “You know what, I’m shattered, but I’m still not happy with this. I think it can be better. Let me see what I can do to make it better.”
I always say to people that “Nobody ever left the cinema or bought a record and said, ‘That’s a great film, great-sounding score, or that’s a great-sounding record—for the budget.’” No one says that.
Joe and Josephine Public, they love it or they hate it. And you have to do everything you can, and you have to want to do everything you can, to be above the hate-it line and in the love-it zone. Most art is fairly binary. People love it, or it’s “whatever.” Nothing. Don’t care, didn’t like it, don’t care if I ever hear it again. So a good Engineer will care enough to go, “I’m going to make this right. It’s going to be the best I can do.”
Engineers on staff at a recording studio who are either hourly or salaried employees receive regular paychecks from the studio. Others might work with clients on a project or freelance basis, especially if they are also mixing and/or producing the recorded music. They could be paid by the hour, by the day, or earn flat fees on a project basis.
They may work at a professional recording studio, in their home studio, a mastering studio, on the road with live acts, or all the above. Hourly rates typically start at around $40 and can be as high as $100 or even more for top pros. Some Mastering Engineers charge by the song, and the fee can range from a few hundred to many thousands of dollars.
When starting out, perhaps working as an Intern or Runner, pay could be low or nonexistent. With more experience, working as an Assistant Engineer or a Producer, the pay should increase to support typical living costs, depending on where one lives. Pay by the day usually ranges between $200 to $500 and can be higher for well-known Engineers. Project-based pay can also vary a lot depending on the scope of the project and the prestige of the artist, Producer, and Engineer.
Some Recording Engineers are also Session Musicians and may have other work outside of the studio to help support them, such as teaching or working in a non-music-related job. Others might work in a sub-discipline, such as acoustical design, software development, research, sound design, architectural acoustics, or electrical engineering.
According to Glassdoor, the average annual salary for a Recording Engineer is approximately $73,600. The salary range runs from $46,000 to $84,000. Although it’s a highly competitive field, there is a consistent demand and the outlook for future growth seems strong.
How much do Recording Engineers make?
Depending on where you are in the world and depending on what field you’re in, you can look to be earning between $125 a day–which I think is criminal, but that’s what some record labels will say is all they’re going to spend on a Tracking Engineer or a Recording Engineer–through to $3,000-$4,000 a day.
Part of the reason why $125 is a price people will expect to pay is that you can always find someone who will work for nothing…which keeps pulling the bottom out of the engineering market.
And that’s a problem that the industry has: that, as musicians, we love what we do. I love what I do. I often do mixes of things for myself because it’s like, I really love that…I want my own take on it. I did one literally the other day. I recorded something and had the multi-tracks and I thought, That’s a really great performance. I’m going to do a mix of that. I don’t release it commercially; it’s literally just for me.
We want to do what we do, and therefore working for nothing is actually still rewarding. But it does have an unfortunate knock-on effect that impacts our industry and also people trying to survive within it.
That very much runs the gamut; that’s hard to pin down. It just depends on what area you go into. Some people make really good livings, and if you happen to work with a hit artist, you’ll probably make more than someone doing demos for garage bands.
If you work for radio or TV, that tends to be pretty steady work and pays pretty well, so that’s a possible area to go into. There’s also the entrepreneurial route. It helps if you have some entrepreneurial skills, some business skills, in any case, because even if you work for somebody, you’re still your own brand. So, I think that always helps, and having some sense of branding helps as well.
What I tell my students is, think about audio broadly. What industries need audio? Obviously, music needs audio, but so does TV. So does radio. So does podcasting—and podcasting has become really big, because it’s a marketing tool for a lot of people, so there’s money to be made there.
Also, there are areas like design. People who make equipment, people who make software, people who make plug-ins. Video games need sound. And, that’s not my expertise, but that’s really blown up because video games are using orchestral scores, and sound effects, and immersive sound, so that’s a whole big area.
The broader you can think about it, the more opportunities you’ll find because a lot of industries need sound. Even conference audio or business audio. My brother John Mazurek works for a major communications company, and he’s responsible for audio-video conferencing for their corporate meetings and events.
There is also sound reinforcement—once COVID is under control, and we can have performances again—concert venues will need sound reinforcement and engineers. Installed sound in performance venues, or even in office buildings is an important area. Or church sound. Who designs and installs the equipment in churches? Who operates the equipment in churches? That’s a big area as well. Think broadly about sound, and more opportunities will appear.
Audio can be a difficult business to get into, but be optimistic. Reach out to people, network, and then find every opportunity to create, practice, and collaborate.
How do Recording Engineers get paid?
Engineers on staff at a recording studio are either hourly or salaried employees and receive regular paychecks from the studio.
Freelance Engineers can bill their clients by the hour, charge a day rate, or set a package fee if, for example, they’re also mixing and/or producing the recorded music.
Recording Engineers are an important part of the music industry, as anyone seeking to make recordings needs to hire one. There’s a huge demand for new music from fans and for use in multimedia such as films, advertising, TV, radio, broadcast sporting events, and video games.
While streaming has made it harder for Recording Artists to profit from their music, there are still plenty of successful artists who need Engineers to help them capture their music in recordings. Recording Engineers can also vie for other roles, such as mixing live sound for concert tours, doing sound and recordings in theaters, or managing audio engineering teams at sports stadiums.
Getting started, it will take some time to learn all the skills needed to become an Engineer. Many students choose to earn a music degree or take courses at a college or university where they have access to current gear and can expand their professional network with other students and faculty. After school, working as an Intern at a studio where you could observe and be a part of making recordings under experienced professionals is the usual path for the budding Engineer.
Being a Recording Engineer is extremely competitive since many people want this kind of work. There tend to be fewer opportunities than applicants, so it does require hard work, talent, perseverance, and patience to break into a scene.
There is good news, however. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 8% annual growth in the sound recording industry between 2018-2028. While this may not seem like a lot, the BLS states that this 8% growth rate is faster than the average rate of growth for many careers.)
How long does it take to become a Recording Engineer?
Four to six years, in most cases. That includes two to four years of study in a sound engineering degree program or internship, plus two years as an Assistant Engineer.
Like most careers, you have to work your way up and will not immediately become a full-fledged Recording Engineer after completing your coursework or teaching yourself at home.
Is it hard to become an Audio Engineer?
Sound engineering is one of the most competitive segments of the music industry. With the rise of music production/engineering programs, there are often more qualified applicants than there are job openings. To make it in this field requires a lot of talent, hustle, and determination.
There is good news, however. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 8% growth2 in the sound recording industry between 2018-2028. On first glance, this may not seem like a lot, but the BLS states that this 8% growth rate is faster than the average rate of growth for many careers.
Aspiring Recording Engineers often start as Runners before moving on to become Assistant Engineers and finally becoming Engineers. Advancement can come in the form of working with celebrity clients, working at a famous recording studio, or running their own personal recording studio. At outset, learning and gaining experience should take center stage.
With some training and years of experience, Recording Engineers build their resumes in various ways. There are a number of sub-fields Recording Engineers can find work in. Examples include electroacoustics, musical acoustics, psychoacoustics, architectural acoustics, audio signal processing, and electrical engineering. Some teach. They may work recording speech or capturing sound on remote location for broadcast TV and films.
Additional roles and titles for Recording Engineers include Mastering Engineer, Mixing Engineer, Live Sound Engineer, Front-of-House (FOH) Engineer, post-production for film, Assistant Engineer, Monitor Engineer, Audio Engineer, Tonmeister, and so on. Some of the terms are vague and can overlap, depending on the production. Other times these terms could be very specific.
To get that first engineering gig, it’s all about attention to detail. Attend a good music production/engineering degree program, pay attention in class, and bring that attention to not only your studio time, but your job application process. Once you land the first position, it’s crucial to make a good impression on everyone involved, since you will likely need them for referrals for future work. It takes a long time and very hard work to build a stellar reputation.
The most successful Engineers either hold down a salaried position at a studio or record company, are kept on retainer by major artists, or can take their choice from a host of plum offers that come their way. They keep an extremely busy schedule, sometimes working twelve hours a day or more under deadlines.
Engineers must also take time to manage their schedules and respond to work-related messages. There are preproduction meetings to attend, recording sessions, live gigs, travel, and many other tasks and responsibilities, such as overseeing the maintenance and updating of equipment. In short, in-demand Recording Engineers are super-busy professionals.
How do you become a Recording Engineer?
First and foremost, you’re in the right place at the right time. What you do is you write to every studio, every musician, every place where music is recorded, and you say, “Can I please work here?” And ideally, and this is one of the great arguments I have…you don’t offer your services for free. The reason I say this is because if you work for free, your services have no value.
Our industry is particularly bad at abusing people like that. Because there are always people who will work for free. It makes it that much harder for people who come in from an economically disadvantaged place to get in.
The reality is, if you’ve got to work at Domino’s to make ends meet, and then someone says, “Can you do a session this evening?” and you go to your Manager and say, “Can I have this evening off because I’ve got to go and do a session?” they’ll say, “Well you’re either serving pizzas or you’re not.” It makes it very difficult to do the engineering job which is painfully on a gig by gig basis. I’m a firm believer that studios and everybody in our industry should be looking to pay it forward, pay a half-decent wage.
If you work for nothing, you definitely get treated [worse] than if you work for a wage. Even if you say, “I’d really love to work for you and I’m happy to do all the hours you like, but can you cover my travel costs?” Make them give you something!
Because you’re putting a value on yourself and you’re also making your role sustainable. Unless Mummy and Daddy are going to pay for a penthouse in New York, you’re not going to be able to live and eat and work for more than a few months before it doesn’t make any sense and economically you’re doomed. So you have to put a realistic value on it.
To a certain extent, if a facility wants you to work for absolutely nothing, you don’t want to work for them because they’re not going to teach you what you need to know. They’re going to teach you how to abuse people. Which is not how you get a great recording, as I said earlier. The mindset, the ethos, the very heart of what makes a great Engineer is not abusing people.
You try and get experience. If you want to record your mate’s band in the garage, it’s a different story. Do that and get experience however you can. But if you’re recording a record that your mate’s putting out, don’t do it for nothing. Say, “I’d love to do this and I want to do it for you, but if the record is a success or you end up making revenue off of the streams on YouTube, please cut me in on those revenues.”
That’s putting value on yourself. You don’t necessarily get money upfront to do the gig or whatever it is, but make sure that if you’re doing something, everybody respects that your input, your time, your effort, your craft as you get better and better at it, has a value. Because it does.
Definitely apply for positions, but generally, that’s not how you get them. You may get one that way, but it’s basically [via] networking. Being involved in groups like Audio Engineering Society, SoundGirls, Women’s Audio Mission, and other recording entities makes you visible and connects you with people in the industry. Join groups on Facebook, and then hopefully, when we’re out of the pandemic, we’ll be able to go to the conferences like AES.
Ask to intern. I believe that internships can be very powerful and positive learning experiences. I also encourage my students to pick an audio role model. I say, “Okay, think about some music you like and find out who engineered it or produced it.” Send them a message on social media or something and ask them a poignant question.
Like, “I really like how you did X, Y, Z in so-and-so’s song. I’m an audio student, and I’d really like to know how you went about that,” and then I say, “What’s the worst that could happen? They don’t respond? Why don’t you reach out to them?” And a lot of times they won’t respond, but I’ve actually had students get responses and answers to their questions.
For me, it was by accident because when I found out about it when I was in college in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. I went to music school not exactly knowing what I was going to do, but I found this degree called Sound Recording Technology, and I really fell in love with it. It ended up being a really good fit for me.
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. I’ll be in the studio tonight from eight to God knows when. Music industry people work 24/7.
Your cover letter is actually more important than your resume, kind of. 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. All they need is a typo to get your application tossed in the trash. Don’t give them that reason for doing that.
I saved a bunch of money, knowing that I’d have to start at the beginning and make little to no money. You have to be willing to relocate. Get an internship. 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.
A studio needs to know if they can trust you and if you’re a good fit, you may be moved into a position as a paid Assistant or a paid Runner a little sooner.
- Ask if you can help. You’re not getting paid, but you’re demonstrating your work ethic and they’ll remember that. Create those relationships.
- Volunteer at the Grammys or tech expos. People will remember you. I’ll have some people in my head when someone calls me for a recommendation for an entry-level position.
- Learn mics and mic placement.
- Know signal flow and ProTools. Get that down first, then practice, practice, practice.
- Develop file management skills. “It’s “Lead Guitar,” “Rhythm Guitar,” “Solo,” etc., not “Guitar 1,” “Guitar 2. A complete stranger needs to be able to look at your session and know what’s going on.
- Take copious notes. This is one of the biggest, most important things. In the studio, things change really fast. You write [it] down so when someone says “I love the sound on this recording, how did you do that?” you’ll have something to refer to.
Experience & Skills
There’s no substitute for on-the-job training, which is why most Recording Engineers get their start working as Interns or Runners at a studio. Watching and understanding what the experienced Engineers do, and why they do it, is an important part of learning the skills needed to become a professional.
Most studios prefer to hire Interns from a college or university program, as they want assurance that an Intern comes with a base level of knowledge and skills, as taught in the programs. For example, an Intern would be expected to already know how to create and manage projects using Pro Tools. It has become more common for aspiring Engineers to attend a degree program to fully prepare for such a demanding and competitive career.
Starting out, a student or Intern needs to learn their way around the studio. They need to know how to wrap cables, set up and place microphones, set up the recording console, and put everything away properly at the end of the session.
Engineers must also have extensive knowledge of the principles and techniques of audio recording and signal processing. They need to know how the commonly used recording and music equipment works, how to get the best sound out of it, and be able to troubleshoot effectively when problems arise. They must know which equipment to use, and when to use it.
Recordings Engineers should also have a broad understanding of the different sounds used in all kinds of commercially produced music today and how they are produced and recorded. This is usually achieved through extensive listening to recorded music, analyzing sessions, doing live sound for concerts, and direct experience working in the studio and on sound stages.
The Audio Engineer needs to be a team player and a strong communicator, be able to listen carefully, and be flexible in achieving the artistic vision of sometimes finicky artists and Producers. They need to have excellent people skills and be able to resolve conflict and reduce tension under sometimes difficult working conditions. The best Engineers are very creative people and get satisfaction from working with others to achieve difficult goals.
Education & Training
Recording Engineers typically go to college to earn at least a bachelor’s degree, and some continue their studies in graduate school to earn a master’s. Their formal training can be in music, audio engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, fine arts, film, multimedia, communications, sound design, or broadcasting. There are some excellent sound and audio recording and production programs offered by colleges and universities in the US and Canada.
Some Recording Engineers are self-taught and became professionals through extensive working experience, although this is becoming increasingly rare. There’s a huge body of technical knowledge to assimilate; attending a formal training program allows students to get access to expensive equipment in up-to-date facilities while they learn important principles and techniques.
If studying music, Recording Engineers will need to play an instrument and complete core music studies, such as music theory, ear-training, arranging, ensembles, and instrumental labs. Some programs accept students who do not play an instrument or allow the computer to count as a “digital musical instrument” or DMI.
Every college is different, and some require musicianship skills while others don’t. Instead, they might prefer their students study some area like electrical engineering, computer science, physics, math, or business to support their future career ambitions in audio arts, engineering, and music production. Students come to college programs from a wide variety of academic backgrounds.
At the best programs, the core concentrate for music production and recording engineering majors might include courses in critical listening, production analysis, mix techniques, audio and MIDI systems, audio technology, multitrack techniques, advanced production, acoustics, and music business. Students learn techniques for creating multitrack recordings of ensembles and how to make quality recordings from electronic sources.
They also learn how to overdub, edit, and mix using analog and digital audio, and apply their technical and business knowledge to the development and execution of complex creative projects. They learn critical thinking and also how to adapt to a rapidly changing technical and business environment. They also choose some electives, for example, a course on mastering techniques or room acoustics.
Students in top schools also learn how to market themselves, start a business, and find work in the field. Graduating from a good college or university program and securing an internship is the best way to jump-start your career as a Recording Engineer.
Do you need a degree to become a Recording Engineer?
Well, not everybody goes that path. For me, it was extremely helpful because I had no connections in audio when I started — I barely knew what a career in audio actually was, quite honestly. School was a way that helped me to interact with Teachers, who worked in the industry. It gave me access to equipment I would never have been able to work with. It gave me access to studios, and it gave me the opportunity to intern and assist at Universal Recording.
I would have never had access to that if I had not been in school. It also gave me an opportunity to sub as an A2 on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was an amazing experience.
And quite honestly, audio would have never happened for me unless I was in school because that’s how I found out about it. So, yes. You could do it without going to school, without a degree—it’s possible—but I think going to school opens up your perspective and also gives you networking opportunities, because your fellow students will also go out into the world and work, and they can be a resource.
I have a degree in electronic engineering. The only bit of it I use is when I know that a maintenance department is trying to pull the wool over my eyes. Beyond that, I don’t use it in my day-to-day. I have an understanding of the physics. I have an understanding of the maths. I have an understanding of music theory and all that. However…
The best way to learn how to make a record is to get experience. There are many that are qualified to the hilt and when put on a session are just not cut out for the gig. You’ve got other people who have no qualifications whatsoever but have a great attitude and come through and do really well.”
I’m of the opinion that, yes, an education is important. But what you really need to learn is to think and to look and understand how people feel. Know what you need to do to get the best out of an Assistant in a studio that doesn’t know what he’s doing.
The reality is, if you scream and you shout at an Assistant, they’re not going to stand up for you. They’re not going to give a damn about you once you start screaming and shouting. How do you get the best out of the people who are beneath you in terms of responsibility? How do you get the best out of an artist?
You have a screaming, shouting superstar who’s having a bad day. In my experience, and I’ve seen a few of them over the years, the only reason they do that is because they’re feeling insecure. They’re going, “I have to deliver this. Everyone’s expecting me to come up with another number one hit and I don’t think that what’s coming out is any good.”
They’re not screaming and shouting because they’re bad people, necessarily. They’re screaming and shouting because they came here to do this amazing thing and it’s not amazing. Nine times out of ten what they’re actually saying is: “Help.”
An education, and how to think, how to apply what you’ve learned [are important]. One of the things I love is that every session I do, I come away thinking, “Ah, interesting. I hadn’t thought about that,” or, “That’s a new idea,” or, “That didn’t work how I thought it would work…next time let’s try something different.”
It’s an eternally evolving process because primarily, it’s a job about people. How do you get people to do what you want them to do? How do you express a nefarious and unintelligible idea to a bunch of strangers who have to do something slightly different with their instruments and arrive at what you want to hear? Sometimes the challenge is, how do I get from my Director saying, “I’m not scared by it,” to an orchestra doing something that sounds scary?
Yes, you need to learn how the equipment works. And I’m a gearhead. There’s no piece of gear that comes into my life that I don’t sit in bed and read the manuals for. (Partly because it’s a great way to put yourself to sleep.)
But also because I then know what the thing can do. And I don’t remember how to do it. I never remember the details, but I’ll turn to my Assistant and I’ll say, “I know this piece of kit can do that. Can you find the key command for it? Can you look up what setting we need to use?” to get it to do what I know it can.
I would say the more you know, the more you can craft what you do. In terms of saying, “You’ve got to have a degree in music,” or, “You’ve got to have a degree in music technology,” I don’t think those are essential ingredients per se.
It’s not like being a Doctor where you need to know what all the bits of the body are called, and you do need to know what they do, and you do need to know what medicines have what effects and what dosages you should prescribe. Those are reasonably clear-cut. Without them, you can’t do that job.
Much of what you do in a recording environment is not that kind of binary, “You need to know this.” There are no absolute golden rules. “Oh, you’ve got to put a microphone here on a snare drum,” or, “You’ve got to put a microphone here on an orchestra.” Everything is up for grabs. Everything is open to negotiation.
And more excitingly, you do something and it’s like, “Oh! That doesn’t sound like how I thought it would…let’s do more of that!” I have various little things that I do when I record an orchestra, which fell out of pop recordings. I thought, “That sounded great on a drum kit, let’s try that on an orchestra.” So an education in the broadest sense is essential…a schooling in how to think…but academic study, I’d say, is not essential.
You can read about it in a book but that [knowledge] and what it takes to really do it and what’s required are two different things. Getting a certificate or a degree from a school indicates that you are able to complete tasks, have social skills, and can complete challenges.
[She recommends attending a trade school like the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood or the Berklee College of Music in Boston.]
Bent recommends joining the Audio Engineering Society–especially as a student–because of the networking and learning opportunities (not to mention the lower membership rates). “Go to meetings, go to sessions, ask if you can help,” she suggests.
Also: The Acoustical Society of America (ASA) is a membership organization that offers conferences, meetings, and a publication. ASA also creates national standards, for example for the measurement of sound pressure levels in air.
What else do you want up-and-coming Recording Engineers to know?
The piece of advice I give to all of our youngsters coming in the door is when you’re trying to get ahead in the music industry, you don’t need to scream and shout about how amazing you are and what you’re doing. If you shine, if you do a great job, I promise you the people who need to see it will see it, will clock it, and will give you work.
If you’re not shining, if you’re sat there on your phone, if you’re sat there on your laptop, if you’re sat there wearing headphones and doing beats during a session, you get no points for being part of that team.
You won’t pick up the nuances of how to run a recording session. You won’t pick up the nuances of how to read a room. You won’t pick up the details of what it takes to create an environment where everyone feels positive and is willing to fall down in the name of the project.
I think it applies across the board. I don’t think it’s just relevant to the music industry. If you shine, people that need to see it will see it. And you just have to have a dedication to that excellence. A dedication to being the best person in the studio.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
Learn your craft. Learn what it is you want to do so you’ll know how to get those effects. Do not text, look at your cell phone, or take notes with your cell phone.
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Trying to tell somebody how things should be done. Studio protocols and etiquette are important. Do not have an opinion when you first start. Do not go ‘I know what’s the latest and greatest and you’re just an old fart.’ Don’t be that person.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Passion. I’m absolutely passionate about what I do and I’ve been loving it all these years.”
Born in Los Angeles, Lenise Bent started her career at the early age of 8 in the Screen Children’s Guild, doing extra work in the TV and film industry. She already had her first tape recorder by then, which she had begged for and received on her 8th birthday.
Coming from a musical family, singing and performing were a part of everyday life, with Lenise studying piano and flute and making her first recording with the Compton Youth Symphony Orchestra at 9 years old. Throughout high school she split her time between seeing films and live music every chance she got and eventually went on to study film & TV and radio production at USC & Cal State Long Beach.
As her passion for music began to dominate her life Lenise shifted her studies to audio engineering at SoundMasters Recording Institute, one of the only recording schools in existence at that time. Soon after graduation, she started her recording career as an Assistant Engineer at The Village Recorders in Los Angeles, working on several albums including Aja by Steely Dan, Breakfast in America by Supertramp and Tusk by Fleetwood Mac.
Later she became Chief Engineer for Producer Mike Chapman recording the platinum-selling record AutoAmerican for Blondie plus several of Chapman’s other artists such as The Knack and Suzi Quatro, recording at a variety of studios which include The Record Plant, Air London, and United Western, which later became Ocean Way, then Cello, and now EastWest Studios. She was the first woman to receive an RIAA Platinum album, for her work on AutoAmerican.
Lenise has taught sessions at Born in Los Angeles, the Audio Engineering Society’s Virtual Vienna Convention, NAMM and at the Los Angeles chapter of the Audio Engineering Society, of which she is also a member.
She is repped by Super Secret Agents. She has been profiled by and mentioned in Sound Girls, Women in Vinyl, RecordProduction.com, Parentology, Sound and Video Contractor, Smoke Free Music Cities, The WIMN, Vulture, U Discover Music, Left Bank Magazine, TV Technology, Live Design Online, Studio Expresso, the Vintage King Audio blog, and the book Women in Audio.
You can also hear her on episodes of the Art of Rock with Kosh & Friends, Somewhere Studios, Music History Project, Working Class Audio, Strong Writer on the Radio, and Produce Like a Pro podcasts. For video, check her out on Making Music Herstory,
Geoff has established himself as one of the leading Recording Engineers in the film scoring world. Starting with Stargate in 1994, he has worked on scores for numerous major movies and albums for bestselling artists. These include scores nominated for Oscars, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and a Golden Reel.
He has won Grammys for Joni Mitchell’s concept album Both Sides Now and the scores for films Ray and Dark Knight. In 2012 he was named Recording Engineer of the Year at the Music Producers Guild Awards.
His major film score credits include Judy, Dunkirk, Mission: Impossible-Fallout, Interstellar, Gone Girl, The Great Gatsby, Moon, The Dark Knight Rises, Sweeney Todd, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion King, The Ring, The Others, Moulin Rouge, Casino Royale, The Last King of Scotland, Inception, Sherlock Holmes, The Pirates of the Caribbean films and The Da Vinci Code.
Mary Mazurek is a GRAMMY-nominated Recording Engineer. Her nomination was awarded by the Recording Academy for the 61st Annual Grammy Awards in the category of Best Engineered Album, Classical. She is also a Broadcaster and Radio Producer. Her work is regularly featured on WFMT Radio and WFMT.com.
Additionally, she a sought-after Educator and Speaker who enjoys contributing in the classroom and on panels and committees within her industry and beyond. She serves as a role model and advocates for women in the recording industry, which presently is less than 5% female. She loves sharing her sonic insights across disciplines.
- 1. "Recording Engineer Salaries in United States". Glassdoor.com. published: Dec 22, 2019. retrieved on: June 18, 2020
- 2US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Broadcast and Sound Engineering Technicians". Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections. published: 10 April 2020. retrieved on: 25 June 2020