How To Become a Recording Engineer
What Exactly Does a Recording Engineer Do?
Recording Engineers shape the sound of an album. They record, edit, and mix sound through their choice of microphones, setting levels and sound manipulation techniques. They are well-versed in all kinds of recording technology, from analog tape to digital multitrack recording programs like Ableton or ProTools. In many studios, the Recording Engineer is also the Producer, overseeing both artistic and technical elements of the recording session. Los Angeles-based Recording Engineer Lenise Bent says that “making art is just as much a part of recording as making a living.”
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 studio, or running their own personal recording studio.
Education & Training
Although recording software enables almost anyone to record at home now, training is essential. “You can read about it in a book,” Bent says, but that purely intellectual knowledge and “what it takes to really do it and what’s required are two different things.” Plus “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.
What skills do you need to be a Recording Engineer?
Time management skills are important. Bent says, “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.” She adds, “The Producer and the musicians will be speaking in emotional terms,” and a successful Engineer will “have to be able to interpret technically what they’re expressing to get an emotional response.”
Obviously, technical knowledge and skills are essential. “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.”
“I like to create with others,” says Bent, and this is what makes a solid Recording Engineer. “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 at the same time, “You don’t want a real chatty Engineer. You gotta get work done.”
A Recording Engineer should be relaxed, intuitive, and have strong initiative, always working one step ahead of the artist’s needs. “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.” Attention to detail is essential. “You want to be an asset to the session and not a liability.”
“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,” Bent says, adding that it’s a bit different now that so many Engineers work out of home studios. “I’ll be in the studio tonight from eight to God knows when,” she says. “Music industry people work 24/7.”
To get that first engineering job, it’s all about attention to detail. Bent says, “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. This is a competitive field. “Don’t give them that reason for doing that.”
Bent says that when she first got started, she “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 to the available” position. Work your way up from the bottom. “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” for the day, without any real time in the studio. “A studio needs to know if they can trust you and if you’re a good fit,” she says, and once they do get to know you, “you may be moved into a position as a paid Assistant or a paid Runner a little sooner.”
How Much Does a Recording Engineer make?
Engineers can be salaried or work on a project-to-project basis, depending on if they’re employed by a bigger studio or work out of their home studio.
Unions, Groups & Associations
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.”
- The next time you see an Engineer on the job, 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” so “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.
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.”
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.” Also, focus on communication skills and pay attention. “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.”
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, 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 and has been profiled by Sound Girls, Women in Vinyl, and the Vintage King Audio blog. You can also hear her on episodes of the Working Class Audio and Produce Like a Pro podcasts.