Getting started in audio engineering is a process that isn’t always linear, but always moves forward. In my years I’ve encountered so many different scenarios where different aspects of my knowledge and experience in engineering and related fields have really paid dividends. It all adds up, and if you want to get started here’s some things that will give you an edge over your peers.
SHOW UP ON TIME AND BE AS PREPARED AS YOU CAN BE
It goes without saying but those who are professional, courteous, and show up on time get the better gigs. Your talents play a role, but you can get very far and learn as you go by being above and beyond present. I’ve had a few recording gigs where I found myself slighty in over my head, and I’ve always made it through those “trial by fire” experiences by being alert, patient, and willing to do the best job I could.
PLAY AN INSTRUMENT OR TWO
I got my first 4 track portastudio cassette recorder when I was 16. By then I was playing drums, guitar, and bass. I was also a vocalist in training. I taught myself microphone placement and experimented countless hours recording my own songs on what became hundreds of tapes on that little machine. That has taught me to understand the needs of vocalists, the needs of drummers, the needs of guitarists, etc. They all have a certain way they perceive their instrument, and being able to talk their language and help them achieve the sounds they’re looking for is probably more important than knowing how to operate a recording console. Why? Garbage in = Garbage Out. Start at the source. A great guitar amp sound is only going to make everything after easier to achieve. Start at the source always.
LEARN THE SKILLS OF A REPAIR TECH
This might be the biggest asset I’ve had in my corner. A basic knowledge of electronics, troubleshooting, and electronics repair will get you farther in this business than someone who doesn’t have those skills. Learn how to solder. Learn basic operation of tape machines (yes they’re still in use in most major studios). Calibrating a Studio A80 is a must-know at all major recording studios. I still use tape machines at my recording studio. Cleaning the tape path and calibrating for various types of tape is a daily procedure. Some studios hire technicians whose sole job is to get the tape machines ready for the next client’s recording session. Learning how to fix dead channels on a console in the midst of a session or being creative enough to problem solve issues as they arise is key. If you can keep a session going, not wasting the studio or artist’s time and money, you’ll be your boss’ favorite employee and job security will be that much more attainable. Believe it or not, your biggest job in any major studio, as the engineer, will be to keep things rolling, which in turn keeps the client happy with how they’re spending the time they are paying for.
MAKING THE CLIENT HAPPY IS YOUR ONLY GOAL
The entire goal is to make the client happy. So put yourself in the client’s shoes. Find out what they want and figure out how to achieve that. That’s the only rule. Everything else is subject to taste. A major label works with engineers and producers that have a specific “sound” they are known for. Many artists seek these types of producers and engineers because they have a track record of making great sounding albums or having multiple gold records on their walls. If you want to record hip-hop or dance music that’s radio and major label friendly, then there’s very little creativity you’ll want to throw into the process at times. You’ll want to follow a stricter set of guidelines in a case like this, as opposed to recording a 3 piece punk rock band that just wants the final mix to be “really loud”.
I will often start sessions by asking clients what records they want theirs to sound like. This will give me an idea of what types of amplifiers, guitars, drums, Eqs, and compressors we will want to try during the session. Mimicing things that have already worked in the past is a smart way to learn for those just starting out, but I still learn new things in every session I do by utilizing this method.
KNOW THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Pro Tools is the de facto standard digital audio workstation used in all major recording studios, but knowledge of other software is just as important in my opinion. If you get hired for a gig, you’ll want to know what the most common features of all DAWs are, so no matter what studio you walk into, you’ll know the basics of everything and the learning curve will be minimal. All DAWs use similar interfaces, so there’s not much difference between them. However, you need to know pro tools well. A well rounded understanding of pro tools will be a basic key to any resume you present to a studio or artist seeking to hire you. Learn DAWs. Learn old analog recording consoles. Learn as many different types of Eqs, compressors, reverbs, delays, and microphones as you can. Learn what makes each unique and learn which each one does that sonically provides it’s own signature – what makes it special. You don’t see many of these today but, for my money, the greatest console ever made was the Helios Type 69. Georgio Moroder has the Helios console at his studio, and he just received a Grammy award for his work with Daft Punk. It takes some time, but listen to records made with a Helios, then listen to records made with a Neve. Listen to records made with an API, and then records made with an SSL. There is a difference between them all, and again, the sonic signature of each piece of gear you use will be a tremendous asset as time goes on. Knowing what a piece of gear can do just by looking at it will be a tremendous advantage, but that takes time and even highly paid engineers don’t know what every piece of gear can do. When you feel you know enough to get going, have the confidence to jump in! You don’t need to know everything, but knowing as much as you can helps!
LIVE VS STUDIO ENGINEERING
I’ve been both a live and studio engineer for many years. Both are similar in many ways. Helping the band/artist to achieve their desired sounds, microphone placement, and balancing a mix are the most obvious similarities. However, live situations are far more forgiving as far as audio engineering mistakes are concerned, so I often suggest to start with live sound engineering if working in a studio environment seems too stressful. This might be the easiest gig to get without a lot of experience on your resume as well.
Find a local club that has live music and talk to the head of production or house sound engineer and offer to sit in with them for free and ghost them for a couple gigs. Many will be often open to the idea of training you for free and showing you how everything works – even letting you run the board for a few songs. Working in a live sound environment will also expose you to different styles of music – sometimes all within the same night. To be a well rounded audio engineer, I’ve found my experience as a live sound engineer to be invaluable.
And It’s where I got my start. And now I own my own studio in Manhattan.
by Nick Vivid / CEO MegaPlatinum Records