Some Thoughts on Audio Engineering as a Career
For those of you who are looking to get your foot in the door towards a career in audio engineering, you will find that getting your foot in the door will become a way of life for you if you're to have any chance of success working as an independent in the recording industry. You need to get into the mindset that YOU are the one who makes things happen. You have to become an entrepreneur. To not diversify is death. If you only expect to engineer, you're already behind the curve. If you own some good gear, that helps. If you can play an instrument or two, that's even better. If you're out there in the clubs and know artists and bands and can get them in to record, that's another big plus. If you can produce, that's another feather in the possibility hat.
If you went to one of these "audio schools" to get a "degree," and have to repay thousands of dollars of "financial aid" yourself, you're most likely dead meat already. Having hired and trained interns for years at New York City studios, I never met one person who went to one of these audio "colleges" who had learned more or could do more than someone with no "audio degree" who had drive and desire, some music background and who buried themselves interning in a good commercial studio for a couple of months. And "interning" at a commercial studio is not about sitting around and reading magazines. Be proactive everyday. Treat the studio like it's your own business because it is your business! Look for anything to do: straighten cords, make duplications, take notes for the engineer, check every connection in the studio individually and make sure they're optimum, straighten the mic cabinet, dust the furniture, take out the trash, straighten up file cabinets and clean out dirty or cluttered areas. Make constructive use of downtime in the studio, because that is really the "deal" you're making by interning for free. You're not really working for free. You're working in exchange for access to what is often very expensive studio time. You get to use the studio! Start a simple project anything! Get a friend who plays guitar and sings to come in and cut some tracks. Finish something so you can play a CD that's an example of your work. Once you can do that, you'll be the one who just might get hired to do some of the simpler sessions.
Little things like being able to print neatly and legibly are a big deal, as is a sense of organization. Studios are service-based businesses, and prospective clients will always determine the level and quality of service based on what they can actually see. A clean and organized studio is an indication of a professional and successful business.
Be prepared to record some crap bands, because face it, you're going to be a crap engineer for a period of time until you hone your chops and can start attracting better clients. And never underestimate the power of a crappy band to be just the people who save your ass during a slow month.
The best possible scenario is to invest in some gear and start offering your services for free if need be in the beginning. At the same time, talk your way into a good studio and work there for free or for what little they may offer you and soak up as much as you can. Take an active interest in the business side and marketing, looking for clients, cold-calling bars and clubs who have contacts to bands, and any company who might possibly use any service the studio offers. You will find that if everything works out that you will be in the position to offer different sets of services to clients with different budgets.
And don't expect the studio to hand you work. Part of earning your keep there is going out and finding session work. If you've got a small system and you run into some $20/hr-type clients, then you take them to your place. If you run into some bigger dollar clients, then you take them to the big studio. Everybody wins. Make a deal up front with the studio owner that you get a 10% sales commission in addition to your engineering fee for everything you bring in to the studio.
Engineering is up there with modeling as far as any guarantees for a real career. And you better be prepared for some lean times, because they will come. And you better be prepared for the very real possibility of having your significant other get so sick of waiting for you and having dates fall through because you were "tied up at the studio" that they finally get fed up and leave your ass.
If you're young and you have the opportunity to go to a real four-year college do it! Chances are good you will often be broke, or close to it, as an engineer. No sense in being broke and dumb.
As a freelancer, you will never have any guarantees when you're getting paid work. And that's why it's important to always have your own projects you can be working on during your own time. You may work five paid days in a row, and then have nothing until something comes along two weeks later. You will be at the mercy of the client: If they schedule until 12 a.m. and they want to go until 6 a.m. you do it. You will be a sound slut for hire at an average rate of $20/hr. And that's when you're actually engineering, not just assisting or interning. And don't go off after you read this to do your career math by multiplying $20 X 40 thinking that you could live on $800 per week, because much of the time you'll never make anything close to that. You'll have times you'll be lucky to make $800 in an entire month.
Be prepared to live long stretches with no health insurance. Life as an engineer is life lived without a net.
The only reason to engineer is because when you step inside a nice studio full of gear it hits you where you live so deeply that you become single-minded and want to do nothing else. Anything less than that take another road.
Dan Richards is a Contributing Editor for Digital Pro Sound and is currently producing The Listening Sessions