“Music Is Organized Sound”: The Job of an Audio Engineer
Merriam-Webster defines an engineer as, “a person who carries through an enterprise by skillful or artful contrivance.” In the case of an audio engineer, art and skill are certainly involved in equal measure. What exactly is the job of an audio engineer and how does it shape the final product?
What Does an Audio Engineer Do?
In a nutshell, an audio engineer controls the technical aspects of sound, whether in a recording studio or during a live event. While this involves nuts-and-bolts activities such as working with equipment, an audio engineer is also responsible for achieving the sound an artist is looking for.
An audio engineer has a more narrow range of duties than a music producer, but the position frequently serves as a launching pad into a career in production. Here’s a breakdown of the major tasks that make up the job of an audio engineer:
- Recording, Mixing, Editing, and Mastering Sounds
The primary purpose of an audio engineer is to capture vocal, instrumental, and ambient sounds on physical or digital media and manipulate these sounds to come up with a finished recording. This includes everything from regulating volume levels and adjusting balance to overlaying tracks and matching sound to video.
- Handling Mic Selection and Placement
For a lay person, this may seem like a no-brainer. In fact, microphones can make or break a sound recording or performance. First, there are three primary types of mics (condenser, dynamic, and ribbon) that have different applications and an audio engineer needs to know when to use which one. Second, mic placement makes a huge difference. Moving a mic one inch in any direction can have a significant effect. While there are general rules of thumb, an audio engineer uses instinct and experience to determine optimum mic placement.
- Equipment Setups and Checks
In a studio setting, much of the audio equipment is already set up, but an audio engineer will usually arrive well ahead of recording time to test mics, check cables, and ensure everything is in working order. The job takes on a larger scope at a live event, where the audio engineer takes charge of making sure all equipment is set up properly. Many bands have a dedicated sound engineer who travels on tour with them. This person has a familiarity with the band’s set, enabling them to smoothly apply special effects and other tricks at the appropriate times. In a pinch, an audio engineer may also be called upon to repair malfunctioning equipment.
- Collaborating with Artists and Producers
The artist has a vision, and the producer is responsible for bringing it to fruition. It’s up to the audio engineer to work closely with both so everyone is on the same page regarding the project at hand. When it comes to achieving certain sounds, artists and producers will often rely on the audio engineer’s expertise about the best techniques to use, so an engineer should be prepared to offer advice and suggestions as needed.
During the recording of the iconic charity anthem, “We Are the World,” producer Quincy Jones and the audio engineer were baffled by a recurring noise heard in playbacks. They finally discovered that the sound was coming from Cyndi Lauper’s clanging bracelets. It’s an amusing story now, but audio engineers may find themselves faced with similar problems that they are expected to solve.
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