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How to survive as a working audio engineer

How to survive as a working audio engineer

Disclosure: Audio Hertz is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.


It’s almost impossible to find steady work at the start of your career. Most audio engineers are grinders, we start small– going from one gig to the next (more significant) gig until we eventually have enough work to support ourselves solely on audio and music. The truth is that it takes a long time to get there and there’s always the risk that it may never happen.

Long gone are full time studio jobs with benefits at a major studio. You’re not going to fall into a major recording session with a major artist. Geoff Emerick’s story of starting work at Abbey Road at 15 and by 19 was recording the biggest band in the world’s no longer a reality. (I highly recommend reading his autobiography Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles)

Here are a few pieces of advice that may help you get by as a working audio professional

Get a flexible second job

This one might annoy some readers because it’s obvious and usually the last thing most people want to do. I’m sorry, but it’s true. There’s no shame in getting a second job that’s flexible while you try and make music a full time thing. I discuss in great detail in my post “Is your career where you thought it would be? Neither is mine.” my initial struggle with taking a day job. Making enough money to live comfortably is hard, and you don’t need to make it harder on yourself by stroking your ego. If you find a job that allows you to do what you love while also paying your bills, you’ll be able to live comfortably and also pursue your passion without burning out and living on peanut butter and jelly. I would love to put 100% of my time into music, but I’m not sure if that would even be the best move for me. I think if I had no other job or responsibility other than being successful in music, I’d have a hard time motivating myself. Since I have other responsibilities and other sources of income, time for me is so valuable that I have a hard time wasting any of it. Coffee shop barista, uber driver, server, bartender are all jobs with flexible hours that you can get just about anywhere in the world.

Give music, instrument or production lessons

One of the more difficult solutions but given some time and effort has the possibility of being very lucrative. Giving lessons in anything is a business in itself, and you’ll need to find clients for lessons just as you need to find clients to record and produce. Finding people is a lot harder than making a website and saying you’re a teacher. Like with recording, word of mouth is always the best way to find students. Do you have any friends or family that are looking to learn guitar? Offer lessons at a discounted rate to start. Put up advertisements, flyers, and post on social media. Getting started giving lessons is difficult and a long process that takes commitment and persistence but if you’re able to stick it out you are on your way to a steady stream of income that many find to be rewarding and still allows you to stay within music.

Write, talk or make videos about audio

If you had told me even a year ago that I would have an audio blog, I would have said to you that you’re crazy. Writing essays and research papers for fun? Get out of here. Well, since posting “Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering” to Reddit and receiving a great response, I’ve found immense joy and fulfillment in learning and writing about the many different facets of audio. I only write about what interests me and things I think would be helpful to other engineers. This gives me the opportunity to learn more about things that I like which helps not only me but also other people.

It also turns out I am pretty decent at writing, and other people (surprisingly) enjoy reading what I have to say. Now I’m not making any money on this website now, but there’s always a possibility of that happening in the future. This is the life of a musician, spreading yourself out, throwing a lot of darts at the wall and hoping one sticks. That’s what this whole list is about. These are just a few darts, but the more you throw, the greater chance you have at hitting the bullseye.

Develop a product or start a business in the industry that’s separate from recording

You’re probably thinking, duh! Start a business, why didn’t I think of that’ Before you attack me for stating the obvious hear me out. A lot of the other ideas I’ve stated in this article involve starting a business in one form or another. Giving lessons is a business, starting a website is a business, making videos and starting a YouTube channel could be a business. You don’t have to be the next Elon Musk or the audio equivalent, Steven Slate. Think of other ways to make an income that may not be right in front of you. I’m constantly trying to think of new ideas, video series,  applications, software, etc. Most of them are terrible, but I think the more you brainstorm these types of ideas the more opportunities you give yourself to have a good one and see it through to completion. Everyone has ideas, but it’s the execution that everyone falls short on. I’ll go back to this website, most blogs don’t last more than three months, but If I make realistic goals for myself and keep showing up and writing articles, there’s a possibility it may turn into something much bigger.

Related articles:
Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
[Even more] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
EMT 250 and the birth of digital audio
The “your mixes sound bad in the car” phenomenon

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Should you go to audio engineering school?

Audio Engineering School

So you like making music…maybe you make EDM in your bedroom, or you’re in a band, or you want to be the next big rapper. Whatever it is, you might be considering going to music or audio engineer school or trying to make music into a career. If this is you, perfect, you’re in the right place. I only wish someone had written this article before I went to school. I’m not saying my decision would have been different, it may have, but it definitely would have been more informed than it was. The only thing I’ll stress through this entire article is to make sure you make an informed decision, there’s no right or wrong there’s only the best way for you.

So, is going to school worth it or should you skip it? I can’t answer this question for you, but I can give you a realistic view of both paths and maybe help decide which one will be better for you.

I will start by saying that you can be successful whether you go to school or not. I’ve seen top engineers that have never read a book or had any formal training, and I’ve seen very knowledgeable and technical engineers work their way up from student to respected engineer and even to studio owner. There’s no clear path to success in this field. It’s a rocky, bumpy road that the majority of the time will lead to nowhere. That’s the hard truth. The majority of the people that set out to be audio engineers will never become audio engineers. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

I think the first thing you need to ask yourself is, what are you trying to get out of school? You can’t decide if school is right for you until you figure out what are you expecting to get out of it. Unrealistic expectations are the reason that audio engineering school can leave a lot of students with a sour taste in their mouth. Not because of what the school offers, but because their expectations were unrealistic. If your expectations are to go to audio school, intern at a studio, and receive an offer for a full time job, you should just forget about recording music professionally. This sentiment resonates with me because I was a naive 18 year-old with big dreams. I didn’t exactly think I’d immediately go from student to professional engineer, but I also didn’t know that the chances of that happening were astronomical, when they probably were. I thought there would be more opportunity to gain full time employment then there was. Granted, I went to school during the worst time to get into audio engineering. It’s hard not to put blame anywhere else but on myself because of my unrealistic expectations. If only I had done my research and gone into school and with more reasonable expectations I might have not only enjoyed my time there more but would’ve gotten more out of it.

If you think going to school is going to bring you closer to employment, then you’re sadly mistaken. In the music industry it’s rare anyone gets a job because of their degree. Experience and reputation trumps all. Sure, a degree might look nice on a resume but it’s not going to be the reason you get a job or make more money. So then what is audio school good for?

Obviously staged stock photo of an audio school.

Going to audio school puts you in an environment with other audio engineers, producers, musicians and a type of atmosphere you won’t experience anywhere else. Attending school puts you in a position to make friends with people who are also trying to do what you want to do and this can turn into something bigger. This is something that nothing else can replace and without a doubt the most significant negative of skipping school. I’ve mentioned networking as things they don’t teach you in audio school, but it’s really because networking skills are difficult if not impossible to teach in a traditional sense. You can work on your social skills, but some of us are innately better than others. Teachers can tell you to network and that networking is important but establishing relationships with people and making friends is different. If you’re well liked you’re just more likely to be successful, people want to help you if they like you. I think my words were misconstrued last time in thinking that I’m saying you should use people, you shouldn’t. I’m saying make friends and work with your peers–  you never know what these relationships develop into. Like it or not, careers are made on who you know, and there is no better environment to meet people than in school.

With that said, I think the majority of my real knowledge was gained outside of the classroom. Nothing can replace experience and learning from real masters of the craft who already have their 10,000 hours. Schools are big and only have so many studios for you to use. We were only offered so many practical hours and even if we did have assigned studio time for a project, it’s hard to progress when you’re working with a group of your peers and not with someone more experienced.

There used to be a system in place in the industry where young engineers had to work their way up, working under better engineers until they were ready. With the death of the major studios came the death of a true assisting and working your way up the ladder, learning little by little under masters of the craft. You can only learn so much from a book or a video. The classroom isn’t the place to learn how to become a great recording engineer. You can learn technical information in a classroom, but practicality comes from actually working, recording, making albums, doing voice overs, foley work whatever is your cup of tea.

Many audio and art schools are for profit and have significant marketing campaigns. My issue isn’t with the school’s teaching audio but with the targeted advertising. It seems a bit predatory to target young, mostly naive, creatives trying to make what they love their livelihood. The advertisements are on popular radio stations or in magazines where they show pictures of students in big studios with expensive microphones. Sure they look cool, but is it meant to make me believe that it’s a good investment and a good education? A part of me feels that schools should be morally and ethically responsible for making sure that there are enough jobs for the students they are sending out into the field.

Now I’m sure a lot of you are saying, well how is that possible? Is it a dying industry? When I say dying industry I mean the structure there is no longer cushy gigs with full time benefits at a studio recording music. There are jobs. It’s just not going to be as stable and easy as landing a single job. You’ll have to find work in multiple different places, doing various different things. The only way an audio engineer, or musician or any creative can survive is by doing a lot of different things. You have to spread yourself out in as many ways as possible. Teach lessons, work corporate gigs, weddings, broadcast, start a business, write for a website, etc there are a lot of different ways to make money from audio.

So…

Should you go to audio engineering school?

I still can’t answer that for you. The good news is, if you made it this far I think you’ll have a much better perspective on what to expect and in return be able to make a better decision. I will end with saying that whether going to school is the right decision for you, I don’t believe it’s ever a sound investment. In this field a degree does not make you more money as it does in other industries where you could justify the cost of tuition.

If you’re interested in reading more about my personal views on being an audio engineer, check out the first part of my Confessions of an Audio Engineer series “Is your career where you thought it would be? Neither is mine.

Related articles:
5 things they don’t teach you in audio school
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What are the different types of compressors?

Racks of audio gear

Disclosure: Audio Hertz is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.


FET, Opto, VCA, Vari-MU…..you’ve probably heard these names to describe types of compressors, you sort of know which type is right for what, but what do they really mean? Each name represents a different type of circuit design that the compressor uses to react to the signal you put through it.

Before I list each of the types and what they do, know that compressors all serve the same function. You can use them as a leveling device or just for tone or saturation. However, you choose to use a compressor, know that each style is like a different flavor. It takes time and ear training and a lot of A/B comparisons to distinguish between each.

Here are the 6 most common types of compressors used in music production

Universal Audio 1176 -- Different types of compressors

FET

Field-effect Transistors, or FETs,  use an electric field to control the gain of the unit. The most popular example is the iconic 1176. FET style compression has a super-fast attack and release capabilities, which really allows you to shape the transients. This makes them a favorite on drums for many engineers.

The drawback to their fast speed is there isn’t much range. A fellow engineer once described the release settings to me as being either “fast or faster.” The fastest release setting on an 1176 is 50ms, and its slowest release is 1100ms. The fastest attack time is a blazing fast 20 microseconds, and the slowest is a not-as-blazing-but-still-pretty-damn-fast 800 microseconds. Regardless of the lack of flexibility, it still sounds great on just about anything you put through it. Guitar, bass, vocals, drums, keys have all found their way through an 1176 with great results.

The 1176 is synonymous with FET compression, but some lesser-known FET compressors include the Daking FET III, Chandler Little Devil, and the popular 1176 Clone by Warm Audio, which I’ve heard great things about.

Universal Audio LA-2A

Opto

These compressors use a photocell as a detector and a light bulb or LED to determine the gain reduction. The light will glow depending on the strength of signal passing through it and reduce the gain accordingly. These compressors are much less sensitive to transients and peaks due to the lag experienced by the photocell. Contrary to what it might seem because of how fast the speed of light is, opto compressors are considered to be slow and smooth.

Most opto compressors don’t have total control over the attack and release settings, like the LA-2A which is arguably the most well known and highly regarded compressor of all time. The attack time is frequency dependent which is very likely the main reason these units have such character.

Popular optical compressors include the Universal Audio LA-2A and 3A, Avalon AD2044 and Warm Audio WA-2A.

SSL Bus Compressor

VCA

If you could choose one compressor to use for the rest of your life, your best bet would be a VCA style compressor. Known for their fully controllable circuits allowing you to really fine-tune each setting. VCA compressors are valuable in every aspect of production, whether it be tracking, mixing, or mastering. They can be entirely transparent while still adding the glue a mix or drum bus needs. Drums sound great through these compressors because they are very good at transparently taming sharp peaks.

VCA stands for voltage-controlled amplifier, but one VCA doesn’t necessarily sound like the next. Since parts can be sourced a lot more cheaply than the other compressors on this list, most low quality/prosumer units use a VCA circuit.

Legendary VCA mix bus compressors include the iconic SSL G Series and the Empirical Labs Distressor.

Variable-Mu

In a Variable “Vari”-Mu design, the gain is being controlled by a vacuum tube. The first types of compressors were Vari-Mu and were designed for use in broadcast. The need came from trying to level out inconsistent speech on the radio. Usually, going from a whisper to yelling would require an engineer to ride the fader live, and human reflexes are only so fast. It wasn’t until later that the studio adopted the use of compressors.

The unique quality of Vari-Mu compressors is the ratio of the gain reduction is increased as you hit the unit harder; this is musically pleasing when you lay into it more aggressively. Vintage Variable-MU compressors are also great for saturation as the tubes and large iron transformers all have unique qualities. Popular vintage Vari-Mu compressors include RCA BA-6A, Altec 436, UA-175. The most popular modern Vari-Mu is the Manley of the same name, which is used very prominently in mastering studios across the world.

Neve 2254

Diode Bridge

Diode bridges have been used in radio for automatic level control for a long time. Diode bridge audio compressors offer fully configurable parameters. Some compressors designed in the ’60s used this basic design, but you don’t see many used in modern compressors. Units that aren’t designed well can be noisy due to the diodes’ low signal level.

Diode bridge circuits allow for the compression curves and the attack and release to be designed independently of the compression element. These compressors are tonally distinctive because of the diode’s harmonic distortion. These designs are flexible and can add a pleasant, colorful character.

Famous examples include the Neve 2264, Neve 33609 and newer examples include the Rupert Neve Shelford Channel Strip compressor.

Fun fact: The 33609 we have at Sabella Studios was incredibly taken from HBO studios when they decided to throw them all out and go digital.

Great River PWM 501, one of the few modern units that use a PWM design.

PWM, or Pulse Width Modulation

I admittedly didn’t even know what a PWM compressor was before writing this article. Gregory Scott, a compression guru from Kush Audio, recommended I add a section on Pulse Width Modulator circuits. After a bit of research, I found out why I had never heard of a PWM or used one… because not that many exist. According to Scott, “there are only a few because you truly have to be a rocket scientist to design one, aka Dave Hill or whatever geek at Pye did theirs.”

A Google search turned up an essay written by Dave Hill of Crane Song. In the essay, Dave explains that all compressor circuits have good and bad characteristics. He goes on to say, “in designing a compressor with as few artifacts as possible, the gain control choices are limited. PWM has been used in vintage compressors and also modern devices. If one takes that idea and uses the latest technology, it is possible to build a compressor with very little negative sonic artifacts.”

VCA’s let a percentage of energy through depending on the control voltage. The problem is that when the control voltage changes, you start to hear bad sounding artifacts. If there were a switch to control the energy on the output, you’d be able to give a more accurate average control voltage, which would lead to a more sonically pleasing unit. The PWM circuit turns the control voltage into a high-speed variable-width switch that controls the energy that is outputted.

Bonus:

What is the difference between hard and soft knee?

Soft knee compression gradually attenuates the signal after it has passed the threshold, while hard knee compression attenuates the signal immediately after it has crossed the threshold. Soft Knee compression is thought to be more musical because it’s not as abrupt and abrasive; hence the name soft.

Related articles:
EMT 250 and the birth of digital audio
The “your mixes sound bad in the car” phenomenon
[Even more] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering