Sound engineers are responsible for the ensuring that the sound during live performances is of the highest quality possible. During larger events they are usually assisted by audio technicians.
What is the job like?
Sound engineers usually specialise in operating either the on-stage sound for the performers to hear themselves or in managing the sound the audience hears, known as front of house.
Before the event takes place you might:
- Work with the director, sound designer and producer to plan the sound for an event, to include music and sometimes sound effects
- Assisting with the preparation of the ‘Sound Plot’ or script. This is a detailed plan that ensures that everything happens at the right time during a performance
- Collate additional recorded segments to be played back during the
- Ensure all the equipment is in good working order
- Attend rehearsals with the artists to plan the set-up and changes needed for the performance, and prepare cue-sheets.
On the day your work you would:
- Oversee the installation and set-up of the sound reinforcement and mixing equipment, including the sound mixers, processors and any playback equipment
- Participate in sound checks with the artists before the performance
- Work as part of a wider team which includes lighting technicians and the director/producer.
During the performance you would:
- Work from the mixing desk to control and balance sound levels, adding processing as needed to microphone and instrument feeds, such as equalisation, echo and other effects
- Implement the changes to the mix as detailed in the Sound Plot throughout the show
- Work around any problems or issues that arise during the performance.
Some highly-experienced engineers, known as ‘white glove engineers’, only do the sound check and mixing work, and do not participate in the installation of sound equipment.
Sound engineers travel extensively whilst on tour, both in the UK and sometimes abroad. On performance days your working hours will be irregular, with evening and weekend work the norm.
How do I become a sound engineer?
Sound engineers need a good musical ear and a high level of technical competence. They make extensive use of audio equipment and digital technologies.
You will need to have patience and able to stay calm in the highly pressurised situation of a live performance.
This is a career where previous experience is highly valued. Whilst at school volunteer your services as a technical assistant for musical or theatrical productions. Find out about live events in your own community and get involved, and offer to help mix sound for friends’ bands.
Whilst you don’t need to be able to play an instrument, this would be an advantage, and any experience you can get with music technology, either at home or school, will help you.
Sound engineers with experience and skills in other areas such as lighting may be particularly in demand.
What training and qualifications do I need?
Relevant school subjects include physics/science, maths, IT/computer studies, design and technology, electronics and music/music technology.
Qualifications in acoustics, electronic/electrical engineering, audio engineering and music technology can help. Entry requirements vary, so look at individual colleges and universities for the qualifications they ask for. It is important to choose a course that provides lots of practical hands-on experience and industry placements if possible.
Whilst at college or university attend industry trade shows as these provide a great opportunity for networking and meeting potential future employers. Jobs for sound engineers are rarely advertised – it is all about making contacts and establishing a reputation.
Some relevant qualifications include:
- City and Guilds Awards, Certificates and Diplomas in Sound and Music Technology
See what awards are available in your area. Courses are offered at different levels and with varying entry requirements.
- BTEC Level 2 Diploma in Engineering or Music Technology
Entry with two GCSEs (A-D)
- BTEC Level 3 Diploma in Engineering (Electrical/Electronic) or Music Technology
Entry with four GCSE (A-C) passes
- HND in Music Technology or Engineering
Entry with minimum of A level or BTEC Level 3 or equivalent
Relevant degree courses include Theatre Sound, Live Music Production, Audio and Music Technology Music Technology and Sound Engineering
Entry with minimum of 2 A levels or equivalent. Popular courses may ask for 3 A levels at high grades. Music technology/physics/maths/music A levels may be required, and in some cases graded musical instrument qualifications to a high level.
There are also various private courses on offer – make sure you check these out thoroughly before committing yourself. Some of them make quite dramatic claims about finding work in this sector after a very short course. Proceed with the utmost caution.
It may also be possible to progress into Sound Engineering via an audio technician apprenticeship, and then work your way up.
What can I earn?
Sound engineers are normally freelance, although some are employed by a band or a production for a period of time. Periods without work are common, particularly during the winter months.
A working day of between 12 and 16 hours is not unusual.
The pay starts at around £150 a day, and rises to £175 for someone with more experience. Highly experience sound engineers can expect to earn around £200-£250 a day. Rates are often higher in London.