Work in the recording industry

 27 September 2011

Working in a recording studio is a popular career choice. But what skills do you need to break into this highly competitive industry? We spoke to David Stewart, Studio Manager of British Grove Studios.

British Grove won the 2009 Music Producers Guild ‘Best Studio’ award.
British Grove won the 2009 Music Producers Guild ‘Best Studio’ award.

British Grove, based in London and owned by Mark Knopfler, won the Music Producers Guild ‘Best Studio’ award in 2009. It has recorded many successful artists including Duffy, The Kaiser Chiefs, Hayley Westenra and Ronan Keating.

Essential qualities for a sound enginneer

Sound engineers are employed at British Grove on a full-time basis, rather than freelance. This means that new staff are only recruited very occasionally. When David does recruit he is looking for a great deal more than expert technical ability:

"Aptitude for the work is more important than anything else. I look for people who are quick and efficient problem-solvers and who can also assimilate into any given situation quickly. Much of successful modern recording is about being invisible whilst in the studio and spotting what needs to be done, particularly if working on the periphery of a session.

"Shrinking violets need not apply! When I interview people I am looking beyond technical ability for an engaging personality. Successful applicants exude self-confidence.

"A confident sound engineer helps our clients feel confident and secure during a session. This inevitably comes with experience and here we give the opportunity to develop people’s confidence and expertise. Sound engineers also need:

  • To be friendly and diplomatic, to deal with difficult situations which can occasionally arise in the session
  • Resilience, a good work ethic and effective team-working skills
  • Self-motivation, good judgement and high personal integrity
  • A willingness to learn new and more traditional techniques

Of course, potential recruits also need to be highly proficient in the use of all the latest audio software, such as Avid Pro Tools SE, Steinberg Cubase and Logic Studio for Apple Mac.”

Competition to get into the music industry

"Realistically not everyone from a music technology course is going to end up working in a recording studio. There simply aren’t the jobs out there.”

Over the past eight years David has only recruited four new engineers. He has never needed to advertise, and receives about 1,000 unsolicited applications each year.

“We always recruit full-time staff rather than freelancers, which is probably quite unusual these days.

"As studio manager I need engineers who are fully conversant with our studio, as they are much better placed to advise clients about the effective use of our equipment. Full-time staff have a level of commitment that freelancers could not have.

"Competition for jobs remains fierce for a number of factors. This is a shrinking sector and more studios are closing down than opening. Part of this is down to property values and economics. Rents are sky-high and studio rates have not increased in the last twenty to thirty years.

"When a studio inevitably needs a re-fit with new equipment, they just may not have the available money. In addition to this, record companies have had a difficult time and have been slow to embrace the digital revolution.”

David nevertheless remains optimistic about the future of recording studios, despite the growth in home digital audio equipment.

“Professional recording studios still have the edge over a home studio. Good results can be obtained at home, but if you are recording an orchestra, or brass, or the voice, the results you get in a professional studio are superb.”

The value of higher education music courses

Music technology courses are becoming more widely available, both in further and higher education. Since this is already such a competitive field, there are questions about how valuable these courses actually are and whether or not they lead to a job in the field.

“Most of our successful applicants have degree-level qualifications in music technology. Generally I have been impressed with the technical skills they exhibit when they come to us

"However, this can vary greatly according to the course studied. It is really important to choose a course which is accredited by ‘James’, the Joint Audio Media Education Support. This organisation, part of the Association of Professional Recording Studios (APRS), ensures that their accredited courses meet the needs of employers.”

David does stress the importance of being flexible about career options, given the very few opportunities within music recording studios.

“There are lots of other interesting jobs out there, including audio post-production in television and music for film. It is important to explore all the options and to be willing to look at jobs you may not have previously considered.

"Realistically not everyone from a music technology course is going to end up working in a recording studio. There simply aren’t the jobs out there.”

The benefit of work experience

"I am looking beyond technical ability for an engaging personality. Successful applicants exude self-confidence."

British Grove usually recruits people around the ages of 21-22 to become assistant engineers. Previous experience is valued, although of course it can be difficult to gain that experience.

“Not all our engineers have been to university and in some cases I have recruited people who have gained experience within another studio. Personal recommendation is what counts in this situation, to ensure the applicant has the skill set we are looking for.

"We use traditional tape machines as well as the latest technologies. This is a rarity, so I would not expect someone to have previous experience of this. However, I do expect them to be willing to learn and show aptitude for splicing tape with a razor blade.”

British Grove does not offer internships, preferring when they do occasionally recruit to offer a full-time paid position.

3 tips for considering a recording industry career

  1. “Music recording is a service industry where the client comes first.
  2. Although it is not essential, the ability to play an instrument and read music is an added advantage
  3. Accept that getting a job as a sound engineer is often a matter of luck, given the huge number of well-qualified and experienced applicants.”

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