Audio Engineer 101: What is a Sound Engineer? What Do They Do?

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How many times have I seen people sliding bars on a huge soundboard to adjust the sounds recorded by a musician and wondered, who is that person and what exactly are they doing? Well, I now know they’re called a sound engineer. And, I’m about to tell you all about them.   

What is a sound engineer? A sound engineer is responsible for accurately and creatively manipulating music, dialogue, and special effects for the sound in a performance whether recorded or live. They are the technical masters of sound that help create the desired end product that the artists and producers want.  

A sound engineer’s job doesn’t just include the performance time, and they don’t have to strictly work with music. There’s so much more to it than that!

Using a digital audio workstation (DAW), a sound engineer designs and manages sound levels and outputs, along with equalization and the digital sound effects for a performance. If the performance is being recorded for publication and distribution, they then are responsible for going back through the recordings to find the best source material, edit, mix, and master it for the album. Having a background in music can help if that’s the field you want to go into, but sound engineers do not necessarily work only in the music industry.

You can also find them working for convention centers, universities, theatres, concert venues, among other locations. They have to make sure the equipment being used by whoever is performing or speaking is ready for that engagement. They have to know what’s going on and attend to getting things set and then tested. They need to make sure the volume levels and the sound quality are appropriate for whatever the event might be.

Recording

When you talk about recording a performance for use in an album later, you’re usually talking about studio time. This part of the job seems pretty easy to explain, and most of us know what that entails. But there is a lot of prep work to this that people don’t see.

No matter what you may have seen in movies and on television, the sound engineer has the responsibility of knowing about all facets of the studio. They or their audio engineer will prep the studio, test the devices and have things ready. They also need this technical knowledge in case anything goes wrong during a session.

To better understand what kind of product is desired, they have to work with the artists and producers even before any recording.  That way they know how to set up the microphones and where to place people and equipment.  When it comes to a video project (film or television) they have to make sure to get the right sounds, perhaps even calling back performers to capture it for a video piece.

In these cases, they may also work with a director or editor on the post-production team. Even when recording musicians, sound engineers usually don’t just take a recording of a song all the way through and use it.

Instead, they break the song into portions, sometimes even phrases, and the performers have to repeat these portions many times over. Sometimes the sound engineer adjusts the sounds as they are recorded or they add in special effects. A lot of the time, the performers are not all in the recording studio at the same time and so each piece is recorded separately and then pulled together later by the sound engineer.  

Editing

The process of selecting and arranging what has been recorded during a session in preparation for mixing and mastering is called editing. These are changes made after the sound has been recorded. Whether it’s for a musical piece, a television program, a motion picture, a video game, or a commercial, this part of the production may involve the actual recorded sound as well as synthetic additions or pieces of other sound recorded on multiple occasions. This is also where sound engineers known as Foley artists can come in to create original sounds for use in the final product.

When recording, a full song is rarely recorded full through the piece. Instead portions of that song are recorded repeatedly. Sometimes, not all of the performers are even in the studio at the same time. So, afterward, the sound engineer goes back and pulls the best pieces together into one structured performance.  

Dialogue editing can be extremely complicated, especially when music and possibly other sounds are being added to it. The engineer is also responsible for “cleaning up” or “tightening up” the audio, but getting rid of conversation or blank spaces that were captured while recording. Editing includes fading audio to eliminate any unwanted noises. With the input of the producer (or director as the case may be) rhythm editing can take place.

Making sure all of the audio plays in sync and at the proper tempo is very important, especially in music. Once this is complete, the normal end editing is pitch or vocal editing. This doesn’t make the vocal overly auto-tuned (unless that’s what the artist and producer want). This editing just smooths the vocalizations to make it the best product for the listener. 

If one performer overtakes another during recording, or is off-key, a sound engineer can fix that during this stage of the process. The general public may not even hear other discrepancies in a song, but they will catch inept or incomplete editing quite easily. 

On major projects, this may be done by a different professional than the sound engineer – there may be a sound editor available for this portion of the sound engineering. After all, there is an Academy Award available for Best Sound Editing. But our focus is mainly on music, and in the end, sound editing gives you a quality product before the mixing begins. After all, music lovers are used to hearing music sound as close to perfect as possible. If the band, the singer, and the other sounds are properly edited, it makes mixing easier. 

Mixing

Sometimes, a project may have a separate Mixing Engineer as well. However, this job may be handled by a sound engineer. Either way, the duties remain the same. This is the technical duty of adjusting the sound levels through the entire performance or recording – remember these jobs might be handled live during a performance or in the studio.

The portion of the equipment used most during mixing will be the “mixing console”. This equipment is used to either boost or cut frequencies within a track to give space in a limited range. 

For live performances, such as concert, play, or speech, this is done on the fly, to be sure the sounds and music that is delivered is what the audience should hear and not distorted.  

There are normal steps made during this step in the engineering process. First, the engineer usually analyzes the artist’s style, genre, and tastes. They may work with the producer on this as well. They need to know what is expected. They identify the important elements of the sounds or songs on an album to emphasize. They also fine tune the entire project to prepare it for mastering. 

EQ or Equalization – Using the mixing console, the engineer removes conflicting frequencies within a performance to deliver the range that is the most sensitive to human hearing. When voices overlap or frequencies compete, there is left an annoying overlay of sound referred to as “mud”. Sound engineers use the equalizer functions to eliminate the mud to give the voices and desired sound more depth. 

Compression or Dynamic Range Compression – Compression reduces the range between a track’s lowest low and highest high. Using compression can give a track more clarity and presence, but if compressed too much, it can ruin the track. That’s why experience is so valuable in sound engineering. 

Panning or Adjusting Reverb/Delay – Panning spreads the many sounds on a track out to give space for voices that are missing. This is done so that stereo sound quality is not lost. Panning changes the relative gain of each track which can create sonic space, but it also sets a master volume for an entire album – every track should be set to this master. Remember me mentioning space left within a track during the panning process? Well, in those spaces a good sound engineer can insert effects to enhance the track like reverb and delay.

Mastering

The last step in audio-post production, mastering is any left-over work that goes into the track before it can be ready to distribute. Most albums include multiple songs or sets in the case of spoken word. Mastering is when a sound engineer enhances the audio so that the sound is of quality and consistent throughout the album and ready to be reproduced. The recording is then prepared by the sound engineer to be manufactured or downloaded.  

In some cases, a thing called dithering is necessary. Dithering is the noise you add to a signal that keeps the sound clear when a sound engineer reduces resolution. It tells how much information can be processed into an audio sample. It prevents the degradation of the audio. This is usually the important last step of mastering if the audio file has to be compressed from the sample format to usually a much smaller playback file.

If the file is going from a 32-bit or 24-bit audio file to a 16-bit audio file, dithering is necessary to keep the quality of the sound intact. When is it not used? When processing the audio to MP3 or ACC.

What is the difference between a Sound Engineer and an Audio Engineer? What about a Recording Engineer? Or a Mix Engineer?

The person sitting in front of the soundboard, making adjustments might be a sound engineer, or they may actually be an audio engineer. Though many of their duties overlap, within the industry, there is a subtle difference. The position of audio engineer is actually considered a stepping stone to the career of sound engineer.

They may get assigned some of the duties of a sound engineer, but an audio engineer (or technician) is the person who traditionally sets up and tests all audio equipment before a performance and handles any issues during the course of a performance. The sound engineer works alongside the producer and performers and is ultimately responsible for the quality of the audio production. 

Another point of confusion is that a mix engineer is oftentimes a separate job from a recording engineer – both of whom have duties that are sometimes combined or even facilitated by a sound engineer. 

Whether in the studio or recording a live performance, a recording engineer’s role is to be sure the audio source is recorded correctly and to the highest quality. They also rid the samples of extraneous sounds. This is also the title a lot of Foley elements fall under. Much like an audio engineer, they are responsible for handling, properly placing, and taking care of the equipment. A recording engineer is mainly responsible for the set-up and recording of a performance.  

If the roles are separate, a mix engineer is then in charge of combining the audio elements to create the appropriate and desired sound. This could mean understanding and delivering the proper energy or the artistic intentions of a performance through manipulating the sound components into the finished product. So basically, a mix engineer is responsible for a portion of the editing, and all of the mixing and mastering portions of this job. 

Who has what it takes to be a Sound Engineer?

A sound engineer needs to have the technical and computer skills necessary to understand the machinery and software that goes hand in hand with the title. They also need excellent attention to detail, good dexterity, and swift reaction time, especially when handling live events.  They also need to be ready and able to move and set up or break down equipment, so the physical demands are plenty. There are certifications and degrees available. But nothing replaces hands-on experience with a top-notch professional already in the field. 

If you happen to be interested in the field, but you’re not quite sure the technical aptitude and ear for good sound is for you, you could always test yourself. One can gain knowledge and practice by using simple sound engineering software available online. Sure it’s not like stepping behind the state of the art digital audio workstations, but it’s also not as expensive a situation to get into. Here are two recommended applications I found – 

GarageBand for the Mac

WaveGenix

If you want some excellent examples of sound engineers, feel free to look into these:

Hip-Hop / Rap: Manny Marroquin is an American mixing engineer. He has received eight Grammy awards for his professional audio work.

Pop / Hip-Hop – Serban Ghenea is a fourteen time GRAMMY Award and three-time Latin GRAMMY Award-winning mix engineer.

Rock – Chris Lord-Alge is a 5 time Grammy-award winning American mix engineer.

Country / Mainstream Pop / Folk Rock – Justin Niebank is a 3 time Grammy Award Winning, CMA award winning sound engineer.

Rachel Adams

I would have previously thought of myself as an audiophile. But by gaming and listening to my children and their friends, I've been introduced to an entire realm of artists that are not on the radio.