Pretty much every engineer has a different story about how they broke into the industry. Some engineers fell into it accidentally, others have been into audio for as long as they can remember. Older engineers had little, if any, formal training. Most of them showed up at a studio somewhere, got themselves endeared to a manager or an engineer there, started running errands for them and 10, 20, 30 years later find themselves the revered elders of the industry.
For young engineers, it is not quite like that. Many audio facilities, while willing to give a new engineer a couple of breaks, usually do not have the time to teach someone from scratch how to record, mix or master. These days you have to learn audio engineering pretty much outside of a professional studio. There is the formal education option of going to technical school and then slaving away doing school-arranged studio internships. The other option is a bit more free spirited by buying whatever new — or used — equipment you can afford, throwing out the instructions, re wiring it and in a Zen-like fashion trying to become one with it.
If you want to become an audio engineer, chances are you’ll take both these options. Maybe even at the same time.
Many up-and-coming engineers will have anywhere from one to four years of technical education and a couple of internships before landing their first full-time audio engineering job. I took a one-year diploma which gave me a background in both the technical and business sides of audio engineering. Some might say that a formal education in audio engineering is not important. That you should spend the money you would have spent on tuition to get the equipment, work with it, go out and meet people and try to do a few projects independently. But I think that going to school gave me direction. It gave me the opportunity to learn on some of the equipment, to interact on a daily basis with others with similar interests, and it also gave me the opportunity to intern at professional audio facility.
My mindset when I went into a studio for an internship was to go in and try to take work of off other people’s plates and generally make life easier for them. By finding work to do in the studio and developing my own niche tasks which no one else could or wanted to do, I hoped they would quickly realize they couldn’t function without me.
For me, the process of interning in a studio, Lacquer Channel Mastering in Toronto, was particularly prophetic as this is also where I finally landed my first full time engineering gig (some two years after my internship.) When I started interning there, I pretty much knew from the beginning that there was no job waiting for me at the end of my internship. But I went into it wanting to learn and figuring this was one way to pay my dues which I could somehow collect on later.
In the two years between finishing my schooling/internship and getting my first full-time engineering job, the trick was always to stay interested and involved. I got a job at music equipment dealership and that permitted me to deal daily with people in the industry and people like myself trying to break into it. And it was while working there that I bought some of my own equipment and started freelancing.
Debt is a freelancer’s best friend. If it wasn’t for debt, I don’t think many audio engineers would ever get started. Debt bought me my killer Mac 9600 with Pro Tools 4.3. By that same logic, a Focusrite Blue EQ and a Summit EQ also came my way a little later on with the help of some creative financing.
If you want to have a go at freelancing, you assume the attitude that you would be doing what you’re doing and spending money on the gear even if you were never going to see a single penny from it. Otherwise you’d go nuts when all the bills start pouring in. It may not pay off financially but it sure does pay of morally when you’re able to land a couple of gigs and start climbing that very steep learning curve on your own. And when you’ve invested some serious cash into some nice gear and you start hearing the music coming out of it … well let’s just say that the sound of the music helps drown out the sound of the collections agency.
Freelancing helped me further develop my chops. I also schmoozed Lacquer Channel and gained access to their studios whenever they were closed to use their equipment. This is tough because they have to trust you first, but once your able to get into their good books, having access to a professional studio either in exchange for slave labour during the day (which is what I did) or for a reduced rate can go miles in developing your credibility.
Then after doing that for a couple of years, I had some pretty decent equipment, a pretty decent debt from buying all that equipment and some pretty decent credits to my name. I maintained my friendships at Lacquer Channel and made some friends at a few other studios so when Lacquer Channel needed a new second engineer, I had credits, contacts, gear and a desire to master some cool music.
Phillip Demetro is studio operations manager/second mastering engineer at Lacquer Channel Mastering in Toronto.