Sound Engineer: Career Research Report

[Thanks to VK for sharing the following career research report on becoming a sound engineer and related work information.]


For this project, I thought about taking this opportunity to find out about a career that I’ve always wondered about: radio broadcasting. I’ve taken a few radio classes at the local college, and I liked them a lot. I liked being in the classes; they were very interesting and fun to be in. Doing all the projects such as recording an air-check, doing a P.S.A or learning how to use the boards was great. However, I was never too serious about radio because it seemed like one of those “I want to be an actor” careers. Meaning that the chances are you aren’t going to get the job on the number one syndicated radio show in the nation. Instead you are going to work the graveyard shift at an A.M. station, for 16 dollars an hour. My general idea of a career in radio was: doesn’t pay well, not a lot of work available, hard to break through in the industry, and lots of limitations. In light of the potential limitations of a career in radio, it was never a realistic choice for me.

Again, when this assignment came up, I immediately thought about radio and something related to it. So I began researching radio broadcasting, only to quickly find out that I was pretty much right. I was doing my reading on websites like EUREKA and O*NET, and they both gave me similar information. The salary was pretty low ($1,000-$4,000 and up a month), and the four thousand was shooting high. So unless you are Howard Stern, you are probably not going to make a whole lot of money. While I was cruising the websites, I also took a look at other aspects of radio (sales, board operator, talent booker, etc.). This is how I stumbled upon the career for this report, Sound Engineering (or Broadcast and Sound Engineering Technician and Radio Operator).

Sound engineering is a really broad field and it covers a lot of ground. In a nutshell, a sound engineer works with music/sound (most of the time on the technical side) equipment. EUREKA describes this field the best: “Sound engineers work in the entertainment industry for record producers and recording studios, for radio and television broadcasting companies, motion picture producers, in theaters, and in nightclubs. Some work for stadiums and arenas… for contractors on new residential, commercial or industrial installations, and in remodeling existing buildings. In government, they work on installing and servicing communication, intercom systems and sound amplifying equipment.”

I think that the most common job placement for sound engineers is in a studio (of any kind), behind a piece of recording equipment or a soundboard. Also, the salary was a lot bigger than the one for a radio engineer. According to EUREKA, in 2008 (and in California) the average entry level salary was $3,521 a month. The average salary was $5,933 and the top salaries were from $7,752 and up. The salary obviously depends on your experience and education. Those numbers are different on a national scale (and in 2007): $1,948 at the entry level position, $4,518 was the average salary and the upper level was $8,069 and up. I think that the numbers were generally higher in California because of how much film, music, radio and TV there is out here (Hollywood, for example). One very important aspect of this field was entry level job availability. I read that there are a whole lot more applicants than there are entry level jobs. So it is very hard to get your foot in the door, which directly correlates to how much experience I can get and how big my salary can be.

This is where this field gets a bit tricky, it seems to me that experience is just as important as education. I even got the sense that in some cases education is not nearly as important as experience. On O*NET I found a great description of what kind of education is required for this field: Most occupations in this zone require training in vocational schools, related on-the-job experience, or an Associates degree. Some may require a Bachelors degree. I was very surprised by the fact that it was almost recommended that you go to a DeVry and not to a university. The major that prepares you for this field is called Communication Technologies Program that “many community colleges and private training schools offer” (it takes about a year). However, I also found that there are a lot of California State Universities (CSUs) that offer this type of program/major as well: Chico, East Bay, Fullerton, Los Angeles, San Diego State, San Jose State, and San Francisco State. Foothill College offers this program and is called Music Technology.

I had no idea and was surprised by the fact that this career path requires minimal amounts of school. On the one hand, you don’t spend a lot of time in school so it is convenient and easy. On the other, that means that there are other things that employers are looking for other than school. As I’ve mentioned experience before, it is very important to have a great resume in order to succeed in this field. This could prove to be the difficult part of preparing for this career. It is going to be essential that I “get taken under the wing” of an experienced person if I want to even consider this career path.

Doing this project helped me answer a lot of questions I had about this field. This is something I’ve always thought about doing. Even though initially I started out looking into radio broadcasting, this definitely was a smarter choice. If I want to do anything in the entertainment industry, this is the route to go. When you are a sound engineer you spend pretty much all of your time indoors (studio). You will have to learn how the studio works and also be certified in ProTools. ProTools is a program that is pretty much the industry standard for anything done with sound, and I have been using it on my own for a couple of years now. Plus, there are a lot of schools offering these programs and training. In my opinion, for the amount of school required for this career, the salary seems to be pretty good. The actual work seems like it would be a lot of fun and each day it would be something different. That’s pretty important because that would make going to work feel like less of a drag. There are also a lot of different directions you can go with this degree. Meaning that you can start on one end of the entertainment spectrum and work your way towards another (start in recording music and end up scoring music for films). Overall this seems like a cool occupation and field to go into, but I also found some downsides.

The entertainment industry is a very competitive one. There aren’t a lot of positions available and there are a lot of people competing with you for those positions. If you don’t know someone who can help you and give you some advice, then you are going to be just another application in a big stack of applications. Previously, I conducted an informational interview of someone who basically worked for 10 years as a sound engineer, and I didn’t get the impression that he was making the “big bucks”. He was working with a pretty big name in the industry and the studio that he worked for didn’t seem like anything small-time either. I want to be financially stable and secure, and this doesn’t seem like the type of career that can guarantee anything. One day this guy is on top and the next it’s another guy. Even though you yourself might not be directly in the spotlight, it’s still the entertainment industry. I feel like you need to do a lot of behind-the-scenes work in order to get anywhere in sound engineering. It might be really hard to get a job right out of school. I might need to work for free for a while. Also, you might need to move to different parts of the country in order to pursue this career. There might not be a lot of jobs available in your area.

Being a sound engineer would be a lot of fun, but I don’t think I can realistically choose this as a career. There are too many gray areas in this field. But after giving it a lot of thought I came up with this idea: The training for this field can be done at many community colleges, and its a relatively quick program. I don’t want to say I should major in something else and minor in sound engineering, but it should be something along those lines. I’ve looked over Foothill College’s music technology program and it doesn’t seem too hard . I can always have this going on on the side. It’s just that it would be unsafe to only look into being a sound engineer. I feel like this wouldn’t be the most responsible career decision to make. I’m not crossing this option off my career options list, but after doing this research, I decided that it can’t be the only item on that list.



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