Sound technicians take responsibility for the full range of activities relating to the production, enhancement or amplification of sounds. This may involve both acoustic elements e.g. mixing sounds to a particular venue, or creating a mix for sound recording in a studio and/ or maintaining and repairing equipment to produce, record and amplify sounds.
Sound is such an important sense to us that its production, amplification and recording is now both an art and a science. The Sound Technician in his/ her various guises plays a crucial role in everyday society. Everything from your favourite song on the radio, the sounds of a thunderstorm in a horror movie, the level of music in a shop to your favourite aria in an opera will have been crafted by an army of individuals working in the field of sound.
Sound is also big business with each element considered from a commercial perspective.
The term “sound technician” commonly refers to an individual who works in the production and recording of sound. This will involve both pre and post production elements, for example, using the correct microphones, assessing the acoustics of a room/ venue and mixing sounds so the eventual audience has the desired experience.
This can be a highly competitive area to get into and starting salaries may be low or even non-existent as a sound engineer starts their career. Places in top studios are awarded for enthusiasm, with salaries often a pleasant accompaniment.
A starting salary for an established studio or in television and radio would be around £16,000.
Many jobs will be on a freelance basis with live work often done by an in-house engineer working for a particular event or club night. Wages will vary from £50- £80 for a club night (5 hour session) to £120 – £160 per day for freelancers on day jobs with a professional studio.
Once sound engineers are trained and experienced, salaries are likely to increase to around £30,000 – £35,000. Some roles, due to the nature of the work, factor in an allowance for changes in hours, and these can be around 20% of base salary. Freelance rates are likely to increase to around £160 to £220 per day.
The Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematographic and Theatre Union (BECTU) has guidelines on rates of pay for freelancers.
- knowledge of both PA and other technical equipment. This is imperative as you will be responsible for the setting up and placement of equipment and knowing the most appropriate equipment to use
- selecting the correct equipment for a particular job and making sure it is all in working order e.g. microphone selection for a guitar amp and drum kit are very different, due to the acoustic nature of these instruments, similarly sound projection for outdoor events is very different to that in an established auditorium or venue
- performing risk assessments for a particular venue e.g. will electrics be close to water, is there any danger to the public etc?
- using your knowledge to create the right artistic effect
- recording sound, speech and music in both a formal recording environment and live environments
- being in charge of the recording and/or mixing desk to make sure that sound-quality is maintained
- working closely with the artists and other members of the sound team for monitoring and recording work
- servicing, maintaining and repairing sound equipment
- if freelance, looking for work, paying taxes and maintaining equipment
The only true pre-requisites to being a sound technician are passion, a good ear and an understanding of how sound works. While this may involve study of the physical properties of sound e.g. pitch and frequency, many technicians develop their ears through experience rather than study.
There is now a wide range of qualifications available with HND and degrees offered in four broad areas: production, post-production, recording/dubbing/ mixing and general sound. Qualifications to look for are:
- sound technology
- sound design
- audio engineering
- music recording and/or technology
- media production
- music (Bmus)
The best route for you will ultimately depend on which area you want to focus on.
The Association of Professional Recording Services accredits some courses.
The UK government has also recently launched The Diploma in Creative and Media which provides a solid base in creative industries.
It is also advisable to purchase or download (if legally allowed to do so) a programme that will teach you the basics of sound recording. Common industry standards are PROtools and Logic but there is also a wide range of home recording programmes which will teach you the fundamentals, such as Cubase, Traverso, JoKosher, Kristal and Rosegarden and can thus provide a competitive advantage.
Talent, passion and a good ear… …are theoretically the only pre-requisite to a successful career in sound.
Technical aptitude Knowing what equipment will provide the best result, a good understanding of acoustics, including the physical properties of sounds, pitch and frequency.
Transport In your early career freelance work can involve local gigs and bars and it is good to have a form of transport for both yourself and any equipment you may need.
People skills You should expect to work with a wide range of individuals with different viewpoints and skills. Artists have a reputation for being ‘passionate’ and you may witness the occasional temper tantrum!
Creativity Being able to add something to a recording process will help you build your reputation and find work. Artists want people who can help them to perform their best or record their best work.
Communication skills You may be expected to convey technical concepts to non-technical individuals.
Attention to detail Sound technicians will often have to prevent or resolve problems. When a microphone breaks down mid-performance you will need to be alert and creative to ensure that the show can go on. When in a recording studio you are expected to be the expert and subtle changes of pitch or frequency can make the difference between a good and great record.
Working conditions will depend upon employment type.
Gigs, Pubs and Clubs (house engineers) Working in these venues is likely to involve late nights and exposure to alcoholic and other substances. You need to ensure that you are comfortable with this if you have moral or religious views. You will normally be expected to be at the venue 1-2 hours before the event starts to resolve any problems and set up equipment, and an hour afterwards to ensure that all the equipment is ready for the next night’s performance. You should also wear ear protection as prolonged exposure can lead to tinnitus and other hearing conditions and will put an early end to your career.
Freelance By nature, freelance technicians will have greater flexibility. However, hours can be unpredictable and work infrequent. You should expect long and unsocial hours and/or long periods away from home if working on location.
Due to the nature of the industry, television, film and music work will often involve tight production deadlines. You may encounter divas and tantrums and will need both emotional and physical stamina.
Competition for jobs is often fierce and it is not unusual for people to volunteer at both gigs and recording studios in order to bolster their CV and gain the necessary experience. The normal route is to start as a ‘shadow’ or a ‘runner’ where you learn from experienced technicians.
There is a wide variety of recording tools available from PROtools and Logic to Cubase and Audacity. It is recommended that you have a detailed knowledge of some of these programmes as they will help you in building a solid knowledge of how to construct soundscapes. These programmes have increased the knowledge base and competition for places within the industry, with individuals often having good technical knowledge before starting their career.
A music background is normal, with sound technicians often playing one if not more instruments.
It may be possible to obtain work experience either independently or through your school or college at a local radio or television station and this is highly
Recording studios Your local yellow pages will have a list of both large and independent studios. It is worth ringing round to see if anyone is looking to take on a trainee.
Clubs, Pubs and other music venues Building up a solid network of contacts with local musicians and promoters can result in having a regular freelance income and is good for building a reputation in the industry. Being professional is key; failing to create a good and bespoke sound or turning up late and delaying everyone will not win you any favours.
Major television, radio and film studios For many sound technicians this represents the most desirable job, with high salaries, benefits and regular interesting work. You will most likely need a qualification and relevant work experience.
As an industry it is possible to move between a variety of the related jobs cited above and the most talented technicians, engineers and producers are in great demand. Successful technicians may move into studio management or take a more active role in the creative side of the industry; others will look to establish their own studio although the costs of doing so can be prohibitive for many.
Also known as…
- Sound Engineer
- Sound Supervisor
What’s it really like?
Peter Heatherall, is a Sound Technician with English National Opera.
How long have you been in this particular job / industry?
I’ve been in the industry for almost 15 yrs and with English National Opera (“ENO”) for just under 10 of those, the first couple of years as freelance. My current position as Sound Supervisor has been for the last 2 years.
What did you do before this job?
Before this job I was working freelance, doing various things like sound for video, tape-op work in studios and the odd theatre. Before that I had a normal 9 to 5 office job. When I was made redundant I decided to try and do what I always wanted to do and work in sound.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
There’s not really such a thing as a typical day at work. Because we work in rep theatre and there are normally 3 or 4 different shows on or in rehearsal, we can often be doing very different things. My main job is to facilitate rehearsals and shows in and outside the London Coliseum as necessary. This can range from a basic show with purely foldback on stage to a full-on radio miked, amplified show with surround sound and projection. A ‘normal’ day would probably consist of a rehearsal in the morning, change over on stage in the afternoon and then a different show performed in the evening. As a department our main responsibilities are all aspects of sound, video projection and archiving and show based comms – communications between back and front of house.
What do you like about the job?
Lucky you caught me on a good day! I guess the best thing about this job is the variety. Being in rep we go through a lot of different shows, directors, designers etc. Whilst sometimes it can be quiet for us in Sound there’s usually a big challenge up ahead. Working with new equipment, new people and finding new ways of doing things is always enjoyable, plus the buzz that comes from being deeply involved in a live performance is something that’s hard to beat (when it goes right!). Also working in sound and video provides an opportunity to be creative, which is important to me.
What do you dislike about the job?
Dislikes are that at times there can be a lot of hanging around and shows where there’s not a lot for us to do. There’s nothing worse than being in for a 14hour shift when you only have a couple of thunder cues to do! Also, the hours can be very long at times and I don’t enjoy being stuck in a dark theatre without seeing daylight for days on end.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
The best advice is really to get as much work experience as you can. There are so many degrees/diplomas/certificates out there these days and whilst they are helpful there’s nothing really like actually working on sound in a theatre/venue/studio. If you’ve pinpointed an area of sound you want to work in, then write to as many companies as you can in that field and ask for work experience. Most places are happy to bring people in and, if you impress, then you may well find yourself being offered paid work. If not, then it will at least give you a head start from those who only have qualifications on paper.
What job(s) do you think you might do after this role (i.e. career progression)?
As a Sound Supervisor there’s only Head of Sound left here, and I’m not really interested in that as it’s too far removed from the performance side of things. I guess moving on would be to go back to being freelance but with a lot more experience behind me there would be a lot more avenues open than before. I wouldn’t mind a slight change from theatre to live music but that’s not on the agenda at the moment.
What other inside-information can you give to help people considering this career?
Not sure really. I guess you have to be prepared to work odd hours, long hours and on shows that you may not like at all. You’d need to be prepared to be paid poorly and even work for free for a while to get yourself established. There is a lot of competition in the industry so the more experience and enthusiasm you can demonstrate the better. Oh, and try not to upset anyone! It’s quite a small industry so getting yourself blacklisted could backfire badly in the long run. If you’re wanting to work in the West End then you’re best off contacting the various sound-hire companies rather than the theatres themselves, as most of the smaller theatres don’t employ much of a house crew; the same applies for live music venues. For broadcast if you want the best training available then the BBC is the place to go, but they haven’t recruited trainees for quite some time and competition is fierce. A lot of sound work nowadays is on a freelance basis and there are fewer places to get full-time jobs; often smaller venues employ sound/lighting technicians rather than dedicated sound people.