Recording can be fun. Sometimes it can be a career. But it’s not for everybody. And today, becoming a working engineer is no easier than becoming a working musician.
Throughout my adult life, I’ve made most of my living recording, mixing, and editing music and sound.
I also love language just as much as I love audio, and my work as a journalist has allowed me the opportunity to cover the aesthetics, techniques and economics of the business for some of my favorite outlets like AES, Tape Op, SPARS, Indaba, The Deli, and SonicScoop.
Since I love talking about this stuff when I’m not in the studio, it means that people tend to ask me a lot of questions. To be honest, I enjoy that. My favorite question is probably: “Will you mix my record?” But the most frequently asked question might just be: “Should I get started in recording?” and “Okay, how?” My usual reply is: “Hey that was two questions”, “Sure why not?!”, and “I have no idea.”
Are you ready to get obsessed?
In general, I like to encourage people wherever they show an interest. Although audio is a competitive field that’s been hard hit by a sluggish economy and rapidly-restructuring music industry, I still find it to be a rewarding line of work. But for many, audio production has become more than that. For the first time in history, it’s an affordable hobby as well.
It’s no secret that in the past 10 years, the popularity of recording has exploded. Due to the staggering growth of both home multi-tracking and specialized recording schools, it’s pretty clear this pursuit doesn’t need my help to sell itself. So today, instead of talking about how fun it is to make records, we’ll focus instead on the 10 best reasons to avoid ever becoming interested in the technical side of recording in the first place. (If you’re interested, we’ll also suggest a half-dozen alternate paths in music that have more room for growth). Let’s start with the obvious:
1) It can be hard to find paying work
Despite big-studio closings, a struggling music industry, and the most sluggish and inequitable economy since the Great Depression (thanks, trickle-down economics!), current data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the audio technology field will continue to grow modestly in coming years.
So it’s not all completely grim. Although budgets for label projects have shrunk significantly, there are dramatically more records being made each year. While not all of them are commercial releases, and many are recorded at least in part at musician-owned home studios, these types of projects still account for a significant slice of business for many engineers. Even low-budget personal projects regularly enlist professional help in drum tracking, vocal coaching, mixing, and mastering.
Still, make no mistake: as an occupation, music recording is more competitive than ever.
2) It can be hard to find non-paying work
If you ever keep a log of the emails and phone calls the average recording studio receives, you might come to the conclusion that specialized recording schools are graduating far more students than there are even unpaid openings for.
Landing an uncompensated internship at a busy studio can seem like a lightning-strike of good fortune, but even that is just the beginning. If you’re an ambitious self-starter, you might take your training into your own hands, like I did years ago. But since recording has become an increasingly mainstream hobby, it can be more now to difficult to differentiate yourself from the rest of the fray.
While there’s nothing wrong with being an ambitious amateur in any creative field, this scenario can feel especially troubling for would-be recordists, because unlike most musicians:
3) If you fail to make money, you will feel like a failure.
Playing an instrument, singing, and writing songs are all potential career paths, for sure. According to the BLS there are 300,000 full and part-time working musicians in the United States, and on average they earn between $20 and $30 an hour. But these activities have also been seen as respectable hobbies as long as we’ve been a species. As creative outlets, they’re widely regarded as ends in and of themselves.
Aspiring audio engineers aren’t as lucky. Their pursuit is seen simply as a job. A fairly cool job, sure, but they fail to make a living at it they’re not seen as overlooked or unaccommodated talents. They’re just unemployed.
Let’s test this hypothesis with a little mental exercise: Would you hire and pay a drummer who made a good portion of his salary as a bartender? Sure, so would I. Great. How about an actor who made most of her living as a waitress? Yeah, me too. OK. Now how about an audio engineer working in either of those roles? Oh, maybe not? A plumber? Yeah, me neither.
So why is audio engineering still seen this way, even if it’s grown exponentially as a hobby, and even if those on the professional track could take years to turn their job into a sustainable source of income? There are a variety of factors, but the one that sticks out in my mind is that:
4) It’s fun for a job! Less fun for a hobby…
Despite long and erratic hours, a highly competitive job market, lower wages than many professions that require similar levels of expertise, and a systemic lack of benefits packages, working with audio for a living can be pretty fun as far as careers go.
As an unpaid hobby however, obsessing over frequencies, troubleshooting technical problems, and facilitating other people’s creations for twelve hours at a stretch is perhaps less fun than:
Climbing an indoor rock wall, fly-fishing, drawing ribaldrous cartoon characters in compromising positions, canoeing, reading theoatmeal.com, taking the pot in Texas hold ’em, joining a kickball league, knitting, developing your reputation as an encyclopedic movie buff, learning to throw a boomerang, quidditch, mastering Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, flying a kite, having a picnic on the beach, drinking sangrias in the park, and naturally, perusing Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.
It’s hard to make the same argument against more musical activities, like: smacking things rhythmically with big wooden sticks, penning an expressive melody, strumming a guitar in front of dozens of friends who traveled miles just to see you, or stumbling through a favorite old-timey jazz standard on the piano with your significant other.
There are many factors that may conspire to make engineering less fun as a hobby than learning guitar, collecting records, or perfecting your def flow. These include:
5) Lack of autonomy
Whether you’re working on audio books, albums or film mixes, even the most inventive audio engineer’s role is still facilitating the creations of others.
Unlike playing an instrument, writing a novel, or reciting the alphabet backwards while juggling lawn chairs, you can only really work on your craft when you have willing partners. On top of that, whether or not the finished project is really worth hearing is largely out of your hands.
(Editor’s note: If you’re also a music-maker of some kind, you’re almost certainly better off concentrating the bulk of your efforts on the creative, rather than technical end of the spectrum. A great performance, poorly recorded, will almost always sound better than the opposite. Not to mention, I’ve met far too many musicians who accidentally became obsessed with microphones and ended up forgetting to practice their craft.)
This ties into the next point. Sometimes:
6) You will record music you don’t enjoy
As you may already know, musicians and music fans can be extremely opinionated when it comes to music. You’re probably one of them.
It takes a special breed of person to approach every performer with an open heart and open ears. But even for those of us with the rare ability to set our egos aside and discover what’s best in every musician, to be honest, some music just sucks.
( Editor’s Note: Fortunately, I enjoy the vast majority of music I work on today. I’m also in a position where I can turn down projects that aren’t a great aesthetic fit. But if you’re serious about your hobby or your career, be aware that you will have to work on quite a few things you may not love. And you’ll have to put your name on them.)
And even if you’re content to just approach the studio as hobby, what are you going on about? C’mon, lets face it – in and of itself:
7) Recording isn’t sexy.
Regardless of which gender you’re trying to impress, let’s be honest: being “into audio” isn’t going to help you out a whole lot. If music was The Super Friends, you’d be Aquaman. Don’t believe me? Lets look at the facts:
A) You wouldn’t have any fans of your own.
B) OK, fine maybe you’d have a couple, but they’d generally be total weirdos like me. And:
C) Your super-powers will be completely useless in 98% of opposite-sex impressing situations.
Much like Aquaman, you’d be able to explain how sonar works, but it might not do you a whole lot of good here on dry land.
Face it, out in the real world, being marginally faster at figuring out where to plug in the iPod at cocktail parties is pretty much the dating equivalent of having the power to summon a school herring at will.
(Editors note: If you have super-crazy bat-hearing and are as much of a dork as I am, you may be able to identify songs on the radio by hearing the ambient noise before the first note is struck. This ability, while impressive in small doses, is a lot like water-skiing on a pair of dolphins. Kind of neat for sure, but of little practical value when it comes to fighting crime or impressing the honeys. Especially when you consider that the other guys can change the rotation of the earth and shoot laser-beams out of their eyes.)
To continue this analogizing, if this was a baseball team, you wouldn’t be the manager, you’d be the groundskeeper. Oh wait, I’m sorry, I forgot – Let me go back to putting this in suitable nerd-terms that you and I can actually understand: If this was Dungeons and Dragons, you’d be a priest. If this was KISS, you’d be… well, the guy who recorded KISS.
If and when you do find that special living, breathing boy or girl who enjoys spooning with you regardless, please beware because:
8- The long and erratic hours can make it difficult to sustain normal relationships
Unlike the rest of humanity, who spend their weekend afternoons traipsing through the zoo, petting the gentle lemurs and admiring the ferocious platypi with their loved ones, you’ll be in the studio well past midnight working with weekend warriors.
Instead of passing cool summer evenings impressing your love by winning giant stuffed animals and free Ferris wheel rides, thanks to your cunning mastery of whack-a-mole, you’ll find yourself blowing out your hearing as you pick up a few extra live sound shifts at local clubs.
Please note that if normal people don’t actually do any of the things I mentioned above for fun it’s because as an audio engineer, I’m basing my entire concept of “having a social life outside the studio” on half-remembered childhood outings.
Also, did I mention that:
9) It’s expensive
It’s true that classical musicians often pay phenomenal sums of money for their instrument, especially if it’s one with a history. An equivalently-positioned owner/operator of a recording studio can take that amount and multiply it.
Even humble home recordists don’t have it cheap. For many, gear obsession turns to gear addiction. It can even become an painfully ineffective substitute for regular practice.
Of course, great gear doesn’t equal great recordings. I love sharing my reel with clients, and when they’re particularly impressed by certain songs being able to say “Oh thanks, I mixed that one on an Mbox.” But even though you may have recorded the gnarliest, most badass guitar sound in the universe with your prized half-broken Radio Shack microphone, you will regularly find yourself jonesing for expensive toys.
If you’re fortunate enough for one reason or another that money isn’t a huge concern for you, may I suggest that there are more productive and inspiring, ways to make a real impact in music world? Something more important than building just another recording studio filled with the same old toys? That brings us to:
10) New recording studios are of questionable economic usefulness.
Among my close friends, I’m lucky to count several who have had to build new studios thanks to an economic need to expand. They had to build their new rooms because they were so busy or had to be able to offer their clients new services. For them, building was the only sensible thing to do.
But there are also just as many fantastic, under-booked recording studios that are owned by very talented people. Despite the best wishes of many well-meaning individuals, recording studios are nothing like Field Of Dreams. They do not operate on an “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” basis.
I’m very excited about a few of the new studios that are opening up in my area. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to need a whole lot more of them anytime soon. If you’re super-talented and can carve out a niche catering to an under-served market, there’s always room for you. But before you build, think: Are you hoping to have clients, or have you already proven that you do?
And, in on honor of the upcoming Nigel Tufnel Day celebrations, just one more:
11 ) There are better things to do
I love recording and mixing, but I’m surprised to find that audio engineering has somehow come to be seen as a glamorous field in recent years. (Really, it’s not). But that doesn’t mean it’s more important, or more badass, than the fastest growing fields in the economy. Fields like Physical Therapy. Environmental, Civil, or Biomedical Engineering. Social Work. Sales, Athletic Training, Post-Secondary Education, or Veterinary Medicine. Anyone who loves music could pursue one of those fields and live a life of great personal fulfilment and musical activity.
Even if you’re obsessed with working in the music industry, there are several fields with significantly more room for growth in the coming years. If you’re interested in hearing about those, you can read this bonus article from our current issue.
Congratulations, you made it! Do you still want to record stuff?
If not, congratulations again! You’re a very sensible person. I will envy you your lifetime of health insurance, possible pension, peace of mind, and the family you will be able to start at a reasonably young age.
But if you’ve still got the recording bug, welcome! And good luck. Whether you’re into music as a profession or a passion, keep reading TMimaS, “The Music Magazine For People Who Make Music”. We promise to keep bringing you stories from music-makers of all stripes, including plenty of people who share your very same disease of the mind and have learned to make it work. We’ll keep asking them “how” and reporting back here.