What Does a Sound Engineer Do?

These music industry professionals work their magic behind the scenes

From Mic To Mix PNW
Mat Hayward / Stringer/ GettyImages

Sound engineers play a vital role in the music industry. Anyone who ever has been to a concert and impressed with the clarity and overall quality of the music can thank a talented engineer controlling that sound.

Sound engineers, also known as audio engineers, mix, reproduce, and manipulate the equalization and electronic effects of sound. They don't have to work strictly in music. Some end up designing and controlling the sound at conferences, in theaters, and in any other venue that requires sound projection for an audience.

By controlling microphones, sound levels, and outputs, sound engineers combine their well-trained ears with their knowledge of acoustics to produce the best quality of sound for a variety of purposes. In addition to the music industry, sound engineers might work in film, radio, television, computer games, theater, sporting events, and corporate events. 

Different Types of Sound Engineers

Operating a large mixing board at a live show to adjust the sound the audience hears is also known as mixing the front-of-house sound, but it is only one aspect of sound engineering. There are four distinct steps to commercial production of a recording including recording, editing, mixing, and mastering. As a result, there are other types of sound engineers with particular roles and specializations. 

Keep in mind, however, that it is common for all of these roles to be taken on by one sound person at smaller events and shows because a whole team of engineers is a luxury usually reserved for large, well-funded venues or tours. Some of the other roles and titles common to audio engineers include:

  • Monitor sound engineers: This type of engineer takes care of the sound a band hears on their monitors on stage. A band member who asks something along the lines of, "can you turn down my guitar a little bit?" is talking to the monitor sound engineer.
  • Systems engineers: They take care of setting up amps, complex PA systems, and speakers for bands and the other sound engineers.
  • Studio sound engineers: They work in studios to make high-quality recordings of music, speech, and sound effects.
  • Research and development audio engineers: They invent new technologies, equipment, and techniques to enhance the process and art of audio engineering.
  • Wireless microphone engineers: They are responsible for wireless microphones during theater productions, sports events, or corporate events.
  • Game audio designer engineers: They deal with sound for video and computer game development.

How to Become an Audio Engineer

Sound engineers can come from a variety of backgrounds and educational experiences. Postsecondary training in radio, television, music, audio, performing arts, broadcasting, or electrical engineering all can lead to a career in sound engineering. Many colleges and universities offer specific training in audio engineering and sound recording. Often, though, audio engineers have no formal training, but instead attain professional experience and skills in audio through extensive on-the-job experience.

Sound engineers earned a median annual salary of $43,660, as of 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Job opportunities in the field are expected grow at a rate of 8% for the decade ending in 2028, according to BLS. This is better than the 5% growth projected for all occupations during the same time period. One of the reasons cited is the trend of companies boosting budgets to increase video conferencing while reducing travel. Audio engineers are needed to help manage the systems.

The Society of Broadcast Engineers offers an exam to become a certified audio engineer (CEA). Five years of experience in the field are necessary to take the exam, and having the certification can make audio engineers more appealing as job candidates in some circumstances. A bachelor's degree in a related field of study counts as four of those years, and an associate's degree counts as two.