Seldom seen but ever present, the work of audio engineers impacts all of our broadcast, recorded and live event experiences. The field offers numerous sound engineering disciplines in various industries, but most fall under the FOH – front of house or live – or studio categories. While educational basics are similar, job specifics and the specialized training required of FOH engineers versus studio engineers can differ dramatically.
Sound Engineer Overview
All engineers are responsible for capturing audio sources and converting them into electrical signals for processing and final output. While equipment used is complex and industry-specific, most experienced engineers can apply technical knowledge and work within different fields. The primary differences between FOH and studio engineers exist in their ability to control acoustic challenges present in their differing work environments. As you might imagine, controlling sound in a concert hall is very different than in an acoustically designed sound booth or recording studio.
FOH Engineer Environment
FOH engineers work in clubs, concert halls, sporting arenas and other venues, reproducing sound for concerts, speeches and sporting events. "Front of house" refers the usual placement of speakers at the front of a stage and directed toward the audience or "house." As an FOH engineer, acoustical variances are the biggest challenges you will face, but if you are employed by a specific venue, these variances can be anticipated over time as you get to "know the room." But many FOH pros travel and work in different venues, so getting to know a room is not an option. Traveling live sound engineers are often tasked with assessing amplifier and speaker needs to suit the room; modular systems are frequently used to allow flexibility in speaker placement and how many are required.
Studio Engineer Environment
Studio engineers work in recording studios, radio and television stations. As a studio engineer, your acoustic environment is controlled but scope of work will dictate any challenges. In the radio and TV broadcast industries, engineers perform very similar tasks and use the same equipment for predictable results required by the job. Recording studio engineers face a new batch of variables with each new session. While recording studio acoustics remain the same, sonic differences in voice and musical instrument recording vary with each individual. These variances are compensated for by an array of interchangeable equipment and moveable acoustic panels. You will require knowledge of differing characteristics of microphones, sound enhancement and processing equipment. Large studios will have dozens of microphones, processors, effects devices, musical instruments and amplifiers. You will have to know how to properly select, connect and use them all.
Education and Training
Educational requirements for audio engineers are employer-specific, but work experience as an engineering assistant or technician may get you in the door. You will find formal degree and certificate programs in audio engineering offered by numerous technical schools and colleges, generally consisting of technical and scientific studies as applied to the audio field. As with other engineering jobs, advanced study in specific subjects may be necessary for very specialized disciplines. Engineers employ mathematics, physics, mechanical, electronic, computer and electrical sciences in their duties.
Studio and live FOH engineers may be employed full- or part-time due or work as independent contractors. Look to local radio, cable, network television stations and recording studios for work as a studio engineer. If considering a career in FOH sound, sound reinforcement companies, entertainment venues and playhouses will be places of interest. If applying with a sound company, keep in mind the possibility of travel – sometimes for long periods of time when touring – unless steady local work is available.
Matt McKay began his writing career in 1999, writing training programs and articles for a national corporation. His work has appeared in various online publications and materials for private companies. McKay has experience in entrepreneurship, corporate training, human resources, technology and the music business.