How to Become a Better Audio Engineer in Seven Easy Steps

Featuring Brad Duryea Posted on April 7, 2008

Audio engineering isn’t easy. In fact, good audio engineering can be very difficult and require a lot of talent. But there’s almost always room for improvement. Too many audio engineers develop egos that stunt their professional development. While you’re at it, try to be more patient, too. It is easy to get frustrated at circumstances, but no one ever later regrets being cool and level-headed during a difficult moment. You will usually solve problems faster and with more satisfaction if you stay calm.

It is critically important that you develop good communication skills as an audio engineer. You at least need to have good rapport with the musicians you are mixing. Very often the language used to describe audio is vague. Comments abound like “make it more purple” or “there’s too much honk and not enough fizz in my monitor”. Teach the musicians how to explain what they need from you, and carefully explain to them what you can and cannot do so they understand what you’re dealing with. Telling someone you “can’t do it that way” isn’t the smoothest way to handle something.  Instead, try explaining what the trade-off would be so they understand what you’re weighing.

The room you mix in probably doesn’t sound the same at every seat. There’s a good chance that some of the seats sound downright awful, or that the sound is 10 dB louder in some areas than others. If your mix position is in a soft spot, you might be blowing people away somewhere else. Also, the proximity to walls will affect bass response (with people close to walls hearing more bass), so you may have areas that are extremely bass-heavy and some that are weak. Make it a point to know the variations in your room so you can mix to the average. If possible, walk around during sound check or even during the service.

I mean this in two ways. First, learn to openly receive comments, suggestions and criticism. You may be tempted to write things off as coming from untrained ears, but all feedback can be enlightening. The bottom line is if people think something is wrong, then something probably is wrong, even if they aren’t trained like you are.

The other type of listening I’m referring to is what we call “critical listening”. This is when you use your brain to dissect what you’re hearing and analyze it. This should be an automatic process for audio engineers, but I run across a stunning number of people who never really learned how to listen. To develop your sense of hearing, simply force yourself to routinely focus in on every detail you can identify, one at a time. How does the bass guitar sound? What about the kick drum? Do the vocals sound full yet clear? How about the acoustics as the sound system interacts with the room? Simply make yourself actively listen to each detail, and do it without using headphones to solo (“PFL”) things. You will improve your hearing by doing this on a regular basis. Think of it as a powerful yet remarkably simple ear-brain workout.  You’ll hear things you never noticed before and the result will be a better mix.  

An engineer needs to have some sense of musical concepts. While you don’t need to be a musician, having a musical background of some sort is definitely going to help you be a better engineer. The more your brain thinks musically, the more you’ll be able to build a musical mix. You’ll also have a better sense of what instruments should sound like and you’ll be more likely to notice when things aren’t working properly. And, when it comes to studio work, an engineer’s sense of rhythm and pitch are very important.

Many engineers get started because they’re attracted to the technology. They think that because they can understand how the equipment works, that’s all they need. However, audio engineering is a blend of art and science, and you must have both to be successful.

Chances are, there are probably features you don’t know about or aren’t using properly on your mixer or ancillary equipment. Or, it may be that you don’t understand the technical aspects of your equipment much at all. Spend some time reading the manuals, reading articles and online forum postings and asking questions. The more familiar you are with your equipment, the more likely you are to respond to problems quickly and effectively and the more likely you are to be getting the most sonic benefit from it. Remember, good audio engineering requires the successful blending of art and science.

Is the congregation singing along? Can you actually hear them? Are they a part of your mix? Mixing in a church is extra challenging because of the dynamics involved and the mix of instrumentation you often find. But sometimes mixing with the congregation is the most challenging. You need to be constantly aware of their singing and adjust your mix (overall level of the entire mix, as well as the balance of vocals) to complement the congregation’s response. In other words, the congregation must actually be a part of your mix! You must then adjust your mix to respond to their energy or to help guide it. For example, a well-timed, subtle increase in the overall level (right as the second chorus or bridge begins, for example) can help coax them into an even more energetic corporate worship experience. Also, if the congregation isn’t singing along very much, that may be an important clue that something isn’t right in your mix.