As part of my 2nd year Bachelor’s degree in Creative Audio Production and Sound Engineering, my task was to take a closer look at two jobs in the professional music industry. The driving question of this research was: “What could you become?” One profession I am particularly interested in is Sound Engineering, with a focus on mixing and mastering.
The Mixing/Mastering Engineer is probably one of the most widespread professions in the entire music industry. This job can be very exciting from a creative point of view, as well as financially lucrative. However, there is great competition and the pressure of being self-employed, which brings some downsides. Let us take a closer look:
Dan Meyer is an Israeli born Mixing/Mastering Engineer, as well as Producer who is based in Berlin. With the age of 11 he first came in contact with electronic music, which fascinated him from the very beginning. What started with a music collection soon developed into a great interest in making music, followed by performing it in front of an audience.
In early 2020 during the pandemic, Dan had the opportunity to join a team of a professional audio studio, where he gathered his first professional experiences, doing mixing, mastering and ghost-productions. Besides the engineering and producer part he is also a DJ, playing across bars and clubs in Berlin. The studio is by far the place where he spends most of his time at, it is his sanctuary.
Sound Engineering – A wide field of work
In general, Sound Engineers either work in a music studio or at live events where they adjust sound levels to a high-quality industry standard.
The tasks of an “In-Studio Engineer” can be very wide-ranging. This can be in the classic sense mixing and mastering for other musicians, but it can also include the creation of studio recordings for other artists, sound engineering for movies/commercials/ television or even for video games.
The “Live-Sound Engineer” on the other hand is specialized in mixing for an audience at live concerts, mixing for a live-performer’s monitors, as well as mixing audio for conferences or sports events.
If you want to explore more differences between those two areas of expertise or even get a rough salary information you can visit the Indeed Career Guide. In this blog article, however, I focus on the Mixing/Mastering Engineer and thus their scope of work.
Skill requirements of a Mixing/Mastering Engineer
As A. Rothstein of the IPR (Institute of Production & Recording) Collage of Creative Arts in Minneapolis describes in his article, there are certain qualities that every successful Mixing/Mastering Engineer should have. Whether you are born with a natural talent for it or not is irrelevant. There are universities and degree programs where you can acquire the fundamental knowledge for a successful career as a Mixing/Mastering Engineer.
One of the most important skills is the ability to collaborate with other people on a professional base. In the end, the Mixing/Mastering Engineer is the last link in the artistic chain and they must try to realize the producer’s vision. This includes good interpersonal skills, such as being able to put oneself in the producer’s position and interpreting their instructions correctly. In addition, one must also be able to deal with feedback of any kind. In this context, it is best practice to always remain factual and solution-oriented, while also maintaining one’s own integrity as an artist.
Reliability in the form of meeting deadlines, transparent communication and successful decision making is essential. Turning a song into a final product takes a lot of responsibility and if something does not go according to plan (which is pretty much the case in every project), one should show the necessary patience and always find a cohesive solution that pleases everyone involved.
Professional Mixing/Mastering Engineers should have a very profound knowledge of plug-ins (such as reverbs, delays and compressors, all creative tools.) For this reason, they often like to add their own creative touch to projects, if requested by the client. In addition, some problems that might arise in a mix require creative solutions. A trust between the producer and the Sound Engineer is therefore inevitable.
Knowledge of sound equipment
A good Mixing/Mastering Engineer is familiar with all the studio equipment and knows what tools to use in which situation. A fundamental pre-condition of this is the work environment, in the form of an acoustically well treated studio. Therefore, a certain knowledge about the physicality/behavior of sound and the appropriate treatment of the working area is essential. Once set up in a suitable room with the right absorbers, diffusers, bass traps and with good speakers, one is already in a good starting position. Last but not least, one must be familiar with computers, DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation), microphones, cables, as well as dynamic tools such as compressors, gates and de-essers.
It can be a great advantage to have a musical background as a Mixing/Mastering Engineer. For example, the ability to read musical notes, understand tempo, timbre, and manipulate all that in the DAW. However, this is not a must, but can especially help to communicate with the producer, as they often have musical knowledge too. Just as important is the ability to communicate with the client if they do not have the same musical knowledge. In such a situation, it is important to simplify and adapt the vocabulary, so that all the involved parties are understanding each other.
Attention to details
Last but not least, one must have a very fine ear to hear even the smallest details. This in turn is only possible in a constant and familiar listening environment. However, one should always keep in mind that even the smallest changes in a mix, can have a big impact on the overall product. But how exactly is it possible to train the ears to become more affine to certain frequencies? The secret might be consistency and hard work.
Dan Meyer talks about consistency, hard work and proper decision making:
«If you want to know whether you’ve got it in you or not, look at your daily habits, not your skill level.» –
This is a very powerful quote because it points to the importance of consistency (be it through a concrete daily schedule with enough breaks or a specific workflow that increases work efficiency). The more you have a strategic work plan, the faster your routine grows and therefore automatically your skill level.
Engaging with clients
«It’s not 1979 anymore. There are no more staff positions at recording studios. If you want to make a living as an Audio Engineer, you have to find your own clients. It’s up to you to make a name for yourself.» – Brad Pack, How To Find New Clients For Your Recording Studio
Setting up the entire studio infrastructure is very expensive and involves a lot of passion and saving of money. Assuming this is done once, an important question arises: How can a Mixing/Mastering Engineer actually make a living?
- Building a portfolio
Often the most difficult thing is to get a first project, especially if one does not have any hired experience. For this reason, it can make sense to work at first without pay until one has a few projects to showcase on a website. But beware, working for free is not a sustainable form of business. In particular, it can even give the wrong impression, such as that one’s work is not worth anything.
- Online Presence
In the 21st century, an up to date website is essential. You have to present yourself, your previous work, and your services in a stylish and authentic way. As mentioned above, it is also the perfect place to showcase a portfolio, which can be a major reason for many clients to work with a Mixing/Mastering Engineer. Furthermore, social media channels such as Instagram, Facebook or TikTok can be of great benefit. The more interaction on the channel, the greater its reach. In order to arouse the interest of further potential clients after a successfully completed project, it can be very helpful to politely ask the client to leave a Google review.
- Word of mouth
In the music industry, the key to success is a happy client. This can best be achieved by the principle of under-promising but over-delivering. Therefore, as a new Mixing/Mastering Engineer, one must be careful to set realistic goals. The reputation is everything. One should always give his very best but still define the work rates clearly in advance (e.g., how many revisions are included in the price). This prevents tedious discussions in the future and contributes to a professional appearance.
At the end of the day, the best Mixing/Mastering Engineer in the world might not have any clients because he or she is too shy to go out there and make connections in the music industry. Be it at the university, at a music festival, or online; Anything could be an opportunity to get the next job. Giving a project to a stranger for mixing as a producer often can be a hard choice. Therefore, they are looking for reliable Mixing/Mastering Engineers. A good instinct is required to build trust with a potential client, which can start by simply supporting their music.
How to stand out from other Mixing/Mastering Engineers?
One of the most difficult challenges is how to stand out from the crowd of other service providers. Dan Meyer gives us some valuable tips:
Are AI (artificial intelligence) mastering tools a social threat to the Mixing/Mastering Engineer’s job?
AI Mastering is based on machine learning. When uploading a song for mastering, a database compares it with all previous songs and then makes decisions about the stereo field, EQ, limiting and other things based on its previous experience. But what does a human mastering engineer have to say about it? Does he see a potential danger to his job?
To summarize this socially critical topic once again: Modern AI tools can be quite helpful and do a decent job. However, a machine cannot emotinally put itself in a position of the listener and thus give a project a unique touch. If your goal is a unique, highly professional product, it might be better to spend a little more money and let an experienced Mastering Engineer do the work. But for those who do not care so much, AI mastering tools are a simple and cost-effective solution. From this perspective, AI tools have long since conquered the market, automatically displacing more expensive human Mastering Engineers.