Alternative Careers for Sound Engineers

New Directions

Published in SOS July 2004
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The music industry's down, but your passion for audio is still high. Fortunately, there are alternatives to working in the studio that can feed your fervency and still make you a living — perhaps even a better one.

Dan Daley

Looking at the music sales charts these days is a bit like looking at the dentist's bill. You know what's there, you know it's unpleasant, you know you have to deal with it, but still you avert your eyes.

Don't, because there are more ways than one to employ your audio skills and desires to work with sound than working the increasingly tenuous landscape of recording studios. No, we're not talking about becoming a pirate. But we do want to point out that there has always been more than one way to skin the cat of a career in audio. The alternatives may not be as glamourous (although some actually are more so) and they may not be as readily apparent as the goal that set you down this road in the first place. But alternatives are there aplenty. This article looks at just a few of the possibilities, examines what brought certain people to them, and considers what it takes for others to get there.

Forensic Audio

Let's start with what might be the most offbeat but coolest possibility. Forensic audio is the stuff TV docudramas are made of. Specifically, it's the application of audio engineering skills to analyse, clarify, enhance, edit and detect sounds recorded onto magnetic, digital and or other types of media. It also consists of other elements, including transcriptions, recording depositions, providing expert witness testimony, doing identifications of and authenticating recorded audio, and various other services. Think it sounds a bit dry? Listen to Arlo West recall a not-untypical case and compare it to a session spent doing 100 takes of the same line of a vocal.

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Arlo West at work — it's not often you see an audio engineer in a suit and tie!
Arlo West at work — it's not often you see an audio engineer in a suit and tie!

"A police department in Texas sent me a tape of a lady who dialled police emergency 911 when someone broke into her house, and she stayed on the line while the intruder was in her house. She never hung up the phone. Not even when he killed her."

West owns a one-man forensic audio operation in the small town of Auburn, Maine. Nearly two decades ago, he was a regular client of Dallas Sound Labs in Texas, an audio recording studio in the Lone Star state, and slowly evolved from being a musician to being an engineer. "I just kept coming into the control room during sessions and changing the sounds from in there," he says. "I liked getting behind the board, to the point where I decided to make a career out of it. I made a lot of good records there over the years, and worked on films like Titanic and with artists like U2."

However, personal circumstances changed and in the late 1990s, West migrated back to Maine, where he found more work as a musician than as an engineer. In the course of a conversation with his attorney, to whom he owed money for services rendered, he recalled that he had done some forensic audio work at Dallas Sound Labs, enhancing the sound of police emergency tapes so attorneys and investigators could figure out exactly what had happened on a particular case. "So on a whim I asked my attorney who did his forensic audio work," says West. "And he told me he had to send it out of state, that no one in the entire state of Maine did that. The he asked if I could do it. I told him about the work I'd done and he jumped all over me. He told me to start that business now."

Expert Witnesses

That timely advice has paid off handsomely in the two years since West took it. Compared to the $600 or so that most in-the-trenches engineers in the US earn for a day's labour, West's card rate for work such as audio enhancement and track cleaning is $125 per hour, with a minimum $500 retainer required just to walk in the door. He gets $1000 a day for in-court testimony, plus expenses, and charges $50 for a CD-R copy of any work he does. What's perhaps more astounding is that he rarely gets any dickering on costs — "Attorneys just want to get the job done, and they're used to paying pretty steep fees for expert work and testimony," says West — and that he considers his rates on the low side of what similar service providers get, noting that his relatively remote location won't allow him to charge what someone in, say, New York might get.

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Philip Harrison's working area at JP French Associates.
Philip Harrison's working area at JP French Associates.
Philip Harrison's working area at JP French Associates.

West has a relatively Spartan equipment complement; most of his work is done in Sound Forge v6, running on three home-made computers. "I can hot-rod them as I need to that way," he says. He also uses Enhanced Audio's Diamond Cut Live 32 software, which was made with forensic audio applications in mind. "Diamond Cut Live is both a recording and an editing system, and it's being increasing used for recording emergency calls by police departments that are going digital," he explains. "Most emergency calls are recorded to tape, which is played at a very slow speed and the tape itself is used over and over again until it's falling apart. That's why so much of forensic audio work is simply making those tapes intelligible again."

West has a Mackie 1604 mixer but says he rarely uses it; most audio subjected to forensic analysis consists of a single mono track, anyway. Aside from an array of Direct X plug-ins for EQ and de-essing, he'll occasionally employ a Focusrite Platinum Voicemaster Pro for outboard processing. Sometimes audio can't simply be brought in on media. When he has to retrieve audio from a digital voicemail box, of the type offered as a service by local telephone companies, for instance, he'll often get the client's password, then play the messages to be analysed back through a speakerphone and record it to the hard drive using a microphone instead of a DI. "You can choose a microphone for that application just as you would for a vocal or a drum," he says. "The type of microphone can help you get the sound back so it's listenable. After that, it's mostly a de-hiss and de-click job, generally looking for the frequencies that are most apparent in the voice in question and eliminating everything else."

Another regular project is removing the muffled sound from tapes when clients hide recorders under layers of clothing. "Ninety percent off the time, it's muffled with bad signal-to-noise and tape hiss," he explains. "It sounds like people are talking over the noise of a jet engine. You need to whittle down the unwanted noise but not remove the desired spoken words. It can be tricky."

Other facets of forensic audio are more subtle. "Sometimes unidentified sounds on a tape can have significant meaning — they can perhaps place a person somewhere at a certain time or point to a location from the environmental background sounds. These sounds can have many other meanings as well: were they using an AC adaptor or batteries? Sometimes the speed of the tape is different when you use the AC adaptor, suggesting that it was done near an electrical outlet and not in some remote location as may be proclaimed.

"Also, has the original tape recording been tampered with? When the tape head engages the tape by pressing Record, it leaves a distinct impression. This impression can be found everywhere on the tape where the individual has engaged the Record button. Gunshots, thumps, bangs — any sound will have a unique waveform pattern, a waveform 'fingerprint', so to speak. Waveform examination as well as spectrographic scrutiny and other means of investigation, including physically looking at the tape, can disclose a whole scope of evidence. Then there's audio restoration. I remember doing a job for a person who had sent his cassette through the washing machine. You would think that that would have completely destroyed any audio on the tape. It actually did damage the recording but with careful analysis it was restored. Not to its original state, but well enough to be transcribed and used."

Forensic audio can be as intense as any studio session. West recalls a client, a doctor, who was suspicious of her fiancé. She planted a digital recorder under the seat of his car to document any dalliances that might take place there. The resulting tape was garbled and muffled, as might be expected, but the voices of a man and woman were recognisable. The medic, frantic that her betrothed was stepping out on her, pleaded with West to unmask her rival. After working on the tape for a few hours, he was able to figure it out for her. "It was the radio, and there were two DJs on, a man and a woman, and they were like 'shock jocks', getting a little raunchy on the air," he says. "When she found out that that was what it was, you never saw a more relieved or thankful client."

System Requirements
Each of these alternative audio pursuits has its own special needs in terms of gear and expertise. But each is attainable. Here's a nutshell:
Forensic Audio
Capital investment: Relatively small — a computer-based DAW and signal-processing plug-ins.
Expertise: Ability to digitise and then manipulate audio to isolate specific data; understanding of basic legal standards and events. Ability to approach audio obliquely — what does a gunshot sound like in a thunderstorm? — much as a sonar operator learns to identify ships by their acoustical signatures.
Marketing quotient: In the US at least, business can be built up by approaching local lawyers and private investigators, which can be easily researched in local phone directories.
Potential return on investment: Depends on country, region and level of work done, but lawyers are used to paying the asking fee for a range of technical forensic services.
Archive Audio
Capital investment: Relatively small — a computer-based DAW and signal processing plug-ins. An array of various tape formats to access sources. Portability preferred, since much of the work will be done on site.
Expertise: Ability to stabilise and restore decaying analogue audio formats, digitise them and then help maintain them through evolving digital format generations.
Marketing quotient: Approaching local academic institutions, as well as historical societies and large companies.
Potential return on investment: As a guide, archivists in US academia make between $25,000 and $50,000 per annum. However, as the need to digitise and manage large volumes of data increases, the potential in the commercial end can be considerably more.
Corporate Audio
Capital investment: Can be significant — in addition to enough equipment to outfit a capable studio, the facility will need aesthetic as well as acoustical design to make it acceptable to top-tier clients.
Expertise: As much creative as technical.
Marketing quotient: High. As much time needs to be spent on cultivating business in a narrow slice of the world as on creating content for it. Few people can operate as a one-person shop. A partnership between a creative type and a business type is common.
Potential return on investment: Very high. Successful corporate events audio professionals can earn into the low hundred-thousands — dollars or Sterling.
Sound Design
Capital investment: As little or as much as you can. The sector is moving towards an all-laptop environment.
Expertise: As much creative as technical.
Marketing quotient: Mostly networking, but also scanning the landscape for opportunities for sound design applications that potential clients aren't aware exist, such as local radio commercials and web sites.
Potential return on investment: Difficult to discern. Sound designers compete with musicians and particularly creative engineers in the perception of many. Revenue will likely be directly related to how well you create an identity for yourself and your sonic signature, as well finding niches for them that more traditional audio folks don't see.
Only In America...

Thanks to the different legal system, there are fewer opportunities for private forensic audio specialists in the UK, but they do exist and their numbers are growing. Philip Harrison, forensics consultant with JP French Associates, has seen his work used on a number of high-profile cases, including ongoing work with the Bloody Sunday enquiries and the UN War Crimes tribunal stemming from the former Yugoslavia. Less globally critical but just as interesting was his work on the infamous Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? cheating scandal. When it was alleged that one of the contestants had been receiving leads via coughed signals, Harrison was asked to investigate. "We found first that the coughs were coming from within the circle of contestants, one of the people wearing [lavalier] microphones," he recalls. "A particular contestant was in the 'hot seat' and when asked a question would ponder the responses out loud, saying something like, 'It could be A or perhaps it's B but then again it could be C,' and so on, and when someone would cough when he said the right choice. The microphones had been mixed down to mono for the Digibeta track of the video, however. So we used the stereo audience microphones — four on each side of the studio — to determine directionality of the source of the suspect coughs. And we were able, using analysis of the audio, to determine that pretty precisely."

Precisely enough to contribute to the conviction of the contestant and two other defendants. Harrison, who did his first multitrack recording at age nine (and who says he spent his teens reading Sound On Sound but was constantly disappointed because "I could never afford to buy anything advertised in it"), took Acoustics Studies at Southampton University. When he decided to take a year's time off between classes, he sent out numerous letters to prospective employers from a list provided by the Institute Of Acoustics. The first positive reply he got was from JP French Associates, and he's loved the work ever since. "You never know what you're going to get from one day to the next," he says. "A bit different from setting up a drum kit every day."

Audio Archiving

They're at work every day, in the British Museum, in the Smithsonian Institute and the Library Of Congress. They are a small army of audio archiving specialists, many of whom began their careers making music. The irony is perfect, considering how critical to the music business has become the ability to restore old music, repackage it in new formats and resell it.

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A large part of audio archivist Curtis Peoples's work consists of stabilising decaying analogue media and transferring it to digital formats.
A large part of audio archivist Curtis Peoples's work consists of stabilising decaying analogue media and transferring it to digital formats.

There's music in those archives, everything from old Edison cylinders to the music of the spheres — celestial creakings recorded for the still-ongoing SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project. But there's even more spoken words — oral histories recorded to document not just the specifics of a life but its emotions, as well. Historians estimate there are literally tens of millions of hours of such oral histories stashed at governmental, organisational and academic institutions globally. Most are on analogue tape, and many of them are deteriorating faster than they can be saved. Projects such as the Ellis Island Oral History Project, and the EU-sponsored Echo Project, are challenges to audio archivists globally. It may not be as lucrative as forensic audio, but it is equally emotionally and professionally demanding and rewarding.

Curtis Peoples was working as an intern in a studio in Lubbock, Texas, in 1994, when he graduated from South Plains College with a two-year Associate degree in audio engineering. After a few years of scavenging for assistant engineering jobs and some live sound work on the side, he decided he needed to secure his future and went back to college to get a degree in another area of personal interest: history. At Texas Tech University in Lubbock, as an undergraduate, he volunteered to work on the university's Vietnam Archives project, which was collecting and organising artifacts from the war. As it turned out, these would eventually include thousands of hours of oral histories recorded on analogue tape, much of which was decaying. Peoples applied his knowledge of audio, and researched 'sticky shed' syndrome — the breakdown of the binding emulsion which holds the tape formulation to the tape backing. "I discovered that that tape emulsion formulations had changed in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly due to more intense demands by the music industry to increase tape's technical characteristics," he explains. "The newer tape formulations were more prone to collect ambient moisture, especially if they weren't stored in climate-controlled conditions. Moisture unlocks 'sticky shed' syndrome, and other problems of field recordings, like uneven tape winding, also contribute to moisture getting into the tapes and starting decay. Much of this stuff was stored in basements and attics, full of dust and mould."

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With tens of millions of hours of recordings in need of rescue worldwide, audio archivists aren't going to run out of material for a while...
With tens of millions of hours of recordings in need of rescue worldwide, audio archivists aren't going to run out of material for a while...

Peoples eventually became the chief archivist for the Vietnam project, and since then has moved over to the same position for the university's Southwest Collections archive, which chronicles the region's history. (You can listen to some of the oral histories of both projects at www.vietnam.ttu.edu and www.swco.ttu.edu.) Using a recently acquired Quadriga system from German manufacturer Cube-Tec, which digitises audio into the EBU Broadcast Wave file format (BWF) as well as automatically logging metadata and audio artifacts for later cleaning, Peoples is now digitising oral histories by the dozens. He's already looking to the future, realising that what's going on in academia now is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the oceans of analogue information that will have to be digitally archived. "The commercial potential for this is enormous," he says. "It's going to be nothing but a growth area." Indeed, growth at companies like Iron Mountain, which archive corporate and governmental sites globally, reflects the fact that what was once considered so much junk is now being recognised in the digital era as valuable 'content'.

The Quadriga system costs nearly $20,000, but much of the rest of the technology Peoples and other audio archivists use is relatively inexpensive; besides a hard disk-based workstation, he suggests a good A-D converter and an array of tape (and if possible, wire) recorders. The more arcane the playback source, the better. "Fewer companies make open-reel recorders, so having them is a valuable tool in commercialising audio archiving," he says. That applies to turntables, as well, since there are hundreds of thousands of recordings that never went beyond that format. "It's a very good start-up type of business, since it doesn't require a lot of capital," he says. "But it does require some very specific skills."

In The Corporate Reel World

The concept of corporate audio is perhaps the most antithetical to the notion of passion for sound. But it takes a similar dedication to launch a new product as it does a new band. In fact, with globalisation the buzzword in the corporate world, corporate sound is perhaps truly the most international of audio avenues.

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Paul Guzzone of Triple Z Music specialises in creating music for corporate events.
Paul Guzzone of Triple Z Music specialises in creating music for corporate events.

Paul Guzzone, producer and owner of Triple Z Music in Manhattan, found that out when he flew to Japan for IBM to create the music for the global computer maker's sponsorship efforts for the 1998 Winter Olympics there. He worked with the Japanese band Kotoza to create a theme track for IBM based around the traditional Japanese instrument the koto. "We wanted to take koto music and create a song using it in a western pop music form," Guzzone explains. "Ultimately, I took a track of a solo koto played by the woman in the band — the koto is traditionally played by women — and brought it back to my studio on a DAT and built a new track around it. Then I sent the track back to Japan where she played the solo part again but to the new backing track."

Guzzone, a bass player by trade, a jingle writer by ambition and an engineer by necessity, as many musicians are these days, sought to augment his income about 15 years ago by going to work for Brielle Music, then a leading force in corporate event production — corporate theatre, as it's known in some circles. Guzzone learnt the trade and gave it his own spin a dozen years ago, doing productions for new auto introductions and Time magazine's 75th anniversary party at Radio City Music Hall. "I got into it at a good time," he says. "I hit my stride as corporate events were getting bigger and more elaborate."

Looks Are Everything

It's not a piece of cake, however. Guzzone can count on only a couple of major events a year, plus other gigs that diversity demands, although those tend to feed the corporate work. He plays bass with and co-produced the last album for the Bacon Brothers, the band fronted by actor Kevin Bacon and his brother, and is just embarking on producing pioneering alt-folk-rockers Aztec Two Step's comeback album. "The albums give you musical credibility with the corporate world, and the corporate work tends to make you look reliable and productive to music clients," he explains.

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When you're dealing with high-flying corporate types, it's crucial that your studio looks as good as it sounds.
When you're dealing with high-flying corporate types, it's crucial that your studio looks as good as it sounds.

Business comes via word of mouth, mainly, in the close-knit world of corporate events coordinators. Having one's own studio is necessary, and while it doesn't have to be a palace, it does have to look good. Guzzone says that a decent portion of the estimated $100,000 he's spent over time on gear and facility has gone into making his studio/office suite in Manhattan look inviting to clients. It's where the deal is often closed, though not before a lot of work, mostly meetings, trying to suss out what the client is looking for. "You play a No Doubt record, they say no, you play Linkin Park, they say yes," he says. "It's finding out what they're looking for."

A personal studio is necessary because clients want revisions and they want them quickly. It also permits demos for prospective projects to be done cost-effectively and with the studio always available. Locating in New York puts Guzzone's studio close to the city's truncated but still-exceptional pool of musical talent. "The good part is that you don't need a lot of gear," Guzzone points out. "A hard disk recording system, a small iso booth, a couple of nice microphones and mic pres — I have Avalon and Drawmer — and not much else. It's not so much the equipment as it is understanding what the client wants and being able to be personable." However, synchronisation is important — many corporate events are multimedia, and live music and dancers will perform in synch with pre-recorded tracks. "Pro Tools pretty much takes care of that using the Universal Slave Driver, and I convert the video pre-records from VHS to Quicktime movies for working purposes," he says.

The rewards can be good — as much as $40,000 to $50,000 per major event, plus between $3500 and $4500 per demo. But that includes sometimes seemingly endless meetings with clients and other media producers on the event, and often as many rewrites, plus the time spent waiting for approval of lyrics and melodies, less the cost of additional musicians on tracks, and time spent on site before and during and event. And not every bid will get accepted — there is competition out there. "It can be a good living, but you will have to work for it and at it," says Guzzone.

Sound Design

The term 'sound design' has been current for 25 years, starting with Star Wars and the first Star Trek film, though as yet it lacks its own Oscar category. Sound design is that place between music and sound effects that seems so hard to define but now seems impossible to live without. Frank Serafine was one of its first practitioners, on that first Star Trek film in 1979, and he's gone on to do sound design for films including Hunt For Red October, Virtuosity, and the cine-tech classic Tron. Serafine's Venice Beach studio is about as good as it gets, though he recalls that he started out with a four-track and a Stevens console a quarter of a century ago. Friends working on the Star Trek film gave the young composer a shot at pitching music for the film. Veteran Jerry Goldsmith got the gig instead, but it brought Serafine to the attention of the producers, who gave him some space on the soundtrack to create sonic ambience with his array of synths and sequencers. He got his first screen credit as a sound designer on Tron and the niche took off after that, becoming a staple of cinema sound.

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Photo: Sara Beugen
Triple Z Music provided audio for this Xerox corporate presentation.
Triple Z Music provided audio for this Xerox corporate presentation.

Now, sound design is moving into other areas of the media, including television, commercials, the Internet, computer games and documentary films. Serafine agrees that it's another growth area for audio, but one that will require expertise beyond sound. "Media are now migrating to the laptop, and in the future more of the sound design and editing is going to be done by the picture editor," Serafine says. "So anyone getting into this field would do well to learn the platforms that sound and picture are converging upon, like Final Cut Pro. When you look at the progression of the last 20 years, you see that technology has cut the sound complement on a film's post from a large crew to just a few people. No reason to think that trend won't continue."

In terms of the technology of sound design, Serafine says he is surrounded today by scores of vintage analogue and digital synths that have all been rendered obsolete by the Emagic EXS24 software sampler he uses on his Logic Audio system, which he runs in conjunction with Pro Tools hardware. "It emulates all the synths I used to use," he says — including the one he employed to create the 'transporter' sound for Star Trek, which in turn echoed the sound effect from the original television series, which was produced by a Farfisa organ.

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Frank Serafine in his studio. These days, the vintage keyboards he used to design sounds for classic films have largely been superseded by software.
Frank Serafine in his studio. These days, the vintage keyboards he used to design sounds for classic films have largely been superseded by software.

"Sound design today means staying at the edge of the technology," he says. "That's what will make it easier to interface with all the other media that are now using sound design." Reality TV is another budding sound design field, and one which also reflects the realities of current production budgets. "Working from a laptop fits in with shows like Cops," he says, referring to the grandfather of all reality shows, shot with a hand-held camera with an attached condenser mic and the occasional wireless and which, after over a decade on the air, generates far more revenue than it costs to produce.

But Serafine also points out that sound design has other possibilities for revenue streams. One of the biggest is the reuse of sound elements that comprise sound design. Serafine has several volumes of library sounds on the market which he says act as a residual source of revenue, an annuity in a field that, like most of audio, is work for hire.

As we can see, there are a lot of possibilities out there that go well beyond the walls of recording studios. Identifying them, learning about them and seeing how they fit into you future plans, is the key to a successful career in audio, one that will go long-term.


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