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Roger Nichols: Across The Board

The Current State Of Affairs By Roger Nichols
Published October 2006

Video games are big business; these days, the budget for a game soundtrack might even take you to Abbey Road.Video games are big business; these days, the budget for a game soundtrack might even take you to Abbey Road.

Recording engineers are finding it tough to get jobs. But have they really tried all the options out there?

"There's nothing to do!" I hear this complaint at least once a week. It sounds like my kids when they sit around over the weekend. Well, all you have to do is look around. There is plenty to do. And there is plenty of work in the field of audio, too. Here are just some of the fields that deal with audio in one form or another.

  • Recording engineer: This is the field that everyone thinks about first: working in a recording studio, recording bands and wondering where you are going to hang all of your gold and platinum records.
  • Mixer: A subset of the engineering category, but there are many engineers who specialise in only mixing other engineer's recordings. You gotta be good to get into this slot.
  • Surround mixing: Surround mixes may be the vehicle that pulls the record companies out of the slumps. Much of the new material recorded is mixed for surround at the same time the stereo mixes are done, to keep the budgets down.
  • Remixing: Taking existing recorded material and turning it into a completely new genre of music, usually geared toward dance clubs.
  • Mastering: The last stage of the artistic process before CDs and DVDs are pressed and sent to market. The mastering engineer hears hundreds of finished CDs besides yours. He or she has the perfect perspective to add the finishing touches.
  • Archiving and restoration: One thing being overlooked is the old material in storage that is deteriorating as we speak. Saving old tapes and resurrecting music from the past is becoming more and more in demand.
  • Forensic audio: What was really erased on the Nixon Watergate tapes? You can recover information that was thought to be lost. It could be fun and profitable.
  • Video games: Have you ever played a good video game without sound effects? I didn't think so. Companies like Electronic Arts employ from 120 to 240 people to work on each game. They make more money than the entire record industry put together.
  • Multimedia: Educational DVDs and CD-ROMs are becoming a big business. Any subject from How To Build A Nuclear Trigger, to Raising Aardvarks For Pets.
  • Spatial perception: A field that investigates how the human mind interprets audio information into perceived three-dimensional positioning.
  • Digital audio DSP: Where do you think all of those plug-ins come from? Somebody with a good idea has to program it into a DSP chip, and then make it work with a digital audio workstation. It could be you! Actually, if you are a good one, call me. I may be in the market for one.
  • Video: Video is not much good without audio. Field-recorded audio is 10 times better when some effort is put into it. Well-done audio makes all the difference to industrial videos, school choirs recorded for parents, church choirs, weddings, live music performances, and many other projects that are usually recorded only with the in-camera microphone. Offer your services, or offer classes to teach people how to do it right.
  • Sports: Audio for sports broadcasts is a big business. Everyone wants to hear the grunts of pain when the quarterback is sacked, or the crack of the bat as it sends the baseball over the outfield fence. Shotgun mics, wireless mics and parabolic reflectors are all tools of the sports audio professional. They even use samples to make it sound more exciting.
  • DJ: A couple of good turntables or CD players, a little DJ mixer, a sampler, and some good speakers can bring you a good income. And then, after you get picked up by that hip-hop group... You are on your way to fame and fortune.
  • Loops for sale: There are guys who sit around at home all day every day listening to CDs and records to find the pieces that can be used to make the next killer groove, layering piano licks from one record with rhythm pieces from another record. Artists call them up and have them come down to the studio. If the artist likes one of the loops, he pays the loop guy lots of money, and makes a hit record out of it. Last week the loop dude drove up in a new Lamborghini.
  • Toys: Talking robots, talking dolls, and boxes filled with sampled insults that play back whenever someone walks into the room. I knew a guy who worked full-time for Mattel recording sounds that go inside Chatty Kathy dolls. That is, until the X-rated ones accidentally showed up at Toys R Us.
  • Film sound design: Location recording, sound effects, Foley and making the picture and sound work together is a big business. There are plenty of places to start a long and satisfying career.
  • Sound effects libraries: There lots of companies that hire people to go around and record everything. Babies crying, dogs barking, cars crashing, trains passing by, airplanes taking off and landing, crowds cheering, and everything else that makes a sound. A lot of this type of recording has already been done, but the technology has improved and all of it can be done better.
  • DV audio post: Kind of like sound design for film, but on a smaller scale. I know a guy who started a business doing audio post for home videos. He adds sound effects and music to birthday parties, weddings, stag parties, and any video that families find important. He also edits the video and produces DVDs.
  • Radio: Somebody has to do the audio for Howard Stern. Wait a second. All there is on radio is sound. Without sound, there wouldn't be any radio.
  • TV: There are tons of places for audio engineering for TV. There is the live audio during the show, there is the mixing of the band for shows like The Letterman Show, and there are also all of the promos that get aired during the week leading up to the show. "Next week, on Fox. See the real truth behind Miami Vice."
  • News: This field includes the audio during live broadcasts, but also extensive field recordings, and even sound effects added in real time during the newscast.
  • Talk shows: Who is going to put the hidden wireless mic on the topless dancers who are appearing on today's show? Who is going to faithfully capture the audience yelling "Jer-ry, Jer-ry, Jer-ry, Jer-ry"?
  • Living history recordings: Instead of just sitting around twiddling your thumbs, start a library of historical recordings. Interview your father who was a WWII bomber pilot. What about your grandfather who used to walk 10 miles to school in three feet of snow, and it was uphill both ways? Lots of people and organisations are doing this. How about offering a service to companies? Do historical recordings of top executives, or public officials. That should work everywhere but Washington DC. And Miami.
  • Concert/live sound: Mixing front-of-house for a monster act would be good, but there is also monitor mixing, and setting up the entire touring sound system. Don't forget the thousand-mile tour bus rides all night to get to the next gig.
  • Audio equipment design: What about designing a new power amp, limiter, headphone box, direct box, mixing console, analogue EQ, or a surround system speaker switch?
  • Speaker design: There will never be enough speaker designs. Buy a copy of MacSpeakerz and get to work.
  • Microphone design: Think of a cool name for the microphone, and come up with one that sounds the way you want it to sound. You can start by going to work for an existing microphone company.

Are you a gear junkie? Why not look into a career as an equipment designer?Are you a gear junkie? Why not look into a career as an equipment designer?

  • Transducer design: There are other types of transducers besides microphones, including drum triggers that fire samples, small Doppler RADAR that detects the movements of a vocal cord, and devices that convert muscle tension to MIDI data.
  • Studio design & construction: Now that everyone has a studio at home, don't they need it to sound better acoustically?
  • Workplace acoustics: What about making offices full of cubicles quieter? Could factory floors be quieter?
  • Automotive acoustics: It is not just the sound of the speakers and the trunk-rattling power of the amplifier. The shape and volume of the automotive interior has more of an effect on the final outcome. Now that 5.1 has found its way into automobiles, the design becomes even more critical.
  • Acoustic noise cancellation: You have probably tried noise-cancelling headphones. They have dropped from $1000 to under $100. The same technique can be used to quieten air-conditioner noise in studios, rumble from subways, and other unwanted sound.
  • Underwater acoustics: Sound travels faster underwater. A human cannot tell the direction of a sound underwater. How about a device that would solve that problem? Underwater acoustics is also used to detect and identify ships and submarines. There is an entire network of underwater microphones spread across the Caribbean and Atlantic oceans that were placed by the military to listen to the oceans. These sources could be used for other porpoises (get it?).
  • Seismic activity: Seismic waves are sound waves that travel through the earth. Timing differences at different receiver points determine the location. Many other things can be learned from this data, like where all the oil is hidden.
  • Ultrasonics: Just because it is too high for you to hear does not mean that it doesn't affect you. Ultrasound, tissue resonant frequencies, and other sub-fields are available for study. Some frequency combinations even cure and heal.
  • Infrasonics: What about the sounds that are too low to hear? These sounds affect the human body. More study needs to be done in this area besides making customers nauseous from six-string bass solos.
  • Hearing research: This is a biggie. Aural transplants are allowing the deaf to hear, sometimes for the first time. There is talk that the hearing mechanism may in fact be digital and not analogue. The inner ear does real-time FFT analysis of the sounds and sends digital signals to the brain. I knew it all along.

There are, of course, many other fields for the audio professional. I mentioned these to get you thinking about more than just cranking out a hit record. There are many more potential audio engineers than there are hit records, so the facts are that if you love audio, you may have to look into some other related field.

My father always told me to "Keep your ear to the ground and your nose to the grindstone." I replied "But it is hard for me to mix in that position."