In addition to our Studio SOS home visits, Hugh Robjohns and myself are occasionally asked to speak to students on music technology courses at universities and colleges, which is something we usually do as a question and answer session double act. During these sessions, we always ask our audience how many of them are working towards being professional recording studio engineers, and most of the hands in the room usually shoot up. In turn, one of the questions we get asked the most is 'How do I go about getting a job as a recording engineer in a professional recording studio?' While this is a theme I've visited before, it's ground worth covering again given the number of people still wanting answers; and in order to make sense of the question, you have to compare how many people want to become engineers with the number of vacancies actually available.
I don't know exactly how many people are on diploma or degree level music technology courses at any one time in the UK, but I think a conservative estimate would be around 5,000. Around 80 percent of these seem to want to work as studio engineers, so let's say around 4,000 of the folks on courses are looking for engineering jobs in the industry. On top of that, we have all those people who have finished courses over the last couple of years and who still want jobs as engineers, but haven't got one yet. We also have a number of experienced engineers who are out of work because of the continuing decline in the number of professional studios, plus we have an unknown number of perfectly capable self-taught project studio owners who want to move into professional engineering. So, at any given time, I'd estimate that there could be anything from five to ten thousand people wanting engineering jobs in studios.
This army of prospective engineers must be weighed against the reality that the number of world-class studios in the UK can be counted on your fingers, and the number of other professional studios big enough to be serious employers can probably be numbered in tens rather than hundreds. That can only leave something like a few dozen engineering vacancies every year, and, in my experience, many of these are filled by people already known to the studio or recommended to them by somebody already in the business. Being realistic, fewer than one in every hundred prospective engineers is going to find a suitable pro studio job, although there's no denying that having a good music technology qualification gives you some advantages.
You can't rely on getting much on-the-job training these days, since most studios looking for engineers are doing so because they've just lost an engineer and their replacement needs to hit the ground running. While education (whether formal or through experience) is essential, mental attitude is just as important as technical ability, so the successful candidate must be good with people, should already know how to use the studio's recording equipment (in addition to all the major software audio packages in common usage), and needs to be able to cope with any type of recording project, from a folk band to a dance track. The reality of studio engineering isn't half as glamorous as it's sometimes cracked up to be, especially if you're having to deal with inexperienced or emotionally unstable musicians.
The reason I'm stressing the imbalance between aspirational engineers and actual job opportunities is because there are many other jobs in audio that some people never consider. With the growth in TV, multimedia and new audio formats, there's a need for good mastering engineers, both for stereo and surround work, not to mention outside broadcast, live sound mixing, and specialist freelance work with systems like Pro Tools.
Outside the mainstream there's the fascinating work of forensic audio, sound in 'art' applications, CD-ROM and DVD authoring, recording talking books, conference sound, sound effect and sample design — the list is long, if not exactly endless. The future's not entirely bleak for those of you wanting to work in audio engineering, so long as you are prepared to look beyond the narrow confines of the traditional music recording studio.
Paul White Editor In Chief