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What subjects should you study to become a Sound Engineer?

If you want to work in Sound Engineering, should you study Music Technology at university? Or should you choose a *serious* subject?


Not so long ago there were but a few academic subjects on offer at university - Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, English, History, Medicine, Philosophy etc.

All high-minded and worthy, but without any direct relevance to everyday working life.

But then, enterprising establishments moved towards vocational qualifications - Hotel & Catering, Retail, Surf Studies (oh yes).

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Somewhere amidst this trend towards vocational qualifications came Music Technology, Recording Arts, and similarly labeled courses around the general field of Sound Engineering. There are curiously few courses actually called 'Sound Engineering' though.

So you could come on such a course and learn how to position microphones, how to operate an audio sequencer, play with plug-ins and effects.

But is this what industry really wants, considering the greater Sound Engineering industry of live sound, television, radio, theater, installation, film and video, as well as music recording?

The reason why Music Technology courses exist is to pander to prospective students' dreams.

Yes, it's great to have a dream (or you'll never have a dream come true, in the words of Oscar Hammerstein II). It would be great to be a successful recording artist or producer.

But the unfortunate fact is that most successful recording artists and producers are not Music Technology graduates.

So sadly, the dream offered by Music Technology courses will not come true for most graduates. They will find employment of course, but not quite the employment they had been hoping for.

And now, such Music Technology graduates are at a disadvantage. Yes, they do know how to position microphones and create a track with Logic Pro.

But there is another group of people who have a far better understanding of the principles on which Sound Engineering and audio in general are based. And with such understanding they can pick up the techniques very rapidly.

These people are the ones who sensibly chose one of a small range of solid academic subjects, upon which the entirety of Sound Engineering is founded...

  • Electronics
  • Acoustics
  • Computer Science (Not to be confused with Information Technology)

Music is a good subject too (but bear in mind that if you major in music performance at a university, you will always be second best compared to those who went to a conservatory).

You see, Music Technology is all about playing with the toys. Electronics, Acoustics, Computer Science (and Music) are about creating those toys.

So who is likely to have the best prospects of career success - someone who has been shown how to position mics around a drum kit, or someone who understands how those microphones work, and could probably build one? Someone who knows how to twiddle the EQ controls on a plug-in, or someone who could write code to implement an Infinite Impulse Response filter?

To my mind, Music Technology as an 'academic' subject is a passing fad. Vocational by all means - we need people who can position mics and apply EQ. A year's study after school will be enough for that.

But we also need people who understand Sound Engineering. I mean really understand it at a deep level.

Without those people, the Sound Engineering industry would not exist today, nor will it progress into the future.

Mark my words - Electronics, Acoustics and Computer Science are the subjects to study if you want to work seriously in sound.

By David Mellor Monday June 5, 2006