What degree do you need to be an audio engineer?

audio engineer
Closeup audio mixer with buttons

Audio engineers are vital in the production of all forms of communication utilizing sound. An audio engineer’s fields can work in are limitless, from educational videos to rock concerts and everything in between. A highly trained and skilled audio engineer may work in any industry requiring sound production, both live or recorded.

What Is an Audio Engineer?

An audio engineer adjusts, controls, and modifies sounds for films, movies, video games, and other projects that depend on rich sensory experiences. While sound engineers mostly work with speech and music, they can also create and add other sound effects, like the sound of thunder on a rainy day or creepy footsteps in the horror scene of a movie. Professional audio engineers help end-users, audiences, and gamers experience more realistic and immersive events, enhancing the project’s overall quality and approach.

Sound engineers, audio technicians, and audio engineers can sometimes overlap, as the technical knowledge necessary on the job is extremely similar. Furthermore, audio technologist, recording engineer, and sound mixer are occasionally used interchangeably, and depending upon the circumstance, they may be synonymous with an audio engineer. What sets them apart from each other is that an audio technician captures sound for recordings, live music, broadcasting, etc., whereas a sound engineer is responsible for the artistic intent in a recording, usually through a sound system at a live concert. An audio engineer will work on the technical aspects of recording, like adjusting microphones or the tuning of pre-amp knobs. They manipulate a recording using mixing, reproduction, electronic sound effects, equalization, and reinforcement of sound. Put it another way, the physical recording of a project is done by an audio engineer. Alternatively, an audio engineer may also be a professional engineer or scientist who develops, designs, and builds audio technologies and holds a degree in acoustical engineering.

Audio engineers are not performers, sound producers, or writers; they strictly work with music and sound mechanical and technical aspects – nothing else. Having said that, audio engineers do work with record producers and musicians to give their work the sound they want to achieve.  For example, an audio engineer might cut together parts of a song, add synthetic sounds to the track, or use auto-tune on a recording.  Throughout their careers, audio engineers can also explore several other subfields of audio engineering, like:

  • Recording engineer
  • Studio engineer
  • Game and audio design engineer
  • Mix engineer
  • Live sound engineer
  • Mastering engineer
  • Monitor engineer
  • Systems engineer
  • Audio post engineer

There are several skills that all audio engineers need to have in order to be successful in this competitive field. These include artistic ability, active listening, and critical thinking skills. They need to have a deep love for music and a desire for making new or different sounds. They must be detail-oriented, dependable, cooperative, and tolerate stress and criticism well.  They need to be able to work alone or in a team environment successfully.  Innovation, creative thinking, good social skills, adaptability, and leadership are also valuable traits to have as an audio engineer.

For those who are passionate about new and advancing technology, audio engineering can provide the chance to use technology every day and develop new equipment and techniques. 

What Does an Audio Engineer Do?

Audio engineers are responsible for maintaining and operating sound recording and/or broadcast equipment. On any given day, they may work with musical artists, television news stations, movie directors, radio stations, or video game companies, with the ultimate goal of producing high-quality, crystal-clear sounds. They set-up, operate, and repair audio recording/broadcast equipment, stay informed of new development in sound engineering technologies, coordinate with editors, directors, video operators, and other sound engineers when necessary, choose appropriate audio equipment for use in various situations, and plan and schedule work effectively and efficiently.

In order to perform their duties, audio engineers typically work in a studio or office where they have access to computers and computer-aided sound effects software. They may also meet with other department heads or management, music artists, producers, etc., outside of the studio to ensure the project’s overall vision is realized or travel to different locations to perform on-site tasks.

They may design and control sound at concerts, conferences, theaters, or any other venue requiring sound projection. Audio engineers can be found at corporate and sporting events, live music concerts, and movie sets. Audio engineers may even go on tour with a musical group and travel overseas or across the US, recording, mixing, editing, and mastering the sound the audience hears.

In an office or studio or on location, an audio engineer will use amplifiers, audio lines, microphones, monitors, and mixing boards to direct and control the various sounds emitted by a musical group, actors, voice-over professionals, radio personalities, or any other person(s) who requires the audio of a performance enhanced or altered. At times, it takes a team to stage a live concert, and an audio engineer is part of that team, so they must be able to communicate to be effective in their job.

Audio Engineer Education & Training Requirements

Audio engineers originate from a broad range of educational backgrounds that need both technical skills and creativity. Formal education is not a prerequisite to become an audio engineer. However, many audio engineers are trained at community colleges, vocational schools, or four-year colleges or universities. Undergraduate majors include audio technology, music production, broadcast technology. Typically, audio engineering coursework at most universities or four-year colleges will be divided into education and training engineering or science, enabling students to apply these concepts as they pursue a career developing new audio technologies. Or educations and training in the creative use of audio as an audio engineer.

The typical audio engineering degree program brings together the hands-on experience and classroom lectures covering all aspects of audio equipment, analog technology, microphone placement, surround sound, mixing consoles, studio maintenance, music theory, and other relevant coursework. Students will spend a great deal of time in a laboratory setting, gaining audio technology experience like mixing boards and oscilloscopes. They also learn and gain audio software training like Pro Tools, Ableton Live, and Sonoris Professional Mastering Software. 

Standard coursework in a bachelor’s degree programs includes:

  • Fundamentals of Audiology
  • Introduction to audio engineering
  • Audio post-production
  • Music producing and recording
  • Film and video audio engineering
  • Fundamentals of music theory

Audio engineers who want to work in research and development often have a bachelor’s degree (or master’s degree) in physics, computer science, acoustics, computer science, or another engineering discipline, like electrical engineering and electronics. Audio engineers in this area may work in acoustic consultancy or architectural acoustics. They could work designing headphones for a headphone manufacturer or an automobile manufacturer designing car audio systems. If they continue on to earn their master’s degree, they can perform research in a university setting or teach.

Certification is also made available through organizations like the Society of Broadcast Engineers or Certified Audio Engineer for those looking to improve their job opportunities and boost their salary as certification documents educational levels and competence to employers.

There are various sub-disciplines in the field of audio engineering that students may want to discover after graduation or while in school. They consist of audio signal processing, architectural acoustics, electroacoustics, musical acoustics, speech, and psychoacoustics.  Each sub-discipline plays an important role in the audio engineering industry.

Audio Engineer Salary & Job Outlook

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not log the salary or job forecast information for audio engineers.  However, they do have information for broadcast and sound engineering technicians, which loosely covers audio engineers.  The BLS reports the median annual pay for a sound engineering technician as $55,810, or just over $26.00 per hour.  Between 2014 and 2024, jobs are forecast to grow eight percent, or slightly faster than average for all occupations.  The reason for this is due in part to the television and film industries and the gaming industry’s need for trained audio engineers to enhance the sound quality of games, shows, and movies.

Of course, many things impact how much an audio engineer will earn, like educational level, industry, geographic location, and employer.  The top ten percent of audio engineers or those with experience and a degree earned about $125,000, and the lowest ten percent, like those just of college, earns about $25,000 per year.  The states with the highest employment of audio engineers were California, New York, Florida, Texas, and New Jersey.

While it is not uncommon to work overtime, weekends, holidays, and evenings, audio engineers typically work full-time during regular business hours. This is particualry true of engineers working in the television or radio industries as programs are broadcast 24/7.  Those working in the motion picture industry are frequently on a tight schedule and work additional hours to meet studio deadlines.