A brief introduction to working in professional audio

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Record-Producer.com.

Wednesday July 31, 2013
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There are a number of ways in which Audio Masterclass students want to work...

Central to all of these is that your work has to please someone. If you produce your own music, you will either have to please the A&R manager of a record label, or the public if you sell CDs and downloads directly. If you are employed, you have to please your manager or employer. If you work freelance or operate a recording service of any kind, you will have to please your clients. If you work unpaid in a house of worship or amateur dramatic society, you will have to please the congregation or the ticket-buying public.

Working professionally, or to a professional standard, is therefore all about pleasing people, or in other words doing work that they like, they enjoy, they will pay for, or they can profit from themselves.

The 'no faults' criterion

The first rule of pleasing people is that you mustn't displease them first. That would be like starting out to climb Mount Everest by going down to the bottom of a well or cave. You would have further to climb to reach the summit.

So your work must have no faults. In audio terms this means a full frequency response, no audible noise and no audible distortion. In live sound there must be no howlround (feedback). But there is also presentation... Your work must start and end neatly, and must be neat and precise all the way through. Your finished work must not contain any unwanted sounds, such as clicks, coughs out-takes etc. The disc that you labeled, or file that you added metadata to, must have no spelling mistakes in the name of the artist or title of the song. If you work live, then when a performer wearing a radio mic leaves the stage, you will pull down the fader for their microphone, in case they talk to a fellow performer off-stage or a member of stage crew.

These are just a few of the things that could be classed as faults in audio. And to be professional you have to be sure that your work is free from anything that could be thought of as a fault or problem.

The 'up with the front runners' criterion

Sound is a profession for people who want to be running among the front of the pack. It isn't a profession for slackers. Anyone with a 'that will do' mentality won't last long in the industry. It should be obvious that only one person can ever run at the front in any race at any time, and only one person can win. But to succeed in audio, you don't have to be that person. You might aspire to be, and that's good. But being among the front runners, or at least having that kind of mentality, is enough.

What this means is that if you write and record your own songs, then your songs have to be as good as songs that are selling already. And your production skills have to be comparable with already-successful producers. If you work, say, in theatre sound, then what the audience hears has to compare well with what they would hear in a Broadway or West End show. The system may not be as big, but the quality of sound has to be as good, or very nearly as good. If you write and record music for TV, then your music has to be comparable with the music that is on TV already, and you have to work as efficiently as TV music composers who are already successful do (and in this industry, promptness and efficiency are vitally important).

Work hard, smart, and efficiently

Make no mistake, a lot of people want to work in audio. And a lot of people are capable of working to the 'no faults' and 'up with the front runners' criteria. But they can't all succeed. The people who will succeed in achieving and maintaining a career will be those who work harder, smarter and more efficiently. Working hard isn't enough in itself. It means working longer hours, and not giving way to distractions while you're working. Working smart means finding better ways to do things, while keeping standards high. Working efficiently means having a 'system of work', so that you have a smooth process that goes all the way from taking on a new job to delivering the work to the client, well ahead of any deadline.

You can do it!

Things have changed over the last ten or so years. Before that, if you wanted to work in the professional audio industry, in any of the various areas of work, you had to find a way to get in. It wasn't easily possible to learn audio outside of the industry itself, and the equipment was far too expensive for any individual to afford.

But now, the equipment you can have in your own home recording studio is capable of work that is every bit as good as a first-class studio (although you may have to compromise on the acoustics, but more about this on another occasion).

So anyone can do it then? Well, no. There is an interesting comparison with photography. Camera equipment of fully professional quality has been available at affordable prices since the early 1980s. But does this mean that anyone can be a professional photographer? No. Absolutely no. Only people who are able to produce work of professional quality, who can work efficiently, who are dedicated to their profession, and can please their clients will ever succeed. Those who are prepared to put in the effort to be among the front runners.

In summary, to achieve and maintain a career in audio, you have to be able to work to a standard where there are no faults, your work is comparable with that of people who are already successful, and you can please your clients by delivering work promptly and efficiently.

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