Getting Started in Audio Production

The other day someone contacted me, asking for some tips for someone getting started in audio. This particular person is planning to go to an audio engineering program. I'm certainly no expert, but there are a few things that I wish I'd known starting out. Here's an edited and expanded version of my reply:

The best knowledge comes from experience. In fact, you should think of going into an engineerging program as "paying for experience" more than book-learning. I never learned audio engineering formally, but I learned by working as an "apprentice" of sorts (with Darren) at my college radio station, where I got exposure to all sorts of gear and had to think my way through unusual situations.

If I could give anyone who is starting out in audio a few tips, the list would look something like this (My experience is mainly in recording bands, so this will be geared towards that type of work, but still applicable to most anyone):

  • Get to know the gear. Get hands-on: borrow equipment and see how you like it. Set it up in your bedroom. Start forming opinions about equipment brands you like and dislike. Get some mics, compressors, EQs, preamps, etc (physical or virtual) and play. Turn the knobs all the way to the left and right. (Be careful not to blow out speakers though. :)
  • Learn acoustics and mic'ing techniques. Pick up a copy of some good handbook/reference type books (I'll link one below) that spell out popular techniques, and experiment with them. Again, learn the things you like and don't like.
  • Train your ears. Get to the point where you can identify certain mics, amps, preamps, etc. just by hearing them. When you're mixing, close your eyes a lot, and don't let the readouts on the computer screen distract you from what's important: how it sounds. Try to start associating different frequency ranges with the types of sounds that usually reside there (reference books help with this too).
  • Don't get duped. There are certainly benefits to using pricier gear, but sometimes you're just paying for a name. There are companies out there selling \$200 power outlets, or \$300 speaker cables that supposedly improve audio quality. This is snake oil, don't fall for it. Though of course you should avoid the bottom of the barrel gear too. There are objectively important specifications to look for in quality gear (response curve/patterns, dynamic range, build quality and durability, etc) -- and also nonlinearities and imperfections that often improve your subjective listening experience (tube/tape/transformer overdrive).
  • Do your own thing. Software choice is largely personal preference -- For example, I don't use Pro Tools, even though it's the industry standard. No one piece of software adds up PCM samples better than any other... at least not in proportion with the price tag. Focus your financial efforts on getting good mics, preamps, and converters, and choose software based on its workflow and how you will use it.
  • Stay up to date. Subscribe to a couple magazines that are relevant to your area of interest. Personally I highly recommend Tape Op -- it's free, and it focuses a lot on the personal aspects of working on the production side of the music business.
  • Make connections. Another hugely important part of going to an engineering program is meeting people. After all, you can't work without clients and/or employers. For me, I've found that getting into a band and playing out regularly helps in this regard also.

Here is a good handbook to start with: The Recording Engineer's Handbook (Owsinski).

Take my advice with a grain of salt, I've yet to get anything that resembles a successful business off the ground. :) But hopefully this was somewhat helpful.

Modified Wednesday, March 24, 2021