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Sound Engineering Technician Job Description, Career as a Sound Engineering Technician, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: High school plus training

Salary: Median—$38,110 per year

Employment Outlook: Good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Creating sound for radio, television, stage productions, and motion pictures is a relatively new craft. The radio became widely used in the early twentieth century, while television did not come into popular use until the 1940s. Movies began "talking" in the late 1920s; before that, narration and dialogue were written out as subtitles for the audience to read. The only sound in a silent movie theater came from a piano player, who followed the action of the film with sad, happy, scary, or otherwise appropriate music. The use of sound in broadcasting and motion pictures created a demand for sound engineering technicians.

Sound engineering technicians work at recording studios, concert venues, sports arenas, theater halls, and movie and video studios. For a major feature film, many sound technicians are needed to make the final soundtrack of the movie. These technicians work indoors in a studio set or outdoors on location. A boom operator works the boom, which is a large overhead microphone. The boom is moved all over the set, following the actors and the action. It must be positioned out of camera range. In addition, actors may wear individual microphones to pick up their dialogue. These microphones are also hidden from the camera.

A sound mixer—the person responsible for volume control and overall sound quality—is needed when more than one microphone is used on the set. Volume control can be quite tricky: loud noises must be loud but not blaring to an audience, and an actor's whisper must be soft yet loud enough to be understood by listeners. A sound mixer picks up and blends sound from live action on the set.

Once the sound is recorded on a single track, the track goes to a professional sound studio. There the re-recording mixer completes the soundtrack by adding and blending in other tracks such as background music, additional dialogue, and sound effects. The mixture of the many tracks results in one complete soundtrack, which must match the visual portion of the film perfectly.

Sound engineering technicians who work for radio and television stations are responsible for the quality of sound not only as it is recorded but also as it is transmitted. Most television programs are taped or filmed before they are aired. A few programs, such as news shows, are broadcast live. Live broadcasts are sometimes aired and recorded at the same time. Sound technicians working on theatrical productions, concerts, and sporting events have only one chance to synchronize sound correctly because they are working in front of a live audience.

Advances in digital recording, editing, and broadcasting has profoundly affected this field. Sound engineering technicians can now use digital technology to perform their work more quickly and efficiently, eliminating the need for some specialized equipment as well as videotapes and audiotapes. Aspiring sound technicians must be prepared to keep up with new technological advances.

Education and Training Requirements

Students interested in becoming sound engineering technicians should take courses in electronics, television production, computers, and shop. Vocational training is also helpful. Many professional schools, colleges, and universities offer courses in sound recording. Colleges also offer courses in motion picture and television production. However, hands-on experience is vital. On-the-job training is really the only way to become part of a sound crew. Technicians must be licensed if they are going to operate broadcast transmitters or microwave or other internal radio communications equipment.

Getting the Job

Most of the sound engineering technicians working at television and radio stations in big cities and large film centers such as New York and Los Angeles are union members. Only union members can work on union productions. Interested individuals should check with these unions for more information on union membership and job openings. It is also possible to find work in nonunion productions through local film production companies. Beginners with little experience usually start out as interns at small radio or television stations.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Because most sound engineering technicians are freelancers and work on a job-to-job basis, they try to work on as many different kinds of films as they can. Sound technicians in broadcasting work steadily. They may work their way up at small stations or go on to jobs at large stations that have wide audiences.

According to the Occupation Information Network, sound engineering positions are expected to grow at a faster than average rate. Technicians with varied experience are more likely to land the best and most challenging jobs.

Working Conditions

Travel is a necessary part of a sound engineering technician's life, especially those involved in motion picture production. Movies are being made with new light, portable equipment that allows a production crew to film and record sound anywhere. Audiences and producers want realism, so sound technicians may find themselves recording on the top of a mountain or in the middle of a subway. Most productions schedule both studio and location work, so a sound engineering technician must be prepared to work anywhere.

Like many other freelance workers who do film, stage, and recording work, sound engineering technicians must find another job once a production wraps up. Sometimes many job offers come up at the same time, but a technician may go for months without work. This uncertainty is part of the business.

Unlike freelancers, sound technicians on radio and television stations work steadily. They receive overtime pay when they put in more than forty hours of work per week. Radio work tends to be more routine than television work.

Where to Go for More Information

International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada
1430 Broadway, 20th Fl.
New York, NY 10018
(212) 730-1770

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
900 Seventh St. NW
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 833-7000

National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians
501 Third St. NW, Ste. 880
Washington, DC 20001-2797
(202) 434-1254

Earnings and Benefits

Salaries for sound technicians vary widely depending on the medium in which they work, the location of their work, and their degree of experience. In its May 2004 report, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics quoted the median annual salary for sound engineering technicians at $38,110. Highly experienced technicians can earn up to $80,450 per year. In most cases, nonunion workers make less than union personnel.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCommunication and the Arts