February 16, 2024 by Audrey Martinovich

What does an audio engineer do? Advice from a pro on how to become one

From live sound to mixing and mastering, audio engineers are everywhere making the world sound good. But how? Here are our tips on how to become an audio engineer.

As audio hardware and software has become cheaper and more accessible, more and more people have begun buying gear to record themselves or produce music. For many, this unlocks a new career path they’d not considered before: audio engineering. 

There is a lot that goes into being an audio engineer beyond understanding how to use a microphone. Technical know-how, creativity, and passion are traits shared by some of the most successful audio engineers and I’ve included their advice on getting started in this article. So let’s jump in!

Use audio production tools to get started with your career

Looking for tools to start your audio engineering journey? Take a look at free iZotope plugins that can help you with a variety of audio tasks, including EQ, stereo imaging, and audio effects. 

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What is an audio engineer?

An audio engineer is a technical role in any project involving audio, whether it’s music, film, podcasting, or live sound. The audio engineer must have an understanding of not only the equipment in order to get a good recording, but of other variables as well such as how sound bounces around a room and how to achieve a creative goal using technology. 

This is not to be confused with a producer. A producer is a more creative role. A producer might have ideas for riffs or melodies and make arrangement decisions to help bring the artist's vision to life. The line between audio engineer and producer has been blurred as time has gone by, but it’s important to understand the distinction because it affects how projects are credited and how you bill clients for your time and expertise. 

People often ask if audio engineers make a lot of money and if audio engineering is a good career and well, it depends on your role in the project, your level of experience, and the market you’re in. 

If you’re engineering and producing for a client, you’re doing two jobs and can (and should!) charge more. When you’re just getting started, you’ll be making less money than industry veterans who have earned a reputation for doing great work. For ideas on how to get started with setting your rates, check out how to figure out your audio engineering rate. 

Like most things, if you’re willing to practice and work hard, audio engineering can absolutely be a good career choice. But what does that career look like?

What does an audio engineer do?  

An audio engineer ‘makes it sound good,’ whether it is music, speech, or effects. An audio engineer knows how to achieve a desired creative result. An audio engineer knows how other, similar material sounds and how to get the client’s project to a competitive standard. An audio engineer might need to get good results when the medium fights with us (data compression, PA loudspeakers…). Audio engineers get a sound from “here to there” without degrading the signal.” 

- Leslie Gaston-Bird, author of the book Women in Audio.

There are so many different career paths that fall under the audio engineering umbrella so choose one that speaks to your passions. If you live for going to concerts or shows, live sound may be for you.

If you’re into creating sound effects for horror movies, definitely think about going into post production. 

No matter your path, let your passions guide you. Here’s a look at some of the most common avenues to help get you started. 

Live sound 

Live sound engineers are the ones who work at events such as concerts or theatrical performances. They amplify and mix the sound for the audience and performers. At any given concert, there’s usually a couple of audio engineers running around. The Front of House person is usually stationed within the audience and is in charge of controlling what the audience is hearing. Monitor engineers control what the people on stage are hearing. Performers need to hear themselves and others on stage so they work closely with the monitor engineer to make sure they hear everything they need to in order to give a good performance. 

For extra big events, there are system engineers who work to calibrate the many loudspeakers involved in amplifying sound for large audiences.

In some cases, there is also a broadcast engineer who is isolated from the performance and is mixing their own version of the show for a live stream or broadcast. Imagine you’re in a small room during a performance that features drums and acoustic guitar. In the room, the Front of House engineer probably doesn’t need to amplify the drums for you to hear them, however the acoustic guitar may need some help to be heard over the drums. For the broadcast however, the people at home are not in the same room as the drums so the person engineering the live stream will need to include the drums in their mix. Two different mixes usually demand two different people. Add in monitors and you’ve likely got a need for a third audio engineer on duty. 

Live sound engineers need to work well under pressure and be very quick with troubleshooting, especially if there is an audience waiting for a performance. With many loudspeakers in the same room as microphones, live sound engineers need to have an understanding of what causes feedback and how to quickly remove it. For these reasons, live sound engineers are some of the most technically-minded people I’ve ever met and they’re brilliant for it. 


Photo taken backstage while working as the monitor engineer for the band Sunspot.

Studio recording 

This is probably the role most people think of when they hear the title “audio engineer.” This audio engineer works in a recording studio and takes their time in selecting and placing microphones in an effort to best capture the sound of the source whether it’s an instrument, voice, or something else entirely. They also need a deep technical understanding of how to use equipment to get a pleasing sound and to achieve the creative goals of the recording. 

The main difference in workflow between studio engineering and live engineering is that in a studio environment, the artist will do multiple takes and choose the best performance for the final product. In the studio, you can also take the time to audition several microphones to find the best fit for each application. You might also experiment with different recording spaces and room microphones. For a behind-the-scenes look at the recording process, check out Engineering Billboard No. 1 Song “Despacito”—an Interview with Engineer Luis "Salda" Saldarriaga. 


Photo taken during a studio recording session

Audio mixing 

“Audio engineering is like cooking: the better the main ingredients, the better the dish. Sure, we can make it look and sound like a three star dish, but when the recording is done right, that five star wins it every time. Sprinkle some effects for seasoning and we’ve got something worth serving/hearing.” 

- William Bowser, mixing engineer and producer

After a recording is done, there are several files that make up a song called a multitrack. These files need to be balanced with each other in terms of volume and stereo image, and creative effects not present in the original recording are added. This process takes the song from a rough demo of files to a polished song that draws the listener in and holds their attention. I see this as both a technical and creative role because a mixing engineer will fix problems such as phase issues and will also make sure that the emotional impact is there by emphasizing certain lyrics with delays or other tools. 

For more on getting started with mixing, check out the basics of mixing music.

Audio mastering 

Mastering is the last stop in the audio production process. While the mixer receives multitrack files to do their work, a mastering engineer receives a stereo mixdown to adjust. After a song is mixed, a mastering engineer provides a final quality control check by adjusting volume and tone so that the song translates well across different types of playback systems. They will also clean up any artifacts that distract the listener from the music and enhance the stereo image. When mastering an album, the mastering engineer will listen to every track and make adjustments so that all of the songs sound consistent and like they belong together on an album. 

If mastering sounds intriguing to you, check out our tips on how to become a mastering engineer and the iZotope mastering guide.

Post production  

You might hear “post production” and think “aren’t mixing and mastering part of the post production process?” They absolutely are! However, when an audio engineer says they do “post production,” chances are they are referring to mixing audio for video or film. In my experience, this field of audio engineering is tedious but very rewarding to see come together. These sessions can get very big with all the dialog tracks, sound effect tracks, and musical score tracks so being on top of file management is a must.

For big-budget productions, there are several audio people involved. There are dialogue editors who clean up recordings done on-set and even out volumes so that every word is heard. If there are any lines that aren’t clear or otherwise need to be redone, Automatic Dialogue Replacement (ADR) happens. There are also sound effects and music that needs to be created and placed in the session to line up with the picture.

How do you become an audio engineer?

“Any skill that seems to come naturally & effortlessly is the product of practice. You have to commit to putting in the time and effort to hone your skills. There are no shortcuts.” 

- Steve DeMott, audio engineer and producer

Now that you know some of the various paths you can take in your career journey, let’s talk about some of the steps you can take to get there and we’ll hear from actual audio engineers and producers along the way. There’s also some helpful career advice from Hit Boy’s personal mixing engineer David Kim.

Start learning the craft 

“Don’t let yourself get away with describing equipment you’ve never actually heard and ideally worked with. Too many people argue about audio quality after watching YouTube tutorials (which are cool, but shouldn’t be one’s only source of information), or embracing other people’s opinions because they like what they do.” 

- Emilio D. Miler, GRAMMY-winning producer

I love what Emilio had to say because so many people are willing to take someone else’s word for what sounds good rather than actually listening for themselves. When you practice recording by experimenting with microphone placement for example, you’re training your ears along the way and developing your own taste and style. This is what sets you apart from everyone else. Every time you open a new plugin and scroll through presets, you are learning! Begin with what you have and play around. Even if all you have is the microphone on your phone and the cheapest DAW, you can learn so much about what makes a good recording that is easier to mix. 

Notice that Emilio doesn’t say not to watch YouTube videos or to learn from other people because those are certainly great places to start. Just trust your ears and think critically about what you’re hearing as you start to play with more software and hardware, and don’t write off a piece of gear entirely because it didn’t work for the specific application you saw in a video. It could be great in another application!

Create your studio 

“If you’re working at a home to semi-pro studio or in a professional environment, make sure you know that room, and your speakers, and what they are doing. The quicker you get a good to great sounding room, the easier your life will be, especially when mixing or mastering.” 

- Brian Sheil, audio mixer and producer

Once you’ve learned a bit about your career path and some of the tools used, you can start assembling your tech and create a space to work. As you start picking out gear, try to pick items that are going to be future-compatible as you scale up your productions. For example, if you’re really into studio recording you might initially think “I’m only recording my voice, I only need a one-channel interface” but this doesn’t leave you much room for growth. With a four or eight channel interface you can get recordings with more depth by adding room mics or using stereo miking techniques. If you’re into mixing, beefing up your computer so that it can handle the demand of many plugins might be a better route than getting a multichannel interface. 

No matter the career path, audio engineers all have one thing in common - they are listening to material in a room. If you’re listening on loudspeakers, the room you’re listening in plays a big role in the decisions you make. If you understand what the room and speakers are adding or artificially enhancing you can take that into account and arrive at a better quality mix faster. Here’s a handy guide to room treatment on a budget to get you started.

Build a portfolio 

“Don’t come from a place of fear when starting a project but try to come from a place of inspiration and passion. Find something about every track that you love, whether it be the beat, the singer, the lyrics, etc. and focus on that.” 

- Adam Clark, music producer

Now that you have some gear and a space, it’s time to do some work. Just create, create, create! When you’re ready to try to get some clients, the first thing they will ask for is an example of your work and you need to be ready with something for them to hear. If your portfolio includes work that you are personally excited about, you’ll draw more of that kind of work in. 

Almost all seasoned audio engineers have worked on projects they aren’t the happiest with or would never choose to listen to in their downtime, but we don’t include these in our portfolios or demo reels because it’s not what we want to spend the majority of our time working on. Remember to update your portfolio as your skills evolve!


“People hire the best person for the job…that they enjoy working with. Be helpful, go the extra mile, be sensitive to the needs of others on the session at all times. You’ll learn the technical stuff over time if you’re practicing, it’s not too hard, but if you’re not giving everyone reason to pick you personally for the next gig then the technical knowledge you have won’t be enough to carry you, no matter how good you are.” 

- Dom Morely, audio engineer

People hire people so you have to get out there and meet some people! If you’re wanting to get into post production, try finding some local film groups and start developing relationships with filmmakers in your area. If you’re into studio recording, mixing, or mastering, go to shows that are happening in your area to become acquainted with bands who may be looking to begin working on an album. Join audio engineering Facebook groups or Discord channels to get in touch with other audio engineers.

I’ve had plenty of people approach me for a gig that I was unable to take on so I recommended another engineer I trusted. Making art together is a collaborative effort and the best experiences happen when everyone involved works well together. So, even if you’re still working on your technical chops, you can network and build relationships with potential future clients or colleagues.  

Learn more about audio engineering 

Some of the most consistent advice I received when asking the audio engineer community for their input on this article was to “use your ears,” or my favorite from mastering engineer Anna Frick, “it’s the ears not the gear.” When you’re trying to learn the gear, don’t forget that listening is an art and it takes time to develop your ear. 

Our video series Are You Listening? provides guidance on the tech while also teaching you what to listen for in a mix or master. I’ll leave you with some words of advice from system engineer Samantha Boone, “It’s 100% okay to break the rules of what you should and shouldn’t do, but it’s important to understand them and do everything with a purpose. There’s no reason to do something just because that’s the way it’s always been done.”

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