Audio engineering is one of those keywords that is thrown around in sound and recording circles all the time, but to newcomers to the industry, the term can seem particularly daunting.
If this sounds all too familiar, and if you’ve ever found yourself wondering what exactly this specialist engineering entails, but are left two steps back with every article you read, then you will want to keep reading, as we will be looking at what the job is at its very core, and how much math is really needed to be an audio engineering pro.
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What is Audio Engineering?
For those of you that are unsure as to what an audio engineer does, let’s take a quick refresh.
Audio engineering is the art of recording, and producing (i.e., mixing and mastering) live audio. Unlike the producer, whom you may also find in a studio, and who typically takes the helm at the desk directing performers to capture the best takes, audio engineers assume a technically focused role.
Traditionally assigned to one studio, audio engineers are the go-to in ensuring that all equipment is working as intended. They are the grease that keeps the machine that is the studio running smoothly, and as such require an understanding of all technical facets of the equipment on site.
Alongside the specifics of the studio, audio engineers must be adaptable and therefore have a solid understanding of both audio and technology at large. Audio engineering is a creative art in that the engineer must be flexible in their thinking to solve new issues at any given time.
This role was a crucial part of the studio since the dawn of recording, as reel-to-reel tape machines require a constant level of upkeep and a level of finesse and expertise to operate efficiently. Studio operation has always been a team game, and while the technology may have gotten more convenient over the decades, audio engineers remain as essential as ever.
Along with physical technical demands, modern audio engineers must also be technologically competent. The shift to digital audio workstations means that engineers now work in a hybrid capacity, both in and out of the box, editing audio, ordering takes, and ensuring no work goes missing.
What is the Difference Between an Audio Engineer and a Sound Engineer?
Audio and sound, while synonymous, delineate two related, but equally distinct roles. While the studio serves as the audio engineer’s stomping ground, sound engineers specialize in the curation of live sound.
Unlike the audio engineer, whose prerogative is to facilitate audio recording, sound engineers are tasked with rigging, mixing, and fixing equipment in an effort to deliver high-quality live shows. Sound engineers may be venue specific, however, they may also tour with an artist, working at new venues every night.
Each approach demands a thorough understanding of acoustics, instruments, live sound mixing, and a thorough technical understanding in order to tackle any problem that may arise. Along with an understanding of audio matters, it is also typical that sound engineers will have some understanding of lighting controls in case there is no lighting engineer is booked or available for the performance.
One similarity that sound and audio engineers have is the teamwork required in their job. It’s one thing to know about the equipment, but communicating and organizing with other people to quickly diagnose and rectify issues is another thing entirely. Typically, sound engineers will liaise with venue managers, front-of-house engineers, equipment techs, and other touring crew members from the minute they arrive at the venue.
So, while sound engineers and audio engineers occupy a similar area, their priorities differ greatly, and sound engineers require a much broader understanding of audio technologies at large, while audio engineers typically have an in-depth knowledge of specific equipment.
Do Audio Engineers use Math?
As with any engineering-based job, math will inevitably come up from time to time. In the case of repairs, getting into the specifics of digital (or analog) equipment operation will require a decent command of numbers.
However, math is not strictly essential. The application of math in music and audio is never active, and a good familiarity with equipment trumps calculation skills, and a good ear is more desirable in an audio engineer than a mind for numbers.
This doesn’t mean you can expect to get by without some basic calculation. Positioned in a room full of creatives, as an engineer, all eyes will be on you if a maths-based issue arises, however the most vital part of the job is the expertise, flexibility, and levelheadedness necessary to overcome any issue thrown at you in the heat of a recording session
What Sort of Math do Audio Engineers Use?
There are a few different mathematical applications you will run into if you decide to pursue an audio engineering job, but we would be remiss to say the job is at all math-heavy. Many of these are math-based issues a lot of practicing musicians will also face, and at the end of the day, music is built on math, so there truly is no line between engineering and art, making audio engineering a truly expressive practice in its own right.
On the processing side of things, ratios, frequencies, and an understanding of logarithmic scales (see dBs) are essential to audio production. These are areas of math that you will see in all DAW signal chains, and they are the foundations of compression, EQ, gain staging, and mixing audio.
Musically, frequencies are also incredibly relevant, music is a mathematical system from the steps of the scale to beat divisions, and in a studio environment musical jargon is commonplace – not knowing some theory and the math behind it will stunt recording progress to no end.
Acoustically frequencies play a huge role. When thinking about placing bass traps, diffusers, panels, and rugs, you will be required to think about how sound reacts in a room. Flutter echoes, overly lively rooms, and standing waves are all geometry-based issues. And as an engineer, your input is required when decorating and setting up a room for optimal sound.
Back in the digital domain, software crashes, and if you are using digital systems, or any bespoke software, some understanding of programming for DSP may be necessary.
If you’ve made it this far then you should be at least a bit more clued in on what an audio engineer does, and how much of the job requires number crunching. Although the word engineering may deter sound-based creatives in adjacent fields, audio engineers are a vital component of sound production, and whether or not you think you qualify if you have anything to do with audio recording, you will play the part of audio engineer at some point.
But if you are left feeling like you want to know more about the ins and outs of the job, then you should check out our article on ‘Room Acoustics for Podcasting’ to find out about a crucial but often overlooked factor that makes a great podcast.