Universal Sound Engineers - is there such a thing?

I got asked a seemingly simple question recently: are sound engineers universal in their knowledge or are they specialized for specific sound applications and music genres? Can you call any professional sound engineer to do whatever type of an event? 

After all, sound has the same intrinsic properties, we all use basically the same tools to manipulate audio signals, the principles of physics and electronics are constant - we should all be equally able to get the job done.

It is not that simple. Audio has so many different applications nowadays that you would be hard pressed to even list them all. Concert sound, broadcast, sporting events, corporate audio, theatre audio, audio in gaming and other multimedia applications - the list goes on and on. Each part of this wide spectrum has been developed in further detail, not only because of the specifics of sound application, but also due to the elements of interaction with other departments. Broadcasting and sporting events have to adhere to strict loudness rules for audio content delivery, set as standards for the broadcasting community. Corporate audio is usually focused on speech intelligibility. Theatre sound is immensely subjected to the creative vision of directors, that varies from sound reinforcement to full sound amplification, where each principle has their own rules of engagement. So every slice in this giant audio pie has been slowly - or even quite rapidly, with the emergence of new technologies and protocols during recent years - moving in their own respective directions, demanding that all operators in that field acquire increasingly vast amounts of specialised knowledge. And since no one can know everything, the people in various fields are quite specialized and not easily interchangeable.

To make it a bit easier on ourselves, let’s take a closer look at just one of those elements - concert sound. Surely, within one specific segment all operators should be interchangeable, right? Well, yes and no. In a strictly technical sense, we should be all versed in the tools of the trade. But the caveat is that those tools are ever expanding, making it impossible for us to keep up. In the days of analogue desks, simpler signal flows, and one-to-one patching you could, speaking from a strictly technical point of view, take any engineer, place them in front of a console and could get a satisfactory result. Nowadays, with every manufacturer operating on their own protocole of audio transmission, with more and more audio running in various formats over various data transfer solutions, it can sometimes be a struggle to even get sound into the console and to the speakers. If an engineer is not familiar with audio over IP and has to patch signals on a Dante network, for example, they will struggle. And with the range of tools expanding rapidly, there is literally no way of being fully proficient on all consoles and on all gear, like in the past.

Up until now we have been only talking about the technical side of audio, which is only one side of the coin. We haven’t touched upon the art side of our craft, which is equally important. The quick argument would be that audio engineers are only equipped to mix content that they are familiar with and actually enjoy and explore in their own time. Although it is true that is the easiest solution, some of the greatest sounding experiments come by applying techniques and mentality of one genre to a seemingly unrelated one. An argument could be made that crossing genres is advantageous for our craft. Maybe mixing a big band from a rock vantage point will open a new door and provide a new, exciting experience for audiences. Although I know many engineers that stick to a tried and tested genre of music and try not to step over those lines, I personally enjoy taking on new challenges, trying my game at everything from mixing symphony orchestras to punk bands. The fun side of our profession is trying out new approaches and testing out different things - I consider that my playground and enjoy it immensely.

So… how do I then answer my friend who just wants to book the right engineer for their event? 

First, look for an engineer in the same field of audio work that you will need for your event, especially if they have to incorporate audio with other departments. Ask them about the gear that will be provided and how proficient they feel operating it.

But most importantly, I would advise them not to enquire solely about their genre preference or technical ability, but to call around and ask people about the engineer’s attitude first. The best audio engineers leave their clients with the sense of “what could have been done was done” feeling. Even if they are not the masters of the genre, they come prepared and with a positive attitude, eager to work and willing to learn, which usually makes for a great sounding show. They are team players and will do whatever needs to be done to make the event a success, since they realise that is their calling card for the future. And that is the only universal trait of great engineers that spans across all genres and divisions.