What is a sound engineer? Far from experiencing an existential crisis I am more interested in what the title means and how engineers are perceived by the world at large.
I suspect that our use of the word ‘engineer’ is something of a sore point among more traditional engineers (i.e. those of a mechanical or civil nature). For them the title is forged in the crucible of physical endeavour and earned after many years of study and toil while we glibly apply it to any individual who shuffles faders in the back room of a pub or fumbles around with microphones in their bedroom.
If you look up ‘engineer’ in the dictionary (the excellent Oxford English Dictionary in this case) the first definition you find is: "a person who designs, builds or maintains engines, machines or structures." If we think of mixing desks as engines and the music as structures then it hints at what we do, but the emphasis is wrong – it’s focused more on the back room boffins who design and build the machines the majority of us operate.
Digging deeper into the dictionary we find further definitions: "a person who controls an engine, especially on an aircraft or ship." Despite the misleading aero and nautical references we are getting closer to the role performed by the majority of sound engineers, namely in the controlling of the machinery.
Take a look at the world of trains, for instance. It is quite right to say that engineers design and build trains and that the people who end up driving them require a wholly different skill set, yet they are also called engineers (granted this usage of the word is chiefly North American but my point stands). The reason they have this title is because while they are technically just operators or drivers they require a fundamental understanding of how the train works and how to get the best out of it to do their job properly – not unlike sound engineers.
But the main problem with the above definitions is that we are looking at the word ‘engineer’ as a noun. If we return to the dictionary we find there is also a verb definition, which gets us closer to defining the act of engineering: "to skilfully arrange for (something) to occur."
It’s hard to pin down the precise origin of the title but the very first sound engineers must surely have been the electrical engineers who developed the technology of recording, reproduction and public address. This suggests the title was originally applied more in its noun form but gradually over time as the technology settled down and more of us become skilful operators, it has shifted more towards the verb sense.
But what of how sound engineers are perceived by the world at large? When I think of films featuring sound engineers as prominent characters the obvious two that come to mind are Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and Blow Out (1981). The former stars a suitably nerdy Toby Jones sound tracking a horror film in Italy, and while his job does feature elements of sound engineering his main role is really that of a foley artist. The same goes for John Travolta in Blow Out, a somewhat more urbane portrayal of a ‘sound engineer’ – the whole plot revolving around a wild track recording he makes which could prove a murder happened – but once more he is a foley artist.
There are many depictions of bands and musicians but rarely do we see the sound engineers – sometimes they are glanced behind the glass in a recording studio but rarely in a live music context. And it’s not just the engineers who are invisible, sometimes their equipment is too, and this has led to the curious phenomenon of the ‘Invisible PA’, an excellent recent example of which is in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
There are a number of key scenes where the lead character picks up a microphone in his open plan office to address his employees to offer rousing speeches which can clearly be heard issuing over a PA system. Yet when the camera pans round or shows a wide shot there are no loudspeakers whatsoever, so where is the PA system? It’s a large space so one is clearly required and judging from the reactions of the crowd they can all hear what he is saying. At one point you can clearly see the mic cable coiled at his feet and running away to some imaginary FOH position but nary do we glance a single loudspeaker (except one scene later in the film when he’s wearing a lapel mic).
Of course cinema is not meant to be an accurate reflection of real life, this is after all the fictional place where whenever you tap a microphone to see if it’s on you get a small but brief burst of feedback to confirm it is indeed working.
Most of the time I suspect I’m the only person in the cinema who spots the ‘Invisible PA’, but it does bring us back to the question of how sound engineers are perceived. I like to think the fact that we may be perceived as being invisible is a tribute to our ability to provide an easy conduit for the creativity of others. Just because we’re rarely seen does not necessarily mean we’re being taken for granted or ignored. If we appear to merge with the machinery we operate than that only goes to show we’re doing our jobs properly.
A good sound engineer is a lot like a good movie sound track – the better they do their job the less likely you are to notice them at all; they complement and enhance the experience without you even realising they’re busily beavering away in the background. Maybe that’s why we embrace the lofty title of sound engineer – to compensate for our perceived invisibility.
Andy Coules (andycoules.co.uk) is a sound engineer and audio educator who has toured the world with a diverse array of acts in a wide range of genres.