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How to Succeed as a Freelance Audio Engineer

Hi folks. This article is going to be a bit different.

It’s not about compressionvocalsreverb or anything of a musical nature. It’s about creating a career in music. While it may not be the most popular article I’ve ever written, I think it will be pretty valuable.

There are two types of people in the world: people who want to work in music, and people who work in music.

People often confuse the idea of getting paid to work in music with working in music. Music is a tough field, because in your first five to ten years in the business you don’t really make enough money to support yourself. Or in my case, you actually end up going into a bit of debt. Possibly a lot. Depends how good you are at kitchen work.

The point is, working in music (really in the arts in general) requires more motivation than your average job, because your first pay check doesn’t exist and there’s no promise that it ever will. However, I promise you it will come.

There are two basic principals to getting a career in a music going: The first is to get really f-ing good. The second is to get known. And the two go hand in hand.

Back In The Day

At the very beginning of my career there was a lit path. You worked as an intern at a studio, and worked your way up to assistant engineer or assistant producer, and eventually became a b-lister, and then eventually an a-lister with your own clients and assistants. Here, the process allowed you to become good and become known in the same movement. I’m lucky in the sense that I caught the tail end of this. Unfortunately those lights have faded.

Now

As these lights went out, and that path became enshrouded, I realized I needed a new way. I left my job at the studio and began to create my own world. I stopped expecting clients to come to me — rather, I had to figure a way to reach out to potential clients. I also had to start relying on myself alone for support and experience.

Inner Success

First, the success must be an inner success. If you aren’t succeeding in your own sense of self, you can’t show people how truly great you are. This isn’t something that can be faked. So you set your own bar high.

In terms of skill level, I consider the people who charge five times what I charge to be my competition. ‘Good for what I charge’ is never the goal — really, ‘great period’ is the goal. And on every record.

The second issue in this is being in competition with oneself. Making excuses is the equivalent of giving up. So what if the vocal is a cheaply tracked mp3 and the music is printed as a 2-track. The end listener wants to listen and enjoy it — so make it work.

Initial Clients

It’s important to walk in with this mindset, because your first clients will be your toughest.

Generally speaking, the guys with the smallest budgets are also the guys with the least experience — and those are going to be the first clients you start picking up. This is your boot camp. You spend the extra time it takes, even with very little (or no) pay to get great results from inexperienced artists. Not only does this get you prepared for whatever the more demanding artists will throw at you when you start charging a lot more, but it also accelerates your career. That initial set of artists are the ones who will spread your name around. And in the absolute best case scenario, the music you worked on gets spread around as well.

Level Up

Eventually, more experienced and demanding artists start seeking you out and they force you to elevate your game — which in turn gets you even more experienced artists. All the while, the artists you’ve been working with are elevating themselves.

What’s important here is that at no point do you stop going the extra mile to put forth the absolute best results — even if it means working two days on a mix when you only get paid for one.

Outer Success

Second, the success must be an outer success. When you’re really good — let people know it. Put together a demo reel, a website, business cards. Go out to shows. Genuine confidence is very powerful. But be wary, because false confidence is equally as powerful and works against you. Everyone is on tight budgets, tight schedules, and very nervous about who handles their art. It’s extremely personal. People literally invest their lives into their music.

Artists live in a world full of insecurities, so real confidence is extremely important for them. The important thing is to deliver the goods when all is said and done! Then let it be known. Make sure you get your credits and remind the artists you work with to pass your name along.

Humility

Lastly, success relies on humility.

Reading up on what others are doing, listening carefully to artists’ needs and criticisms, listening analytically to songs you like and songs you hate, nodding to other people in the field who have their success are all very important.

The Artist Is Right

Mostly you have to keep in mind that the artist is right. If you ask an artist “do you want your music to sound bad” the answer will assuredly be “no.” But that doesn’t mean that artists won’t ask you to do crazy stuff: squash, distort, make something sound strangely disproportionate, dub in a chicken squawk, whatever.

The trick is to embrace that, and find a way to make it work in a sonically pleasing way. There’s a thin line between a bad idea and foreword thinking. So be humble.

Take Chances

Two common scenarios I face all the time are: trying to make an artist’s/band’s record sound like it was tracked in a million dollar studio even though they tracked at home in the bedroom; and, doing something with an effect or making an arrangement change that I really like that the artist hates.

The answer here is: get over it. That’s why it’s a job. If someone isn’t asking you to do the impossible then you’re not going to break new ground. If someone doesn’t hate a choice you’ve made then you’re not taking enough chances.

It’s a slow climb, but with experience, exposure, and humility you can turn a pursuit into a career.

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.

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  • Steven Krenn

    This is fantastic. Great article.

  • Joe Souliere

    Great Article. I’m just at that “Initial Clients” stage, and this was a good read to fine tune my method of approach. Thanks!

    • Matthew Weiss

      Keep fine tuning and fine tuning! The toughest places to be are getting your initial clients together and making the transition from part-time to full-time. Been there.

  • markmidwinter

    Great post Matthew!

  • Orchid Swan

    I did the “back in the day” route, but in the last 5-6 years. I am just now getting my own clients.

    It still exists.

    It seems so many people think they can buy ProTools, and have their own home recording studio, without paying their dues.

    People aren’t honest with themselves. Some people are prodigies, and can learn to make radio ready hits all on their own. Most of us still benefit from the advice of those who are where we want to be.

    I am not saying getting into a big studio is the only way to go, but I will say many of these “producers” who aren’t getting where they want to be are not willing to pay their dues, and are not honest with what their end product really sounds like.

    • Mike Washington

      I’m sorry that even though your point is good and I see exactly what you are saying, the flip side is that we shouldn’t have to be at the mercy of the gate keepers. I’m not sure about other genres but in the hip hop industry, if you aren’t making whats popular at the moment, the gate keepers don’t provide a way in. Also, the market is way to saturated with so called hip hop artists and “beat makers”. So for those of us who actually have a message, it never gets out unless we pave our own way. I truly respect your perspective, I guess I just wish that the industry it self was more open to outsiders and music artist, musicians, and producers who don’t want to go the mainstream way.

  • kudakwashe sombi

    learned a lot from your article keep up the good work

  • Mike Washington

    You make some really good points but we are in a new age. There isn’t a shortage of music professionals, there is just a shortage of access to making money as a music professional. People just haven’t figured out how to harness new technologies and use it to there advantage.

    The technological age is far from over and we are just in the cusp of change. In so many other industries professionals are getting used to the fact the products are made out of the country and services are starting to be outsourced.

    Why would this be different for the music industry. If you are a sound editor, your customer drops a file off to you, you edit, then call them to come pick it up later. So that means you aren’t limited to just local business. You can do business from abroad and just like we can get cheaper work done from India or the Philippines, there are 9 countries that have a higher household income then the USA. (Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_average_wage) Because technology is a universal language, we can do business and still charge premium prices to these countries. But just like sliced bread, people have to be aware that this exists for it to have any significance.

    We have to forge our way as musicians. Techies did it by creating marketplaces like Odesk and Elance. Musicians need to support and use website like http://www.MusicLancers.com and make sure as the site gets bigger, the right tools are being implemented to make it work in way that benefits the musicians using it.

    Matthew, you said in the article, “There are two types of people in the world: people who want to work in music, and people who work in music.”

    I also think there are two types of people: people who watch things happen, and people who make things happen.

    Steve Jobs created iTunes as a way to get control of the culture that Napster created. This was in a time when no one thought it would work. But hind sight is 20 / 20. Let’s take our business to the internet and across country lines. We have 7 Billion chances to get it right.

  • Upen Patel

    Careerlancer is a resource for all the freelancers, You can gain knowledge and much information, Anyone who wants to become a Freelance Audio Engineer they must visit to “CAREERLANCER”

  • Mayank Gupta

    Thanks for the article. As a audio engineer, you will not only produce sound, you will look at
    all other aspects of how to create a recordable and well-mastered sound & also you must be able to work in groups and socialize with fellow professionals, often in collaboration or alone. The duties of the Audio Engineer you can get here at Freelance Audio Engineer .

  • Nikita Jain

    Thanks for the article. I am learning audio engineering from seamedu.com and this article will help a lot! I want to become a freelancer once I have few years of experience and this article will be quite useful then as well.

    • Anirudh Mani

      Hey, can I ask you a few questions about that site? Let’s get in touch if possible!

  • Popcorn

    Very encouraging and informative Mr.Weiss. I think a lot of people needed to hear this, your insight helps a lot of us beginner freelancers. Thanks man! :}

  • JF27

    Great article! are there any decent places online to get some freelance work? Even just practice mixing & Mastering existing tracks, or cleaning them up? I kind of want to build a portfolio before trying to get local artists in my studio.

    • Jared Brueseke

      Look up Nail The Mix. They offer actual stems from famous artists for mixing practice each month. There’s about a $20 subscription, so if you want free, I’d suggest visiting reddit.com/r/songstems/

    • Cj Littlejohn

      http://www.cambridge-mt.com/ms-mtk.htm This isn’t a huge selection, but it is a pretty cool assortment. The pages for each song have a list at the top indicating particular challenges of the mix (i.e.: only a room mic for drums, clean guitars recorded for a song that clearly requires distortion, etc.).

  • Hi Matthew, thank you for your post to encourage us to become a freelance music engineer. Just before I often use http://www.free-audio-editor.com for some simple audio editings and this post really motivates me. Thanks!

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