What does an audio engineer do?
Leigh works as a "live" or "studio" audio engineer. "Studio work is based in a recording studio, which can range from audio software/hardware on a personal computer to a full-scale analogue/digital hybrid recording studio," Leigh explains.
Working in the live audio environment might include anything from "mixing a mate's band in a pub" to theatrical mixing, where you're working with orchestras and singers on stage, to engineering sound for choreographed dance routines. Leigh also works with large-format mixing consoles and huge Public Address (PA) systems at rock festivals with crowds of 1000-plus.
What does a typical working day involve?
"If I'm doing a live show," Leigh says, "I'll turn up a couple of hours before the gig and position the microphones, tune the fold-back, sound check the band - or whatever it is that's performing - do the mix, and then pack up at the end of the night. If the PA system was contracted from an outside company, I can just go home. It can vary quite a lot."
Leigh explains that doing a "live mix" is basically taking the sound off-stage, where it's then equalised, compressed and enhanced with digital effects (FX). "Compression is basically squashing the sound into a narrower range," he adds. "Adding FX might be adding digital reverb and delays, such as echo, and then you do an overall balance of the sound, which is what the audience hears."
In a typical week, Leigh works 45 to 60 hours from Wednesday to Sunday. "You might do the set-up from 5pm and be there until three in the morning," he says.
What are some of the pros and cons of the job?
For Leigh, the positives are working with a band or show that inspires him, the huge amount of variety in the performances, and working as a freelancer so you can choose your own hours or jobs.
Negatives include "being in a busy, noisy situation" and being surrounded by people when you don't feel like it, and "working with egos". He also comments that, "quite often you don't get recognised for what you do because your work is of a behind-the-scenes nature."
What sort of skills and qualities do you need?
"First and foremost, you have to have a passion for music," Leigh says. "You've got to have an ear for music, all kinds of music, and be able to understand it." He sums up other useful attributes as having technical nous and people skills.
How did you become an audio engineer?
Leigh's father was a musician and hi-fi buff so, as a kid, Leigh was always "mucking round with equipment and listening to hi-fi systems".
"I was used to hearing high-quality sound," he says, "and I was fascinated with how the music came to be on the records."
Before Leigh completed a Bachelor of Arts in Music (majoring in composition and audio production), he volunteered at a recording studio. "I called up a studio and asked if I could make tea, be the gofer, or even just to sit there, be quiet and observe. That helped me a lot because I got to see how a real studio worked."
Are there any tips for getting a job as an audio engineer?
"Listen to lots of music and take mental notes on what you're listening to," Leigh says. "Listen to the individual sounds and analyse what the music is actually comprised of." He also suggests reading books and magazines about audio engineering and watching the Classic Albums Series on DVD.
Find out more about this career path at myfuture.edu.au (Note: free registration is required to access the myfuture site).