I Want Your Job: Sound engineer

Making music sound as good as possible


Dr John Dibb, 60, works as a "professional listener". He's a senior development engineer for the British speaker manufacturers Bowers & Wilkins, and is based in Steyning in West Sussex.

What do you actually do?

In many ways, I'm a professional listener. I work on the acoustic design of loudspeakers, listening to music to hear any faults in the sound, and taking acoustic measurements. Music is far more complex than most people realise. There are sounds that we can hear but can't measure. We use all sorts of terms to describe sound quality – to me, music can sound "boomy", "nasal", "gritty" or even "lean". I'm responsible for quality. When I'm not listening, I'm liaising with other engineers to refine the design of new sound systems.

What's your working day like?

I work from 8.30am until 5.30pm in a research and development facility. At least two-thirds of my time is spent listening or making acoustic measurements of vibrations, using lasers. I listen in an anechoic chamber, which is a special room where all the sound is absorbed rather than being reflected off the walls. It makes it easier to hear tiny variations in sounds. I listen to live music, anything from a solo voice to a full orchestra, because it provides the best reference to hear how realistic it sounds. The aim is to get all the acoustic information intact from the concert hall to the listeners' ears.

What do you love about it?

I've always been fascinated by sound – in my teens, I used to build loudspeakers. Now I get paid to listen to music. I love going to live events, and one of the things I really enjoy about my job is the challenge of developing an illusion of listening to the real thing, instead of being at home listening to a recording.

What's not so great about it?

You can get a little tired of listening to your favourite pieces of music, but then you just go on to listen to something entirely new – it's not exactly a chore. It can also be frustrating if a project stalls due to cost constraints, once you've started working on it. I hate having to compromise.

What skills do you need to do the job well?

You need a good academic understanding of electroacoustics – how to convert electrical power into sound. It counts for a lot if you have a real love of music, and a keen ear for how music should sound. Closing your eyes is one very simple way to eliminate distractions and get your brain to focus on what you're hearing. The human ear is still far more sensitive to certain aspects of music than any other measuring equipment could be. To do it well you should also be patient, and a perfectionist as well, because the job can be finicky. It can take a long time to get things right.

What advice would you give someone with their eye on your job?

Most sound engineers in my company started out by experimenting and building speakers. You need an inquisitive mind. Get a degree in electronics, acoustics, physics or mechanical engineering. Go to as many live music shows as you can – you need to be familiar with how music should sound. Try to read about how speakers function. You could try to get work experience with a firm while doing your degree. The skills come with experience.

What's the salary and career path like?

Starting salaries for sound engineers working in small companies start at roughly around the £20,000-£23,000 mark, but larger companies pay more. You can rise up through the ranks to be head of research or head of development. You could also work in a recording studio, or work freelance.

www.bowers-wilkins.co.uk

For more information on training and careers in sound engineering, visit the Audio Engineering Society at www.aes.org; the Institute of Sound and Communications Engineers at www.isce.org.uk; or the Institute of Acoustics at www.ioa.org.uk

Suggested Topics
Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

English Teacher (Bristol and South Gloucestershire)

Negotiable: Randstad Education Bristol: English teachers for day to day cover,...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week