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

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