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Years ago, there was a tried-and-true method for becoming a recording engineer. You would find a studio willing to hire you as an intern, and work your ass off for a few months. Eventually you would catch a break and get asked to run a session. Slowly, you would start to get more work and climb your way up the ladder, until you became a full-fledged engineer with your own interns to boss around.
It was the circle of life for audio engineers.
Unfortunately, there are no “Help Wanted” signs hanging in the windows of today's recording studios. Hell, some of today's studios don’t even have windows.
If you want to make a living as a studio engineer, one way to take control of your career is to go into business for yourself as a freelancer. That can be a scary thought for a lot of engineers. Most of us got into this business specifically to avoid getting a job that requires a lot of paperwork.
Unfortunately, as many talented musicians will tell you, being good simply isn’t good enough — you’ve got to get people’s attention. You may be the best engineer in the world, but it doesn’t do you any good if the only person who knows is your local guitar shop manager.
You need to be proactive. You need to be an active member of your music scene. Most importantly, you need to make sure everyone knows that you’re an affordable, quality engineer.
Finding Your Niche
The first step of becoming a freelance audio engineer is finding your niche. While you should certainly be capable of working in multiple genres, you should be particularly fluent in one subgenre.
“What do you do? Now, what do you do best?” — Brian Eno
Early on in your career, you’re going to be tempted to take any paying job (and some non-paying jobs too). That’s fine. Don’t turn down a good opportunity because it’s not within your particular wheelhouse — just focus your efforts on finding new clients within the subgenre.
Pop, rock, hip-hop and EDM are all very saturated, competitive markets. You’ll have much better luck breaking into the synth-pop, hardcore punk, grime, or trance scenes. You’ll find there is less competition and more opportunity for word of mouth business. When starting out, it’s always easier to be the big fish in a small pond.
Setting Your Rates
Before anyone will agree to work with you, they’re going to want to know how much you charge. Spoiler Alert — “How much ya got?” doesn’t get a great reaction.
As a freelancer, you need to be able to provide potential clients with quotes. You should be able to assess how much work a project will take, and provide a price estimate with near to 10-20% accuracy.
There are a lot of factors that go into determining your personal rate, like location, experience, and competition. Do some research and find what other studios in your area are charging. Typically, recording is handled hourly. In the beginning of your career, you’ll probably be charging somewhere between $10 and $20 an hour.
Most engineers have a four-hour minimum rule, meaning you must book at least four hours of studio time. They usually offer a day rate as well, which is a slightly discounted rate for booking a full day in the studio (typically eight to 10 hours). In the beginning, your day rate will probably be around $100 or so.
Mixing, on the other hand, is typically handled on a per-song basis, especially in the beginning of your career. The per-song price for mixing is usually about the same as your day-rate. However, mixing on a per-song basis can cause some trouble. It really incentivizes you to spend as little time on a track as possible, in order to maximize your hourly rate.
On the other hand, bands won’t mind asking for revisions if you’re charging per-song, because it doesn’t cost them any more money. Some engineers choose to include a three-revision minimum to prevent themselves from spending too long on a particular mix.
Other engineers use unlimited revisions like unlimited breadsticks at Olive Garden — it’s a hook to get people in the door. If your mixes are good enough, they won’t need the revisions.
Oftentimes, you’ll work with a client for an entire project instead of a single song. Some engineers like to provide multi-song discounts, to incentivize clients to do more songs. It’s not uncommon to offer a 10-20% discount to seal the deal.
After all, if the mics are already up, and the mix template is already set, the second and third songs will take significantly less time than the first song.
Finding Your First Clients
Here’s the thing — no one is going to pay you for a service in which you have no experience. Most engineers do their first few sessions for free in order to build a portfolio. After making a few quality records, build a simple, free website to show them off and allow people to contact you for quotes.
However, your first gigs won’t come from strangers DMing you on your website, they’ll be coworkers, acquaintances and friends of friends. You already know your first few clients. All you have to do is reach out to them.
First, make a list of everyone you know who’s working in your niche. Then, add anyone you know who's working with music in any capacity. Maybe your cousin tends bar at a music venue. Maybe your coworker has an uncle who owns a studio. Maybe your barista tried to hand you a flier for their band last week and you totally blew them off like a JERK. Reach out to everyone on the list, and tell them that you’re looking for new clients. Ask them if they know of anyone looking to get into the studio.
Then, and this is the most important part, become a fan of those bands. Follow them on social media. Like, comment, share, subscribe, promote, and engage with them. Go to their shows.
You don’t have to stalk them — just make sure they know who you are. After you establish a relationship, reach out and ask them what they’re currently working on. Find out if they’re writing, touring, or looking for somewhere to record.
If they’re not currently working on anything that you could help with, see if they know someone who is looking to record. Bands are great resources for networking!
If they are currently working on something you can help with, set up a meeting and find out as many details as you can. How many songs are they working on? What services do they need? What’s their budget? What’s their schedule?
Make sure you send them examples of your work, and follow up a few days later.
It may take a while, but eventually, you’ll land your first paid gig. Follow up with the band after the project is complete and see how things are going. Make sure they don’t need any additional services.
You should also use this opportunity to ask if they know anyone else looking to get into the studio. Word of mouth is one of the most powerful forms of finding new clients, so be sure to utilize it!
This is by no means an exhaustive list of how to earn a living as a freelance engineer. There are many, many moving parts to the process.
Everyone’s journey will be different. Some will win, some will lose. Some were born to sing the blues. Just don’t stop believing!