This article will discuss the primary difference between an audio engineer and a sound designer.
Certain terms can be confusing when it comes to audio and music post-production and processing. For example, music production is an umbrella term that includes audio recording, editing, beat-making, composing, sound designing, mixing, and more. Hence, these terminologies can get vague and confusing.
In the same field, there are different niches and categories in which one could find work and build expertise, including recording engineering, live sound engineering, music production, mastering engineering, etc. So we will take two of these fields and compare them.
We will see the different skillset (both soft and hard), job profiles, job requirements, industry, etc., for sound engineering and sound designing, and which of these fields is better for you depending on your personality, educational background, and professional experience.
Sound Designer vs Audio Engineer: What’s The Main Difference?
Education & Skillset
Both audio engineers and sound designers must know the fundamentals of sound engineering, which include the physical properties of sounds, like frequency, harmonics, amplitude, pitch, etc., and how sound behaves with the physical environment.
In addition, both need to know the basics of Digital Audio Processing, which include concepts like sample rate, bit depth, audio to digital conversion, etc. Further, for sound designing expertise, you must know sound synthesis and sampling.
You should be able to record audio to process it with basic processing tools like EQ, Compression, reverb, multiband compressor, etc. You need to deeply understand different syntheses and their types, like granular, FM, wavetable, additive, modular, subtractive, etc.
It helps to have a hands-on experience with physical synthesizers, but a good knowledge of virtual synths like Serum, Massive, Diva, etc., also helps. Further, sample-based synthesizers like Omnisphere, Nexus, etc., or virtual sampling instruments like Kontakt, EXS24, DirectWave sampler, etc., always come in handy.
For game sound design, some special softwares like BITWIG, Wwide, FMOD, Reaper, and some programming languages like python, C++, etc. may be required.
For expertise in Audio Engineering, you need in-depth theoretical and practical knowledge about acoustics, recording, mics & micing, digital signal processing, mixing, and mastering, depending on your job profile. For example, as a Live sound engineer, you must have a decent understanding of electronic circuits, acoustics, space and equipment calibration, and musical ears and sensibilities.
For some jobs under the audio engineering category, you may also require learning coding languages like C++, Python, Java, Juice, and more. For example, you could be programming plugins using the C++ Juice framework, or looking after circuits & DSP in electronic products, like speakers, mics, amplifiers, etc. We will see that further in the next section.
For both fields, it helps to have a degree in music production, audio engineering, or any similar field, but you can learn these skills from online sources like YouTube, Udemy, Coursera, ADSR, and more. As an audio engineer, having a technical education background in electronics, computer science, IT, or even mechanical engineering may give you the upper hand.
Not to mention; eventually, you’re dealing with sounds, frequency, and notes, so good ears for both areas are a prerequisite. You must train your ears, not just in musicality but also in identifying frequencies and resonances.
Under the Audio Engineering umbrella, you could be a recording engineer, a mixing engineer, a mastering engineer, a live sound engineer, an acoustics engineer, a DSP engineer, a programmer, or more.
The recording engineer should have a good know-how of spaces, acoustics, interfaces, mics, pre-amps, performances, instruments, and other recording equipment. You may need to tune the space, vocals, or an instrument, so you also require musical ears and good taste in music, as artists will often ask you for advice to get better performance on the mic.
As a mixing engineer, you need an in-depth understanding of production & processing tools & plugins like autotune, Melodyne, compressors, gates, harmonic processors: saturators, distortion plugins, etc. You must be aware of ADSP and physical mixing gears.
As a mastering engineer, you need a similar skillset, with an exceptionally transparent, treated and well-responsive room, the right training in the right studios, and experience, so your masters can sound industry standard and good in every space. Whereas a Live sound engineer works with live musicians, mixing their sounds live, setting the mic gain right, setting a good tone for a guitar, micing the kick drum appropriately, etc.
Similarly, acoustics engineers deal with physical spaces like studios, halls, churches, and various other architecture and how sound interacts with them. Other jobs may include dealing with electronic circuits, especially in the manufacturing industry. And some jobs may require you to program plugins, synths, etc.
Lastly, Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Cubase, Abelton, FL Studio, etc., are some common DAWs required in the above-mentioned audio engineering job profiles. For live sound engineers, it’s also important to understand how mixers (analogue or digital) and acoustics work.
On the other hand, sound designers are expected to collect, record, edit, and create sound effects, ambient effects, and soundtracks for games, films, television, anime, and music events. In addition, many music producers like DeadMau5, Skrillex, Martin Garrix, and more are also great sound designers who create innovative sounds in their music.
For the sound design of games events, you must know programming or tools like BITWIG, Wwise, and FMOD, apart from your general DAW and synthesizers. For film scoring and sound designing, you can work on any DAW. However, Reaper, Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Abelton, and Cubase are the industry standard softwares for the film industry.
Audio Engineers are in huge demand in many industries, including music, film, live events, television, media, podcasts, and games. They are also required in the pro and consumer audio equipment manufacturing industries. Companies like Sony, Xiaomi, LG, Samsung, etc., manufacture televisions, phones, etc. that require audio engineers for research & development.
Typically, sound designers are mostly needed in the gaming industry, film industry, especially animated films, and music industry, especially electronic music. However, lately, some new audio applications are coming up in the Web3 world, metaverse, social media platforms like Meta, Twitter spaces and Clubhouse, etc.
Audio plays a huge role on these platforms, and audio engineers and sound designers are in huge demand here. One can expect to work in a recording studio, a film studio, an animation studio like Pixar, DreamWorks, etc., tech companies like Microsoft, Meta, Google, etc., and more, as the applications of audio and music are endless.
To conclude, if you have a more technical bent of mind, along with your creative musical side, audio engineering is the way to go, as you get to explore a lot of science and engineering in it, apart from the art that is sound and music. But, on the other hand, sound design is the way to go if you get curious about how sounds in games work and how to recreate and model the real world in just an auditory experience.
Undoubtedly, mixing-mastering and recording stimulate both parts of the brain and keep the work both creative and technical, but sound design work is more for a creative individual, but that also requires certain technical knowledge and understanding of the physical nature of the sound.
You can also do both if it interests you, as many skills and tools you require for both are common. Many times, it’s the same person or team wearing both hats and doing crossover work. Hope this article was of help; thank you for reading.
Shaurya Bhatia, is an Indian Music Producer, Composer, Rapper & Performer, who goes by the stage name MC SNUB, and is also 1/2 of the Indian pop music duo, called “babyface”. A certified Audio Engineer & Music Producer, and a practicing musician & rapper for more than 6 years, Shaurya has worked on projects of various genres and has also been a teaching faculty at Spin Gurus DJ Academy.