An audio or sound engineer is a trained professional who works with the mechanics of recording, mixing, and reproducing sound. Audio engineers are not the same as sound producers, writers, or performers, as they deal specifically with the technical and the mechanical aspects of music and sound; nothing else.
Vaughan Phillips is one indivudual who has made his mark in South Africa as a sound engineer, having worked on a number of big projects including Mzansi Magic drama series, Isibaya. Recently, we caught up with Phillips to talk about his line of work, it’s importance in the making of the song and what it entails to be a sound engineer.
Q: Tell us about your journey in music to becoming a sound engineer?
A: As a young kid I was fascinated with tape decks, turntables, headphones, speakers, microphones and musical instruments. Basically I could be found near any piece of sound equipment that had buttons, sliders and lights, as well as tinkering on the piano. I was making mixtapes and recording “radio shows” as far back as I can remember.
I have many great memories visiting my dad’s workplace at the big sound studio where he mixed feature films and many legendary TV commercials on these huge analogue consoles and supersize reel-to-reel tape machines – a totally different world to today’s ‘in the box’ software setups.
We also used to smuggle diskettes in and out of the computer expos in the 90’s to download (now primitive) software and music files. I would spend hours almost every day sampling just about anything and making songs. These experiences most definitely paved the way and set a solid foundation for my career as it is today.
Q: How did you get into sound engineering?
A: After several years of I.T. helpdesk work, I knew it was time for something new! After a brief stint as a laser engraving operator, I was fortunate enough to land a permanent position in the Music and FX department at a well-known post-production house in Johannesburg. At the time, Audio Matrix was operating there. My dad and I set up a basic mini studio in the recording booth and over time bought new hardware accessories and upgraded it to a fully-kitted audio suite.
In between bookings, I would spend my time learning Pro Tools and creating backing tracks for infomercials, as well as my own music compositions. In 2007 I completed a part-time certificate at ASE which was a great experience. In 2008 I officially joined Audio Matrix as a junior sound editor and mix engineer. I gradually started taking on more projects and assisting my dad with sound effects editing and dialogue clean-up. Over time I started taking over the final mix for our TV drama projects and soon established direct relationships with our clients.
Q: Why do you think that music education is important in your field?
A: I think it is important to have some form of basic musical training or background to understand how a song is put together on the creative as well as technical levels. Music is integral to most TV shows, films and commercials as it enhances the narrative and evokes the appropriate emotional response from the audience. One should listen to music often and develop an appreciation for a wide variety of styles.
On occasion you will be required to select appropriate songs for a production. As a mix engineer it is definitely advantageous to have musical and ear training as it allows one to ‘deconstruct’ the soundtrack, identify critical frequencies and correct potential issues with a mix (or enhance it!). To have a musical background will most certainly complement one’s audio post-production skills, particularly in music mastering (which in itself is a specialised field.)
Q: How did you create meaningful relationships and network in your line of work?
A: It took a fairly long time for me to gain the trust of our clients. In the early days of my career, I was ‘unofficially’ working behind the scenes. It took a few years for my name to start appearing on the credit roll. When I obtained my own studio space, I was able to host sessions and interact directly with clients, producers and voiceover artists. This elevated my confidence greatly. If one takes an active interest in the productions and consistently delivers quality work, it will strengthen the reputation and attract potential clients and contacts.
Always be courteous and professional. Be prepared to put in extra effort and time (within reason of course!) It is also important to attend industry-related events and year-end functions to engage on a social level and to network with like-minded people.
Q: You have worked on some of the biggest productions including Isibaya, how did such projects come your way?
A: Many of the productions we work on are new creations from our well-established clients. Projects are also referred to us via word-of-mouth and through colleagues within the industry. Always deliver the best quality possible and be professional with every interaction because it may lead to future work, sometimes years down the line.
Q: What are the most important lessons learned in your field?
A: Learning how to plan and work towards often tight deadlines is important. One needs to have great interpersonal skills. Post positive content on social media platforms as you are representing yourself as well as your brand. All it takes is one careless tweet to undo a career, so choose your words carefully!
System crashes and computer nightmares are inevitable. Being able to get back up and running ASAP is critical, especially when your client is present and the show you are working on is broadcasting in a few hours. Always back up your work and have a fall-back plan! Invest in an inverter-UPS system for those annoying power outages. Maintain your system regularly and avoid installing dodgy software.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring sound engineers?
A: Spend as much time as possible learning and experimenting with the tools of the trade. Get hold of software demos and determine what is worth investing in. A formal qualification will serve you in good stead but ultimately it is your practical skills that will impress. Most abilities are self-taught through practical experience. Read the manual! Watch lots of mixing tutorials and get hold of related guides and reading material – Google is your friend!