What’s the difference between music production and audio engineering?

By conveying emotion through the power of sound, there is simply no other artform like music. While music is not a universal language, it does carry value to everyone despite which culture you are associated with.

There are several career opportunities in the sound recording industry. Similar to our BFA in Music Production, the career you pursue provides young artists just like you the ability to work remotely depending on how you choose to pursue your career. Our Chair or Music Production, Sean Peuquet breaks down the differences between two common skills in the industry: Music Production and Audio Engineering.

What is music production?
I think there are a couple answers to this question. From a purely creative standpoint, I think Music Production is commonly associated with a technological approach to music composition, in alignment with various popular styles. Popular, here, includes but is not limited to Pop; lots of styles benefit from at least some degree of popular and/or commercial success, from indie folk to vaporwave to glitch. While music composition is often regarded as something dead European white men used to do, music technology has radically extended the possibilities for sound creation, manipulation, and performance over the last 100 years and provided a whole new palette for composers of diverse interests, backgrounds, and training to explore. And they have, in both underground, academic, and experimental contexts, and also in popular styles like I just described. In that sense, and in alignment with what Virigil Moorefield wrote about in his 2005 book, titled The Producer as Composer, new technological instruments and techniques have emancipated composition, pushing the field beyond what I like to call “little black dot” music into the diverse technical arena of electronic recording, digital synthesis, and technologically mediated performance. The shift toward “Music Production” can thus be understood as a terminological distinction used to reflect this change. 

Another answer to the question could, instead, emphasize the commercial production of music. In this sense, the word “production” could be understood to carry more weight than the artistic pursuit of music creation alone— production as manufacturing rather than composition. This perspective emphasizes the pragmatic and professional necessity that music is a product and, like any other product, must be developed, refined in alignment with market expectations, packaged, distributed, and promoted. Music production, in this sense, refers to the industry demand that there be a product to sell if we, as creative professionals, want to build a career and be financially compensated for our efforts and skills. Commercial and financial sustainability is thus treated as integral to making music no matter how that music is made technologically or stylistically. 

What separates music production from other disciplines?
In some sense, all art must be produced. In keeping with what Alain Badiou has said about truths (including artistic ones), “something must happen. As Mallarmé would put it, it is necessary that we be not in a predicament where nothing takes place but the place.”* Producing something is basically a way of ensuring our artistic efforts result in…  something, however intangible or ineffable. So production does not separate us from other disciplines. That leaves music to carry the brunt of the burden. How we define what music can or should mean, either as individuals or collectively, seems to me to be the key notion that separates music production from other disciplines of study and creative practices, even those dealing with sound. So propose a definition; then see if it works.

* Badiou, Alain. Theoretical Writings. Edited and translated by Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano. London: Continuum, 2004.

What is a day in the life of a music producer?
It can be really varied, depending on the way you’re working that day or which industry niche you gravitate toward. Perhaps you’re working alone for many hours behind the desk composing or refining a mix, or running a recording session with multiple performers, or working through pre-production logistics to refine gear lists, schedules, agreements, and budgets. What’s remarkable about the field of music and music production more specifically, is that there is such variety of practices and workflows that are often overlapping. And that variety extends to include different balances of individual, isolated work vs. collaborative, interpersonal, and team-based efforts. Making music usually involves some incredibly focused alone time, juxtaposed with some highly dynamic and engaging periods of collaboration. 

How does music production overlap with audio engineering?
Music production entails audio engineering. Perhaps a very analog, old-school technology example would be useful here: making a piano produce a sound first requires the design and construction of a piano! I think audio engineering is perhaps best considered as the technological effort needed to create creative opportunities for music to happen, be that through music recording, music performance, music composition, etc. In this way, to produce music we will require some degree of audio engineering to design, construct, capture, and process audio signals— no matter if they are analog, digital, or even acoustic. In a very abstract sense, audio engineering is instrument building; the music producer’s instruments are simply broad in technological scope, from a tube mic to an outboard compressor, a virtual wavetable synth to a multichannel loudspeaker system, or routing a ¼ inch tape machine signal to line-level digital inputs. 

What’s the value in earning a BFA in music production?
The value of earning a BFA in music production is the ability to approach the field of music technology and creativity holistically and in a future-oriented way. The combination of musical, technical, critical thinking, entrepreneurial, and communication skills acquired through the degree program are all necessary to succeed in a rapidly changing, dynamic music industry. The BFA degree, while historically associated with music in relation to the broader performing arts, namely Musical Theater, is increasingly understood as an integrative bachelors experience that aims to draw connections between contemporary musical practices, the fine arts, humanities, and emerging technologies. While other kinds of music degrees are designed to prioritize conservatory-based practices (BM), humanities-oriented and foundational instruction (BA), technical and engineering skills (BS), or business and industry administration (BPS) in more narrowly defined ways, the BFA degree is designed to develop broadly knowledgeable and experienced artists, with particular, applied musical skill sets. The BFA degree includes more musical training and creative work than a strictly engineering or music technology degree, and yet also provides more hands-on studio experience working with the modern tools and techniques of digital audio production than most conservatory-style or BA programs. 

What exactly is audio engineering?
Audio engineering, in more pragmatic terms than described above, deals with the technical preparation, configuration, and integrity of audio equipment used to capture, process, and transmit sound. To engineer audio, there are (potentially) a huge number of decisions to be made about what gear or software to use, how to use it, and why to use it in a particular context. The audio engineer, be they a recording engineer, mixing engineer, mastering engineer, live sound engineer, etc., is responsible for making those decisions and putting the equipment to use in a way that helps realize or extend the sonic possibilities— the nuts and bolts of ensuring the technical part of music production or performance works. 

How does audio engineering stand out compared to other types of work in the sound recording industry?
In comparison to other types of work in the audio and music industry, audio engineers must really love the tools, hardware and software tools alike. While other jobs in the music industry might not care too much about one type of microphone vs. another— say, should one choose a pair of Neumann KM 184s or Schoeps CMC 6s as drum overheads for a jazz recording session?— the audio engineer will not only care, but also get excited about testing both and comparing results! Music producers and audio engineers can often be the same individual wearing different hats. But at the end of the day, the engineer’s priority is the technically proficient selection and configuration of hardware and software tools that best support the content. Alternatively, the producer is more singularly focused on the content itself, i.e. the music, musical performance, and musical product being created. 

Which degree carries more value in terms of having a broader skillset?
While the audio engineer’s skillset can run quite deep in terms of tools and technologies and the contexts in which they’re applied, Music Production is a more broadly encompassing field that, while inclusive of audio engineering skills, includes more musical, historical, and cultural perspectives that extend creativity. The tools and technologies that support contemporary music production, while pivotal to the jobs of both engineers and producers, are the key area of focus for engineers while being one of many skills that producers must develop. 

What’s your advice to someone who is deciding between the two?
What drives you to pursue a career related to sound and music? There are no right answers here, but whatever your answer is it should give you some indication of whether technological proficiency, your knowledge and use of audio gear and software, is a means to an (artistic) end or the focus itself. Audio engineering demands that tools—designing, constructing, and using hardware and software systems—be your focus in realizing any type of sound project. But if you’re more creatively inclined and prioritize your ability to achieve some more particular musical expression or sonic experience, then Music Production and its broader discursive terrain might be a better fit.