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Tonmeister is most often found as a job description in the music and recording industries. It describes a person who is a sound master (a literal translation of the German word): a person who creates recordings or broadcasts of music who is both deeply musically trained (in 'classical' and non-classical genres) and also who has a detailed theoretical and practical knowledge of virtually all aspects of sound recording, music mixing and mastering. Both competencies have equal importance in a tonmeister's work.
The purpose of a Tonmeister spans both art and technology: Working with musicians on a musical level to help them achieve the best Performance's and interpretation; and utilizing or directing the use of appropriate technology to produce the most communicative experience for the listener, including appropriate editing, sound balance and other post-production skills. One may say that a Tonmeister would utilize the techniques of scientific measurement (microphones, digital recorders, accurate amplifiers, etc.), but he or she is in the entertainment industry, too, using additional techniques to create experiences and illusions for performers and listeners.
The word tonmeister was trademarked in 1996 for the UK by the University of Surrey. Also within the UK, the SAE Institute registered the term SAE Tonmeister, which has been abbreviated to tonmeister in their registrations in several other countries, but not including Germany, Switzerland, or Austria. Members of the VDT may call themselves Tonmeister VDT.
When describing the full four-year UK BMus degree or its equivalent in Germany, the term is applied mostly to people who have graduated at bachelor's level in music and applied physics and who have gathered, under university supervision, at least a year of appropriate industrial experience in the music or recording business. Their musical training generally encompasses a full conventional classical training including instrumental studies, conducting, composition, historic and analytical studies and performance; together with applied physics and mathematics including calculus, the Fourier transform, complex numbers, information theory and modulation techniques, acoustics, electronics and much experience in recording techniques and music technology garnered in modern studios and on many locations.
The concept of a Tonmeister dates back to 1946, when Arnold Schoenberg wrote a letter to the Chancellor of the University of Chicago suggesting a course to train "soundmen". Schoenberg wrote "soundmen will be trained in music, acoustics, physics, mechanics and related fields to a degree enabling them to control and improve the sonority of recordings, radio broadcasts and sound films". It was also in this year that the University in Detmold, Germany, started the first Tonmeister course.