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Post-Production Basics – What is an OMF or AAF, and Why Does it Matter?

Post-Production Basics Part 1

One of the technical challenges in post-production is sharing media between video and audio. Here’s a basic overview of how it works.

Audio on the Picture Side

After a production shoot, video (from each camera) and all of the audio mics (captured to a recorder or the camera) are ingested/imported to a drive or server. Audio and video are then combined so the picture editor can see all camera angles and mics together in sync (and in phase). The picture editor then edits with that combined media in a video workstation, such as Avid Media Composer, Apple Final Cut, or Adobe Premiere. Some picture editors leave every mic in their sequence and others choose certain mics (like a line mix), leaving the remaining mics to be sorted through later in the process.

While the project is in editorial, the picture team (picture editor and assistant editors) are doing their own rough mix. They’re picking what mics to listen to, adding and editing music tracks, and adding temp sound fx and temp voice over. These choices aren’t final, but their work does act as a guide for the sound team. 

Sometimes the music included is final and sometimes a composer is hired to write replacement music. If there’s a composer or music editor on the project, they will likely be involved during editorial. On low budget projects, the rest of the sound team is not involved during editorial (other than animation) unless it’s necessary for consulting or creative reasons. For big budget Hollywood films, sound editors, supervisors and mixers can be involved throughout.

After rounds of picture editing (and approvals), a final version of the picture will be “locked”. This means no further timing changes will be made and the project will be turned over to audio. There’s still changes happening on the video side (adding graphics, visual effects, color correction). When it’s all married back together, the timing should still line up exactly.

What is OMF/AAF?

Since we can’t open audio and video sessions with each other’s software (yet), there’s a couple file formats used to transfer audio between programs: OMF and AAF. The file extensions are .omf or .aaf.

To explain how it works, think about trying to move an audio session between two incompatible DAWs, like Protools to Logic or Logic to Cubase. OMF/AAF can be used to do this – it retains all of the region names, placement, length, handles (so you can still edit), volume data, clip gain, cross fades, fade ins/outs, pans, markers, and some fx. You lose plugins, but overall it’s a lot better than trying to place audio files by hand and redoing all the edits from scratch. 

The difference between AAF and OMF is that AAF is a newer format and has some advancements (such as larger file sizes and more metadata). Not all video software can output AAFs, though. Technically, there are two types of OMF (OMF1 and OMF2). OMF1 is an older format and is rarely used anymore, so when the term “OMF” is used it generally means OMF2.

How to open an OMF (or AAF)

The picture editorial crew (usually an assistant editor) are responsible for outputting materials for audio, which are a reference video (Quicktime) and OMFs (or AAFs) of the locked sequence. When you open (or import) an OMF file with Protools, this is what you’ll see:

Once it’s opened, we’ll get to see how the picture editor had everything organized in Final Cut. In this case, he had all of the audio elements across 10 tracks. Here’s what the example OMF looks like opened in Protools (in volume view):

There’s no standard for how picture editors lay out audio in their sequences. Sometimes they don’t have time for much organization at all. In this OMF, all of the dialog is on tracks 1-4. Music is spread across tracks 3-9. Sound fx are on tracks 6-10. There’s a lot of overlap between elements. It’s not perfect, but the editor’s priority is to cut picture.

At this point, you would normally import picture to check if the OMF is in sync and if the two match in length. In this example, we are skipping this step.

Splitting an OMF

One of the first tasks after opening an OMF/AAF is to “split it out,” which means each region needs to be moved to an appropriately labeled track. It’s a good idea to make duplicate tracks before moving anything (these can be made inactive and hidden). Splitting is important for organization and also to have each element (dialog, sound fx, music) totally isolated from each other. After splitting out this session (listening to regions to verify where each should go), you can see that all of the dialog is now on tracks labelled DIA, music on MX tracks, and sound fx on SFX:

This is a pretty simple example, but it’s the same process with a bigger project. An OMF could be split into a template that already has dozens (or hundreds) of tracks, auxes, reverbs, output tracks, etc.

It’s important to do the split accurately for a few reasons. First, the sound editor(s) need the proper materials to work with. Often the work is divided between different sound editors (dialog editor, sound fx editor, music editor), so they may miss something if it’s not included in their tracks. It’s also important so when the mix is finished, the mixer can deliver or archive individual stems that are accurate (voiceover, dialog, music, sound fx, Foley). A good split can affect the foreign version, too. The music and sound fx stems combine to create an M&E. The M&E is used to dub a film or show into another language. There can’t be any native language on the M&E track – otherwise you’d end up with English words in the Spanish version of a film (for example).

Part 2 will be about the editing and mixing process.

Part Time Mixer… and Part-Time What?

Years ago when I was a studio assistant, there was a freelance mixer who everyone at the studio loved. Vince was funny, totally calm in stressful situations, and genuinely wanted to get to know everyone. When he’d get free lunch (a perk mixers sometimes get for working through breaks), Vince would often share with his assistant, or he’d just order something, say he’d eat it later, and sneak it to us in the machine room.

On one hectic day, I was on three sessions with tech issues that all needed my attention. Assisting on those kinds of days was like working in a busy ER. “What are your symptoms? Have you taken any medicine?” you’d say while handing a prescription and heading to a more urgent patient. As always, Vince was patient and understanding as I was troubleshooting and running between mix bays.

At the end of the day, I stopped by his bay and we got to talking. We laughed as he told stories about working with people like Steven Spielberg and Christopher Lloyd. I realized I didn’t know where else he worked since he wasn’t at the studio every day. He said, “I work at a jail.” After my crazy day, I assumed he was joking and said, “I know how you feel!”

“No, I mean, really… I work at a correctional facility in downtown Los Angeles.” He could tell I was totally confused.

“After working in audio for 15 years I just got tired of it. Especially the stress. I had been volunteering at a correctional facility counseling and rehabilitating inmates. When a part-time job opened up, I took it.” I was surprised that someone with his level of audio expertise and credits would make such a drastic change. I asked, “when you’re doing something for a living, is it bound to become a job?”

“Absolutely,” He said. “But it’s the environment, too. This can be a grind when it’s only about quantity and getting it done fast. I still like working on TV and music when I can actually spend time on it.”

After our talk, I realized that perspective was how he could stay calm in hectic sessions and with difficult clients. Client has an “emergency”? He would laugh and say, “this stuff isn’t life or death… it’s television.” It’s easy to lose perspective in a busy studio environment especially if you’re friends with co-workers outside of work. It would bring us back to reality when Vince would come in with a new buzz cut that an inmate gave him (at the prison barber shop), or mention the death row inmate he met with before coming to the studio.

I learned from Vince that the issues that come up at work (and the issues our clients have) are important – but there are ways to acknowledge and accommodate our clients and colleagues without being completely self-sacrificing. Our time, energy, relationships and health are important, too. When you engage with friends, family, interests, hobbies or even jobs outside the industry it serves as perspective – a reminder that what we do for work (and some of the environments we work in) aren’t normal. Perspective keeps you grounded when you’re asked to do something like, “Can you squeeze in 20 hours this weekend after working a 60-hour week?” It also helps you see objectively when you something happens around you that isn’t right.

Perspective also helps us see our work/life balance. Burnout happens when you don’t have a good balance (or more like “all work/no life” balance). Balance changes over time – At one point in your career you may love working 14 days in a row but later you may want that part-time job outside the industry. Balance can sway the other direction, too; “all life/no work” balance can mean underemployed or consumed by something personal. Finding balance doesn’t have to be a life crisis or career crisis, and change isn’t always permanent. When things feel out of balance, it’s a sign that something needs to change – at least for a while.

Ultimately, we get to choose what balance works best for us – whether that job title is engineer/mixer or engineer/cupcake maker. Sometimes it takes mentors or people with a different balance (like Vince) to give us perspective… and to remind us why it matters.

Bad Interview Stories: The Five Minute Interview

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One of my first interviews in LA – and worst interviews – came through an industry job website. I saw an ad for a sound mixer for a “film with an up-and-coming director”. I sent my resume asking if they needed a sound assistant. I was interested in learning production audio but didn’t have any credits or gear. To my surprise, I got a call back a few days later from their production assistant.

“We already started filming and our sound mixer had to leave the project. We need someone immediately. Are you available?”

“Yes,” I said. “But I haven’t worked on a set before.”

“That’s fine,” She replied.

“I also don’t own gear. Are you providing any?” She urgently replied yes, so I asked what they had. She couldn’t remember exactly, so I started naming off some gear.

“Yeah, it’s something like that,” she said, cutting me off. “Why don’t you just come in for a meeting and we can sort it out.”

We arranged to meet at their headquarters (a house in the Hollywood Hills). It was my first time in the Hollywood Hills, so I was prepared for mansions and expensive cars. After an hour in traffic to get to Hollywood, I weaved my way through the hills only to find a lot of run down houses, overgrown lawns, and beat up cars. I pulled up to an average looking home with a ton of cars out front.

I was greeted by the woman I spoke with on the phone. She told me to sit at a table (which was oddly placed in the entryway two steps from the front door). She returned with a guy who introduced himself as the production manager. He asked for my resume and looked it over briefly.

“Umm, yeah, it looks like you don’t have production experience,” He said. “Do you have your own equipment?”

“No…” I replied, confused from the phone conversation I had earlier.

“Well, April, we’re looking for someone with equipment. But, we still need production assistants, if you’re interested in doing that.”

“Maybe,” I said. I figured I might as well hear him out since I had driven all the way up there.

“Basically, you would be one of the first ones on the set and the last to leave. You make sure the food is there and set up on tables and that everyone is in the right places. Sometimes it’s running errands and just whatever else we would need. It would be six days a week, 12 hours a day for the next six weeks. We can’t pay you, but if there’s extra time you could probably help out the lighting guys. The sound guy usually doesn’t need help.”

I told them I would consider it and would get back to them. I was in and out in less than five minutes. I didn’t call them back.

Looking at it now…

There were a lot of red flags that I missed because of inexperience. As someone new to town, the idea of working with an “up and coming director” was exciting – but what I didn’t know is that there’s a lot of people who think they are up and coming. Anyone with a camera can call themselves a filmmaker and put up an ad looking for crew. It’s also a common tactic to name drop to recruit people to work for low or no pay. Sometimes jobs like those can still be a good opportunity, but you have to ask yourself: What else about this opportunity is valuable? How many hours a week am I willing to commit for no pay?

On the phone, I assumed I was speaking to someone in a managerial position like a producer, associate producer, or production manager. The person who called was a production assistant (PA), which is typically an entry level job – the same job they offered me in that 5 minute interview. If I had that phone call today, I’d ask a lot more questions. I’d try to gauge if it was a professional, semi-pro, or amateur film. Instead of accepting vague answers, I would ask for an email or call back before agreeing to come in for a meeting (so we’re not wasting anyone’s time). It’s ok to ask about the hours, location, job duties, gear, or pay range – especially if they didn’t provide that information. It’s not rude or pretentious to ask: “Could you clarify some things for me? I want to make sure I’m available and can provide what you need.”

Sometimes gig listings (especially online) use the wrong terminology or job title. For example, “sound mixer” is usually the title for production sound or location mixer. In online ads, “sound mixer” can mean anything from location mixer to sound editor, sound designer, music mixer or re-recording mixer. I once had someone contact me to do a mix when they actually needed a composer. There’s a lot to learn from amateur and semi-pro projects, but it’s good to know going in that there could be a learning curve – you may have to teach your client what your job entails (or the proper title for your job).

Sometimes it’s good to do interviews just to gain experience, but commuting over an hour each way for a 5 minute meeting wasn’t worth it. It’s ok to politely turn down an interview if you’ve changed your mind – but it’s also ok to keep the interview if you see value in the experience, relationship, or the potential for a future opportunity.

Independent Contracts – The Business Skills You Need

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As a sound technician (sound engineer, mixer, editor), there’s generally two types of gigs:

  • Working for someone else’s company. They’ll contact you to book the job; You show up and do the work.
  • Working for yourself. Someone hires you to do a job, but you are responsible for everything that goes along with it (from staff to equipment).

A recent study in Los Angeles County, The 2015 Otis Report on the Creative Economy showed that 30% of creative jobs are self-employed/contract. Self-employment in the creative arts has risen 10% since 2008 and is expected to continue rising. Their study included workers in the performing arts, film, and sound engineering.

The skills needed to work on your own are different than working for a company. For example, I’m working on an indie film where the sound work is very standard (sound edit, sound design, mix). The sound team is independent – we’re doing our parts individually and then forewalling (renting) a studio for a couple days to finalize the mix with the director. These are some of the non-audio tasks that have come up in the past week:images (4)

  • Scheduling: book studio dates that work for the studio, mixer, and director; Arrange a spotting session with the director (to watch the film and take notes); Communicate with the composer about delivery dates and tech requirements; Put together a schedule for sound editorial, predub, and mix
  • Logistics: Pick up materials from the picture editor, upload for everyone else to access, check with the studio that our session’s plugins are compatible, find out mix specs and what we’re delivering (and to whom) when the mix is done
  • Ongoing changes: Email the picture editor about issues (like missing mics) and picture changes; calls/emails with the sound crew to answer questions and coordinate schedule changes
  • Running: Pick up and drop off drives
  • General discussion as issues come up: We need ADR, but do we have the budget/time for it? The studio has a scheduling conflict and we need to move one of our mix days – will the new schedule work for everyone?
  • Budget/Billing: Can we adjust the budget (and hours) since we need more time in one area than planned? When does the studio need payment? Who is paying the sound crew and what paperwork do they need? Who do we invoice?

If a studio had hired us as editors and mixers, most of those details would be taken care of by the staff behind the scenes. It can be a lot to take on when you’re trying to get work done.

Working for someone else and managing a project yourself aren’t apples to apples when it comes to pay. When I estimate the budget for a project, I have a “miscellaneous” category to cover non-audio hours. I consider what might come up in the future and include those hours in the budget, too. In film, this happens a lot especially if there’s a delay between finishing the film and when it’s distributed. If a filmmaker is doing a film festival run, it could be a year or more before they do a distribution deal (for streaming/broadcast) or release on DVD, Bluray, or iTunes. There’s often a lag in foreign delivery/distribution and that may require changes from the domestic version. The process – even if it’s communicating details and uploading files – still takes time.

I keep track of all work-related hours (not just hours spent on audio tasks) for every project. I do it to gauge time needed for future projects and to change my rates accordingly. An invoice might only show a blanket job title like “mixing,” “editing,” or “sound supervising.” So, the way to make ends meet is to have a higher freelance rate (which you negotiate before starting the job). This means you may have a different rate working for someone else vs working on your own. Your rates may change from client to client, too. If anyone asks why your freelance rate is what it is, it’s because you are operating a business: HR, accounting, sales, scheduling, operations, tech, assistant, driver. If you’re working from home, you’re also paying for electricity, internet, equipment purchases, repairs/upgrades, and other overhead costs. It’s not practical to charge only for the time you spend on audio.

If you’re concerned about being priced competitively consider this: Do you want to work with someone seeking the lowest price or someone who values what you have to offer? It takes more time and effort to gain new clients than it does to retain an existing one. In my experience, the people who are only concerned with getting a good deal will jump ship when someone cheaper comes along. Client loyalty comes from building relationships with people who recognize your worth and are willing to pay for your time. There’s times to do favors or to give clients a deal, but you always have to ask yourself what you’re getting in return for it.

Anything that can go Wrong will go Wrong – Murphy’s Law

“Murphy’s Law” is when something bad happens unexpectedly at the worst possible time.

One of my “Murphy’s Law” moments was during a one-man theater show with a live orchestra (where I was running front of house). We had a full house, and the show was being broadcast live on a radio station in Chicago. The same show the night before was nearly flawless so this night’s sound check was easy. The radio broadcast went live, and the show started. When it came time for the actor’s entrance, I raised the fader for his mic and heard nasty pops and thumps in the PA. As I turned off the mic, I saw the broadcast engineer in the balcony scrambling to remix and troubleshoot, too. I radioed to the stage manager who subtly stepped on stage with a handheld mic we had ready as a backup. The actor took it without missing a beat of his monologe. It was stressful, but our backup plan had been perfectly executed.

Even with planning, meetings, tech riders, top notch crew, sound checks and solid equipment, you’ll still be thrown curve-balls. Murphy’s Law says the piano tuner will someday be scheduled the same time as sound check, or a computer will eventually crash right before the show starts. Sometimes we have to get creative to hit a curve-ball. I used to work in concert halls where most acoustic shows would book a recording engineer but no one for sound reinforcement. Occasionally they’d need light and sound reinforcement, but it wasn’t apparent until they were rehearsing on stage – an hour before the house opened with the sound engineer set up backstage. If they were insistent on a MacGyver solution (solving the impossible), what do you do? Move the recording rig to front of house and miss the recording sound check? Run the PA from the control room outside the hall? Or, do you train someone how to hit record while you’re at FOH and check in periodically that the recording is still running? My philosophy: If a piece of gear is setup/working and you’re crunched for time, don’t move it.

It takes time to get comfortable in high-pressure situations like that where you’re expected to be “on” without warning. The work I did in concert halls (recording and FOH) is very similar to what I do now mixing for broadcast. Broadcast can be like an ER where you don’t know what’s going to come through the door or when. When it does, you have to make quick decisions and work fast. If I’m mixing something that needs to air in an hour, there’s little room for error (or losing focus). ADR and Voice-over recording has these moments too. Before the session, you might only have a Quicktime, script, and the names of a couple of people showing up. The rest is winging it (similar to running FOH for a band you just met) – adjusting mics and mic placement, headphone mixes, checking levels and sound – all while everyone waits and the clock is ticking

The key to planning for the unknown is to have an emergency plan. For every session (or show), you need to know what supplies you might need, where they are, that everything in your kit works, and that you are capable of setting up what you need quickly. For VO sessions, I’ll have a lav nearby just in case they needed to shoot ADR. For those acoustic shows, I learned to set up a couple of mics running to the PA regardless if they asked for it. For post-production mixing, I have templates with stems and effects sends in place, so there’s no room for routing errors. Your emergency “supplies” should cover your weaknesses, too. It’s Murphy’s Law that you’ll forget where to find a setting or plug-in when you really need to use it. I forget people’s names under pressure, so if there’s someone new on the crew, I write it down.

I’ve learned to handle situations by saying “I’ll see what I can do” or “I’ll do what I can” instead of “no” (up front). The show is going on, either way, so even if you can’t do much, you can, at least, say you tried. More importantly, you have to trust that you can perform under pressure. Doubt creeps in at moments when you actually need to be the most present. If there’s a technical problem and someone else is showing frustration about it, it’s easy to think, “Do they doubt my ability?” In actuality, that voice is your own doubt about yourself. Even if they are upset with you, it doesn’t matter because you still have a job to do. We know that we’re problem solvers, and Murphy’s Law is part of the job. In time, you can get comfortable with the stress, but it’s an easier process when you believe you can handle whatever might come your way.

Happy New Year! Goals, anyone?

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January is a great time to set goals, but statistically, only 8% are successful in meeting their New Year’s resolutions. However, people who explicitly write down their resolutions are ten times more likely to attain their goals than those who don’t.

When it comes to work and business, goals can have a huge impact. Goals can help us grow skills, learn to network better, change jobs or find better gigs. The beginning of the year is a great time to look at numbers, too (like how much you earned last year, spent, or saved). These can all be good metrics to use to set goals.

To start, write down a couple of work goals you’re thinking about. Then, go through each goal and ask these questions:

Is this specific?
Is this something that is 100% achievable this year?
Is this a goal that is in my control?

If the answer to any question is “no,” re-word the goal. Here are some examples:

“I want to work more hours” is a vague goal. Instead, think of specific things you can do that will lead to that outcome. Re-worded goal: “I want to meet more people who could hire me for contract work.”

“I want to change jobs” is more of an outcome than an achievement. This would be better defined as: “I’d like to improve my skills and build more connections.”

“I want to work on a major project this year (tour, album, film)” is specific, but it may not be in your control. Do you 100% know you’ll be offered a position, and that it’ll be this year? Instead, it could be: “I would like to increase my chances to work on a major project this year. I’m going to do this by…” This way, you can meet your goal regardless if you get the gig.

Once you have your goals set, break it down into tasks – a to-do list, and tasks you can regularly do  (weekly, bi-weekly, etc.) that will help you achieve your goal. For example, if your goal is to make more connections, your tasks could include:

  • Every week, contact two people who I don’t know but who do the same line of work
  • Arrange 1-2 meetings a month to meet new contacts or potential employers
  • Meet with a colleague or attend an industry event one evening a week

If your goal is to learn new skills (or improve a skill), your tasks might have items like this:

  • Read a manual a week
  • Schedule once a month to sit in with someone and watch them work
  • Work x amount of hands-on hours (side gigs, volunteering, or a paid gig)

The idea of tasks is to make the goal part of your regular life and routine. The key is figuring out what works best for you to take action – if it pops up on a calendar, will you do what you need to do then? Do you need reminders? How can you keep track of what you’ve done and what you need to do?

When you split a goal into smaller tasks, you also can gauge how much time you need to set aside. Do you have enough free time to complete all of your tasks? What problems might come up? What will you do if you’re out of town for a week or month? There’s a lot of troubleshooting you can now, and that just increases the chances that you’ll meet your goals. If your goal looks too ambitious, it’s okay to revise to make it more manageable.

Lastly, come up with ways to check-in on your progress. This is important because we can adapt our goals as things change through the year. It’s when we don’t adapt that goals get thrown out the window or forgotten altogether. If you do well with schedules, put your “check-ins” as appointments on the calendar, as a regular meeting with yourself once a month or few months. Or, plan it when you do something else repetitive (like paying bills). Other things can help you stay accountable like telling a friend or colleague about your goal. There’s also self-incentives – plan a reward for yourself if you can keep on track for three months or six months.

Let us know in the comments if you set any goals, or if you have any suggestions how to stay on track with goals.

Snap Judgments

Take a minute and go through the following list. Try to think of at least one person from each category that you really dislike, can’t stand, or find really annoying.

  • Musician or band
  • Reality TV star
  • Television (or radio) personality, actor/actress
  • Politician
  • Youtube celebrity or someone who’s famous for no reason

Imagine you are out of work and quickly running out of money. The phone rings – it’s a job offer! The pay is good, it would fit your skill set perfectly, and you could start right away. The catch: It’s working on a project for someone on your list above. Could you set your own views aside, or would you say no to the job?

Judgement comes naturally with entertainment. We hear new music and decide if it’s good or bad. We watch a movie and love it or hate it. On the job, though, we have to detach from those opinions to do the best work we can. I learned this with a big milestone my career (mixing my first television series).

It took a few years to build up from making coffee and picking up lunches to engineering sessions and mixing. When I finally landed a series, it was a genre I don’t watch: a medical show. I’m squeamish about blood and to this day can’t watch real medical shows or horror movies. So, I was trying to do my best work while on-screen was a graphic plastic surgery with nothing blurred out. (In tv/film mixing, you usually get “offline picture,” which means there’s no visual effects yet like blurs.) I spent days mixing while watching the surgeries out of the corner of my eye – just enough to make sure the dialog was in sync.

I could have said no to the show, and there are times where it’s absolutely appropriate to pass on something because of the content. In that case, it was more important to put aside personal preferences, and it was worth it for the experience, credit, and client relationship.

Judgement isn’t just about putting aside our own views. Sometimes we have to put aside what the audience thinks, too. Another milestone in my career was mixing a primetime show for a major television network. It was a reality show that had millions of viewers every week, so a huge step up from the obscure cable shows I had worked on. It was a great experience – I learned a ton and met a lot of really cool and talented people on the crew.

In the hiatus between seasons, I went to visit my parents in Colorado. My mom introduced me to a new neighbor, proudly sharing that I worked on this popular show. The neighbor responded, “Didn’t your mom say you have a Masters Degree? Why are you working on that?!” It was a huge realization: The audience has no idea what’s happening behind the scenes or why we choose the jobs we do. All they may understand is their judgement or feelings about the end product. In entertainment, we work hard knowing that some people will like it and others won’t, but it’s still our time and energy put into that work. Chances are, we don’t like everything that we work on, but it’s more important to survive.

This judgement happens at all levels of the field, too. When the movie “Interstellar” came out in 2014, there was a lot of controversy about the dialog being too quiet and unintelligible at times. One theater even put a sign out explaining that there was nothing wrong with their sound system.

Some audience and critics were pointing fingers at the mixers, who are top guys with multiple Oscar wins. Director Christopher Nolan later came to their defense saying that the mix choices were deliberate. He had creative reasons to do it, and it’s the mixers’ job to help achieve that vision.

Regardless of what the audience thinks (or the challenges you face on the job), your name is still attached to that work. Can you imagine if we could add these kinds of comments in the credits or liner notes?

  • We didn’t get enough time to work on this
  • The director wanted to get “creative”
  • The artist did most of the work themselves and they hired me to clean up the mess

Or on a ticket stub:

  • This venue has broken gear
  • The band didn’t show up for sound check
  • Yes, we know the guitarist plays too loud

It’s natural to analyze the end product, but we can do it in a way that’s respectful. For example, there’s a difference between saying, “I hate Justin Bieber” and “His album production is great, but I don’t care for how he presents himself.” Instead of saying, “That movie was a waste of time!” you could say, “The sound and visual effects were awesome, but I didn’t find the story interesting.” Instead of judging a mixer for unpolished work, why not ask, “What might have happened that caused the sound to be like that?”

Part of working in entertainment is learning to accept your circumstances (good or bad) and still do the best work that you can. At the end of the day, we’re all in this to make a living so that we can get another opportunity, grow our skills, and get another gig. So, the next time someone says they’re working with an obnoxious celebrity or on a questionable reality show, remember to say, “Congratulations!” You’ll make a lot more friends that way, and you never know who might be your boss someday.

What My Deaf Cat Taught Me About Sound

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Meet Yuki, one of my cats. She’s a tiny, feisty 6-year-old tabby. Earlier this year, we learned that Yuki had gone deaf after having normal hearing most of her life. She probably lost her hearing gradually, but it wasn’t obvious until one day when I was vacuuming and realized she was right by me, happily curled up and sound asleep.

There’s a learning curve to owning a deaf pet – especially a cat that’s already stubborn and sleeps in places you can’t find. Deaf pets get extremely startled if you touch them when they don’t perceive you first (through vibration, sight, or smell). Words that they responded to before (like “dinner” or “no”) suddenly have no meaning. Yuki became cautious, spending a lot of time just trying to gauge her surroundings (like the other cats who were unaware of her condition).

As an audio engineer, I naturally became curious and observant about what changed in her world without sound. When do we react to sound instinctually, and what is that reaction? Her deafness also made me question my own relationship with sound. Do we naturally favor communication through sound since it’s what we do for a job?

One of the first changes I noticed in Yuki (and the most dramatic) was how much calmer she was. For most cats, a doorbell, vacuum, or an unfamiliar voice sends them running under the bed before they even know the cause of their fear. Humans have the same rush of anxiety or “fight or flight” response when a loud or unfamiliar sound catches us off guard. It’s a trick that we utilize in sound design and sound mixing – How intense would a horror movie be without sound?

Yuki talking loudly to a bird

Watching Yuki, I realized that my perception of absolute silence was wrong. I used to shy away from total silence in sound design or mixing, assuming it would generally be disorienting to the listener. For Yuki (who lived in silence) it brought out curiosity. When one sense is taken away, we naturally move focus to our other senses. We also adapt to changes in our environment, so it’s just a matter of context if we’re alarmed or disoriented by it. I’m sure we’ve all been at a music concert or show that gradually got louder and louder without really noticing. Once you step outside the building (where there’s a drastic change in sound level), it’s totally obvious. The shift is what’s disorienting, not necessarily the silence.

With Yuki, we had to learn to communicate using senses other than sound. It’s so natural to use the voice (with words or just vocal intensity, like loud or calm) to get a message across quickly. Some new forms of communication came easily, like using hand signals (waving “hello” or “come here”) to attract her by vision. If she doesn’t hear me approach, I stomp on the floor or tap near her so she feels movement or vibration. If she’s asleep, I can put food near her and Yuki will jump to alert – the same reaction as when I used to say “dinner.”
It can be harder when you’re used to using sound to send an emotional message. I didn’t realize how much I used an excited voice to get her to play, or talked calmly when she was being skittish. She’s become sensitive to new smells or when something familiar moves out of place, and cries loudly to let us know. Other than petting (touch), what else can you do to communicate that everything is ok? Yuki communicates by sound differently, too – she talks at full volume all the time now, so every meow sounds like distress (even if she’s just saying hello). It’s forcing me to use senses beyond sound, too, because I have to look at her body language and environment to see what she’s actually trying to communicate.

When someone new comes to visit

Sound, in essence, is a conduit; it’s a means of getting a message from point A to point B. Sound is also a means of sending or receiving a message, just like sight, smell, taste or touch. It’s up to the sender to determine the message, which “conduit” to use, and to assess how the message will be received. For example, comfort food can be used to communicate a message. Foods can use taste or smell to elicit emotions, like security, relaxation, or love. But, what one person experiences as familiar might be exotic or have no meaning to someone else. A chef who specializes in comfort food has to consider: Who are his/her diners? What’s the message he wants to send, and how is it received? As sound people, we have the same consideration: How will an audience react to a sound when the intention is to provoke a specific emotion? A musical instrument that’s familiar and popular in one culture might be obnoxious and out of tune to another. A technology beep or ringtone may not have any meaning to other cultures, and it may not be relevant to our own in the future.

A message can change meaning depending on the environment, too. A warm blanket in the winter might be calming and soothing to the touch, but in the heat of summer, it could be uncomfortable and irritating. Add a layer of sarcasm or irony and communication can get even more complicated. An ominous ambience might evoke a sense of fear in one scene, but in another, the same sound makes the audience laugh. A message can cross over senses, too. A clapping sound may not have meaning to Yuki anymore, but she still responds if she feels the air movement. A loud subwoofer in a theater is sound-based, but it could be effective because it’s also utilizing touch (vibration).

There’s a lot more interplay between senses than we probably pay attention to – especially when our primary focus is on sound. Isn’t the nature of multimedia to create experiences that excite multiple senses? Do we need to step back more and ask, is sound the most effective sense to send this message, or how might it be combined with other senses? It might seem like an unusual question to ask, but what could the audience be feeling (physical sensations), tasting, or smelling? Can we impact those senses through our use of sound? It’s an interesting exercise to move the focus away from our two primary work senses (sound and sight). It’s something I probably wouldn’t have considered if it weren’t for Yuki.

Mentoring and Receiving Mentorship

I wanted to add on to the great articles this month about mentoring Karrie’s blog Paying it Forward and Kirsty’s blog How to Be an Effective Mentor Part 1.

When we talk about having a mentor (or mentee), it sometimes sounds like a story right out of Star Wars. Obi-Wan Kenobi was a mentor who had many apprentices, like Luke and Anakin Skywalker.Obi-Wan helped his apprentices get in touch with their instinct and hone their skills. Both Luke and Anakin tested out those skills in real life applications. There’s elders like Jedi Master Yoda, who are highly respected for their experience, and who attract seekers looking to learn from their wisdom. The trade gets passed down from generation to generation through this mentorship.

In the real world, the mentor/mentee relationship is rarely as formal as Star Wars (although it would be cool to have a title like “Jedi Master”). Finding a mentor or mentee is a pretty organic process, sort of like making friends or dating. As you meet people, you’ll find some who you’re interested in or want to get to know more. Sometimes you only see them once or twice, and others turn into a long-term relationship. You naturally give and learn from each other, and offer support when needed. Long-term mentor/mentee relationships are pretty rare, and a lot of times are just a product of working together (such as an engineer and his/her long-time assistant).

Because those long-term mentoring relationships are so rare, I look at mentoring (or receiving mentorship) as something that we do – not a title we carry. It’s really in retrospect that we say, “That person was my mentor” or “I was his/her mentor” because it takes time to recognize that kind of relationship even exists. If you look at it more in the moment, it’s just learning, getting advice, or even just observing someone as they do their job. I think this is an important distinction because it changes the mindset from “who do I need to be around?” to “what can I learn in this situation? What can I learn from this person?”

From this mindset, mentoring (or receiving mentorship) becomes something that you can do regardless of how well you know someone – or know them at all. Some of my memorable mentee experiences include a one hour phone call with an engineer I didn’t know; being invited to sit in on sessions and observe; industry talks and events where I spoke to the presenter afterwards to ask questions or advice. I mentor through meeting with people (and offering advice) and writing blogs like this. If I’m working at a studio, I can tell pretty quickly which assistants or interns are looking to learn, and I’ll offer to let them sit in while I work. If there’s something unusual that comes up that’s a good learning opportunity; I’ll take the time to have them check it out, too.

When you lose the expectation about who will be your mentor (and focus more on “what can I learn”), you’ll also be more open-minded and aware of potential opportunities. If your focus is on building your network and relationships, those mentoring opportunities may naturally show up more (just like the old saying: “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”).

Sometimes you will come across mentor/mentee relationships that are like Obi-Wan and Luke. If you feel a strong connection to your mentor, be careful of identifying or introducing yourself as their protege (versus their assistant, a colleague who’s teaching/helping you, etc.). It’s important to build a reputation for your strengths and talents, not just as a “mini-me” of someone else. Plus, when you say you’re someone’s protege, you’re also associating yourself with parts of that person (or their business) that you may want to distance from later. You may not know if someone has questionable ethics, or a history of an issue (personal or professional) that has tarnished their reputation. Just look at people like Martha Stewart, Paula Deen, or Phil Spector who’s professional credibility changed overnight because of choices made in their personal lives.

The best part about offering mentorship is that it’s a gift that continues to give. What mentees don’t always realize is that it can be as rewarding to the mentor as it is for them. There’s pride seeing someone you helped make strides in their career. I’ve seen more than once a mentee hire their mentor years later. For me, it’s therapeutic – while I had great mentors, I want to share the things I still had to figure out on my own. We’re lucky today that mentoring can go far beyond anything in the past – between Skype, Youtube videos, and blogs, we can offer our support to anyone in the world. In the end, it just helps us all do the craft better.

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Getting a Start in the Field While You’re Still in School

I recently met up with fellow SoundGirl Member Ameeta ,who’s in her last semester of college and looking to move to Los Angeles after to pursue sound design. She asked a lot of great questions about how to get a jumpstart on her career while in school, so I wanted to share some of what we talked about.

If I’m planning to relocate, what can I do while still in school?

Stay focused on your current location. Find relevant activities like taking an internship, or projects where you can you gain credits and experience. Take advantage of the time you have left to experiment and learn without pressure. I wouldn’t spend too much time looking for jobs and instead focus more on practicing your skills. It’s a lot easier to build connections once you’ve moved, and most places won’t interview for work until you’re local.

Save up at least three months of living expenses. Your first job will be to network, and you’ll be the one paying yourself to do it. It takes time to meet people, make connections, and take interviews. Your chances of getting a foot in the door are much better if you’re willing to intern (which is typically unpaid), which means you could be supporting yourself financially even longer.

Make a list of people you’d like to connect with (and find contact info, if you can). Look beyond award winners or major studios, since you may have a better response from people working for smaller or independent studios (who are just as qualified). When you’re close to your move (within a few weeks), send out emails to all of these people. There’s no guarantee you’ll get a response, but there’s no harm in writing, “I enjoyed the work you did on xx. I’d like to meet and ask you for advice. Is it possible to get together when I’m in town in a couple weeks?” This is exactly how I met Ameeta (she contacted me through my website), and I was happy to meet up with her.

How do you find connections when you live in a totally different state?

I knew three people when I moved to Los Angeles. In some ways, it was better not to know a lot of people because I had to get over my fears and start meeting people quickly. I placed an ad on Craigslist looking to meet people working in audio, and there I found engineers, mixers, musicians, and composers. They helped me make other connections and look for work, and many are still my friends now. Some other ideas:

Professional organizations/sites: If you’re on an industry forum, website, or magazine, look for people to contact there. Look for places like Gearslutz.com or here on Soundgirls.Org, not just job sites.

Alumni: this is a great place to look for connections, and it often goes untapped. Don’t limit yourself to recent grads – be open to contacting anyone who lives where you’re going.

Family/friends: Ask around who knows anyone in the city you’re moving to. Ameeta made two great industry connections in Los Angeles through family members who knew people who lived here. L.A. really works like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon – chances are, if you can find someone living in LA, they likely know someone who works in entertainment.  That person may be able to track down someone who works in some area of sound.

Is it good to visit before moving?

I would absolutely try to visit the place you want to move to (even if you’re not close to graduating). A lot can change once you’re actually there. I was planning to move to New York after graduation, but I visited Los Angeles for spring break and found the lifestyle was a much better fit. In both cities, I stayed with friends where I got to see how they were living (what areas they could afford to live in, what they did for fun, etc.). I preferred a car vs. riding a busy subway, and having a spacious apartment where I could setup a Protools rig.

One thing Ameeta did (which I thought was very smart) was visit Los Angeles for an industry event. Not only did she get to learn more about sound, but she got to meet a lot of sound editors and mixers – all in one day and one place! Now, she has even more people to connect with when she’s back.

Is it necessary to have a demo/website?

For sound jobs, a demo or website is not necessary. If you’re looking for studio work, it’s more important to have a polished resume. If you’re pursuing tv or film, list any eligible credits you have on IMDb.com (it’s ok if you don’t have any yet).

The reason a demo/website isn’t crucial is because your prior work is a small part of what an employer is looking at. It’s also about your personality and attitude, your experience level, and who’s recommending you. I would suggest not putting samples of your work online, but if you must, only include samples of work where you were involved with the released product. For example, it’s a common assignment in school to remix a commercially-released song from the multitrack, or to strip out the sound from a movie scene and redo it all yourself. These are great exercises, but on a demo it sends the message that you may be inexperienced/have no credits. It’s also presenting something as yours that you probably don’t have the copyright to share.

Instead of spending time on a demo or website, find a project to work on. If you’re pursuing live sound, volunteer at a local venue. If you’re looking to do music production, find an artist to do a single with. If you’re pursuing post, find a short film to work on. It doesn’t matter if you work out of your bedroom or do it all on headphones – the point is that you’re doing something that will grow your chops and get you a credit.

Am I behind for not going to school in the city I want to move to?

A significant number of people who are successful in the field came from out-of-state schools, schools without a reputation, or they didn’t go to school at all. It’s not a race, and all you can do is what’s right for you. In most cases, the name of your school won’t help you land a job unless you’re talking to an alumni of your own school. You may find someone wants to help you out just because you are a fellow alumni. Someone might help you out just because you grew up in the same city or state. There’s a lot of different angles you can find to connect with people personally, and that’s what’s really important.

What can I do to stand out?

Surviving in the industry isn’t about standing out; it’s about finding somewhere that’s a good fit for you and the lifestyle you want to have. There really is no “standing out” – There’s thousands of sound people and studios, and you’ll probably encounter a fraction of them in your career. Once you get into a smaller niche of the industry, though, you might get to know most everyone locally. So, start by picking a small niche you’re interested in – maybe front of house engineers for local punk rock bands, or sound editors for cartoons, or music engineers who specialize in remote recording. It still takes some effort to break into those tribes, but it all starts by meeting one person, and then another. You may get an opportunity just by enough people in that circle getting to meet you. Or, you may find that the tribe isn’t a good fit for you (maybe it’s the people, something about the job, or there’s not enough paid work to be sustainable). That’s when you start exploring in another circle.

What should I look out for being a woman?

There can be unspoken gender roles in some entry-level jobs, and that’s something you have to feel out when you’re interviewing or meeting the crew. For example, if a studio needs someone to answer phones and someone else to run to the electronics store, would you have an equal chance of either duty? Are you ok being pigeonholed into certain roles at times (like answering phones or client services)? Sometimes it’s completely worth it for the opportunity, but sometimes it’s a path to nowhere.

When interviewing, ask a lot of questions about opportunities. Can you sit in on sessions when you’re off the clock? Do they allow employees to use the studio for their projects? I’d also ask what they see as the path to move into the work you’re interested in. I turned down a client services job offer because they flat out said there would be no path to engineering. On the flip side, I’ve seen studios with a Pro Tools rig setup at reception. It doesn’t matter if it’s a guy or gal – whoever is answering phones also gets trained to do sound editing.

How do you prove yourself on the job?

I used to think I needed to prove myself in every situation, and in retrospect, it was just my own insecurity. If you feel the need to prove yourself to other people, it means you still have to prove it to yourself, too. I often questioned if a comment or criticism was legit, or if I was being treated differently for my gender or age. Occasionally there are people who clearly have a bias against you, and it is what it is – you have no control over their views. Guys may tease or give you a hard time, and you just have to hold your ground that you’re there to learn and excel the same as everyone else. All you can do is believe that you’re working to the best of your abilities, handle situations as best as you can, and tomorrow you’ll have the chance to do it again. Over time, you’ll grow your skill set, meet new people, and get new opportunities, and that speaks for itself.

Searching Online for Jobs – The Good and the Bad

One way to describe job searching in our industry is “hurry up and wait.” Sometimes you’ll interview quickly but not start working for months. Other times, hiring happens at lightening speed. In television, it’s common to get a call about 3 months of consistent work only a few days before you need to start!

When you’re in a lull between jobs, it’s really easy to go online and look for work. There are great jobs to be found, but there’s a lot of noise out there, too. How can you tell what to pursue?

Why are they listing online?

The old phrase that work comes by “word of mouth” is totally true. It means opportunities are most likely to come from people you know (your connections). A resume may not tell a lot about your work ethic or your ears, but a former co-worker or colleague can easily verify that you’re a good fit for a job.

Online hiring is time consuming for employers. They have to put together a job description, post an ad, go through resumes, make phone calls, interview, check references, etc. If a manager has a good relationship with their employees, it’s a quick conversation: “We need to hire. Can you recommend anyone?” Anytime I see an ad online I ask: Why the extra effort? Do they have an existing network to bring in good quality candidates? Is this the type of place that people want to work, or is it a revolving door that always needs new people? Is the online listing a matter of company policy?

An online job search is like online dating. If you just met someone through a website, would you immediately trust them and jump into a relationship? It can save a lot of trouble down the road by being inquisitive and watching for red flags up front.

When you find an ad you’re interested in, do a little research (look up the company or person), and ask around if you know anyone who’s worked for them. This is also a good idea because you might find someone to directly recommend you for the job. Then, if you get called for an interview, you’ll get the opportunity to further ask questions.

Corporate jobs

Some corporations (and large companies) require that all job openings are posted publicly. It’s great for the public to find out about jobs, but sometimes the company already knows who they’re hiring and still has to post an ad. If you apply to one of these jobs, be objective about it – don’t wait around for them to contact you (the same could be said of any online job). If you have a connection to the company, take advantage. Sometimes there’s hiring bonuses when an employee gives a recommendation, so you may find someone eager to help you.

Keep in mind it may be someone in HR or a recruiter looking at your resume first, and they may not understand the technical nuances. If you’re going to apply to a corporate job, tailor your resume so it has easy-to-read points, and includes some general details that could be understood by anyone reading it.

Amateur/Semi-professional work

A large subset of online ads is the amateur/semi-professional market.  In film, there’s a lot of self-taught filmmakers who seek sound help but don’t know any sound people. In music, there’s bands everywhere looking for help with recording or live sound for gigs. There’s a lot of opportunities, but the quality, talent level, and pay can vary significantly. It’s hard to distinguish this in an ad, too.  If you’re going after work in this market, ask a lot of questions before committing. Make sure that their expectations are in line with the work you are going to do (and not do), and be very clear about the budget and timeline.

For films, ask for trailers or a clip to watch to get a sense of audio quality. For music, ask for past recordings or a demo (even an iPhone recording or YouTube video) just to hear what they sound like. There’s been many times I’ve passed on a project because what someone said they needed was different from what they actually needed. For example, an unwritten song needs a songwriter, not an engineer. Film ads regular confuse terms such as “sound mixer,” “Foley” and “sound designer.”

Just because you inquire or put your name in the running doesn’t mean you have to take the work – especially if you have concerns about the level of professionalism or the person hiring you. The right project can be a great opportunity for learning and relationships, but it still may entail a lot of extra work, teaching/explaining what it is you do (and can’t do), and managing expectations.

Be realistic about your chances

Some online ads for audio jobs get hundreds of responses. It can be hard to break through the noise, but it can be done. Try to share something different or unique about you. I got a job off Craigslist once because the person hiring was curious to meet a female engineer. They had almost a hundred applicants, and I was the only woman. I don’t think they were planning on hiring me, but we got along great, and I landed the gig.

The absolute best way to stand out is to find someone who will recommend you (whether it’s passing along your resume, or who’s name you can include in an email or cover letter – with their permission). Check your LinkedIn or Facebook networks for connections to the company. Ask your local friends or family if they know anyone (sometimes this will have surprising results).

Tips for responding to online ads

  • Cater your resume/cover letter to every job you apply for. When there’s a lot of applicants, you may only get a few seconds to make an impression (and they may even be using search terms to sort through resumes).
  • Show a good attitude about the job you will actually be doing (and willingness to learn – even if it’s something you’ve done before). If the job listing is for an entry level job (like internship or assistant), it’s better to say in a cover letter, “I have a working car and I am willing to run errands” than to say, “I can engineer and mix.” That raises the question, “If you can engineer and mix, why are you applying for an entry level position?”
  • A personal recommendation can set you ahead of the pack. Check your LinkedIn, Facebook or Soundgirls contacts (and groups) and ask your colleagues if they know anyone at the company, and try to get an introduction (in addition to applying online).
  • Don’t give out your mailing address unless you can verify it’s going to a reputable source. Always include the city that you live in (out-of-town or anonymous locations may be dismissed immediately). Use caution giving out your phone number (or get a Google voice number – this may help if you don’t have a local area code, too).
  • Don’t give a bid, rate, or salary to an online ad (especially if it’s anonymous) unless you think it’s absolutely necessary. Some job listings are fake or phishing. Sometimes the job description is different from the actual job. It’s better to say, “I’d prefer to speak first before discussing rates” or “I’m happy to give a quote, but I’d like to verify some details first.”
  • Carefully read over the ad and follow directions. I’ve posted online ads to find interns, and I always removed these candidates: weren’t physically in town for meeting (within 25 miles), had spelling or basic grammar errors, cover letter clearly pasted from another email or application. Directions were asked like, “Include resume in text of email; attachments will not be opened” and “Please include a cover letter where you tell us why you’re interested in our company.” Anyone who didn’t follow directions wasn’t considered, and it also helped find people who were attentive and good with details.

Accept online jobs for what they are

Online websites can be a good supplement to a job search, but it shouldn’t be considered the primary means of looking for work. It’s a balance; if you spend too much time looking online, it’s time taken away from building your network, relationships, and skills. It’s good to set a limit for how much time you spend every day on online searches/applying, and aim to spend just as much time trying to connect with people in the industry you’re looking for work in.

The Mindset of Business

Hollywood

Early in my career, I watched a couple studios crumble first hand. One was a music studio that went bankrupt because the owner made some poor choices. The other was a post studio that laid off most of the staff in one day; “Black Wednesday,” we called it. I had mixed feelings knowing I’d own a business someday. Learning business skills didn’t seem like a choice – in our field, the odds are that you will be freelance (or take contract work) at some point. What I’ve since learned (through business classes and being in business) is that business isn’t just a skill set; it’s also a philosophy or way of thinking.

You’re never too small to act like a business

If you have ever taken a freelance or contract gig, you have a business. Yet, some people don’t treat their business like a business until they’re out of work. It’s common advice to keep a resume current, but your business should be kept current, too. If you have a website, LinkedIn account, or Facebook business page, is your information up to date? Are your iMDB credits and CV current? Do you have an invoicing system in place? If you maintain those little details, the next time you need work you can focus on more important tasks like meetings or networking.

Defining your brand

The way you present yourself in business should match who you are and what you want to do. Are you trying to work alone, or do you want to work for other companies? Who do you want to work with (individuals, audio houses, production companies, corporations)? Are you looking to build your own name, or your company’s name? The answers to these questions will help define your “brand,” or how clients will see you. If you’re looking to work for other facilities but your website looks like you’re a full-service studio, it sends a conflicting message (that’s a mistake I made; my website was later revised to look like an online resume). Branding is also helpful because it’ll help focus your efforts on where to look for work and make connections (vs just applying to generic ads on Craigslist or Mandy).

Be realistic about your skill level and experience

Have you ever been to a restaurant where the menu had way too many options? When there’s too much information, it’s hard to tell the “signature dish,” or what you’re best at. I’ve seen this mistake on websites, profiles and resumes (especially recent graduates or people with less work experience). If your resume sums up as, “I can edit, record ADR, sound design and mix,” it might get you an interview. It’s really hard to land the gig when your credits don’t show strong experience, though. Instead, focus on a few things you do best (even if it’s entry level or semi-related like IT or tech), and use that to just get in the door. A website or resume can always be updated as your skills get better, but you may not get a second chance if you can’t 100% deliver what you say you can do (especially as a freelancer).

How not to do business

While it may seem like our work is product-based (films, tv shows, games), we are actually service providers in a service-based industry. It doesn’t matter if you do great quality audio work – if you don’t give great service, your business will suffer. These are true stories of people who lost good gigs because of poor business choices:

  • When a mixer stepped out of a session, the studio assistant gave his business card to the client. The assistant said he had a side business and offered his mixing services at a discount. The client later told the mixer, and the assistant was fired.
  • A freelance sound editor was hired for day work, but refused to hand over his sessions at the end of the day. The editor claimed the work belonged to him, but he’d let the studio have it if they agreed to hire him for the rest of the project.
  • A freelance mixer was reviewing a mix with a producer. When the producer asked for mix adjustments, the mixer refused to do any changes. The mixer said he didn’t want to make changes to his mix.

A mentor told me, “Treat every project you work on like it’s the most important thing you’ve ever worked on.” This is especially true for freelance work where one mistake can mean you won’t be hired back. There’s times to do sales, talk about upcoming work, or do a mix for your demo, but never lose focus on the job you’ve actually been hired to do.

Finding out rates

One mistake I made early on was not being competitive enough with my rates; I just didn’t know enough about what other people were charging for the same work. It can be uncomfortable to talk about, but having that information can be the difference between scraping by and having extra money to improve your business (like buying better plugins or equipment). Ideally, you want to find out contractor pay rates because staff wages tend to be lower (because of taxes and benefits). Instead of asking freelancers directly what they charge, ask what they think would be reasonable for you to charge. (If you have any suggestions how to have discussions about rates with colleagues, please add to the comments!)

There’s no budget

Offering a client a deal or a low rate doesn’t ensure loyalty or repeat business. Always ask yourself, “what am I getting in exchange for working on this project?” Sometimes there are no-budget projects that are worth your time for the experience, credit, relationship, creative outlet, or because you believe in the cause.

When you want the gig, there’s a better way to approach than just offering to work for low/free. For example, you could start with: “It’s a great project and I’d love to be involved. Can you tell me more about your budget?” Most projects are financially tight at the end, but what did they have at the beginning? Talking about money can help you gauge the integrity of your potential client – will they genuinely appreciate you offering a low rate (or working for free), or are they just taking advantage of a possible deal?

Know your boundaries between friendship and business

In our field, there can be a blurry line between friendship and business. Clients can become friends, and friends can become clients. Early on, my boss and co-workers were more like friends than business colleagues. I took it personally when I was passed up for an opportunity or didn’t get to work on a project I was interested in. Now, I see that decisions sometimes have to be made in the best interest of the business, and it’s not personal. The true sign of a friend is how they handle it, though.

Two traits I value in clients and friends are transparency and honesty. I’d rather hear from the source that I didn’t get a gig, even if it’s a tough conversation. It’s difficult to retain trust (in friendship and in business) when you’re questioning if someone is being open and honest. At the end of the day, if you are honest and loyal, you will attract people who are also loyal and honest with you.

It may seem like building a business or advancing a career is entirely a proactive process, but it’s also just a matter of time and experience. As your colleagues and friends get better gigs, you may get opportunities for better gigs because of it. If you can stay focused on what you are doing now (and doing it well), your business may grow faster than you expect.

Collaborative Mixing: Thinking outside the Dubstage

Article co-written with Shaun Cunningham April and Shaun have mixed a number of independent feature films together, but working from different locations and with minimal time on the dub stage. In this article, they explain how they make it work. 

This article was featured in CAS Quarterly Magazine, the official quarterly of the Cinema Audio Society. The article can be found at the link above (blue button) on page 20. 

 

Workflow and Creativity – A Journey Through Hot Sugar’s Cold World

Hot Sugar’s Cold World

When we talk about creativity and sound, it’s usually in terms of sonic creativity, or the actual act of doing sound design. Why do we not talk about creativity in terms of how we work? I asked this question during a recent project, and what I didn’t expect was that challenging those “rules” would completely change the way that I view sound for picture.

The project was a documentary called Hot Sugar’s Cold World, directed by Adam Bhala Lough. The story follows Grammy-nominated musician/producer Nick Koenig (aka Hot Sugar). Nick samples everyday sounds and room ambiences with a Zoom recorder, manipulates his recorded sounds (with Ableton Live), then uses those samples to write music. The documentary follows Nick through his process, capturing Pop Rocks, Beanie Babies, and even the room tone of a funeral. In the Hot Sugar song “Trauma,” Nick recorded sounds at the Catacombs of Paris, and used them as melodic, percussive, and ambient elements:

Another technique Nick uses in his music is incorporating natural ambiences into songs, like “Everyone’s Parents Will Die,” which was recorded at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris:

When Adam came to us with the film, we recognized that this unique music style would have challenges with picture (The sound team was myself and Shaun Cunningham; we shared sound editing duties, mixing, etc). If there was a sound effect in a music track (like night crickets) when we saw something different represented on-screen (daytime), could we alter the song, like using Spectral Repair to remove confusing sounds? The fx were written as part of the music, so we decided that what we hear doesn’t have to be a literal interpretation of what we see on-screen. That decision set the tone for a lot of creative sound design in the film, because we had the freedom to add sounds that were completely out of the realm of what’s on-screen. There’s goat sounds in an office, Pop Rocks for footsteps, elements in stereo or surround that might “normally” be mono, and all sorts of effects we wouldn’t have considered if we were working with our old set of rules.

In the film, Nick says he doesn’t like stock synth sounds because there’s nothing unique about everyone using the same sounds. Since Nick took this approach to his music, could we integrate this idea into the film sound? We decided to avoid library sound fx (when possible), and to record Foley, but for different reasons than ‘normal’. With indie films, we tend to do Foley if it’s practical, like if there’s room in the budget, or there’s elements that could be covered easier in a Foley session (vs sound fx editing). For this, we wanted to add Foley for an artistic reason: it was adding a unique experience to the sound, just like Nick’s approach to the music.

Adam gave us direction to try moving or dropping interviews if helped the scene. This is pretty unique – normally, I wouldn’t consider moving interviews or dialog (more than a few frames) without asking permission first. As I started experimenting, I was surprised how often I could remove interview bites and didn’t miss them. Sometimes it helped the flow of the scene because it made room for sound fx to set the mood, or to tell the story.

The freedom of working without our normal rules made it easier and simpler to solve problems. For example, when I was editing dialog, there was a bite that I didn’t understand. Normally, I would contact a director or editor and say, “What does this bite mean?” Together we would have to try to interpret as best as we could. Instead, I just contacted Nick directly, asked him to clarify, and then re-edited the bite.

After a while, it seemed like all those rules I had learned over the years about “how post works” just didn’t exist. We didn’t have to schedule or supervise ADR sessions cause Nick recorded himself. When we needed city background sounds, Shaun thought out of the box (instead of recording something himself or referring to a library) and he asked Nick: “Can you stick your Zoom out your apartment window and get a couple minutes of ambience?” It was elements like that which added authenticity and uniqueness.

Working in an environment like that, you sometimes catch yourself doing something ‘normal’ and asking, “Wait, do I have to do it this way?” I definitely found this in my approach to sound design. I enjoy doing sound design, but I admit I lean on sound fx libraries because I’ve never been interested in field recording. The closest I’ve gotten (outside of engineering Foley or music) is recording my cats on my iPhone, and slipping them into projects for posterity. Nick said something in the film that really hit me: “It’s always been reassuring that I can record something and then listen back to it. I’m literally playing with the universe and molding it to my liking. So that’s why I do it: it’s a sense of ownership and control.”

A sound fx library doesn’t have to be like a baseball card collection or music collection where we stockpile and trade for what we don’t have. Sound fx libraries can also be a scrapbook of our own auditory experiences. Field recording isn’t just about capturing sounds that we’re missing, but our memories and perceptions of those sounds. When we worked on “The Motivation” (another of Adam’s documentaries), I kept a lot of the production skateboarding sounds from the film for my own sound fx library. When I hear them now, I don’t just hear a skateboard grind or a rail – I hear Chris Cole’s grind or Paul Rodriguez’s rail. I’m sure every time I hear those New York backgrounds from now on, I’m going to think of Nick’s apartment. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m looking forward to getting a recorder so that I can try adding my own “experiences” to the next project.

Working without our normal rules gave the film a life of its own. I used to think of the process of film sound like Ikea furniture: We see the pieces, basic instructions, and have a general idea what it’ll look like. It’s a matter of process and assembly, which can be fun and creative along the way. After this film, I see that post can be a creative evolution, if we allow it to happen. I have to give a lot of credit to Adam, because it’s not often a director will encourage you to break rules. As Nick says in the film, “There really are no rules. The people who wrote the rules are just playing it safe.”

The reason it all worked isn’t just because we broke rules. It also worked because we didn’t put rules on each other. Creativity happens when we feel safe to try new ideas and experiment, but also to share those ideas without judgement. It’s hard to be in a creative space when you’re asking, “Are you sure a music guy can do film sound design?” or “I’ve never met a female mixer – does she know what she’s doing?” At the end of the day, uniqueness and creativity not only works best for the film, but it works best for us.

Women In Audio: Yes, We Exist! What it’s like to be a female in the mostly-male audio industry.

April Tucker "Pro Audio Girl" 

April Tucker "Pro Audio Girl" 

Last year, I got one of the weirdest compliments I’ve ever heard: “You’re a real unicorn!” I was working with a mixer who I had recently met (but was an established mixer), and he looked at me in amazement as I asked questions about his workflow. “I’ve heard of Lora Hirschberg and Anna Behlmer, but I’ve never met a female mixer. I’m sorry I’m so taken aback, but I really didn’t think someone like you existed,” he said.

When I heard that the Designing Sound guys were stepping aside this month for women contributors, I thought it was a great chance to say, “Hey look! There’s actually a lot of real unicorns!” Except… it’s been pretty silent. I asked a few women who I thought might be interested, and one woman (who I highly respect) said, “I would rather not address our industry when my invitation is based on my gender. I look forward to writing based on the knowledge and expertise that I can offer as an equal member of the industry.”

She’s absolutely right. We want to be recognized for our work, not our gender. At the same time, a silent protest doesn’t do anything to educate about a bias that we face, but don’t like to talk about openly: We do exist. There’s a lot of us who do the job very well, actually.

For the sake of education/discussion, here’s some examples of the types of discrimination and biases that I’ve encountered in the industry:

On an interview, I was offered a tour of the facility. When I was introduced to the operations manager, he asked, “Are you a producer or a post-production supervisor?” It didn’t cross his mind I could be an audio person, let alone interviewing for a high-level mixing position.

I had a sound supervisor once tell me that I was “threatening and aggressive.” For anyone who doesn’t know me, I’m about as threatening as a grandmother handing out cookies. He suggested I be more “subservient” when I’m working with him.

I have a conflict about how to dress. Do I need to dress up when the guys at the studio are wearing hoodies, sneakers and baseball caps? I look more appropriate when I’m dressed up (especially with clients), but I feel over-dressed when I’m with the guys.

One studio had an annual company-sponsored trip to Vegas for the audio guys. After I was hired, they stopped doing it. Someone privately told me they decided it wasn’t appropriate for me to go when their wives/girlfriends weren’t invited. It made me feel pretty alienated from the team, but I also saw resentment from some guys that it was my fault.

I worked at another studio that had a divided male/female climate; women did operations and client services, and men did editing and mixing. As much as I tried to fit in, I felt like a black sheep, never quite finding my place in either group.

In the long run, being a female in the industry has had it’s advantages:

I’ve had more mentors than most of the guys I know. That’s helped immensely with learning new skills, advice, and finding new opportunities.
A lot of male co-workers treat me like a sister (or daughter). Those guys have had my back like no one else over the years.
I rarely encounter ego conflicts between myself and coworkers or clients. Someone who is difficult with a male colleague could be totally cool with me (although occasionally the opposite could be said – some sessions want a “bro” environment without women, and that’s fine.)

The other women who I meet in the industry are pretty awesome. It takes a certain personality type to get into it (and stay in it).
I get great parking spots. I used to resent the special treatment, but studios usually insist on it. Ultimately, it’s about safety, which is important (especially working at night).
What can we all do to be more inclusive/supportive of women (or other minorities) in our industry?
Set a precedent for equality. If you’re in a position of authority, question if the expectations placed on your female employees are the same as your male employees (or have a good reason if they aren’t, like safety or physical demands). Men can make fruit plates and answer phones, and women can excel in the machine room. Dress code standards should be the same for everyone.
Be aware of biases (or discrimination), and speak up if you see it happening. Bias can be subtle. Sometimes people will address my husband (instead of me) assuming that I’m just his guest, and not in audio. I appreciate when he takes the initiative to say, “Have you met April? She’s a post mixer,” or something similar to break the misconception. In social situations, if men and women separate into groups, I might be more interested in what the guys are talking about (especially if they are my co-workers and colleagues!) I appreciate when someone recognizes that I might be stuck in the middle, or gives me an opportunity to naturally jump into the conversation.
Just be yourself on the job – We want to be part of the team. Being “one of the guys” is nothing new – it’s fine if you want to talk about sports or tell the offensive joke you heard. If you’re planning a company or social event and are concerned about the lone woman, ask for her opinion. Find ways to include everyone on the team – the studio that used to have the annual Vegas trip started having events for everyone, which turned out to be great for team-building and camaraderie.
Thanks again to the Designing Sound folks for the great theme and the opportunity!
April has a M.Mus (Sound Recording) from McGill University, and a B.Mus (Music Production & Technology) from the University of Hartford. She is currently a re-recording mixer and “audio adventurist,” taking on side gigs from sound editorial to score mixing, and occasionally still breaking software… for fun. She can be found at www.proaudiogirl.com

Life Lessons and Audio Education

Having a degree in audio can be a double-edged sword. This was a lesson I learned after one of my earliest interviews, not long after completing my Master’s Degree (in Sound Recording). I was new to Los Angeles and interviewing for part-time tech work. It seemed to be going well until the interviewer said, “I don’t even have friends with Master’s Degrees… why would I hire someone with one?” I had just been discriminated against for having a formal education.
There’s a lot of lessons about working in entertainment (like that one) that you hear about and prepare for, but you can’t really process until you experience it yourself. Another example is being out of work. Even if you’re financially prepared, nothing can prepare you for the mental game that happens when you’re going through it the first time.

Given that our field is very experience-driven, one might ask, what’s the point of formal audio education? As someone with two audio degrees (and ten years in the field), I can confidently say that there is value in some audio education; students can practice, experiment and fail in ways that you can’t do in a job. There’s skills that can be learned faster through focused learning or practice (like technical ear training, acoustics, or electronics). My concern with audio programs is that they tend to be too focused on teaching niche vocational skills (like large format consoles and microphones), or too short for a well-rounded audio education.

The importance of variety

I (like many audio school graduates) came to LA to work in music – to be a scoring engineer. For the number of people who want to pursue that job (or other niche jobs, like Foley walker or engineer), it’s amazing how the information isn’t out there that 1. there are very few places that do that work, and 2. there are very, very few people who actually do the job full-time. I talked with a scoring engineer to ask how to break in, and he gave me some of the best advice of my career: “Go get a job at a post studio and learn how to do everything. Then, come back and do scoring if you can find the gigs.” I did just that – I spent a couple years learning how to shoot ADR and Foley, edit dialog and sound design, and shadowed many re-recording mixers. It was like being paid to be in school.

Looking back, the real value in that advice wasn’t necessarily to work in post, but to find where there are market opportunities and learn skills that are in demand. Then, if you still want to pursue another career direction, do it with a backup plan.

The reason I bring this up is that audio education isn’t just about learning a vocation, like how to operate Pro Tools. The reality is that sound and audio (as a career path) is a lot wider than just working on feature films, video games, or scripted television shows. The majority of us in the field are not sustaining on those kinds of gigs, either. You do not have to be a sound designer 40 hours a week to hold the title or be skilled at what you do. The way I sustained through my first years freelance was by doing Quality Assurance testing for audio manufacturers. That’s a fancy way of saying I had a desk job where I tried to break plug-ins on the days I couldn’t find mix gigs.

There is something to learn in any job, and chances are you can find a way to apply it in some other way to your desired line of work. As an assistant, I watched dozens of other professionals work, learned their tricks and shortcuts, and saw how they communicated with clients in difficult situations. In QA, I learned how to spot bugs, so now I navigate around DAWs and plugins more efficiently. As an assistant scheduler, I learned that freelancers need to have a good relationship with the scheduler, because that’s who may determine who gets called for work. As a music editor, I learned that not all re-recording mixers develop enough of a relationship with their clients to get their next project. I’ve learned more about how to tell a story with audio by mixing promos than mixing episodic tv or film. I don’t know many people who have Quality Control Inspector, Audio Book Editor, or Promo Mixer on their list of potential jobs, yet these can be relevant and stable jobs (or side jobs) where one uses the same fundamental skills on a daily basis, and a lot of opportunities to learn something new.

A matter of perspective

I recently was on a gig (a scoring session/mix) with two colleagues who I knew in college. I asked them, “what’s the difference between us doing this gig today, and back when we were in school?” The fundamentals of the job were essentially the same skills we knew how to do back then. The major difference, we decided, was the knowledge gained through experience. The engineer knew where to place the main array of microphones (and what height) just by hearing his own voice on stage. I made decisions about the music mix just by looking at the picture – I knew what the sound designer would be adding or roughly how loud the dialog would be mixed without even having those elements. We each had developed an instinct through thousands of hours of experience, and that allowed us to zero in on solutions faster.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t more to learn or try, because every project can be an education. We’re taking what we know, trying it in a new way, evaluating the results, and using that information to decide what to do next time. Education is a very fluid and on-going process.

Unfortunately, some students come out of school and think that their education is complete. There’s an intern I will never forget – he was a recent graduate of a short-term audio program. A few days after he started, he had clearly lost his enthusiasm for being at the studio. I asked what was wrong, and he asked, “When will I get to mix?” He thought that part of his unpaid internship was going to be mixing with clients. The reason this experience was so memorable, though, is because he didn’t even know what a firewire cable was. He quit shortly after, which was a shame because it would have been a great learning opportunity, if his expectations hadn’t been so far out of balance from his skill level.

Big Business

As a freelancer, I saw a number of studio owners who really just wanted to be doing sound, but were bogged down by the struggles of managing a business. I started taking business classes thinking it would help prepare me for down the road, but what I learned was that I was already a business. The natural inclination for people who don’t know business is that you can just hire someone else to take care of it, but that’s the equivalent of buying a house without knowing how much money is in your bank account. The one person who needs to understand the financial details of your business (even as a sole-proprietor) is you. It would be beneficial to anyone operating a business to take classes in accounting, entrepreneurship, sales and management. While we don’t think about it as education, it is a learning curve to figure out how to set rates and budgets, make financial decisions about when to buy gear or sound libraries, contact potential clients, send an invoice, or do taxes. Those business classes were just as valuable to me as any audio course or on-the-job training.

It’s not just about the job

Audio education (whether on the job or at a school) isn’t just about learning skills, but determining if a skill is right for you. Not all skills (or lines of work) are a good fit for our lifestyle, interests, and abilities. Education can also be about learning what we don’t like. When we learn something new, we might ask ourselves: Do I enjoy this? Could I do this every day? Do I like working at this pace, or would I prefer something faster or slower?

We are lucky to be in a field that allows for lifelong learning. Education might start with a degree, but we have opportunities every day to expand on our skills, knowledge, and to share that with others.

Mixing and Your Focus Zone

Do you have trouble staying focused during a mix? Do you feel wiped at the end of a long mix day? Here’s the science of stimulation, and how it can be applied to audio work.

This article was featured in CAS Quarterly Magazine, the official quarterly of the Cinema Audio Society. The article can be found at the link above (blue button) on page 31.