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Post Production Basics: Broadcast Limiters and Loudness Metering

Any time you’re working on a mix that’s going to broadcast, it’s important to ask for specs. Specs are essentially a set of rules for each broadcaster, such as:

  • How loud content can be (overall average and peak levels)
  • What format to deliver (files or tape) and how or where
  • Specific mix requirements (such as “no music in the center channel”)

Generally there will be a “spec sheet” for each broadcaster (i.e. ABC, CBS, BBC, etc) that your client will provide when asked. Spec sheets aren’t necessarily public or available online, but some are (such as NBC Universal). Some online content providers (like Amazon), movie theater chains, and movie distributors also have specs, so it’s always good to ask.

To understand some important concepts, we’ll take a look at PBS’s most recent specs (2016), found here.

For PBS, it’s a 21-page document that includes requirements for video, audio, how to deliver, file naming, closed captioning, etc. It gets pretty detailed, but it’s a good example of what a spec sheet looks like and the types of audio requirements that come up. The information in the spec sheet will dictate some details in your session, such as track layouts for 5.1, where your limiters should be set, dialog level, bars and tones, etc. We’ll break down a few of these important elements.

 PBS Technical Operating Specification 2016 – Part 1, Page 6 Sections 4.4.1, 4.4.2 – Audio Loudness Requirements

PBS Technical Operating Specification 2016 – Part 1, Page 6 Sections 4.4.1, 4.4.2 – Audio Loudness Requirements

The three most important details to look for on a spec sheet are peak loudnessaverage loudness, and the ITU BS 1770 algorithm. These will be explained in detail below. In this case, the PBS specs are:

Peak Loudness: -2dBTP (“true peak” or 2 dB below full scale). This is your brickwall limiter on the master buss/output of the mix. In this case, it would be set to -2dB.

Average Loudness: – 24dB LKFS +/-2 LU.

ITU BS 1770 Algorithm: ITU-R BS.1770-3. This is the algorithm used to measure average loudness.

Background on the average loudness spec

Before 2012, there used to only be one loudness spec: peak loudness. This was a brickwall limiter placed at the end of the chain. Back then, most television networks (in North America) had a peak level of -10dBfs. From the outside (especially coming from the music world) it seems like an odd way to mix – basically you’ve got 10 dB of empty headroom that you’re not allowed to use.

As long as your mix was limited at -10dB, it would pass QC even if it was squashed and sounded horrible. That’s what was happening, though, especially with commercials that were competing to be the loudest on the air. If you remember running for the remote every commercial break because they were uncomfortably louder, that was the issue.

In the US, Congress enacted the CALM act which went into effect in 2012 and required broadcasters to reign in these differences in loudness between programs and commercials. The spec that evolved from this was "average loudness level." A loudness measurement covers the length of the entire piece, whether it’s a 30 second spot or a 2 hour movie. Average loudness is measured through a loudness meter. Popular measurement plugins are Dolby Media Meters, Izotope Insight and Waves WLM.

 Izotope Insight in a Pro Tools session

Izotope Insight in a Pro Tools session

The ITU developed an algorithm (ITU BS 1770) to calculate average loudness. The latest algorithm is 1770-4 (as of early 2017). In technical terms, loudness is an LEQ reading using a K-weighting and full-scale; the designation for this reading is “dB LKFS”. In the PBS spec sheet, section 4.4.1 and 4.4.2 say mixes should use ITU BS 1770-3, which is an older algorithm. This is an important detail, though, because when you’re measuring your mix, the plugin has to be set to the correct algorithm or the reading may be off. The PBS specs were written in 2016 (before 1770-4 came out). Broadcasters update these every couple of years, especially as technology changes.

In this PBS spec, the optimal average loudness is -24dB LKFS, but there is an acceptable loudness range (LRA) above and below +/-2 LU (“Loudness Units”). Basically that means your average loudness measurement can fall on or between -26dB LKFS and -22dB LKFS, but ideally you want to mix to hit at -24dB LKFS. The measurement plugin will probably show a short term and a long term value. The short term reading may jump all over the place (including beyond your in-spec numbers). The overall (long) reading is the important one. If the overall reading is out of range, it’s out of spec, won’t pass QC and will likely be rejected for air. Or, it may hit air with an additional broadcast limiter than squashes the mix (and doesn’t sound good).

As HD television has become more popular, broadcasters have loosened up on the peak loudness range. PBS is pretty liberal with -2dBTP (or -2dBfs); some broadcasters are at -6dBfs and occasionally some are still at -10dBfs.

 Screenshot of a mix with a limiter at -10dBfs (you can see the compression smashing the mix. It doesn’t sound very good!) and the same mix without. If your average loudness reading is too hot and your mix looks like the upper, there’s a good chance that your mix (or dialog) is overcompressed.

Screenshot of a mix with a limiter at -10dBfs (you can see the compression smashing the mix. It doesn’t sound very good!) and the same mix without. If your average loudness reading is too hot and your mix looks like the upper, there’s a good chance that your mix (or dialog) is overcompressed.

The challenges of working with loudness specs

When the CALM Act went into effect, re-recording mixers thought loudness metering would be restrictive to creative mixing. Average loudness is measured across the entire program so there’s still room for some dynamic range short term. Loudness specs can be a problem for certain content, though. For example, if you’re mixing a show with a cheering audience, the cheering is still picked up as dialog by the loudness meter. You could have a spec of -24dB LKFS (+/-2), mix the show host at -24dB LKFS (in spec), but every time the audience cheers the short term measurement is -14dB LKFS. The overall loudness measurement might be -18dB LKFS – which is way out of spec! So sometimes you end up mixing dialog on the low side or bringing down an audience more than feels natural to fall in spec.

Another difficulty of mixing with a loudness spec is making adjustments when your overall measurement is out of spec. A dB of LU (the unit of measurement for average loudness) is not the same as 1dBFS (full scale). If you drop the mix 1dB by volume automation, it’s not necessarily a 1dB change in average loudness. If you’re mixing a 30 second promo and the loudness level is out of spec it’s easy to adjust and recheck. If you’re mixing a 90 minute film, it takes a bit more work and time to finesse the mix and get a new measurement.

There’s software that will make these adjustments for you – basically you can tell the software what the specs are and it’ll make small adjustments so the mix will fall in spec. While this is a good tool to have in the toolbox, I encourage mixers to first learn how to adjust their mix by hand and ear to understand how loudness measurements and metering works.

Tips for working with loudness specs

I find in general if dialog is sitting between -10 and -20dBfs (instantaneous highs and lows) and not over-compressed, the average loudness reading should fall pretty close to -24dB LKFS. When I first started mixing to an average loudness spec, my mixes were often averaging hot (-20 to -22dB LKFS) when spec was -24. My ear had become accustomed to the sound of compressed dialog hitting a limiter on the master buss. What I’ve learned is that if you’re mixing with your dialog close to -24 dB LKFS (or -27 for film) you can bypass the master limiter and it should sound pretty seamless when you put it back in. If you’re noticing a big sound change with the limiter in, the overall reading will probably fall on the hot side.

When I start a mix, I usually dial in my dialog with a loudness meter visible. I’ll pick a scene or a character and set my channel strip (compressor, EQ, de-esser, noise reduction etc) so the dialog mix lands right on -24dB LKFS. I do this to “dial in” my ear to that loudness. It then acts as a reference, essentially.

One thing I like about mixing with a loudness spec is you don’t have to mix at 82 or 85 dB. While a room is optimally tuned for these levels, I personally don’t always listen this loud (especially if it’s just me/no client or I anticipate a long mixing day). Having a loudness meter helps when jumping between reference monitors or playing back through a television, too. I can set the TV to whatever level is comfortable and know that my mix is still in spec. When I’m mixing in an unfamiliar room, seeing the average loudness reading helps me acclimate, too.

When there's no loudness spec

I mix most projects to some sort of spec, even if the client says there are no specs. For indie films, I usually mix at -27dB LKFS and a limiter set to -2dBFS or -6dBFS (depending on the content). If an indie film gets picked up for distribution, the distributor may provide specs. Sometimes film festivals have specs that differ from the distributor, too. If you’ve already mixed with general specs in mind, it may not need adjusting down the road, or at least you will have a much better idea how much you’ll need to adjust to be in spec.

Post-Production Basics: Sound editing – Dialog

In part one, we covered file transfer between a video workstation and DAW and how to prep these materials for a sound editor. In this part, we will cover some of the basics of sound editorial.

Different types of sound editing

Sound editing for picture can be broken into different elements (and job titles):

  • Dialog editing (dialog editor)
  • Music editing (music editor)
  • Sound FX editing/sound design (sound designer, sound fx editor)
  • Foley editing (Foley editor)

These roles could be different people or it could be one person doing all of the above. In credits, if someone is listed as “Sound Editor” they likely worked on multiple elements.

Dialog Editing

As we saw in part one, the materials are brought into an audio workstation from a video workstation (through an AAF or OMF) and then “split” so that each element is placed on appropriate tracks. The dialog editor is responsible for going through all of the dialog tracks for the following:

  • Organizing files within each set of audio tracks
  • Sorting through tracks and removing regions so only usable or preferred/best mics are remaining.
  • Once the appropriate mics are in place: adjusting fade ins, fade outs, cross fades, and filling in holes as necessary.
  • Removing unwanted sounds such as pops, clicks, hums, thumps, or other noises that can’t be removed by real-time mixing. Sometimes the dialog editor can remove other non-desirable sounds like dogs barking or sirens.
  • Repairing sounds that can’t be fixed by real-time mixing (such as mic dropouts)
  • Editing ADR (actor’s lines that were re-recorded in the studio) and voice-over narration

The fundamentals of dialog editing

dia edit vs orig.png

Here’s an example of a very basic dialog edit; The above track is edited while the grey track (lower) is how it was delivered by the picture editor (via AAF).

Most dialog clips will need a fade in/fade out to make the ambience come in (or shift to another mic) more naturally.  Production dialog naturally has an audible noise floor (from background noise). For an exterior shot, this could be distant traffic or light wind; interior might be an air conditioner running or a refrigerator hum. In the above example, there’s a small spot where a mic is missing (on the "DIA ORIG" track). The dialog editor would need to “fill” that – in this case, the original audio in that area was clean so the region was extended to fill in the hole. 

Towards the end of the clip (the 5th region), an edit was moved slightly to clean up a bad dialog edit in the middle of a word. At the very end, the original audio had something going on (a noise or start of a new word). That had to be edited to add a clean fade out using audio from earlier in the track.

Removing mics

 Before dialog editing

Before dialog editing

 After dialog editing

After dialog editing

This is a before and after look of two tracks of dialog. It’s two people with separate mics talking at close proximity. Even just looking at the regions (without listening) you can get a general idea of when one person (or both) are talking based on the size of the waveform. Even though it may appear obvious, it’s still a good idea to listen through each track to make sure you’re not removing anything important that’s hidden in the waveform (like a quiet word or laugh). In this example, the second region of dialog came from another scene (this was added by the picture editor or assistant). That had to be replaced with fill that from this scene to match sonically. Sometimes an audio replacement sounds fine in the picture edit bay but not work at all on the mix stage. Sometimes issues like that aren’t audible unless you’re listening with professional-quality headphones, studio monitors, or with a compressor on the dialog.

Dialog organization

There’s a lot of different ways to organize dialog and the style can change depending on a few factors (like the genre of the project or the mixer you're editing for). For example, when working on reality tv shows (or documentary), I like working with two sets of dialog tracks: interviews and in-scene dialog. A scene could switch many times between action (in-scene dialog) to an interview of someone talking about what’s happening. Here’s an example of a show that uses that style:

Even though it’s the same person talking in-scene and in the interview, it doesn’t make sense logistically to have all that  audio on the same track. It’s different locations, different mics (or mic placement), and the source mics probably have different levels and EQs.

That style of dialog editing may not work for a scripted film or tv show, though. It may make more sense to have 5-10 generic dialog tracks. You typically want to edit the same character/same mic on the same tracks through a scene (in a new scene they may switch to a different track). In this example, there’s 3 people (and three mics):

Sometimes the style of dialog editing will be catered to the mixer you are editing for. Below is the same audio but edited to another mixer’s preferences (no straight fades, longer fade ins/outs, switching between tracks A-B and C-D between scenes):

If you're editing for another mixer, it’s always a good idea to speak with him/her before to get a sense for preferences. Some mixers have 5 dialog tracks in their template and others have 20. Some mixers only want a specific type of cross fade. It can help to see another project that was edited for that mixer or to use the mixer's template so names will match. In essence, the dialog editor’s job is to make it easy and seamless for the mixer to import the dialog edit and start working as quickly as possible.

Removing sounds

It’s expected for a professional dialog editor to know how to do detailed audio clean up using corrective software or plugins (with functions like declick, decrackle, and hum removal). Detail work is the focus; Broadband noise reduction (globally reducing noise) typically happens during the mix, not by the dialog editor. 

Izotope RX is commonly used software that dialog editors use to remove problem sounds. It's sort of like Photoshop for audio. In the example below, there’s wind on the mic that’s causing rumble and clicks. The left side is the original audio; the right side is after it’s been treated by RX 5 (to remove low pops, de-plosives and declick):

izotope.png

The biggest change is in the low frequencies (seen as bright yellow at the bottom of the  left photo). What’s impressive is that RX can remove this without compromising the quality of the dialog (with the appropriate settings). A mixer could achieve a similar result with a high pass EQ filter but they would be completely losing low end information – which can cause a shift in ambience or negatively affect the sound of the voice.

Izotope can also repair mic dropouts, as seen in this before and after:

izotope dropout.png

Tips for dialog editing

  • Add EQ and compression to your edit tracks (for temporary use) to listen closer to how the mixer will be hearing it. It may take some adjusting plugins between scenes but the idea is to hear things that you may not catch otherwise. For example, some lavs sound very dull or boxy (especially if poorly placed). A lav might need 6 dB or more of a high end boost – significant enough to hear issues that went totally unnoticed without the boost. I like the  Waves MV2 plugin for compression when editing dialog.
  • Sometimes it’s up to the dialog editor whether to cut a scene with lavs or boom mics but it's a discussion to have with your mixer. Some mixers generally prefer one  or prefer to have both options in the cut.
  • Unused mics: There’s a couple ways to handle mics that aren’t needed. If there’s two mics on the same person and both sound pretty good, it’s ok to edit both and leave one unmuted and the other one muted. You could also make “X” tracks; “X1, X2, etc” and place any unused audio on there. Your mixer may want these tracks or may not (that’s another question to ask). It’s good to hang onto as much as possible in your own work session, either way. If a mixer later asks, “were there any other mics for this spot?” you can easily see how many mic options there were and can listen to the alts (so you can explain why you chose the way you did).
  • If you’re doing any processing (declicking, etc), it’s really important to keep a copy of the original somewhere accessible. Sometimes it’s muted on the track below or you can make a track labelled “unprocessed” (or something similar) so you or the mixer can quickly get back to the original, if needed. If only a small portion of a region is processed (and has handles) and the rest of the region is not processed no copy is needed. In general, you want to make it quick and easy for anyone to get back to the original/unprocessed file.
  • Headphones versus studio monitors: This is a personal preference, but I typically prefer headphones unless I’m working in a good-sounding room with monitors that I know and trust. It’s hard to hear rumble on a speaker that only has a 6 inch woofer, for example. If I’m working at a studio, I would rather edit on a mix stage than an edit bay (it’s not always possible but it’s really helpful if you have the option). Even better is to work in the mix room that the final mix will take place. The mic choices that you make in one room may sound very different in another – especially between a small edit room and a mix bay.

Advanced dialog editing

This has been a basic overview of dialog editing. There’s more advanced skills that come up such as:

  • Removing sound fx that naturally occur in production audio so they can be used in the M&E (foreign versions)
  • Creating fill that can be used for ADR, holes, or used as transitions between mics
  • Adjusting mics for phase or sync issues
  • Conforming lav mics (from the source recording) when they aren’t included or cut by the editor

Who makes a good dialog editor?

Dialog editing is a good fit for people who like to work alone and is generally more independent and less stressful than mixing. You have to be detail-oriented and like problem solving. It’s rewarding because it’s often a drastic change between where you started and what it sounds like when you’re done. Dialog editing can be really challenging at times, too. As far as sound editing goes, it’s probably the most important job (because dialog is up front and center – literally).

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

Employment Interview.jpg

 

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 monologue. 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?

new years goals.jpeg

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

Yuki Cat on Rhodes

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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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.