A Few Questions – Part I

I was sent a few questions via email the other day from a random stranger & I thought I would post my reply here; not to provide any universal truths (because there are none) but hopefully to provoke thought and/or discussion – how would you answer the questions asked? Every time I am put in this position (ie how did you get where you are etc) I try to answer as though I am giving honest suggestions & direction to my younger self, back when I was in the same position in the very early 90s…. I spent 18 months as an unemployed musician/university drop out prior to attending film school & if I can help explain my ‘gap year’ to myself let alone anyone else, then so much the better!

What do you think has kept work coming your way. I’m lucky enough to have a couple of jobs ready to go but I certainly have no guarantee of work 3 months from now, and this is a bit daunting. Any advice?

First, re the idea of work beyond 3 months, I have only one thing to say & that is;
as a freelancer, get used to it!
That is how life is, learn to cope with it & even better count it as a blessing! I went to film school in 1990, its now 2008 and this is the first time in my career that I have work confirmed beyond 3 months, literally! So in my case it has taken 18 years of semi-constant work to reach a point where I have confirmed work for the next 6 or 8 months…. FIRST. TIME. IN. 18. YEARS. And even then it is still dependant on ever changing shooting schedules etc…. Seriously. A year ago I would start a 3 month film project and I would have nothing confirmed after it. Sure I pursue multiple projects; like any good producer you have to have many ‘irons in the fire’ because you well know only a few will come to fruition on time, but in my experience 3 months is as reliable as it will ever get – the exception being big budget US studio films where at most I have been contracted for six months, but that was at year 14 and 15 in my career respectively….

Over the last decade I have come to appreciate that I basically do a years work in 9-10 months (income-wise & workload/stress-wise). So the other random 2-3 months of each year are mine to do what I like with, and as I get older those months become more & more welcome/valuable; I spend them doing short films, travelling and/or working on my own projects and inversely that justifies giving up the rest of my time for other peoples projects. It keeps me sane (well I think so anyway!) But it does also dictate that you manage your finances accordingly, and it is NOT for everyone. Some people cannot stand the instability & they should probably stay in nine to five institutionalized salary-man type jobs… but if you can flow with the punches/manage your own time & finances accordingly then I honestly believe there is no better life….

What do you think has kept work coming your way?

In hindsight, I think it comes down to one simple statement: every time someone asks me do something, I do more than what they ask.
Work is not just a task to be done, it is an opportunity. If you do what they expect, they will be happy & say thanks, & maybe they will hire you again, maybe not… if you do less than what they expect then you either dont know your job or you are lazy, and in both cases they should NOT hire you again… but if you do MORE than what is asked of you, then you have illustrated that despite what THEIR intentions (& budget) were, yours are HIGHER…. Now be careful, if you go & do a lot of extra work that no one wants, then its just a waste of time: for you & for whoever is mixing your material… but if your extra work shows that you understand what the story & drama of a scene requires then your extra work will be rewarded, because it makes everyone sound good… And believe you me, every mixer likes to mix sounds that makes them look good! A very simple example is say someone gets hit over the head with a bottle. If you are a beginner/naive sound effects editor (for Tv, Film or whatever) you might deliver one track of a bottle smash & think thats it…. but from a mixers perspective what can they do with it? Make it louder or softer, EQ it, maybe add reverb where appropriate, but there isnt much mixing involved & if it was me as sound editor, I would need to be pretty damn sure I was presenting the best goddamn bottle smash ever heard to be able to go home at night & not worry about that particular moment…… What would be smarter would be to add a track with a seperate boofy bass heavy smash AND a seperate woosh/swish AND some glass fragments falling to the ground AND a head/bone/skull impact sound, so that maybe instead of that single bottle smash you gave the mixer six or eight tracks of material with which to make that moment sound GREAT! So my example is to illustrate that while the mixer will DEFINITELY notice the difference between one basic track and six well chosen elements, the director will also notice that a lame bit of violence now makes you wince…. and the producer will like it because the director is smiling… & that concept applies to everything you do, forever more… Think about it & ALWAYS carefully do more than what is asked of you….

The other aspect is relationships: when I first started out I was very very happy not to have to present my work to a director, I didnt know enough to know what was right & what wasnt, so someone more senior than I, my ‘boss,’ would mix my material so it made sense & then present it to the director & later on I would do any fixes requested. This phase went on for a number of years & during that time my most important relationship was with my boss; it was to him I answered & as long as he felt I was doing good/progressively better work then every thing was good. And I got progressively better work as a sound editor (answering to my boss/supervisor) until sooner or later I began getting projects where I was the one presenting my work to the director & soliciting feedback, and in my case it was a feature film called Stickmen in 2001, so bear in mind this is 11 years after film school. Accordingly when someone comes to see me & says they want to be a film sound designer, I think to myself well… it took me 10 years to get my first film, how long has this person been at it?
But relative to relationships, my most important relationship then & ever since has become between me and the director and producer, and secondly to the picture editor, composer & the other sound editors. So no matter the project, budget or requirements, the most important thing is that the director & producer are happy that I am doing the best possible work for their project, above & beyond what their own expectations & budget might dictate… so while the scale has changed, the core concept has not.

Also note that I have never aspired to be a mixer, I have always wanted to be a sound effects editor/sound designer. To my mind, mixing is a totally different skill & if you are doing both then there is a good chance you will only ever do both fairly averagely at best, simply because I well know I put 110% into being the best sound editor I can & the mixers I work with devote 110% into being the best mixers they can be…. so be wary of taking on responsibilities that you have no experience with! Over the years I have met a few flash music mixers who presume that because they know how to mix music that they can also mix films/TV & I quietly watch them fail, simply because sound post requires far more of them than they ever know or more likely have ever even been aware of……. ie with a film they are required to mix at least four times what they are used to: Mixing music they have only that musics end result in mind whereas with sound post they are being asked to mix (1) dialogue(production, ADR, voiceover) (2) sound effects, ambiences & foley (3) music (score & source music) and most important of all (4) the drama, scene by scene & overall as a film. Mixing music teaches you NOTHING about mixing dramatic film or TV soundtracks! And sadly ignorance is not an excuse for anything….

The last answer to this question may well be the most telling: it is because I have not FCKED up a job yet. I have been confronted a few times by local people who seem to think I have some form of Gods Gift – I distinctly remember a TV sound editor/mixer asking me how it felt to be top of my game & apart from my having to suppress an instant feeling of nausea (you obviously have no idea how deep the rabbit hole is/i am just scratching the surface.. etc etc) all I could coherently answer was this: I am only as good as the job I am currently doing: if I dont do the absolute best job right now then I am worthless, if I blow this opportuntity given me right now then I may never work again… If you aspire to be artist in what you do, there is no arriving: it is an endless journey & you CAN always do better…

Which aspects of audio production are most in demand? I’m gravitating toward sound design and music production, but my number one priority is paying the rent to begin with. So I’d really like to know what I need to able to offer to give myself the best chance of surviving.

What you ask is so context based that I dont believe I have any form of coherent answer so I feel it would be better answered by a question: what is more important to you: music or sound design? (or whatever else are your options) Think carefully, regardless of ‘whats in demand.’ Whenever some young person comes to me & says they want a job in sound post I always ask them if I had a job to offer in any one of the following, which would they choose first: dialogue editor, sound effects editor, music editor, or composer? Think about it & give me an honest answer. What do you MOST want to do? Because THAT is what you should most focus on. If they say they I dont know (or I dont mind) then I suggest they go away & do some homework & work out what it is that they DO want to do, because as long as they dont know they are a liability, to me & to themselves. I would frankly be seriously FCKed off if I hired someone as an assistant/trainee sound effects editor and after two or three months they revealed that they really just wanted to be a composer & were biding their time! Go bide your time with someone else, I want to work with people who know what they want to do & are passionate about it!

In your original question you mentioned that you are providing an audio facility, but I personally believe you should be under no illusion that it is YOU that is (hopefully) getting hired for work, not your facility. Early on in my career, people above me would debate the merits of how much to spend on advertising their facility & I always thought to myself (a) the best advertisement for your work is the work itself and (b) no one hires your facility – they hire YOU & YOUR skills & presume that you come accompanied (& of course, seperately budgeted) with the facility/resources that you need to do your job. Your facilities name will NOT get you future work, YOUR name & reputation WILL hopefully get you your future work.

A slightly more abstract question: where do you see the industry going? I know that things like youtube and file sharing are turning the entertainment industry on its head, so who do you think us soundies will be getting our work from in 5 or 10 years?

Despite all the hype, I really dont believe the ‘industry’ is changing much at all. But the industry I am referring to is the feature film industry, which is my core focus. Feature films are based on two things: (1) the directors vision and (2) the resolution of the medium. So sure ten years from now youtube , or its high rez replacement will be important in marketing (& maybe even a secondary means of distributing) films, but the core high resolution medium of making films will be very similar to what it is now. Sure some films will be released in 3D with 10.2 audio or whatever, but those formats only suit a certain style of film making and again I think its VERY IMPORTANT to think deeply about what kinds of films you want to be working on… if you want to work on 3D theme park ride type films dont ask me, I dont work on those films….

I think online video distribution will effectively replace television & frankly the sooner the better; apart from The Simpsons & the occasional doco I really dont watch TV because its mostly very very bad. People who leave their TV running all evening I think equates to having a media sewage outlet spilling into their lounge; why would you bother? Read a book, listen to music, stream a video clip thats relevant to your interests….. do something/anything that doesnt insult your intelligence the way commercial television currently does! But in terms of new projects, a new delivery platform does not mean there will suddenly be lots of new great ideas. DV was marketed as such & did it deliver? Maybe for 0.02% more than what went before…. but in the end nothing changes, content is still king. And good content requires good audio & THAT is where the best work will be done.

But to me, what is exciting about the future is the democratisation of ideas; good media equals good ideas….. I believe in the future, good ideas will develop in a high resolution format that isnt hindered by budget. You wont need a TV channel or funder behind you to make a great doco or film in a broadcast format; people with good ideas will just make their project, find their audience & that audience will fund their next project….. In the end technology does not create ideas, humans do!

Ok, so anyone else? Ask away

5 Responses to A Few Questions – Part I

  1. rene says:

    excellent responses, and well thought out as always.

    Here’s a more technical question:

    when setting up a shoot in the field, how important is it to capture (non-ambient) sounds in 5.1?

    I personally find that most of my 5.1 sound design tends to evolve from a series or mono sources that are easy to manipulate in space.

    That said, I just finished a bowling alley recording session this week, where I brought enough mics to capture every element of the act of rolling a strike: a KSM32 at the lane where the ball makes its impact, a stereo VP-88 aimed directly at the pins from the front, a 57 up close and personal at the pocket, and a stereo ambient pair in the back of the lane for reverb.

    Upon bringing the sounds into a session for editing, I realized that I had recorded a pretty workable 5.1 setup – 57 and ksm32 in the center, VP88 left and right, and ambient in the surrounds. I’ll try that setup tomorrow to see how it sounds, but I recognize now that I only got that type of setup (and sound) by a kind of thoroughness accident.

    How often do you explicitly set out to capture NON-ambient sounds in a surround format, and what procedures do you use?

    thanks!
    -Rene

  2. tim says:

    Hmmmm…. I have to admit I have never recorded in surround, in the strict sense… Not having a portable 6 or 8 track track recorder is my first hurdle in such things, as I certainly have enough mics… but my lack of motivation originates from the fact that usually I am trying to gather seperate/discrete elements. It is very very rare that I use a single recording to create sound for a specific moment or effect – it is always constructed from multiple elements.

    So for example if I had 3 stereo recorders available for a vehicle recording I would be much more likely to capture multiple discrete elements with them than to try & capture it as a single perspective 5.1 recording… That way I can edit & construct whatever is needed from the individual elements, no matter how the picture is cut (and recut) later….

    Even recording ambiences with two stereo recorders for me usually involves two people trying to find seperate discrete elements, as opposed to a quad version.

    But I am generalising, as with everything it depends on context. Many times recording FX I am doing everything possible to minimise the backgrounds (which is why I rcently bought a Sennheiser MKH70) but I can equally think of times when it would be fantastic to be able to discretely capture the environment/acoustics.

    For film, compatability with the LtRt is also important (ie matrixed Dolby Surround) and you have to be careful of phase issues, which may not be apparent when mixing in 5.1, but could be an issue when print mastering the LtRt…

  3. rene says:

    fwiw, my recording source was a Sound Devices 744T, along with a Zoom H4 as the ambient pair.

    When I put the elements in to the surround setup that as I concieved them, I really did like the bigness and clearness of the pin impact sound. I ended up gating the channels a bit for cleanliness, and when the gate opened in the ambient track as the pins splatted, the effect was awesome.

    The setup was not without issues though. First off, the perspective of the ball rolling did not change much, since its travel tended to start and to stay in the center channel. Second, when the ball passed underneath the stereo mic, I got a short but strange right to left effect (i bowl with a hook) momentarily before the impact of the pins.

    That said, I’ll probably archive everything both as stereo bounces and as 5.1 interleaved wav files. The 5.1 archiving will be less for actual unaltered use in film, than for a convenient way to store discreet perspectives on the same event, since each mic is essentially hard panned to an individual channel.

    On a secondary note, outside of just matrixing the sounds down to LtRt and listening, are there any other precautions to take so that I can check for compatibility there?

    Thanks!

  4. tim says:

    re using 744; it is one thing I am always aware of & that is constant technological development – no doubt in a few years time we will easily/affordably be able to capture 8+ tracks at 96k or higher… So the techniques you describe are a good investment in the future ie getting used to capturing multitrack sync recordings…
    (and a contact mic to pick up the ball rolling rumble is the only thing I could imagine additionally trying to capture to what you describe, but again thats probably easier as a seperate recording)

    re checking for phases issues with LtRt; the only way I know is to monitor through encode/decode… In my experience the worst material is noisy sounds ie sounds with a lot of white noise content. Many years ago I did a project for a museum installation that was a montage of sound & at one point had a baby in the front and ocean waves crashing in surrounds and the position of the baby sounds in LCR got incorrectly steered all over the place….
    I think ambiences are the most improtant area to be careful with, although using any binaural material or sounds with weird use of phasing (eg some synth sounds) would warrant testing.

  5. brendan says:

    thanks for your thoughts – an interesting and reassuring read.

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