Reader Q&A: High Schooler Looking to Pursue Audio

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In tv/film sound, is it more common to take a variety of different roles rather than focusing on and mastering one?

Yes, definitely! People do tend to grow into a speciality (at least in LA) but that’s after a few years in the field and seeing what kind of work you can land. But part of that variety is because sometimes you just take whatever work you can find. Full-time jobs in post-production sound are a rarity, so you’re usually only hired as-needed. It’s the norm now to have a setup at home where you can edit, mix, etc. Starting out, a lot of people just do indie work – so finding work gig by gig.

How can I continue to develop my skills specifically in film and TV before going to school for it?

If you have any friends doing any sort of videos for fun (anything from a vlog to Youtube videos to short films or whatever) try to work on their audio. Play around with it and see what it takes to make it better. A lot of times in film/tv you’re picking up on someone else’s work – whether it’s editing dialog that was recorded on set (by someone else), or a picture editor doing a little sound design (where it’s not their speciality) and you have to make it better.

One thing that could help no matter what direction you go would be to take business classes. So many people (who put a lot of time and effort into learning audio) have to leave the industry because they go broke! From the day you get out of college you’re basically in business for yourself, which means you may need to put together a budget or make an invoice. Let’s say you want to rent a PA or mics for a show – what’s your budget, and what can you afford? If a theater wanted to hire you as an A2 and asked your rate, how would you figure that out? (what’s your rent/expenses, what’s the going rate at other theaters, etc?) Do you have enough income to afford that new plugin, software, etc this month or do you need to wait til next? All of that has to do with money management.

In terms of audio/tech, you could try doing a project where you strip off the sound of a movie clip and redo it all yourself. If you might be interested in pursuing video games, play around with wWise, which is the tool game sound designers use to put sounds into a game (it’s a free download). There’s free sound fx libraries available online for educational use. Explore as much as possible from tv/film to video games to VR to podcasts. Join Facebook groups of professionals and just see what they’re talking about and what they’re like. Sometimes people find an area of work they love but they don’t really connect with the people, and that’s important when our industry is so relationship-oriented.

Is it beneficial to go to a school on the east or west coast of the U.S. for later opportunities?

The only reason I’d favor one coast over the other would be if you have a strong sense where you want to live after school. Like, if you knew without a doubt you wanted to do film/tv and move to Los Angeles, it might benefit to go to school here cause you can attend professional events, network, and get internships while in school. It can help you get a head start while you’re still in school.

If you could see yourself in New York City doing theater, then maybe going to a theater school program like Yale might be a good choice cause it’s an hour subway ride into the city. For VR or video games, maybe it’s Seattle, and you could go to meetups and do hackathons while in school.

But, there’s also something to be said about getting the best audio education you can for cheap (tuition and cost of living) even if it means you’re moving somewhere new after graduating and needing time to build a support network to help you find work. There’s no wrong answer, and people change their minds all the time. I was planning to move to New York for years (and even had a job lined up) but I visited LA my last semester of college and loved it. It was ultimately my “personal preferences” that lead me to LA over NY. Sitting in traffic never bothered me, but I hated riding the subway and being too close to smelly people first thing in the morning. I knew I’d be living in a small and loud apartment in NY, vs privacy and room for a home studio in LA. 

Is it more beneficial to start at a large company and work your way up, or take on larger roles on lesser known productions?

Today, audio is more like trying to land work as an actor than finding a job as a doctor or accountant. Those kinds of jobs have openings, you apply, interview, and you can stay in the job for 30 years or quit anytime. In film/tv, most jobs do not come by job ads, and full-time jobs are rare. So you really are like an actor where you’re just constantly seeking out auditions, trying to meet as many people as possible (to hear about auditions – especially the ones that aren’t advertised), and then you do some other work while you’re taking all these auditions. Even if you land the gig, it might only be a day, week, or couple months or work. TV/film is exactly the same – even if a studio hires you, it might only be for 2 days a week for 12 weeks. So, you have to find a way to fill in the rest of the week plus you’re out of work in 12 weeks. The instability is something you get used to, but all that “audition seeking” is constantly happening on top of doing actual work.

This exists in theater, video games, music… pretty much any of the creative side of the audio industry. In theater, you may only get hired for a show or tour run. Video games and VR has the same thing but the time frames tend to be longer (like a 6 month or 1 year contract, and at the end of the contract they may renew it for another year).

For a high schooler, I wouldn’t have any plan at all for your career path or who to work for, and there’s not much you can do strategically other than to build skills. So, keep following your interests and going down those rabbit holes. Once you get out of high school, there’s going to be other people starting to dictate what your rabbit holes are, so take advantage while you still can go as wide, deep or upside down as you want. This goes for anything outside of audio, also!