Reader Q&A: Pivoting from Live Sound/AV to Post-Production

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Could you give me advice on how to get started in post (if my goal is to move to LA)?

LA is definitely the place to be for post-production sound, but I wouldn’t move until you have some groundwork laid first. People won’t hire you unless you’re here, but you can definitely start networking and building relationships with people in LA in the meantime. In theory, you could move to LA and try to survive on live sound or AV income while laying groundwork. But, the cost of living is so high here, and in-person networking and events (where you might meet people who could help) aren’t happening during COVID. I don’t see a reason to be burning money to learn skills you could be doing from somewhere else.

By laying groundwork, I’m referring to two things: credits and relationships.

Find projects to work on where you can earn credits that can be put on iMDB.com (you may have to add the credits yourself). Student films or short films are good. Free work is totally fine because it’s about building experience and getting credits.

The idea is if I look you up on iMDB (and I don’t know you), I’m looking for at least 5 credits. That’s how I know you’re not just dabbling and trying to pursue it. Even 5-10 credits sets you way ahead of the pack. It also shows you’re trying to work with other people. You can target your local area for this (vs looking at Craigslist in LA). Check with film schools, and people in your network (even people in roles adjacent to sound like camera or lighting) for projects, especially if you’re willing/able to offer your time for free.

Then, hang out in social media groups for post-production sound or re-recording mixers (Facebook has some great ones). The idea is if you move to LA down the road and you’ve been asking great questions and participating positively, someone will probably be willing to meet you once you move or come for a visit.

How should I choose reference material for mixing certain types of post, i.e. (surround sound, film, or broadcast)? Should I find a well-mixed movie or tv show and play it back on my home setup? 


Listen to as much as possible just to build an ear for what your room/setup sounds like. One thing about being a re-recording mixer is you have little control over the quality of what you’re mixing. Often the goal is just to be intelligible vs sounding “good.” Your typical big-budget major Hollywood film is probably going to have amazing production dialog, full of ADR, and months to mix. A reality tv show (or documentary) there’s no do-overs in production. You can get stuck with really crappy audio at times, and the mix might turn around in a week. Entry-level mixing work does tend to fall more on that end. But, you quickly gain chops on how to deal with problem audio. So, you need both as a reference.


Action movies are a great reference for sound fx mixing. You can learn things like standards for 5.1 panning, what goes in the rears and how much, etc. If you solo the center channel on a 5.1 mix, you’ll mostly hear dialog and Foley. You can learn a lot by doing that. Then, maybe compare a big Hollywood movie vs an indie movie that was a hit. What’s the difference in the sound fx? Or, the quality of the dialog (especially background noise or noticing when it’s off-axis/off-mic)? And so forth.


Meters

Another thing that may be helpful is starting to watch meters (peak and loudness) while listening to other people’s mixes. As an assistant, I was in the back of the room (not optimal for listening). But, I was able to see everything that was happening on the meters. That visual guide was a good supplement to my ears when I was first getting started. Waves has a Dorrough surround metering plugin that occasionally goes on sale for very low, and is worth picking up. That’s my go to meter.


How do I learn the standard way of setting up a session for the different post mixings? Should I build a template for different styles of projects?

Seek out templates (ask people in groups). I’ve had to work in different templates over the years (belonging to other people or studios). There’s a lot to learn looking at how different mixers do it.

I now have one template that’s basically a foundation for everything I do. Even if I’m doing a small mix, my basic template has more tracks than I need. Most tracks are hidden until I need them.

One template might be a better approach early on. You’ll probably want to make changes after every mix you do as you’re learning. If you find a mistake, it’s a pain to have to correct multiple templates. I do have a 5.1 template and a stereo template, but a lot of times I’m mixing in stereo within my 5.1 template. It’s a pain to have to convert a stereo session into 5.1 but not the other way around. It comes up for me a lot where I’m mixing in 5.1, a producer is reviewing somewhere else in stereo, and I’m delivering stems in 5.1 and stereo. I need both stereo and 5.1 within my 5.1 template either way.

What are the steps that you took to get to where you are now? And what made you want to be a re-recording mixer?

I actually wanted to pursue music production. When I moved to LA (in 2004) everyone I met in music was telling me how hard it had become to make a living at it. At that point, post-production was a path where you could still land a studio job and use that to propel your career. I worked at a studio for three years where I learned a ton and met a lot of people, and I used that foundation to go freelance. I was freelance for around 10 years, working for a lot of studios and companies in LA plus taking on my own clients at my home studio. Then, I went to a stable mixing position working primarily for one client.

The steps to building a career are definitely different now. The mountain you have to climb at the beginning of your career is so much higher than it used to be (this goes for most disciplines in the audio industry). You’re pretty much freelance and finding your own clients one by one from the beginning. It’s just harder to build relationships with professionals because everyone is siloed. If you can find an entry-level studio job, that’s amazing, but it’s definitely not the norm for getting into the industry now.

On the one hand, it’s made that old school barrier to get into the industry go away. Learning is much more self-directed and a lot less in person.

One major piece of advice: learning from others (in-person) is a special occasion, not an expectation.

COVID has moved this even further that direction because no one is coming together for mixes unless they absolutely have to be there. 

The advantage of this change is you can get opportunities in bigger roles much earlier in your career. I had to work in a machine room for a year before I was allowed to engineer a VO session. It was another year before I started mixing (I was maybe 26 years old). Today, you could start mixing from day one – if you can land the gigs (easier said than done!). Plus, there’s way more content than ever before. It only takes one recognizable credit to help you land other work. When you take on independent films and shows, anything good has the potential to end up on Netflix, Apple TV or Amazon. I think it’s easier to build credibility, but it is harder to find work.

How did you choose the company that you work at?

I’ve always just considered opportunities that have come my way. Even me becoming a re-recording mixer was a matter of opportunity over desire. I was working towards being a dialog editor. Then, I got an opportunity to mix a major tv show. I couldn’t turn that down! I’ve been mixing ever since (and still doing other roles on the side).

It’s the same as being freelance in live sound or AV where you take an opportunity to work a show or at a venue. Maybe it’s because you need the money, or it’d be a good gig to practice your chops, or to meet people. Then, some other venue asks you to work for them. Maybe you work for both (if you have time/availability) or you have to pick one. Then, you get offered a gig that pays double what you’re earning and you drop both gigs for that instead! People are generally understanding when a great opportunity comes along, especially if you can help find a replacement.

I think a lot of it is your priorities at the time. Early in my career, I was focused on opportunities that would allow me to learn, practice my skills, and build my credit list. I did this even if the hours were very demanding (in tv, you’re pretty much on-call to when your clients need you). Years later, my goal was more to work with people who I liked on projects I enjoyed. Now, it’s more about jobs that give me life/work balance (mainly because I’m a parent).

What career accomplishments are you most proud of?

This may sound strange, but just staying in! It definitely is an industry where you have to be passionate to stay in it because of the difficulties – the hours/demands, the ongoing need to find work when you’re freelance, or working on shows or content you don’t like at times. I’ve been extremely lucky to be working (and busy) through COVID, which I’m very humbled by when so many of my colleagues outside of post-production aren’t.