Starting a career in the audio industry is one of the biggest challenges for recent Musitechnic graduates. Many of the jobs available are short-term contracts and for self-employed professionals. It is contract work, which, if all goes well, becomes recurrent rather than sporadic. That is why the first steps into the professional world are crucial and must be managed well. I am writing today for those who, having been absorbed in student life, need some advice regarding their first contracts. Those who have already gone that route can help to light the way for the aspiring sound engineer. Philippe Génier teaches at Musitechnic and, like many sound professionals, he has had a variety of jobs in the industry since his graduation from Musitechnic. I asked him to share his experiences as a boom operator for films.
The first contracts
Thinking back to his first contracts as a sound recordist, Philippe remarks that it all started several years before during an unpaid internship in a video production company. Upon finishing school, he had obtained this internship through a neighbor who worked there. At the end of his internship he had showed his enthusiasm to work with them again. It was a few years later only that he was offered a contract to record sound on set. He was the only sound recordist there for this independent production and he had to record the sound with a boom, some clip-on lavalier microphones and a portable recorder.
A question that is often asked by students looking for work is how to bring up the subject of salary. It is a delicate matter for anyone doing contract work who doesn’t yet know the going rates or what is being offered by the competition. Philippe explains that he had to bring up the subject because the person who contacted him never brought it up. If you ask that question and the person in front of you asks what your hourly rate is, you should have your answer ready! If you prefer to let the client set the rate then you can ask them what budget they are working with. If you are asked to your hourly rate and you have decided what you want to charge, then that’s perfect. If not, you can buy a bit of time to establish it in your head by letting them know that the rate will depend on what is required of you and what equipment needs to be provided (equipment rental, transportation…) as well as the duration of the contract (your rate can be more flexible for a two week contract than on a one day gig). Philippe asked the advice of some of the teachers at Musitechnic as well as that of some friends that work in the industry. Sometimes it can be hard to talk salary with your acquaintances, but without asking them directly how much they are making you can explain that it is your first contract and ask them what they would do in your place. You would be surprised what advice you can get from a casual acquaintance. On top of telling you what salary is reasonable for your particular situation, they might even share what they were making when they first began working.
If you are unsure of the rate you should ask for, try comparing with what you could be making elsewhere if you didn’t take the contract (this is called the opportunity cost). For example, is you make 15$ an hour with your restaurant job you won’t be losing any money if you charge the same for a contract in sound. For that matter, it might be worth it even for 14$/hour because in the end what’s more important to you? : an extra 1$/hour or acquiring the experience from your first contract?
Also remember that when you charge a higher rate you have to be ready to deliver an impeccable and irreproachable service. Do you feel you are capable of that? The clients’ expectations will increase with the rate you charge. On top of expecting irreproachable sound quality, the client can expect punctuality, flexibility, an infinite touch up service, etc… but mostly experience will justify a high salary. Are you already capable of mastering any event or situation that could be presented to you in the context of your work? Sometimes it is preferable to charge a rate that is equivalent to the service you are certain you can provide.
Having already acquired the technical knowledge necessary for audio work, Philippe started preparing for his session by reading the manuals of the gear he had borrowed from a friend. He asked a lot of questions and asked for advice from people around him as well as from the teachers at Musitechnic who had experience working on film stages. Finally, a few days prior to the shooting, he took the time to make some recordings at home to become familiar with the equipment and the boom he would be using.
Preparation is no doubt important but, as is often the case with firsts, some unexpected challenges came into play. The boom that Philippe used had been supplied by the production team and, proving itself extremely sensitive to the friction that his fingers applied, it did not allow any movement from the hands of the one holding it. Also, Philippe quickly learned that he needed to roll the cable in such a way that it did not hit the boom pole. You need a certain technique to hold the boom so that you do not tire yourself uselessly because, as Philippe quickly learned, the work days are very long. There’s nothing like real work experience to grasp the difference between theory and practice! Another surprise was that as the only sound recordist present, he was the reference for everything relating to sound. The rest of the team was not concerned with the sound and he had to make all the decisions, like redoing a take because the ambient sound was too loud, for example.
Conducting sound recording tests at home is certainly useful but it doesn’t prepare for lengthy workdays or for the slowness of a shoot. Philippe talks of long waits during which the sound recordist has nothing to do while others (actors, make-up, cameramen, etc…) prepare for the next take. Philippe also felt the stress factor: as opposed to his preparatory tests, he had the impression that his recording levels were unstable and hard to control, with lots of peaks, even though nothing had changed in his gear. Some seemingly insignificant details can be more of a nuisance that an actual problem. During an outdoor shoot for example, Philippe realized that his sound recorder did not fit in his coat pocket, which complicated matters slightly. His tests had been conducted inside when he was wearing something different.
The next time
One often comes out of a first experience thinking of what could be done differently next time. Philippe learned to record sound by positioning his boom pole downwards rather than upwards, which is less tiresome. He chooses his equipment more carefully now that he is aware of the flaws of the various pieces of equipment that are available to him. When he is hired for a shoot that is likely going to be challenging but where he will learn, he tends to charge less so as to feel less stressed.
In the next blog we will tackle the importance of grasping opportunities for work. We will talk about understanding that sound engineers are in fact providing a service rather than a product. Finally we will look at the role that school plays in the professional journey of the sound engineer.
Questions and comments welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org