For many of us, the transition from A to B isn’t as easy as we would want it to be. A, being the job we currently have as a means of getting by, and B, being the dream filmmaking job you’ve always desired. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as applying for a job in the local cinema. Working your way into the film industry requires a lot of experience and a lot of contacts. However, both of those things come from working on a set. It’s an awful double blind.
Quite often those of us searching for greener pastures have to keep our day job while we journey for the dream career. It is a long and tiresome effort. Fortunately for us, there are those who are currently crossing the threshold and can share their experience in leaving behind their day job.
Matthew Hughes is a 24-year-old sound recordist from South Wales who is currently making the leap from A to B.
Q. Matt, we understand that as a sound recordist you have worked for the BBC on several occasions, as well as working for a handful of independent production companies. Did you have any formal education in sound engineering before these jobs, or has it been something you have learned yourself?
I studied Sound Technology in University for three years; this focused mainly on studio-based recordings for bands. But during my third year, there was more of an emphasis on sound for Film and TV, covering location recording and editing. From there I mostly learned on the job, working on lots of unpaid short films with a minimal kit to get experience and to learn what a sound recordist actually does. This then took me on to a few trainee roles which gave me better guidance from a professional as opposed to me making mistakes on my own.
Q. How beneficial was your time at university? Have you been able to put your knowledge from university to use on set?
This is a difficult one to answer as I often sit and wonder what the hell I actually learnt in university and did it do me any good. But then I’ll have moments where I think, actually, that did prove useful. I was recently asked to record a choir for an advert and I was able to use knowledge from recording studio modules to work out the best way to approach it. I was also taught about the science and fundamentals of sound and how different recording devices work, giving me a better understanding of how different spaces will work (acoustically) and how all the equipment helps to record the sound. Otherwise, I guess it would be like trying to film something and not knowing about the basics of light and how the camera works. So yes, I think it was beneficial.
(Also helps when the gear breaks!)
Q. Were you able to get an audio related job after graduating, or were there other steps you had to take first before landing a job?
I first had to get some experience by working on unpaid shorts and things like that. Otherwise employers don’t know that you’re 100% serious about the role. I then managed to get on a training scheme working on three short films for the BBC and S4C (Welsh Channel). This was paid and involved working under the guidance of a professional sound mixer. It was also the first time I’d ever been on a proper set and that experience provided invaluable! That then enabled me to get other paid roles as I had some on-set experience, but it was still a difficult road.
Q. Audio equipment can be just as expensive as camera equipment. Is it justifiable to have your own gear, or would recommend renting to those starting out?
If you’re interested in sound recording and you’re able to work with someone that has their own gear, maybe a university project or work with a friend that’s already made an investment in gear, then that would be ideal. It gives you a taster without any financial investment. After that initial taster, I’d then be looking to get myself some gear; there’s plenty of affordable kit out there that is fine for those just starting up. That’s what I did, but I quickly wanted to upgrade to shiny new gear that had a heftier price tag (and more buttons and LEDs!).
Q. What’s the process of finding a freelance sound recordist job? Aspiring cinematographers have showreels to show interested parties, is there a similar process for what you do?
The process is difficult; you can’t just google “sound recordist jobs” and expect to be able to apply like that, that sort of thing is very rare. Some soundies use showreels, but it’s not something that has to be done. Usually a list of credits is all you need. It’s mostly about working on smaller projects, meeting people, and working your way up. I’ve found that most of it relies on who you know and your reputation, a good reputation, and the right contacts will get you a long way. That’s the freelance way of doing things, the other way is to find one of those rare staff jobs at a production company, they’ll provide you with training and a salary. From there you can work your way up within the company and then, like many others, leave the company and go freelancing.
Q. What are the necessary steps young aspiring sound engineers/recordists should take to move forward in a very competitive industry?
Learn. Get experience. Meet people.
You’ve just got to get out there, learn all you can about the industry, what a sound recordist does, and what sort of kit they use. You have to remember that when you get your first solo gig, you’re 100% responsible for the sound being recorded, there’s no backup and no fix (Never utter the words “We can fix it in post”). So the person hiring you has to be 100% sure that you can do a good job and that you’re not going to ruin a few days or a few weeks worth of filming. You have to be able to prove that you can do the job, and you can do the job well.
Q. Along with pursuing the dream of becoming a full-time sound recordist, you also have a day job to keep the cogs of life turning. Has your day job ever interfered with your efforts of becoming a full-time sound recordist?
It did at the start, my job is part-time and I worked a few evenings in the week which would get in the way of shooting times. Once this started to happen I was fortunate enough to be able to switch to a weekend only contract. This meant that I was free during the week to take on jobs, whilst still holding down a job on the weekend working two full days. This has worked out well so far, the only difficult time was during the autumn when I was working as a trainee on a drama. I worked for 12 hours, plus 3 hours total commuting each day between Monday and Friday, then I would go to my part-time job all day Saturday and Sunday. That was for 5 weeks, which although manageable it did start to take its toll on my personal life as I had no time for friends and very little time to spend with my girlfriend. However, sometimes you have to do these sorts of things, the Sound Mixer I worked under has several BAFTAs to his name and the experience and knowledge he gave me was unbelievable.
Q. Conversely, what has been the benefits of having a day job while pursuing your dream?
The main benefit is that I know every month I’m guaranteed to get paid. Without it, there would be far more stress involved, especially in these early days when I’m still building up experience and trying to get more equipment. There is the argument that if I did quit my part-time job I would have “The FEAR”, a mental kick up the ass to keep myself motivated and potentially make me a little more ruthless when it comes to job hunting. However, I feel that I’m pretty motivated at the moment, and I enjoy not having the massive stress of wondering how I’m going to eat next month. It also allows me to continue to enjoy life, yes I want to progress as fast as I can but you still need to enjoy yourself and live along the way.
What are your next steps?
My next steps follow on from my own advice. I’ll be learning more, getting more experience, and meeting more people. I’ll be trying to connect with as many people as possible and making myself available for as much work as possible.