AES E-Brief, Film Production Sound in Secondary Markets, the value of newtorking

Audio Engineering Society Convention E-brief

This Engineering Brief was selected on the basis of a submitted synopsis. The author is solely responsible for its presentation, and the AES takes no responsibility for the contents. All rights reserved. Reproduction of this paper, or any portion thereof, is not permitted without direct permission from the Audio Engineering Society

Film production sound in secondary markets, the value of networking

Tom Hauser

Hooz Audio, Winston-Salem, NC, 27106, USA

I came back home to North Carolina after a negative experience interning in Nashville and eventually navigated my way into sound for picture in corporate and commercial work. I have built my network over several years, gone to grad school for film scoring, moved away from the slightly more competitive area of Raleigh, and now have a small 5.1 mixing studio in Winston-Salem, NC. I want to highlight some of the things a young person needs to know to get work as a new comer among veterans where ever they go, emphasize continual skill development beyond school, the value of personal relationships, and navigating the ups and downs of being a freelancer.

Right now, you are here to listen to my presentation because 1) you saw my engineering brief listing in the AES program guide, 2) you might possibly have seen that I was presenting on my website, my email newsletter, or social media, or 3) I personally invited you to hear me speak. These are pretty much the same ways I get work as a sound engineer in North Carolina, a diverse state with opportunities for sound work in corporate and commercial media, live music and sports, reality TV, electronic news, documentaries, independent film making, music production, and at times recent and past, Hollywood films. Although I was trained to be a studio engineer at Ithaca College, I found that I had to transition into sound for visual media to make income of any kind, as the music recording scene in North Carolina was already crowded with studios big and small. These days I rely on a combination of corporate, commercial, and indie film production sound gigs, some documentary mixing, and I have started to branch into jingle writing and ISDN voice over work for talent local to Winston-Salem, where I opened my first studio in March of this year.

If people don't know you exist, they can't find out how awesome you are, and they certainly can't pay you. Having a professional website with demos of your work, particularly demos of the kind of work you are seeking, along with your gear package or studio facilities, is a must. It's also important to list your credits and past projects. Next, it's very important to be listed on multiple classified listing websites. A basic listing is free, and any subscription you might have to pay is usually much less than your day rate. On a recent job with TG Reality out of Ohio, I asked how they found me and booked me for their shoot in High Point. The line producer said, “I found you on Production Hub, went to your website, saw you were a real person, and picked up the phone.” Additionally, you need to remind the people who already know about you that you are doing awesome work and that they really ought to work with you soon. I drive two hours from Winston-Salem to Raleigh to go to networking events if I know they will be well attended. I've been known to drop off organic chai tea at my favorite clients' front desks if they haven't called in a while.

I actually learned about Mailchimp email newsletters at the AES in San Francisco two years ago, and I think it's a very effective tool. Using Google and asking around about who is doing what work is a great way to figure out who else could possibly give you work. I have a friend in project management at Mullen, an ad agency with a location in Winston-Salem, and he told me that although he and his coworkers may not respond to the first email solicitation from a vendor (which is what I am as a freelance composer and engineer), they do remember the people that had cool demos and do good work. It pays to send second and third emails, because the worst that will happen is that you will annoy someone. Lastly, don't forget to call people who you know really liked working with you and like you. Personal relationships are what our society is built upon.

In a secondary market like North Carolina, it's important to diversify. The more things you can do, the more likely you are to survive. There are a ton of people advertising themselves as production sound engineers, recording engineers, studio owners, producers, and composers. There are a lot of established relationships and revenue streams that you might not be able to break into. I tried for a while to break into recording live classical music, and I just didn't have the arts community connections or the gear to compete with people who have been at it for decades. On the flip side, a conversation with a potential client or just a friend can give you a window into the type of work you might have been missing. When my friend at Mullen invited me to lunch at his workplace, he introduced me to the video production team. His producer colleague said it would be great to have a local option for ISDN recording. Between some Facebook messages with a buddy in New York and research on the internet, I was able to get Source Connect, a software based solution for ISDN compatible with bridging services such as Ednet, working in my studio. I have done one actual corporate VO job with Philly Post, and I have five reels of a Jennifer Lopez movie sitting on my machine from an ADR job with Universal that fell through. The VO job put me in contact with an actor producing a movie in Winston-Salem, which then booked me for five days on an indie film three weeks later. Over $2000 in work came out of the seed planted in one conversation.

One of the big drawbacks of being in a secondary market is that it is hard to source gear you don't own. I have not found a film production rental house in North Carolina that caters to film and TV with sound gear on the level of what productions of all levels are asking for. To be clear, you cannot rent a Comtek IFB, Sanken Cos11 lavaliere, multiple channels of Lectrosonics 400 series wireless, or a smart slate, except from an engineer you know personally. As of right now, no rental house in North Carolina has them. If someone needs a smart slate in Winston- Salem, they call Michael McQueen, not me, because he is the guy that has one. It takes time to build up a large gear package, and having name brand gear that a video producer recognizes is part of what will get you the job.

As a studio engineer, my instinct when I first got into sound for picture was to always use the boom or plant small diaphragm condensers. This is okay for indie narrative film, but you really need top shelf wireless mics and a recorder with timecode to get a job on an internal corporate talking head video or lower budget commercial, which will pay way better. Big commercials, TV shows, and Hollywood movies want IFBs, many channels of wireless microphones, a smart slate, and wireless audio and timecode to camera. Large budget projects expect larger sound packages, and pay accordingly. I figured this out from reading job postings online, and looking at other engineers' gear packages. Ebay is your friend, as people are always selling off a piece of gear they don't use anymore. Having a good credit score to finance small gear upgrades is really helpful too. Internet forums, manufacturers' websites, and reading the manual are a great way to get started on knowing how to use gear you've never touched, and knowing if it's something on which you really should be spending your hard earned cash.

Unless you are on the payroll of a film or actually work full time for a media company, which has never happened for me in the five years I've been working in North Carolina, you will be a freelance contractor for every client you work, and anyone who has paid you a significant amount of money will send you a 1099. All of your freelance income will be filed under Schedule C unless you are in a multiparty LLC. If you don't feel comfortable reading the massive amounts of documentation out there for doing all your business taxes, freely available from, you should hire a reputable tax consultant. I do my own taxes because my volume and income are still fairly low, I'm cheap, and I have time. Keeping good records and being honest are very important in this regard.

Another aspect of billing as a freelancer that I want to cover briefly are contracts and invoicing. You will get burned. There are some media companies out there that do not have your best interests at heart, and they will not disclose their vendor policies, ergo the way they treat you contractually and monetarily, until after a job is done. At that point you are at their mercy for getting paid. I've gotten a lot better at writing contracts based on my experiences from all the contracts I've signed and been burned by, and now I actually do deal memos for even small jobs like recording community concerts. On indie film projects, and as I'm learning with Hollywood as well, it's wise to ask for thirty to fifty percent upfront as a deposit.

Corporate work is a big part of earning money in a secondary market. Net 30 and net 45 payment schedules are very normal in the corporate media world. Corporations tend to pay bills now 120 days after delivery of a service. The media company you might work for as an engineer often can't pay faster than 30 days after you invoice because they don't have the cash on hand. Keeping enough money in the bank yourself to stay solvent is challenging and can cause a lot stress when paying for things like health insurance or student loans. In the words of George Harrison, “all things must pass.”

It is vital in working with a client that you convince them you know what you are doing. Do not project any internal anxiety you have onto them. Your job is to make their life easier and to solve your problems outside of your interactions with them. Also, if you are starting out fresh from school, you will have very little professional experience. I worked on one zero-budget and many low-budget indie films to build my resume, get some cash, and get experience. On my most recent indie film, where I worked with key crew from New York and Los Angeles, the first thing the director said to me was, “you are doing a great job, it's obvious you know what you are doing.” At the wrap party, the assistant director told me I would do very well in LA.

As sound engineers, we compete with one another for work. As a cash-strapped freelancer, there is a very strong drive to only network with producers, directors, and non-engineer crew members. However, having a beer or coffee with a competitor can be a very good thing. Since this happens outside of work, it takes money out the interaction, and it lets you engage over your common experiences. We as engineers really have much more in common with each other than we do with the people who hire us, and you can develop good friendships by reaching out. Engineer friends who like you will help you out by renting you gear, passing off jobs to you when they are booked, and giving advice for doing your job better.

I was able to open my first studio this year by making friends with a local music engineer who worked on a pretty small scale. Despite initial talks with a filmmaker, I had lost an independent feature length post production job on which I had been the production engineer to a major studio, and I really felt it was time to take my surround sound set up out of my bedroom and have a real studio dedicated to film production. On a whim I asked my now good friend Michael Zeoli if he knew of any affordable rental spaces, and he said he actually could sublet a 12x24 storage room in his music studio to me and help me put up some basic acoustic treatment to turn it into a control room. Michael is now building a small, freestanding, acoustically designed studio on his property, and he will rent me a second control room that he can later convert into an isolation room. This is just one of many personal connection stories that has helped me be successful as a freelance engineer. There will be many more I'm sure, as I hope to be involved in the business until I'm as old as Rupert Neve.

Audio engineering is a hard business. None of us get into sound for the money. I hope you found this brief helpful. Feel free to email me at if you have any questions about any topic I've covered or the work I do. Lastly, don't forget to keep the faith.