How to get work as a sound designer
Being a sound designer is about knowing how to communicate with an audience through sound, and how to communicate with a director through language. Working in the theatre industry is about working well with people.
Your training, whether at college or in the workplace, should be about developing the above three skills, and getting to know the equipment and the industry.
You're probably going to leave college wanting to be a sound designer but not really knowing how to become one. Sound design jobs are never advertised, and the first time you hear about an upcoming show, the chances are that the creative team will already have been appointed. Sound designers are usually asked to work on a show by a director, a producer or a production manager.
Directors often have favoured designers that they use for their shows, but as shows come along so irregularly there are many occasions where that designer is unavailable and they have to cast around for someone else, and so they ask other directors and producers for recommendations. Often if they've seen a show and liked a designers work on it, they will be approached that way.
It can take a few years to build a sufficient reputation to get regular well-paid design work.
However there are always people out there willing to take a chance with new designers, especially for low or unpaid design work that can't attract established designers.
There are a variety of ways of getting that first job, in fact getting work is something you need to work very actively at for the first few years - eventually a snowball effect will build up, whereby most shows will lead to another show, either by working with the same director again, in the same venue or through someone recommending you. But for the first few years you need to seek out work very actively, and develop your skills to be able to do further work.
You should get to know different aspects of the industry and get some idea of the type of work you'd like to do: are there specific companies or directors you'd like to work for, or venues. Then get some industry experience - for example, a technical job or as a designer's assistant.
A technical job is good so you can see how things work at floor level and you get to use the equipment in a real-world scenario. Get to see the implications that decisions you will make as a designer have on the people who'll be working with you.
As a sound designer you're constantly having to occupy a middle ground of being able to talk artistically with directors and translating conceptual ideas into a practical reality. Get used to how the different stage, lighting and sound crews work and interact, and the role of a production manager; and learn how to talk to all of them.
Avoid the stereotypes - don't wear a Leatherman and Maglite, speak to the director in artistic terms rather than in terms of equipment. Give the director the opportunity to be able to regard you as someone with a creative head on them, even though you’re doing a technical job.
Working as a designer's assistant can be a more prosaic job, but you'll also be in a better position to watch a designer's process, and to know the rationale behind the decisions they make. Different sound designers have different ways of working, different styles, different ways of using technology, different ways of working with directors.
People will employ you on the basis of your work and on your manner, so learn how to sell both. Look at how you present yourself, how you dress. Find a common language to talk to a director in- there's no popular language for sound design, but there are popular languages and terms from the world of fine art, cinema and music that you can use to talk about sound. Develop your opinions on shows - if you don't like something, you need to be able to express why.
It’s useful to develop a peer group, of others trying to break into the industry. You’re more likely to get ‘in’ to the industry if you can find someone who is already working in the industry who can recommend you for work. These contacts can be made anywhere, from working as an usher to working in a hire company warehouse - it all comes down to how you present yourself.
Places to look for contacts include:
- Via Work Placements/Experience - a few weeks of work for no money might lead to weeks of paid work, or it might not, but at least you're getting your name known.
- Visiting Lecturer's etc you met on your course
- The students who graduated the year before you
- Make your own contacts: are there any theatre companies being formed by other people just graduating, many established theatre companies were formed by graduates
- Fringe Theatres often can't afford to pay much for a sound designer but you'll get to meet a lot of people.
- Go to the theatre - press night parties offer good opportunities to meet people. But avoid hassling or stalking potential employers as that never goes down well.
My first jobs came from going to a fringe theatre and asking to leave my business card on the office notice board - I got 14 fringe design jobs out of that alone, admittedly for next to no money! I spent 2 years working full-time in an office outside the theatre industry (in acoustics which has proved handy) to pay the rent whilst i did fringe designs. Then I did lots of technical jobs to make contacts and to sell myself as a sound designer to industry people. It took about 5 years to get enough of a reputation to get jobs consistently so that I could design full-time.
When the phone rings:
- Who are you talking to? A Director, a Producer or a Production Manager?
- Show interest but never commit to anything during the first call: ('Sorry I haven't got my diary to hand at the moment, but can I take down the dates, show info, the fee and I'll get back to you when I can look in my diary')
- Then research the company, the venue, the people. Will it really work in your schedule?
- What other information will you need before you say Yes or No. If you spoke to a director they won’t know about the technical resources of the venue, or the fee structure. If you spoke to a producer or production manager, they probably don’t know how much sound is really in the show or how much the director wants you to be around in rehearsals. If they asked how much you normally charge it suggests they're not used to employing sound designers.
How not to get work:
- Be un-enthusiastic about theatre
- Be arrogant / assume that you know everything
- Piss people off - theatre is a very small world and you'll find yourself working with the same people time and again.
What to do between jobs:
- Download and read the manual and data sheets of equipment you're unfamiliar with
- Organise your equipment & create resources - go through software you use, learn the keyboard shortcuts, learn features you don't use often, streamline your process, stock up on consumables
- Admin: Do your tax, update your cv, website, portfolio
- See some shows
- Learn a language