Sunday, January 9, 2011

What a Sound Designer Isn't

A place I work at decided they didn't need a designer for their next show, but they want to pay someone a stipend to "run the microphones." They offered this stipend to me. As my business partner put it, that is just insulting. I've been trying to figure out exactly why it is insulting, so I can try to communicate that to them and we can work our way towards a better solution.

The essential problem, of course, is that they are trying to get professional services under the table. "We don't need a mechanic, we just need this engine repaired. We'll pay you for doing and undoing the bolts, though." "We don't need a programmer; we already figured out what the code needs to do. We'll pay you to type it into the computer, though." "We don't need a musician, we just need someone to play these notes. We'll pay you for the hour you spend at the wedding, though."

The latter case is perhaps the most subtle. There is a reason musicians get paid for "services," not for hours. Part is that you can't go from one two-hour performance to another fast enough to make a living from hourly. If you didn't get that minimum expressed as four-hour blocks, you wouldn't be able to do enough work to make the rent. Another part is you aren't just renting a person; you are renting their instrument. But more than that; you are renting the upkeep of that instrument, the tuning, the practice, the repairs, the time in music school before that. You are paying, in short, professional wages because it is a job that takes professional skill. The cost of acquiring and maintaining that skill needs to be pro-rated into the cost of that musician's time.

Professionals also come with certifications, with professional contacts, with insurance and bonding, and with professional responsibility; their job does not end legally or morally when the two hours they actually spent on site are up, but they remain responsible in some way for what they designed or built.

So why would someone think they could get away with doing an end-run around a necessary technical and design skill and hire someone under the same conditions they'd hire a day laborer?

The reason likely lies with a misunderstanding of what a designer does. And hence the title of this entry.

A sound designer doesn't make sound effects. Well, one of their end results may be sound effects, but these are the product, not the process. You do not have a shopping list of sounds needed which you "purchase" from a designer as if it were a grocery list you were filling.

I've been there, actually. I had one particularly horrid show which, due to my own inexperience as much as theirs, I let an assistant director lead me by the nose. He had decided, and he convinced me, that he needed to approve all the raw effects. As it turned out, he was lying about that; the director wasn't depending on him to do this. Of course he lied to her and claimed I'd asked him to do this in the first place. We spent a merry month with me creating effects at home, sending them to him, and him rejecting 90% of them for reasons of his own without even giving the director a chance to listen to them.

Anyhow. An actual sound designer both decides if and how sounds indicated in the script should be realized, and if and how sounds that are NOT explicitly indicated in the script should be realized. In the former, the script may state, baldly, that "birds are heard chirping." It takes the intelligence of a designer (or a canny director) to realize that this would distract from the intense and intimate scene in the middle of the act, and the birds are better established at the top of the act, then faded away slowly.

In the latter, it takes someone whose responsibility is sound to realize that even though the script makes no indication of river sounds in the scene, a little use of them subliminally will suggest the idea of movement and transition that is the emotional drive of that particular scene.

And in both, it takes someone with specific skills in sound to realize there is no such thing as "the sound" of a gunshot, or a train, or a cat, or anything else. There is an infinite variety of sounds, and nuance, and you need trained ears to find the one that sounds right for THAT specific moment of THAT specific play in THAT specific theater (with all of its own peculiarities of acoustics).

I have spent years gaining the skills to know why a "cat" that sounded great when you listened to it on your PC's speakers doesn't sound right when it is played through the theater's speakers -- and even better, how to fix it. This is skill that took a great many hours both in the theater and outside of it (in "professional development," as we call it...classes, reading, networking, research, experimentation, training, etc.)

A sound designer does not mix mics. All the important decisions regarding the mix are made before a single fader is moved. Choice of position, of element, choices in EQ and processing, external design choices such as acoustical treatment of the pit, the physical location of an off-stage singer, and so forth, are all vastly important. Reducing the job to just moving the faders is like telling a graphic artist to work with nothing but an eraser and a can of white household latex. You don't take away the very tools you need to do the job! Nor is it exactly fair to claim you are only hiring someone to move the faders (and thus can rationalize paying them shit wages) when in reality the person will have to do much more.

The problem, beside the offered insult of trying to get skilled help for unskilled wages, is that when you are pretending there isn't a skill involved you are removing some of the ability to use that skill.

As a DESIGNER, I can say to a director, "This doesn't work, for good technical or artistic reasons which I can defend on the basis of years of experience. Here is my suggested change."

As an OPERATOR, I can't do this. Whether it is right or wrong, and even if there is a good solution at my fingertips, I have to nod and say "Yes, sir!" regardless of what short-sighted or stupid request is being made.

It removes from the professional the ability to do their job right. As well as removing the courtesy of being treated as a professional, and the wages that are necessary to maintain those professional skills. At the best, you are working behind the back of the client, replacing the starter they don't know they needed replacing (and going out of pocket for the parts), or writing the code they didn't realize actually needed to be written (even if you have to work on it at home). At the worse, they catch you at it. "How dare you play that note sharped! I don't care what key signature it is in! What the hell is a key signature anyhow? Now just play the note as written!"

Why am I insulted at this offer? Why should I be insulted at the chance to be treated as an idiot and a peon while secretly trying to save their show, getting shit wages to do top-level work while every bit of good work I do risks being either undone or actually getting me in trouble for doing it in the first place?

People, find yourselves a monkey. Maybe after your first few paying audiences walk out at intermission complaining about the sound you might get a clue.

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