Accurate confidence: Assessing your skills and redefining audio professionalism.

Though I hope none of you ever have your daughter kidnapped, I encourage you to cultivate your inner Liam Neeson a la "Taken", as you prepare for your next audio gig. Gaining entry into the world of game, television, or film audio is an intimidating task. And you'll want to be confident you have 'a very particular set of skills' that you can angrily recite over the phone to a headhunter or in-house recruiter. If you can't specify what talents, creativity, or technical abilities you can bring day one to a project, you know what you need to work on. Become a critic and analyze professional work. Then be able to recreate or improve upon it. Designing a challenging trailer, or scoring an existing film cue makes up a wonderful training regimen. It will expose the tools and talents you still lack while providing you with an A/B professional comparison. Good results make fine demo reel candidates if you don't have school or contracted projects to show off. This article is for Liam Neeson's who have developed a competitive skill set, but aren't sure how they'll react to having to use them in high pressure professional situations.

Higher level audio jobs still hold a certain mystique. Network television composers and video game sound designers occupy jobs with day to day responsibilities that differ dramatically between peers. A mentor who works in your target medium is an invaluable source to answer the question, "what is it like to work at the next level?".  Understanding your skills and having a context for professional work is crucial. Whether you have access to a mentor or not, be open to having your definition of an audio professional obliterated. 

 There is a strange thing that happens when we assemble our portfolios. Not only do we show off our past accomplishments, but we hint at what our ideal future project is. This is creating a brand. A brand is useful to an employer because they want to see what you are good at, what your experience is, and what you are interested in. The problem is that brands are inherently inaccurate. No one competing for a gig wants to associate themselves with mediocrity. Therefore their reel is a set of highlights and ideal circumstances. Professionals know how to assess your reel, but do you?

Amateur runners wanting to improve their times are plagued by the same phenomenon. We make excuses for all the runs where we cramped or bonked out. And our best time, no matter how much it deviates from our average, is what we associate ourselves with. Often times, this is an unconscious bias we must struggle to break. Hanging on to your fluke 15K time and forgetting the twice a month you blow your pace and bonk out is not going to help you perform in your next race. At the starting line, confidence in your abilities is important. But it needs to be a useful confidence. Accurate confidence.

 Are you as fast as you think you are?

Are you as fast as you think you are?

I used to think professionals had opportunities handed to them. Comfortable projects with extra resources tailor built for their honed skill set. And in some situations, this can be the case. But for the most part, an audio professional is handed a problem. I've been fortunate enough to work under wonderful leads and directors who were committed to helping me do my best work. But I still struggle at times with my creativity to troubleshooting balance. Having talent isn't how the money is earned. Using your talent to solve the problem is.

While breaking into professional audio, I discovered how rare it is to work within ideal parameters. You don't hear about it because you aren't the only one with a brand. The professional world has a brand it protects too. Many of us start in the comfort of a college/home studio with the tools we know, choosing the projects we are good at, working within our own time frame, and with ourselves as the client we are pleasing. Just as young runners tend to run the routes they like, at the time of day that fits their schedule, with roads they are familiar with, and when their legs are fresh. But a race doesn't care how your legs feel, what the weather is like, or if you've ever seen the course before. Neither do the runners you are competing against. Those finishing in front either thrive outside of their comfort zone, or train for it. This concept obliterated my naive definition of an audio professional. Understand that many of your favorite films, shows, and games were rushed, under budgeted, and heavily compromised.  If under the worst circumstances you still hit your target audio quality on schedule and can please your client, you are a professional. 

Don't be shell shocked if you get your dream gig/contract and find that you have half the time you need to hit the quality you're accustomed to. Be prepared to learn a new operating system or DAW. Or to only have a small chunk of the plugins and instruments you prefer. Be ready to work in your weakest genre and with demanding clients. Dialogue editors should expect to make unusable dialogue, somehow usable. Some of you for your first in house gig where you imagined sprawling sound stages and assistants at your call may find yourselves at a tiny cubicle with headphones and no speakers. Or with a project manager who is a poor communicator. It is rare for a professional job to exist in a pure vacuum of creativity. Expect to spend much of your time trouble shooting the OMF file from the editor that Pro Tools won't open, or figuring out how to build out the level of the game you can't get running.

The professional world is the opposite of your bedroom or college studio. This is a world that revolves around profitability, speed, compromise, and adaptation. These adversities may be absent from influencing the results of your early reels. But hopefully your professional gig provides you with tools and guidance you previously didn't have access to.  Don't be discouraged in your brand! This insight is meant to bring awareness to how complicated and challenging professional media workflows and development cycles are. Be confident you can reach your full potential after adjusting to your new work environment. If your self-assessments were overly optimistic, your misevaluation may leave you out of your depth. Many audio engineers working in indie film expand their comfort zone from an immaculate edit and large ADR budget, to a locked edit with a few alternate dialogue takes to choose from.  Don't cramp up at your next gig! Adjust your ideal parameters and widen your comfort zone. 

Start training by working outside of your comfort zone. Can you score a cue in 8 hours today? Can you edit out your dialogue pops manually?  Could you design your last project's audio successfully without your go to EQ? Your results may not be perfect, but could they satisfy a client? This practice will ensure that no matter how rainy or hilly the view is from the starting line of your next project, you have an applicable set of skills that give you a strong opportunity to finish in front. Your reel may not showcase creative or technical compromises that are part of the job you are pursuing.  This is why accuracy in your self-assessment is a necessity. Redefine your perception of professionalism, increase the versatility of your skill set, and expand your creative comfort zone. One day you may get a call you hadn’t expected. Professionals thrive when handed problems, how about you?