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I've spent my entire career here in Washington, DC. As some of you know, I'll be headed out to LA in January. With that on the horizon, workflow, the division of labor, & the responsibilities of the roles in audio post have been on my mind.

See, around here you don't hire a Dialog Editor, a Sound Effects Editor, and a Re-Recording Mixer, you hire an Audio Engineer, an Audio Post Engineer, or more recently, a Sound Designer. Typically speaking, we're talking one guy, one room, soup to nuts.

You have to record a VO? You're in Audio 1. You have to mix a promo? You're in Audio 1. You have a 13-episode series that needs dialog edit, sound effects edit, VO record, and mix? You're in Audio 1. I could go on, but I think you get it.

It wasn't until I arrived at my current gig, where the workflow was so constant and schedules so condensed, that I brought up the notion to segment roles across the department. "You'll mix this episode while I tackle the OMF clean-up and dialog edit on the next one. You two split the sound effects work between you." It's great, very efficient. Everyone is busy as a team with a common goal. However, we're not role restricted. That is to say, any one of us on the team could be saying this to the other four in the department. So this project, I'm mixing, the next two I could be sound designing, the next dialog editing. And while these larger, department-wide projects come and go there's still smaller productions that never leave a single room tucked into the holes in the schedule.

From one perspective, I find it incredibly useful wearing the many hats of the audio post department. i.e. It wasn't really until I sat in a mixer's chair that I fully understood what others needed from me when I was acting as a dialog or effects editor. From another perspective, because my focus is scattered across so many aspects of the process, I feel like I haven't had an opportunity to gain the level of mastery in any one area of skills that my years of experience would/could attest to.

From what I understand of the industry out in LA, this "Hire-one-audio-guy-to-get-your-audio-done" attitude is a rarity. Projects are strewn all across town with House A doing the dialog edit, House B adding FX, and House C re-recording. I've heard former East-Coast producers complain that when they take simple promos to some houses out there they outright refuse to add in sound effects because, "that's not what we do here."

So, I'd like to know how common this is in your experience? What are the positives/negatives that you see to being a Jack Of All Trades? Am I at a competitive disadvantage amongst my peers on the West Coast? Or has my experience gained me insight that others may never have thought to seek?

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Lovely question. While some of the houses out here I am working for are very segmented in jobs functions, others just want me to bill differently for sound edit verses mix and other still just pay me an hourly rate to "hook it up" however it sonically needs to be schooled. I hope to find some type of focus to concentrate on and perfect a bit more. –  Karol Urban Oct 8 '11 at 7:13
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4 Answers

The great science fiction master Robert Heinlein once said, "Specialization is for insects." :-) But clearly there are pros and cons to specialization and generalism alike, and I for one don't believe the two are completely mutually exclusive.

Generalism tends to be part of how many schools train you, since it's pretty much up to the student where their own interests lie. Some love field work, some love post, some love the intimacy of studio work and foley, and so forth.

I think that many people vacillate between specializing and generalism throughout their careers as their interests change, and I think that is a Good And Natural Thing, to hell with what standard employers might say. Steve, you found this out yourself in your initial question! :-)

I think there is a great benefit to being a generalist, even if/as you ultimately become a specialist: It allows you to understand the challenges of other specialists and use the same language to communicate. This can be true outside of just audio. If you've ever edited picture, you'll be your next editor's best friend when you anticipate his or her needs beforehand. If you've ever done VFX, you might know to ask for certain work-in-progress deliverables so you can get an early start. If you've ever developed software, you might know enough from an interaction design deliverable or use case to start your creative process. If you've ever directed, you might have better production audio suggestions on the day. Heck, if you're an audio guy, why NOT try directing a stage play, editing a video, building a web page or iOS app on the side? Generalization breeds sensitivity and awareness of the greater media creation pipeline as a whole, and leads towards a shared vocabulary in framing and addressing challenging problems.

In many places, though, being a specialist is what's needed, and that often (but not always) is tied to the size of the facility and the number of concurrent projects underway. Robust workflow pipelines can't always be supported by an army of generalists. Finally, the geographical jobs market also determines the kinds of work that's available; that's why being a generalist in a smaller market might be just as competitive as being a specialist in a larger, more crowded market.

In a competitive field, it can be hard talking about your work if you're a generalist. If you're a specialist, you can have a better chance of saying that you're the best at [FOO] in your market. Maybe you specialize in something that's not a traditional audio role: Maybe you're the only person who does end-to-end audio for thing [FOO] or project type/style [BAR], be that insect recording or documentaries or heavy industrial sounds or urban ambiences.

My take on this whole thing is that generalism is incredibly rewarding but that specializations can be cultivated at the same time...as Rene said, it's not easy and is a huge investment in time and energy, but it allows maximum flexibility in the competitive marketplace while building greater appreciation for collaboration. If you are really honestly amazing at some vertical slice of audio, though, I think you'd be a fool to not make that your life's work!

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2  
@NoiseJockey, may I just say that I enjoy your writing style immensely? A short book of essays really should be on your bucket list. –  Jay Jennings Oct 4 '11 at 8:31
    
I agree @Jay, one of the secondary reasons I ask questions here is to prod @NoiseJockey into writing responses ;) Great wisdom, thanks Nathan! –  Steve Urban Oct 4 '11 at 13:42
    
Gah! Suckered in and I took the bait! :-) Humbled to say the least, gents, but thanks goes to Steve for starting a very important discussion on a challenging topic. –  NoiseJockey Oct 4 '11 at 15:37
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Here in Dallas its exactly the same way.

I asked a similar question about a year ago and got some interesting responses

For my gig I've had to learn:

  • sfx editing and sound design,
  • adr spotting cutting and editing,
  • dialogue edit and cleanup,
  • mixing,
  • field recording,
  • foley cutting and performance,
  • vo cutting and editing,
  • databasing and cataloguing
  • etc

However in the last 5 years or so I've really started to hone in my specialties (field recording, sound design, adr cutting) while leaving the other things like mixing and dialogue editing to my other coworkers who happen to be zeroing in on those things as their own specialties.

Noisejockey responded to my post with a thought that resonated to me:

While many people have T-shaped skill sets - broad experience and one area of deep expertise - I have cultivated more of a comb-shaped skill set. I still have sweet spots that I don't suck in, but I have enough other skills that I can easily be sensitive to.

I personally would never move to LA, but that's mainly because I love it here and I stil get to do interesting and fulfilling work with our client base here.

With all of that said, you may actually be at a somewhat of a competitive disadvantage vs some of the specialists you'll be encountering. Each of the things I've listed in my little list could have lifetimes spent on them perfecting the art. Someone that does nothing but edit ADR all day for years could probably edit circles around me, even though I feel I'm pretty good.

The LA mentality is very different from the rest of the world, and the entrenched hierarchies and workflows there will mean that you may have to conform in order to get in the door and stick.

If I were you I'd look at two or three parts of your production world and begin completely committing yourself to being as good as the specialists in those fields. It won't be easy, but your broader background will make the learning process go quicker - at least initially.

My .02 ymmv

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Thanks for reminding me of your previous question @Rene, I had up-voted it early and missed some of the later responses. LA's certainly not for everyone. Shoot, I'm going to find out if it's for me or not! But I am excited at the opportunities that lie ahead. However, your answer is the crux of my question. I am certain that I can walk into a room out there and do what I do. But I'm not so bold as to walk in and say, "What, you don't do things my way? Fools." And I hope that the learning curve of falling into step with their workflows and hierarchies is steep but short due to my experience. –  Steve Urban Oct 4 '11 at 13:56
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Yes, this is my experience in LA too - we're all "guns for hire" and W2/1099s are a way of life in my experience and of those around me. Sometimes it can be complex when loan-outs are involved, where you're contracting for one studio but loaned out to a larger studio to work under their contract (while the studio whose doing the loaning is the only actually handing the sound duties for said larger studio). And it indeed broken out into isolated services usually, although all-in deals can occur.

I believe it very good having worn many hats, not only because of the many tasks you are able to proficiently handle, but in such a politically-charge environment that LA can be, it helps you learn where to set your boundaries on a variety of levels. Also, some tasks can transcend many disciplines such as creature sound design: it requires a knack for sound effects editorial, sound recording, and ADR/dialogue editorial sensibilities, and even musical theory/composition background. Having worn many hats, one can cajole these skills seamlessly together and work very effectively.

Specialization though is where there truly is an edge out here, as mentioned, because these are the reasons you tend to "get the call", whether it be you are superb with backgrounds, wonderful at creature design or computer sequences, or outstanding and cutting vehicle sequences, or maybe you have the magic touch when it comes to ADR. Personally, I tend to be called often for designing computer sequences/devices and other times for backgrounds. But this, as any specialty, takes time to cultivate among working with your peers, notably by doing a more generalist work to show that you have the skills to handle the job at-large in the event you weren't being hired on a future show solely for your specialty - because hey, we all have bills to pay ;)

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@Stavrosound Interesting, never heard of a loan-out situation before. Is it typical to be contracted as a work-for-hire for a duration of time at a studio, rather than on a per-project basis? –  Steve Urban Oct 4 '11 at 13:37
    
Yeah, I was loaned out one - working for a small boutique studio but we were operating under Fox's contract. In my experience its usually work-for-hire on a per-project basis but if you end up doing repeated work with a studio, I guess it could be construed as "duration of time". I guess what I mean is that I'm affiliated with a few facilities, but there can be long durations where I don't hear from them/have work come in from them. So in that sense, unfortunately, there hasn't been much job security. –  Stavrosound Oct 4 '11 at 16:48
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@Steve, having come from a similar background, and making the move to LA 10 years ago, I can say that in my experience, it's only helped me. I started at a fairly big post-production house in the Detroit area right out of college. We mostly did TV and Radio commercials for automotive (Shocking, I know) but here we had 2 official roles, Mixer and Assistant. But it was at this facility that we all did multiple roles. Even as an assistant, I was recording and editing VO, fx builds and occasionally some mixing.

When I made the move to Los Angeles (Something I had been planning for 5 years prior) I was fortunate enough to get a job at one of the studios in their Ancillary department as a Sound Editor working primarily on restoration, foreign theatrical, television and airline versions etc. It was here though that I wore many hats. As time went on, I firmly believe it was my ability and willingness to wear these hats, that kept me fully employed for 5 years. I worked as an editor, assistant, mixer, recordist throughout my time there.

After 5 years I decided to move to another facility to work as a sound effects editor, primarily on television. But here, once again, my previous experience stemming back to the post house in Michigan, through my Ancillary work in LA, has helped me grow (and keep me employed) for another 5 years.

While I understand the saying "Jack of all trades, master of none" I've found it extremely fulfilling, rewarding and wouldn't have it any other way. Others may disagree but I only see it helping you having the background that you have.

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Excellent to see that the experience was a rewarding one. I can only hope that in 10 years I can offer similar advice and be as content! Thanks @GaryMegregian! –  Steve Urban Oct 4 '11 at 14:06
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