This interview was originally conducted for inclusion in our “accessibility” theme.
The topic for the month is accessibility. I turned to Nikola Simikic and John Creed in Los Angeles for some perspective on the topic. Nikola is a sound designer and re-recording mixer at Gypsy Sound, and John is a dialogue editor for Gypsy Sound and Warner Brothers.
DS: Hi Guys and thanks for joining us today. Can you each tell me about your background in audio, how you got your start in sound, and how you ended up at places like Gypsy Sound and Warner Bros?
NS: Thanks for having us Doug! My mother was an opera singer and super talented musician, so music was a primary focus for me growing up. She really trained my ear from a young age, put me in a choir and an opera, etc. Later I picked up the guitar and began making music on my own, started messing around with Garage Band and Cubase when I was 14, played in emo and pop punk bands. In high school I also got really into watching behind the scenes documentaries on my dvd’s and obviously my favorite collection of that was on The Lord of the Rings extended edition discs. I could binge all 12 hours on a sick day. There was a feature dedicated to sound design where the post sound crew, especially David Farmer, really inspired me and I became obsessed with sound in movies. After high school, I realized I didn’t want to pursue touring in a band and college was over crowded and not inspiring. I had a friend I used to play music with, Michael Capuano, who was going to school for post production sound. I decided to look into the school too, and I took the plunge really quickly and never looked back. Started working for free or cheap on shorts, web series and features while I was still in school, got a couple internships and assisting gigs, and one day I was watching the behind the scenes for some movie and Gypsy Sound had an end credit card. Decided to look into them and email William McGuigan, the owner, to introduce myself. He happened to have an email draft open being written to his old college looking for someone new to hire at the studio when he received my email. I had a job the next day, started working like crazy at Gypsy and have been here ever since. We were introduced to John later when we needed a dialogue editor on our FX show You’re The Worst, and we began working closely thereafter.
JC: My first job, when I was 16, was working for my neighbor who owned a company that produced documentaries for all of the national parks in the U.S. I started out cleaning the facility, packing DVDs, and doing various other tasks. A couple of months in they let me start helping out their sound guy by editing some of the voice over for one of their documentaries. This was my first introduction to sound editorial and Pro Tools. After high school I went to school for sound engineering and worked as an intern for several studios around LA. Eventually I got my first job at Wildwoods, in North Hollywood, as an assistant editor. That job had me prepping sessions, editing music, and doing a variety of other editorial tasks on reality television shows. I was eventually promoted to editor which is where I first learned to edit dialogue. A couple of years into that job I was contacted by a friend who I’d worked with on a short film several years earlier. He told me he was working at a small studio that needed a dialogue editor for a show, which ended up being “You’re the Worst.” That was the first project I worked on with Nikola and Gypsy Sound and I’ve been there for a couple of years now. A couple of months after starting at Gypsy I was contacted by my boss from Wildwoods who had since left to start working at Warner Brothers. He recommended me to come and help out during pilot season, and since then I’ve had the opportunity to edit dialogue on several shows.
DS: I want to talk about accessibility to the industry. With a changing and evolving industry, what are some things that have made the industry more accessible than it was in the past?
NS: I think it’s really great how connected the sound community has become online, which in turn leaves a wealth of knowledge accessible for anyone to explore with a little digging. I think it takes mentorship and collaboration to get good, but anyone can get started honing their skills anywhere, anytime. There’s also so much content being made for the internet, that it’s now possible for sound editors to search for jobs where they work remotely; people can make those connections online from anywhere. I have some clients I’ve worked with consistently for the past 4 years that I’ve barely spoken to outside of email.
JC: Yeah, I think the ease at which we can get online and search for facilities and available jobs has made things much more open to people than it has ever been in the past. Forums, social media, and job posting sites have made discovering more about sound editing/mixing opportunities accessible to anyone willing to spend the time researching them.
DS: Can you talk a little about the smaller independent sound effects libraries versus the larger more established companies like Sound Ideas and Hollywood Edge? How do the little guys stack up?
NS: I love asoundeffect, I’m on there looking for libraries constantly. What I love about the small independent libraries is how specific they are. The deep meditations of a single subject recorded thoroughly, or the small mini libraries that are no brainers to purchase when I’m in a pinch. Obviously I rely heavily on my general libraries, but I love that I can continue buying small libraries on a monthly or project basis and not break the bank. I also tend to reach for those libraries before my general libraries. The stuff I record myself comes first, of course. I think asoundeffect is clutch for editors starting out who can go out and record much of what they need themselves, but then use the independent libraries to fill the gaps of what they aren’t able to record.
JC: Overall the quality of the smaller boutique libraries has been excellent. They’ve been a great resource for projects requiring very specific sounds. Nikola and I worked on a project recently that featured shots of lions hunting a zebra. While there were some sounds available in the general libraries we have, nothing was quite specific enough for what we needed. We were fortunate enough to find a sound effects collection from one of the boutique companies that ended up working perfectly for the project. For more broad, everyday sounds I’d say the general libraries are still great resources, and are a great starting point for people who are just getting into sound effects editorial.
DS: Can you tell us a little about the accessibility to gear in regards to the cost of gear?
NS: Portable recorders man, anyone can get going recording what they need for an affordable price. I bought my Sony PCM D50 for a couple hundred dollars, carry that with me everywhere, and use recordings I’ve made with it all the time. There’s some plug in power mics that I use with it that are under a hundred bucks that are great too. On their own, this kind of setup won’t sound as good as a pricier setup or something from a great library, but most of the time you don’t need them to sound perfect on their own. They need to sound good dropped into a mix, and that’s been my experience most of the time. One of my other setups is a Sound Devices Mixpre 6 and a pair of Line Audio CM3’s. This setup, for around $1,200 rivals combos three times the price, and has allowed me to build my own high quality libraries to use for a relatively affordable price.
JC: The only real piece of gear I’ve had to purchase over the past several years was my HD Omni to use with my Pro Tools system. Just after I made that investment Avid announced you’d be able to run Pro Tools HD without one of their interfaces. Now without that requirement it can be significantly cheaper to upgrade to HD for those who need it. Overall I think many of the big pro audio companies are now making really great gear at prices that many more people can afford.
DS: Previously, people needed large format studios, but now a lot can be done in a bedroom studio. How much can be done in a bedroom studio and at what point do you need to go to a larger studio?
NS: When I was just out of school, I edited and mixed a no budget feature in my bedroom on a 2009 iMac. Today, I do quite a bit of my editorial and design on a 2013 MacBook Pro with no extra hardware except a small interface, and I sometimes open full feature mixes on my laptop when I need to check something and rarely have issues. That to me is awesome. Internet content and low budget stuff I often start and finish on my laptop. And I field mix notes for commercial clients from home all the time; I often get notes from clients late or on the weekend, and I’ll make those changes to the mix from home and send them new mixes or deliverables right away. Here at our studio we have a smaller sized mix room that’s great for television and commercials, but we do the vast majority of our feature work here as well, including the mix, and will take it to a large stage for a shorter amount of time to finish it. This keeps our costs down, and has especially worked out for us since we upgraded our speaker processing so mixes translate well with less surprises. We even just pulled the trigger on an Atmos upgrade in our little studio.
I think someone can do tons of work from a bedroom studio, especially since foley can either be outsourced to another studio pretty easily, cut in with library if absolutely necessary, or recorded out in the real world yourself if you have the time (which often sounds really nice in the mix). For something that’s not just for the internet though, it should certainly be taken to a larger stage to final mix. Up until that point, a big consideration is the client. If the client wants to sit down with you, a bedroom might not be the best place (although I totally did this when I was in school). But, if your setup is portable, you could potentially go to the client as well. Once John and I were working on a project for a company that had a large screening room that wasn’t outfitted for sound, and the president always viewed the content to give notes and approval in this theater. We offered to do our final playback for the director and producer in this screening room before they screened it for the president, so we trekked over there with a laptop, 4 unit mobile rack and some cables, and with some help from their projectionist, did our final playback jerry rigged into their system. It was honestly pretty fun. For commercial work, internet content, etc., having a mobile rig and going to your client is certainly an option. I don’t think the gear is a limitation there, but the room certainly is.
JC: As Nikola said most aspects of the post process can be completed in a bedroom studio. You can become limited though during the mix process when working in a bedroom/home studio that might not be as finely tuned as a larger facility. Being able to hear projects in a purpose built dub stage can and does make huge difference. Taking one’s projects to a bigger facility ultimately comes down to what the client is requesting for the project and how big the budget is. With smaller gigs, working at home is great until the review process, when it is nice to have a facility to host your clients.
DS: How do you feel about subscription based software such as plugin and app subscriptions?
NS: In many cases I think it can be great. If someone doesn’t already have soundminer for instance, soundly for $15 a month is an attractive option. I have some music engineer friends who have the Steven Slate subscription that works out very well for them because of how much they lean on his plugins, and they like the price point. I have the Adobe CC Photoshop and Lightroom subscription and I have much preferred that to owning a single version. It’s nice that you never have to worry about being out of date with your software or paying a hefty upgrade fee. In other cases though I think they aren’t always balanced and the subscriptions don’t make sense, like if the company doesn’t often come out with new versions or new plugins and content for your subscription, or you end up paying more in the long run. I do appreciate being able to jump into a monthly subscription and not continue later if it’s not making sense for me. For the most part I appreciate the subscription model, but think it needs to be tested more in the sound world. I certainly wouldn’t want all my plugins and apps to be subscription based, unless some site or company came out with grouped subscriptions, with multiple companies under a single subscription umbrella or something. I’m personally not using any subscriptions for sound related software yet (just paying for my pro tools update plan, etc), but I imagine I will be moving more toward that in the future, depending on what new offerings come about.
JC: I’m totally onboard with paying for subscription based software licenses so long as the companies are releasing regular updates for their products. In the last couple of years Avid has started charging yearly fees to continue receiving updates for Pro Tools. Because Pro Tools is something I use extensively every day I have no problems paying for the yearly subscription. The updates they’ve released over the past year or two have added several features/quality of life improvements that have definitely made my work easier.
DS: How easy is it to get a job in post production?
NS: It may be a lot easier to do work on your own now, but I don’t think it’s easy at all getting a job in post production. There’s a lot of factors there, probably the biggest being trust. It takes a while to learn how good someone is, their strengths and weaknesses, how well someone takes direction, etc. I’m not sure if there’s a lot more jobs available today than there were in the past, but because of the increased awareness of sound design as a career, there’s probably a lot more people trying to go down that career path, who are all competing with professionals who have a lot more experience. Outside of union work and companies, I’d be curious to know the percentage of sound editors who are actual employees rather than contracted freelancers, at least in a place like Los Angeles.
JC: Agreed, I think it can still be a difficult process to break into the industry but the opportunities are definitely out there for people willing to work towards them. I’m still a firm believer that interning and networking are the two best ways to open up opportunities for yourself. At the same time, anyone starting out should be open to taking jobs that might not be perfectly in line with their end goals. If your dream job is to cut sound effects on big budget feature films, you shouldn’t limit your job search to facilities that only do that type of work. Opportunities with smaller studios working on scripted/reality TV, advertising, or documentary programing will all net you valuable experience.
DS: What are some things that block accessibility to working in post production?
NS: The size of our industry is really small compared to most other industries, careers, etc. So if you want a career working at a facility, or at least not working on your own, you have to move to a city where the industry thrives. So that’s a big one. If you don’t have the financial means to take risk, or at least the safety net of moving home, breaking in can be difficult. John and I are fortunate that we grew up very close to Los Angeles and didn’t have to take a huge risk by moving to a strange new place.
JC: The digital age has made it easier for aspiring sound editors to get started, but has also gotten rid of many entry level jobs in places like Los Angeles. On top of that, unpaid internships seem to be even more uncommon than they were even 8 years ago when I started out. It can take a long time to become a proficient editor, and even after getting to that point you have to continually prove to supervisors and clients that the quality of your work is reason to keep giving you jobs. Aside from having to be technically skilled you also have to be highly personable. What’s great though is you can learn so many skills without those entry level jobs or internships, with the help of the internet. Work your ass off and make lots of content for your reel by doing student films or re-designing existing trailers, make a website, and really sell yourself as a candidate that can learn quickly and bring something to a studio that would benefit them.