WRITTEN BY JEFF SHIFFMAN, CO-OWNER OF BOOM BOX POST

In the world of freelance sound design, it's likely you will be hired to do a job remotely. The internet allows us to share our talents without ever meeting face to face. The advantage here is a vast network of sound professionals that can very easily utilize your services. Here’s the downside; short of a few email exchanges, you are communicating skill and professionalism entirely through your completed work.

On the most basic level, a lot can be said by how your sessions are laid out. Experienced editors know that following a few basic steps to ensure compatibility and expediency down the line proves not only helpful, but a very succinct way of showing you know what you’re doing. Expanding on a previous post I wrote about "thinking downstream," (i.e. thinking beyond yourself to each subsequent step in the post audio workflow) here are a few basics tenets of smart sound editorial layout which will scream THIS IS THE WORK OF A PROFESSIONAL and help set you apart from the pack.

Stairstep Your Work

 Stair stepped sound effects.

Stair stepped sound effects.

Once you start your project, it's important to work clean. A simple first step for organized editorial layout is to ‘stairstep’ your work. This means cutting from the top down. As each new layer is added, the next available track is utilized. This is called stairstepping, since the resulting session looks like a series of staircases. The exceptions here are repeated elements and steadys, more on which you can read here. And of course, don't forget to color clips that are part of a larger build. In the end, the goal here is to have work that is very easy to interpret at a glance. 

Know Your Categories

Most sound editorial projects will contain most or all of the following: 

  • Hard Effects
  • Food Groups
  • Ambient Steadys
  • Backgrounds

It is usually in this particular order that you should prioritize these effects. Hard Effects are sounds that don't necessarily fit into a specific food group. These are the tracks you'll want to stairstep. Food groups are straight forward category groupings. When it comes to ambient steadys and backgrounds, things tend to get a bit more grey, so lets take a moment to define them. 

Backgrounds are non-specific environmental sounds for any given scene. Room tone, consistent exterior birds, wind; these are all backgrounds. Ambient steadys tend to call a bit more attention to themselves. As for my definition, these are on screen elements like a handheld video game or the bubbles of a large fish tank, featured within a scene. Whether you would treat a sound as a background or ambient steady is on a case by case basis.

From a mixing standpoint, backgrounds are going to span the entire scene and will generally be set at a consistent volume level. Good backgrounds are like germs. We all know they are there but we don’t want to think about them. Ambient steadys, however, are communicators. By playing an ambient steady up when onscreen and down when offscreen, we the editors are communicating the position, depth and importance of these elements to the audience. In other words, ambient steadys are elements that demand to be cut for perspective and backgrounds are not.

I like to perspective cut any ambient steadys on the bottom most hard effects tracks. This places them physically as close to the background tracks as possible. Backgrounds should always last the full duration of each scene and be organized in two large blocks. For more details on cutting professional sounding (and looking) backgrounds, we have a great primer here

One more pro tip while we are on the topic of backgrounds. Since a background is typically cut for the duration of a scene and set at a consistent volume level, be sure the material in your backgrounds themselves is consistent. If you have a wonderful ambient bird layer where, for a few seconds within the file a dog starts barking or a car alarm goes off, it’s going to make that nice level your mixer found for the birds irrelevant and they will have to dig out and mute the offending sounds. 

Clean Up After Yourself

Don’t leave a bunch of junk in your delivery sessions. Markers, work tracks, insert effects; these are all invaluable tools for getting from a blank canvas to an amazing final product. Here’s the thing: We don’t want to see how the sauce was made. It doesn’t matter how you arrive at great sound design, the end result it all that matters and a clean session says you are a professional. The last thing a supervisor wants to do is to start wading through a bunch of superfluous tracks and inactive effects to get to the goods. When you are finished with you work, you'll want to create a new final session that has only your final work product. And do remember to copy over all linked audio files. Matter of fact, it doesn't hurt to zip that session when delivering via the internet. One clean file to download ensures everything we need to review your work is in place. This attention to detail will set you apart. Cleanliness speaks volumes.

Labeling

There’s a certain personality that really thrives in editorial. I’m not exactly sure how to define it, so let’s just say "particular." Sound design and editorial is a wonderfully creative medium, but in order to make any sense of the (literally) thousands of elements contained within even a single episode of television sound editorial, one must be particular in regards to organization. To that end, consistency is very important.  Let's say you’re working on a series of television episodes for me. When I get your final work, if each delivery is labeled exactly the same way, save the specific episode number or title, I know I’m dealing with a particular person. This brand of crazy is my favorite. It tells me you’re willing to take the time to be sure that each and every detail of your work is consistent, down to the label. If you’re thinking on that micro of a level when simply labeling your session, I know that what I’ll find inside is just as meticulously curated.

With all of these organizational tips, it's easy to forget that creativity is the most important asset you have to offer. But here's the thing. There are loads of amazingly creative editors out there, vying for the same work as you, that are also insanely meticulous. It's my belief that to be successful in post audio, you need to possess the ability to work with both sides of the brain. The good news here is that focusing some attention organization will pay dividends. Be that methodical editor with enough pride to present great organization within each and every session and you will be poised to impress.

QUESTION: DO YOU HAVE ANY ORGANIZATIONAL TIPS? SHARE THEM IN THE COMMENTS BELOW.

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