Justin Matley talks about his career as an audio engineer. You can find Justin at www.justinmatley.com and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
I am an audio engineer and producer at an audio post-production company called Sound Lounge (and an internal creative division called RadioFace) in New York. I also run a production collective on the side where we produce films for education and social awareness-related projects.
How would you describe what you do?
A lot of puzzle solving and putting disparate pieces together into cohesive results; whether just sound or full projects. At Sound Lounge I do a lot of recording, mixing, sound designing, and casting for primarily radio and some TV commercials. I also occasionally work on longer film projects. My production work in the collective is a lot of production management and coordination for the entire production process – before we even think about audio post.
What does your work entail?
The bottom line is working with clients to help them bring their visions to reality. At Sound Lounge, we use Pro Tools as a digital audio workstation (DAW) for all the audio work. Knowing the software well enough to accomplish your sonic goals is important. I work a lot with voiceover actors and help direct them into the best performances for the spot.
There’s also a little bit of administrative-type stuff: managing resources so that the job gets done in time and within budget, sussing through the most efficient ways of accomplishing those tasks, and helping guide the client into getting the best talent and making the creative decisions that will benefit them in the end. It can be a lot to keep track of, but the more of this prep work you do, the more efficient and smooth the creative process will be. It’s a hodge-podge mix of tasks, but I enjoy doing a little bit of everything.
What’s a typical work week like?
When you’re working in post-production, particularly on the advertising side of things, you generally have it a little better off than if you’re strictly in music or film production. My hours are generally pretty regular at Sound Lounge. That said, when I leave, I often spend a couple hours working on catching up on my other projects. I try to keep up with a solid schedule so that things don’t slip through the cracks. In general though, I get to work around 9am and leave around 6pm. Most sessions during those hours are booked in few-hour chunks. In a typical week I may meet up with a colleague or client for a drink on a night, do some of my production collective work a night or two, and then try to lay low or work out the other couple nights. My weekends don’t generally get flooded with work at all unless I have something that’s really time sensitive.
How did you get started?
I majored in Music Performance and Sound Recording Technology at UMass Lowell and basically started in the industry in 2003 when I interned at MSNBC. In 2004, through my mentor at MSNBC, I did another couple internships at NBC and Sound Lounge. I worked for CBS’s local NYC television affiliate doing sound design and mixing freelance during that time as well. Eventually Sound Lounge hired me full time, and I’ve been here ever since.
What do you like about what you do?
I really like the mixed bag of things I do. I like working with audio as an engineer as much as I like seeing the whole process come together as a producer. I also like the people I work with, which helps. My position is a little unique here where I can sort of jump in and out of those roles. I’m the sort of person that I’d rather be good at a variety of things, and not necessarily an expert at any one thing in particular. I feel this day in age that can be an asset.
What do you dislike?
The tendency for the industry to box people into categories. This sort of works against my philosophy above, but I think I’ve carved out where I’m comfortable. In this industry, like a lot of others, you can be sort of cornered into a role or job description. Once you do it for some time, should you want to flex outward, it can be difficult. I just try and remain curious and actively learning SOMEthing. I feel in the end, it’ll all fit together somehow.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
I’m a salaried, staff employee with overtime opportunity should I work over 8 hours in a day. I have normal benefits like health, dental, and 401(k).
How much money do Audio Engineers make?
This completely depends on what part of the industry you’re in: commercials, film, or music; and what you do: sound design, mix, direct, compose, etc. It’s fair to say that you may start somewhere around $20-30k a year (either salaried or broken up hourly) as a fresh-out-of-school hire, and depending on where you go in the industry, can make well over $100k as you go on (particularly in advertising). Average for the general audio engineering field as a broad career choice, in general, is probably closer to $50-60k – especially considering much higher potential salaries in urban markets like NYC and LA (higher profile gigs), and lower in suburbs or smaller general markets. It can vary a lot depending on the niche you’re in.
How much money did/do you make starting out as a Audio Engineer?
Right in that range above.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
A Bachelor’s degree is definitely preferred, if not required. Some places just need experience. However it shakes out, depending on the position level, the more technical and artistic knowhow you have helps. This includes use of industry standard software like Pro Tools, Final Cut, etc., at least basic knowledge of tape decks like D5s, HD Cams, Digibetas, etc., patchbays, I/Os, etc. Also very important are the ability to handle time and client pressures. Being cool under fire is a must.
What is most challenging about what you do?
For me, probably the sales-y kinds of stuff. It’s not number one or two or three on my job requirements list, but no doubt it’s important. Keeping up with clients, engaging with new ones, building up a following – all that stuff is something everyone should keep up on. I think I do a decent job at it, but you have to really make the time and set aside the energy for it in and amongst your workload.
What is most rewarding?
Seeing a project through from start to finish. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing the fruit of a team’s labors from the head-scratching phase, all the way to its destiny on air, at festivals, online, etc. At that point it’s not even about how amazing the end product may be for me (only because it’s easy to be self-critical knowing how the process went) so much as the wrap-up of a creative process come to fruition.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Once you’re in, you’re in – so do what it takes to get in. You can learn a lot along the way. Some of the advanced technical stuff will come. Be ambitious but not a pest, be kind but not passive, and be eager but not a pushover. One of the best pieces of networking advice I received was: “Good people will pass you to good people.” That said, seek out the people who you look up to personally and professionally and do what it takes to make their lives easier.
The more competent and mature you come across, the more opportunities you’ll have for your skills to develop. Always remain humble and thankful, but never lose your end goals. If you keep at it and maintain your composure, you’ll be fine.
How much time off do you get/take?
3 weeks vacation/personal days, plus some time during the holidays. I generally use it up.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
It’s mainly regarding my commercial audio work: that we write the commercial. In the end, our job is to make it sound good. A lot of people give me more credit than I deserve: some spots are amazing and I just tied up a loose end or two. Many are embarrassing, and we’re just there to make them listenable. You ALWAYS make the client feel like it’s the former.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
Have a house, start a family, raise a couple decent kids. Oh professionally? Right now, I have broad goals: do some more production and management work, get back into music some, help build our creative department here at Sound Lounge. Just keep being diverse. In the end, I just want a nice balance of interesting, creative work with good people along with a comfy home life.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
Commercials can be fun too! Really!