A very common scenario for an audio engineer is to be working as part of a team or company.
This could be a collective of songwriters and music producers, the audio group of a bigger company with multiple businesses (from game development to news podcasting), a studio producing audio for commercials, a good old classic recording studio with a mix room, or even an in-house studio of an opera house, theatre stage or record label. This post applies to most “audio workers” within a team setup, not just just mix engineers.
Knowing and doing the following or not can make or break your career, much more than any technical expertise.
If you’ve worked as a „solo freelancer“ for a long time, fitting into a team, company or collective can be a tough learning curve. Understanding and practicing the recommendations in this post will give you a head start into your new job.
If you have already been working as part of a team for a while and you haven’t followed these recommendations, you can still fix it, and you should.
1. Know the organizational structure of the company / team.
It’s essential to know the organizational structure of your team or company. In a hierarchical organization, every entity, except one, is subordinate to a single other entity. In matrix management, there is more than one reporting line, often described as managed „crossfunctional“.
A mix engineer working as part of a team is an internal service provider for the company/team – your team is your inhouse client, and the team-leader of course is your boss.
If you are for example the in-house mixing engineer of a production team, requests for mix changes by a record label would need to be approved and discussed within your team, and the leader of the production team would sign off on and communicate those with the record label.
Unless you are officially authorized by your boss to discuss feedback directly with the record label, your boss will be the communicator in the process. In that respect, everything discussed in the post about „mix feedback“ applies here as well.
2. Don’t be hiding in your room
When you arrive at work in the morning, make some friends. And I’m not just talking about the first day at work – do this every day. Sneak into the different rooms of the team, say hello, hang out for a moment, bring some coffee along or offer it to your team, show honest and serious interest in what everybody is working on, offer your support, and – damnit – put a smile on your face.
This takes 5 – 15 minutes of your morning, and you can drink a coffee while socializing with your colleagues.
Find out who’s doing a lunch break, and join them. Build strong bonds within the team. The quality of relationships you build within the team correlates directly with the amount of time and the frequency you communicate with someone.
Don’t confuse „hanging out“ with actual meetings about work though. More on that later.
3. Oh, and it’s NOT YOUR ROOM!
If you’ve been assigned to a specific room/studio in the building make sure to NEVER behave as if you owned the room or property – always reassure that what you do with or in the room is OK with the person you report to.
Always remember, you are not alone here, you are a part of a team, and your studio represents your team. Understand that this is a situation completely different from working as a freelancer.
Make sure your room/studio is…
• food and/or dirty dishes don’t belong in a work environment
• a quick snack is fine, but have a working system in place for removing trash and don’t let it pile up
• floors and carpets need to be cleaned on a weekly base, and you’re the one cleaning them
• clients want instant Wi-Fi access, have the access-code ready so they can sign on to a secure guest Wi-Fi that is separate from the company’s Intranet or LAN
• clients and colleagues want to play audio to you via their mobile device, assure you have a mini-jack connector to directly hook up any smartphone, tablet or laptop to the main monitoring system in the room; iOS-devices can also play audio via Apple’s “Airplay”-technology, a great option to offer to clients for playing back audio from their mobile devices
• an assortment of soft drinks and coffee/tea (including sugar and milk) in reach that you can offer
c) set up to encourage collaboration
• be prepared for Skype and Apple Facetime video-calls, set up accounts and do a couple of test-runs with both programs to optimize the settings and to check the available bandwidth
• check what kind of systems your colleagues are using to deliver files, and get comfortable with them (example: Dropbox, Network Drives in the LAN, etc.)
• have a spare external harddrive for copying files over brought by visitors; under no circumstances should that drive hold files from another client
4. Setting up the room and gear
Case 1 – your room has no gear, and the company has given you a budget to buy equipment
If the room you’ve been assigned to has no gear, and you’ve been given a budget by the company to buy equipment, you are just one step away from disaster.
Some recommendations to safely navigate through that:
• compare the company/team requirements vs. your own personal requirements – for example if you have always mixed in Pro Tools HD, but the team works with Logic Pro X.
Find out and discuss with the team what implications to the team-workflow this decision has. Definitely become comfortable with what the team uses, and always keep both options open. Chances are that when the team works with Logic, your boss will not like the idea of paying for a full-blown Pro Tools HDX-rig.
• Do not spend more than 80% of the budget given with your first purchase. Some things will come up that you couldn’t forsee, and it’s not a good start for a new team-member to ask for additional budget. Consider including extended warranty contracts like Apple Care – nothing worse than having a motherboard failure in your computer, but no budget to fix it.
• Find out which dealer the company is usually using to buy equipment. The company might have discounts and/or service contracts in place with them. Apple for example has a company service program called „Joint Venture“ that makes sense for any company running more then 2-3 Macs.
Let the company sign off on the final order. If the dealer is offering financing or leasing, let your company know.
Case 2 – gear is already installed
If you’re moving into a finished studio where the equipment is already installed, don’t just start rebuilding the room to your requirements – first understand what the idea and workflow behind the original design was.
Chances are that somebody had put some thought and money into the place, and unless that somebody gives you permission and is happy for you to completely change the place to your own requirements, leave the room mostly as it is.
If the studio has a patch-bay and some free rack-space for your own gear, getting started is just a matter of installing your software or computer, and patching the setup for your own workflow. If there’s a high-end console – use it. You don’t have to do summing through the console if that’s not part of your workflow, but the person who bought the console had a reason to do so. Under no circumstances suggest to the company to sell their existing gear, and certainly not the high-end console in your mix room. You bet that console has seen many people come and go!
Case 3 – you bring your own gear
Things are a little easier when you put your own gear into the room, simply because it’s your own gear. Somebody who is expecting you to bring your own gear will not likely have a problem with whatever particular gear or software you are using – you just set it up the way you are used to work, and that is that.
Certainly the easiest solution – still make sure to be up to date with the requirements of the team.
Case 4 – building a room from scratch
When there’s no pre-installed studio or mix room, and the company is asking you to plan and build the acoustic design and installation of the room, make absolutely sure to find out at what budget and level the company wants you to accomplish this task.
If they come from the kind of naive perspective that room acoustics don’t matter, make sure to have the budget for the most basic „Ghetto Style“ room treatment covered.
5. working hours
It is very important that your working hours are similar to the rest of the team, especially in the first six months after you’ve joined. Depending on your spouse and family, this is something worth checking before you’re accepting a job. If you’re significant other works as a school teacher, and your new employer starts his sessions at midnight, your relationship might be in trouble.
Unless you make more than enough money in the new job to upgrade the lifestyle of your spouse and/or family, it’s not even remotely worth it.
Definitely worth thinking about.
6. Deeper knowledge of the organizational structure of the company / team.
As discussed under 2), hanging out with your colleagues is important, but doesn’t replace regular standing meetings.
One on one-meetings with your boss
The most important cornerstone in your new job wlll be a great and trusting relationship with your boss. Some bosses suggest a weekly meeting where you and your boss can update each other on all things on a weekly base. You can’t force this on your boss, but what you can do is ask for 15 minutes every week to report what you’re currently working on. If your boss is confused about that request, tell him „it’s to make sure my work is aligned with your goals“. If that still confuses him, don’t force the meeting on him, and see if you can find a job with another company that doesn’t have a pot-smoking douche-bag as boss.
This is another one that you can’t force on your team. Good companies will have at least one standing meeting a week in each team (standing not meaning that you stand up while meeting, but that the meeting „stands“ firm in your calender).
The team-meeting always has an agenda that will be communicated before it starts, mostly a day or at least a few hours before the meeting. If you have matters you want to discuss in the meeting, make sure those land on the agenda by letting the facilitator of the meeting know about it.
Meetings with your inhouse clients
The people who produce and create the audio that you are mixing are your inhouse clients. Your relationships with the inhouse clients are very important. In small organizations it is fairly obvious to find out who your inhouse clients are, but in bigger companies this can be more complex than it seems.
If you work for a bigger company, like a major record label, TV/radio station etc, there might be a lot more people in the company who need mixes (or audio services in general), than you think. This is especially true in matrix organizations, where there are several reporting lines, and you are a part of the „audio group“.
There is no way around knowing the organizational structure of the company in such cases. If, for example, your company includes several arms, including recorded music, a radio station, book publishing business, and interactive app creation, you’d be surprised how many people at those units pay lots of money to hire external mix engineers even though the company has an inhouse audio group.
Many times, the recorded music people don’t even realize there’s a great mix engineer in the house, same goes for the book publisher who might pay big bucks to get audiobooks produced and mixed.
You might say „thats none of my business, I just do what people ask me to do“, but let me tell you that during the annual budgeting for the audio-group, your bosses boss might be asking to close the audio-group or to remove your position, because „nobody in the house is using them anyway“.
Your team is in a totally different position if your boss can proof to his boss that the audio-group is saving six or seven figures of budget in other groups of the company. Even better, if your team was involved in the recording, mixing or mastering of a sales-hit – and don’t just think music here, this can be audio-books, podcasts, apps, games, etc… if your team doesn’t contribute to the bottom-line of the business, it will disappear soon.
To cut a long story short, here are some guidelines that will work in all of these cases:
1. Learn about the organizational structure of your company. Draw diagrams, learn the names, find out everybody’s responsibilities and job descriptions.
2. Build relationships across different units and groups in your company, and set up meetings with all current and future inhouse clients. Get your bosses help to point and connect you to the current inhouse clients. This can be as informal as „Hey, I’m Tom from the audio group. I’d like to meet you to introduce myself and perhaps find out if there’s anything I can help you with.“ Everybody likes to be offered help!
3. In the meeting with your inhouse client simply offer your help, and find out more about their projects and what they are looking for. Leave your e-mail and phone number with them, and follow up with a short e-mail or „Thank You“-note.
Across all recommendations in this post, make sure to never criticize anybody in your company and don’t tell your collegues how to do their work. Even constructive feedback requires great relationships and trust between you and your collegues, and for you to build that will take some time. The first six months in your new job will always be fragile.
Even when the company hired you to run the team, don’t start by telling people to change their ways or methodology. That will not work – in the contrary, people will hate you and do the opposite of what you tell them.
This leads me to the final, and most important point of this post:
7. Indiscriminately build your network and reputation.
If you’re good at what you do, and you have built your network within the team or company, lots of people on your team will ask you to record/edit/mix or work on their projects (or provide whatever audio services the company needs), and not just the priority projects that your boss has assigned to you.
See this as an opportunity to build relationships and trust with your team members.
Indiscriminately help people out and do extra work when your schedule allows. If you’re tied up in priority projects, at the very least take time to give useful feedback and advice on people’s productions – and yes, this includes the interns and teaboys.