Grabbing hold of one's career arc



After more than 11 years of doing this all day every day I've learned just how broad and deep the field of audio truly is. The more I do this the more I realize how much I still have yet to learn. The question now is where to focus.

I was recording a local pro coach recently and he talked about the way that different coaches take different approaches to where to focus practices.

One tact is to identify the things that an athlete does very well and work on that as a primary focus. I'll call this "raising the ceiling." The idea is to hone that specific advantage to such a high level that no other competitor can outperform the athlete at that one facet. Then you gameplan to use that facet overtly. The net effect is to reduce flexibilty and rely on pure execution, but the side effect is that deficiencies are left unaddressed. Think of the tennis player with a devastating serve and no backhand.

The other tact is to identify the things that an athelete does poorly, and work on that instead. I'll call this "raising the floor." The idea here is to balance the athlete's abilities - leaving natural talent and interest to do the work at the top end of his game and practice and reps to work on the weaker aspects. The idea here is that a balanced anthlete is more flexible and has more options available at game time because he is at least competent at everything, but the side effect is that the athlete may not reach the pinnacle of his ability in the areas where he is most talented.

Obviously every athlete works on raising both the ceiling and the floor, but inevitably only one side or the other receives the majority of the reps, attention, and enthusiasm.

The audio analogy is pretty obv here, so I'll just lay out my own personal evaluation:

I think it takes 3 to 5 years of doing any complex and creative job to figure out basic competency (took me closer to 5). After that, it takes another 3 to 5 to figure out one's own unique talents and roadblocks within that competency (took me closer to 3).

Once you've figured out talent, you have to start making the decision of whether to spend your time raising the floor or raising the ceiling in the short time you have on this earth. I find my own strengths to be microphone based recording, sound selection, signal processing, and to a lesser degree mixing. My weaknesses are synthesis, musical integration, music programming, and to a lesser degree sonic arrangement.

With that said, I'm sure both that I'm not near the recordist I could be with 5 more years of focused execution, and I'm also not incompetent with regards to synthesis and musicality. Its just that I have to work much harder at those things to get them up to my standard.

I'll also state that I am not an island. I work with a team of very talented guys, one of whom has strengths and weaknesses that compliment mine almost exactly.

So where do you guys fall? raise the ceiling? raise the floor? try to do both? sell out to one or the other? does working in a team environment affect your decision?



Posted 2010-12-10T02:57:30.830

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Renee, first, thank you for posting this relevant and insightful question. This is what SSD is all about!

I basically do both approaches you mention; which one I do varies based on where I'm at career-wise. 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, and speak intelligently to, other disciplines and specialties. Even if I never record a single line of production dialog myself, I know the broad issues and have tried it a few times, which will make it easier to communicate with a production mixer in whatever role I fulfill. This garners a lot of respect from other disciplines, and I think it's valuable, as VCProd also suggests. It's frankly also a hedge against where my interests may be in 5 years (they shift all the time!), and against shifting job markets.

I also think that having broad knowledge, even if shallow, also helps you be a better sound designer/mixer/collaborator. Being insatiably curious and hungry for knowledge, both deep and shallow, is (in my opinion) a pretty rewarding way to live life, no matter your career stage or age, and I think that all of life is about shifting between deep-dive learning and broad out-of-your-expertise expertise.


Posted 2010-12-10T02:57:30.830

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That's an interesting question. I think I do a lot of both, really. When I find something I have not done before, like convolution reverb, I give it a try and work with it until I feel at least comfortable and to a point that I will remember how to do it if I need to use it again. When I see something here that I have not used before, I usually grab a clip and start playing. I don't know if that's really "raising the floor" as much as it is learning a new trick.

I do spend less time on learning new systems that I'm not already familiar with - like taking classes or doing extensive training. Maybe that's more in line with "raising the floor". I will also occasionally seek out an audio job that puts me far out of my comfort level in order to gain some new experience.

I do spend a lot of time working on what I already see is my strong points - learning better forensic audio techniques, etc. I think I get better at those because it is the majority of my work and it's how I sell myself.

I'm sometimes suprised at how little some members know on subjects compared to their depth of knowledge in other areas. It's not a criticism, I know that if you're very good at what you do, it doesn't always benefit you to know other areas of sound. I should probably be figuring out what I can be really good at and working harder in that area instead of trying to do some of everything.


Posted 2010-12-10T02:57:30.830

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I would say it's a win/win situation from a "business/money making" point of view.

A. Doing a little bit of everything gives you a lot of jobs, maybe not paid as well as a 'specialist' in a certain field, but you get more and you can respond to any job offer.

B. You're a specialist, you get less job offers in your specific field, but you get paid more.

So it probably works out nearly the same. And also, one doesn't mean you can't do the other. – S_Mich – 2010-12-10T14:25:02.240


I love the coach analogy you used. Good food for thought. I have been in Game Audio for the last 10 years (traditional audio post before that), but my studio was shut down last year and I am trying to build a freelance sound business. Last month I was on my first film for a while (Quarantine 2, should be out soon). After I delivered my reels I listened to the Supervisors work and was both blown away by how good he is and depressed by how much better I should be. Your coaching analogy really hit home for me.


David Rovin

Posted 2010-12-10T02:57:30.830

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Not to answer my own question here, but this link was kind of causally posted in one of Tim Prebble's detritus posts recently, and I almost missed it.

Its actually a big discussion and meditation on whether to be a generalist or a specialist.

Two things I picked up from this.

1)There's an element of innate bias towards generalism or specialization that one can't really control, so the best option would be to identify it and roll towards it. In my case, I think I'm innately a generalist, despite my desire to be a specialist. This comes mostly after looking this chart over:

alt text

2)Generalism vs specialization is a matter of context. Here's another quote from the post linked above:

Winston Fletcher, in his book Tantrums and Talent – How to get the best from creative people:

" In the creative industries specialisation of labour applies with a vengeance. Most creators, thought they may not realise it, have a narrow range of creative abilities. Feature writers rarely make good fictions writers; designers are quite different from illustrators; fashion photographers can’t shoot portraits; still photographers can’t shoot movies; in advertising few creators of press advertising are really good at television commercials…. one of my partners is an outstanding editor of comedy programmes. At a pinch he can edit anything – but he has an instinct for the timing of hilarious sequences." (Tantrums and Talent, p.49)

This applies easily to audio. A great field recordist may not be the best film mixer, ADR editor or sound designer. The scope of audio is so wide as to invite the label of a generalist from within and specialist from outside of the field. Labels don't matter so much, its focus and effort that do to me. Labels give me some context though, in that I can draw comfort from certain decisions.

In the end there are no easy answers, and certain strategic decisions are already kind of made for us both through genetics and environment. I'm still kind of thinking on this though, because I believe that the conscious decisions that we make in this respect are important.


Posted 2010-12-10T02:57:30.830

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I'd simply split this idea of "rising the floor" vs "rising the ceiling". Rising the floor in order to get more time to rise the (personal) ceiling, rising the ceiling in order to have more interesting/new stuff to work on. At least I personally need an idea of "there not being a ceiling" or I would stop and be bored as there would be nothing new to achieve or learn.

However, I think "rising the floor" fits the creative audio niche better. Contrary to some people's opinions, I think audio has a lot of constraints / a low "ceiling" and much of the stuff what I'd consider "cutting edge" or "a benchmark", I've personally already heard/seen, a long time ago actually. I actually think using the word "ceiling" is wrong here and I'd much rather speak about "walls" or a "box" and making one's box a bit bigger (i.e. getting/seeing out of the box, getting outside of one's "comfort zone").

I'd actually go as far as to say that to "rise the ceiling", would involve expanding to another field entirely or a certain audio-related niche that one just never has quite excelled at, but would like to learn more about it.

Internet Human

Posted 2010-12-10T02:57:30.830

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You know, I've started three different versions of a reply to your post, each one with a different opinion, and found myself caught by some contradiction or other. So here's my final attempt.

I can't help but think that the best analogy for what I'm thinking is in fact directly linked to what we do. The way a source sounds depends on myriad things: the size of the room; the air temperature/humidity; the amount of absorption/diffusion present; how loud the source is; if there is anything in the room that will resonate sympathetically with it; and a whole host of others. But the fundamental point is that it's all connected, change one and everything changes. So, no matter what you're learning and no matter where you're learning it, it'll affect how you understand everything else. I learned more about mixing music by recording and cleaning up voiceovers than I ever did actually mixing music. I'm exaggerating, of course, but the finesse stuff, beyond simple levelling and getting rid of "boominess", I learned from trying to EQ bad rooms out of VO recordings.

So I can't honestly say that I take any approach other than simply trying to learn as much about everything as I possibly can and hope that it will end up being of some kind of use. I suppose you call it the Jack of all Trades approach. Personally I've always been annoyed by guitar players who call themselves musicians but can't play any other instrument. You don't play music, you play guitar!

Meh, that's not quite how I wanted to explain it either (that second analogy was more music than sound design), bugger. I think you understand what I mean though. The cliché is far more than the cliché of its cliché.


Posted 2010-12-10T02:57:30.830

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Where I'm at in my career in sound -- near novice -- I have no choice but to raise the floor. Directors and game designers in my budget-bracket can't afford anything but a one-shot guy (and 95% of what I do is in the box). It's unfortunate, really... I'd love more of a chance to get out and record.

Dave Matney

Posted 2010-12-10T02:57:30.830

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