Sound Editor Job Description: What Does a Sound Editor Do?
Sound editors are responsible for assembling the overall sound design of a completed production—what you hear is what they get. In post-production, he or she is in charge of selecting, recording/re-recording, and piecing together the right sounds to fit the edited footage (that will then be tweaked and finalized by the re-recording mixer). This includes dialogue tracks, ADR (automated dialog replacement), foley, wild tracks (any audio that’s meant to be in sync with the image but recorded separately, such as narration, phone conversations, sounds of nature, traffic, or any ambient noise), pulling from expansive sound effects libraries (the infamous “Wilhelm Scream” comes to mind), and any music used.
Working closely with the director, sound designer, and re-recording mixer, the sound editor must have a clear idea of what audio needs to be captured or implemented in a way that will enhance the final product.
“You’re the conduit for the film director to get what they want in the movie, sound-wise,” said Matthew Wood (“The Force Awakens,” “Rogue One,” “Guardians of the Galaxy”). “We try to facilitate driving the script and the story point and the theme forward with sound.”
Sound editor Walter Murch (“The Godfather,” “Apocalypse Now,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley”) explains the job like this: “Imagine a strip of images in one position, and right below that, a strip of sound, which is dialogue, and that exists on its own track, so to speak...below that, many dozens—sometimes hundreds—of other tracks made available for different sounds. You can think of it as a kind of mosaic. [We] have to put [the little chips of sounds] in the right place. The important thing is to have a concept for what you’re doing...not just throwing sound at the film and seeing what will stick, but to have an idea and try to find the most effective sounds you can find to make that happen. I would say that 98% of all the sound that you hear in a film is added after the fact.”
One of the major tasks he or she has is to comb through, edit, clean up, or re-record the dialogue. Typically, dialogue is captured on a separate recording device and it’s the sound editor’s job to track down the right audio to make sure it matches up with the picture within the shot the director likes best. When the audio is weak in an otherwise good take, that’s when a sound editor will record ADR or looping, bringing the actors in to re-record the dialogue by lip-syncing to the footage as it plays.
After dialogue is taken care of, they add in sound effects, background sounds, and the work done by foley artists. This is when the sound editor can get creative and get out in the field; if a certain sound isn’t in their library, they might go out into the world to capture what they’re missing.
“To achieve the final effect of the final soundtrack, there’s a huge amount of replacement and addition of sounds,” Murch said. “Why we do that is not only to make it sound more convincing for what you see but frequently, to add sounds that are shading into what you might call musical effects.”
The last piece of the puzzle before handing everything off to the sound mixer is working alongside the film’s composer and music editor to figure out the most seamless and fitting implementation of the score or a song into a scene.
Alternate Titles for Sound Editor
The sound editor reports directly to the supervising sound editor, who acts as the director’s primary point of contact through the audio post-production process and manages the sound team, including the sound editor, music editor, foley artists, and ADR editor. They also often report to the sound designer.
“Sound editors often work under a sound supervisor or sound designer as it is best to have a unified vision of what the sound of the movie should be, as well as how the overall material should find it’s way prepared for the mix,” noted Ron Bochar (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Moneyball,” “Goodfellas).
Sound Editor Salary
Sound editors earn between $67,791 and $82,909 (an average of $75,810) with those in the top 10% making more than $90,771.
As salary is not fixed and varies depending on such circumstances as experience, the number of hours worked, and the size and scale of production, different sources display different numbers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that audio and video equipment technicians earn an average annual wage of $48,940, or $23.53 per hour. Meanwhile, Paysa places a supervising sound editor’s annual wage between $93,207 and $109,750.
How to Become a Sound Editor
When it comes to sound editing, there isn’t one clear-cut path that one takes. It’s common to climb the ladder within the sound department, starting out as a sound editor or an assistant sound editor, shadowing experienced sound editors and mixers. It’s crucial to surround yourself with those in the audio post-production offices and studios and learn all you can from the professionals within it. Advancing in the field requires hard work, hands-on experience, and making connections.
Bochar learned the craft by wearing many different hats in his early days, taking advantage of any and all opportunities he had. “I started as a sound editor while working for a movie trailer editor [who] would edit the trailers and ask me to finish by getting them ready for the mix. That led to working [as an] assistant picture editor, then as one of the sound editors. From there, I became a specialist in foley editing and ultimately was hired to sound supervise edit my first feature. I worked my way up into that position by taking all the work offered to me, starting with that trailer editor. I learned by doing, by watching others, and by making mistakes here and there—then never doing them again! Training was on the job.”
Sound Editor Required Experiences + Skills
While there are no formal education requirements to become a sound editor, having extensive training or background in audio (sound production, sound mixing, audio engineering, music engineering, dubbing) is definitely required—especially since it’s such a technology-driven craft in the industry. Having a thorough understanding of sound equipment and recording devices, and the various ways/techniques to capture certain soundbytes is a must. Luckily, nearly every laptop comes equipped with the kind of audio-driven software that makes it easy to develop hands-on experience without access to a professional studio. Some of the best and and easiest to use are Audacity, WavePad, Acoustica, FL Studio, and Adobe Audition.
Go out and record stuff. Shoot a dialogue between friends in a park, capture isolated sounds, do some DIY foley work. Then edit everything, play with it, make it sound good. Most of the sound editing pros developed their skills by working on student and independent films gaining as much hands-on experience as possible. Once you’ve made some sound edits you’re proud of, it’s a good idea to compile a reel of your work. As with most film jobs, practice makes perfect—no matter the scope.
“I had gone to Ithaca College and graduated with a Bachelor Of Science in cinema studies back in 1978,” says Bochar. “While at college, we made many student films and often had to finish our own projects, [which required] us to edit the sound and mix. That’s probably where it all began. But the skills that got me hired and continue to get me hired have all been built while working on the job. Every project is different and every project has its own new thing to learn.”
A good sound editor should be a great listener with an amazing ear for detail, knowledgeable when it comes to all things sound (analog vs. digital/acoustics/editing/mixing/soundtracks), a strong communicator, a leader, organized, and collaborative.
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