What it’s like to work as a sound editor

Emma Butt, 32, is from Dublin and lives in London. She shares what her job as a sound editor is like, and how she got into the industry.

Emma Butt, sound editor

Dubliner Emma Butt lives in London and works as a sound editor.

She tells us what it’s like to work in the industry and how she got to where she is today.

What does a sound editor do?

The quick answer is we try to make TV shows, films and games sound nice. Each job title does something different.

A dialogue editor takes all the dialogue from a show, film or game and cleans it up. They take out any background noise, mouth clicks, word stumbles, anything that shouldn’t be there, so the dialogue is as clear as possible to anyone watching.

If for whatever reason, they cannot clean up a line of dialogue, that’s when an ADR recordist comes in. ADR (automated dialogue replacement) is the process of replacing a line of dialogue in a studio after a show or film has been shot. The actor has to try to repeat the line in time with the picture while also trying to match their performance, pitch and tone.

The recordist is there to make sure the recordings sound as close as possible to how the recordings were on set. They have to try to sync up the lines after the actor has recorded it so it sounds like it was recorded on set on the day.

A sound effects editor is the person who puts in all the background atmospheres, wind, rain, leaves rustling on trees and spot effects like cars passing by and trains. The mixer is the person who takes all of the separate elements, the dialogue, ADR, sound effects and music and balances them together to make the show sound as the director and producer had envisioned. They also have to know the different technical specifications for each channel and streamer and make sure the show falls within those specifications.

Why did you want to work in sound?

I was always part of my school choir and knew I wanted to work in something related to music. When we recorded a CD for charity and saw how it was done, I was fascinated by sound engineering.

I went to Uni back in Ireland to study sound specifically, with a view of going into live sound. When I realised that wasn’t something I wanted to do, I started to look at other areas of our sound course. Post-production caught my attention.

How did you get into the industry?

Three months before my uni course ended, and the panic set in of needing to find a job, I started applying to all the post houses in Dublin for a runner position. Screen Scene Post Production was where I ended up working for nine years, although at first, they didn’t want to hire me as they thought I was too timid to be a runner!

I worked as a runner for five months and spent every lunch break, before my shifts and after my shifts, sitting in with the engineers learning their workflows and asking for small projects, like tidying up a voice-over booth, to do after work. The extra hours paid off, and I was promoted to receptionist/short-form audio post-producer for six months to get to know the clients.

Then I started working as an audio assistant in short form and progressed into long-form content.

My first ever mixing job was actually on a show for deaf people and I loved it. It was a great show called “Hands On” and it thought me so much. The producer was tough and my dialogue and music edits had to be spot on.

I progressed over the nine years there and eventually moved into doing ADR and looking after factual, entertainment and animation projects from start to finish, covering all post sound. But I had always wanted to mix drama and I couldn’t do that there as there were too many engineers ahead of me.

I decided to move to London four years ago. I had to take a few steps back career-wise as very few people knew who I was and I’m still not where I want to be, but being freelance and wanting to mix drama is a tougher and slower path, so I know I have to be patient.

Have you had to overcome any challenges?

Yes, sexism and bullying is still an issue within film and TV. My first year in this industry I was approached by a man who was married with children but told me he wanted to sleep with me. It was well known that he did this to others. The problem was, back then if I had of spoken up, my career would have been finished before it started. Ireland is a small place and I would have been seen as a troublemaker for speaking the truth.

Since the #MeToo movement, things have improved slightly but not much. I’ve just had to try to develop thick skin and not let the comments or unfair treatment get to me. Instead, I try to make sure that I work hard to promote the voices of other women and support them where and when I can. I give talks at universities to try to encourage any young women on those courses to get into sound. I never want the next generation to experience what I have.

What do you love about your job?

I love that sound is the last piece of the puzzle for clients. Often they have worked on their shows for years, from development to shooting and then to post-production. The sound mix is the final stage of the process and it’s usually where they get to see all their hard work come to life. I love being a tiny part of helping someone realise their vision.

What have you worked on recently?

I was lucky enough to work on the remakes of Alan Bennetts Talking Heads series.

I also completed the sound design and mix on a special episode of EastEnders which was from a hearing-impaired person’s point of view. I’ve also been recording voices for some video games and working on a documentary for Channel News Asia.

What advice would you give someone wanting to get into the sound industry?

Know that it is hard work. I see a lot of students leaving university and starting out as runners but wondering why they aren’t working on the next Game of Thrones straight out of uni. You have to earn your stripes and prove yourself.

Download Pro Tools free, learn all your shortcuts in your spare time, practise recording and making your own sound effects, find old cartoons on YouTube and find a way to download them and recreate the sounds from scratch. All of this will help you become a better sound engineer and help you progress quicker.

Also, learn about the industry. Find out what the different job roles are and research the people who have worked on shows and films you like. Reach out to them and see if you can shadow them. It’s not always possible to do because of confidentiality agreements but if they can they will. We want to help support the next generation.

Tell us about becoming a BAFTA member and what it means?

You have to show that you have made contributions to British TV and film and apply. They then assess your application and decide if you should become a member. It took me three tries to get accepted as the first two times they felt I didn’t have enough experience.

Being a member means I can vote in the awards, they provide events and screenings for members.

I mainly wanted to join to be eligible to vote and try in my own small way to see more women and people from diverse backgrounds be nominated.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and speak out. Always trust your gut and never let anyone make you doubt your decisions no matter how difficult it gets sometimes. Never lose the fire that drives you to keep achieving more.

If you decide you want to take a different path to reach your goals that are not the norm, don’t listen to the people who say it can’t be done.

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