Why location sound mixers don’t have demo reels.

Every so often a potential new client will ask me to provide a demo reel. For those that don’t know, a demo reel is simply a collection of clips from previous productions one has recorded and mixed sound for.  It seems only logical that someone would want to hear evidence of my work prior to hiring me. Why then is it often viewed as a red flag within the sound mixer community?

In short, location sound recordists/mixers do not use demo reels because they do not properly portray the actual work that we do on set. In fact, using demo reels may actually mislead the viewer. Production work is a collaborative process and the audio of a finished piece has gone through several stages from pre-production to production to post-production prior to you viewing it. In many instances, each stage has had different sound professionals involved. When you watch a finished piece you are hearing production sound after it has been edited, ran through an assortment of plugins, and layered within a bed of sound design and music. Often times, the finished piece will actually sound much better than the production audio recorded on set. Through the post process, every lip smack and off camera thump is removed. Background noises are lowered or eliminated completely and dialog levels are consistent throughout despite how dynamic the speaker actually was in real life. When done properly, there is a cohesive flow to the diegetic tone that unconsciously holds the viewer’s attention while shots and visual perspective changes.  Why then wouldn’t we want to include this content on our reels?


Simply put, it’s inaccurate, technically untruthful, and leaves out so many other important aspects of our job. Moreover, we may not have access or even be legally allowed to share the content from a lot of our work.

I have several reels of my post production work. Most are demos of specific processes. They can be seen/heard HERE. With my post reels I’ve attempted to isolate methods, concepts, and unique styles that I was personally 100% responsible for. This can’t be done for production sound work. The notable exception of course is when the person recording sound on set was also the person responsible for the post production.

Below is a list of reasons why a professional sound mixer won’t have a demo reel.

  • Many jobs require a Non-Disclosure Agreement stating that contents of the recorded audio with not be made public. A lot of the corporate work I do, for example,  are videos for internal communication.

  • It’s difficult to get clips of work done on various shows because of copyright issues, and logistics of how involved you were on a shoot. Perhaps you only day-played on a local ‘bio-pack’ for a long running show. While your audio may sound incredible you are just a person who worked for a few days on something that has been around for years and you haven’t been able to establish the relationships necessary to get access to the finished content. Sometimes you can find a clip on Youtube a year or two later but you have no control over the quality of how that clip was uploaded.

  • If you do find a show you worked on, it may be edited in such a way that your audio is interspersed with the work from another sound mixer that may not be as good. Do you then include that content with a disclaimer? This would only cause more confusion.

  • It’s possible that all of your audio was replaced with ADR not because of quality but because of an editorial choice from a director based on an actor’s performance. More likely, ADR may have been required because the shoot required loud generators to be running while over your otherwise perfect audio.  

  • Finally and most importantly, production sound reels don’t take into account all the other variables of our work. A reel can’t showcase learned skills like quick troubleshooting, professionalism when micing talent, respectfully negotiating with store owners or location managers to turn off noisey appliances or HVAC systems, and most importantly, keeping cool under pressure.

A more accurate way to gauge a sound mixer’s experience is to simply request a list of credits and get personal referrals from industry colleagues you trust. Roughly 80% of my work comes from either personal referrals or recurring clients. As I mentioned earlier, it’s completely logical to request proof of someone’s ability to do a job. However, with location sound mixers, you’ll never find that proof in a demo reel.

Full disclosure, while I don’t have a sound reel for production work I do actually keep a running playlist on Youtube of random clips from shows I’ve worked on, which I update once a year. I’ll only provide this playlist if asked and only after a disclaimer at why it’s misleading. My rationale is that while reels don’t make sense, we are in fact in a customer service industry and I want to do anything in my power to attract new clients.  

Deep Listening: A Production Sound Mixer’s Practice

In her groundbreaking work from 2005, Deep Listening, A Composer’s Sound Practice, Pauline Oliveros defines Deep Listening as “a practice that is intended to heighten and expand consciousness of sound in as many dimensions of awareness and attentional dynamics as humanly possible.” Her book outlines this practice as a form of sonic meditation to aid composers and sound artists in their work. Throughout its 100 pages are detailed exercises to help differentiate between focal attention vs. global attention and hearing vs. listening. However, this experiential meditative state of aural awareness is not limited to the trained composer. In fact, it’s something that we as production sound mixers employ on a daily basis.

Composer Pauline Oliveros 1932 - 2016  http://paulineoliveros.us

Composer Pauline Oliveros 1932 - 2016 http://paulineoliveros.us

Production sound mixing for television and film is often viewed as a technical craft. The main responsibility of this job is to facilitate a director’s vision through recording and mixing the audio from on-screen sources. There are two key components to this role: record desired sound as clearly as possible, and eliminate undesirable sounds as thoroughly as possible. While filmmaking is generally regarded as a collaborative process, the contributions from a production sound mixer must be objective, easily discernible, and exist in a state of both present and future context. The present context concentrates on “does this sound good now?” while the future context worries about “will this sound good later during the editing stage?”. One would rationalize that the present context of a recorded sound dictates its future. However, the post-production process of editing audio for video or film into a finished work is done non-linearly from its original recorded context and thus subject to a number of complications unless careful considerations are made during the initial recording.  Here, Deep Listening is used as a tool to determine which aural variables need special consideration rather than as a meditative exercise to condition a holistic artistic practice.

There’s no such thing as a typical day at work in tv and film production. On any given day, I could be standing in a creek in the woods, in the basement of a homeless shelter, in the kitchen of a 5-star restaurant, or on a red carpet with famous actors. For the purposes of this argument though, let’s use an example of a sit-down interview at a home inside a city center. I will arrive about 15 minutes early to find parking, unload my equipment, and be standing at the door of our shooting location before the actual call time. My intention is two-fold. First, being punctual is simply essential to maintaining professionalism. Secondly, I want to have as much time as possible to understand the sonic landscape of the space in which I am to record sound. My goal is to create the quietest environment possible amidst the chaos around me. For any production sound mixer this is second nature. We turn off air conditioners, loud refrigerators, computers that have loud fans, fish tanks that have air circulators, and we will even convince a producer to pay off the landscaper next door so that we have a few hours without a leaf blower. Anything that makes noise must be dealt with to create a present context where the only recorded sound is the interviewee’s voice. If there is too much background noise the recording’s future context could be marred by tonal inconsistencies that are too noticeable in its new anachronistic edited state. An obvious yet frequent example is when a scene will feature the audio of a car passing by in one shot but no car in the following shot. While your brain processes a linear line of dialog you will subconsciously also notice something amiss. Our goal is to do our job so well that nobody notices we’ve done anything at all. Such is the nature of working with aural modalities in a visually dominated field. We are often overlooked and misunderstood. In fact, this reality is a caveat foreshadowing how difficult it is to do our job as film sets are anything but quiet leading up to when cameras actually role. How can you hear subtle hums and buzzes in a room’s tone when you’re surrounded by multiple people talking and various crew members doing their respective jobs. How can deep listening offset the normal and reasonable conditions of our work environment?  Audio specialists like production sound mixers don’t just hear sound, they are trained to listen to both a specific sound and the space around that sound simultaneously. We do this by constantly balancing between focal and global attention.

Keeping attention while on a film set

To keep focal attention is to simply focus in on a particular noise maker. As Oliveros suggests, it’s like zooming in and focusing a lens. For the subject of an interview the primary focal attention is on the overall volume, dynamic range, and tonal characteristics of the voice. The subject matter and content of what is being said is of no real importance in many cases. In fact, it’s often better to not focus too intently on the subject matter as it can distract you from listening to the audio quality of the recorded voice.  Secondary attention is then shifted to immediate distractions of the voice such as fabric noise rustling on a hidden microphone, jangling jewelry, a clock ticking in the background, etc. These immediate distractions are often easy to identify and reduce or remove. The more difficult aural elements are the ones that require global attention, developed over time through Deep Listening. Global attention, as Oliveros puts it, is “diffuse and continually expanding to take in the whole of space/time continuum of sound.” For the production sound mixer at work, global attention keeps us keenly aware of minute and incredibly subtle changes in background noises that could ultimately impede the editing process. When outside, this often manifests in listening to broad tonal shifts like the undulating tide of insects like cicadas and crickets or changes in the faint roar of distant traffic. When inside, like with our interview example, this global attention is often awarded to household mechanisms that can’t be turned off or even the mechanical fans from video production cameras. It’s not uncommon for our own tools to work against us sometimes.

A film set is seemingly the last place one would expect a crew member to practice a form of meditation. Yet, for the production sound mixer, it is, in a sense, a daily occurance. Given average circumstances for healthy individuals we all may be able to hear the sounds around us from a physiological standpoint, waveforms that enter our ears and travel into our auditory cortex to await processing. However, actual listening, which as Oliveros points out, is influenced by cultural history and life experience. Through the practice of patiently and deeply listening to our environments we can quickly identify a multitude of sonic variables that would otherwise be unnoticeable until a future context like the editing state. For this reason, employing practices from pioneers like Pauline Oliveros are vital to our profession.

Random musings from the audio department

I decided to start a blog here as an outlet for random musings on audio-centric topics that I feel are missing from larger conversations within the production world.

I don’t know at what frequency I will contribute content but perhaps whatever does end up here will be of use to professionals and non-professionals alike.