True jacks-of-all-trades, utility sound technicians do whatever they can to back up the production sound mixer and aid in the capture of high-quality audio on set. Often, this includes setting up, putting away, maintaining, and repairing audio recording hardware (e.g., receivers, cables, headphones, and mics), as well as cooperating with other departments to minimize noise on set. The utility sound technician might also place or adjust radio mics, provide stand-in sound effects, write sound reports at the end of capture, lay down acoustic carpeting to alter the sonic environment, or fill in as an additional boom operator.
Although the utility sound technician is the closest thing production audio has to an entry-level position, it still has a number of prerequisites, including on-set experience and working knowledge of recording hardware.
Like other members of the production sound crew, utility sound techs must be in good physical shape; loading in and packing the truck when changing locations often falls to them. All things considered, it isn't an easy job. Still, it provides ample opportunity to learn about production audio in a practical setting—and for a lucky and experienced utility sound tech, maybe even the chance to fill in for the production sound mixer in a pinch.
At a Glance
Although the utility sound technician is the closest thing production audio has to an entry-level position, it still has a number of prerequisites, including on-set experience and working knowledge of recording hardware and the sound capture process. Utility sound techs may gain this experience through undergraduate or indie film projects or by working as a production assistant (PA).
Part of the appeal of this position is the potential for on-the-job training, with many utility sound technicians gradually working their way up the ladder, becoming first boom operators, then assistant mixers, then full-fledged production sound mixers, capturing and mixing the dialogue for an entire show or movie.
While utility sound technicians are almost always freelancers, they don’t bear as great of a burden for generating work as the average freelancer does. This is because production sound mixers are generally encouraged to choose their own teams for gigs, which means finding work is less about locating specific gigs than forming strong professional relationships with in-demand production mixers.
- Sound recording hardware
- Familiarity with the dialogue capture process
- On-set experience
- Basic electrical engineering
- Basic live sound mixing
The utility sound technician is a humble team player who doesn’t lose focus in slow moments or shy away from tasks others might find boring or repetitive. Tactful verbal communication skills are also a great boon and will help techs get repeat work. Most importantly, utility sound technicians must be master multitaskers. As utility sound technician Jennifer Winslow puts it, “At any moment, we may have to drop what we are doing and focus our attention on another, higher priority [task]. We call it 'putting out fires' on the set. The ability to refocus is a must-have skill.”
Like many jobs in film, this position has its share of challenges, including long hours, an inconsistent work schedule, and plenty of travel to distant shooting locations. It's unlikely to pay much at first, and beginning technicians may need supplemental income and savvy budgeting to make it. Even so, these positions remain popular and competitive—a testament to the allure of a career recording the sound for films and television shows, which certainly starts here.