Stepping stones: Jim Green on making the leap from full time to freelance sound engineer

Jim Green, freelance sound engineer, currently at work in Qatar for FIFA World Cup 2022 host broadcaster, HBS

Jim Green has been a freelance sound engineer for three years, but prior to that he spent 12 years working in sales for a pro audio manufacturer. He made the move in his 30s in a bid to find more variety. However, his timing was disastrous; within weeks of going it alone the COVID pandemic was in full swing and all live broadcast sports were cancelled.

In the latest of SVG Europe’s Stepping Stones series, Green talks about making the leap, how he became established in audio engineering as a freelancer, and provides some top tips for anyone who might be thinking about doing the same thing.

What is your job role today and what do you love about it?

In very broad terms I am a sound engineer, but that means lots of different things. Most of my work is in broadcast and it can be anything from sound assisting and field sound engineering, to sound or comms guaranteeing, to simple mixing or sound supervising. I’ve also had the opportunity to do some project work on the configuration and testing of audio systems, as well as commissioning installation infrastructures.

It sounds like a broad range of skillsets, but there is a lot of crossover. A sound assistant will work very closely with a sound or comms guarantee, and with project work it helps to have operational experience in the field so you know what is expected of the system. Everything is connected!

Having established a career in sales, why make the move into freelancing? What happened next?

Having more variety in my work is something that appealed to me and it was something that I was hoping to achieve when I decided to move into freelance work. I always enjoyed what I did, but I was looking for something with more diversity.

When COVID hit I was working on the Discovery Eurosport Technology Transformation project; I arrived in Stockholm on Sunday and by Tuesday I was on a flight back home to a deserted airport! The project was put on hold, sporting fixtures stopped being played and all the work suddenly disappeared.

Most of my work is in sport – in fact most freelance work in broadcast is in sport – so everything stopped for months.

When the football came back everyone was happy to have work they could count on, but because there were no crowds everything was much easier! You could park in the TV compound, you didn’t have to clear your kit away, you had the run of the stadium!

How did you first find work as a freelancer?

I already knew people in OB companies and systems integrators, and I owe a lot to people who trusted me enough to give me an opportunity when I started out.

It definitely helped, but before I left full time employment I shadowed at weekends on a lot of outside broadcasts doing floor sound, rigging commentary, setting pitch mics, rigging studios and helping on the derig. I did this voluntarily so I could get on-the-job experience, learn from the people that do it and find out what tools are needed; it’s always good to turn up on site with the right kit!

No individual task I’ve done in the last few years has been especially complicated, but knowing where it fits into the bigger picture is really important. Shadowing can help with that, and every single job is a new learning experience, however experienced you are.

I try not to take on jobs that are too much of a stretch, but for the ones I do take on I make sure I am equipped with the right knowledge and the right tools.

As a freelancer, how do you develop your skillsets to help you find more work?

Manufacturers and facility companies are both good sources of knowledge and are usually very happy to help.

If I’m asked to guarantee a truck I’m not familiar with I ask for a day at their base to go through the system, or shadow someone on site to learn the system that way; you have to be feel comfortable with the technology to be able to guarantee it, and that learning doesn’t ever stop.

Manufacturers are always a good resource and I have rarely had to pay for any training courses I have been on. I recently did an online session with one of the engineers at Telex to understand how their comms system works, and I travelled to Lawo UK earlier this year for some one-to-one training on their technology. Manufacturers are usually very keen to help.

How do you know what is expected when you accept a freelance position on a live broadcast?

Research and planning is so important. I was hired to work on my first ever esports broadcast last year, and in preparation I watched the previous year’s coverage; it told me what the format was, what the studio presentation looked like and how the show was constructed. Once I got an idea of that I looked at the systems; they use Telex on the show, which was a system I wasn’t familiar with, which is when I contacted Telex to talk me through the system.

I also got hold of the previous event’s config, and while I still built the config from scratch, it was useful to refer to and reverse engineer.

Research and planning is key to improve my comfort level and develop my skillsets. Things will always go wrong, but you can minimise the chances with good prep!

Can you give us some top tips for anyone thinking of freelancing in the broadcast audio industry?

It depends on who you are and where you are in your career. An engineering degree isn’t necessary, but having an engineering background definitely helps, not just with the physics of it, but having a problem solving approach is important.

For anyone looking for a career change like I did, it’s important to make contacts: go to trade shows, open days, reach out directly to facility companies and put yourself forward, initially as a shadow to get out on jobs and learn the ropes. I’ve never stopped shadowing; I still do it when I need to learn more about a job which I have little experience of. At the very least, it’s an extra pair of hands for the derig!

Learn as much as you can on the job, ask questions if you don’t understand. Make yourself available.

The biggest barriers are one’s own knowledge and experience, which can both be worked on.

What are your longer term aims?

I think that developing as a freelancer is about knowing how far out of your comfort zone you can afford to be! Not so much so you feel out of your depth, but enough so you can progress, if that is what you want to do. At the moment, I am very happy where I am. Freelancing has provided the variety of work I was looking for and after every position I have a little more confidence in my abilities.

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