Podcast Money Dispatch
Sound design rates in the podcast industry are about as consistent as the plot of Riverdale, but that doesn’t have to be the case. I’ve worked as a sound designer for both fiction and nonfiction shows, and running the gauntlet of deciding my rates has taught me a lot about how to determine the value of my work (spoiler alert: I undervalued it for a long time, and you probably have too). If you’re a newer sound designer wanting to set some concrete rates for yourself, an old hand who’s ready to raise your rates, or a producer curious about how the process works, read on.
The general role of “sound designer” can encompass a number of different sub-roles, and depending on the scope of the project and level of professionalism the company running it is operating under, you may be asked to cover multiple roles. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the ones you might encounter:
Dialogue Editor: This role assembles the director’s chosen takes for each character into an outline of each scene. The dialogue editor handles much of the cut-and-paste work that goes into laying out the scene, and sometimes the pacing of things as well. You may also be asked to set up the session in your DAW that the rest of the sound design team will work from. (Out of the three other sound designers I spoke to for this article, this is the role that every single one of them said was their least favorite, and one said would affect their willingness to take on a project if it was required.)
Audio Cleanup and Repair: This role reviews the audio from voice actors and makes any adjustments to get people sounding their best– whether that’s fixing clipping, removing room tone, or EQ-ing out plosives. One of the most technically heavy roles in the chain, requiring good ear training and strong knowledge of your plugins.
Sound Design: This role builds the environment the scene takes place in and conveys the action happening with a combination of sound effects, manipulation via plugins, and adjusting pace and timing. Works closely with the director to capture the tone and style of the piece.
Mixing and Mastering: This role adjusts the levels of every piece of the scene until things sound clear, crisp, and just right. They may also add additional cleanup and effects to the finished product.
The more roles you’re asked to cover for a project, the higher your rates should be. When it comes to rates for individual roles, each requires different levels of the three key factors we’ll talk about later, but skill (or: how skilled you are at said role) should be your biggest measuring stick. Dialogue editing is tedious, but a lower-skill role than cleanup and repair. Thus, my rates reflect that.
Different types of projects will ask you to cover different numbers of these roles, which is why it’s helpful to have both “indie” rates, and “professional” ones. Sound designer Ester Ellis has a similar framework to mine; she told me, “I do PFM [per finished minute] for indie projects and hourly for professional projects. My rate for professional projects ranges from $75-$100 an hour”.
However, there are other metrics as well. Tal Minear, whose work primarily encompasses indie projects, explained, “I usually use a per-episode rate, which varies depending on length and complexity. This allows me to create a rate specifically for the project in question. The main reason I don’t charge an hourly rate is that the clients I have worked with so far aren’t comfortable not knowing the full rate up front”.
Experience doesn’t just translate to how many projects you’ve done, but affects your ability as a whole to learn on the fly and problem-solve.
The best way to differentiate between indie and professional projects is to do your research.
Does this company have a history of putting out shows with a high production value?
Does the cast feature celebrity actors or an existing popular IP?
Does there appear to be significant backing behind the project?
Give them your professional rates, and if they can’t afford those, let them go to learn a lesson about what the level of sound design they’re asking for really costs. And remember: the rates you give a company will teach them what they can get away with paying their sound design team in the future! Do your fellow workers a service and stand by your value; it benefits everyone!
For indie projects, I tend to use a sliding scale that depends on how invested I am in the project itself. If this is a story I really want to see told, or a close friend is the showrunner, I may give a lower rate in exchange for getting to work on a thing I’m truly excited about. If my feelings towards the project are “this will be just another thing to put food on the table” (which is an okay opinion to have for any reason), I’ll provide a rate that’s lower than my professional one, but not by a ton.
This is where PFM can be extremely helpful– it gives the showrunner an estimate of what they’ll be paying me beforehand if they know their average episode length so they can plan things like crowdfunding, and usually translates to a lower total cost then hourly rates. Hourly usually translates to higher and helps you get and maintain a sense of the time that goes into sound design work, but it makes it tricky to estimate a project’s total cost in a way that can turn some clients off.
Regardless of what metric you use, or even what you use most regularly, you should be tracking your hours for every sound design project you take on. Getting into this habit is useful for a number of reasons:
It reinforces the value of your work by giving you concrete proof of the time that goes into doing your job.
It helps you spot pain points in your workflow by showing you which tasks and roles take longer for you to finish and where you can seek out shortcuts and time-saving techniques.
It not only shows you how long certain roles in the design chain take you to complete, but helps you get better at accurately estimating how many hours of paid labor a project will take, which can be extremely helpful in negotiating with hourly-paying clients.
When setting out to define my rates, I identified three key factors that would guide my analysis of my value as a sound designer: experience, skillset, and resources. Each comes with a number of questions to ask yourself, which I’ll answer here as an example.
How long have you been doing this job?
About seven years now, which is a lot for someone my age! I’ve had the time to work on a number of different projects and develop a workflow that works for me, which means a faster and more streamlined editing process.
How long have you been working in this particular industry?
The answer to this question differs depending on what industry you’re looking to work in, and can result in different rates for different industries. I’m a pretty experienced sound designer in podcasting, but would be classified as entry-level in gaming because I have very little experience there.
Experience doesn’t just translate to how many projects you’ve done, but affects your ability as a whole to learn on the fly and problem-solve. If you’re an experienced sound designer being asked to work in an unfamiliar DAW, the time you’ll need to learn it and develop a workflow shouldn’t affect your rates too much because you have the holistic experience necessary to pick things up quickly and close that familiarity gap. In some cases, and in smaller communities like indie audio drama, experience can translate to name recognition which may boost the profile of a newer project.
What do you know how to do? What are you good at doing?
Quite a bit! I’m especially good at dialogue edits and sound design, which is where I get to flex my creative muscles and use many of the skills I also use when directing stage plays. While I enjoy the problem-solving of audio cleanup, it’s a role I could stand to get faster at completing, and ear training for mixing and mastering is something I’m making a concerted effort to improve at. Speaking of which…
How is your ear training?
I’m frequently surprised at how good it is after so many years of being self-taught, but I have room to grow in gauging compression and expansion/gates. Ear training is something that you should always be practicing as a sound designer– there are free practice programs like the online version of the Technical Ear Training Module that have become something I try to do at least a few times a week, and have a number of different practice modes. Ear training is like a muscle; you have to work it out consistently for it to develop, and it takes time to grow. It’s one of the most valuable tools in your sound design toolbox, and affects every part of the process, so don’t skimp on it!
What DAWs (Digital Audio Workspaces) are you able to work well in?
I feel most at home in Adobe Audition, and it’s my DAW of choice on projects that let me choose, but I’m also proficient in Pro Tools as it is the industry standard for most professional projects. DAW flexibility is a good skill to have, and while it’s expensive and time-consuming to learn, until our industry makes accessibility for all backgrounds and situations a bigger priority, I would recommend having a Pro Tools subscription and proficiency in your back pocket if you want to do professional work.
Do you specialize in anything? Environmental design, combat sequences, vocal repair, mixing and mastering?
I love combat sequences, designing magic/superpowers, EQ-ing, and anything that requires a good ear for comedic timing (which can affect both the dialogue edit and sound design!). Knowing not just what you’re good at, but what you genuinely love enough to devote time and effort to being extra-special at, can help you pitch yourself as the perfect choice for projects that require these skills, which means you can negotiate for higher rates as a result.
What plugins do you have access to AND how good are you at using them?
I have a curated collection of plugins I use for cleanup and repair (I cannot recommend Izotope RX enough), and some funky and functional ones I use for design like a footstep generator and dehumaniser for creature sounds. Not only that, but I know these things inside and out and can quickly find the perfect parameters to get exactly what I need for the task at hand. Having a huge library of plugins is worthless if you don’t understand any of them enough to use them properly.
How robust is your sound effect library? How organized is it?
My library is pretty big, and I have a subscription to a big sound effects database that helps fill in the gaps. I like using the free program Explorer to organize my library, which automatically categorizes based on name and metadata, and is searchable. Especially in design jobs, depth and breadth can be a big selling point to a client.
Are you able to produce music? Work in the same DAW as the showrunner? Record your own foley?
All of these questions boil down to one big one: what extra goodies do you bring to the table as a sound designer that make you especially desirable to clients? What gives you an edge in negotiations that can justify your asking price? One of the things I like to stress to potential clients is my multi-lingual production style; as someone who’s worked in just about every role there is on a podcast production team, I can very easily communicate with other team members in their own production language. Whether it’s a big pile of foley tools, or a unique familiarity with the source IP, ask yourself what makes people want to hire you specifically?
With the answers to all of these questions squared away, I operated in 2022 at a professional rate of $75 an hour, and an indie rate of $20-$30 PFM. Now that we’re closing in on the new year, however, I (and most of the other sound designers I know) am raising my rates. Added Ester of her process, “I factor in inflation, plus a raise based on how much more I'm doing for my current projects and any skills or tools I've gained over the past year.”
You don’t have to wait for the new year if that’s not your style, though. Tal told me, “I raise my rates a little bit with every new client. If I’m working with the same person for more than a year, I’ll check in with them and propose a slightly higher rate to keep up with my additional experience and rising costs of living”.
No matter what cycle you use for rate raising, it’s always good to ask yourself what’s new about your skills and process that justifies that increase. The folks I spoke to had a couple of suggestions. Tal said, “Look into a way to make your process more efficient. I switched from Audacity to Audition, and that unlocked the ability to edit while audio was playing. That made me go so much faster, and freed up time for me to dedicate to other aspects of the episode”. Both Ester and Travis Vengroff emphasized how experience and consistent practice will reflect in the quality of your work. Travis told me, “The more you do, the better you'll get. Barring practice, talking to other folks who design about workflow and best practices will open your mind to new ideas and help you innovate”.
So: you’ve got your rates. Someone is interested in hiring you on for their project. That’s great! Now you need to negotiate pay.
Your number one question should be: “What is your projected budget for this role?”. This can give you deeper clues as to what kind of production you’re working with, and potentially reveal that they’re able to pay you much higher than you originally expected to be worth. Creatives underestimate how much we should be paid all the time, so if their budget for sound design results in a rate that’s more than you expected? Don’t just say yes– make that your new rate going forward.
Negotiations can be nerve-wracking, especially if you’re afraid of being turned down for being too costly, but know your worth and stand your ground. If you’re not looking for more experience, and the job doesn’t present other perks/opportunities that entice you, there’s no shame in walking away from a gig that can’t meet your rates.
There are other red flags to be on the lookout for as well. Tal and Travis both described being wary of “mission creep”, with Travis adding, “Big red flags for me are someone's experience working in the audio medium. If they send me a sample script with visual cues written in, and don't understand why that's a problem in our opening conversations, that's extra work I'll be doing as a sound designer to find workarounds when their dialogue ultimately fails, so my rates go up. It's a ‘Mission Creep Tax’ because my job just got a lot harder, and they're going to only add more and more work that's beyond the scope of what is expected of an editor or sound designer”.
At the end of the day, knowing your worth as a creator and how that translates to fair rates doesn’t just benefit you alone. By advocating for ourselves to clients and consistently presenting rates that reflect the time, skills, and experience that go into sound design, we as artists can set a standard of sustainable pay that ripples out to all productions. Don’t take jobs that pay pennies but ask for high-quality output– down that road lies burnout and another showrunner believing that this job isn’t worth much. Remember: know your worth, track your hours, and don’t be a scab!