Rate Guide: Engineering, Sound Design and Music
This guide is part of a larger research project on radio and podcasting rates. See all of AIR's work on rates for a complete guide.
Though radio transmitters have been broadcasting for more than a century, the emerging podcast industry is disrupting traditional models of audio production. Experienced audio engineers, recordists, sound designers, and composers all bring vital skills that can make a big difference in the sound and quality of any show, however the final audio is distributed.
In addition, experienced professionals who bring skills honed on other productions can provide an unbiased editorial ear, and are often able to improve a project long before production gets underway.
A Brief Glossary
In many cases the roles described here overlap and any one show’s needs will vary. Most independent producers do their own recording and they often expect to do their own initial dialog edits. Some sound designers compose original scores. Some do all the mixing and scoring for a show. Some mix engineers are asked to make editorial decisions about how to cut tape.
No glossary or guide can replace a clear and direct conversation about expectations. Whether you’re hiring a freelancer or taking on a new gig, make sure everyone is on the same page about what you need.
audio engineer is a broad term that can be applied to someone in any one of a variety of engineering-related roles.
audio mixer, mix engineer, mastering engineer are all titles for someone who mixes a show or segment. NPR Training defines mixing as "the process of creating balance, consistency and clarity with differing audio sources.” An audio mixer or mix engineer brings a clear understanding of audio concepts like phase and gain structure and core tools including equalization, compression, loudness, and restoration software to the mixing process. Mixing is typically the final step of producing an audio story and results in a publishable audio file. “Mastering” actually describes the final step in creating a music album, which follows the mixing stage. The term is not technically applicable to audio storytelling, but it is sometimes used to describe mixing work.
Note: some shops use “mix” to refer to the process of cutting and arranging audio. A clear conversation about expectations will help avoid any misunderstandings.
composer describes a musician who creates original music. A show might commission a composer to create original music designed especially for that show, or they might commission existing music from a composer.
dialogue editor is a term borrowed from the film world for someone who cuts and cleans dialogue. In audio storytelling, this responsibility more often falls to a producer who is charged with cutting the story.
scoring describes the work of creating or identifying, selecting and licensing existing music from a music library or other source to suit the needs of a segment or story. In our research we found composers who were firm that scoring a segment always means composing original music, and other folks who were just as firm that in radio and podcasting work, scoring always means finding music from an existing source. As ever, no glossary is a substitute for a clear conversation about expectations.
sound designer, sound design is another title popularized in the film world. Sound design traditionally refers to the practice of cutting and layering sound effects and ambient audio using natural or synthesized sounds. In audio storytelling it might refer to someone who provides music and pacing decisions, or to someone who customizes a palette of music and sonic materials that form the defining sound of a show. Transom’s series on sound design is a great introduction to the craft. A sound designer might compose original scores themselves, find composers to create original sounds and music, or use sound libraries to identify and license existing music and effects. The bounds of a sound designer’s responsibility can vary a lot: some sound designers do all the mixing, engineering and sound design for a single show.
sound recordist, field recordist, production sound recordist are all terms that describe an audio engineer who records "in the field" outside of a studio. Someone using these titles should be competent with remote recording equipment and able to set up equipment that will optimize recording quality given the constraints of the particular scene.
studio engineer describes an engineer who operates a live broadcast or recording studio.
Engineering, Recording, and Mixing Rates
In our research the rates for mixing, recording and engineering roles varied with experience and sometimes by the complexity of the job but rarely varied by the role. We focused our research on independent contractors, though it is not uncommon for a specialist to be on payroll for a short term appointment. In general, independent contractors should expect to charge at least 30% more than peers doing similar work on payroll.
Rates: Most independent engineers we interviewed cited hourly rates in the $75-125 range, though some experienced professionals charge $150 to $200 or more. Everyone we interviewed quoted day rates commensurate with that range.
Note, Oct 25 2019: Since the release of this guide we’ve heard from some AIR members that they expect to charge somewhat closer to $65/hour for steady freelance gigs doing sound design, mixing and dialog edits on a reliable schedule.
Comparable rates for someone doing the same work on payroll, with an employer covering payroll taxes, workers compensation, unemployment insurance would range from $58-96/hour.
Some engineers reported including a fixed number of revisions in their contract, even for work that will ultimately be billed by the hour. They opt to bill at a higher rate for the aggravation of inefficiency.
Tape Syncs are a special case—the work involved in preparation, set up, and follow up on a tape sync is relatively consistent and described in our tape sync rate guide.
Additional fees, consistent with time-and-a-half overtime standards, are typical for unusually long days or condensed schedules.
We also found many folks at all levels working in short term staff positions. Staff rates, which include significant additional benefits (among them access to workers compensation and unemployment insurance, paid sick leave) start at $30-35/hour for staffers working under the close supervision of a more experienced engineer. Staff engineers, whatever their hourly rate, are entitled by law to overtime pay after working 40 hours in a single week.
A few notes on best practices
Many people we spoke with noted that newcomers to the field often wait until the last minute to bring a mix engineer onto the team. Though many of the roles described here are technically “post-production,” we’ve avoided that term intentionally. A good mixer, engineer or sound designer can make a big difference in the final quality of a show. Bringing a “post production” team in early can head off problems with recording quality or file organization that will be labor intensive to fix later.
Experienced engineers working across these fields reported including a fixed number of revisions in their contract, even for work that will ultimately be billed by the hour. Revisions, tweaks, corrections and adjustments are part of the work, but when those trickle in piecemeal, the freelancer is stuck managing a lot of inefficient communication. Charging a higher rate for revisions after the first two passes can help encourage efficiency and ensure that everyone is able to do their best work.
Establishing “standard” rates for original music composition is particularly challenging because some composers can command substantially more for their work than others. Session musicians and a studio cost money, but some music can be produced “in-the-box” using only software. Most composers take expected usage of the work into account when setting their rates as well. With those criteria taken into account, a composer will generally propose a flat rate that includes a fixed number of revisions (two or three is typical).
Note that our sample size for composers was both small and diverse so these rates for composition represent snapshots rather than a complete picture of the industry. We’re still including them here because we regularly get questions about budgeting for music.
Composing theme music, or an intro and outro for a weekly public radio show with a national audience might run to $15,000. A smaller budget show or one with a smaller market might expect to pay $2,000-$5,000 for an original score.
Some shows and sound designers also turn to composers for help scoring a single episode. Though we didn’t find consensus on what constitutes a small or large audience, licensing might look like this, where figures reflect a small, medium or large audience:
Licensing a pre-existing track for use on a single episode: $50 | $100 | $200
Non-exclusive use of a custom track: $300 | $500 | $750
Exclusive use of a custom-produced track or score will vary more widely.
In almost all cases, a composer retains the copyright to the work and use beyond the original intended medium may need to be renegotiated. Many experienced composers and sound designers will ask for revisions to a standard contract that asks for exclusive worldwide use in any medium, or will charge more for that level of licensing.
We interviewed experienced radio shows and podcast production houses about what they expect to pay. We interviewed experienced sound designers, composers, and engineers about what they charge. We also talked to professionals working in film or music to get a sense of where rates overlap and reviewed rates. We reviewed existing research including Blue Collar Post Collective’s survey of post-production rates in film and television.
For this guide, we relied heavily on interviews to establish the roles and categories. Rob Byers, Michael Raphael, and Jeremy Bloom helped refine, define and clarify the terms we’ve used here and were absolutely indispensable to the creation of this guide.
AIR's work on rates
AIR is actively developing a series of guides designed to help independent producers, editors, and engineers set fair and reasonable rates, and to help everyone create accurate and realistic budgets. We want to hear from you.
This guide was posted in October 2019 and has not been updated. Our hope as an organization is that AIR can keep these rate guides up to date but if you're reading this and it is more than a year old, you should adjust the recommended rate to reflect changes in the cost of work and living.