If you’ve ever listened to Selina Meyer cracking a pointed punchline, you’re probably unknowingly familiar with the work of Steve Saada. At just twenty-six years old, Steve is already a staple of the sound department in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., productions, having worked as a boom operator, sound mixer, and audio utility in more than fifty local productions. His credits range from House of Cards and Veep to Ping Pong Summer and Kill the Messenger.
Steve has always been enthusiastic about sound’s role in the predominantly visual medium of film and television. Even in film school, he gravitated toward the shotgun microphones and digital sound mixers, eschewing the glory of camerawork to pursue his own passion for a distinct craft. This laser focus on all things audio helped immediately in his professional life, as he was able to find and maintain a thriving freelance career right after graduation.
Many rookie filmmakers start with the assumption that sound is a secondary concern to lighting, editing and direction, but Steve offers compelling evidence that this is not the case. We recently sat down with him to pick his brain about working in the media industry and, specifically, the impact his role in the sound department has had on the many projects he’s had a hand in producing.
Hey Steve, it’s great to talk to you! What inspired you to get into sound recording and mixing, specifically within the world of film and video production? Why did you choose this over radio or music?
The funny thing about it is I never really meant to fall in love with sound. Before audio came into my life, I was en route to become a professional soccer player. But when I was 16, I was diagnosed with vocal chord dysfunction, which is a rare breathing disorder that pretty much made me black out during matches due to a lack of air to the lungs. Unfortunately, that career path ended.
My brother was the student theater director at our high school, so he convinced me to give that a try. I was pointed in the direction of the sound booth and was told, “Here you go! Figure it out!” After spending countless hours in that small booth, I fell in love with sound. It was something no one else wanted to do, but it became my passion.
When I started, I actually was hoping to make it into music mixing and recording. I started stage handing at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, setting up small concert packages and running cable for bigger events. It was a great job at that age and really helped propel my interest in sound. However, I had always been a fan of filmmaking and an admirer of the process. In college, I realized that production recording and mixing was a pretty undesirable job—at least to the other students—but an absolutely necessary one. This was right up my alley and I ended up just teaching myself the ins and outs of the process. I found production sound so much more challenging, because I had to constantly fight the elements. I wasn’t in a controlled recording studio. Achieving the best quality sound recording in an uncontrollable environment was so much more intriguing.
How did you transition from a curious student to a full-fledged career boom operator? What were the steps you took to become a professional?
Honestly, it came pretty quickly for me. Not to say I was perfect at my job, which I absolutely was not, but being in production sound had its perks, for sure. There weren’t many young people doing sound and doing it well.
I ended up taking a film aesthetics class my senior year with Mathew Bainbridge, who at the time was producing a short film. He planned on hiring local professionals in Baltimore as department heads and would bring his previous students in to work under them. It was an amazing networking opportunity. I was fortunate enough to be the boom operator on this film under sound mixer Lorenzo Millan, who was the boom operator on The Wire, Homicide, and pretty much any major TV show or film produced in the DC/Baltimore area. Those six days of production absolutely changed my life, excelling my career within a few weeks after wrapping the film. Making those connections brought me my first jobs, my first returning clients, and eventually allowed me to join the Union.
So from there, you start working on larger projects, on big sets. What have you learned from being on set? What are some basic behaviors that anyone—even outside of sound—could use to benefit their career?
Being on set, whether it be a low-budget commercial or union contract feature film, teaches you an incredible amount about respect. For me, what separates the good workers and the bad workers on set is how they treat the other people they work with. The business is extremely stressful and the last thing that anyone wants to deal with is someone who doesn’t respect the people around them. Knowing what each department needs to achieve each day and on each production will help the entire machine work very smoothly.
For example, as a sound mixer or boom operator, I know that I need to achieve the best quality sound possible. In order to get that I have to make sure I don’t conflict with any other departments. The camera department needs to achieve certain sized shots, which may push a boom operator to the edges; or an electrician may need to have a light’s ballast set to “flicker free” instead of “silent” for a scene. This could impede on the sound. Every decision made elsewhere affects my ability to do my job and vice versa. There are so many different elements to work with and around, most coming from other departments doing what they need to do. Having a crew that works with each other to achieve those goals as a whole unit is what makes a phenomenal product.
Also, patience. Things take time in this business, including payment, so being patient will help you keep your cool and make you more desirable to be around and work with. It all comes from making mistakes and learning from them.
What would you consider the greatest accomplishment of your career so far? What did you learn from it?
The greatest achievement in my career has been being a part of an Emmy-nominated—and winning—sound crew. I was fortunate enough to work with Lorenzo and his crew again on House of Cards, which brought the Emmy home, but being a part of the Emmy-nominated sound crew for my full-time show, Veep, was just a dream. I had transitioned from being a sound utility to boom operator during season three and I worked my butt off for five months to prove that I could do the job. It was, and still is, the hardest job I’ve ever done. It’s one of those shows that scares a lot of sound guys and being a part of that team each year is the greatest challenge; but I obviously love challenges.
It’s something I thought I’d have to wait years to achieve, but being a part of two amazing shows in one year was just unreal.
What are the benefits and detractors of different aspects of the industry? For example, the difference between working on a corporate video versus a commercial versus a large television show.
I mean, there are lots of detractors: slow payment, long hours, little to no sleep or social life, loans for equipment, underpayment. It’s a tough business.
But what seems to keep the people that stick with this industry around are the awesome benefits: lucrative pay, travel, the ability to manipulate your schedule, and of course, the challenge!
Personally, I love long format productions like feature films and TV shows. They allow you to have a long-term, secure job that usually pays well and keeps you tremendously busy. This, to me, is better than freelancing in the commercial world, which is living day-to-day, job-to-job. I’m one of those people who like to dabble in both worlds, but not everyone likes to do that. You make more money on commercial day jobs, but they aren’t guaranteed every week, and slow spells of work aren’t good for your wallet (and happen far too often). Finding a safe median between commercial work and long format work is what I try to do, but everyone is different.
It’s clear that you have a real passion for what you do. In your opinion, what is the importance of sound in film and video? Make an argument to all of our aspiring cinematographers and directors and explain why they should shift their focus to audio.
This is how I see it: it’s a 50/50 split. The sound is as important as the image. Maybe even more so.
The visuals are what most people see first, but I’m willing to bet that most viewers will notice a sound problem before a visual problem, like clipping audio versus an over-exposed frame. People will always notice the sound clipping first, because our ears are trained to hear mistakes in our surroundings. I can’t tell you why sound is still considered an afterthought on some productions, but it’s something that sound guys have always struggled with.
What advice do you have for young sound engineers when purchasing equipment? What should they be looking for in gear?
Purchasing equipment is something that not every person needs to jump into. Granted, it allows for another source of income, but it’s actually a waste of money for a lot of people. As a sound mixer, I have to own my own gear. It’s an industry standard: you need to own your own gear or you won’t be hired. Something I always tell people getting into this business is to always remind yourself that no matter what kind of gear you may have, it means nothing if the operator doesn’t know how to use it the best way possible.
However, if you are buying gear, I’d say don’t be afraid to buy used. When I started, my entire kit was used. It was still expensive and I needed a loan to pay for it, but it was a lot cheaper starting out and did the job. You don’t always need the biggest and best. Know how to work with the equipment and you’ll make something great. Another thing to remember is that technology changes all the time. The last thing you want is to purchase something that’s outdated or unsupported. Keep yourself updated on the future technology. Read about gear. Get to know brands and companies. Figure out what’s going to work best for you. The gear we use becomes a huge part of our lives and you need to know as much as you can about it all.
What are some simple techniques that anyone—regardless of experience or equipment—can use to improve the quality of their sound?
Remember that sound travels up and out and it resonates from most of the body, not just the mouth. The sweet spot is the center of the sternum, whether it be wiring or booming. This is where the most balanced signal comes from. Also, lower levels are better than levels that are too high. Always give yourself some room to work with. You can always bring the audio up in the post-mix.
Any last-minute advice to young filmmakers looking to get their careers started?
Get out there and make stuff! Do things for free for others, even if they offer to pay you. If you’re in this for the money, you’re in the wrong business! (laughs) Have fun! This business is a wild roller coaster of emotions and adventure. Don’t wait to graduate college to start working. Getting a degree is important, but getting the hands-on experience anywhere you can get it is even more significant in this business.
It’s also important to find a niche. Making your way up the chain quickly and efficiently is all about finding a job or craft that is focused and in demand. The more specific your skill set is, the better chance you’ll have of getting a job. Figure out what other people aren’t doing and do that!
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Steve!
Thank you, VideoBlocks!