What's in a job title? To some, it means more pay, to others, more power, and yet others, more status. In the audio and music fields, having a title means getting credit for your work, which is especially important in a field that rarely gives you more than credit for (and, hopefully, satisfaction from) your work.
Having a clearly defined title is important and gratifying. However, receiving credit for your work invokes an inherent issue: what title are you credited with? Given that this issue arises for every person who has a credit, it is no surprise that great weight can be placed on the exact title as well as on its relative placement.
In corporate settings, many human-resources implications come with titles containing hierarchical terms like supervisor and manager. This also happens with creative productions, in which the hierarchical titles are for positions such as producer and director. These titles are often highly charged politically and carry heavy budgetary responsibilities.
Sometimes the choice of a title is determined by the need to accurately reflect a person's full contribution. In the music world, there can be a fuzzy line between engineering and producing, and two people working on the same project may differ on where that line lies. Similarly, bands deal with the ever-present argument over writing credits.
On the other hand, a credit can imply that a person does more work than is truly the case. Sometimes this is a matter of definition, as with a few of the above examples. Other times, it can be a matter of loosely applied terminology. One of the most egregious examples is the title sound designer. That title was first given to Walter Murch for his high-profile work on the film Apocalypse Now (United Artists, 1979). But sound titles are not controlled in the way that titles like director are in the film world, and so usage can be rather loose. Nowadays, any Joe or Jill who has a DAW and a sound-effects library can stack a couple of effects on top of each other and claim the title of sound designer, and no one is in a position to approve or deny it.
The title of sound designer has been used in theatrical circles for quite a while, but that situation changed when theatrical productions started using huge, extremely intricate audio systems. Theatrical sound designers often shape every aesthetic aspect of a production's sound: the system design and programming, the stylistic approach, key effects (usually created by the sound designer), and so on. But what if a person just designs and programs the system? Should that individual be called a sound designer? Lately, the title has even spread into system design for events and fixed installations, which seems obviously inappropriate.
Titles don't always matter, in which case the question is academic, but for those to whom title definitions could make some difference, I offer my opinion on this last example, since that is what I do in “Final Mix.” To me, to be a sound designer, one must be directly involved with designing the content — that is, creating the sound. A person who designs and programs systems only is performing the worthwhile, noble, and purely technical task of sound-system design. Certainly, creativity, cleverness, and resourcefulness all come into play, but the essence of the job is to devise the means by which the sound is reproduced, not created.
Having said all that, the role that a person plays in a production can be multifaceted, making it difficult to find a single appropriate credit. But it is possible to have some definition in titles. The question is whether it is, as my father would often say, “a distinction without a difference.” If a definition exists but no one conforms to it, does the title mean jack?
So once again we find ourselves in the muddy waters for which our field is so famous. Receiving credit is important in our business, so clear and appropriate titles are worth fighting for.
Larry the O has held many titles in his long and eclectic career, including musician, sound designer, recording engineer, technical writer, and contributing editor. Had all of these titles been clearly defined, he might not have written this column.