Meet James, Sound Designer

Related career Audio Engineer

Intrigued by sound even as a child, James LeBrecht knew from the start what field he belonged to. As a high schooler and a college student, James was greatly interested in theater, and used his talents with audio to become the lead sound designer for several theatrical performances. After college he took his talents another step forward by opening Berkeley Sound Artists where he records, edits, and mixes the audio for television, film, and games.

Tell me your story - where do you come from in the world of Audio?

I grew up back on the east coast, just North of New York city. I had a reel to reel deck when I was a teenager, and I wound up working on some sound effects in high school plays. I went to UC San Diego to study acoustics, but I ended up working with the drama department on their sound design, and I was hooked.

When I graduated college, a position was opening up for a sound designer at the Berkeley Repertory. I applied, but there was a concern from management because I was born unable to walk, and operating the audio in the Berkeley Repertory requires a great deal of movement. Despite that, however, I got the job - it was a great break. In the mid 1980s I got an apprenticeship at a post production facility working on films, and about 20 years ago, I started my own company, “Berkeley Sound Artists”. I found a real niche in the documentary community and began working on a number of remarkable documentary films.

James in actionWhat do you find most gratifying about being an audio producer?

Film is a very collaborative art. I like working closely with directors in the mix. Working with them and figuring out what sounds might fit in different scenes of a film is fantastic. I love scenes where things get more visually interesting on films because it calls for the sound to mirror what is happening on screen. You get a certain level of subjective decision making at that point.

What are some of the obstacles you have had to overcome in your journey? Managing a business isn’t an easy feat - let alone working in the audio industry. What motivates you in tackling such a task?

Well, I ask myself that almost every day! I wanted a certain level of control when I started my business 20 years ago. I wasn’t sure I could keep up with the 50 hour weeks (which are the normal for working on Hollywood films), and I was concerned about my endurance in the long run. So I started with the idea that I could make more money and spend less time if I was doing more multimedia work and corporate work. Though it didn’t particularly pan out that way, I think that the responsibility of learning how to run a business is a huge deal. That said, we all have to make our way in the world in regards to what makes sense. You have to make your career for yourself.

What is it like recording in so many different environments?

Certainly there are some things that are more easily recorded in the studio such as foley sounds, but I have always invested in good portable recorders for getting out into the field. I’d rather get myself into nature to record my own fresh sounds. Sound libraries are great too, and you can find a lot of useful content there but finding certain sounds for certain pieces is always important, and sometimes that requires your own recordings.

Where would you recommend newcomers to sound design to start with their own projects?

I think that if you plan on being in this business in the long run, spending a little money on some libraries saves a lot of time. Sound Ideas is probably the best known manufacturer and seller of sound effects. Some other libraries I use are by Sound Dogs and Rabbit Ears. There’s also a great website called Nature Soundmap that shows you nature recordings of different places around the world.

As far as actual recording goes, make sure you’re using headphones that are isolating you from the outside world. Never record without actually hearing what you’re recording. Of course, making sure you have a quiet recorder and some reasonable microphones is also very important. I even have a zoom microphone that can hook into an iPhone, and I keep mine with me at all times! I can slap it in and use it if I happen to find a sound that I want to record.

When I record ambiences, I record 15-20 minutes as to avoid having something that sounds looped.

Also, make sure you’re getting coverage when you’re working. Let’s say you need to record an older Range Rover pulling into a driveway for a project. Of course make sure you get what you needed for your project, but get extra content. Record the horns, record it idling, record it starting up from the tail pipe, and record it leaving. You can always use that library on future projects.

You just have to pay attention to what you’re doing. You don’t need a $10,000 setup, you just need proper mic placement and some decent gear.

How has the switch from analog to digital audio production changed how you work on projects, and are there any techniques from analog that we can still learn from?

Having worked with analog in theater and film I have a lot of experience with both analog and digital. I think the ability to try different things really quickly is remarkable as well as the opportunity to play virtually as many tracks as you want at one time - which wasn’t possible on analog. I have a lot more tools available for me now to make changes. We still need to have clean recordings just as we did in the analog days, but what you can do now with ProTools and other DAW’s (digital audio workstation) gives you the opportunity to quickly try new ideas.

How do you think that virtual reality is going to reshape the audio field?

Well I have done a couple of VR projects. The interesting thing is that the aesthetics change. For a filmmaker, if people have the ability to look around them, how do you provide focus? With sound, you can help keep the audiences focus on a specific location, or fill out an environment. Sound in this aspect will be important for creative focus, and people are going to have to think about sound a lot more with VR.

Any recommendations on how someone can get their foot in the door of audio production?

I think that people are more than happy to give newcomers the time of day, especially when they're first starting out. I certainly benefited from the type of people who allowed me to approach them for advice. Try to make contact with people who are doing what you want to be doing. Be genuine and learn the skills that people are looking for. Know Pro Tools, know some recording techniques, and how to sync to film really well.

Much appreciation to James LeBrecht for the interview! If you want to learn more about Berkeley Sound Artists visit his website at