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In my career I've been on both sides of the interview table, so as a hiring manager I recognize some of the mistakes I sometimes see from new or junior audio applicants. A lot of these things were confusing or intimidating to me as I started out, so I figured I'd write a little post and address some of them. It sucks being confused/concerned about how to apply for jobs.
So here are some questions I had when I was getting started, and the answers I've learned along the way. I hope these help.
WHAT DO I CALL MYSELF?
First, if you're seeking sound design roles, call yourself a Sound Designer. Don't obsess about your lack of shipped titles or experience. For the first year or two I was trying to get my foot in the door, I obsessed over whether it was disingenuous and/or presumptuous to call myself what I so desperately wanted to be. It was silly. If you design sound, you are a sound designer. Be confident about that.
But don't take it too far. I sometimes see people who refer to themselves as Audio Director, Creative Director, CEO, whatever of an independent audio company that has zero or minimal credits. This is a good way to elicit a sarcastic chuckle from a hiring manager. Don't oversell yourself. Be real.
If you're an especially funny person, you can be funny with your title. It's good to show some personality. I once saw someone refer to themselves as "Noisy Ninja." That made me laugh and left a positive impression. I also once knew a programmer who had the title "International Man of Leisure" on his business cards. Loved it. Of course, it helped that he was an absolutely incredible programmer.
I DON'T HAVE ANY PROJECTS, WHAT CAN I PUT ON MY PORTFOLIO?
It's amazing how many younger sound designers I've encountered that aren't actively working on sound design projects in whatever free time they have. You should always be working on projects, even if they're projects of your own creation with nobody else involved.
Always be making noise. It's a well-known Internet Fact that you have to spend 10,000 hours working at anything to become an expert. If believing that will get you to sit down and make noise, then believe it. Always be working on something. And if you're always working on something, you'll always have materials to put in your portfolio.
If you're looking for a game audio position, I strongly suggest you try to work on something interactive. Go download Unity Free, get a book on it, and build some little level with minimal interaction. Then create and implement the sound for it. You can do the same in UDK, which is also available for free. Interactive demos help you develop implementation skills, which are critical in most in-house full time game audio roles.
BUT I DON'T HAVE THE TOOLS TO WORK ON STUFF AT HOME!
My gut tells me to say "Then go home and don't be a sound designer" to this argument, because I strongly value problem solving skills in candidates. But I'll give you an answer because it's a nice day and I'm being nice :).
There are cheap and free tools out there. Assuming you have a computer (and are likely using it to read this), for well under $1000 you can assemble enough stuff to make some noise.
Need a DAW? Go get Reaper. $60 for personal use. That's the price of a video game.
Need a WAV editor? Go get Audacity. Free.
Need some source material? Get a Sony PCM-M10. $200-250 depending on where you shop. Has a stereo X/Y omnidirectional mic pair built in, and they sound quite good. David Farmer, sound designer on the LOTR and Hobbit trilogies, turned me on to this thing. He uses his all the time.
Need some source material that you can't record yourself? You're in for a treat. First, there are three amazing sources for boutique sound effects libraries. Very cost effective, lots of cool stuff:
The Recordist - www.therecordist.com
Chuck Russom FX - www.chuckrussomfx.com
Rabbit Ears Audio - www.rabbitearsaudio.com
If you want to browse a massive database and purchase/download individual recordings, hit up www.prosoundeffects.com.
Need some plugins? Lots of cheap and free options can be found at KVR (www.kvr-vst.com). If you want some amazing plugins for shocking prices, the Valhalla DSP (www.valhalladsp.com) plugins are an absolute steal.
Need an interface? Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. $200.
Need monitors? This one's always a killer, but if you can't afford anything good here, get a pair of headphones. AKG K240. $100.
IS IT LEGAL/OK/WHATEVER TO REDO THE SOUND FOR A VIDEO?
I am not a lawyer, so I can't comment on the legality. What I WILL say is that I don't generally mind seeing this in a portfolio, as long as it's explicitly stated that you didn't work on the real game/movie/whatever and did it as a personal project. I haven't met many other Audio Directors who mind this either.
I would advise against redoing the sound of something and submitting it to the team that did the original work. So if you're going to send an audio portfolio off to the Blizzard audio team (hi guys!), for example, I wouldn't take the intro video of Starcraft 2, redesign the sound and send it to them. Send it to me or anyone else, sure, but not them. The only possible exception I would make is if you have done something absolutely out of this world and incredible, but even then I'd get independent verification, from someone more experienced, that socks will, in fact, be knocked off.
Remember, these people did the original work you're replacing. They're going to know this work intimately, and any mistakes or weaknesses you have will be extremely obvious to them. It's setting yourself up to be reviewed more aggressively.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A PORTFOLIO?
The portfolios that make the strongest impression on me usually have some or all of the following traits:
01) Memorable, unique sound design. I want to hear sounds that I haven't heard before. I want to hear personality, detail. I want to be pulled in. Think of the most characteristic and memorable sounds you've heard in film and games. Shoot for that.
02) Good mix. Things should sound clear and understandable, not mushy and confusing. Powerful elements should feel powerful, not just a mess of muddy low end distortion. Frequency masking is bad, make sure you've got space for all your elements to live.
03) Dynamic range. Don't send me a flat mix of chaos. Ups and downs are good. Allow your mix to have some breathing room. Louder is not better.
04) A sense of depth. This is a weakness I hear in a lot of portfolios. I want things to sound like they are where they are, whether it's right in front of the camera or 100 yards away. This is all about EQ, reverb (early reflections especially) and volume. If you can get this right, you're ahead of a lot of people.
05) No library pulls. I've been listening to stuff in The General library since 1997. The grizzled ancients have been listening to it a LOT longer. We will probably recognize the sound you pulled from it and dropped straight into your project. Don't do that. It's always better to make your own content, or at least pull from a library and modify the content quite a bit.
06) Make it appropriate. If you've built up a collection of personal projects, send stuff that's appropriate for your target audience. I work on first person shooters. While I appreciate listening to well-done cartoony stuff, for example, it doesn't tell me if you'll be able to handle the sound design on a scene where the player is hanging from the bottom of a damaged helicopter as it spins over a major city that's on fire and currently experiencing an earthquake, a tsunami and rioting all at the same time. With guys shooting at him. And loud music. Speaking of music...
07) No music. You're applying for a sound design position. Don't put music, especially not someone else's music, in your reel. I want to hear your sound design work and nothing more.
The vast majority of game studios do not keep composers on staff. If music is your first love, go be a composer instead.
08) Interactivity. Video is good. Playable is better. I once submitted a portfolio to a company that included a FMOD project with assets, instructions on how to use everything, and a WAV file of me playing the stuff I submitted and narrating what I was doing. Got the job.
Do try to make interactive demos VERY easy to use though. I won't have the time to jump through hoops installing an old version of DirectX and all sorts of other stuff to get your demo running.
And do have a video of some sort, for those that are unable to play your interactive demo. Use Fraps or something and make a video of your interactive demo so there's a fall back just in case.
ANY MORE PORTFOLIO TIPS?
Keep videos short and sweet. 90-180 seconds. Put your best stuff first. No, really. Don't build up to the awesomeness. Start with a bang. Not every Audio Director will take the time to listen to your entire video. Assume you have about 10 seconds to hook them.
A cue sheet of some sort, explaining what you did, is excellent. If for a video, it should have times. If it's for something interactive, then just an explanation that makes sense.
WHAT ABOUT MY RESUME?
If you have past professional experience as a sound designer, highlight it. If you don't, highlight your project work first.
Don't be afraid to list that you're a manager at Taco Bob's or Mooby's or something. And if you have some accomplishments there, tell me. People skills are people skills, wherever you pick them up.
Use a spell checker. In our field, a typo in the wrong place can break a game and prevent 200+ people from getting their work done. When someone in the audio department does that, I have to answer for it. Typos in your resume or cover letter show me that you're not paying attention to detail.
Cover letters are good. Explain to the reader why you want to work for them, what you can learn from them and what you can bring to the table for them.
When targeting a company, I strongly suggest familiarizing yourself with their back catalogue. Go play some of their games or, at the very least, watch gameplay videos on youtube. Look them up on Wikipedia, learn their history, know the names of any key personnell they have on their team. For example, if you're applying for a game audio gig at Arkane (makers of Dishonored), you should know who Harvey Smith is and what he does there.
Not much else. I'm probably forgetting some obvious questions, so if you have them, hit the comments section and I'll do my best. I hope this helps you find your way.