Unscripted TV

Grams operator

Grams operator

What does a grams operator do?

Grams operators play in any music or sound effects that are required when recording a studio show or live outside broadcast. They most often work on entertainment or sports programmes and report to the sound supervisor and take direction from the director. ('Grams' is short for gramophone, which is what originally would have been used to play sound cues during the recording or transmitting of live television shows.)

They prepare the sound files for use and follow the script and the director’s instructions on when to cue them. Some sound effects, like a contestant’s buzzer on a game show, will be rigged into the grams operator’s equipment so they can control the sound that comes out when it is triggered.

They need to know how to operate bespoke hardware, edit efficiently and work with MIDI and GPI software to enable sound cue relays from the vision mixer’s desk and graphics machines.  Grams operators are either staff in studios with long-term or returning shows, sports units or freelance.

What’s a grams operator good at?

  • Knowledge of sound effects and music: recommend or suggest appropriate material, have access to new effects and music, collate a rich and varied archive of sounds
  • Technical skills: be able to operate the necessary equipment, troubleshoot any issues that arise, have an excellent knowledge of sound technology
  • Communication and teamwork: respond quickly to direction and cues, collaborate effectively with the director, producer and crew
  • Timing: play sounds at just the right moment, which often requires comedy timing on shows with audiences, like quiz or entertainment programmes
  • Manual dexterity: have the ability to operate several items of equipment simultaneously
  • Knowledge of production: understand studio and location requirements and challenges, be experienced in live and pre-recorded shows

Who does a grams operator work with?

Grams operators report to the sound supervisor and work closely with the director and other members of the crew.

How do I become a grams operator?

To become a grams operator, you might first gain experience of working in sound as a studio runner, and then as a sound assistant. Alternatively, you might transfer to this role after working in a similar position as a grams operator in radio.

At school or college:
You can take A-levels or Highers in music, physics, maths, media studies or film studies. 

If you want to go straight into a job or apprenticeship, the following Level 3 vocational qualifications will equip you: 

  • BTEC Diploma/Extended Diploma in Electrical and Electronic Engineering
  • BTEC National Diploma/Extended Diploma in Music Technology
  • BTEC National Diploma in Film and Television Production
  • BTEC National Diploma in Music
  • BTEC National Diploma in Sound Production
  • BTEC National Extended Certificate in Sound Engineering
  • BTEC National Extended Diploma in Electrical and Electronic Engineering
  • RSL Subsidiary Diploma for Music Practitioners (Technology)
  • OCR Technical Diploma in Digital Media (Moving Image & Audio Production)
  • UAL Diploma/Extended Diploma in Music Performance and Production

Get an apprenticeship:
Apprenticeships are jobs with training. They’re a great opportunity to earn while you learn. Some of the major broadcasters offer apprenticeships. Check out the schemes with the BBCChannel 4Channel 5Sky and ITV

If you can’t get an apprenticeship with a broadcaster, it might be worth trying to find one outside the TV industry, where you can develop your skills and your craft. You can then move into TV at a later point. 

In England, there’s a Level 3 apprenticeship as a Creative Venue Technician. You might be able to find a job through that standard with an employer in another sector, such as the theatre. Think about taking that job, learning the core skills of sound and transferring those skills into film and TV drama at a later point. 

Before taking any apprenticeship, check what you’ll be learning with your prospective employer and college, so you can be sure it will give you the skills you want. Go to how to become an apprentice to learn how to find apprenticeships in your region, or approach companies directly. 

Build a portfolio:
Create work that you can show off to employers. This is essential. Go to build your sound portfolio to learn how.

Get a degree:
You don’t need a degree to do this job, but if you’d like one, consider studying sound design, music or film and television production. 

Have a look at ScreenSkills’ list of recommended courses and select one in unscripted TV. We recognise courses with our ScreenSkills Select award where they offer training in the relevant software, dedicated time to building a portfolio and have strong links with the film and TV industries.  

Get work experience:
Try to get work experience by writing to local production companies and asking if they offer any. Keep an eye out for work experience opportunities at the BBCChannel 4ITVChannel 5Sky and the PACT Indie Diversity Training Scheme. 

Look outside the industry:
Grams operators are also needed in radio. Or you might want to look for jobs doing sound for live stage productions. In these roles you can gain experience that you can later transfer to unscripted TV.

Take a short course:
Hone your skills in working with sound by taking a specialist course. Go to the list of training courses recommended by ScreenSkills to see if there is one in sound recording or sound design. 

Network:
Get to know people in the unscripted TV industry by attending events. Meet professionals and ask them questions about their work, while demonstrating interest in and knowledge of the industry. Offer to provide them with your professional contact details and try to stay in touch with them. Go to how to network well to learn how to do this. 

Network online:
Create a LinkedIn profile. See if there are Facebook pages or other social media groups for people making unscripted TV in your area. There might even be groups for runners and trainees. Join them. Create a ScreenSkills profile. There are a lot of crewing agencies that will charge you to be on their books. Sign up to the free ones initially. Wales ScreenNorthern Ireland Screen and other areas offer free crew databases. Find a film office near you and get connected. If you do sign up to paid sites, make sure they specialise in the areas in which you’re interested. 

Search for jobs:
Research unscripted TV production companies that you’d like to work for and watch the programmes that they make. Regularly check their websites and job listings websites to see if they are advertising for roles. You can also send in a short speculative letter with your CV to sound professionals with whom you would like to work. StartinTV offers tips on creating your CV and attending interviews, as well as some advice for your first day working in TV.

You might also be interested in…

Being a sound recordist or sound mixer in the unscripted TV industry. You might also be interested in being a sound mixer in the film and TV drama industry. Alternatively, you could consider being a sound designer in the games industry or a sound designer in the animation industry.

Further resources