You do not necessarily need a degree to record sound, but it is not as simple as putting a microphone on a stick or wires on talent, and then hitting a red button. It requires someone that is a very good listener, and can think ahead. I would take a student that is completely green over a student with a four year degree without hesitation, given that they have these traits. They have to be eager to learn and willing to soak up information like a sponge.
The basic qualifications of being a good sound engineer are quite simple; be a great listener. In order to be a good listener, you need to be able to discern the difference between conscious listening and subconscious listening. Conscious listening is when you are focused on the sound happening in front of you. Subs-conscious listening is a little harder to hear unless someone reminds you to focus on it. Airplanes are a great example of this. When you are setting up a scene, there will be a dozen planes that go overhead, but as soon as the one plane travels overhead during a take will be the moment the director says, “Darn! The first plane of the day!”
Well, not exactly… its just the one that you heard because it was finally abrupt enough to be noticed!
The sound team is in our own little world; we have to listen differently on set. Developing your third ear is crucial. It all comes down to being able to isolate sound issues as soon as they happen, or better yet, BEFORE they happen. We are preparers, we do not like to be surprised on the day. Anticipation is a great asset.
Being a boom operator is physically demanding. It can be difficult to hold a boom pole above your head for 6-8 hours a day. It takes years to master this type of a job. It requires you to understand microphones and their patterns in order to capture quality audio right then and there.
Finally, sound utility technicians need to know a little bit about everything. They need to understand the sound equipment just as good (or better) than the sound mixer. They need to be able to take over as the boom operator at a moment’s notice, or at least swing in with an additional pole. They also need to know a lot about wireless microphones and how to wire talent quickly.
Remember, the best way to become a professional is to work on becoming a professional every day. It doesn’t happen over night.