With over 20 years of industry experience, Sam has created the aural elements of some of the most memorable advertising campaigns in recent memory, working in TV, cinema, online and radio.
He’s won a hefty shelf full of awards, including a D&AD Yellow Pencil, BTA Craft Arrows Gold and a Cannes Lion and recent standout creative work includes campaigns for Greenpeace, Great Western Railway and Lynx.
As he settles into a new job during lockdown to help No.8 develop a top-class creative audio department and integrate it into their established vfx and offline workflow, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with one of the industry’s best-known soundsmiths.
LBB> What was your upbringing like? Were you particularly into music and sound back then?
Sam> I'm originally from Bromley in Kent. We were and still are a close family. I had a very happy childhood.
I wasn't particularly musical, but my dad had a big record collection, which I've actually now inherited, which is nice. He was very much into music and still is now. He and my mum definitely still have a big interest in music, whether it be Jools Holland, going to jazz concerts, things like that. They were definitely a big influence. He used to work in radio. So, there was always a bit of a connection with music in that way.
When I was young I bought something called an Amstrad Studio 100. It was basically a glorified hi-fi system, which had very basic moving faders and microphones and things. I remember taping the Chart Show, and cutting out the parts of the actual DJ, inserting my own voice as the DJ and then playing that on a long car journey.
LBB> So you wanted to be a radio DJ. How did that passion lead to getting into sound engineering?
Sam> It all came about from my dad working in radio. I did work experience at Kiss FM in London when it was just an independent radio station. It opened my eyes up to going into a live environment, watching people and thinking "everything they're playing right now is going live on air". I found it quite exciting.
Then I did further work experience at a post-production sound studio doing commercials and, again, that opened my eyes up to the possibility of what you can achieve in sound.
I weighed it up. I had a difficult decision. I was going to go to Ravensbourne College to study sound. But I was also at the same time given an opportunity to become a runner up at a sound house. I thought I'll come out the other end of going to university and still have to start as a runner, so I may as well just jump straight into it and learn on the job, which is what I did.
LBB> And how did you work your way up?
Sam> It is hard work. It's definitely one of those things where you have to persevere. It's one of those industries where people don't move around, they tend to stay where they are, especially engineers. So, I had to persevere with it. And make endless teas and coffees and get sandwiches and work long hours, which is definitely something you then appreciate when you become more senior. You treat people like runners with more respect because you've been there yourself.
Then I went into a transfer bay, looking after everything that goes in and out of the building. And then got involved with voiceover showreels, charity jobs, freebies, and just worked my way up from there really.
It was getting more confidence and also gaining the trust of clients as you work up the ladder, to be able to experiment and have a go on projects. It definitely helped to start doing jobs where there was no money because I could play around with things a little bit more, knowing that the clock isn't ticking.
LBB> How do you explain what sound design is to those who don’t know?
Sam> The term sound designer seems to have only come around in the last few years, really. It used to be just audio mixer or sound mixer. It's a bit pretentious, if I'm honest, when you tell people who aren't in the industry what you do for a living. They're not really sure how to answer. You're not sitting there designing sounds all day. You're picking and choosing what sounds to put into a mix. A lot of the stuff we do is quite literal, where you're literally choosing sounds to suit what you see, whether it be environments or Foley. But it is nice to get projects where you can work to a blank canvas, where you can just put in all sorts, have a bit more fun with it.
There’s a certain part of the job which is technical, and there's also a certain part of the job which is getting on with a roomful of people who you've never met before. You have to be able to click and get on with these people for what can be hours and hours, days and days. I think what people have to appreciate is you're not just left to your own devices; you are given a brief and then it is pleasing a lot of people on a lot of different levels whilst also getting on with them. You're having to please creatives, directors, creative directors, producers, the client themselves. There's definitely a social element to what we do as well as a technical. I think the two go hand in hand, but I hope it's something which people don't take for granted.
I think it's just striking that nice balance and reading the room enough to know when to be sociable or when to just crack on. Because some people don't want to sit in a room for eight hours and not chat or gossip. You kind of feel a bit like a psychiatrist with people coming in and telling you their problems.
LBB> You joined No.8 as creative director of audio and partner late in 2020. How are you settling in?
Sam> It was weird having an interview with Barney and Jim on Zoom. You've just got to take your gut feeling with it. But I asked around people that knew them. Everyone was very complimentary.
I quite like the fact that it's a team that is small but specialised. The ultimate is for us to be best in the field in everything we do without trying to have to sell all those departments. It's not a big sprawling facility, which is made up of numerous people. It's a small team who are specialised and are all very good at what they do. And the visuals and audio definitely work hand in hand, which is great. Since I've been there since the start of December, I've already been involved in two or three projects that have come about because of the visual side of things.
From a size perspective, it reminds me of when I first started out at Factory. When I joined there were just two studios. And then I jumped to something like 750mph, which has eight studios. So, it is nice to be back working in something a little bit more boutique. And it definitely helps, at the moment, being a little bit more streamlined in terms of how many people actually work there. It doesn't take a huge amount of work to keep everybody busy.
LBB> You’ve worked on some incredibly high-profile ads over the years. What were the most formative jobs for you? And what are you most proud of?
Sam> There was a job I did for PG Tips through Mother a few years back now. The whole thing was literally just based on sounds. There was no dialogue, which was quite fun. It was a sound designer's dream job. It was the first job I’d done that did really well in awards. It was the first real job which got me noticed as a sound designer doing TV commercials. To win for a commercial which was solely just based on sound was pretty amazing. But even now, it's quite unique. It is quite rare for [a spot] to solely be sound design. There's always a voiceover or a piece of music. And it was a really enjoyable thing to work on - a lovely bunch of people in terms of the creatives and the director. The main thing was we just had fun with it, which was lovely.
I'm proud and privileged to have worked on Greenpeace’s Rang Tan, which was a lovely piece of animation. Again, there was blank canvas to work with, creating sounds from scratch, which I love. It's brilliant. Lovely team. There was a brief from the director and they just kind of let me run with it. And it helps as well that it was for something like Greenpeace because obviously, you're doing it for a brilliant cause.
In terms Recent work with No.8 - we've just finished doing a Women's Aid job, which is hard hitting, but again, for the cause of what you're doing it for, that was really nice to be involved.
There's an award show called the Music & Sound Awards. Winning things there is always nice as well, because that's being judged by your peers, people who've got a similar ear to you. If you judge something for D&AD, for instance, you're in a room with a cinematographer, an editor, etc. I've judged awards in the past where you get to the sound design category and what you think is good sound design compared to the rest of the room can actually differ quite a lot.
People don't quite know what it takes, what they should be listening out for, or what they take for granted. Even now people take what we do for a living for granted. When you're watching a commercial on television, some of the stuff not might not be captured on set. You might have had to build it all from scratch, which I don't think people quite appreciate sometimes.
LBB> Is there anything about the industry that annoys you?
Sam> A big bugbear for engineers is that there's been a long journey before people undertake sound, they then come in for one of the last links of the chain and automatically you're assumed to know exactly what's been going on during that journey. It is nice to be thought of early in planning.
That's a good thing about No.8. We've got a partnership with tenthree now, and it’s so nice to be drafted in in the early stages. It gives us a perspective of what we're working with, what to do from a sound perspective. That's definitely one thing which I would say is a benefit of No.8 and the tenthree partnership.
LBB> What sort of work would you like to do more of?
Sam> Radio is brilliant because you've got a completely blank canvas. It's a really enjoyable medium that I love working on. I still get a kick out of working on great radio as much as I would TV. You’re starting from scratch and you're not governed by an edit, so it's up to you to make this fit in the timeframe you've got.
There's definitely still the opportunity for sound design within radio. Unfortunately, there's not enough at the moment. We’re crying out for more sound designed or more creative radio at the moment. It used to be more fun and more creative. There used to be radio specialists within agencies and unfortunately there aren't too many nowadays, which is a shame.
LBB> How have you been dealing with having to work from home due to the pandemic?
Sam> I was lucky enough to know Pro Tools from working at Factory. So, I suggested I could safely work at home on Pro Tools, which is pretty flexible.
I definitely prefer being in the studio. It works in terms of what we have to do, but there's nothing quite like sitting in a soundproof room listening to a mix on a high-quality set of speakers.
From a social perspective of everyone being in one room together is so much easier than a Zoom call. It's a workaround and everyone has to do it. But I'm definitely looking forward to the days where we can all get back in one room.
We're changing the look at the studio a little bit. It's quite nice knowing there is stuff going on in preparation for when clients come back in the building later in the year. And that sense of actually making the building look nicer than it was (not that it was horrible by any means).
One of the things that I told other members of the sound team at No.8, in order to be productive working from home, is to go out and record sounds that we don't particularly have in our library. I've got a little Shure mic which I use with my iPhone. If I'm out and about, I'll take it with me because I might think “that's a nice sound of soothing waves over a shingle beach”. I'm definitely much more aware of sounds than I think most people are.
LBB> How do you decompress outside of work? Does sound and music play a big role in your life in general?
Sam> When I was working in London, one of the first things I would do when I got home was to turn the TV off. I just wanted to have a quiet space. I’d love to say I listen to music all day long, but it's definitely nice to have quiet moments.
I tend to try and switch off. I was running a little bit before the pandemic, but I am running every other day now because I've got the flexibility to do that being home, which is lovely. It just gives you that quiet time in the mornings, which is great before you go back into sound the whole day.
I was given a bit of gardening leave when I left 750mph. I tried to take up golf in that time, which I did. Now, unfortunately, I can't do that. But that's been quite nice to get out and have a bit of exercise.
On the flip side, where we're recording things, whereas most people watch programmes and fast forward through the adverts, I'll tend to fast forward through the programmes instead, just to see what's going on in the advertising world… which does my family's head in obviously!