Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production

Behind the Scenes: Designing Socially Distant Sound For National Emergencies Trust

Music & Sound
London, UK
Jungle sound designer Chris Turner and krow London Executive Creative Director Nick Hastings on pulling together 28 voices at two metres apart for the charity’s first fundraising appeal

Above: Sound Designer Chris Turner, Jungle Studios

Founded in 2019 to serve as a single point of appeal and fund distribution for future national emergencies, independent charity The National Emergencies Trust has collaborated with krow London on its first ever fundraising appeal.

The pro bono project includes a radio ad written and directed by Nick Hastings Executive Creative Director from krow London and mixed by Chris Turner, Sound Designer at Jungle Studios. The 30 second ad involved remotely recording 28 voices, each calling out ‘mayday’ in a cry for help at this difficult time. Known for his work with the National Theatre, Oliver Chris provides the main voiceover, stressing that together through this fundraising appeal we can deliver help swiftly and effectively to those that need it most. 

The remaining cast was pulled from Chris Turner’s diverse circle of family, friends and colleagues. Using recordings taken on smartphones and over video chat, Chris treated each individual voice through 360 degree audio plugins, spacing each at least two metres apart in order to create an immersive sound experience.

In this interview, we dive behind the scenes with Nick and Chris to learn how they overcame the challenge of packing so many different voices into just 30 seconds and how each voice was designed to be heard as an individual. 

Above: Executive Creative Director Nick Hastings, krow London

LBB> What was the initial brief that you received and what were your thoughts when you first saw it?

Nick Hastings, ECD, krow London> One of the characteristics of this lockdown has been that everything has to be done really really quickly because the situation is always changing - plus with May Day coming up not long after we started, we had quite a short time period to complete everything in. But we were lucky in that we collaborate with Jungle a lot, especially with Chris himself, and we’ve always worked really well together which helped the process run very smoothly.

Chris Turner, Sound Designer, Jungle Studios> The script was basically a series of different people saying “mayday” in a 30 second commercial so my first thought was that I’d need to record quite a lot of people to make it work. I thought the brief would be best with real people so it was really just a conversation about who to source and how to do it. My number one challenge given that everyone is in lockdown was whether it would be ok to record people on devices they would have lying around the house such as iPhones, voice memos or via Zoom.

LBB> Nick, can you tell us a little bit more about the creative thinking behind the script?

Nick> It was a very simply structured, uncomplicated script so it fell into place quite easily. As May Day was coming up we were able to tie it in to gain maximum impact. The word itself is also emblematic of distress, so by putting those two things together it was relevant on two fronts. 

LBB> And Chris, what led the decision for casting friends and family for the voiceovers? 

Chris> The main voice was provided by Oliver Chris who does a lot of work for the National Theatre and he’s worked with krow over the years for many campaigns. For the rest of the voiceovers, because they were all going to say the same thing, there was a danger that it would just sound lifeless so we wanted to use a wide range of people from all over the UK. 

For accessibility and speed, I reached out to friends, family and colleagues from across the country who have distinctive accents to get a cross section. They all video called me and I recorded them in my home studio. I didn’t give them too much direction as I wanted them to deliver it as naturally as possible and it’s actually very hard to direct one word - the shorter the script the harder it becomes. You need the authenticity to come through their personality. 

LBB> Have any of your friends and family done voiceovers for you before?

Chris> Both of my kids are always helping with projects, they love it! They usually feature as vocal background sounds of kids just being kids. Quite often they come out with me and do location and ambient recordings too. I went out with my daughter last week to record the local duck pond when nobody was around. She’s recently got her own iPhone and it’s already full of recordings she’s done - she’s really into it and catalogues them like I do. 

LBB> How does working on radio compare with working on TV, what are some of the different things you need to consider?

Chris> On TV you judge the visuals but radio can take you wherever you want it to take you. Radio has to be visual in an audio way by painting a picture. 

With this project, there isn’t an awful lot going on in the script - no sound effects, no music - it’s all led by the voice. And if voice is the only instrument you’re going to use, you need the diversity of accents to bring it alive. The idea was that they are all individuals who need help somewhere in the country so I didn’t want the audio to sound like they were all in the same place. By mixing it binaurally I was able to give it more of an immersive feel. 

As you move people away from the listener, the volume of what you hear from them changes like it would in real life. I positioned all the different voices in a 360 degree angle and made sure they were two metres apart at least! Because there are so many voices in the ad and they’re all saying the same word, it would be hard for the listener to hear in mono and it would stop sounding like the word “mayday”. So this way, you can really hear the different voices come through.

LBB> What was it like to record this remotely?

Nick> Usually you’d be in the room with the sound designer and you’d be able to hear a recording back as often as you need to deliver instant feedback but remotely you don’t have the same degree of flexibility. It was a more complicated process at first but because we’ve all worked together so much before, it was quite relaxed and everybody was willing to give it that extra time and be more patient. I think it’d be much more difficult if we were working with people for the first time. Once we got over the fact that we weren’t in the same room, it wasn’t that difficult - Oliver Chris even set up his own home studio in a cupboard!

Chris> For me, I obviously don’t have a full mixing desk here and there’s only so much you can do through a computer. If I open multiple applications, getting all the different bits of audio to stream to people at the right time has proved the trickiest bit. But during lockdown people’s expectations of how audio should sound has changed. A lot of the adverts I have worked on have been filmed on iPhones in people’s houses and edited together. Each recording lent a different audio quality to the project and gave each one its own characteristics to help you differentiate between the different people. 

LBB> How quickly did you have to turn this around?

Chris> It took an hour to record with Oliver Chris who recorded from home on his own microphone but we were all on the same call to help direct, including the agency producer and the ECD. Once we were happy with the takes I cut it together in another couple of hours - probably around four hours altogether.

If we were to have brought in 28 individuals to the studio to record them we probably would have spent a lot longer recording each voice and trying to get the right meaning from each person. I got it done quicker from home than what we traditionally would have done in the studio. Not because less care and thought went into it, only because if you’re in a critical listening environment and the sole purpose of the job is to get the right performance, you’re going to spend longer deliberating it. But what we got from this is something very natural  with people’s tonality, accent and personality coming through. 

LBB> What are your highlights from the project?

Nick> The fact that all four of us involved - myself, Chris, Oliver in his cupboard, and krow producer Emma Rookledge - had such a level of commitment to make it as good as it can be is a really heartening feeling and made it very fun and satisfying to do. It can be easy to start worrying about how you’re going to achieve things in lockdown where it can even seem impossible at first. But actually, when enough people have a mind to do something, it is possible. And that’s the encouraging thing.

Chris> My personal highlight was getting it to work binaurally. It really gives space for all those people to come through - 28 different voices in the space of a 30 second commercial doesn't come around every day. The immersive aspect is what brings it to life. 

But the most special thing of all was having my entire family and friends in one radio commercial. They were quite amazed at how I could just take their voice from a video chat and turn it into a radio ad where they’re all featured. Having all my family in a radio ad together I don’t think could have happened other than in lockdown because the whole approach to this project would have been different. I wouldn’t have been reaching out to my family. It’s been fun, different and really memorable.

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