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London: The Future of Sound Design Post Pandemic



LBB tunes in to the developments at Jungle Studios, String and Tins, 750mph, GCRS, Factory, SNK, Clearcut Sound, Wave Studios and 19 Sound

London: The Future of Sound Design Post Pandemic
Sound design and audio post facilities are often celebrated for their talent and spec of studios and equipment. This was to become a huge problem in March 2020 as the pandemic hit London, restricting physical access to studios and transforming the feasibility of in-person sessions overnight. 

Whilst many studios had some form of remote set ups pre-pandemic for international work, the biggest challenge was ensuring they had the scale to continue to work at full capacity entirely remotely - without sacrificing on quality.

Following the announcement of a new roadmap back to normality, LBB finds out exactly how some of London’s best studios were able to adapt. We get the download from Jungle Studios, String and Tins, 750mph, Grand Central Recording Studios, Factory, SNK, Clearcut Sound, Wave Studios and 19 Sound on how it all came together and what practices might be here to stay long-term.

For the team at Jungle Studios, one month of lockdown was enough to show them that revamping the entire working process of the studios - from sound design through to transfer and bookings - would be worth it. Even if the pandemic were only to last another month.

Ben Leeves, creative director at Jungle Studios says, “By mid-June we had really nailed down and finalised how we were going to move forward. And a big part of that was moving from Fairlight (which wasn’t portable), to Pro Tools. This transition meant that everything works from the same system, whether we’re in the studio or at home. But most importantly, it’s not just the sound designers that needed seamless workflows as the pandemic kicked in, it was just as important to us that our transfer and booking teams were able to tap into us seamlessly. Whilst we didn't at that point know how long the pandemic would last, it was clear to us the investment would be worth it and allow for scale across the year - locked down or not.”

“String and Tins was already raring to go from day one,” states creative director Adam Smyth, who emphasises the importance of providing clients with the best tech. “We’d been open to working remotely for a while and it’s great that we all now have access to the same plugins, tools and sound effects to keep our creativity flowing. We did adapt our VOIP workflow as we wanted to ensure our clients had the most consistent connection with the greatest quality. Aiding the VOs with mic placement, supplied acoustic treatment and the art of ‘hanging duvets’, was well worth the time to avoid a ‘roomy’ or reverberant voiceover record!”

At 750mph, head sound engineer and creative partner Sam Ashwell comments: “We already did a lot of US and European work which was never attended in person so apart from the shift to the home studios and the remote voiceovers, we already had a lot of processes in place. We split our engineering and transfer team overnight, with most at home but a small core team coming into the facility to QC mixes and design completed in the home setups.” 

“Pretty much anything we've worked on or been involved with over the last 12 months has had challenges and solutions that are unique to the pandemic.From full remote mix sessions, agency in New York, editorial in LA and director in Oz, to linking up with talent in their apartment in the Maldives” - Sam Ashwell, 750mph

For Wave Studios, the transition was more about scale, “Approximately 10 years ago we set up a system that would enable us to seamlessly work remotely from home if the situation arose,” remembers Parv Thind, MD of Wave Studios London. “So there was very little we needed to change in terms of technology or ways of working but we couldn’t have predicted the scale of the global pandemic to hit us all!” 

“Throughout lockdown we have continued to create complex and inspiring sound beds for a huge number of clients and brands” - Parv Thind, Wave Studios

Creative director & sound designer at Factory, Daniel Beckwith reveals it was about redistributing the best kit for them: “If our hardware wasn’t bolted down in the studios, we were able to take it home –and we did! This included Macs, laptops, speakers, microphones and any other bits of essential kit. Not having to invest in big game audio hardware meant that our home studios were operating in exactly the same way as our wonderful suites in Margaret Street. WFH has allowed us to become increasingly efficient in many ways whilst also creating a more personal style of communication between our team and our clients.”

For SNK Studios, it was a case of creating a dedicated response team. Head of production Sam Dillon says: “We assembled a team to spearhead our Covid response. The primary focus was to get our engineers set up with remote systems to enable them to work from home and reassure our clients that we had a robust plan in place. We managed to do this within a few days and were able to begin sound design, remote recording and mixing in a day or two.”

“We do a lot of ADR recording for clients in the US, working on high profile TV and feature film productions. Content security is extremely important for these projects. During Covid we've had to establish a process for safely prepping ADR assets remotely, ensuring content is secure and always TPN compliant (Trusted Partner Network) - using a combination of VPN technology and dedicated networks we were able to do this. SNK are proud to have worked on the highly acclaimed Bridgerton show, providing ADR for series 1” - Sam Dillon, SNK

Creative Challenges

Having been prepared for a rapid response, sound facilities next faced the task of creating long-term, sustainable solutions to keep them afloat throughout the pandemic. 

“I liken it to a swan gliding across the water, with its legs doing all the hard work unseen underneath,” says Ben Leeves. “Jungle’s move to Pro Tools during a pandemic was a big task and had to be done in a way that didn’t affect the clients. And our long-term goal was to never be starting a session in Fairlight again, which we’ve actually managed to achieve in a very short space of time. The whole way that we interact has also changed. Our internal phone extensions now work at home, so if you call us, it doesn’t matter whether we’re in the studio or not, you’ll still be able to reach us on that same number.” 

“This project was the first time we did a long form, 45 minute online mix so that utilised the online ability differently - it’s not like a 30 second ad you can just send over for feedback in a link” - Ben Leeves, Jungle Studios

“Pro Tools has been the most valuable asset in our arsenal with it being software based,” agrees Carole Humphrey, MD at GCRS. “It allows us to record, mix and edit remotely with clients dialling in to attend sessions. We’ve reaped the rewards of being able to have a transfer department that can work from home. All processes are now digital and kit can be put into a rucksack – so you could say it’s the most efficient it’s ever been. Back in May 2020, we also fitted Plasma Air into our studios which uses bipolar ionization technology to proactively sterilise the air in the facility.”

“19 Sound as a new audio facility was especially set up to focus on the digital / online world with flexible working and agility at its core. So for us, as the world went Zoom crazy, that was the only software we needed to get as a group,” says audio production manager Oscar Kugblenu. “Other than that we didn’t need anything else apart from upgraded headphones and home speakers. Building our company this way was, without knowing it, effectively future proofing us for the lockdown world that was to come.”

“One great example has been our work with Bonfire Labs & Ancestry, from San Francisco. Following on from my trip to LA in January 2020, we have been collaborating with them ever since on their sonic identity and branding; composing the music for various radio and TV spots and creating sonic logos for use across their digital / social platforms.” - Oscar Kugblenu, 19 Sound

“One of our biggest obstacles was helping voices who had a less than ideal environment to record from,” explains Chris Wrigglesworth, MD of Clearcut Sound Studios. “There was a big rush to buy high-end mics, but as everyone has learnt over the past year, the environment you record in is more important than the kit. It's all well and good having a fancy mic but if you have thin walls, you'd soon become familiar with your neighbour's daily routine and when to work around it.”

“I did have to soundproof one of my doors before the neighbour went mental at all the looping sound effects!” adds String and Tins’ Adam Smyth. “In terms of the biggest changes, overnight we went from attended final mixes to no clients being behind us at all. So to combat this when final mixing, we started sending our clients a high quality feed via Session Link Pro or Source Connect Now to pick out the nuances. That being said working through sound design, VO takes and music edits has been really smooth via Zoom and Session Link Pro. And although I’ve missed the face to face interaction, it’s still great to be able to have the client in the ‘room’ again.”

“We recently completed a global campaign with Psyop LA, where we had clients connected via Zoom in multiple states across the US. One of our VO talents was in Australia and we patched them into the Zoom feed via Session Link Pro. This enabled us to record the VO feed at ISDN quality, send our clients a balance of VO against music independently of what the VO artist was monitoring. It worked seamlessly and meant our clients could gauge the tone of the read really well” - Adam Smyth, String and Tins 

“I think most sound designers will agree, as much as working from home has been a lovely opportunity to spend more time with our families, as a professional sound designer, nothing beats engaging with creatives to come up with ideas and working in a top class purposely built sound studio in the heart of Soho,” agrees Wave London’s Parv Thind.

Fast Forward

Whilst the pandemic presented big challenges, many of the studios attacked them head on and concur it pressed the fast forward button on being future-proofed.

“Working from home is here to stay and we are definitely embracing the positive ways it has evolved our business. It allows for greater flexibility and a better work / life balance for our staff,” says Factory’s Daniel Beckwith. “We will definitely see a return to the studios for sure, but there will be more of a mix between remote and studio-based sessions. What the pandemic has shown the world is that remote working can be done successfully and with minimal fuss. But, as incredible as it is having tech like Zoom and Source Connect to create a seamless recording and mixing environment in remote locations, you just can’t replicate the productivity and creative collaboration that face-to-face sessions give us – it’s often where the magic happens! Creativity thrives on personal interaction and that’s something we can’t wait to get back to.”

“2020 was all about finding solutions. Many professional voiceovers had already established their own home recording setups; all you need is a quality mic, decent broadband and a cupboard under the stairs. However, some voice artists didn’t. So we quickly developed a remote recording kit that we would courier to the voice talent’s home. Once there, they would be able to open up the laptop, connect to wifi and immediately hand over remote control to us for a hassle free voice record session. It’s a plug and play system that has worked really well for us and was greatly received by many of our clients” - Daniel Beckwith, Factory

“For us the next step in future proofing is looking to the next generation of talent and young people. We’re now set up and ready to work in new ways but we need to make a concerted effort to ensure young people from diverse backgrounds are aware of the career opportunities in audio and are coming into the industry,” explains Jungle’s Ben Leeves. “We have some exciting news to come in this space, something we hope will mean all of our efforts accelerating into the future of audio post will be beneficial for generations to come. Watch this space.”

“I also believe there will be a hybrid way of working in the future,” agrees Carole Humphrey from GCRS. “But it’s important that certain lines are drawn by the industry to maintain high standards. Sound design can absolutely take place at home and this will give a lot of flexibility to our business model in the future. But we believe that voiceovers and final mixes should not be done remotely if at all possible. To produce the best sound, we believe that you need really good acoustics, monitoring and sound proofing i.e. a recording studio. Therefore, we should push for more time in studios when restrictions relax, and this will not only benefit our business but those around us in Soho such as retail and hospitality.”

“Every project involved quite large feats of logistical thinking. Our biggest mountains to climb have been related to communication with clients - however we appreciate everyone has had their own challenges so we’re holding tight and guiding them through this tricky time as best we can” - Carole Humphrey, Grand Central Recording Studios

“We are already seeing a demand from clients to get back in the studio,” notes SNK Studios’ Sam Dillon. “Sound design, music and mixing are really fun parts of the production process and although remote dial-ins will likely play an important role moving forward, nothing beats getting in the studio and having that creative collaboration.”

“We miss the camaraderie and instant reaction to the work when being in a sound studio,” adds Adam Smyth of String and Tins. “Also, how on earth are we going to have all those great stories for the pub about Brian Blessed? From an engineering perspective, I do still like to go and analyse a final mix in our amazing studios. Precision and detail is key to our work. And with the native workflows for Atmos and Immersive sound becoming the norm, we will need our rooms more than ever.”

Sam Ashwell of 750mph explains: “Those creative sparks, ideas and suggestions that bounce around the room, growing and developing, they just don’t quite work and flow the same on a Zoom call - and definitely not in an email chain. Mix downs, feedback, 1% adjustments, and exploring are so much easier and more fluid with everyone in the same room. Couple this with people listening and critiquing on various speakers/headphones with different internet connections... It will just never be as good.”

Clearcut’s Chris Wrigglesworth concludes: “Everyone on the client side has become pro Zoom users which is great, so I predict way more dial-ins in the future. But as much as we’ve seen many temporary fixes over the past year, there will never be a substitute for attending a purpose built, sonically perfect studio space to listen to a mix as it’s intended. This is the reason Soho is awash with so many fantastic sound facilities.”

“It is hard to pick one bit of work because every job we’ve done over the past year, however big or small, has required at least some flexibility. The collective effort of everyone involved in this spot for the ATP Tour by MATTA is a fantastic example. Recording the world’s biggest tennis starts scattered across the globe shows what can be achieved with ingenuity and perseverance” - Chris Wrigglesworth, Clearcut Sound Studios.

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Jungle Studios, Tue, 16 Mar 2021 13:37:30 GMT