The Factory sound designer tells Laura Swinton how he went from drumming on his kitchen table to a sonic whizz
High school was something of a crossroads for James Utting. The sound engineer at Factory very nearly ended up on a different career path altogether. “Music was always a passion but towards the end of High School going into 6th Form I had a real buzz for Graphics and Graphic Design,” he says.
But when he went to enrol at Norwich School of Art and Design, he realised that he’d have to do an extra foundation year before he started his degree. Eager and impatient, he decided that four years was far too long – and so he returned to his first love, music.
And what a first love it was. As an ‘80s kid, he grew up immersed in his parents’ eclectic music collection, which encompassed rock, classical, choral, indie, folk and more. In the ‘90s, his own tastes were forged in the fires of Britop; he remembers seeing giants like Oasis for the first time on TV and his first CD was the album Spiders from quirky Liverpudlian indies Space.
James soon went from music fan to music maker. “I had a friend in school who owned a drum kit so I used to drive my Mum mad tapping away on the kitchen table or hitting the sofa with kitchen utensils until she bought me a second-hand kit which was LOADS of fun,” he recalls. All that practice paid off and he earned his Grade 5 drum certificate, and hooked up with a bunch of mates to play covers of sweaty teenage favourites like Blink 182, Offspring and Green Day.
And so at college and university James went to study music, but it was there that he was drawn to sound design. A discipline that suited James’s personality too, detail-orientated and driven, yet introverted enough to spend hours and hours in the studio.
“I suppose I am more of an introvert, as much as I may seem outwardly confident, I tend to not overly sell myself. My brothers always used to joke that I was so laid back I was almost falling over but I’m usually pretty meticulous with anything I’m working on,” he reflects. “My parents strived to get us to do the best we could at whatever we were doing so I’d say that forms the base of my ambition or work ethic… with a drive to do more and to achieve the best I can.”
His first steps in the production industry came through stints at TV post production houses, Bubble and Molinare. “Bubble and Molinare were great door openers for me. My brief time spent with both companies gave me a good insight as to what is expected at an entry level position and also the competition your up against from others wanting to get their foot in the door,” he said. “I found that if I worked hard and was generally a nice person, people there would stop and talk, give me advice and even let me shadow some sessions which is invaluable when you’re just getting started.”
In 2013, James landed a running job at pre-eminent sound house Factory – and he’s been there ever since. He’s full of enthusiasm and praise for the senior team, who he says give the younger team plenty of opportunities to get involved and training. “I think primarily, the most admiration I have is for the engineering team at Factory. All of them crack out some amazing work and they’re all generally a great bunch of people. It also goes without saying both Lou Allen and Lisette Nice have been great mentors to me as a young runner starting off, and are hugely respected within the industry, which is really inspiring. Their commitment to encourage the next generation to make it in post through work placements, workshops and seminars is a testament to them,” says James.
James has particularly learned a lot from Factory co-founder, award-winning sound designer Anthony Moore.
“The key points I’ve learned from Ant have been to not be afraid to try new things or new ways of working. I think the most important thing is to have a bit of fun with what you’re working on. Having worked on a number of projects with Ant, he knows how to get the best from you as a Sound Designer, all the while you’re learning new tips and always improving. The same can be said for all the engineers at Factory. Each one of them has given their time and knowledge which is testament to what a sound (pun intended) bunch they all are.”
When he was still working in the transfer room, James even got his mitts on a project that turned into an award-winner. Land of Steel ended up picking up the Music and Sound Award for Best Sound in a Short Film – and James is particularly pleased with that success, as it was a project where he was let loose, creatively.
That craftmanship is James’s favourite part of the being a sound designer – he aspires to keep developing his skillset and to keep trying out new things. At the moment, what’s keeping him fresh and excited are the developments in virtual reality and 3D audio. “There’s a number of platforms available to us now as Sound Designers that enable us to create really detailed/immersive soundscapes which are becoming more and more intuitive,” says James, who mentions the Dolby Atmos Production Suite as being a really helpful tool for building up 360 soundscapes outside of the studio.
On the flip side, the most challenging aspect of the job is juggling the demands from all the stakeholders in a creative project. “There are times where conflicts of interest or differences of opinion result in some fairly convoluted or contradictory feedback on a job. The ability to work through this and deliver the content that pleases everyone involved is a struggle shared by any creative professional, be that an editor, flame op or a sound designer,” says James.
And of course, in the last six months, James has also been getting used to another big development – working from home, thanks to Covid-19. “It certainly has been interesting but it’s all been manageable. I think as an industry we spend so much time on email, FaceTime,WhatsApp etc. everyone kind of slipped into remote working pretty quickly. We were able to react quickly to get engineers setup to work from home so we could hop on a Zoom chat (everyone’s favourite by now I’m sure) and get VO’s recorded and supply mixes from our home studios,” says James. “It’s not everyone’s preference but we got the work done for which clients seemed thoroughly grateful. I think, if anything, I learned just how quickly we as an industry can adapt. Even as I’m writing this we’re still accounting for project members (client, agency, directors etc.) to Zoom into remote VO sessions with some taking place in the studio and others in their home setup so it’s still going on. And it’s working.”
Outside of work, James likes to recharge by chilling with his dog or sneaking on the Xbox. He’s also a massive movie fan – though he’s definitely watching for the film score. When he finds the time, he still likes to write his own music on ProTools or Logic – and he loves helping his friends out by mixing their music. “It’s quite nice when it’s not your content to come at it with a fresh pair of ears and being able to have pretty informal chats about how to go about delivering a mix for them always helps,” says James.
He’s cultivated a pretty wise approach to the old work-life balance too. James describes himself as ambitious, but it’s the enormous personal satisfaction that he takes from it that allows him to live a pretty contented and happy life beyond the studio too. “The want to succeed at my work kind of goes hand in hand with life outside of it. I try and live well outside of work so that drives me inside of work. I’m fairly ambitious and I want to excel - but at the same time I often find myself pretty content, which helps if, like me, you love your job. If I can keep pursuing my career and build my portfolio with an amazing body of work and meet some cool people along the way, it’ll keep me happy for when I’m home with friends and family and doing the things I enjoy.”