The sound of success

Cris Aragon, Managing Director of 5A Studios, took time out of her busy schedule to talk to Audiofile about her work. With credits including High Strung Free Dance, A Christmas Carol and Street Fighter Assassin’s Fist, she has been constantly developing 5A Studios and is gaining a well deserved reputation in the Industry.

Aragon caught the bug for sound at the tender age of 12. “As part of the school activities we had to take part in a cheer leader’s routine. I was in charge of selecting the song and I chose ‘In my car’ by Ringo Starr. Unfortunately, the rules of that year changed and we couldn’t have a track with lyrics. By the time I found that out, we already had been rehearsing to it so I decided to edit the lyrics out.” 

As you can imagine, she didn’t have any equipment. All she had was a turntable and a cassette deck. She started recording from the record onto the tape, pausing it and recording again the parts without lyrics, trying to make it as smooth as possible. “This became such a fascinating process to me, that all I did in my spare time for the weeks we had until the performance, was to perfect my edit. Looking back, I wish I kept that tape. I’m sure it’s eyebrow rising, but it was the first time I realised I loved manipulating sound.” 

Aragon considers herself incredibly fortunate from the time she went to University. Having lectures with Sir George Martin at The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, (LIPA) coupled with work experience at Abbey Road Studios, to landing her first job at Twickenham Film Studios working with the sound rushes for films like The Good Thief with Nick Nolte. 

Aragon started ‘5A’ with dubbing mixer Michael Koderisch. “We did the same course at University – BA Sound Technology. We started with only two small rooms in West London. From there we went on to have a Foley studio, moved to Central London, moved some studios out of Central London and now we have a Dolby ATMOS studio, as well as Editing Suits and a recording studio in Camden, and another recording studio in Fitzrovia. We have worked with many wonderful Engineers and it’s really about chemistry – making sure your styles match; agreement on what each clients requirements are, and how to tackle each production. Once you have that rapport, the collaboration produces magic.”

It goes without saying that being proficient technically is a must. “As Sir George Martin said in one of his lectures when I was at LIPA, the soft skills that make a session successful are just as important. As an Engineer, I need to make sure I not only understand the technical requirements, but also make everyone feel comfortable, relaxed and safe to express their creative views. Understanding the client’s communication is paramount and that can only come with experience.”

Aragon’s job is to create an experience for her clients where the technical is taken for granted, so the creative can flourish. “Through creativity, the client’s ideas and desires should flow and become an aural reality – that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning! The most difficult part of my job is juggling all the balls at the same time, since I’m still hands on recording, sound designing and sound supervising; that combined with running the business gets rather tricky at times. However, thanks to all my wonderful engineers in & out of house, we have been doing this for 15 years as 5A, and still going strong!”

People often ask how to get into the industry and Aragon is always happy to share what she has learnt in the years working in post production. “I think it’s important to share what we can, to make the path easier for others. The awareness of the soft skills required is the first advice I pass on to interns and young engineers. Being able to understand and connect with clients is essential. Then we can learn how to execute technically all the creativity that is required.”  

Everyone at 5A has a number of stories to share about favourite projects, but Aragon remembers a session in particular when she had a celebrity in the studio to do some live interviews. “We were connecting to a different radio station every 10 minutes or so. On the very first session the computer died – literally. So we had to quickly swap the main hard disk within 10 minutes so the next interview could go ahead. I was the engineer of that session and as calmly as I could I told Michael and the rest of the team what happened. Within 10 minutes I was ready to go for the next interview. That was rather a nightmare and a great accomplishment for the team at the same time. Having a strong team that you can rely on is priceless.”

One of Aragon’s most enjoyable projects is ‘A Christmas Carol’ for BBC films and TheSpace. “It’s a feature film in 3D audio over headphones with our own technology integrated. It is based on Binaural technology that we started developing in 2014. We called it HeadSpace5D because you can truly feel it all around your head which was what The Space wanted for this production.  It was very rewarding to be able to sound supervise a piece that was so innovative.”
With many articles in the press about poor sound quality on TV shows Aragon believes that there has now been a shift towards better sound. “I feel this is a great time for sound. More than ever people are being made aware of good sound and that can only be great for us all. My hope is that sound becomes the new picture, and that it will be treated with the respect and the importance it deserves.”

Aragon is an active speaker at industry events like The Media Production Show and Women in Film events. “As a woman in sound, it’s important to talk about the huge gender disparity. It is important to let everyone in the industry know that we need change. We are missing out on great talent! If producers and/or directors are looking to give their stories a unique angle, I always recommend the same – hire more women! The approach in sound from a female perspective will inevitably be unique and can only enhance productions.”

The industry has changed somewhat over the past decade and the future is exciting. “Technology has improved tremendously in the past 10 years. It allows us to do full features on a laptop ready to be handed over to the mixer. Software is more powerful than ever before and that has brought costs down. This has created new workflows that allow productions to get the most out of their budget. We have a lot of freelance engineers that come to mix in our studios after having been able to spend a good amount of time working on a product at their home studio. It is the time of a true collaboration between engineers and studios.”

In the studio, Aragon chooses to use ProTools and has opted for Avid/Digidesign desks and Adam monitors. “As a recording engineer, my favourite bits of equipment are all the microphones in our cabinet, especially the Neumann M149 and our Avalon preamps. They are the perfect combination!”

As for what advice Aragon would give someone who wants a career in film/TV sound she says “You really need to want to be in this industry, to be in it. It is by no means an easy industry. But it is one that is hugely rewarding. This industry pushes you to flaunt your talents so it teaches you confidence. So persevere, and always do your best because when you do your best you can’t fail.”