Sunshine through the clouds

Over the past few weeks we have seen many in the industry move to home working as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread throughout the world.  TV and Film production has been suspended, music and live events cancelled or postponed and studios have been shutting their doors. However, we have already seen people reaching out to help each other and the likes of The BFI and The Film Charity partner to create the Covid-19 Film and TV Emergency Relief fund and hardship funds set up by the PRS and the Music Union to help support the creative community during the pandemic. We know that since the outbreak of Covid-19 some freelancers and recording studios have lost a staggering 70% of their income and some have stopped working all together but there is some sun beginning to shine through the clouds. We spoke to people across the pro audio industry about how they are riding the storm and how they see things going forward.
Danny Etherington, co-owner of Creative Outpost with Quentin Olszewski said “As you would imagine, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘new normal’ are the buzz words of our time… It’s the daily government updates that any business has to react to and then filter through to reassure staff and clients that you’re prepared.” 

2019 had different unprecedented times, recently with the Brexit process, impeachment, trade wars, climate change and looming recession yet in January it felt like the air of uncertainty had cleared; there was a wind of optimism and it was business as usual. “I think showing the resolve that this country is famous for, adapting to the situation, keeping calm and carrying on is the way forward” added Etherington. “The UK was the first country to emerge from the 2008 recession and that is what we are hoping for on this occasion too.  For brands and advertisers, it’s about gauging public mood I imagine. I feel and hope that now we could start to stabilise a little. We all kind of know that we are at home for at least 3 weeks. As a business that relies quite heavily on advertising, it is a tricky few months for sure. I feel for the production companies in this and we need to be mindful of them right now too. I’m hoping they can do small, low budget shoots, maybe self shooters and get those wheels turning again. We offer post production VFX & Audio, so without shoots we have to adapt in other ways.”

Creative Outpost can still function technically, as the company was founded on remote workflows with offices in London and Stockholm. “It’s the people and communication that hasn’t been tested by our industry, this hard. Communication is never as slick as face to face, but there are a lot of ‘team’ software solutions available to assist. Home studios are nothing new, so it works as a model, but scaling it successfully is the key. We were able to have all our team set up and be able to work, access the server, licences etc with in a very short space of time. So far no ongoing production has been affected and we have started a few new projects, all remote working, though the stricter measures have started.  For each day that passes the process is getting smoother and our clients are still very much part of the process and able to feedback while we all work from home.” 

“Remote workflows have been one of our strengths and there has been much change in the last few years. There are some services that are harder to do offsite, as its quality dependant, such as grading and sound, where you really want the client to experience the result in the best technical conditions.  It has crossed my mind how Sound studios will be affected by this, long term. If this is how we are for months, will clients care less of the quality of Sound. We invest a lot in Dolby approved spaces to hear correctly, so I hope they (like us) all get to appreciate the difference when back in the studio for approvals and a face to face V/O session.  We may have forgotten how much quicker and efficient it can be!  I think that we may have opened the doors to the processes and workflows that can be done remotely and those that will always need to be attended. At the end of the day, it is also great to meet and know the people, creatives, artists, engineers we are working with, have a cup and tea and chat while the work is being done in the same studio.” 

Will Cohen Creative Director of String and Tins has found, rightly perhaps, that non essential brand and agency work is paused but there is some ongoing work for the big retailers. “We as a team are doing everything we can to look after each other but also facilitate the needs of our clients as you would expect” said Cohen. “We also have a couple of side projects that we are getting finished up too which are keeping us on our toes.”

String and Tins have been extremely busy over the past 10 days. “We all have home studios anyway but we have been making sure we are all up to date / synced / everyone can back up to the server efficiently” added Cohen. “We also have been prepping several location record kits so that we can remotely capture VOs for clients as seamlessly as possible if they need it, from voiceovers homes. We have had a few sessions this week with client/vo/engineer all isolated, clients listening in / commenting remotely, including final mix reviews.”

“I can’t say where we will all be when this is over – we are going to learn a lot from this period. The most important thing is health and love – work is going to be fierce, but we should try to support each other as much as possible.”

Thomas Dalton owner of Brown Bear Audio also thinks the crisis will change the way the post industry works forever. “The main challenge we are facing at the moment is the uncertainty of the whole situation. As we don’t know how long this will go on for. Producers don’t want to commit to a complete change in workflow yet, until they know what the future holds, but as the situation goes on at some point they’re going to need to adopt new ways of working and we will be there to offer support and help them navigate this new and unpredictable landscape.”   

Without a timeline for when things will get back to some form of normality and social distancing looking set to be in place for a while producers will adopt new ways of working. “We were in the midst of a content boom before the crisis and I’m confident the industry will bounce back from this with a new set of workflows that will make for a better work life balance.”

Cris Aragon, Managing Director of 5A Studios says that they are working as much as possible from home but are still recording and mixing in the studio premises. “We are keeping very strict guidelines of hygiene and following all the government advice. We have virtually zero contact with actors and clients” said Aragon. “Thankfully we have studios in different buildings so sessions can happen completely independently. Also not only is there are more than 2 metres of distance between engineers and talent, but also being in completely different rooms – control room and booth – keeps everyone relaxed and productive, knowing they are safe.” 

There are various financial challenges that everyone is working to overcome at the moment. “The mixed support from the government for various types of freelancers is leaving out a lot of people in the industry” added Aragon. “Our mental health is also very important at the moment since the events that are unfolding are unprecedented and we all feel uncertain in every single way.  The key challenge at the moment is to keep positive. I believe once this period of uncertainty is over, we will slowly get back to normality. It will take a while for us in post production since we need to wait for productions to get to the stage when they need our services. This will delay the recovery period; however, I want to keep positive that there will be work lined up to keep us all busy and afloat.”

Eddie Veale, Principal of studio design company Veale Associates is finding things have slowed immensely as a lot of projects have had to be put on hold. “There is a lot of uncertainty at the moment” said Veale “We have seen around 70% of projects in this sector be postponed. There will be delays in project completions although some who are relocating should at least have the opportunity to extend their lease for now. Clients are having a difficult time and obviously being more indecisive, however we are continuing to work with current and new clients to plan for future work that can still be done whilst we have the time.”

With many people watching more streaming services, there is a worry that people may care less about sound quality. “We need to remember that Dolby is already working in a lot of home speaker systems for Atmos and some are really impressive” added Veale. “I think that this will drive the home market as soon as people begin spending again.”

Looking forward Veale says “I think there is a need for a slightly different design of Atmos mix room for the home market to make the home experience even better. There is high demand for product but it will take a while for production to get going again and the industry on its feet.”

Jasmine Lee, Owner of Dean Street Recording Studios is, like many, finding it tough. “The only silver lining is that we are not alone” she said. “This is affecting all businesses, industries and individuals worldwide!  We faced a moral dilemma when the PM asked everyone to stay indoors before he started asking businesses to close. Worried about our staff travelling on tubes and buses to and from work, we discussed staff safety many times before the order came to close pubs, clubs and restaurants where we saw all of our sessions either postpone or cancel.  We had until this point a full diary which suddenly dropped down to a couple of small sessions.”

With the decision of whether to keep going for the small sessions already booked and asking staff to keep coming in, the decision was made for the studio when the announcement came for everyone to stay at home except for key workers. “We were pleased when the Furlough scheme was announced to help support our staff” added Lee.  “We are doing everything we can, working tirelessly trying to access grants, loans and help where we can.  I’m so pleased we can at least offer our staff 80% of their wages with hopefully a business to come back to when this is all over.  It’s a scary time and Recording Studios seem to be falling through the cracks with Government help. We are working with other studios, UK Music and the MPG to try and approach government for recognition for Producers, Engineers and Studios, so hopefully we may see a glimmer of hope soon.”

Lee believes that that Dean Street should be able to bounce back pretty quickly. “I know a lot of my clients who had to postpone will re-book as soon as it’s possible to do so but I don’t think this is going to be a quick recovery generally.  The financial markets are going to take a long time to recover which will have a knock on effect to all I would imagine.  All the government funding being provided to help everyone through this going to need to be paid back somehow, and this is something we really need to consider and to try not to borrow too much through this time as realistically we need to be able to pay this back.  At the best of times, most independent studios operate hand to mouth financially, so a large payback on the other side is unrealistic.”

Tobin Jones, owner of The Park studios, is also finding it tough. “We have had to cancel our attended recording sessions and I’m doing unattended mix session as much as I can although as many artists have now lost their revenue streams they are understandably reluctant to pay for mixing sessions at the present time. I have been using Source Elements Source-Live software to run unattended mixing sessions online for the time being which has been great. I am also using the time to catch-up on some studio maintenance tasks I have been putting off.”

The other Park engineers are also trying to work from home in order to minimise travel and leave the house as little as possible. “I’m trying to look at government funding for small businesses at this time but so far I’ve not had a great deal of luck as we seem to fall between the cracks a bit. Thankfully we have a very understanding landlord who is really helping us out.”

As for how the landscape might look once we emerge Jones said “Its hard to tell, it depends how long it will last and what happens to the economy in general, It would be nice if we see a boom in bookings once everyone is allowed to start planning for the future. The number one priority is people’s health and we just need to take each day as it comes.”

Wes Maebe, Sound Engineer and owner of Sonic Cuisine is finding himself in a position that someone of his generation has never experienced before. “We’re definitely living in a weird situation. I know it’s still early days so the situation is changing on a daily basis. Restaurants and shops that were allowed to be open one day, for take away and delivery are closed the next. Most of us who are in the mixing/Mastering world have, in a way, been putting this social distancing into practice for years. So not going out and working from home doesn’t feel like too hard of a job. Obviously not being able to pop out for a meal or a quick drink and hook up with people can feel quite taxing at times since that is always a welcome break from our screens and solitary jobs.

As mixing and mastering can be done remotely at the Sonic Cuisine, Maebe is set up to mix and master in both the analogue and In-The-Box. “I’m hoping that mix jobs that would have remained in the recording studio could be moved to places like the Sonic Cuisine so those projects that were in the making just prior to the outbreak can continue to be finalised and be released or be ready for when things get back to some form of normality.” 

With a lot of people suddenly experiencing working from home, he is fairly certain that the general job market will change in the long run. “A lot of employees will realise that they no longer are required to do the horrible commute they have been doing for years. For the music industry, I am hoping that artists, labels and publishers realise, more than ever, what the importance of a recording studio is. So maybe it’ll show that studios are worth the rates they have been charging. And of course a lot of artists are set up to record at home so in my opinion, we can keep creating great music. A lot of projects that require big drum sounds, brass and string sections, etc, they will be put on hold to a later date and to me that looks like we should all get pretty busy catching up on all this once the storm has calmed down.”

Mark Angus, freelance Audio Director and Designer, is one of those lucky to have contract work that will continue through this crisis.  “Linear work will undoubtedly dry up but videogame work is going to be more robust I think” he said. “Games companies can create and distribute their product directly to consumers over the internet without every needing a physical office or even product!”

Having made the decision to go freelance a few years ago and set up his own remote studio capable of working on both linear and interactive sound design, and mixing in surround, the vast majority of his work is already remote.  “My main current client is a games company that is entirely remote and so the process of making a videogame without going to an office is well established. The main issue that people encounter is being able to upload and download all the data required – as well as code, videogame projects contain large amounts of audio and visual source material that must be copied locally so that the game can be compiled on your home computer. You then need to upload any changes or new material you create – which for a sound designer can mean large files. I’ve noticed that some sound designers are trying to remote access their work computers – this may work for people mainly dealing with paperwork, but for content creators it’s never going to be a comfortable solution (sound/visual lag being the main drawback). People also need to adapt to remote group work – so apps like Slack allow companies and departments to continue to collaborate and keep information flowing.” 

Dom Morley, Mix Engineer and owner of The Mix Consultancy is also finding things up in the air. “It’s totally understandable – with venues closed until further notice musicians have lost their main source of income for the foreseeable future, so committing to spend on recording is a risk too far for them” he said. Another challenge at the moment is child care. His wife is still working (albeit from home) so he like many has to look after the children during the day and go into the studio and work in the evening. “There are still a few things I have to do, and I’m taking advantage of the time to work on the development and creative projects that I’ve had in the back of my mind for a long time” added Morley. “It’s the one advantage of studio life being so solitary – we can keep going and remain isolated! The Mix Consultancy is receiving an uptick in interest. There are a few factors here, but people finishing tracks that have been on the backburner for a while could be one of them. “I think the outcome of this in terms of our profession is difficult to predict. Our clients will need to recapitalise before they book sessions so the lag for studio people might be a while. A lot of it really hinges on how much support the government provides, and whether that is enough for musicians to feel like they are safe to continue investing in recording. I fear there will be an element of ‘who can hold their breath the longest’ about it though.”

Nainita Desai, Composer, is finding things haven’t really changed. “Its certainly hit like a bolt of lightening but I work from my home studio and am fortunate to have various projects in post at the moment but the uncertainty in the industry and not being able to plan is very unsettling.”

Much of Desai’s business, like many, is derived from networking, film festivals and client meetings.  “With that having stopped for the foreseeable future, virtual and remote meetings using online conferencing such as zoom, google hangout etc has suddenly filled a void in the last month” she added. “All my clients are using it as a physical substitute and it’s become the new norm adapting to it very quickly. I’ve done talks with the NFTS and Bafta and it’s working very successfully. Many forums and virtual meetups have sprung up and I attended my first live music / sync conference which went well.”

Desai has just started scoring a Netflix project where the team wanted a live orchestral score. “With recording studios and musicians having stopped working due to social distancing, the only solution has been to work with remote musicians who can record their playing in their home studios and send recordings and files back. With live concerts and gigs cancelled overnight, musicians have suddenly lost their incomes. I have a feeling this will encourage a fairly new way of working that will become far more common. I’ve just set up a database of session musicians and other composer support teams which in 48hours of launching, has more than 300 signups of a wide variety of professionals offering their services. A huge community spirit has built up and it will hopefully help people find creative solutions well past when this crisis is over.” 

As for how things will look when we finally emerge Desai thinks that where many film festivals are opting to go down the virtual route at the moment that they may develop into fully fledged VR conferences.  “We are seeing new types of shows being commissioned that wouldn’t ordinarily be picked up by broadcasters. Working remotely may also be taken up more to reduce their carbon footprint. It’s going to be a rocky road for the next 18 months because of travel and filming restrictions with large groups of people and this is going to affect international productions and the type of content that is home grown for the next  2-3 years. Touring and live music is taking a huge hit driving artists towards giving live performances on Instagram, Facebook and other new technologies that enable live gigs with solo artists. In the short to mid term, remote recording will become very prominent so we may also start seeing more small ensemble and electronic scores coming out over the next year. Where soloists and more intimate scores are more prominent, they may become the next big theme in major scores!”