From the EastEnd to the Seven Kingdoms

Emma Butt, a freelance Sound Engineer, took time out of her busy schedule to talk to Audiofile about her work. Having worked in post production sound for over 12 years on a variety of projects from mixing drama, documentaries, entertainment shows and animations to ADR her credits include Game of Thrones, Dr Who, EastEnders, Sex Education and Death in Paradise. Emma has been nominated for IFTA and Shark Awards for Best Sound and received a certificate of merit from The Emmys for her ADR work on Game of Thrones.

Emma always loved music as a subject at school and knew she wanted to do something involved in that field, but it wasn’t until she recorded a charity album with her school choir that she realised that sound engineering was what she wanted to do. “I remember the sound engineer came along with his mixing desk and mics” said Emma. “I loved being around live music and going to gigs. Many of my friends were musicians and I knew I wanted to be part of that world and do a job that was creative. At the beginning I didn’t know sound for film and TV was a job possibility but I’m really glad I eventually found out it was.”

Her first job was as a runner at Screen Scene Post Production in Dublin. “I will always be grateful to them for giving me an opportunity” said Emma, “They gave me the chance of the runner position after the girl they hired instead of me went to lunch on her first day and never came back! I ended up staying for 9 years, working my way up through the ranks.” As she progressed she joined the audio team and learnt what it was like to work in the world of TV and Film. “I recall when I left Uni I had the worst attitude. Like many students I see today, I thought that my course had taught me everything I needed to know and I could do this job straight away. I was very wrong. Instead of the people at Screen Scene writing me off, they took the time to show me that this is a job where you are always learning; things are always changing and patience, humility and being positive even in the most horrible situations will see you do well. I definitely think that’s helped me to get where I am now. Technical skill wise they taught me everything I know. Garret Farell and Mark Fitzpatrick in particular. I wouldn’t have a job in audio nor had the confidence to move to the UK if it wasn’t for the team at Screen Scene investing so much time and effort into helping me progress.”

Emma moved from Ireland to establish herself in the UK. “I had to take a few steps back to get where to where I want to be, mixing drama and feature films. It was a necessary part of the journey as a lot of people only knew me as an ADR recordist when I moved. Most of my mixing and sound editorial credits did not appear on IMDB because most Irish shows don’t appear on there so that has been a challenge. Trying to learn how the UK industry works compared to Ireland has been difficult as it’s just so much bigger and now being freelance adds an extra challenge but I know this was all a risk worth taking.”

Emma’s work includes ADR, the process of re-recording dialogue by the original actor after the filming process to improve audio quality or reflect dialogue changes. “Recording ADR can throw up a few challenges” said Emma. “Reading the room and knowing when to speak and when not to is important. It’s also important to know when there is tension between people that you need to help keep calm and knowing when people are starting to lag and they need a tea or coffee break! Making sure the actor is happy and comfortable and able to get into the headspace they need to do a difficult job is hugely important. Then there are the technical challenges too such as when things like Source Connect come into the equation, making sure everything has been tested well enough in advance so that no issues happen during the session. The biggest challenge I now have since going freelance is having to know each room that I go into, it’s quirks and where the best mic placement is going to be.”

In her private studio Emma mainly uses Pro Tools Ultimate, Genelec monitors, a Focusrite Scarlett pre, a high spec refurbished old Mac Mini and a pair of DT100’s. “My plugins are what I really can’t live without though. I use the RX Bundle for noise reducing along with the Waves WNS Noise Suppressor and Sound Radix Autoalign plug-in. I cannot work without the Waves Q10 EQ too. As a notch EQ I personally find it the best and always try that as my first step in noise reduction before I go to RX.” When choosing a mic, Emma doesn’t really have a favourite. “It depends on what I’m doing. If it’s just standard Voice Over then a U87 everytime as it has a beautiful dept and warmness to it . If it’s ADR though I always want to record with the Sennheiser MKH416 and the DPA 4060 as personally I find they tend to better match with on set ADR. The DPA can also handle mic rustling a lot better than some others.”

“Technology has definitely changed for the better” adds Emma. “I don’t think anyone in ADR is sad to see the back of the ISDN box and it’s unreliable connection issues. There seems to be a new plug in, programme or invention everyday that just makes our job quicker and easier. Auto Align post and Space Crate for on set ADR recording are the two I just see becoming more widely used. Picture lock is a thing of the past. A locked cut is like a unicorn these days. Years ago productions were afraid of going back into the edit after the picture was locked because of the cost ramifications it used to involve. The same goes for schedules, I know now every project I do, no matter what schedule I am given, it will change at least 2 or 3 times before I begin.”

With ever shrinking budgets Emma has found that being nice is not always good for business. “It can be difficult because at the end of the day we all want to do a good job but if we undervalue our own hard work, how can we ever expect clients to give it the value it deserves? There seems to be a need from a lot of people to get all of us in audio organised and set ourselves base rates which we don’t deviate from and a need for us to make sure we have realistic working hours.”

One of Emma’s favourite projects was Game of Thrones because she got to work with and learn from Tim Hands. “Tim is the master of ADR and everything I know about reading the room. My being quick at fitting and playback takes mostly comes from what I learnt from him.” A documentary she did in Ireland called My Father’s War is another favourite as it was her first awards nomination. “I did all the sound design and mix. It was a slightly tricky project in that it was about WW1 with lots of archive and reconstruction sections that had no audio and needed to be covered with sound” added Emma. “I put a lot of extra hours into that job but it was completely worth it.” A more recent highlight was Edwardian Colour in Britain. “Again it involved a lot of sound editorial work and I covered all audio post but it was worth all the time put in. The clients were so appreciative, lovely to be in the room with and the post facility that hired me just made me feel welcome every day I was there. Good people on a team are what really draws me to a project.”

Being a female sound engineer has not stopped Emma from achieving her goals and she was certainly not deterred by one of her lecturers at University. “I was warned by one of the lecturers at Uni that I would face three issues going into the working world, sexism, ageism and I would face men being inappropriate and I’ve definitely faced all three. Probably the worst situation was during my first year of work when someone was inappropriate, making really lewd comments. I had a tough decision to make at that time whether to speak up and report it or let it go. The Irish post industry was so tiny at that time that I knew if I spoke up I wouldn’t work again so I didn’t say anything. Now I always speak up for myself but its difficult because as soon as you do you can be branded a troublemaker, a difficult woman or aggressive and it can make it harder for you to progress. You’re expected to keep quiet and get on with it. The difference in treatment is quite shocking.”

Although Emma has had some difficult situations to deal with she remains inspired by other women working in sound. “Lora Hirschberg who is a Re-Recording mixer is a huge inspiration” said Butt. “She has worked on everything from Inception to Captain Marvel to the Lion King and has won not only a BAFTA but an Oscar for her work. Kate Finan from Boom Box Post is another, who I was lucky to meet recently when she came to do a talk for AMPS. Not only is she an incredible mixer and sound designer but she also co-owns her own studio which has a big emphasis on supporting and helping the next generation of soundies. Her passion for sharing information and skills is inspiring to see. Both have had the careers that I aspire to and getting to see them progress to the top of their game just encourages me to work harder.”

Women are still under represented in audio and Butt feels that there a few areas that need addressing not only to encourage women to enter the industry but more importantly to stay there. “Teaching young girls at school level that audio is a job they can pursue is a big one. Had I not been in a school choir and recorded a CD I never would have known this job existed. Ask most people who work in sound how they got into it and the answer generally is through music. They either played in a band or made their own music and that’s how they fell into this job. Why can’t sound engineering be taught as part of the curriculum at school and shown how creative it can be and that it’s not just a tech role? The other issue is women returners from maternity leave. We need to make flexible working more of a thing in the industry as a whole so we don’t continue to lose incredibly talented women just because they want to start a family. The big issue though is how can a young girl aspire to become something she cannot see? Productions and facilities should have a moral obligation to make sure all their teams are 50/50 but this still isn’t happening. Killing Eve is one of the biggest shows around at the moment with an incredible strong female cast but how many women were on the sound team? 3 women foley artists spread across 2 series that’s it. We are slowly seeing more women working behind the camera and we are seeing more diverse teams so I hope that all male white teams will eventually become a thing of the past. I think we will see more people within audio post going freelance as that change seems to already be happening. I think more and more of us now see the need for a better work life balance for our own mental health and we all want more freedom and a better say on the projects we work on and the hours and money we are prepared to do those for.”

In her spare time Emma is a mentor with the Media Trust helping to support the next generation of film makers and creative talent. She is also on the council of Association of Motion Picture Sound Engineers (AMPS) where she runs their mentoring scheme. “The scheme involves about 20 mentees being paired with a mentor for 1 year. The mentor is there to give advice and be a sounding board for a person with less experience who is trying to take the next step in their career. I would eventually like to grow the scheme to provide specific workshops to the mentees but this is only my second year running the scheme so it will take a bit of time.”