The Audio Suite

Neil Hillman, sound designer and editor, took time out of his busy schedule to speak to Audiofile about his work. His TV credits include Krypton, Star Wars Rebels, Beecham House and Dr Who. His film credits include Kingsman: The Golden Circle and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Hillman was awarded the World Medal for Sound Design at the New York Festival for the film The 13th Day and The Royal Television Society award for Best Production Craft Skills for Sound Design and Mixing on the film Handle with Care.

You have been an engineer at premier sporting events including the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics. What were your biggest challenges?

Well I’d be the first to say that I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be engaged in various ‘Sound’ capacities at some of the world’s most significant sporting occasions, such as a Wembley UEFA Champions League final or a London Stadium IAAF Athletics World Cup but if you pushed me, over the past 37 years of working on Outside Broadcasts I suppose the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics probably figure as being the biggest challenge whilst also being the most fun.

I was part of the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) team at Beach Volleyball in both London and Rio. For both of the 2012 and 2016 Summer Games I was working on the engineering and delivery of commentary circuits for broadcaster’s world-wide; whilst for the London 2012 Paralympics and Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games I was a Sound Supervisor, mixing live to air for the Host Broadcaster in an Outside Broadcast (OB) truck.

Each event, position of responsibility and location has its own unique challenges – such as covering overseas mid-week Champions League games in an ex-Soviet-bloc country as a Technical Producer, responsible for ensuring that pictures, commentary and programme circuits get back to the UK on the satellite uplink, with the added jeopardy of the foreign ‘Sat-truck’ being parked miles away from the commentary position in an OB compound. Then there’s the task of breathing life into the kit that you hand-carried on the aircraft to the match: such as the ISDN codecs for back-up commentary and production talkback circuits, which sometimes get connected via the bare, twisted pair copper circuits delivered to the commentary position. All of which can contribute to a rather nerve-wracking period when you’re live on-air back in the UK and mixing the output of a small, battery powered audio mixer fed from a dedicated commentary unit back to base; in a deafening and seemingly hostile commentary position, squashed too-close-for-comfort to a commentator and pundit, whilst willing that the green lights on the kit remain green for the entire length of the broadcast.

The recent introduction of Audio over I.P. (AoIP) has of course taken away some of this romantic ‘croc-clips on the telephone’ atmosphere; but frankly, it’s still no less fragile an undertaking. All Premier League games this season for instance will see ISDN replaced by AoIP services; but if last season’s experience of running ISDN and AoIP in parallel for testing and feasibility purposes is anything to go by, the adoption of the new technology this season will still require the local Engineer to remain conscientious in their rigging of the kit for each game; and vigilant throughout the course of the match.

You did some ground-breaking work with Dante networks at the Gold Coast Games. Can you tell us a bit about that?

The 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games felt very different to the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games right from the off; it just felt like there had been a quantum leap in technology in the intervening four years. Glasgow was very traditional in its execution – it was conventional Outside Broadcasting. As with the Olympics, the people behind the planning and delivering of Glasgow 2014 were great people to work with, which ensured that the bang-for-buck ratio of what got delivered was actually quite remarkable. So what was different at the Gold Coast Games in 2018? Well for one thing, I was working in the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) as part of the team managing and controlling discreet audio feeds to and from the various venues, as well as to and from the international broadcasters in their home countries, as opposed to being at a venue in a truck delivering field-of-play production sound for the Host Broadcaster, or in a Commentary Control Room (CCR) distributing commentary feeds overseas.

But what really struck me was the way in which pretty much the same Australian engineering team as Glasgow 2014 approached the 2018 event. It was refreshing, it was audacious and it was just a little bit courageous. In Glasgow 2014, there were 17 sports in 14 venues. At the Gold Coast in 2018 this increased to 19 sports at 17 venues, with significant distances involved; and with 275 events to be covered, it was set to be the busiest Games to date. The significant difference – and perhaps the biggest risk by deciding to break new ground under an international spotlight – was that all of the venues audio inputs and outputs were connected to the IBC via a large Dante audio network. This allowed IBC Engineers device-level access to the audio facilities at each stadium and event: a Commentator’s microphone could be switched on or muted remotely, for instance; and comprehensive cross-points on the Dante network ensured that there was huge flexibility in routing audio signal paths quickly and easily into and out of a venue. For me, it was tangible proof that remote broadcasting had come of age and was ready to be considered for mainstream production workflows. This was the backbone for a pop-up, two-week festival of sport, drawing its inputs and outputs simultaneously from multiple sources and distributing them to multiple destinations. And the resulting ripples are not just technical. At a grass-roots level, a team of perhaps 6 people might have been engaged to look after a previous Commonwealth Games venue’s commentary needs ‘on the ground’ (that figure is typically double at an Olympic venue, due to the higher number of visiting broadcasters.) At the Gold Coast Games in 2018, just one person was the local contact for the IBC Engineer. OK, it depends on your viewpoint as to whether that’s good or bad news; but it’s definitely a significant development.

Why and when did you start The Audio Suite?

My audio post-Production company, The Audio Suite came about from a two-fold impetus: the first was a general dissatisfaction after some years of freelancing as a Dubbing Mixer in numerous studios ‘on the circuit’ and the second was a year between 2000 and 2001 working on and off on a Discovery Channel documentary, on location and in post, with the RAF’s Red Arrows. When those two things coincided, and I’d spent so much time discussing, recording and watching the constant quest for excellence from an elite group of RAF pilots, I found it impossible to go back to badly thought-through set-ups or working with ‘that-will-do’ attitudes. The Audio Suite opened for business in 2002 and the original plan was to have somewhere to work on the material I recorded on location for clients. The next few years saw us growing quickly in size and in the range of projects we undertook.
We were a Fairlight studio from the off and what seemed like a huge investment in that first editor and mixing console (the Fairlight Prodigy 2 –a Fairlight-badged Amek digital console married to the wonderful MFX 3+ digital editor) was definitely a good decision: it meant that it delivered the kind of rock-solid reliability that enabled me to build a substantial business on. We moved studios twice in three years to acquire more space and then in 2006 we invited a local picture editing and grading company to join us in creating a bespoke boutique facility. There were three Avid DS | Nitris suites downstairs and then upstairs, three identically-equipped Fairlight mixing rooms, each linked to a sizeable voice studio and each with ISDN access.

During this period hundreds of hours of prime-time television were edited and mixed with the same care and attention that would go into a high-value feature film; and we never failed to meet the dual challenge of weekly transmission deadlines and broadcast reviews. We kept raising the bar for ourselves, managed to punch way above our weight and attracted serious players to use our Birmingham studios. I would say that Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ and Shekhar Kapur’s ‘New York I Love You’ were two of the stand-out feature films we were asked to work on during this time.

However, by 2012 I felt that the industry and the market had so significantly changed for work-for-hire audio-post facilities that we needed to take stock; and I concluded that whilst we were selling more each year, it was into a rapidly diminishing market for what we had on offer. We needed to face the market in a different way. We down-sized, moved, re-equipped and became a sound design practice that project manages and brings- together the skills of trusted staff when required; and although we have two mixing rooms and a voice studio, colleagues will usually work with us remotely.

What changes have you seen in the industry over the last 10 years and where do you see it heading?

One significant factor in the way that The Audio Suite was conceived and operated at its outset in 2002 was that I anticipated that the moving of audio and cutting-copy picture data would quickly become so straightforward that it would negate any geographical imperative to site an audio-post company in any one particular place or within a cluster. I’d also seen how Producers rarely came to final mixes but did attend the picture edit; so our model was to allow Production Companies to edit with whomever and wherever they felt most comfortable, whilst having the confidence that the audio would be sent to somewhere that would take good care of things, seamlessly.

By 2004 we had implemented a bespoke ‘Virtual Dubbing Theatre’ online facility that enabled users to easily upload sound and pictures to us, with a timestamp and note facility, via their web browser; and it was something that was much quicker and easier to use than FTP. We felt it was a cutting-edge solution and a simple, but effective, differentiator for us; I’m not suggesting that we were industry influencers or disruptors, but we looked and couldn’t find anyone else at the time using this kind of connectivity in TV-post. Instead tapes and OMF files on Jaz drives were still being biked from facility to facility and I felt that the ‘we’re-close-to transmission’ excitement that time and again seemed to overrule plain, common sense must surely have had its day. However, whilst other industries embraced 20th century ‘just-in-time’ workflow, in the 21st century TV continued to giggle its apologies and present material to Dubbing Mixers in ‘not-quite-enough’ time.

But perhaps the most significant change over the last ten years has been the huge rise of home-working and the way in which the workforce is now largely freelance. It came much earlier to film crews on the road of course, but thanks to the relentless development of digital technology and the DAW that can run on a lap-top, there’s now much greater freedom to operate as a sound professional from wherever you find yourself. And that’s liberating!

What is your favourite bit of kit and why?

I really enjoy using well-designed equipment and there is a tremendous satisfaction in identifying, buying and operating something that makes your life easier whilst enabling you to deliver a better product. But whether its location or post production tools, I’m not an out-and-out kit-nerd, or a fan of technology for technology’s sake; nor do I feel the need to have the latest gizmo simply because it’s new. With some conspicuous exceptions, I think that there’s a truth in the fact that competent Engineers don’t need to keep constantly adding to their kit list; but from time-to-time something does come along that genuinely warrants investigation and I try to remain ruthlessly honest about whether this thing is actually required, or if it’s a toy.

There is for instance a plethora of plug-ins for Digital Audio Workstations (DAW) and my inbox is constantly bombarded by offers of plug-in bundles. Every month seems to bring a Black Friday or Mad Monday sale. Most of these are trinkets and in my opinion the audio equivalent of constantly replacing your two-bladed shaving razor for a three-bladed razor, then for a four-bladed razor… Insert commercial tag-line ‘for a cleaner shave / mix’ here. That said, every system I edit and mix on somehow seems to have iZotope’s RX, Z-plane’s PPMulator, Nugen’s LM Correct 2 and Sonic Anomaly’s Unlimitedclose to hand in my plug-ins folder.

Please don’t get me wrong, this is a fantastic time to be working in audio, and in audio-post especially – the ease and flexibility that digital has granted us is tremendous; I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to rocking-and-rolling two Studer 2-inch, 24-track machines locked to pictures with an Adam Smith synchroniser. But audio post-production is a specialist craft that requires as much care and skill as it has ever done. The kit on its own contributes and produces nothing to the mix; it still requires sensitive human intervention.

At its simplest, I regularly reflect and enjoy how well-designed Portabrace mixer bags are; or the way that the tiny knick-knacks we can now use to help conceal radio mics, such as Rycote Stickies, URSA Foamies and Bubblebee Industries’ windshields have taken the headache out of reducing the rustle of hidden lavalier mics, or eliminating wind noise. These are little things that have brought about big changes for location recordists, because they’re very well thought-through.

For bigger consoles, in trucks, I prefer the logic and layout of Calrec designs to Lawo desks and the work-horse of any sports broadcasting – the humble commentary box connected to the truck’s tailboard via multi-way copper circuits – has had to morph into a sophisticated unit that can integrate into local OB fibre and remote Dante networks. For me, it’s Glensound that have stolen a march on everyone else with their ‘Paradiso’ Dante / AES 67 Commentators Box. As a Fairlight audio-post operator of some two decades now – The Audio Suite currently operates Fairlight Xynergi – I’m obviously very pleased that Fairlight has re-appeared within Black Magic Design’s DaVinci Resolve (DVR); which I think in itself is a ground-breaking approach to moving-picture post-production. The good news is that the Fairlight still feels like a Fairlight within DVR, and again whilst it’s a very personal opinion, I think it remains the best featured DAW overall. Its straight out-of-the-box ADR facility alone stands it apart from anything else at the moment.

I’m also genuinely interested to see how Resolve as a fully integrated product (DIT ingest, picture editing, compositing, grading, DAW and comprehensive output / delivery stage all in one coherent system) will change the landscape of post-production, through its use of common media pools and collaborative timelines across the multiple stages of post-production. And I suppose that after reflecting on new, or at least current, equipment I should also own-up to the fact that at the other end of the scale, I’m still using my original Urstacart sound recordists trolley from circa 1985 on drama sets (it’s even got a name – ‘The Heart of Gold’– after the spacecraft in Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’.)

What would you say are the main challenges in post production currently?

The elephant in the room is that for far too long, audio post-production facilities have been held hostages to fortune by picture editing facilities who have competed for clients by ‘throwing-in’ the audio mix to gain the profitable editing and grading work. It’s made life difficult for audio post-facilities and I’m not sure it’s been particularly healthy for the post-production sector as a whole. Historically, I suppose it came into being when non-linear editing first came into widespread use and offered picture editors an audio editing and mixing capability hitherto unknown. Picture facilities were able to either mix non-broadcast material themselves on their Avids, or a room could be lashed together and sold to picture clients as a mixing room. I’m painting a terribly extreme picture here of course, because many facility houses these days have equally well-specified picture and sound capabilities. But the damage to the audio sector was definitely, and deliberately, done in the late 1990’s and well into the 2000’s. It’s taken some time for it to bounce back.

But everything changes, eventually; and the introduction of systems like DaVinci Resolve might very quickly bring about a levelling of the playing field. In my opinion, audio mixing is very similar in approach and mindset to picture grading; and I would suggest that any entrepreneurial audio facility owner right now should be looking very carefully indeed at the cost versus benefits of offering DaVinci Resolve Fairlight audio and DaVinci Resolve grading as part of their commercial offering.

What have been your favourite projects to work on and why?

I particularly enjoy seeing film projects from pre-Production right through to post-Production. My favourite projects include a passionate Director who will listen and afford me the same time and respect as they would their DOP, editor or writer; a great story that is well cast; and an artistic ambition on behalf of all the crew to leave egos in the car park and fully collaborate, to let the film become the best it can possibly be. It’s difficult to single out any one project as they’re like your children – you love them equally, whilst knowing and accepting their differences.

If you pushed me for just one though, post-Production happiness is working at Pinewood Studios alongside Re-recording Mixer Pip Norton, with sound effects editor Anna Sulley sitting-in with us. That’s my team of choice and we last worked together on Oz Arshad’s film ‘Finding Fatima’. Oz is an enormously talented writer and Director and I think we’ll all be seeing a lot more of him in the future. But honestly, there have been loads of great jobs along the way.

What has been your biggest career challenge to date?

I would definitely say that working full time as a sound professional whilst researching and writing my PhD part-time with the University of York has been my greatest career challenge to date. It’s a minimum of 6 years, plus a writing-up year, when you’re a part-time PhD candidate and I ended up taking an extra year on top of that. My thesis was snappily entitled ‘A new sound mixing framework for enhanced emotive sound design within contemporary moving-picture audio production and post-production.’

It’s tough as an experienced practitioner going back into academic study at a level where you hope that your thoughts and opinions from experience might be listened to – it can feel at times like you’re a Barbarian at the city gates. But I’m absolutely committed to do my bit to help span the gap between academy and industry through my teaching, my writing and by speaking to the next generation of filmmakers. My ‘home’ at York (the department of Theatre, Film, TV and Interactive Media) have been very supportive in this respect; allowing me the freedom to share my thoughts on sound, sound design and the business of sound not only at other UK schools, but also overseas at places like SAE Brisbane and Queensland University of Technology.

What advice would you give someone wanting to enter the audio industry as an engineer?

Be open to opportunity, be teachable and stay hungry to learn. Record as often as possible on location to understand what the challenges are of getting the right kind of microphone into the right place. Understand how different types of microphones sound under different circumstances and in different acoustics. Listen on headphones, then on speakers back in the studio. What are the differences? Why are they different? Become so familiar with what you are used to hearing that you instantly know when something is amiss. Learn the basic physics of what’s going on when you do the job and then test it out as often as possible. Malcolm Gladwell’s rule of it taking 10,000 hours to achieve mastery equally applies to developing a professional pair of ears. I’d also recommend reading ‘In The Blink of An Eye’ by Walter Murch and ‘Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert M. Pirsig.