Sounds are childish. They are innocent, full of energy, and wholly influenced by their surroundings. When listening back to any recorded sound, we hear the ambience, the proximity to the subject, the tone and resonance of a space.
Left to their own devices, sounds behave like children on a playground, crashing around, running into one another, disappearing in one place, appearing in another. Some bully and some hide. But take them off the playground and into a space with structure and rules, and most adapt and behave. There is a reason teachers don’t teach on playgrounds.
For sound professionals so much of what we do is influenced by the space we are in while doing it. We build rooms that promote sonic predictability, structure, order. Math and science tell us sound studios need absorptive surfaces in some areas, reflective in others. We build rooms inside of rooms to isolate ourselves from the influence of the unwanted sounds outside so we can focus on the worlds we are weaving inside. There is a reason sound professionals don’t work in basements and spare rooms.
For those of us privileged enough to turn our love of sound into a profession, somewhere along the way we get used to that predictability. We take for granted how good the rooms sound. We forget how the creative process is informed by the conversations that precede it, with their tonal nuance and subtle visual cues. It is in the wake of a pandemic that many of us have been reminded just how important these things are to our process.
So what happens when you take us out of our carefully-curated spaces? If we remove the safety of predictability, what tools do we use to maintain order on the playground, in the basement or spare room? What happens when we can’t be in the same room together?
Like so many production and post production facilities, the staff of Cutters Studios and its audio division Another Country has primarily been working remotely since the early days of the pandemic. Almost overnight, I went from mixing and sound designing TV commercials, web, radio, and long form content in a state-of-the-art studio, to working on that same content in my home studio. The challenge of course is providing a superior finished product in an inferior space. And while I shudder to use the word “inferior” when talking about my home studio, no matter how much I tweak it, it will never compare to a professionally designed and built studio.
This begs the question: How can you get pro results in a sub-optimal space under unfavorable circumstances? I would argue there is only one way. Experience.
Remote mixing is not a new phenomenon, and there are numerous mediums and methods for accomplishing the task. At Another Country, my sessions usually had a remote element to them, with clients in the room as well as over the phone or on a video conference. And while there are times having someone sitting behind you while you work can be a challenge, on the whole it makes the mix process more efficient. This is part of why we have beautifully designed post rooms and top notch technical staff. It’s not just for the betterment of the craft, but also for the quality of the process. They are creative spaces for collaboration as much as technical spaces for precision.
Before the pandemic I had the pleasure of mixing a narrative film titled Before/During/After (pictured), written by Finnerty Steeves, directed by Stephen Kunken and Jack Lewars, and edited by Scott Gibney and Peter Zachwieja at the Cutters New York office. For logistical reasons we decided to mix remotely using a Teradek point-to-point system, locking video between offices and streaming the mixed audio from my studio at Another Country in Chicago to the listening room at Cutters New York. Little did I know this would be a dress rehearsal for the months to come.
When meeting new clients it can take time to find a rhythm and I was nervous meeting the B/D/A team for the first time over video might be awkward. Nevermind having a camera in my face while mixing seemed a bit daunting. I was used to people staring at the back of my head while doing my job but not my face being blown up on their laptop screens! Does my mouth contort when I mix like it does when I play guitar? Fortunately, my nerves were quickly put at ease.
The team on B/D/A are phenomenal collaborators. Their experience in the industry resonated in their positive energy, constructive comments and decisive decisions. Despite being hundreds of miles apart, the mix flowed as if we were in the room together. Although it wasn’t without hiccups, like frozen screens and fresh new thoughts missed by forgetting to unmute, we finished the mix satisfied we had made something to be proud of.
While this is one example of a remote mix gone right, so much can and sometimes does go wrong. Much of the mixing process isn’t really mixing at all. Often I feel like a phone operator in front of a switchboard, patching communications between myself, the client on the phone, client on a video conference, client in the room, and talent in another city. “Standby” is the sound mixer equivalent of the operator’s “please hold”. Factor in system latency, internet lag, mute button mishaps, script rewrites, tech support and any number of random software bugs, and you have a recipe for chaos.
But chaos cedes to calm. The more things go wrong, the more ways you find to fix them. We dodged the chaos on B/D/A and it’s an experience like that that makes you capable of keeping it together, adapting and delivering when you are not as lucky. I try to remember that when a new edit is coming in, talent is on the line, the scripts need to be rewritten, and the video conference invite doesn’t work.
I have learned the deficiencies of my new mixing space and adjusted accordingly just as so many others have had to adjust to their new workspaces. It takes a veteran teacher to wrangle the unruly classroom. And while this year has forced us all onto a playground of uncertainty, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the actual teachers out there that have persevered through the pandemic for the sake of education. If they can teach a classroom’s worth of kids over video, I can certainly find a way to mix some content with a handful of adults using the same tools.
Ultimately the remote workflow has its place, just as our beautiful post studios do. But I think in the years to come, when we return to being in rooms together, what we’ve learned during this pandemic will allow those workflows to converge even further, giving us more flexibility to create and collaborate at a professional level with anyone, from anywhere, at any time. That’s definitely something to look forward to even if it means permanently worrying about what weird face I make while mixing.
Erik Widmark is a Sound Designer/Mixer at audio post production house Another Country (https://anothercountry.net) in Chicago.