5 Minutes With… Chris Turner
For both industry insiders and outsiders, sound design can prove confusing to define. Many believe that it’s the big, bolshie, loud, explosive scenes that require the most impressive ear when it comes to crafting sound. But for Chris Turner, who’s been a sound designer at Jungle Studios in London, it’s the quiet, open to all elements type clips that really prove a sound designer’s worth.
Chris’ career started in the music biz as he worked his way up from roadie to landing a job at the north of England’s best sound studio, F.O.N. Studios. The rise of home production, however, sadly put a stop to the business, and so he moved to London and stumbled across the world of audio post production and, namely, Jungle. He’s been there ever since.
LBB’s Laura Swinton chatted with Chris about the evolution of sound design in the age of 360-degree filmmaking, issues with awards in the industry, and what marks out good sound design from the bad.
LBB> What was it that first drew you into the world of sound design and advertising? Was it something that you deliberately wanted to get into or was it a bit more organic/accidental?
Chris Turner> As a teen I was passionate about music and I knew I wanted to work in the music business. I started out as a roadie and worked my way up. I’d gained a lot of experience but also wanted to study the theory behind what I was doing, so I went to college to learn about engineering, electronics and acoustics.
Whilst studying I was offered my dream job as a studio engineer at F.O.N. recording studios - which at the time was the north of England’s best sound studio. I loved the job and they were great times, but increasingly musicians could produce from home and music studios suffered.
I took the decision to move to London and whilst my mission was to stay in music I discovered audio post. I’d never done sound to picture before and I soon realised that I loved the added dimension. I took a job at Jungle and I’ve been there ever since! I still love working with musicians and regularly record vocals.
LBB> You’ve been with Jungle for 17 years – how has the company evolved in that time?
CT> Honestly everything has changed except the warm welcome and total dedication to the craft. Jungle feels reborn since we knocked our two buildings in Wardour Street, Soho together, everyone’s now in one place and there’s a real buzz. I've never been happier.
LBB> What marks out good sound design and bad? What should we be listening out for when evaluating sound design?
CT> Most people I meet struggle to define sound design, which makes it hard to evaluate. How do I know? I’ve been to hundreds of award ceremonies and the best sound design rarely wins. Sour grapes? No, I’ve won plenty of awards but not always for my best work. Judges usually vote for the ad with the best music (nothing to do with sound design, it’s a different OSCAR) or they vote for something that’s loud and action packed.
Sound designers love loud epic scenes with great music, they don’t have to work as hard. The hardest part of any sound designers’ job is when the music dies down and every element of your sound is exposed; every breath, footstep, heartbeat. The background sound (atmos) has to be believed, the unreal made real, holding you in that moment, a marriage between sound and vision where you’re fully immersed and nothing is distracting you from the story. That’s where you judge a sound designer and that’s why the film, No Country for Old Men is adored by sound designers.
LBB> Recent developments in technology have opened up some interesting challenges and opportunities for sound engineers. For example interactive projects and platforms like Virtual Reality look like they require a slightly different, more dynamic approach to sound. In what ways do these projects differ from a more conventional film/commercial project? Is there anything in particular producers should bear in mind when it comes to sound for these projects?
CT> We did a VR job recently and had to approach the sound in a very different way to conventional stereo jobs, the story was non-linear and a lot of consideration had to go into how all the sound elements would blend and work together in changing environments. For the best results, producers should endeavour to work with someone who’s already been down that road and battled the limitations and new horizons the new technology offers.
LBB> What are the biggest challenges facing the sound design/engineering sector of the ad industry at the moment?
CT> If you type sound designer into LinkedIn you get 29,991 results. Now if I’d done the same search at the start of my career I wonder how many there would have been. So what happened? Is sound design a massive growth industry or is it seen as a job anyone with a Mac can do now?
For me the biggest challenge is that people underestimate the amount of experience, talent and craft that goes into doing great sound design. All of these elements add value to the finished product. Cost controllers are fooled into thinking that because there are companies out there who can massively compete on price, that you get the same service or a service that’s good enough. It’s simply not true. Many of these companies, or people, don’t have the right environment to record voiceovers or Foley and they certainly don’t have full range speakers and an acoustically treated room to give you a balanced mix. Just because a task can now be done cheaply on a Mac, doesn’t mean that the person using it has the ability to give you the best results.
LBB> One of the big trends that we’re always hearing people talk about is the explosion in mobile – but I’d imagine as a sound designer it could be a bit frustrating to hear your beautiful work compressed and blaring out of tinny horrible iPhone speakers. How do you make sure something sounds good and as immersive as possible regardless of the platform?
CT> Every mix I produce gives a fair representation on all speakers. The only time this isn’t the case is when I’m working on something that is only ever going to play in the cinema. At the mix stage I play everything through the array of speakers I have, to check compatibility between formats. On small speakers the detail can get lost along with bass content, this is obviously considered when creating and placing sound in the mix. Careful EQ’ing and balancing is the key.
LBB> We recently did a feature about how there’s a lot of ‘hidden’ activity that goes on in VFX, to tidy up mistakes or add in or remove things that aren’t really supposed to draw attention (putting in a cloudy sky, for example). The sort of work that’s painstaking and, ironically, the better it is the less you notice it… In terms of sound design what are the sorts of things that you do that people might not realise (touching up overly gravelly voices maybe, that sort of thing…)?
CT> Often the viewer’s preconception is that the camera points at the action and the microphone picks everything up; from the footsteps to the deep space explosions. So my job is a bit special, I get to design every sound I want you to hear and for that reason there are no unwanted artefacts. The only common issue is the dialogue; if it’s badly recorded or the location was noisy then the clean-up job is no different to airbrushing a picture. There are great tools now for removing all manner of unwanted noises and I use them on every job I do. If the dialogue is beyond repair then I need to ADR (replace the original dialogue). In the past this could be a slow and difficult process but now, with new technology, it’s simple.
LBB> What’s the most personally rewarding part of your job?
CT> The final mix. Sometimes being at the end of the production process has its rewards! Clients always get excited when the production process is coming to an end and the sound is always the icing on the cake.
LBB> Which recent projects have you been proudest of and why?
CT> I sometimes do seven jobs a day; change the endline, turn the music down, but sometimes much bigger projects come my way. You're left to it, trusted and you have time to play and consider. These are the jobs I’m proudest of because you put everything you have into them. Not everyone has the time or the budget, but those that do benefit. In the last year I’m very proud of the work I did on L'Oreal, Lexus, Adot.com and The League Against Cruel Sports.
LBB> What advice would you give to anyone wanting to get into the industry?
CT> The advice I always give is don’t spend time and money studying when the best training you’ll ever get is on the job. Get in young, work hard, party hard and do as much hands on training as you have free time for. At Jungle we have a dedicated training manager and open access to our studios.
LBB> Chris, regular readers of LBB will know that you’re a pretty eloquent storyteller (your Friday playlists are things of majesty). From these stories, it’s pretty clear that music has always been a big part of your life! Are there any albums/bands in particular that you always find yourself going back to?
CT> There’s a song for every mood and my taste is broad. I prefer lyric based music especially about love, loss and longing. The one track that I rarely go a month without playing is Midnight Train To Georgia. If I could have lived and worked in another time and place, I would have loved to have been a music engineer in Detroit, working for the Motown label.
LBB> Outside of work and advertising etc., what inspires you?
CT> My kids, music, films, art, literature, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr…