To celebrate the 2009 Conch Awards, Will Strauss and Colin Birch talk to the winners in the TV sound editing and TV dubbing mixer categories, finding out what makes them tick and gathering their views on some of the burning issues in the audio sector.

TV dubbing mixer of the year

Paul Cotterell
Red Riding trilogy plus the films How To Lose Friends And Alienate People, Dean Spanley, Good and Skin

The best TV dubbing mixer in Britain right now knows exactly what it takes to get to the top in audio post. “One of my strengths is my big ears,” says Cotterell. “And I’m never fully happy with a mix, there are always things I’m looking to improve.”

Those large but expert lugholes and a desire for perfection shine through in his work, especially on Channel 4’s Red Riding trilogy, which the Conch judges voted the best in this category.

Like many television dubbing mixers, Cotterell began his career in the music industry. Going through his TV apprenticeship at Oasis Television he then joined the boutique facility Plus8 before it was taken over by LipSync, which is where Cotterell can now be found.

As an award winner - and working across both film and TV - Cotterell is ideally placed to debate the hot audio issues of the moment, including the perennial battle over loudness.

“It’s always been a big issue, and it’s complicated,” he says. “Nowadays our film and TV is consumed in so many ways, from phones and headphones to 5.1 home theatres. The problem is optimising a mix for all these ends - or rather finding the time in the delivery schedule to do that.”

With viewers demanding volume uniformity, and both advertising and broadcast clients wanting their creative work to grab attention, it’s fairly tricky to keep everyone happy.

“It can’t be good if people at home hit the mute button when the commercials come on, can it?” he asks. “Personally, I’d rather hear a bit more dynamic range in a mix. It’s difficult because loudness is partly driven by the client, particularly in commercials, in order to stand out. Now there are moves to go with average rather than peak levels so that will be interesting.”

Like many mixers, problem solving is an area in which Cotterell feels he excels. The typical industry mantra of “we’ll fix it in post” might send shivers down the spines of some post-production professionals but not Cotterell. “I think it is just part of our job, always has been and always will be,” he says. “Be that cleaning up noisy dialogues or filling a scene with atmospheres and so on to suggest more people than were available on the day.”

This dubbing mixer believes the key is getting the workflow right. “It’s not just about cutting it together, it’s about digitising things properly and handing the project over to the various departments properly. We are the last chance to resolve problems and the trick is to discover what the actual problem is. Sometimes ‘I hate that music cue’ can actually mean something very different.”

Richard Ashley Evolutions

Evolutions’ Ashley was both “stunned” and “very grateful” to receive this, his first nomination for a professional audio industry award. He’s been recognised for his work on The Apprentice, a show that he’s done for the past two years.

He’s a bit nonplussed by the loudness debate, thinks the whole issue is “a little over-cooked”, and that it will add a lot to the audio dubbing workload.

Ashley’s other credits include Hospital Heroes and Secret Millionaire.

Howard Bargroff
From music engineer to re-recording mixer on ITV’s Law And Order UK, Howard Bargroff has moved quickly and regularly throughout his career. He’s spent time at Dolby, De Lane Lea, Future Post, Pepper, Videosonics, and now Pepper again.

On the ITV drama, his brief was to make London a character in the show. “I think we nailed that,” he says. “We kept a busy, documentary feel but made it smooth and glossy at the same time. I spent a long time getting the dialogue sound crystal clear.”

Chris MacLean
MacLean has been a sound engineer for 20 years, 10 of them at BBC Radio. In 1998, he joined what was then Soho Studios, now The Jungle Group, to work on ads and promos.

More recently, MacLean has spent time mixing for cinema and long-form TV, and combines that with his shortform work, which he says makes for a “balanced diet” of audio disciplines. Credits include The Thick Of It, Videotic, MeeBox and Lab Rats.

TV Sound Editor Of The Year

Ben Norrington
Law And Order UK, Spooks series 7, The Children, The Duchess, Hotel Babylon, Longford

This year’s best TV sound editor is
equally at home with dialogue, effects
and foley work and will, he confesses,
“cut anything, really”.

He began his career in documentary film cutting. After failing to gain entry into the NFTS, and having been overlooked twice for the BBC assistant film editor training scheme, Norrington admits to “dismay and frustration” that his talents were going unrecognised.

Within a couple of weeks, though, he got his break, editing film at the BBC as holiday relief, having impressed people with his bold attitude.

The Bafta- and RTS Craft Award-nominated Norrington now mainly works from home on his own system. He had a successful period in Soho at De Lane Lea but enjoys having control over his own working environment and likes the fact that his clients know they’re not just buying his talent. They’re getting “a whole package”, including a kitted-out room.

For Norrington, who was recognised by the Conch judges for his dialogue work on Spooks and Law And Order UK, the issue of volume levels in the cinema is worse than it is on TV.

Film-makers want everything louder, he says, yet cinema exhibitors are turning everything down. “The balance has gone,” he says.

He thinks “it is slightly more controllable [in TV] but in [top-end drama] we’re after light and shade. Some really touching quiet moments, which will make the louder moments all the more powerful.”

The issue is more noticeable when ad spots and promos come into play and Norrington confesses that he is aware of colleagues who mix louder when going into and coming out of commercials in order to compensate.

As far as 5.1 mixes are concerned, while audio professionals love working in surround sound, it’s the viewers who ultimately benefit.

Norrington has an idea on how to fund broadcasting and acquisition in surround sound. “You could oblige consumers to pay for a [surround sound] licence through the domestic equipment they buy, with a contribution going towards the cost of production,” he suggests.

Rather than working within tight budgets, he argues, this would give editors and mixers the opportunity to explore the possibilities of surround.

Chris Roberts, Ascent 142

Last year’s winner in this category joined Ascent Media following spells at BBC Radio, BHP and Sky. Currently a sound editorial supervisor and dialogue editor, his credits include the great and good of TV drama, from Foyle’s War series 7 and Crooked House to The Secret Diary Of A Call Girl. His view on loudness is fairly simple. “Keeping audio levels even throughout a schedule and across multiple viewing platforms is about conscientious metering and consensus,” he says.

Paul McFadden, Bang Post Production

Bang Post’s McFadden began his career as a tape op in a Cardiff music studio at the tender age of 15-and-a-half. When his employer moved into audio post, he got into tracklaying. It would stand him in good stead when he went back to Cardiff to work as the supervising sound editor on Doctor Who. Other TV credits include Poirot, Waking The Dead and Kavanagh QC.