It's hard not to feel a tinsy winsy bit sorry for the men and women of audio post-production. While most producers will go all weak at the knees when it comes to eye-catching direction or cutting-edge visual effects work, when it comes to audio post-production it's less a case of seen but not heard, more heard but hardly noticed.
As dubbing mixer Dan Gable at Resolution points out, sound is a black art, and a largely invisible one. "I was talking to a producer recently who said: 'You know, 80% of what you do nobody notices.' And he's right - people only notice audio when it's either very good or very bad."
Of course, there's nothing new about this. Long-suffering audio specialists have been moaning about being the poor relation to the visual side of post-production since television began.
And it's a perception that shows little sign of changing. As Cliff Jones from audio specialist Sound Monsters declares: "People are quite happy to spend£350 an hour on a top colourist to tweak their pictures but they won't spend£150 on a decent dubbing mixer, even though our rates are less than half the picture side."
And Jones isn't a lone voice. A number of audio specialists and facilities' audio departments have found the going tough in a climate where it has become increasingly difficult to persuade broadcasters to give sound a proper budget.
Says Videosonics managing director Dennis Weinreich: "Our TV clients are frustrated by the budgets they have to work with. Sometimes sound just doesn't get a fair deal."
There's no question that broadcasters are now less inclined to stump up as much hard cash for audio as they used to, with most now preferring to bundle sound in with a complete post-production package for a discount - a trend which has benefited facilities with sizable sound departments such as The Farm, TSI and St Anne's Post.
St Anne's managing director Keith Williams observes: "We tend to do sound and pictures on most jobs now. There's definite pressure on audio budgets, with most producers reasoning they should be able to cut costs by doing it all under one roof."
Sound Monsters Cliff Jones goes a step further: "Some post companies are getting work through the door by offering the post sound for free - which is outrageous because it undermines the whole audio business."
Whatever the truth, it's not good news for audio specialists which have either had to diversify or, like Saunders & Gordon, shut up shop. Sound specialist Videosonics, for example, used to rely entirely on TV work such as Mr Beanand Birds of a Feather, but now does 75% of its work in features while Wildtracks has found a niche in TV promo work.
But despite the pressures many insist there will always be a place for the specialists when it comes to top quality sound. Says Wildtracks chairman Paul Headland: "When you've got clients who are choosy about audio and want the best, that's where we come in. Our staff and our clients both come here for the same thing - quality and creativity. You get the best people by giving them the best stuff to work on."
Sound Monsters Cliff Jones adds: "The bottom line is that good audio can lift the final programme by at least 50% in terms of its quality, but most of the time people don't give a damn and just want to push it through quickly and cheaply."
Jones, whose eight-strong outfit Sound Monsters has worked on BBC factual shows such as Pyramidand Colosseumas well as Simon Schama's upcoming series The Power of Art, warns that quality audio post-production is in danger of becoming something of a lost skill in British TV. But one area where the art of sound is alive and well is in drama and animation, genres which traditionally account for the biggest spending on audio outside of the big-budget world of feature films. While factual programmes tend to spend around 25% of the post-production budget on sound, in drama it can be anything from 30-50%.
As Ben Nemes, sales director at HHB-owned audio reseller Scrubs, explains: "Audio isn't spectacular. It doesn't attract the rates of visual effects or grading, but it's steady rate card money and has not been as vulnerable as offline editing - where rates have plummeted."
According to Skillset's 2004 census, audio post-production employed a workforce of 1,800 working in an industry which makes up an estimated 20% of total post-production spending - or£70m annually from a total UK television post spend of£350m.
And with facilities taking a bigger and bigger slice of the action, it's no wonder that players such as St Anne's and TSI continue to invest heavily in audio kit to keep up with rising demand. "Last year was amazing for sound," enthuses St Anne's Williams, whose facility did audio on dramas No Angels, Dalziel and Pascoe, Monarch of the Glenand Shamelessand even had to turn away several big projects because it was already operating at full capacity.
Anvil Post Production has also had a steady year thanks to a combination of features work and a steady stream of high-end drama such as Midsomer Murders, Ultimate Force, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, Doc Martinand Heartless. Says studio manager Mike Anscombe: "The last 12 months have been excellent and although 2005 has had a quiet start it's beginning to build up."
Anscombe, who has seen Anvil relocated from Deluxe's Denham HQ to new facilities in Perivale - just 10 minutes from White City - adds: "But rates are fairly flat. In fact they haven't increased much in the last four to five years. An hour's worth of full sound on a drama will still cost around£15-20,000."
Drama has tended to hold its own for obvious reasons. With many productions made with the expectation of international sales, sound quality has to be spot on.
But St Anne's Williams points out one downside with drama. "Budget squeezes are resulting in shorter production schedules for drama, which inevitably means that more productions are failing to hit their lock down dates. That has a big knock-on effect for audio - because the delivery date doesn't change," he says. "Mixes ended up not going as smoothly as they should have - something that seemed to happen a lot last year.
On one drama we ended up having to set up a mobile ADR (automated dialogue replacement) unit to go and collect actors' voiceovers with a DAT recorder in hotel rooms. Hardly ideal."
According to Sound Monsters' Jones, sound quality on the growing number of drama documentaries such as If...has been one of the few positive developments in a broadcast market that has seen standards slipping. And nowhere more so that reality TV, a genre which gives sound an increasingly low priority.
In fact poor quality sound recording in reality shows is one of the biggest sound trends, according to Nigel Edwards, senior dubbing mixer at The Farm.
St Anne's Williams agrees. "We did a lot of reality TV last year which didn't really have a sound budget, but maybe squeezed in half a day to clean it up at the end."
Williams admits that the routinely low priority the genre gives to sound can cause real headaches. "On one show last year we had an AP with not much experience going out with a DVcam to shoot in somebody's flat," recalls Williams. "All you could hear was the washing machine in the background. They said: 'Well, you can fix it post, can't you?'
We had to say: 'Not if it's not there in the first place!' They had to reshoot the entire sequence."
Resolution dubbing mixer Dan Gable agrees that the growth of shooting on DVcams with built-in mics, such as the PD150, has meant that sound editors and dubbing mixers spend as much time trying to make sound audible as they do working on making it sound great. But on the other hand it has also served to remind producers of the importance of the work of sound departments. "Much of the time we are restoring badly recorded sound and making it usable - crafting badly recorded dialogue. The dubs are making a big difference, helping make audio more important in terms of production values."
In fact The Farm's Edwards declares that reality TV has helped make the locked off world of sound as the final part of the post-production jigsaw a thing of the past - no bad thing.
"With a lot of fast turnaround reality TV, from Big Brotherto The Farmand The Salonit's impossible to build audio post-production into the schedule," admits Edwards, who adds that even the sound on shows such as Room 101and Jonathan Ross's talkshow are now done by video editors.
Says Edwards: "It's kind of a shame but it's an opportunity for the audio industry to stop being quite so closed off from the rest of post-production."
The problem, of course, is that some audio specialists wouldn't have it any other way. Edwards insists: "Audio is a strange business, full of peculiarly opinionated people who don't want to have much to do with video. But the future has to be in a closer connection to video. The whole thing needs to be much more streamlined.
"The days of programmes being locked off and sent for the dub are long gone. Now it's all about editing right up until the last minute."
Investment: are there returns on audio?
While investors are queuing up to sink their funds into some of the UK's top independent producers, how would they feel about taking an interest in a slice of the audio post-production market?
Audio assets have certainly played their part in the valuation of businesses such as Teddington Studios, recently bought by Pinewood Shepperton for£2.7m, but the consensus, even amongst the UK's major audio players, is that there are better ways to make a fast buck.
"There are a lot of other things that give a better return," admits Anvil Post Production's Mike Anscombe, who points out that the reason Technicolor bought Anvil was that the acquisition of a high-end audio specialist made sense for the group in offering a wider range of services.
Videosonics' Dennis Weinreich adds: "Twenty three years ago, when I launched the business, it looked like a great way to make money. But it didn't turn out that way. Don't get me wrong, we have been successful." Weinriech, who runs an outfit with nearly 50 employees, adds: "But is anybody going to get rich in audio? No - it doesn't have the margins of areas such as visual effects."
Another drawback is that you'll be taking on a business that requires heavy investment, says audio equipment reseller Ben Nemes. "To work accurately in sound you'll need soundproof rooms and voiceover booths. Then there's the complexity of the build. Audio suites are rooms within rooms with floating floors so you don't get the vibrations of tube trains. It's not just a matter of pitching it on the nearest desk like an Avid."
If you are going to invest then avoid specialists focusing on single market sectors. Says The Farm's Nigel Edwards: "It makes you more exposed to the vagaries of that market - particularly if a company specialises in commercials. VTR really suffered in 2000-2003 because the first thing that happens in a recession is that nobody does advertising."
St Anne's Keith Williams agrees. "If it was my money I'd find it very difficult to invest in any single strand business."
But it's interesting if a star performer or two are locked in, he adds encouragingly.
The importance of expertise: Staffing
A good dubbing mixer is worth his or her weight in gold to any audio specialist or facility because, like colourists or visual effects gurus, they act as magnets to producers who always prefer to work with recognised talent rather than a corporate logo.
It's because of this that the most highly regarded member of the sound department - the dubbing mixer - tends to be a salaried, full-time staff member. But freelance labour still plays a big role in audio post, accounting for half the UK's 1,800 strong audio workforce according to Skillset, with the most common freelance occupation being that of sound editor.
Freelance staff have always been key, declares St Anne's Keith Williams, who adds that with producers running production schedules increasingly close to the wire, it's a situation that's unlikely to change. St Anne's Post, for example has got 11 full-time staff operating its suites and sound studios but had to take on another five freelancers last year to cope with surges in demand. "Often we'd only get 24 hours' notice before we had to start work on track laying," reveals Williams.
The number of staff in audio specialists and facility sound departments typically ranges between five and 50, with many specialists coping with variations in demand by employing a core of staffers backed up by an army of freelance labour.
And despite increasingly powerful desktop sound editing with Pro Tools, laying down broadcast sound is still regarded as an art. "Quality dubbing is a definite skill," says Resolution's Dan Gable. "You can't just buy the kit and expect to be able to do a top job."
Videosonics' Dennis Weinreich agrees: "People may be buying increasingly powerful post-production technology but that doesn't mean they are using it creatively. Sitting in front of a piano doesn't turn you into Mozart."
The art of noise: audio kit
Where audio post-production differs from video is in the diverse range of editing kit used by its practitioners. From Pro Tools to Pyramix, Sound Forge and Audiofile, it seems that anything goes compared to the relatively homogenous world of video post-production. But if there's one piece of kit that has stood out from the crowd recently it's Pro Tools, the powerful sound recording and editing software which Digidesign hopes to turn into the audio version of Avid.
"Its dominance will just get stronger and stronger," predicts Anvil's Mike Anscombe. "You can't not have Pro Tools now and be a big player in audio post. We do a lot of foreign language mixing on our dramas and everybody around the world is able to use it."
One of the system's biggest pluses is it interfaces well with Avid. Says Resolution's Dan Gable: "I can see a day when an offline editor can tweak more of the audio on Avid which can then translate directly into Pro Tools (currently any audio work done by an offline editor gets lost)."
Another advantage of Pro Tools is its cost - a third of the price of systems such as AMS. But not everybody is a fan. "It's the Hoover of the industry," argues Wildtracks Paul Headland. "We have to work very fast and Pro Tools is complex. We are not convinced that it's the right box for us because it's a bit convoluted and would slow us down."
BBC Post dubbing mixer Steve Hudson adds: "Pro Tools originated in the music industry and has been made to fit with broadcast rather than designed specifically for broadcast. Some operations such as dialogue matching are very fiddly. Its strength is that it fits well with digital network-based systems and it's good for magazines and reality TV."
Wildtracks, which has used DAR for years, is already looking at investing in the next generation of sound kit. Headland has no doubts that tapeless sound editing will be big going forward. "We already work with MP3 files for clients like Cartoon Network and we are sure that tapeless will be the next big trend, as we move to working with all our major clients online."
It also seems likely that consumers will be forcing the pace as much as broadcasters when it comes to the next generation of sound technology, with a burgeoning DVD market and increasingly sophisticated home cinema systems encouraging the adoption of format such as Dolby 5.1 and Surround Sound. "5.1 is becoming quite industry standard now," says The Farm's Nigel Edwards, with US broadcasters such as Discovery keen on the format.
Scrubs sales chief Ben Nemes adds: "More and more broadcasters are asking for facilities to deliver Surround mixes."
It's driven in part by the gradual adoption of HD, he adds: "If you are spending a lot of money on HD natural history footage for example, you need to future-proof it. So you'll want to post the sound in Surround, otherwise you are putting a sell-by date on your content."
Top recording tips
Producer Choice: how to get the most out of sound
In one famous TV experiment (well, famous amongst dubbing mixers anyway) an audience was sat in front of two identical short films and asked to compare how the two films looked and which they preferred.
In fact the films were visually identical - it was the soundtracks which were different, one being better than the other. Needless to say the audience preferred the film with the best sound, proving that it's worth spending time and - dare we say it - a bit of cash on audio post-production.
As Anvil Post Production's studio manager Mike Anscombe points out: "If producers give us a fair crack at a budget we can transform a show. If you take time with sound it adds so much."
It's a point not lost on James Mather, supervising sound editor on Aardman Animation's latest£20m Wallace and Gromit excursion. Mather, who was responsible for a sound budget of£1m and the hiring of foley artists and sound editors, recommends building plenty of extra time into artists' voice records. "You have to bear in mind that some are better than others at performing blind in a sound studio. You have to allow for a lot of re-recording to get what you want."
Mather also recommends workshopping a script before the ADR. "It gives you an idea of the pace of the script - how it reads. I like to run it through an amateur dramatics workshop to see how the dialogue actually works."
When subcontracting, he advises that some parts of sound design are better farmed out than others. "Foley is most suited but I wouldn't advise it with dialogue editing. That's best done with close directorial control within an in-house production team."
But if you don't have much time or a budget the size of a Hollywood blockbuster, there are a few basics ways to improve your sound. BBC Post dubbing mixer Steve Hudson's advice is to stretch to a sound recordist instead of camera mics when using minicams.
When you have footage with poor sound quality, Resolution's Dan Gable recommends dealing with it at the offline stage. "Audio's always the last thing on everyone's mind, but don't leave it to the final dub to make your mind up over scenes that are marginal because of the audio quality. Send them to the dubbing mixer at the offline," he advises. "What I'm doing more and more is cleaning up material and sending it back at the offline. That way a programme-maker can decide whether it's good enough to use much earlier."
Videosonics' Dennis Weinreich insists it's important to establish a relationship with your sound department early on. "Just as you would know who your editor would be before you shoot the first frame so - if you are going to take sound seriously - you should know who your sound editor is going to be."
Early communication can also save you money, adds The Farm's Nigel Edwards. "We can usually come up with a way of saving time on the sound edit, which also by implication means saving money."
"It's easy for us to get involved early on to make sure that our operators talk to location sound recordists or studios where they are recording material so we rarely come across big problems at the post stage."
And when you are at final dub stage make sure that all your ducks are in a row, says Keith Williams. "From the ADR to the composer's final changes it's all got to be ready when it comes to the final mix." If you are still waiting for approvals then the dub may have to be redone, so set clear deadlines, he declares.
And while many sound recordists may have issues with powerful editing packages such as Pro Tools, remember they can offer added flexibility when time is short. As Resolution's Dan Gable points out: "A few weeks ago we had such a tight turnaround on a docu-drama we had four sound suites going at the same time; dialogue, effects, foley, music, and then merged them. It certainly speeds things up."