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Audio post’s Soho rollercoaster ride

The UK audio post-production sector continues its unpredictable course. The comings and goings in London carry on but many facilities are investing in expansion and refurbishment as economic conditions improve. And while Pro Tools remains dominant, Avid is not having things all its own way.

Post-production has never been a rock solid business proposition. It is susceptible to the vagaries of both the broadcasting and advertising industries, which either impose tight budgets or cut back on spending altogether depending on their own financial fortunes. This in turn can often make high property rents and rates difficult to manage. On top of this is the pressure to keep abreast of technological changes, installing the latest gear or software to be on a par with the competition and offer clients what they expect.

Soho in central London is the traditional centre of post-production in the UK, sustaining many facilities, including specialist audio houses alongside “one-stop shops” and dedicated graphics/visual effects companies. In the last 20 years the Square Mile has seen its fair share of casualties amongst both sound-only operations and those that offer audio and video as a package.

The most recent casualty was Rain Post, which opened with much hoopla and expectation in September 2011 but went into liquidation during March this year.

But the London post scene is nothing if not a place of checks and balances. Just as Rain was going under BBC Studios and Post Production opened a facility in Charlotte Street, on the other side of Oxford Street from Soho. This houses a 5.1 dubbing room and is looking to attract general work as well as serving BBC productions.

Over the years Soho has lost a number of big name facilities but during 2012 it faced losing one of the biggest, Molinare. The 40-year-old company is now secure again after being bought by a consortium headed by Steve Milne, one-time chief executive of Molinare who left the company in 2010, and managing director Julie Parmenter. Last year Milne commented that Dub A needed investment and this happened recently with the installation of a Avid S5 Fusion console, Pro Tools HDX, version 10 software and JBL Cinema loudspeaker rig.

Molinare started out in 1973 as an audio-only facility and expanded into video editing and graphics. Another Soho company that began as an audio specialist but then diversified is the Jungle Group. The company has returned to its roots since the forced closure of its Dean Street premises led to its visual effects and production operation being hived off. (Read more in PSNEurope’s interview with Jungle’s Owen Griffiths)

Jungle is currently consolidating its audio studios in one building on Wardour Street, aiming to re-open with ten Fairlight Xynergi/EVO equipped studios by early August. Graham Ebbs (pictured), Jungle’s managing director, comments that audio post is “still a tough market” but that over the “last couple of years broadcast has been a bit better”. Jungle’s main focus is the commercials sector, which, Ebbs says, has taken longer to return to its regular level: “In the last six months we’ve seen more people spending money but today I don’t know of anyone who is charging rate card any more.”

Lisa Jordan, facility director of LipSync Post, agrees, saying the company “doesn’t really work to rate card”, adding that prices have come up again after a “slow recession”. LipSync has two Dolby EX equipped dubbing theatres for feature films and two rooms dedicated to high-end TV drama. Editing and recording is on Avid Pro Tools, with mixing through three AMS Neve DFCs, a Libra Post and a Logic 3.

Pro Tools is now the dominant DAW for post-production but while Avid is getting a high proportion of the control surface/console market with the ICON and now former Euphonix products like the S5 Fusion, not all facilities have followed suit on the mixing side. “The DFCs are still the best sounding desks,” says Paul Cotterell, LipSync’s senior re-recording mixer. “But while some producers are into their technology we don’t generally discuss the technical side with them too much. We don’t want to come across as boring sound people.”

Graham Ebbs at Jungle says the company “looked long and hard” at other systems for its refit but decided to stay with Fairlight: “Partly we didn’t want to have the training issue but the Xynergi is a very good piece of kit, particularly when you want to edit quickly.”

Ebbs observes that more powerful software and computer processing has enabled a lot of post work, particularly on the visual side, to be done on Macs or PC instead of expensive specific hardware. In audio some productions now have editorial done on laptops in offices and even voiceovers recorded are at home facilities. “Audio studios have to be built properly to do the job,” Ebbs argues, “and it’s better to do everything under one roof with the right facilities, including editing. And an A-list star doesn’t want to record in someone’s bedroom, so you’ve got to have a proper booth in the West End.”

Paul Cotterell agrees that technology has changed but does not see setting up a cutting room outside of a facility as too threatening. “People always need a base at the end of the production process for the mix and we’re offering things they can get anywhere else,” he concludes.