Fiona Cruickshank is a London-based freelance sound engineer that started her audio career at the legendary AIR Studios and now works under the studios’ management in a freelance capacity. Starting out with a passion for music but an uncertainty about where she fitted into that landscape, she entered the world of audio engineering as a way in. Here, Cruickshank takes us through her experience as a sound engineer and her work on a diverse range of projects from Jacob Collier to Mary Poppins Returns…
How did you get into the industry?
I had private piano lessons as a kid and my teacher had a home studio with keyboards, a Hammond and a wall of modular synths, plus a mixing desk and recording setup. I started asking questions about the gear, so he asked if I’d like to help him record his band. From then on my piano lessons became audio engineering lessons on everything from signal flow to cables, microphones, recording techniques, etc. He realised my interest was serious and encouraged me to study sound at university.
What made you want to be an audio engineer?
I love music but wasn’t really interested in (or very good at) the writing and performing aspects. I was always listening to albums and appreciating the details, wondering how they made it; I got fascinated with gear and sounds.
What is your background?
I did the Tonmeister course in Music and Sound Recording at the University of Surrey. It had fantastic links with the industry and I managed to land a placement job at AIR Studios. I’ve basically been there ever since. I worked my way up from runner to assistant, then Pro Tools recordist and engineer.
How was it working at AIR Studios?
It has such a brilliant family vibe, everyone is super close and every day you’re working with people at the top of their game. Every department is always looking for ways to improve, from new equipment to nicer coffee. Just over a year ago I ‘graduated’ to AIR Management, which means I am now freelance and engineering full time. It’s been fun to work at lots of different studios and meet other teams around London.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
An album with Dot Allison, music editing on a Disney film and recording/mixing a score with Oli Julian.
What has been your favourite project?
That is an impossible question. I have been lucky enough to work with some of my heroes – Dario Marianelli, Alberto Iglesias, Keaton Henson and Jacob Collier – and one of my dream projects was working on Mary Poppins Returns with Marc Shaiman.
Anyone you want to work with but haven’t yet?
Beck – I think the sound of every record he makes is something to aspire to. And Hildur Gudnadottir – I’ve met her a couple of times and she’s so lovely. Her work is amazing and what she’s doing for women in film and music is super inspiring.
What is your favourite pieces of kit?
One of my favourite things about being freelance is having to make things work on the varying gear at different studios. So my chosen gear for recording changes a lot day to day. I grew up on Neve desks so they’re probably my favourite. If I bought mics it would be the DPA 4006s, Neumann U89s and Neumann KM86s. Mix wise I lean heavily on Universal Audio plugins, Soundtoys, and a variety of reverbs. I usually have to mix completely in the box and the UA emulations of analogue gear sound best to me.
Must-have skills as an audio engineer?
I think an audio engineer should be nice and have no ego. Great records have been made with cheap or minimal gear – so it’s more about the artist feeling comfortable. And know your gear really well.
What can we be doing to encourage more women into an audio career?
Workshops for female students to show them what sort of audio jobs are out there. There are some great events being put on in London, but that excludes those that can’t afford to travel here. We need to be visible and show that not only are there female engineers and producers out there, but that they are successful and respected. I also think the software and audio equipment companies could do a lot more to include their female users in their interviews and testimonials.