Proving The Value Of Craft At Earthsound Foley

In a world of digital samples and extensive sound effects libraries, a production company in the UK is determined to preserve the art and craft of Foley sound. Foley is the recording and performance of sound effects that are added to films, videos, and other media in postproduction to bring the on-screen images to life.

Rob Price is a sound designer with a passion for recording sound in new and interesting ways. His partner, Jason Swanscott, has been performing sound-to-picture for more than 30 years as one of the UK's leading Foley Artists. Together they founded Earthsound Foley and created a state-of-the-art Foley production studio inside a barn they built in the English countryside of Bedfordshire in 2021. The work—including such films as “The Wonder,” “The Covenant”, “Kandahar,” and “The Inventor””—has been steady ever since.

“Rob and I have worked together for many years on other projects, but in building this studio, we've been able to take our work to another level,” said Swanscott. “The idea was to build a large space in which we could accommodate all kinds of big props and spacious surfaces, allowing us to handle any sound big or small.”

Down On The Farm

The studio, designed by Price and Swanscott, was built with performance and realism in mind. Featuring 1,000 sq ft of recording space (and with many older studios gone) Earthsound Foley is now the largest Foley studio in the UK, complete with multiple textured surfaces and audio acoustic treatments on the walls and ceiling that Price says is the key to their sonic success. Careful planning, a solid foundation (literally) and audio acoustics were critical.

“The solid foundation of the recording surfaces is designed to mimic the real pavements and concrete surfaces you get in real life,” said Price. “Essentially everything in the design was to get us as close to reality as possible, including unevenness and random imperfection built into the concrete surfaces.”

The state-of-the-art Foley production studio is located inside a barn they built in the English countryside of Bedfordshire.

The state-of-the-art Foley production studio is located inside a barn they built in the English countryside of Bedfordshire.

One of the first things they did soon after taking over the barn was to dig out 16.5 tons of rubble from the floor and replace it with 19 tons of concrete. On top of that they built a dozen two meters x 1.5m surfaces (pebbles, wood, glass, metal, etc.) for the recording of footsteps. These surfaces are designed in long strips rather than the traditional small Foley pits, in order to allow for long lateral movement along the surfaces.

“Think actually walking as opposed to performing footsteps 'on the spot'.” said Price. These sections of surfaces are not connected to each other, so there’s no transition from one surface to the next. This keeps the floor “resonances” contained and ensures that each surface has a unique sound.

They’ve divided the room into two halves. One is made up of floors that need a solid base. Those are things that they dug the dug the foundation out for. And the other side is made up of surfaces that they wanted to create “resonance.” For that they built a large wooden floor surface and then dug wood surfaces into that.

“In one half of the room the floor was dug out and replaced to create solid surfaces with little resonance,” said Price. “In the other half of the room, a large wooden platform was built up on top of the floor and the resonant. sounding surfaces are mounted into that.

“So we have a kind of resonant, deep interior wood side of the room,” said Swanscott, “And then we have a tighter exterior concrete side of the room.”

Lessons Learned

“Both of us have worked in loads of different studios over the years, so we’ve learned a few lessons,” Price said. “I think Jason has worked in every single Foley recording studio in the UK. So we kind of came into this with this whole list of things in our head of what we've loved in certain spaces in the past and what we haven’t. Okay, Having a large room was absolutely key to us. One of the main reasons for that is a lot of the larger studios in the UK over the last ten years have disappeared, so we felt like we were lacking the spaces in the UK to really do these bigger projects.

The Foley studio features high ceilings and audio acoustic treatments on the walls and ceiling.

The Foley studio features high ceilings and audio acoustic treatments on the walls and ceiling.

“There's something about when you perform a really loud, humongous sound, you can't record it in a small space,” he continued. “In smaller rooms there are resonances in low and mid frequencies that are difficult to contain. Also smaller rooms tend to have to be heavily treated with absorbent materials on the walls, leading to an overly dead sound when performing loud effects.

“It just gets completely eaten up and you get 'nasty low-mid reflections.,” Price added. “We knew we wanted a large, expansive space. And we wanted a space where the acoustics were kind of changeable so we could change the room or surface according to the scene we’re working on.”

Recording Sound Effects the Old Fashioned Way

Therefore, eschewing prepared sounds effects and fancy digital gear, they prefer to create them from scratch - like Foley work has been done for decades since the early days of film making - recognizing that custom sounds are often the key to a more realistic sound effect.

“I'd say compared to the rest of sound post-production, we're fairly low tech in Foley,” he said. “It's often a lot more about the array of objects and surfaces. That's our kind of technology, really. And a lot of microphones placed in the right location for each unique sound.”

Mic choices include AKG Acoustics, Neumann, and Schoeps, all fitted with a variety of different capsules to capture sound in unique ways. A mixture of audio monitors set up around the studio include Yamaha near-field models and are in the process of installing large screen that serves as their main monitoring setup, made up of Dynaudio active speakers.

“I love the Schoeps microphones because they're kind of workhorses,” said Price. “They can be applied to almost any sound. But we use other microphones for various other specific tools. There’s certain microphones that sound really great for recording paper, for example, or a microphone that would sound really great for handling small details like skin touches or huge crashes. So it helps to have a lot of variety.

“However, sometimes you want to stay with the same brand of microphone for the entirety of a particular project,” he said. “That allows us to have a kind of consistency to the sound, because if you change microphones on every take, you're not really having a kind of consistency of sound, which is also important. I rarely record a take with just one microphone up, there is nearly always at least two.”

The studio features a dozen surfaces (pebbles, wood, glass, metal, etc.) upon a concrete floor in which they create their unique sound effects.

The studio features a dozen surfaces (pebbles, wood, glass, metal, etc.) upon a concrete floor in which they create their unique sound effects.

Fast File Transfers & Collaborative Workflows

Currently, finished audio files are delivered to the client via fast, secure file transfer technology, but one innovation that is being considered is for the Foley editor having live access to the files, perhaps via the cloud or Internet.

“The Foley Editor edits, cleans up and performs additional design to the Foley,” said Price. “We have considered live streaming a session, but only to show the process more accurately to people who are interested (there's a lot of misinformation online about this job!).”

This, Price said, would make the recording sessions more of a sort of three person collaboration rather because the editor could be cutting as the production crew shoots and feeds back the images to Earthsound Foley.

The pair has established a true working partnership, where one might finish the other’s thought process in a free flowing kind of way. On most projects, while Price can be seen mixing sound on an Avid S3 control surface with 16 touch-sensitive, motorized faders running ProTools software, Swanscott is often fiddling with new ways to get a specific sound. Like creaking a pak choi (chinese cabbage) in his hands to replicate the sound of a bug walking - for a recent animated film.

For most projects, the client will send them the picture with sound, leaving room for sound effects. Price said they might give him a few notes from the director, “but basically they just give it to us and say, ‘work your magic and do what you think is going to work on it.’

“The best jobs happen when you have a dialogue with the rest of the sound team,” he said. “That's when you get really good work. Sometimes you just don't get that dialogue, but we always say the more dialogue you have with the sound effects editors about what they've covered, what they haven't covered, you get a better job as a result.”

Foley Work Should Be Spontaneous

“Most of the Foley effects we create are quite spontaneous,” said Price. “So, Jason might be designing a sound for an animated cockroach scuttling across the floor. We didn't really approach it with any idea what we're going to do, but Jason sat there and he was just playing around with objects. I couldn't actually see him over the other side of the room. And was sitting there just listening to this sort of stream-of-nonsense sound coming into my headphones.

The company makes heavy use of an Avid S3 mixing system and ProTools software to create a myriad of sounds for movies and TV projects.<br />

The company makes heavy use of an Avid S3 mixing system and ProTools software to create a myriad of sounds for movies and TV projects.

“As I was playing around with different pitch plugins and doing stuff on my side, Jason was sitting there with a rubber glove, stretching it out and making all these different kinds of creaky tonal noises,” Price said. “So none of us ever went into a library and started searching. We just started, you know, spontaneously trying to create something. And the two of us together, combining that into a sound is where the magic happens.”

Conquering Obsolescence In A Digital World

So, what about the fact that many of the wonderful effects created at Earthsound Foley might be found within a sound effects library? Ever the artist, Swanscott said that they won’t make his job obsolete anytime soon. In fact, he thinks that Foley work might be one of the few disciplines within the production industry where you really have to be an artist to do the job well.

“I don't feel particularly at risk compared to anyone else,” he said. “Within sound, I think, you know, it's the skills and knowledge that you have, the approach you take when you come to a scene in a film, that are what make your work stand out. It’s having the idea in my brain for a sound effect that’s important, not the technical aspect to it.

“Essentially, all of the sounds you have in a sound library were originally recorded somewhere,” he said. “So you need recording spaces. Secondly, what we're doing is providing organic sounds that are bespoke for the film. And the most important thing is that they're unique to the character and every film has unique characters.”

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