She needs to use technical recording equipment to make a play sound as realistic as possible, transporting the listener to Germany, Paris, a swimming pool, or wherever the play is set!
Eloise dropped into Tomorrow's Engineers on her way to Radio 1 to tell us about how she got into this fun job and the challenge behind creating a sound effect for people being sick...
Watch our sound effects-filled video and read the full interview below!
Name: Eloise Whitmore
Job: Freelance sound engineer/sound designer (mainly for radio and television)
Can you explain what a sound engineer does?
A sound engineer in radio, film, TV or animation records all the spoken audio and acoustics for the entire programme; whether that’s a feature or a drama. The effects are added afterwards, like dogs barking and doors opening. Basically it’s recording all the sound and mixing it together.
You’ve been a sound engineer and a sound designer in your career – what’s the difference between the two?
A sound engineer uses good microphones to record quality audio and can edit and EQ that audio to get the best sound (EQ means equalisation - altering frequencies like bass and treble - Ed). It’s often a lot about technique and how you actually use the microphone and place the boom. They will then use EQ to get the best sound. They might take the bass out of someone’s voice if they’re too bass-heavy.
A sound designer, particularly in drama, is creating a whole world out of sound. We made a play that was set in Africa so it’s about creating all the sounds of Africa, making the listener believe they’re really there in that country and not in the studio with a soundtrack behind.
It’s important to know when to use silence as well, as it’s often about what isn’t said, not what is said.
Can you talk us through what your involvement is in a project?
The main work I do is recording radio dramas. The producer comes up with the idea for a pitch. It might be an adaptation of a book or it might be an original idea.
I will add what I think the play will sound like and how we will do this. Then I actually record the play on location with my boom (a directional microphone that’s attached to a long pole – Ed) and edit in post-production.
I add wild track to the speech we’ve recorded. This is the background, skyline, birds, wind and any effects that we might need and the music.
So what first got you involved in sound engineering or interested in what you do?
I was interested in sound and radio as an A-Level student. I took a course run at a local council-run recording studio, learning how to attach microphones to a drum kit or a band, record as well as EQ. From that I went on to do degree level and got a job at the BBC.
Tell us what you studied at A-Level and university
At A-Levels I studied English Literature, Communication Studies, Film Studies, and Media Studies. Then I went to university at Exeter Art College, which is now part of Plymouth University, to study Media and Design Arts.
In my final year, when most people were specialising in film I made the most of a sound studio that had just been built there and specialised in audio instead.
Do you use your school subjects today?
A lot of things I learnt at university I use now - the basics of EQ, the basics of sound design.
But, I’d say I could have made use of going down a physics and maths route. Physics, science and maths are important for being a sound engineer, especially understanding EQ.
The media’s all about constantly coming up with new ideas and learning to work in teams - they’re all really useful things that you use in the real world. I’m very creative, I know the sound I want but sometimes I think if I’d known more science and maths it would have helped.
What kind of personal qualities do you need to do your job?
The first thing you need to be a sound engineer is you need a really good pair of ears because you need to be able to pick out sounds. My sight is terrible but I have very acute hearing. I’ll walk into a building and I can hear how loud the lights are, I can hear the air conditioning (particularly loud at Tomorrow’s Engineers – Ed). I’m terrible on trains because I’m always listening to other people’s conversations.
The second thing is you need to be able to get on with people. You need to be approachable.
You also need to be able to move around silently. A good pair of silent trainers is essential.
How do you look after your ears?
I’m always sticking my hands in my ears if I walk past diggers and I avoid loud concerts. I listened to a whole snow patrol gig like that once (hands in ears). It still sounded great but I was just really worried about the noise levels.
I’m always sticking my hands in my ears if I walk past diggers. I was on the tube yesterday. It was really noisy and I probably looked stupid with my hands in my ears. They earn me my living so I can’t afford to lose my hearing and I do have sensitive hearing.
What kind of technology and kit do you use?
I have different microphones for different things. We use lavalier (small microphones that you clip on to people’s clothing – Ed) for a more intimate sound. If we’re recording someone running or moving then I record on a little sound kit that I carry next to me. Then at home I edit on Pro Tools on a big Apple Mac.
In your job you’re out and about in the field quite a lot, can you tell us about some interesting places you’ve recorded?
I’m quite lucky because I’ve recorded in Canada, in Berlin and in Paris. I get to go around the world quite a lot. I work mainly in drama so we often need to be somewhere else. You can’t re-create the sounds of 1950s Berlin in London so we’ll often go wherever the play is set to get authentic voices or actors.
My favourite play that I’ve ever worked on is a play called “Goodbye to Berlin” which was all recorded in Berlin. I spent a week not just recording a play but going round the city and recording all these German sounds that I knew I wouldn’t be able to get in this country.
You’ve won a few awards in your career - can you tell us about one that you’re particularly proud of?
The projects, plays and programmes I’ve worked on have won quite a few awards which I’m very pleased with. The award I’m most proud of being nominated for was Sound Designer of the Year.
I think there were four of us shortlisted in there, three men and me. Although I didn’t win I was so proud to be there because there are very few female sound engineers and sound designers in the country… and I might win next time!
Women have often not traditionally gone into engineering roles - do you think women are well suited to what you do?
There are a fair few women sound engineers but it’s definitely still a male- dominated industry. I think women make great sound engineers and I don’t know why there aren’t more.
The important skills are knowing how to handle people, how to make people feel comfortable, working well with producers and directors we have to be good at listening too. They’re all skills that a man or woman can have.
What’s the most challenging scene or play that you’ve had to record for?
I get really excited when I get the script and I see there’s something exciting that needs to be recorded. Once we were recording a play about a hurdler. So I went to a track, put a microphone on myself up and ran around hurdling. I was trying to recreate the breathing because you can’t get that just running on the spot or pretending to breathe, you actually need the physical movement.
What’s the most amazing place that you’ve had to record sound?
One of the best programmes that I’ve ever worked on was a poetry programme on the druids (an ancient Celtic tribe – Ed) at Stonehenge. We had to arrive at 4am and started recording the druids chanting in the inner circle with my boom.
It got louder and louder and louder as the sun came up and I had the most incredible experience. All the hairs on my body stood on end and I think it’s an energy that you can feel when you listen back to the recording. Recording things like that is what my job’s all about and the kind of thing I really love.
You’ve also recorded in a swimming pool…
I tend to go wherever the play’s set. If the play is set in the swimming pool I insist to the producer that we go to a pool, which is what we did recently. We had two children going under the water trying to say things to each other. I covered the microphone to stop it getting wet and got a brilliant sound which could not have been recreated in the studio.
It sounds quite DIY, working out how you’re going to solve problems as you go along…
Sound design or sound engineering is DIY. What you often find is that physical objects don’t actually sound like what they are so you have to play with things until you find the right sound. My favourite is the “sick effect” which always entertains children. It’s vegetable soup in a hot water bottle. As the actor pretends to throw up you press it to your chest and it all splats on the floor.
I’ve just started working on an animation for the London fire brigade. It’s about a dog called Flea who saves his owners from starting fires. They gave me the pictures and I had to create all of the audio so I spend a lot of time recording dogs yapping, yelping and scratching themselves and running around on floors. It’s about getting the right sound to go with the pictures.
How did you become a Sound Engineer at the BBC?
From leaving university it took me two years to get a job at the BBC. That was the one thing I wanted to do so I applied for job after job, mainly at Production and Broadcast Assistant level. A Broadcast Assistant is somebody who puts the programme together, does all the paperwork, books the actors or the presenters and I knew that’s the level I had to go in at. I finally got in on my thirteenth interview.
From there I showed an interest in editing and being more technical so I managed to move into that side of the BBC. If anyone is interested in becoming a Sound Engineer at the BBC they should look at the programmes the BBC offers and try to get work experience or get onto any of the schemes they are offering where they can train you.
What advice would you give to someone who was interested in finding out more about sound engineering?
You should get involved with the radio station at your school, college or university. There you can learn about EQ, learn about putting microphones on a band and learn about the best recording techniques.
You could get involved with the sound in a theatre play at school. Try and get work experience at your local radio station. There are a lot of events companies that do big sound gigs so you could get maybe explore those.
Knowledge is the key with sound. The more you know the better you’re going to be and you don’t really know things until you start playing with equipment and working out which microphones sound good and which don’t.
A lot of companies have schemes like the BBC or ITV where you go in and you can actually do a year placement and learn on the job.
What are your favourite radio programmes outside of your work as well?
I listen to BBC Radio 4, which is still work really. I also listen to Xfm in Manchester which plays music I love and Classic FM sometimes. I often find myself listening to radio programmes with one ear for a bad edit.
What kind of things do you like to do outside of work?
I’m a really outdoors-y kind of person. I run a lot, go windsurfing and go for long walks. The rest of the time, if I’m not on location, I’m in a small dark studio or editing suite, editing. This is great and I love it, but you need some fresh air every now and again!