More Bang Bang for your Buck!!!

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An Interview with Stephen Renfree from Bang Bang Studios

There are some studios that voice over artists just love to work at.  Bang Bang Studios in Melbourne is one of them, great atmosphere, great people, great coffee – after the job of course – and most important of all, great sound.  When I get a call for a job at Bang Bang, I can be sure of two things.  It’ll be a quality script…and I’ll sound great.

Just over a year ago business partner’s Stephen Renfree and Polly McGregor moved Bang Bang into a new space down in South Melbourne.  Recently I talked to Stephen, principal sound designer, about the move and what it’s meant to the creative process…as well as drilling him on a few things voiceovery

The new studio has given Bang Bang something they knew they needed…space.  The previous studio had position, position, position, on the waterfront at Port Melbourne but the control room and sound booth weren’t big enough to cater for what was needed. The move into South Melbourne to the 1st floor of a large 30’s style building has given them all the space they’ve needed and more.

As Stephen says, “We needed two full control rooms and a central booth and, because we’re doing a lot of composition, we needed to fit a drum kit in there”.

Another reason for the need for more space is that Stephen loves to get the environments that they record in to be as close as possible to the scripted location.  So the sound booth has curtains all the way around, which makes the studio quite dead…good for straight voiceovers, and if a move lively sound is needed, they just open the curtains up and expose the flat plaster walls.

“Instead of actually carpeting the floor, we put in a wooden floor and threw a rug over it which we can pull out to make the studio even move lively. Also, because of the kinds of projects we work on, we needed to be able to easily accommodate half a dozen people, as we did not so long ago.  We had to produce a radio add where there were 6 people sitting around discussing their problems…and you don’t want that stuff to be too dead, so we opened up all the curtains and pulled out the rug…and it worked very well”.

The other thing that Stephen has done is install microphone terminals all over the building,

“We can set up mics outside the studio if we want a boardroom situation, for instance.  We also have some plugs right down the back, so if we need to record in a bathroom, a kitchen or even the back fire escape stairs, which is all concrete, we can easily just run a lead from the plug.  If you want to get a heckler at a political rally, the back stairwell is just the place to record them.  For instance, what if you get a job that’s recorded in a car? I mean, why wouldn’t you actually record it in a car and get that nice boxy sound?  And if you really want to live on the edge you’d give the actors the scripts the night before, let them memorise it and then go for a drive.”

I asked Stephen why he favoured this way of creating reality with location sound when there were so many sound effects and atmosphere tracks available.

“You know, even with all of the fabulous digital plug-ins that you can get these days that echo various environments and I’m sorry…I may be a bit old-fashioned but it’s nicer to get into the real thing…and I think it actually helps the actor sometimes.  If you’re trying to record a board meeting, sitting people around a boardroom table with mics discretely placed helps the actors achieve a more realistic performance.”

Stephen agrees that the studio can be a very stark environment.  It can be quite intimidating.  You have nothing to play to.  You’re standing in a box, reading from a script, talking into a microphone, two sheets of glass separating you from an engineer, a creative and a couple of marketing people.  It’s not easy for everyone to jump into the reality of the world they’re trying to create.

Stephen says, “Some voiceover artists are brilliant at jumping into that world, jumping into someone else’s skin and creating a believable performance but I think you can really hear the difference when you’ve spent the time trying to create something that’s more authentic to the world you’re jumping into”.

The work that comes through Bang Bang is mostly a mix of radio and television and they never know what the mix of that’s going to be from one week to the next.  The clients Steven says are, “…a loyal band, who I guess provide us with 80% of our work. Many of our clients are people I’ve been working with for years. They come in. They feel comfortable. They know they’ll get a consistency of work and they like the relationship…and the rest comes from either the one-off things that walk through the door, or the odd person who studio hops and decides they want to try you out.”

“By the time we get the job, cast it and start talking to voiceover artists about it, that job could have been in existence for many months. It’s been worked on, market researched, and massaged, and sometimes by the time it reaches the point where it gets made, every body’s heartily sick of it.”   So for Stephen and everyone at Bang Bang, the task is to inject new enthusiasm into it.

“Creating ads can be a long process and we get to be involved in the best part, the spontaneity of realizing the job in the studio.  It’s such a spontaneous business and as you know spontaneity can lead to so many wonderful things, things you never expected, or thought about, or could never have written.”

I asked Steven about the other types of work that come through the studio.

“From a voiceover point of view the long-form work that can be interesting is the corporate stuff or any narration basically.  However, the skill required to do this well is that the voiceover artist need to be able to read brilliantly.  It may be okay working with a voiceover artist, who just happens to have the right voice, on a 15 second or 30 second commercial and taking it line by line, or editing bits together, but to record and edit a 15 minute read, with someone who struggles through it line by line, is agony.

Stephen says the skills are that you have to be able to read aloud without making mistakes.

“Technically you need to be clear.  Reading doesn’t just mean getting the words out in the right order.  It means understanding punctuation and importantly understanding what the author had in mind.  Sometimes, if a corporate is long, say over 10 minutes, we try to get it in advance and email it to the voice artist, and the beauty of that is that you can start recording straight away.”

Stephen says that the challenge with corporate’s and narrations though is that they’re not always written very well.  They’re often written by someone used to writing for written word, not spoken word, so sometimes these types of scripts can be very formal in tone and you have to get your head around that fairly quickly.  If something is clunky and formal, it’s okay to discuss making it more natural.

One final work on studio technique from Steven.

“One thing you must always do when faced with any script is ask this question; who am I talking to?  Am I talking to the workforce, the public, a board of directors etc.  The answer to that question will always flavour the read.”

I asked Stephen how he liked to receive voice demos.  “Emailed mp3’s are fine.  These days we almost always email demos to our clients.  Demos, as far as possible, should contain only your voice.  It’s also nice to get a little bit of a letter that gives some kind of a feel for the person, just a brief rundown of experience.  We’re very happy to receive demos and they do get listened to and if we hear a demo from someone we haven’t worked with before that we like and have a job that’s relatively simple, we might give them a fly.  If it’s more complicated we might bring them in for an audition.

We like getting a demo that has a little bit of ordinary speaking voice as well, not a scripted thing, really natural.  Umm’s and ahhh’s are okay.  It just needs to be absolutely natural not your produced speaking voice.

If you have a demo that you’d like to send to Bang Bang, feel free and if you’d like the experience of working at this studio with Stephen, then contact me about the Studio Experience sessions in August because Bang Bang will be our Studio on Tuesday August 9th.