MPG Meet the Producer: Fiona Cruickshank

Audio Media International spoke with the Music Producers Guild (MPG) to highlight the great work that producers are doing and how they’ve coped with the challenges of the last year. Here we catch up with Fiona Cruickshank, freelance engineer and producer.

Based in London, Cruickshank worked in-house at AIR Studios for 11 years before joining AIR Management in 2018 and is now freelance, working across a range of major studios. As well as engineering and mixing, Cruickshank also works in classical and score editing, having worked on many high-profile projects including everything from The Grand Budapest Hotel to the Bowie biopic Stardust. Audio Media International sat down for a chat with Cruickshank (over Zoom, obviously), to find out more…

How has the pandemic changed the way you work over the last year and will any of those changes remain once things go back to ‘normal’?
The biggest thing is that we can’t all be in the same room anymore. So I’m doing a lot of mixing in my own studio, and then doing review sessions on Audiomovers and Zoom.

When it comes to recording, there’s a lot fewer people allowed in the studios, client-wise as well, so quite often that’s done remotely. And I think that’s something that might carry on, especially for American clients who might think that they don’t necessarily need to spend money to travel over if they can listen remotely in good quality and still give their feedback.

The other big difference is the layout for musicians. We have set them up two and a half metres, apart, so that’s been a big change in how we set up mics and how we record things. I think that will go back to traditional seating – I kind of miss the lovely blend of having them all sitting closer together.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
Right now, the [remote] comms. I’m having to think about all of that stuff when, when really I want to think about the creative part.

The ‘client interfacing’ is also still challenging. Because I do a lot of film work, the composer and the director or producer would usually be there and it’s all about helping the composer to keep their vision, but also making sure that the director is getting what they want.

Usually, I think it’s about translating what a producer wants to the musicians, especially if the composer is someone that doesn’t read a score, but does everything by ear. They know exactly what they want, but they don’t necessarily know how to communicate it. So it’s my job to get that across in the right way.

What bit of studio kit can you not live without?
Mixing-wise, I could not live without my you UAD plugins. I think they sound incredible and they do a lot of models of the kind of analogue gear that I learnt on at AIR.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a TV show with Keaton Henson. We just worked on a film called Supernova which was recently released in America and is coming out in the UK soon. Also, I’ve been working on an album with Dot Allison which is due to come out in the summer.

What project from your career so far did you enjoy the most?
It’s really hard to pick one, but one of my most memorable was when I assisted with Dario Marianelli. He’s one of my favourite film composers and getting to work with your heroes is obviously amazing. Also working with Keaton [Henson] has been great and Mary Poppins Returns was also a highlight. 

Which artists and/or producers are you listening to at the moment?
I’ve been kind of obsessed by The Staves’ record. And, I’ve also just started listening to the latest two from Taylor Swift – I can’t believe I haven’t listened to that yet. I’ve also been listening to quite a lot of Americana-type stuff recently. 

In terms of recording and production, what’s the album you turn to as your gold standard as a reference?
One of my absolute favourites is Beck, especially Sea Change. It’s one of my favourite albums ever and I think it just sounds absolutely incredible. It still sounds like you’re in the room with the musicians, but it’s also really produced somehow. The quality of the recording and the mix is amazing, and that’s something I strive for.

How to you feel about live streams vs gigs – will they always be around even when gigs are back?
I think there’s definitely a benefit to both. There will never be anything like being in a crowd of people watching your favourite music but live streamed gigs can make certain stuff more accessible, especially for people who suffer with stage fright. And similarly I think it’s probably helped to make things like classical music more accessible to people without them having to pay a lot of money. So hopefully some of that will continue in future. 

Where was the first place you first made a track and when/how?
It was probably a combination of my living room and my old piano teacher’s studio. My piano teacher when I was a kid had his garage converted into a studio and it had amazing Moog synths, a piano Hammond and a desk and other stuff. For my first track, I think I would have been using Digital Performer or Cubase. That was my own composition, which I hope will never see the light of day! It was very Dido-esque. I think it was then that I realised I should definitely be on the other side of the glass…

How did the Tonmeister course at the University of Surrey prepare you for what you do now?
They have this incredible placement year where you go in and work in the industry so I did my placement at AIR for a year. Obviously it’s a lot easier to get a job after having the chance to make such amazing contacts. A lot of the courses out there now are spitting out hundreds of graduates, but with no real plan of what happens next. But the Tonmeister course really helps set you on a path.

Why is AIR Studios’ new diversity scholarship so important – will it change things at a grass roots level?
It’s really important to break down the barriers. I think for a lot of people, money is a big part of the problem. I know a lot of engineers that got into their jobs because they lived in London or they knew someone in London so they could work for free for a studio, and then work their way up. Like many others, I didn’t have that sort of connection in London and I could never have afforded to work for free. 

So having a scholarship like this that says if you’ve got the drive and the talent, then money shouldn’t be the thing that holds you back, is really important. And also, maybe studios should stop making people work for free. AIR has always been really good about this – even for school work experience they’ve paid for expenses and travel. 

Abbey Road still lacks female engineers or a diverse line up – what do you think could help?
The good thing that Abbey Road is trying to do is showcase female engineers that are out there. I feel like we all have responsibility to show that we exist, because when I was young and wanting to get into the industry, I can’t remember seeing many pictures of women engineering, or behind a desk.

For Abbey Road and AIR to both be showing female engineers that are making a successful career out of it, I think that’s really important. I’m also proud of AIR for trying to get people into it, at the university stage. It’s not that the studios are saying ‘we don’t want to hire girls’, but there just aren’t that many girls applying for jobs. So we have to try and make it easier for people to see that it’s a possible career progression from an earlier age.