Pro Spotlight: Fiona Cruickshank

Each month AMI features a pro audio professional from a range of disciplines to find out how they got their start in the industry and what they’ve worked on. This month, the spotlight is on Fiona Cruickshank, an engineer at London’s AIR Studios with mixing credits on film scores from Brave to Black Swan, The Great Gatsby to The Grand Budapest Hotel. Here, she tells Tara Lepore about some of her career highlights and her top tips for those starting out in the studio…

What do you do?

I’m a recording and mix engineer based at AIR Studios in London. I mainly work on scores for film and TV, but I’m lucky to be able to work on a whole variety of projects from jazz to pop, classical to rock and everything in between.

How did you get into the industry?

As a kid I had piano lessons with a family friend. My piano teacher arranged concerts to showcase students’ work and used to do everything himself including live sound and lights. I remember being really inquisitive about the tech side of things – so much so that he asked if I’d like to help out at his studio and record his band at one of their practices. He had a brilliant set up in a converted garage complete with a wall of modular synths, keyboards, Hammond organ, mics and an Allen & Heath desk. I got totally swept up in it and before long my piano lessons morphed into audio lessons. We covered everything from cables to mastering, recording techniques to speaker setups. He suggested that if I was really serious about doing this as a career that I go for the Tonmeister course in Music and Sound Recording at the University of Surrey. It’s a fantastic course with amazing links in the industry, and crucially – a placement year. I got the placement job at my top choice, AIR Studios in London, had an amazing time and was offered a full-time position when I graduated. Ten years later, here I am!

What are some of your credits?

I’ve recently been mixing a lot for composers Ben and Nick Foster on Thunderbirds Are Go and Good Karma Hospital (ITV) and Our Girl (BBC). Last year, films I worked on included Phantom Thread, Paddington 2, Murder on the Orient Express, Darkest Hour and Wonder Woman.

What was your favourite project and why?

Over the past 10 years there have been so many amazing moments. Watching Stevie Wonder record. Working with my favourite director Wes Anderson on The Grand Budapest Hotel. Assisting on Jane Eyre with Dario Marianelli, and the Che films with Alberto Iglesias – those scores made me cry! I’ve been able to learn from the best engineers and producers in the business and watched many of my favourite composers at work. I’m incredibly lucky!

What is your favourite item of audio gear and why?

Mix-wise I couldn’t be without my UAD plugins. They do such great emulations of all the gear I’ve grown up with at AIR. I recently bought some ATC SCM25A speakers that are just ridiculous… they’re definitely helping me up my game. My colleagues also tease me for my love of reverb. Altiverb can be useful to add a little space or for certain effects but at the moment I’m tending to favour the Lexicon bundle and Phoenix Verb by Exponential audio for orchestral stuff and Waves H-Reverb and Valhalla for something a bit more characterful.

What industry professional inspired you the most to do what you do?

I’m a huge fan of Beck. Probably my all time favourite album is Sea Change – it blew my mind when it came out and it continues to. Since V for Vendetta and Pride & Prejudice, I have been absolutely in love with Dario Marianelli’s music. Realising he works with engineer Nick Wollage and recorded at AIR was a big incentive to go for the placement in the first place.

 What’s the best bit of advice can you give anyone trying to break into the industry?

Work experience is so important. Offer to help out at your local venue or studio, go to gigs, talk to the band after.

You could start by offering to record their rehearsals and move on to making their album. Make the most of every musical or studio-based opportunity you get, regardless of what it is. You never know who you could meet, what you can learn, or what you could experience. You might just be making the tea for now but if someone likes having you around, it won’t be long before you’re given more responsibility. So much of this industry is based on relationships with other people, so the more people you know the better. Also, experiment. Don’t be afraid to  make a bad recording; that’s the best way to learn. The more mistakes you make, the better. That’s how you improve your skills. Always say yes, even if you don’t quite know if you’re up to the task yet or not. Just be honest and start researching.