Studio Profile: The Laundry

It’s not often we hear about the opening of a new dedicated Foley studio, but when Adam Savage discovered one had popped up just a short drive away from AMI HQ, he had to go and take a look…

There comes a point in many people’s lives whereby, after years spent gaining valuable expertise as an employee of a company, setting up a new business from scratch and playing by your own rules becomes a pretty attractive option if the opportunity arises.

It might not be a possibility for everyone – whether due to financial restrictions or simply the fact that, let’s be honest, it takes a fair amount of bravery to take the plunge and go it alone – but one man who has this month decided to do just that after years of faithful service with a firm is Barnaby Smyth, Foley artist, founder of Feet First Sound and now owner of The Laundry, a new dedicated Foley studio located not in London or another major city, but the rather quaint setting of Coggeshall, Essex.

Upon meeting Smyth – known for his work on major films including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and We Need To Talk About Kevin, as well as TV shows such as Downton Abbey – at the facility, it became clear that this had been a plan of his for some time.

“It’s always been a dream of mine. My Dad used to have a studio in our house – he was a musician and inspired me to get into sound and so I’d had a bit of experience with home studios. I’ve always thought it would be great to do my own thing,” Smyth explains.

“I was at Videosonics [Cinema Sound] for years and enjoyed being part of a company, but as you grow more experienced you want to gain more control over the output of your work and build a room where you have control over the acoustics, the surfaces and the equipment.”

So why take on an ex-industrial laundry building – hence the name – in an old market town? It seems the choice of location was made after a great deal of deliberation, too.

“I was looking down in Kent for a long time and had a romantic image of it being an old timber-clad barn but then you realise the ramifications when it comes to soundproofing, plus it would probably be listed and therefore a bit of a money pit,” Smyth continues.

“The good thing about this is that it’s outside London, so it’s quiet, rent is cheap and when you’re looking for something industrial you’ve either got farm buildings where there’s loads of low-end noise going on or a unit on an industrial estate where you might have someone with a compressor move in next door, but this had a good warehouse space and a solid structure, plus it’s quiet because they sealed all the weak spots before the actual build.”

Fully loaded

One of the first things you’ll notice when you enter The Laundry is that it’s not a bad place to be at all. Foley studios aren’t always treated with as much seriousness as perhaps they should, especially those based in large facilities that provide a variety of other services, but Smyth has everything he could possibly need on hand here, including an impressive gear list featuring a new Audient ASP4816 console and speakers from JBL (3678 stereo pair and 4641 sub under the projector) and Genelec, as well as Crown DSI 4000 and 1000 amps to drive the JBLs.

“We were looking for something quiet that didn’t need automation, just a good analogue desk. We came across the Audient, heard good things about it, investigated and found it to have very nice mic pres on it, a musical four-band EQ and they sent us one to test at the studio we were working at and it sounded good. We’re looking forward to getting to grips with it,” reports Smyth.

“There are also six large 1.2sqm [Foley] pits and as you come in you’re walking on the original warehouse floor – the rest of it is raised. It’s completely solid concrete so I wanted to utilise that, as it’s completely dead. I’ve left that open so you can use that as a concrete surface, but you can lay other surfaces on top.”

All the immediately important stuff is located in one area – the console, monitors, pits, surfaces and, as it’s a Foley studio, a larger footwear collection than Victoria Beckham – while outside the main ‘shell’ is the rest of the warehouse, which houses the machine room, amplifiers and more than enough space for the vast array of props Smyth is sure to accumulate over time.

Having it all in a nice homely atmosphere is certainly an added bonus, too. According to Foley engineer and Smyth’s colleague Keith Partridge, formerly of Hackenbacker, making the space comfortable as well as technically and acoustically sound was important, which makes even more sense when you consider the degree of effort and man hours required to get the job done properly.

“Foley is a case of shutting all the doors and spending most of the day in there, so it’s a bit of a weird environment and just the two of us rather than a studio full of people,” reveals Partridge. “As for the aesthetics, being in there is so nice compared to some other places – Foley studios tend to be a bit rundown, a bit dirty.

“The finished article is pretty breathtaking for a Foley studio we think. The size was one of the biggest things really because there is a tendency to cram a Foley studio into an old ADR booth so to have a room that is done in that size and shape for a reason, with pits in a particular place, is brilliant, really.”

Having been in the industry for quite some time, Smyth was able to build an image in his head of exactly what he was after, and a lot of it came down to his experience of other facilities.

“Barnaby created his own studio with all the things that he liked and disliked about other studios in his mind, like ‘that surface wasn’t big enough so we’ll make it bigger here’ etc,” says Partridge.

“There are also fundamental things like it’s just the one room rather than a split one, which is quite a big deal, down to little things like the surfaces.”

Sticking with it

In the same way that there aren’t a great number of specialist Foley studios out there at the moment – at least in the UK – it’s not often that you come across people who have chosen to stick with it as a profession; many often see it as a temporary part of their career path, but not Smyth, who worked through his fair share of other roles too before discovering that the Foley world was where he wanted to be.

“When I started I did everything from recording ADR to working as an assistant dubbing mixer and assistant editor,” he recalls. “I came across Foley later on and realised I really liked it – a lot of people saw it as a stepping stone towards doing sound effects, so people would do it for a year or so, get quite good at it and move on but you really need to dedicate your life to it as it is a real art.”

Looking Back

Having done just that – committing to a career in Foley to such an extent that he’s built his own base to carry it out – how does Smyth evaluate his time in the industry so far? Does he have a favourite past project and which one was the toughest?

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was a really good one that we did. It was very naturalistic and had a great look to it. The Foley just had to sit there and wasn’t in your face. Sometimes the best Foley is like that – you don’t even notice it. I think that’s what we got good at in TV,” Smyth comments.

Partridge adds: “The Musketeers was the most challenging for me. It’s probably the busiest thing I’ve ever seen before in my life – non-stop fighting, there was four of them and they’re all dressed in leather and cloth with swords.

“You’d finish it, sigh and say ‘OK we’ve done that now,’ but then the next one would come along and you have to start it all over again. I found it really satisfying when we finally got through it. They were mental, but really good fun.”

And despite the fact that the team from Miloco Builds have only just packed up their tools and left, the pair have got no difficult opening period to deal with, where business is slow due to reluctant clients waiting to see whether things are running smoothly first before passing the work their way, and that’s largely because of the close relationships they’ve developed over the years with clients who are confident they’ll hit the ground running.

“January and February are pretty much booked up. We’ve got an ITV series called Dr. Thorne, which we’ve just done one episode of and a BBC series called Undercover,” says Smyth. “Keith and I have got a reputation now so they trust that we know what we’re doing. It’s mostly TV, but I bring in a couple of films each year, so it’s a nice balance.”