By Jennifer Walden
The ad industry is highly competitive by nature. Advertisers compete for consumers, ad agencies compete for clients and post houses compete for ad agencies. Now put all that in the dog-eat-dog milieu of New York City, and the market becomes more intimidating.
When you factor in the saturation level of the audio post industry in New York City — where audio facilities are literally stacked on top of each other (occupying different floors of the same building or located just down the hall from each other) — then the odds of a new post sound house succeeding seem dismal. But there’s always a place for those willing to work for it, as Wave Studios’ New York location is proving.
Wave Studios — a multi-national sound company with facilities in London and Amsterdam — opened its doors in NYC a little over a year ago. Co-founder/sound designer/mixer Aaron Reynolds worked on The New York Times “The Truth Is Worth It” ad campaign for Droga5 that earned two Grand Prix awards at the 2019 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, and Reynolds’ sound design on the campaign won three Gold Lions. In addition, Wave Studios was recently named Sound Company of the Year 2019 at Germany’s Ciclope International Festival of Craft.
Here, Reynolds and Wave Studios New York executive producer Vicky Ferraro (who has two decades of experience in advertising and post) talk about what it takes to make it, what agency clients are looking for. They also share details on their creative approach to two standout spots they’ve done this year for Droga5.
How was your first year-plus in NYC? What were some challenges of being the new kid in town?
Vicky Ferraro: I joined Wave to help open the New York City office in May 2018. I had worked at Sound Lounge for 12 years, and I’ve worked on the ad agency side as well, so I’m familiar with the landscape.
One of the big challenges is that New York is quite a saturated market when it comes to audio. There are a lot of great audio places in the city. People have their favorite spots. So our challenges are to forge new relationships and differentiate ourselves from the competition, and figure out how to do that.
Also, the business model has changed quite a bit; a lot of agencies have in-house facilities. I used to work at Hogarth, so I’m quite familiar with how that side of the business works as well. You have a lot of brands that are working in-house with agencies.
So, opening a new spot was a little daunting despite all the success that Wave Studios in London and Amsterdam have had.
Aaron Reynolds: I worked in London, and we always had work from New York clients. We knew friends and people over here. Opening a facility in New York was something we always wanted to do, since 2007. The challenge was to get out there and tell people that we’re here. We were finally coming over from London and forging those relationships with clients we had worked with remotely.
New York has a slightly different work ethic in that they tend to do the sound design with us and then do the mix elsewhere. One challenge was to get across to our clients that we offer both, from start to finish.
Sound design and mixing are one and the same thing. When I’m doing my sound design, I’m thinking about how I want it to sound in the mix. It’s quite unique to do the sound design at one place and then do the mix somewhere else.
What are some trends you’re seeing in the New York City audio post scene? What are your advertising clients looking for?
Reynolds: On the work side, they come here for a creative sound design approach. They don’t want just a bit of sound here and a bit of sound there. They want something to be brought to the job through sound. That’s something that Wave has always done, and that’s been a bastion of our company. We have an idea, and we want to create the best sound design for the spot. It’s not just a case of, “bring me the sounds and we’ll do it for you.” We want to add a creative aspect to the work as well.
And what about format? Are clients asking for 5.1 mixes? Or stereo mixes still?
Reynolds: 99% of our work is done in stereo. Then, we’ll get the odd job mixed in 5.1 if it’s going to broadcast in 5.1 or play back in the cinema. But the majority of our mixes are still done in stereo.
Ferraro: That’s something that people might not be aware of, that most of our mixes are stereo. We deliver stereo and 5.1, but unless you’re watching in a 5.1 environment (and most people’s homes are not a 5.1 environment), you want to listen to a stereo mix. We’ve been talking about that with a lot of clients, and they’ve been appreciative of that as well.
Reynolds: If you tend to mix in 5.1 and then fold down to a stereo mix, you’re not getting a true stereo mix. It’s an artificial one. We’re saying, “Let’s do a stereo mix. And then let’s do a separate 5.1 mix. Then you’re getting the best of both.”
Most of what you’re listening to is stereo, so you want to have the best possible stereo mix you can have. You don’t want a second rate mix when 99% of the media will be played in stereo.
What are some of the benefits and challenges of having studios in three countries? Do you collaborate on projects?
Ferraro: We definitely collaborate! It’s been a great selling point, and a fantastic time-saver in a lot of cases. Sometimes we’ll get a project from London or Amsterdam, or vice versa. We have two sound studios in New York, and sometimes a job will come in and if we can’t accommodate it, we can send it over to London. (This is especially true for unsupervised work.) Then they’ll do the work, and our client has it the next morning. Based on the time zone difference, it’s been a real asset, especially when we’re under the gun.
Aaron has a great list of clients that he works with in London and Amsterdam who continue to work with him here in New York. It’s been very seamless. It’s very easy to send a project from one studio to another.
Reynolds: We all work on the same system — Steinberg Nuendo — so if I send a job to London, I can have it back the next morning, open it up, and have the clients review it with me. I can carry on working in the same session. It’s almost as if we can work on a 24-hour cycle.
All the Wave Studios use Steinberg Nuendo as their DAW?
Reynolds: It’s audio post software designed with sound designers in mind. Pro Tools is more mixing software, good for recording music and live bands. It’s good for mixing, but it’s not particularly great for doing sound design. Nuendo, on the other hand, has been built for sound design, roots up. It has a lot of great built-in plugins. With Pro Tools you need to get a lot of third-party plugins. Having all these built-in plugins makes the software really solid and reliable.
When it comes to third-party plugins, we really don’t need that many because Nuendo has so many built in. But some of the most-used third-party plugins are reverbs, like Audio Ease’s Altiverb and Speakerphone.
I think we’re one of the only studios that uses Nuendo as our main DAW. But Wave has always been a bit rogue. When we first set up years ago, we were using Fairlight, which no one else was using at the time. We’ve always had the desire to use the best tool that we can for the job, which is not necessarily the “industry standard.” When it came to upgrading all of our systems, we were looking into Pro Tools and Nuendo, but one of the partners at Wave, Johnnie Burn, uses Nuendo for the film side. He found it to be really powerful, so we made the decision to put it in all the facilities.
Why should agencies choose an independent audio facility instead of keeping their work in-house? What’s the benefit for them?
Ferraro: I can tell you from firsthand knowledge several benefits to going out-of-house. The main thing that draws clients to Wave Studios — and away from in-house — is that there is a high level of creativity and experience that comes with our engineers. We bring a different perspective than what you get from an in-house team. While there is a lot of talent in-house, those models often deal with freelancers that aren’t as vested in the company, and it poses challenges in building the brand. It’s a different approach to working and finishing up a piece.
Those two aspects play into it — the creativity and having engineers dedicated to our studio. We’re not bringing in freelancers or working with an unknown pool of people. That’s important.
From my own experience, sometimes the approach can feel more formulaic. As an independent audio facility, our approach is very collaborative. There’s a partnership that we create with all of our clients as soon as they’re on board. Sometimes we get involved even before we have a job assigned, just to help them explore how to expand their ideas through sound, how they should be capturing the sound on-set, and how they should be thinking about audio post. It’s a very involved process.
Reynolds: What we bring is a creative approach. Elsewhere, that can be more formulaic, as Vicky said. Here, we want to be as creative as possible and treat jobs with attention and care.
Wave Studios is an international audio company. Is that a draw for clients?
Ferraro: One hundred percent. You’ve got to admit, it’s got a bit of cachet to it for sure. It’s rare to be a commercial studio with outposts in other countries. I think clients really like that, and it does help us bring a different perspective. Aaron’s perspective coming from London is very different from somebody in New York. It’s also cool because our other engineer is based in the New York market, and so his perspective is different from Aaron’s. In this way, we have a blend of both.
There have been some big commercial audio post houses go under, like Howard Schwartz and Nutmeg. What does it take for an audio post house in NYC to be successful in the long run?
Reynolds: The thing to do to maintain a good studio — whether in New York City or anywhere — is not to get complacent. Don’t ever rest on your laurels. Take every job you do as if it’s your first — have that much enthusiasm about it. Keep forging for the best, and that will always shine through. Keep doing the most creative work you can do, and that will make people want to come back. Don’t get tired. Don’t get lazy. Don’t get complacent. That’s the key.
Ferraro: I also think that you need to be able to evolve with the changing environment. You need to be aware of how advertising is changing, stay on top of the trends and move with it rather than resisting it.
What are some spots that you’ve done recently at Wave Studios NYC? How do they stand out, soundwise?
Reynolds: There’s a New York Times campaign that I have been working on for Droga5. A spot in there is called Fearlessness, which was all about a journalist investigating ISIS. The visuals tell a strong story, and so I wanted to do that in an acoustic sort of way. I wanted people to be able to close their eyes and hear all of the details of the journey the writer was taking and the struggles she came across. Bombs had blown up a derelict building, and they are walking through the rubble. I wanted the viewer to feel the grit of that environment.
There’s a distorted subway train sound that I added to the track that sets the tone and mood. We explored a lot of sounds for the piece. The soundscapes were created from different layers using sounds like twisting metals and people shouting in both English and Arabic, which we sourced from libraries like Bluezone and BBC, in particular. We wanted to create a tone that was uneasy and builds to a crescendo.
We’ve got a massive amount of sound libraries — about 500,000 sound effects — that are managed via Nuendo. We don’t need any independent search engine. It’s all built within the Nuendo system. Our sound effects libraries are shared across all of our facilities in all three countries, and it’s all accessed through Nuendo via a local server for each facility.
We did another interesting spot for Droga5 called Night Trails for Harley-Davidson’s electric motorcycle. In the spot, the guy is riding through the city at night, and all of the lights get drawn into his bike. Ringan Ledwidge, one of the industry’s top directors, directed the spot. Soundwise, we were working with the actual sound of the bike itself, and I elaborated on it to make it a little more futuristic. In certain places, I used the sound of hard drives spinning and accelerating to create an electric bike-by. I had to be quite careful with it because they do have an actual sound for the bike. I didn’t want to change it too much.
For the sound of the lights, I used whispers of people talking, which I stretched out. So as the bike goes past a streetlight, for example, you hear a vocal “whoosh” element as the light travels down into the bike. I wanted the sound of the lights not to be too electric, but more light and airy. That’s why I used whispers instead of buzzing electrical sounds. In one scene, the light bends around a telephone pole, and I needed the sound to be dynamic and match that movement. So I performed that with my voice, changing the pitch of my voice to give the sound a natural arc and bend.
Main Image: (L-R) Aaron Reynolds and Vicky Ferraro
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.