R.A.P. Interview: Sean Bell

JV: Tell us about your studio.
Sean: My studio is actually based at home now. We moved in July and after we got the house straight and ready to live in, we then turned our attentions to moving the business from where I’ve been renting for the last three years. What I’ve got is a double garage which we’ve converted into the studio. I’ve got my office, my mix-down room, and then a separate voice-over booth as well. It’s all very convenient working from home.

This has been the fifth studio I’ve designed and built, each being an improvement on the last. Acoustically, this is the best yet, and when in the booth, you can’t hear the neighbor’s burglar alarm that annoyingly goes off at around 11am most mornings. Though the booth is mostly used for my voice-over work, it’s big enough to seat two people comfortably, which is very useful when interviewing for a project such as a business program or training presentation. I’ve completed programs distributed on CD for clients including the Nat West Bank and our National Health Service. There’s a decent amount of office space at one end of the room, then an equal amount of production space for mix down. Being in the same room is far more productive.

The studio is centered around a stand-alone Apple Mac G4 with a built-in CD-R running Bias’s DECK 3.5, routed through a Behringer 18-input desk. I have Sony Mini-Discs, twin CD players, a Philips stand-alone CD-R, Alesis compressors, Zoom outboard effects, one Technics 1200 turntable, and a Pronto ISDN codec. The codec is used for voice work – either voice’s coming into my studio or for my voice going out to other stations or production facilities, though most finished commercials are now sent to the stations by MP3. I also use MP3 extensively for work being sent to clients outside of the UK.

Also in the studio I have a Revox PR99 and a B77, but I won’t part with them. In fact, when I had a computer crash once, I wheeled out the PR99 and mixed “live” and mastered onto ¼-inch. I learnt my craft on a ¼-inch machine and can still edit the balls off a mosquito! Having the studio at home is great, especially during extremely busy periods if I need to get in early in the morning or work late through the night or across the weekend. It means I still get to see a lot of my family, and it’s also handy for when I need to wheel my children, Jacob (7) and Phoebe (5) into the studio. They’re already proving to be cracking little VO’s and are used by some big production facilities. They’ll have their own demos on the new NYPD website that will go live early in 2005.

JV: What’s a typical day like for you?
Sean: I usually drop the kids off at school at 9:00 in the morning and then I’m back in the studio by ten past nine. I tend to write in mornings through until about lunchtime and then spend most of the afternoon producing. And then if someone wants me for voice-over work, then they just ring me. The term we use here in the U.K. is “fax and dial,” which basically means fax the scripts and then dial up the ISDN. They’ll ring me, I’ll jump in the booth, voice a script, and then go back to whatever I was doing, be it writing or producing.

JV: What’s your basic approach to producing a commercial for one of your stations?
Sean: One of the things I’m very serious about with the salespeople is when they supply me with the brief. As well as wanting to know the client’s details as in what the offer is or what the purpose of the commercial is, I’m also very attentive to what I refer to as the housekeeping, which is the details such as how do we actually mention the client’s address in the commercial, for example. Is it on an industrial park? Is it alongside a particular landmark or something like that? So we try to get the exact information the first time. I also want to know if we’re restricted to writing a 30-second commercial, or perhaps I can go to 40 seconds, because here in the U.K. most of the ad time is sold in 30-second blocks, whereas I know in the states and Canada and elsewhere around the world, you maybe sell them a minute long. I don’t want to go off and write a commercial that’s forty seconds long and put three voices in it, and then after that the salesperson comes back to me and says, “Oh, I forgot to tell you… actually you’ve only got one voice and it’s got to be twenty seconds.” So I look for that information beforehand. I always want my housekeeping information because then it enables me to give the salesperson, and in turn the clients, exactly what they’re looking for far more efficiently.

JV: Generally speaking, what’s your primary focus when creating a commercial? Do you focus more on the writing or the production or the voice-over?
Sean: When I’m writing I tend to have an idea who I’m going to get to voice it, particularly if I’m writing something with characters or situations and scenarios. In that case, I’ll always have the person in mind that I’m going to get to voice it. And here in the U.K. there are probably around 150 voices on ISDN, and I work with most of them throughout the year. I probably tend to work with the same 50 voices on a regular basis, but I also know that if I need something a little bit different, I know where I can go to get a different foreign accent or a specialized character or something like that. But I write with the voice in mind. I love the intricate production — the sound effects that just polish the commercial, the background music that just works with the commercial. That’s the sort of thing I like to play at.

I’ve invested in a lot of different SFX libraries and I really love to use them where I can. There are several basic yet comprehensive libraries plus specialist collections from the Hollywood Movie Studios, Lucas Sound, Hanna Barbera and so on. Also, all of the music I use has been brought in on a copyright free basis. There’s a massive collection, with many specialist styles and genres – ideal for the theme park sound design — and knowing the libraries as well as I do, it never takes long to find the right piece that just sets the finished spot off.

JV: What’s one major thing you’ve learned about working with radio stations as a freelancer?
Sean: At the end of the day I have to deliver the quality, and I have to be very, very patient with clients and salespeople because there’s nothing to stop them from turning around and taking the work elsewhere if they want to. So I have to deliver. If they had their in-house commercial department then they could come in and say, “That commercial is rubbish,” and I could turn around and say, “Well you don’t know what you’re talking about,” or we could have an argument about it. In my situation, although I won’t let the sales exec walk all over me, I still have to make sure I meet the needs and requirements and deliver the goods to them, otherwise there’s nothing to stop them from taking the work elsewhere.

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