In just five years, Amber have become a successful transatlantic company producing TV ad themes and idents. Paul White finds out how it was done.
Tucked away in the west end of London, overlooking Oxford Street, is the UK office of Amber, a privately owned production facility specialising in putting sound to picture. The company was started when musicians Andy Carroll and Nick Amour met Michelle Curran, who now spends much of here time flitting between Amber's UK and New York offices, which are also connected via six ISDN lines to allow the real‑time transfer of digital audio.
Andy and Nick were in a band together signed to Virgin Records, but after two albums that came to an end, leaving them in need of a channel for their talents. A friend in the business put them in touch with Michelle and the partnership developed from there. In 1992, Michelle formed Amber — she describes her role as business partner, producer, agent, cook and bottlewasher — and Andy and Nick joined as soon as their contracts with their former employers would allow. Currently, Amber's work comprises mainly commercials and TV idents, though they are also doing some film work. Amber undertake creative and compositional work as well as the engineering side of putting sound to picture, and their newly refurbished building has a number of studio areas, including a dedicated sound‑design suite based around two Yamaha 02R consoles, run by Ross Gregory. I spoke to Michelle, Andy, Nick, and Amber engineer Augustus Skinner (or Oggie, as he is more affectionately known).
Nick: "We're composers, and that's what we enjoy doing, but in this field it's important to get a foothold as a business. Quality control at every stage of the work is our guiding objective."
Most of our readers are familiar with the process of making music, but perhaps less so with the mechanics of putting sound to picture. At what stage do you pick up a project?
Michelle: "Sometimes you're presented with a film that's finished and cut, but the agency isn't happy with what's been done so far, and there may be one or two specific directions in which they'd like to go. Alternatively, sometimes the client doesn't have a direction and it's down to us to come up with something. Other times we may be called in at an early stage to contribute ideas at the storyboard stage."
Nick: "The picture always comes as a U‑Matic cassette with burnt‑in timecode, and a SMPTE Slave Driver is used to transmit SMPTE to the other devices in the system. Ultimately, we'd like to use the Mac to give us random access video from hard disk, but at the moment the cost is prohibitive. Working to Quicktime movies is not an option for serious work. Ultimately, random access would make the job quicker because we wouldn't have to wait for tapes to rewind.
"On the audio side, we use an Otari Radar hard disk multitrack recorder alongside a Digidesign Pro Tools III system; when MIDI is involved, we also use Emagic's Logic Audio running with the Pro Tools hardware. We're very happy with the Radar system, because what you put down comes back exactly the same, and that's very important. We were also concerned with reliability, so when we went for the demo at Syco, I asked them to switch off the power mid‑session to simulate a power cut, and everything came back OK. That sold it to us. Modular digital multitracks just aren't suitable for use in this environment, because they tend to be unreliable, and the lock‑up time when you have multiple machines is far too long. Everything we do is backed up to Exobyte tape storage, both from the Radar and from the Pro Tools system. We don't put too many jobs onto the same tape, so that, if the unthinkable does happen, we won't have to recreate too much work."
It's nice to have equipment that will let us make sounds rougher around the edges.
Oggie: "The Radar's user interface is also very straightforward — it's much the same as what a tape‑based system has. It's very intuitive: every button does what you expect it to. Projects can be saved as alternative versions, and we can offset things as we like without having to mess about with sync boxes. You also don't need a track for timecode. We don't do a lot of editing on it — it's used more to run everything through. The editing and scrubbing is a bit basic; it relies on your doing it by hand, and tweaking it by ear, so we tend to use Pro Tools for all the serious editing work. Pro Tools is used to record any live instruments — we can record a quartet or a band without losing anything. It's also good for seamless compiling. If we have a 60‑second piece and need to do a 20‑second cutdown version, it's not a problem. Pro Tools also tends to be very reliable; it doesn't lock up or crash — much! Being able to do unlimited takes and call them back at a moment's notice is just great.
"It would be great if they made a hybrid of Logic and Pro Tools because, at the moment, Pro Tools is better for audio editing, but it has very basic MIDI support. On the other hand, Logic has excellent MIDI support, but some of the audio editing capabilities are less flexible than those within Pro Tools. Logic Audio is the environment of choice when the project incorporates both MIDI programming and audio. Although you can cut and paste audio in Logic Audio, and you can draw in envelopes, it's much quicker to get from A to B in Pro Tools. Pro Tools also handles crossfades much better — if Logic could do that the same way, it would be great. Another thing I don't like about Logic is the way it files its audio. Unless you specify a new record path every time you open a song, all the record files are put in the last place audio was recorded, and they're not named after the song file they're associated with unless you name them yourself. It's just something else you have to think about. Pro Tools automatically creates a folder for each session, and all the files for the job go in the one folder."
Do you find yourself doing edits in Pro Tools and then re‑importing the files into Logic Audio?
Oggie: "Yes, we've done that — if we've got lots of audio regions and crossfades in and out, it's easier to bounce that to disk, then import the finished file into Logic Audio.
"The hard disk recorders run with the Otari Status desk, because we've got the image recall. It's not as fast as the Euphonix, but it's essential to be able to recall a job to do a tweak here and there. Some clients come backwards and forwards two or three times. The EQ on the Status is pretty good, but the mute automation could be improved in some areas. It has just update, read and write modes, but they're global: you can't change the status of just one channel — you have to do it for the whole desk."
How do you handle the stuff you can't program, such as outboard settings?
Oggie: "I come from a big studio background and I'm used to recalling sessions so, aside from the desk recall, the rest is a matter of logging the outboard gear, values, levels and whatever. You have to keep good notes. You also have to keep your ears open for anything that might go amiss, and you have to be quite thorough. You have to be prepared to stop a session in the middle, bring back an old project, and then return to the one you were working on."
Do you make use of TDM plug‑ins with your Pro Tools system?
Andy: "We've tried a new one called The Shaper, which is an advanced multi‑band compressor with a nice graphic user interface — it's very user‑friendly. I think it's a Spanish product, and I believe that there's also a valve simulator in the range. However, we feel that software plug‑ins are far too expensive, often costing as much as the hardware equivalent. After all, it is just a bit of software, and it doesn't have the tangibility of a dedicated unit. You can also tuck a dedicated unit under your arm and take it to another studio. To make plug‑ins competitive, they're going to have to drop the price by a factor of two or three. On top of that, you still need DSP power to run them, and there's a limit to how many you can run in a typical TDM system."
Oggie: "What we really need is a good reverb that can be used internally within Pro Tools so as to help mitigate the limitation of having only eight physical outputs. The Lexicon Nuverb looks favourite at the moment, as it would allow us to submix certain groups of sounds inside the system with the right effect level. You can configure some of the outputs to function as effects sends, but then you further restrict the number of outputs you can use, and when you have a good mixer and a lot of tasty outboard, you want to use that; you don't want to have to mix everything inside Pro Tools. Computers are good for people who are restricted in their outboard or their choice of desk but, for those with a reasonable setup, they can be restrictive."
Nick: "We have two Yamaha 02Rs cascaded in the sound design studio, and we have another in our New York office. They have been exceptionally good: easy to use and they sound fine. It's a brilliant machine, and you can recall everything. I also have one in my studio at home, which is a converted garden shed!"
Oggie: "For top‑end reverb, we have a Lexicon PCM80 and an Eventide H3000. That's an excellent box, and the reverbs are interesting and unusual. They sit in a track rather well and contrast nicely with our other effects boxes, the Sony MU201, Yamaha SPX90, and Roland RE55.
We've had enough of the way A&R people interfere with our music.
"For compression, we have the Joe Meek units and a Behringer Composer, as well as an Audio & Design unit and the SSL. I like the Audio & Design stuff; I think they're very good value for the money, in the style of a UREI 1176. The Joe Meek sounds really good, but I have to say that I think it is very expensive for what it is, at around £1500. The TL Audio Indigo EQ is very nice — they do have that lovely sheen at the top that you get from good valve equipment. The bottom end is also very warm. The APIs also give a classic, very sweet, '70s‑style EQ. Our other favourites are the Roland RE55 chorus/echo and the Peavey analogue filter. The SSL compressor is another thing we like. We stick that across mixes, and record almost everything through it. It can be very invisible, but it can also be very punchy."
Andy: "A recent purchase, for the other studio, is the TC Electronic Finalizer, and we're very happy with it so far. That'll be used for mastering, and what I like is that, although you notice the difference, it's not like a really huge change — it's quite subtle, but very effective."
If the budget allows it, what would you like to get next?
Andy: "More outboard equipment. Sometimes we get asked to recreate a '70s‑type sound or a vinyl sound, so it's nice to have equipment that will let us make sounds rougher around the edges."
I've had a lot of fun doing that lately with Steinberg's Grungelizer plug‑in vinyl simulator for WaveLab...
"That sounds very interesting, but of course we'd have to buy a PC to use it. Are they thinking of doing a Mac version? It sounds like exactly what we need."
Obviously, this studio complex is relatively new, and there are still things to do, but what are your plans for the immediate future?
Andy: "Amber is growing at a healthy rate and we have a pool of musicians and composers now, so one of of our projects is to set up an Amber record label or to produce albums and market them through other labels. With the amount of music being produced, it would be silly not to capitalise on that. Nick and I are also working on an album where we're doing all the initial work at home, then bringing the project in here to mix. We've had enough of the way A&R people interfere with our music, so now we can do things just the way we want to."
Andy: "Much of the work is done using Akai samplers, but Amber also has its favourite in‑house synths, including Emu's Vintage Keys and Orchestral 2XR Proteus, a Morpheus, Clavia Nord Lead and a Memorymoog. We've also invested in a Roland JV2080, and I love the Waldorf Microwave — there isn't a synth that sounds quite like it.
"We also have a good collection of commercial sample CDs, but you have to be careful how you use those because, contrary to what you'd expect, some of the material isn't cleared for copyright‑free use, and we've been caught by this once before. Now, whenever we use a sample, we call the supplier and insist on written confirmation that the sample is cleared to use, because if it isn't and you don't check, then it all comes back on you, not on the supplier. Be very cautious — it's better to make a nuisance of yourself than find yourself in court."
Andy: "We're very lucky to have Ross Gregory on board. He does sound design and a bit of foley work, and he's just fantastic. He's particularly good at combining sounds, and he has an EMS synth that he knows inside out. Often he'll double up the synthetic sounds with real sounds — he can make complete tracks out of just effects. Furthermore, he's very good at matching sounds to pictures, and what he comes up with is not always what you'd expect."
Nick: "The studio now has an ISDN setup with six lines, and that's being used regularly to send work back and forth between here and the New York office. Audio ties up all six lines at once, but it does mean we can use singers or session players in New York to add parts to sessions we're doing here. We were a bit dubious originally, but it's proved to be very solid and reliable."
Andy: "This building was a wreck when we found it, and we had the whole thing done from scratch, but we're very happy with it. We're particularly happy with the monitoring, which is Dynaudio throughout. We tried out various configurations of amps and speakers, and never originally intended going for the big Dynaudios, but after hearing The Prodigy's 'Firestarter' through them, we just had to have them!"