Keeping up with the technological times can sometimes prove challenging in this industry, yet Wounded Buffalo Sound Studios has recently unveiled a new addition to its headquarters that brings it bang up to speed. Colby Ramsey travelled to Bristol for a chat with the team...
Over the last 25 years, Wounded Buffalo Sound Studios’ influence as a major UK audio post house has gone from strength to strength, and so it comes as no surprise that the business was keen to expand since the demand for documentaries and feature films – especially natural history-related – began to gain real traction.
The building that neighbours the current premises (once a humdrum car park) was purchased ten years ago with the idea of doing just that, yet it has taken until this past year to bring those ideas to fruition what with recessions resulting in financial setbacks and the persisting lack of market confidence.
The decision to upgrade coincided perfectly with the arrival of Dolby Atmos, presenting the ideal opportunity to get fully involved with the format from the beginning. It took a full year for Buffalo to turn its new space into a fully-fledged Dolby Atmos feature certified dubbing theatre.
“It started with a demo by Dolby in Los Angeles where they were demoing to finalists at an Emmy award event,” explains sound editor and company director Tim Owens. “They put our 5.1 tracks through to an Atmos room and it blew us away.”
It was at this point that the intention to create what is believed to be the first purpose-built Dolby Atmos-ready dubbing theatre in the UK outside of London was realised.
At one with nature
Being based in the lively city of Bristol in the West of England, a BBC Centre of Excellence when it comes to natural history, Buffalo has created audio for many of the theatrical release feature films of this kind over the years and has solidified the genre as its indisputable niche.
Dubbing mixer Ben Peace, who became the principal mixer at Buffalo around ten years ago, notes that the first Dolby Atmos feature ever to be mixed in native was a BBC Earth production called Enchanted Kingdom, which was completed at Pinewood Studios.
“We do a lot of features here but we’ve always had to finish them in other larger studios because we didn’t have a big enough theatre here in Bristol,” Peace explains. “That is until now! At the moment, we’re operating a Dynaudio monitoring system in our 5.1 room. Everything else is pretty much ‘in the box’, which is extremely useful for workflow.”
Buffalo has recently handled sound design for a number of Disney Nature features, further cementing its reputation as a natural history feature film specialist. It was only very recently, however, that freelance sound mixer Andrew Wilson was tasked with pre-mixing Disney Nature’s Born in China (Brian Leith Productions) in Atmos using Buffalo’s newly opened dubbing theatre, of which the company is quite rightfully extremely proud.
Andy Allan, the chief visionary behind the design of the theatre itself, has been in the studio/live sound game for over 20 years and has built a number of music studios during his time as an acoustic designer, yet none as in-depth and significant as this particular venture.
“It took me from the start of 2011 to design the dubbing theatre,” remarks Allan, who was very hands-on with the project. “There was a deadline to get it ready for the Disney Nature film that’s being pre-mixed at the moment. Despite delays in the initial building stage we managed to bring it all together in time for the pre-mix and everyone seems to be really happy with it.”
It was the first film dubbing theatre Allan had worked on of that scale and the specifications were quite rigid, as he explains: “We had to dig down as well as build up to meet the ideal requirements. The original building was a pretty shabby and run-down place with an asbestos roof – we took it all apart, underpinned the walls and rebuilt it to house the theatre because we wanted to achieve an impressive ceiling height.”
The basis for the design is the Dolby criteria for dubbing theatres, which entails a specific set of parameters concerning reverberation time and background noise. It was therefore paramount for Buffalo to ensure that there was enough sound insulation from the outside world and design an air conditioning system to be as quiet as possible.
The result was a measurement of 20dB(A) with all the room’s machinery turned on, easily pipping the 25dB(A) requirement. “The room was measured as extremely quiet, even with all the kit running, so we’re very pleased,” says Allan. “It’s nice to not have to turn the AC off especially at certain times of the year when you need it.”
“Because it’s such a quiet and acoustically accurate space, we know that it’ll be super for other aspects of audio post like Foley and ADR and we’re excited about that,” adds sound editor and company director Max Bygrave.
While the Dynaudio system in the current 5.1 room had served its purpose, the decision was eventually made to go for something different in the new theatre in the form of a complete Meyer Sound monitoring system.
“Part of our research involved listening to several London studios and considering the choices they’ve made,” Allan explains. “Obviously there are some systems that very much hold sway when it comes to theatre sound, but we were looking for something less tiring and harsh, and not quite so baring on the ear.”
The theatre contains 30 Meyer HMS5 surround speakers managed by two X400C bass subs, while the large LFE channel comprises three of the manufacturer’s X800C subs with two 18in drivers. A whole host of studio outboard gear and a fully equipped new Avid console complete the theatre’s audio setup, ensuring it is fully future-proof.
The facility is centred on an Avid Protools | S6 modular control surface and was installed by Avid's Elite partner Digital Garage (DG).
"We’ve returned to Digital Garage for our second Avid S6 because as an audio post technology provider they tick all the right boxes. They’re competitive on price and provide an excellent, professional and friendly service," said Diana Smith, audio post production manager at Wounded Buffalo.
"While building Bristol’s first Dolby Atmos dubbing theatre we’ve consulted DG extensively. Visiting the site on numerous occasions, Matt and James have gone the extra mile to assist us – always with coherence and patience. They have responded by researching and troubleshooting the best possible solutions for us. Subsequently they have (again) come up with a mixing console and associated kit tailored to our very specific requirements, honing the spec repeatedly to ensure that we purchase absolutely what we require and nothing more."
Peace describes them as “super helpful” and “knowing their stuff!”
While the dubbing theatre itself is being used to mix Dolby Atmos features already, there is also a small facility upstairs which is ready for occupation, and Allan and co have got all manner of ideas in store for this new space.
“Obviously our priority was getting the theatre up and running,” he continues. “There are two edit suites that may be put up for dry hire depending on how business goes, or we may decide to include them as part of the whole Dolby Atmos ethos and use them as track laying suites.”
Despite Buffalo only recently taking on the first job in its shiny new dubbing theatre, the facility and its ability to use Atmos in this way is likely to open up a glut of possibilities and opportunities for the company.
Allan expands on this by explaining that the room is also backwards compatible with other formats and could even look at operating iMax upon reconfiguration of the current speaker arrangement. “It really makes the imagination run wild,” he says. “There’s a high spec projector producing bright, sharp images and it just all looks great. We’ve got a five-metre acoustically transparent screen which is the focal point and then everything is integrated around it and emanates from that.”
Despite potentially dawning a new era of business with the new dubbing theatre, Owens believes that the market for theatrical release feature films is limited, and imagines that Atmos will be gradually rolled out domestically as soundbars become ever more popular.
“In terms of an affordable Atmos theatre outside of London, I’m rather hoping that people will feel like their money will go further here in Bristol,” he says. “The room is feature film capable so we know that people will be able to get the whole job done here now, and not just when it comes to natural history.
Bygrave concludes: “It was a very exciting project and we’re really pleased, especially with what Andy was able to do acoustically.”
At the time of interview, it had been exactly a year to the day since Buffalo began construction on the theatre, yet Owens and Bygrave made the decision not to make too big a fanfare until it was in its final stages. One thing for certain was that everybody involved worked extremely hard to reach that point, with the finished product an undeniable testament to that.
Credit for all images: Dan Hopkins