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Q&A: Andrew Dudman, Abbey Road Studios

Erica Basnicki talks to the award winning engineer about Sondheim, the new Star Wars series and – inevitably – Gravity

Things you may already know about Abbey Road senior engineer Andrew Dudman: he is a senior engineer at Abbey Road Studios, and his credits include the biggest film franchises in history – namely Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Things you may not know about him: he is one of the very few engineers in the world who has made a recording using the Royal Family’s microphones (for The King’s Speech); he’s spent the better part of the last 18 months working on Rob Marshall’s epic fairytale reimagining Into the Woods (when he wasn’t busy with critically acclaimed weightlessness worrier Gravity); and he won studio engineer of the year at the 2014 Pro Sound Awards (see PRO SOUND AWARDS 2014: The winners!). As we launch the 2015 awards, it seems fitting, then, to shine a light on one of the brightest stars in film sound.

Congratulations again for winning last year’s Pro Sound Award!
Thank you! It was quite the surprise. I wasn’t really expecting it… but it’s amazing what can happen when you have something called Gravity on your CV [laughs].

That was a good little bit of work. I really enjoyed it.
And it was a “little” bit of work, because I didn’t have anything to do with the mixing of it, just the recording. I really feel for Gareth [Cousins], who did mix it. When it comes to the film awards season, the music engineers aren’t included in the award categories unless they are part of the dubbing mix team. Especially as Steven Price’s Oscar-winning score was so central to the sound mix.

You say your Abbey Road bio isn’t completely up to date – what’s missing?
The biggest project of the last year and a half was Into the Woods. That was probably second only to The Lord of the Rings in terms of the amount of time I spent on it. It was immense. We pre-recorded the complete musical and delivered that to the set so that the actors could sing along. Some of the singing was redone live and other pieces were completely pulled apart, adjusted and retimed on the fly as the scenes were shot. Then, last summer, we re-recorded it all again. Well, 70 per cent of it – with a bigger orchestra, broader filmic orchestrations and extra new score music.

Are the songs permanently stuck in your head now?
[Sings theme; laughs] I love it. It’s brilliant. Composer Stephen Sondheim is a genius, and it’s a brilliant story. The actors were all amazing, and they could all sing really rather well… much better than we could have hoped for [laughs]. And Meryl Streep’s a legend.

Are actors different to work with than musicians?
I guess most of the actors are slightly insecure about their abilities as singers – it’s out of their comfort zone, which can actually make it easier to get a performance out of them: you can guide them where you want to be, rather than them having a pre-conceived idea about how they’re going to do it. So all of them took direction really well… but that’s part of their career isn’t it: taking direction?

Is film where you always wanted to end up working?
I played violin and viola when I was growing up, so that’s the world I know and grew up in. I did the Tonmeister course at Surrey University and came to Abbey Road for my work experience year. The best thing about film is that it can be anything; it won’t necessarily be an orchestra. You get the electronic elements, bands… it’s limitless.
In this day and age, you’re processing orchestras a lot more than we ever used to. With Gravity, we deliberately recorded things in a way knowing [composer Stephen Price] was going to mash them up or mess around with them.

What’s been a highlight for you?
I’ve been lucky enough to work on a couple of the biggest franchises out there. I’ve worked on all the new music for Star Wars so far, which was amazing: big orchestra, all live, no click, no headphones. John Williams had a secondhand clock in front of him and he’d know exactly where he was supposed to hit based on where the clock hand was. There aren’t many composers that work that way these days.

Then there was The Lord of the Rings: that was the last real big non-Pro Tools film. We did it on a [Sony] 3348HR, which is a glorious sounding tape machine, but it was quite an involved process. These days you forget how much time you used to spend going “I can relax for three or four minutes while my tape spools.”

Kit-wise, is there anything you can’t live without?
I love our Bowers & Wilkins speakers here; I think they are so true, sound-wise. My Sennheiser HD 600 headphones go everywhere with me. But my favourite piece of kit is a Neumann U 47 microphone. They’re rare as hen’s teeth and we’re lucky enough to have 14 of them, so on a film session I’ll use four on the basses… because I can.

Anything else we should know about you?
We try and have fun! Some of the best sessions are the ones that you remember just laughing. A bit of light banter… and if everyone’s involved in that, it’s even better.

You seem like a smiley guy.
I am a pretty smiley guy. It certainly helps. Especially during 18-hour mix days!