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Wild life: Louise Willcox from Springwatch tells all

The adventures the former BBC sound supervisor

From dealing with 95mph gusting winds on a live broadcast, ‘badger-geddon’ on Springwatch and ensuring the lion pride was not attracted on set with pre-recorded sound, Louise Willcox has a treasure trove of stories. Sarah Sharples discovers the adventures the former BBC sound supervisor has been on

Louise Willcox has a long list of credits to her sound CV after working at the BBC for 28 years and as a freelance sound supervisor and location recordist since 2006. As a trainee she worked on the longest running radio drama The Archers. She then went on to mixing live television music show Pebble Mill and has also worked as a sound recordist on TV drama Doctors, and the live broadcast series Big Cat Live, which was filmed in Kenya.

Impressively, she has been the sound supervisor on almost every season of Springwatch and has worked regularly on Autumnwatch and Winterwatch. She has also mixed at Wimbledon, the Commonwealth Games and Premier League football matches.

Her interest in sound goes back to her childhood – sparked by a documentary on Abbey Road Studios – and her father playing around with quarter inch tape machines. Tragically, her father was killed in an accident when she was 13. Despite Willcox, failing her music ‘A’ levels, an overheard conversation led her into a career she loves…

How did you get into sound and why?

My brothers and I were making a lot of music at home, so I was always standing at the back of the hall saying ‘Turn this up’ and ‘Turn that down’, while they played. I also watched a lot of television and listened to radio so worked out that they must need sound designers too. That said, I took all the wrong exams! I went the music route, but should have taken the physics. I failed my music A level – I could get a tune out of anything, just not up to grade 8! In 1977, I took a quick secretarial course and got into the BBC as shorthand typist. One of my managers heard me talking about mixing my brothers band, and asked me ‘Do you want to do sound?’ and got me an interview. Feedback was that I knew a lot of operational stuff, but I didn’t understand enough physics, so I took a night class. The BBC interviewed me again six months later and I got through! So, after 12 months of being a typist, I managed to move across into a BBC audio unit. I had to move to Birmingham where, effectively I did a mentored apprenticeship.

Tell me a bit about your career to date…

I was in a BBC Network Production Centre ‘audio unit, which worked across radio and television, studios, post and outside broadcasts.

If you worked in Birmingham, you had to work on the Archers, so six days out of every four weeks, there were four people working on the serial.

Mixing a big live television music show called Pebble Mill was hardest I’ve ever worked; three live bands per show.

I was sound recordist on the first two series of BBC One’s daily TV drama, Doctors and it’s still on air. It was quite ground breaking at the time – we recorded up to 16 pages of dialogue a day, which is very fast in comparison with most TV drama. I became a television sound supervisor in December 1990.

In April 2006, my first freelance job was to dub Doctors for about three months – which I thought was wonderfully circuitous!

Springwatch has been running for over 10 years. How long have you been on it and how did you get involved?

From its conception, I’m lucky enough to say! In 2003, there was a TV programme called Wild In Your Garden planned for Bristol. This show evolved into Britain Goes Wild with Bill Oddie from Devon, then Springwatch two years later, at the same location. With the exception of SW 2011 ­– when a new director came in – I’ve been sound supervisor on the series. I was asked back for Autumnwatch 2011.

When I first turned up on this Wild In Your Garden OB, they had put cameras in bird boxes, but didn’t tell me. It wasn’t thought worthy of mention – to them it was just a shot. I did have stereo mics for birdsong around the feeders in the gardens, but nothing in the bird boxes. So, in Devon the next year, we put (Sony) ECM 88 personal mics in every bird box that had a camera. Live sound is always possible, you just have to make an effort – and have the budget! We’ve been putting microphones wherever we have wildlife camera ever since.

Describe what it’s like to work on the show…

It’s a pleasure. I sit there thinking I can’t believe I am paid to do this. With Springwatch, the job starts by working out where the infrastructure has to go to get the wildlife camera and sound signals back to main site. The engineering manager, the Gareth Wildman [Great name! – Ed], plans that infrastructure, and I then work out how many mics, what type and where we’re going to put them. I use the wildlife fibre infrastructure to transport up to five stereo atmosphere mics for use behind all live presentation: to hear the first cuckoo, or booming bittern, live. All the feeds come back to the one sound desk – roughly split left and right. Left side manages the wildlife feeds, right side is my mix to air. Wildlife sent to multitrack sends post EQ/dynamics pre fader, for marrying in a matrix – the size of which varies depending on how much we’re covering.

When birds fledge or die we take that kit out and put it somewhere else – we had ‘Badgergeddon’ the second weekend in 2014 at Minsmere. A badger literally ate all of our waterfowl ‘characters’ on the ‘Scrape’. That caused a massive re-rig! One of the three ‘crew’ is employed solely to manage the wildlife audio rig (Tim Hunt, ex BBC Bristol, and Casualty recordist). He does this exclusively during the day – rigging the mics, routing to the broadcast truck from the fibre hub, setting levels/eq-ing on the broadcast desk, ensuring the correct mics are married to the correct cameras in the two matrixes; then he joins the other two sound people, so that I have three on the floor – one for each presenter.

The guarantee on the truck manages the communications that I’ve planned. There are generally five duplex radio channels, three IEM channels and four simplex, as well as a Riedel talkback system to plumb-in around the main site – editors, production office and dubbing suite.

How has the series developed over the years?

Around 2006 we beat late evening Big Brother’s viewing figures with one of our innovations: a BBC Two daily, late-night, live show, called Nightshift. No presenters – just live wildlife pictures and sound from our wildlife cameras, with a graphic ticker of emailed comments from the public. Someone then had the bright idea that, if everything was already switched on 24/7, what if we made it available to live stream on the BBC website? By 2009, it was the norm for us to be providing four live web streams – there were reports of bankers stopping trading to watch the last Blue Tit fledge!

Then we started doing Red Button transmissions with Springwatch Unsprung. An audience hastily filed in, audience mics un-cut, small PA system activated, boom operators in position, animals brought into the studio – starlings perching on boom ops heads was not uncommon and, most recently, some shows played-out by live music!

What are the biggest audio challenges when filming?

Presenters Simon King or Martin Hughes-Games diving, or abseiling down cliffs, or presenting an item from in a tree canopy are some I can think of.

But for me the biggest challenge was on Big Cat Live – we had two Land Rovers following the lion pride and a family of hyenas. The cameramen and comms engineers said there was no point putting microphones on the Land Rovers – said we wouldn’t hear anything interesting, and that hyenas would eat our cables. We ignored them and we got the most fantastic sounds; lions having stand-offs with hippos which no one had heard before; hyenas cackling at each other, and crunching through carcass bones! I put a few stereo pairs out for general atmospheres, one only 100m from my ‘sound gallery’ tent. I could hear chomp, chomp, chomp every so often, and when I brought the mics in for the night I found a hippo had completely devoured all the grass around the microphone stand. Could see the tripod imprint where it had stood – mic and stand left completely untouched!

I was also told not to play any VT insert sound that had lions on it on the small fold-back speakers on the set, because it would attract the pride of lions into the set! Very large red pen used on my script, telling me which VTs to cut fold-back on – never had a direction like that before or since!

Favourite piece of equipment and why?

Calrec make what I consider to be the industry standard live sound desk – it seems like they are designed by people who have done the job. I guess that 98 percent of all outside broadcast trucks and studios I work in have a Calrec sound desk of one type or another. I love them!

The auto-mixer built-in to the latest Apollo and Artemis series desks is really helpful. If you have a one plus seven interview, where contributors are speaking at widely differing levels, the auto-mix can react far faster to back off spill of a loud male onto a quiet female’s microphone than I can. One still has to get the overall gain structure right, and you still have to mix, but it’s a really helpful tool.

What are your thoughts on large furry mic shields versus omni-directional personal mics?

On live shows, in my opinion, personal mics should always be ‘on top’. All personal mics have different grades of windshield, but sometimes, outdoors, even their own discrete ones can’t cope with the wind speed. Then, the only alternative is a windshield like the Rycote Windjammer. Fluffy windshields like these are great, aurally, in high wind, at making a personal mic usable. Visually, however, they are pretty awful, and if there’s one thing a TV sound supervisor is trained to do, it is to try to keep the sound rig as visually ‘low impact’ as much as possible. No can do with a Windjammer!

Rycote now make smaller versions – the Ristretto – and they also do them in a selection of colours. So, if your presenter is wearing a bright green puffer jacket – a la Chris Packham – Rycote have a Ristretto that matches that perfectly, and I now look for sound assistants who have an eye for style.

I have to say, ugly as they are, they have ensured that the ‘Watches can keep broadcasting on several occasions. The last time being the final show of Winterwatch 2016, where the wind gusted up to 95mph, and where our director insisted that our presenters being outside in the weather for the first 15 minutes of the show!

There is a shot of Chris Packham camera left and Michaela Strachan camera right. Her hair is horizontally being blown further camera right. We came out of a short VT to these two trying to speak to each other. They could just about keep their eyes open in the howling wind and sleet, but, after a slightly muffled start and I’d filtered out up to 200Hz on Michaela’s mic – wind blowing directly into her chest, Chris’s mic in the lee of his shoulders – I could hear every word she was saying! Without that Windjammer, she would have been inaudible. I believe Rycote have downloaded that show.

Sound can be a very male dominated area. What’s your advice to other women?

There are no obstructions whatsoever for women coming into this industry. I think the thing that can discombobulate women in broadcasting is coping with the repercussions of it being a 24/7 industry. It’s something that can be coped with, and taken advantage of, with enough thought and life planning.

I’ve had a fantastically, varied, entertaining job, with only one day in 30 years that I’ve hated. These days, the varied job that I’ve been lucky enough to have may not exist, but there are still broadcasting sound careers in areas both men and women can love – sport, light entertainment, drama. There are other pro-sound careers that I have no experience of – live gigs and theatre audio for instance, as well as the film industry.