Interview with Alan Sallabank

Alan Sallabank, sound award winning Dubbing Mixer and Sound Editor, owner of 8dB Sound and known for his work on the likes of The Jungle Book, Finding Dory, Doc Martin and Line of Duty talks about his work and diversifying workflows through the Covid Pandemic.


Sallabank has always been interested in the power of sound to communicate a story. As a child he listened to the radio series Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy and was always fascinated how the show was able to create a technicolour image in his head about what was going on. As part of his A level design studies Sallabank even built a mixing desk. “I contacted the BBC asking for diagrams and circuit diagrams of desks and they sent me lots of manuals and leaflets.” This also gave him a contact at the BBC for his future work experience. One of Sallabanks first jobs was working for an independent post facility where one day the mix engineer was late so the client asked him to do the job as he had a bit of experience! Sallabank was thrown in at the deep end and never looked back. Throughout his career Sallabank has built his own equipment, designed and built mix rooms, foley and ADR facilities and developed workflows.


In 2013 he launched 8dB Sound working remotely from his own studio. “Not only does working for yourself give you freedom of when to work, but allows you to push ahead technically, making things easier for my clients.” With Covid and the pandemic he had to find ways to record artists in their own home with good audio quality. “Many have become used to poor audio with online meetings, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be done so it sounds as if the client is one side of the glass and the VO the other, it’s irrelevant that the glass between them is over a thousand miles apart. The client doesn’t have to perceive any difference.”       


“When the pandemic hit I found the main reaction from production people was how complicated things suddenly became with poor internet connection, the home set up artists had, time delays with artists and agents etc. Voice artists were also finding themselves worrying about having to be the sound engineer, messing with EQ’s or having to re-do the take due to poor connection, as well as being the voice Artist.” Sallabank adopted a ‘one stop shop’ approach guaranteeing ease of sessions with a quality result. “We had to find a way of keeping the wheels on the bus”.


Being forced to adapt working practices, Sallabank pioneered a fully functioning Remote Pro Tools recording rig to send to voice artist’s homes. “After a lot of research and experimentation, I developed a remote recording rig that could be sent out to actors anywhere, enabling voice recording to continue without the actor having to be in a “traditional” studio environment. For the actors it's no different to going to a normal recording studio. They do not have to get involved with adjusting any levels or operate any software or equipment. They are able to fully concentrate on what's important – acting, and the production is able to concentrate at getting the best performance and result possible.”


Sallabank views his job as that of translator, taking the creative brief and translating it into technical actions. “If I do it right, the average listener doesn’t hear the “cogs whirring” and has an almost subliminal reaction. It’s all about getting the viewer absolutely engaged in the sound. The difficulty comes sometimes when things get “lost in translation”, or there are aspects that can’t easily be communicated over some mediums, such as smart phones vs. cinema. But when we’re all on the same page, it’s great and very fulfilling.”


“One of the benefits of remote workflows is that clients now see and hear material as a regular person does in that they are using headphones, mobile phones, sound bars etc, rather than the professional studio. This gives us the opportunity to head off criticisms of our industry and get back to creating a product that is more compatible with the way audiences are viewing now. Remote workflow has got producers back on the same page as the audience.”  


As for his approach to the final sound required he says “You need to get in the head of the creatives who are making the piece, but also be aware that on most occasions, you are making a product, which has to sell, or is designed to sell something else. Never get romanticised by something being an “artistic masterpiece”. At the end of the day, if it doesn’t make money or gets terrible reviews/ratings, there won’t be another one.”


Immersive audio is one of the big leaps that the industry has made in the last decade and has brought a renewed interest in sound. “It’s important to keep an eye on things that can immerse the audience further. Dolby has worked hard with Atmos, to ensure people can have a comparative experience regardless of what they are listening on. I did a short horror and the producers wanted a stereo and a 5.1 mix in case it was shown at any festivals. I chose to do it in Atmos to make it ‘future proof.’ From a mixers point of view it’s exciting to have to think about the placement and perspectives of objects and point sources of audio. You have to stop and think about what is over my left or right shoulder, how big is it and what will it sound like. You have to give it a real sense of distance regardless of how the viewer is listening be it on headphones, phone, TV or Cinema.” 


“Immersive audio can make you feel engaged and create that group experience, something that we have been missing this past year. We can feel together even though we are apart. Because they are immersed in it can break down some of the physical barriers so it’s like being there which can help repair some of the mental health damage that is being done.”


Sallabank has been doing a lot of beta testing for Avid Pro Tools, Avid Surfaces, Dolby Atmos, iZoptope RX8 and Source Elements since the pandemic hit. “There’s a common theme to the recent testing as its about democratising post-production technology, so that the incredibly talented people who used to pack onto crowded public transport to get to work, are able to effectively work from home, in such a way that it is sustainable and indeed desirable.”


Sallabank specialised in Immersive/Surround Sound and Digital Audio from the outset, starting with Steinberg Pro12, AudioFile, Pyramix, Sadie, Akai, Waveframe, Sound Station and ProTools. He did his first Dolby Surround mix in 1993, and his first Dolby & DTS 5.1 mixes in 1997.


In the studio Sallabank can’t live without his RME Interfaces. “They’re rock solid workhorses and sound utterly brilliant. In my studio I have Pro Tools Ultimate, Avid S1’s, Avid Dock, Avid Control, 4K screens, 7.1.4 Presonus monitoring controlled by a JBL Intonato, RME and Focusrite interfaces, Dante network, MacPro and Windows computers.”


Sallabank began his career without any formal training so being keen to give back to the future generation of sound engineers, he spends time at Christchurch Studios in Bristol, and UWE. “I find that the one thing that is generally lacking in further education for our industry is practical experience. I’ve put my time in, just watching absolute masters of their craft working. And not just working the equipment but working the room as well. To my mind, Christchurch presents a unique opportunity where we can give students actual practical experience of working on real projects, with real clients, with everything that entails. And the building is utterly steeped in history, plus totally perfect for a post Covid-19 world.”


Sallabank served on the BSi committee that set up the LEQ(m) standard for theatrical commercials and trailers in conjunction with TASA, and for several years served on the Association of Motion Picture Sound Executive Council so has seen the industry develop over the years. “TV and Film has stopped being “passive consumption”, where if you weren’t in front of your TV or at a cinema at a certain time on a certain day, you missed out. Nowadays we’re firmly in an “on demand” world. I don’t actually see this as a good thing. It limits your exposure to what you want to watch at the time. Last year we had an issue with our set top box, in that it stopped showing the EPG for a couple of channels - we couldn’t even set the shows to record, so had to watch them when they were being transmitted. We renamed them “the mystery channels”, and it was an absolute joy - I ended up watching so many things that I wouldn’t have chosen to watch, but really enjoyed nonetheless. “


“Personally, I think that there is going to be a return to the group “as live” experience. Even if the audience is in pockets of isolation, they will still be able to interact with each other and see and hear each other’s response. The BBC has been doing great work in having a “virtual studio audience” for their radio shows.”