“I don’t think one ever stops to hone their craft. It’s a constantly evolving thing, where people and experiences change how you approach everything.”
This is what Josh Campbell, sound designer at Factory, believes to be true about sound and music in the production world. While all his life he has been a particularly artistic person, at the age of 12, his focus shifted primarily to music. However, he quite clearly remembers how his niche interest in ‘sound’ started: “I just got dropped off at a new guitar teacher’s house for a lesson when I was about 14. When I arrived, he said he was sorry, but he only taught at the beginner level. I remember looking around his studio. He had a mixing desk, some outboard gear and a computer with Cubase. I just asked ‘Can you teach me about this?’.” From then on, Josh went back to the same guy to learn about engineering and music tech. It wasn’t long after that, that his school and local college started music tech courses, which made him certain this story was meant to be.
At college, he would record with local bands and constantly try to develop his skills, be it musical or technical. He even remembers being a bit frustrated that not many other kids would take music seriously enough. “In all honesty, the bands were better when they didn’t have my friends in them,” he adds.
Later, he would attend Southampton Solent university where he studied music production. While the degree, he thought, wasn’t extremely useful or necessary in terms of getting a job in the industry, it did allow him to take huge advantage of the studio facilities. “For some reason no one else stayed to use them during holidays, which allowed me time for experimenting,” he says.
However, in his last year of university, Josh would face a difficult turn - his father passing away and him having to take care of his mother. During that year he saved up enough money from part time jobs - just enough to be able to offer his services as a runner for free and finally get a foot in the door of London’s recording studios. “That was my dream.”
Surely enough, things started lining up. Josh’s first job was at Sarm Studios as an audio assistant, and he was so excited to start that he was working 14 hours a day, six days of the week. He kept that up for six years, across London and LA, while progressing from studio assistant to assistant engineer, and finally to house engineer for the producer and owner Trevor Horn. This is where Josh believes that he really laid the foundation of his skills. “I had to programme a lot of synths and shape a lot of sound there during larger projects. For instance, one of my first jobs at Factory Studios was a cinema ad for Apple Music x Everyman Cinemas. They wanted to use two songs but blend them together, and with very limited access to the audio stems from the songs.”
During that project Josh was able to utilise his knowledge of vocal production to re-time and tune on-set audio and the vocals from the real track, while allowing them to transition seamlessly into one another. “Then, later, as I had no stems for the other song, I used granular synthesis to take small parts of the song, stretch them, and play them in different keys so I could start to mix both songs together without them clashing.”
According to Josh, Trevor never had any time limits on his productions, and he always told him nothing gets shared to anyone until it’s fully ready. “We would spend countless hours trying new paths,” he says. “I remember at one point we were doing a new Seal album and ended up using parts from four different drummers in one song. I would go into vocal editing with such detail that I would be swapping breaths and even individual syllables.” Obviously, detail was king, as it often is in sound design. If something wasn’t quite right it got scrapped altogether, while Trevor made sure to protect the artists and really do what was right for them, as well as the song itself.
During that time, Josh also quickly learned that connections and relationships in the production industry are equally as, if not more important than one’s technical ability. This, and grafting hard, especially in the early days of running or assisting.
The first job Josh took ownership of, after joining Factory in 2018, was for Fender, about a limited-edition Jimmy Page guitar. A fantastic animation job from Nexus/ Smith & Foulkes, where Josh had to make all the sound design emulate a guitar. “I was very excited to have free reign,” he says. “I ended up using guitar to create all the sound design apart from the real-world sounds and I was really happy with how it came out.”
The project that changed his career, however, was ‘Femme’, the feature he recently finished, which turned out to have a huge impact on his approach and technique. “I had never worked on a feature film before let alone be the supervising sound designer/ re-recording mixer. I was approached to take on the project after working on the short film version a year previous. It had done well and was shortlisted for a BAFTA.”
The feature required him to almost take a step back from doing everything himself. He loved the script and wanted to create themes that could run through the film, which made him really focus on emotion and what can be done to show that in sound, without score and big sound design pieces.
“The lead character in the film is pretending to be someone he’s not, to get revenge on someone that attacked him,” he continues. “Without sound, you would have no idea of what the character’s real intentions are on screen. Watching some of the scenes with just dialogue, you would see that the vengeful intent wasn’t there.” The entire project was a great collaborative effort with the directors, where some very bold decisions were made.
When it comes to Josh’s favourite part of what he does, he thinks back on the relationship between sound and directing. He says, “When the director is in the room, and you play your first pass, they see their work fresh again like they are seeing it for the first time. A lot of what we do feels invisible to many people and misunderstood as just being SFX, but you can do so much more immersion and emotion that you don’t realise what an impact it has until someone references the offline mix.”
However, he also understands that in rare occasions where one finds themself with little direction, or having conflicting directions from different sides of the production. But, surely, it always works out, with sound designers always trying to find the route that could make everyone happy. “But you do find yourself making up a lot of options for things that you know won’t work,” Josh adds.
While he himself sees how sound can refresh and totally change a piece of work, Josh hopes that more people will understand the time and effort that goes into the craft, as well as see what an incredible tool it can be, so they can utilise it as much as possible. “It goes back to saying how sound design can be invisible,” he adds. “When you explain what you do, some people say ‘but that just gets recorded on set, doesn’t it?’. Usually an example like ‘Have you ever watched Planet Earth, do you think they recorded sound like that from over 200 metres away on a helicopter?’ is enough to make them reconsider how they listen to things and how if audio is done well, it can just bring you into the picture.”
Besides this, advertising’s constant stride forward is extremely inspiring for Josh, especially with all the new developments that sound can benefit from. “We have the freedom to break out of the standard 60 seconds and cutdowns. Now, smaller companies can create something that wouldn’t financially be available to them previously by not having a budget for ad space. We are also finding more and more creative freedom with these kinds of jobs.”
When looking forward to the future, Josh leaves us with this: “I’m not really award focused, but I would like to have a good body of work that I’m proud of across advertising, film and TV. I think the goal is to be working on great creative projects and work with others that I admire and to have a bit of variety to keep things exciting.”