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Diversifying through the Pandemic

Wes Maebe, award winning audio engineer, spoke to Behind the Glass about working through the covid pandemic and the challenges he has faced. Maebe is known for his work in music having worked with the likes of Ellie Goulding, UB40, Elliott Randall, Nigel Kennedy and Celine Dion and for television shows, adverts and films including The Great British Bake Off, Cadbury Chocolate, Chuggington, The Crown and Cats.


Just before Lockdown Maebe was in Sweden recording voices for an advert. “I was set to do the ad across another 6 territories in Europe. Pretty much the moment I landed back in the UK from Sweden, the UK got locked down and I lost the job. In addition to that, all the studios closed down so all the recording work vanished.” Fortunately he had a few mix and mastering projects on the go to keep him busy. “I stepped in to help out my local Open Mic night group. Since it was impossible to do the open mic, they decided to launch a Youtube channel and post “Isolation Videos”. The purpose is to keep busy and practicing, make lovely music and most importantly, involve the community and put a smile on people’s faces during this strange and difficult time. The project is very community driven and involves people from all walks of life. Under normal circumstances, they’d just show up with an acoustic guitar, or slide behind the keyboard at an open mic to perform a few of their songs but they suddenly found themselves in a position where they needed to record their voices and their instruments.”

Maebe has been advising on equipment and recording practices remotely and providing guidance about performance. “For me this was a great challenge, because I would get stuff that had been recorded well, vocals that had been recorded in a very lively living room, vocals that were recorded under a duvet, MIDI drums, real drums and everything in the right format or the wrong sample and bit rate or even an mp3 without a reference where to put it into the track. Apart from that, it's situation normal, make everybody sound as good as possible!”


During lockdown Maebe found himself writing martial for a music library. “I’ve been experimenting a lot with creating sounds that don’t sound like the instrument you play it on. I use household items, pets, furniture and instruments to make a sound bed and process all of it through analogue outboard. No straight out of the box plug in sounds, all organic, performed live on acoustic instruments or analogue synths. Because of the isolation videos and the way some of the material has been recorded I reach for my “rescue tools” a lot more than before. Wholegrain’s Quartet DynPEQ, Sonnox Dynamic EQ & DrumGate, Legendary Audio’s I.C.E, Cranesong’s Phoenix & RA have all been working overtime. Since the majority of this stuff has been recorded straight to a Zoom recorder or an iphone, I get to use a lot more of my analogue outboard gear to warm things up.”


As for his most challenging and exciting projects so far, Maebe has been lucky to work on a variety of things. “I got to record Helena Bonham-Carter and Harry Treadway for their duet in ‘The Crown’ and Taylor Swift for the ‘Cats’ movie which was a lot of fun. I was fortunate to work with Jamie Cullum on ‘The Man’ for ‘King of Thieves’ which was a blast, as was recording some of the music for ‘Run’ which came out on HBO. I recorded all the English voices for ‘Chuggington’ with Chris McHale in the producer chair. I had the pleasure of recording and mixing the music for Fiona Howe’s ‘Delirium’ and mix the sound for Sunderland’s World Cup Host City Bid ‘Lighting Up Lives.’ Recording and mixing ‘All Kinds Of Limbo’ for the National Theatre was a fantastic experience and most recently I’ve had the honour of being included on the Chapel of Rock’s roster of artists.”


“I’d say the most challenging and exciting project was working on ‘The Meeting’. This is a documentary film by Jon Klein (Specimen, Siouxsie and the Banshees) which was released on TV in Japan. It was part of a series that travelled across major cities in Europe and we got to do Paris. Jon Klein was directing and filming whilst photography artist Keiko Yamazaki was in charge of photography and filming and I was hired for the location sound. In the end I also ended up running cameras whilst recording sound and both Keiko and I were called in to perform in the film. So it became quite challenging to record location sound whilst acting! Because I was focused on capturing the sound of Paris, I decided to record in Binaural. I had built a binaural head with my mentor, Mike Skeet, and it looks like a mad fly’s head so the “Bug” ended up being an integral part of the film. Where I couldn’t have the head in shot I’d mount a couple of miniature DPAs inside my ears or on my sunglasses so that would allow me to act, be in shot and still record everything that was happening. Because we captured so many interesting sounds of the city, like squeaky chairs in parks, waterfalls, fountains, insects, tunnels, it became a real performance art piece. We even composed part of the soundtrack on the spot with me hitting various sections of Centre Pompidou!”


When approaching a project, Maebe says that you have to be flexible. “It really depends on the project. If something is studio based you have the flexibility of that environment and you can go to town with microphone choice and experiment a little more. If it is something like the Paris project then it immediately becomes more of a guerrilla approach where you have to get a lot more creative with equipment choice and because so much stuff happens right in the moment, it’s a bit more like mixing a live show, you have to grab it there and then and get it right, because that moment will be gone in a flash. I was asked to record voices for a “Vegetable” advert. The project started out as a well organised piece of logistics, where I’d have to travel to various studios in Europe to record the voices. The adverts have a set of characters, from peas, spinach, carrots to sweet corn, peppers and onions. Since the main ingredient is a song, we decided that it would make more sense to record everybody performing together in a music studio rather that record each artist individually in an expensive post-production vocal booth. Of course, Covid-19 happened so that put the kibosh on the whole plan. However, in the mean time, the composer had to be able to continue work on the mixes and tweaks for each market and more importantly, the animators could work from home to create the vegetables, so they needed recordings to work to. This meant that I ended up singing all the parts in Dutch, Flemish, French, German and Austrian as place holders. Now that recording has resumed in some markets the VO artists are recording at home and in other markets, they can go into a studio where we oversee the recording process via Zoom.”


More recently and during lockdown Maebe’s focus has been helping out his local community. “I’ve been focused on mixing the Lasso The Moon Open Mic Isolation sessions. We decide on a song, somebody puts down a guide acoustic and voice, I then create a session with a click track and that goes out to everybody involved. When I get that material back, I put it all together and generally end up joining in on guitar, a bit of programming and backing vocals. Everybody films themselves performing the song, sends those clips to whomever puts the video together and they then lay back my mix to picture.”


Maebe has only left the house three times during the pandemic to pop into RAK to record Ward Thomas and Des’Ree with Jonathan Quarmby. “I’m currently mastering a couple of records and mixing a track I recorded with Mark Butcher to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his album “Songs from the Sunhouse”. There are more Lasso The Moon sessions coming your way. I am completing the latest 10 Gauge tracks which we recorded at The Park Studios in Wembley and it's very exciting. I’m about to dive into the world of immersive audio!”


As for kit, the equipment Maebe cannot live without includes his PSI 17M near fields and Cranesong convertors. Regular John Recording BAX EQ, Chiswick Reach compressor, Solo Dallas Schaffer Replica Tower, Mooger -Fooger, Analogue Tube AT-3, Useful Arts SFP-30 and his API 525s and 550bs.


As for his biggest career challenge so far, Maebe says it’s being freelance. “The biggest career challenge for all of us is getting the next job. When we’re working on projects, we don’t have time to hunt for the next one, so it’s feast or famine and you’re always looking for the next job when the previous one has completed.”


Maebe, like many, has seen changes in the audio industry over the years and more recently the impact of covid.  “Obviously the main two things that have changed are the move from analogue to Digital and more importantly, the size of budgets. Having said that, with more and more streaming services now paying out, more money is coming back into the record labels. Obviously it would be nice if that filters through to the artists who create the music and the studios, producers and engineers who facilitate this creation.”


“If this pandemic has shown me anything regarding work it’s that there is a serious need for skilled engineers and producers. Studios are slowly starting to open up, with restrictions and precautions in place. We don’t know how long that will last before it all goes downhill again; however, there is a vast catalogue of material being composed right now that will need to be put on “tape”. The way content is consumed will continuously change, however the way it is recorded will always need to be the best possible quality, in performance, the space it is recorded in and the tools it is recorded with.”