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Such Sweet Thunder

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Recording engineers, Peter Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley have enjoyed phenomenal success together in their respective engineering careers, and together as Such Sweet Thunder - where from their epic studio in London, they specialise in producing and mixing music for the biggest blockbuster films. It all started when they both decided to break away from the safety of Abbey Road and go on an adventure of their own...

“I'm a dinosaur,” jokes Grammy award winning, Cobbin. “I do one thing well, and Kirsty does everything well – she's a great multitasker, has got a really great technical mind and a more refined sense of musicality. I'm a little bit broad; I'm really experienced from a mixing perspective, because that's what I was trained to do. It’s fair to say that we have different skill sets within the job.”

He’s being modest.

In 1995 Cobbin was invited to become senior engineer at Abbey Road Studios, where he pioneered mixing music for surround – and was the first engineer ever to undertake remixing works for The Beatles. This in turn led to other successful collaborations, such as remixing John Lennon’s catalogue and creating dynamic works for artists such as Amy Winehouse, Freddie Mercury, Bjork, Kanye West and The Eurythmics.

Before arriving in London, Cobbin was a mix specialist. His training in his native Sydney (EMI/Studios 301) saw him assisting on sessions with Duran Duran, Elton John and Bob Dylan.

As a classically taught musician and a lover of pop, some of his early years meant editing repertoire by day and recording rock and roll by night.

Cobbin soon developed an appreciation for fine analogue equipment, helping him to develop a natural ease when working with artists of different genres, such as Ed Sheeran, Sting, Annie Lennox, Luciano Pavarotti, Kate Bush, Gotye, Janet Jackson, Paul McCartney, Florence and the Machine, Mick Jagger, Emeli Sandé, and Mark Knopfler – to name a handful.

But it was destiny that Cobbin’s love for music, image and cinema collided creatively. As one half of Such Sweet Thunder, Cobbin has helped create some of the most memorable soundtracks in recent times, such as for The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars and Shrek franchises, and The King’s Speech.

Whalley, meanwhile, is one of the few (if not the only) women to mix an Oscar winning score, which was awarded to the 2017 multi-award winning film, The Shape of Water.

Developing a love of all things technical from an early age, Whalley made her own metronome when she was just 10, studied cello and piano at the Junior Royal Academy of Music London, and was touring around Europe in orchestras as a teenager.

Her obsession with music coupled with “matters of geek-ness” led her to becoming a Tonmeister at the University of Surrey, although after graduating, finding a job as a woman proved to be difficult:

“I walked around all the studios in London with my CV and tried to get job,” she recalls. “No one would take me! It was just that time when they thought, ‘we don't want girls in our studio’. But I did find a job with a film composer – although I’d never given film music a second thought really. It opened my eyes to this film stuff, and it suited me quite well!”

Whalley went freelance, which she insists is not as brave as it sounds: “It was hard to get employed; no studios would hire me! Even with the experience I had.”

Meeting Cobbin when they were both at Abbey Road, things started to change for Whalley.

“We’re both into music and we love film – we had the same synch,” reflects Cobbin. “At the time, Kirsty was probably employed as a music editor, programmer, or a composer's assistant, whereas I was Abbey Road's official engineer.”

When moving to London from Australia, Cobbin was surprised at the lack of women working in studios in the UK.

“I was definitely scratching my head about a few things,” he nods. “I'd had a very positive experience as a young trainee in Sydney, and I would say for every bloke, there was a woman. I came to Abbey Road and there were none – not one operational female member of staff. I found that quite unusual. When I got to meet Kirsty, I realised she was probably one of the best music editors I'd ever worked with: her passion was about recording and mixing. Even though she put her name forward for placements, I just felt there was a resistance in the studios here to take women on in operational roles.”

Cobbin acknowledges that things have changed a lot in the last 10 to 20 years, but at the time felt that there was a “painful awareness” that [studios] needed to do something.

“I saw the opportunity ask: ‘Why don't you let Kirsty have a go?’ And of course, once she did, everyone comes back and goes, ‘Wow, she's amazing! Can we use her instead of you?’” he laughs.

As a young engineer-in-the-making, and with the door now opened to professional recording, Whalley gained valuable experience recording and mixing large scale film scores, and developed skills as a synth programmer, music editor and writing assistant to film composers.

Standout projects include Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (parts 1 and 2), The Imitation Game, Alien Covenant, The Hobbit trilogy, and Hugo, not forgetting in 2012 Whalley was made an associate director for Danny Boyle’s epic Olympics opening ceremony.

Sweet Thunder

After forming a bond and a mutual respect for each other's workflow at Abbey Road, an idea began to take shape: what if they were to open their very own studio for film work?

They did just that, and were henceforth known as Such Sweet Thunder: one being sweet, the other representing the thunder (Headliner still doesn’t know who represents which).

The duo specialise in producing and mixing music for film, and work with some of the world's best musicians, composers and directors, and have mixed hundreds of film scores – over 50 of them being box office number ones.

The duo’s studio (just a short walk from London's new creative hub of King’s Cross) features an impressive 9.1.6 Dolby Atmos mix room, dubbed ‘Sweet Thunder’ – however the pair were apprehensive about whether people would want to make the journey there.

“Abbey Road is a bit of a safety net; if you say to someone: ‘Do you want to come to Abbey Road?’ – what are they going to say? ‘No?’” Cobbin asks rhetorically. “So that was a big thing to let go, and it was almost like a test: is this about me and Kirsty? Or is this about the facility in Abbey Road?”

Cobbin and Whalley are relieved to report that within a month, they knew that Sweet Thunder was working for them – they have been fed by a constant stream of work, and have been there ever since.

“We had a quiet ambition,” explains Cobbin. “We needed to build a mix room that we could do anything in, and we've worked on the biggest projects in our very niche area of recording. We do the biggest projects going, and projects can get incredibly complicated. Particularly since we’ve gone digital: directors will obsess about their edit. A studio will say they love the film, but hate the ending and reshoot it – it can go right down to the wire. That puts in an enormous pressure on everyone involved, working backwards from anyone who's delivered visual effects, or the music, or sound. So we had to set up something that we knew could work.”

The team have had to be ready at a moment’s notice for some of their biggest projects, as Cobbin explains:

“Peter Jackson would call and say, ‘Hey, I can't get out of New Zealand for my last two Middle Earth projects. Can you come to Wellington? Is it possible? Can we record and mix the music there?’ Ridley Scott was the same: ‘I've got a broken leg. I can't get out of North America. Can we come there?’ We have found ourselves in Paris, Russia and Australasia setting up temporary mix rooms to do a specific kind of job. Sometimes that is a lot of work!”

ThunderDesk

At the heart of the Sweet Thunder room is its custom-made ‘ThunderDesk’ – the result of a complete rethink about the concept of a mixing desk for today’s engineer.

ThunderDesk is a moving fader production console, an integrated music player, a keyboard instrument and a flexible working surface all rolled into one, and skillfully crafted in beautiful oak. The desk has its own integrated 9.1 speaker system and acts as an independent sound source – no computers are required.

Two built-in touch screens facilitate streaming of music, radio from the internet, or digitally from a laptop, while the desk boasts retractable high resolution displays with video switching for the duo’s multiple ProTools rigs. The desk has valves – 28 in fact, and thanks to two in-built custom levelling valve amplifiers, Such Sweet Thunder have the best of old technology, reimagined for a new way of working.

“It's part of our business model to help create solutions for an ever-changing world,” says Cobbin as he shows Headliner the custom desk. “We did some work on a film for Tim Burton, and I recorded it that day; we were under a lot of pressure at that stage from Disney. They decided to re-record some bits again, but they needed it within a day. I was recording the orchestra at Air Studios in the morning, and I'd upload all the multi tracks to Kirsty, who was here. She started mixing them while I was still recording the choir, so in the final mix, what you're hearing was 90% of what Kirsty had done on the same day.”

“We made a few tweaks and it made it to LA by the time difference,” Whalley smiles, pointing out that they have their own thousand megabit upload. “We can’t have the client waiting for three hours for the files to arrive. The Tim Burton one, for example, is a 7.1, 96k mix with 16 stems!”

Merging Technologies plays a key part to facilitating a smooth workflow: the studio boasts two Merging Anubis compact AD/DA interfaces and six Horus multichannel units – all networked together allowing anything to be connected to anything else, with enough analogue inputs to connect all the legacy pieces of kit – without any hassle.

When initially setting up their Pro Tools system, Whalley and Cobbin wanted the best convertors they could get for their stereo:

“We got tipped off about Horus – which I’d only seen used for classical sessions at that point,” admits Whalley. “We thought it was some kind of classical trickery, you know? We thought that it wouldn’t apply to us in Pro Tools, but this could be great. We bought a quite modest first Horus and we used it to do analogue summing with a beautiful stereo chain.

"We were blown away with it and started using it as inserts within Pro Tools. And while this was great, we never quite got round to working out the best plan until we did a recording in Glasgow for Danny Elfman, where we decided to take up a Pro Tools rig to record, and they had a setup with Horuses on the floor. We took ours, and I was thinking, ‘oh, they'll plug this into here’. And all we ended up doing was joining their network. That was the first time we really saw the power of audio over IP.”

Whalley says that while they were using their own mic amps to boost up their system, it triggered something in their brains:

“We thought that we could do this instead! We have all this lovely analogue equipment, we can pull it into any of our rigs – wherever we want it. It’s a whole new way of mixing for film, really. That's what got us inspired, and gradually we bought another Horus and some more analogue equipment and started to incorporate it into our workflow; we hadn't seen anyone do this before in terms of mixing the analogue equipment for film.”

“It's a major commitment for one small mix room to have six Horuses and two Anubis, because the product is thatgreat,” Cobbin stresses.

“We're not holding back now on the imagination that we can apply to our own kind of mixes, and that's brilliant. The Horus has been pretty significant in challenging what I call ‘the old way’ of working.”

Whichever way they are working, the duo are clearly doing something right; good relationships with their clients ensure that they come back to Such Sweet Thunder time and time again:

“Exactly,” smiles Cobbin. “We've done a lot of the Harry Potter franchise, so we know the director really well, and we’ve had a few meetings to discuss the next one. I think it's fair to say that Hollywood keeps us on our toes; it can be incredibly rewarding and demanding. Although artistically, we also find that sometimes it's the small, independent films that are doing some wonderful things creatively,” he concludes.

Read this article in Headliner's MPG special issue, here.

Words: Alice Gustafson