The Jungle Studios sound designer reflects on the rapid lessons he had to learn back when Covid first separated him from the ergonomic perfection of his professional studio, almost a year ago
Before attempting to climb a mountain it’s important to get yourself in great physical and mental condition. You’ll also need the right equipment to aid your ascent and to keep you hydrated and well nourished. You should always prepare for the worst, the weather up a mountain can change in an instant and without adequate shelter and warm clothes you’ll never make it to the top.
Advice I wished I’d known last March.
When the government announced we should work from home, the old me thought it would be impossible. The hardware we use at work could brave any storm but it isn’t portable. I considered moving into the office with a sleeping bag for what I assumed would be about three weeks.
However, taking the government’s work from home advice seriously, Jungle made a decision to switch to a new software-based system. Which fitted in my rucksack. Which meant I could transport it home on my bike to what was to become my Lockdown Basecamp.
Until that day I hadn’t ridden a bike for nearly 35 years. It took me three trips and one near fatal accident to get all the necessary kit home. I’ve now learned that when you’re passing a white van and they indicate to say they’re turning, they’re not saying “Go on, be quick, come past!” No. They are in fact turning.
Finally back home, I was surrounded by a jumble of tech ready to set up Basecamp. A successful foraging trip yielded two trestles, a few different sized planks, a couple of paint pots to rest my speakers on and a wicker screen discarded by the neighbour. Four hours later my new studio was complete. However, as someone used to the ergonomic perfection of Jungle’s studios, it left something to be desired.
First off, I couldn’t get my knees under the desk. My chair could only go backwards three centimetres before hitting the bed. Or forward three centimetres before skinning my shins.
It was Friday afternoon. My next session was on Monday morning at 9am. I only had the weekend to learn a completely new software and hardware system. I had a mountain to climb and I was staring into the abyss. Undaunted, I took my first steps. Heading to Google I demanded to know “What is Zoom and how do I use it?”…
Monday morning arrived too quickly and suddenly my first ever fully remote session was upon me - 12 clients at home on Zoom. A voice over shrouded by a duvet in an airing cupboard somewhere in Camden. And me in my bedroom. Surprisingly, it went rather well. But after waiting three hours for the VO takes to arrive via WeTransfer I had to hop on my bike, dodging lockdown-avoiding white vans to collect them in person.
Now, when climbing a mountain, it’s important to stay in close contact with your fellow climbers. Our engineers WhatsApp group soon deteriorated into a stream of GIFs and jokes, until the person who would become my Spiritual Guide (Piotr in IT) told us that we’d all be able to communicate much more professionally via Office 365 - on something called Teams.
This was a vastly improved method. But for the next week he’d launch an avalanche of emails telling me to download yet another new device or app. After installing what seemed like the millionth bit of software with a twenty-factor verification code my head was spinning faster than ever. And I’m an ex break-dancer.
In a very short space of time, everything had changed. The gear I knew, the systems I was used to, the 23 years of files I'd stored - all now existed in a very unfamiliar, seemingly dark Cloud. It was as though someone had walked into the office and thrown everything I’d ever known out of the window. It was mentally exhausting.
In the first month I climbed the steepest part of the mountain. I was constantly booked and it was hard to catch my breath. I worked all day, long into the night and weekends. There was no respite. It seemed audio production was immune to a pandemic.
At the same time I was having to adjust to new lockdown distractions: my wife jumping around to Joe Wicks, my daughter walking to school each morning to stare forlornly at her empty school playground and my boy screaming, fighting and generally resisting any suggestions of learning.
Doomscrolling on the BBC News app was making me anxious and social media became my only window on the outside world. Instagram teased me with the possibility of another life. My wife’s cousin had sold everything, bought a small piece of woodland, built himself a cabin and gone off grid; no visitors, no work, no deadlines; just nature and a wood burning stove - which he kindly beamed daily into the bedroom I rarely left. I felt utterly trapped.
There were days when technology would fail me without reason, and I would strongly consider simply jumping off of the mountain. That’s when my spirit guide came into his own – like a Ninja he’d remotely log in to my computer, fix the issue and send me a wink emoji saying “Problem is Chris, now engineers need to be IT also! But don’t worry I’m here when you need me.”
Then one day, in the middle of a particularly stressful session, a thought suddenly struck me. At the top of my garden is a log cabin. My wife’s old office, vacated when the kids were born. What the hell was I doing in my bedroom with grazed shins – and why had it taken me months to think of it!?
The final ascent from Basecamp to Log Cabin was the best thing I’ve ever done.
Now, after three lockdowns, everything is obvious and astonishingly simple. I just wish I could go back to March 2020 and tell the old me not to worry. Climbing a mountain is tough, stressful, energy sapping and fraught with difficulties. But having overcome those obstacles I’ve been rewarded with more freedom, happiness and joy - and a job that’s as pleasurable as it’s ever been.
From my cabin I can see the whole of London and I’m surrounded by nature and my family. I feel blessed. And I no longer have need for my spirit guide.
…Piotr is typing...