Creative director at Jungle Studios, Ben talks quality control, having a thick skin and an amateur footie manager’s listening diet
Ben Leeves got his start in the world of sound design in 1989, after a fortuitous Capital Radio ad encouraged anyone interested in sound to apply to Saunders and Gordon. Today, people recognise Ben as one of London’s most talented sound designers, an individual who has worked with some of the most exciting directors, talent and brands in the business and whose credits stretch to TV, cinema, audio books and advertising.
For the past four and a half years Ben has been senior sound designer at Jungle Studios. But in 2020, having helped lead the business through a full scale technological and structural transformation, he has recently taken up the role of Creative Director. Whilst he still works with key clients of the studios day to day, he also now oversees the creative output and quality of the entire studios. Ben tells us that one of the things that first caught his attention about Jungle was the way they nurtured their runners and young talent, something Ben was key to get involved in from day one. His Creative Director role, will be an evolution of that - something he tells us they will have exciting news about in coming weeks
Speaking with Ben about his new role, Managing Director Graham Ebbs adds: “Ben taking on this position is so exciting for us. The technological transformation we implemented as a business last year was huge. For me, Ben overseeing the creative quality of our work is the last piece of the puzzle to get everyone in the studios all singing from the same hymn sheet. It works beautifully and we know everything leaving our doors is of the highest possible quality, delivered in the most effective way. Really though, the most exciting part of this will be our work in mentorship. The next generation of sound designers are so important to us and we believe we have identified a place we can make a huge difference.”
Wanting to dig into the mind behind Jungle’s creative director we chat to Ben about the tension between working in analogue and digital, why sound designers need a thick skin and what about commuting makes it his happy place...
LBB> When you’re working on a new brief or project, what’s your typical starting point? How do you break it down and how do you like to generate your ideas or response?
Ben Leeves> I still get excited and giddy like a small child when I get a new brief. A lot of the time the first step is thinking about what sound could really add to this project. Of course, the agency brief and directors' treatment always give you a great idea of what they want and some briefs are very strict but my job is to think of ways sound could be applied to enhance it that may not have occurred to people who aren't sound designers. Is there something extra sound can bring to it? For example, if a project is going to be just music and voice — why is it just music and voice? Could we try this or should the music go here; should it be part of the scene or should it stand out?
LBB> Music and sound are in some ways the most collaborative and interactive forms of creativity - what are your thoughts on this? Do you prefer to work solo or with a gang - and what are some of your most memorable professional collaborations?
Ben> I think you can go either way with Sound Design but, personally, I love working as part of a team. I work with engineers across the company on various projects from commercials through to features. I’ve got a few big collaborative projects on the go right now. Me and Luke [Isom, Junior Sound Engineer] are just embarking on a big commercial job which that requires a heavy amount of sound design, we already started planning it together.
Alongside that I’m just finishing a feature film I worked on with Hannah [Webster, Sound Engineer] and Sean [Mahoney, Junior Sound Engineer], which I’m really proud of. It’s a documentary following the story of homeless people living in Las Vegas. It's moving and beautifully shot. These type of projects I totally love, not only for getting the chance to share ideas and work on something collaboratively but to support and learn from younger talent too.
LBB> What’s the most satisfying part of your job and why?
Ben> This is a tough question. One thing that always makes me happy is when you work with a new team of people and then a few weeks or months down the line they’ve booked in to work with you again. .
A sound engineer’s job can be really tough because you’re booked not just for your skill but for your personality in the room. It's something that you need to have a bit of a thick skin about — same with any sort of industry where you're chosen for your people skills. You have to learn when you’re a good fit for the client and not take it personally if they choose to book with another engineer — especially if that engineer is in the same building as you. So, the opposite side to that, the good side, is when you see that three months down the line a client you have worked with for the first time has booked you again and again.
LBB> As the advertising industry changes, how do you think the role of music and sound is changing with it?
Ben> There’s so much more of it! Because of the package of content a producer now has to provide their client; instead of just one 30 second TV ad, it’s a 30 second TV ad + a 30 second online film + a 15 second VOD + a 9 second social cut — there is a myriad of different content needed for every campaign these days. As consumers we are constantly, searching, listening and keeping entertained in so many more spaces than we were before. And the line between commercial and entertainment is blurring which increases the volume of what we are creating for brands.
From a sound point of view, its great; Not only is there more creative audio content, the quality of sound equipment people listen on has also greatly improved. As consumers, we also listen to a lot more content on headphones and via voice assistants / home speakers which have allowed for really interesting developments in 3D and spatial sound. What I've found is that people are more attuned to good sound now, probably, than they’ve ever been.
LBB>What about the rising demand for podcasts and audiobooks too...
Ben> Exactly. I don't know how many hours of podcasts there are out there now! There’s a podcast for everything, isn't there? I listen to a lot of coaching podcasts because I do love football. There's just tonnes of it. It's incredible.
LBB> Who are your musical or audio heroes and why?
Ben> My audio heroes - I always sound so corny - are people within this industry. When you look at the UK's advertising sound industry, I think it’s second to none. Some of the work that gets produced in UK advertising is off the charts. My heroes would be my old bosses, Ken Gordon and Robin Saunders. What they used to do with tape was unbelievable.
People I've worked with and my colleagues are probably where I go to for inspiration more than just Hollywood sound designers.
LBB> I guess the quality of the listening experience and the context that audiences listen to music/sound in has changed over the years. There’s the switch from analogue to digital and now we seem to be divided between bad-ass surround-sound immersive experiences and on-the-go, low quality sound (often the audio is competing with a million other distractions) - how does that factor into how you approach your work?
Ben> I still hang on to my analogue roots, very much so. I still tend to start a mix from an analogue process upwards, effectively. What analogue teaches us from a point of view of best practice is the way you balance things technically. In analogue, there was a limit to where you could take things you had to build it in a very specific way. I still teach this to anyone who will listen. You need an understanding of how the sound wave travels. Digital essentially recreates that environment in ones and zeros. Even though we work in digital now, there is an analogue aspect to it beginning and end; a voice is still analogue and your ears are analogue. Its worth knowing how to build an environment this way.
But the flexibility and the creativity of digital plugins are just incredible. The digital side of it opens your world and your ears to so many different things and what we can produce in terms of speed and volume now wouldn't have been possible on tape. Also if you recorded a voice badly in analogue it was very difficult to undo. I take one for level nowadays and It's just to make sure the mics are working. In the old days when you took one for level, you took it and you made sure everything was spot on because from thereon you couldn't change a lot of it. That was you done. It put a lot of pressure on the engineer. Now you take more of what's called raw. You take raw audio and you know you can do everything with it afterwards, but with tape you couldn’t.
LBB> On a typical day, what does your ‘listening diet’ look like?
Ben> Music-wise, I was the 0.1 percent top listener of Max Richter on Spotify and so that's the kind of thing I listen to a lot. But I have a fairly eclectic music taste. I’ll listen to anything from pop to rap. Ambient is my go to now though. If there are any fans of this genre I would highly recommend listening to Rafael Anton Irisarri — it's just long sound fields of sort of ambient loveliness.
Headphones on and sitting on the train reading a book is kind of my happy place, something I actually missed about commuting during lockdown!
LBB> Outside of the music and sound world, what sort of art or topics really excite you and do you ever relate that back to music ?
Ben> Lots of film. I'm very interested in film like many are in this industry, but also how films are made. But, do you know what, a lot of my outside life is not taken up creatively because a lot of my weekends are taken up by football coaching!
Actually, saying that, at the moment I’m really interested at the moment in teaching - and not just football coaching. I have been reading into how neuro-linguistic programming works and how we learn. I started off as a football coach and I’ve branched into how the brain learns, how we learn, and how we can project learning to people.
LBB> As we age, our ears change physically and our tastes evolve too, and life changes mean we don’t get to engage in our passions in the same intensity as in our youth - how has your relationship with sound and music changed over the years?
Ben> I still listen to the same music as I did when I was 19 or 20 — I haven’t really changed. But, having my three kids has kept me young and the people you work with also keep you young. Grime is played by the kids a lot which is fine by me!