Strawberry Sound: A Unique Partnership Sweetened By Reverb

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Chris Doucet and Jake Proctor pride themselves on offering a unique ‘package deal’ when it comes to audio: Chris a composer and Jake a sound designer and mixer, their joint venture Strawberry Sound Studios in Salt Lake City uses both artists’ expertise to seamlessly handle post-production sound with award-winning results. Talking to them you immediately sense their creativity feeding off each other, and their fascination with how music and sound intertwine. You’re also left in no doubt as to their passion for Exponential Audio reverbs, which have transformed their work over the past few years.

An organic approach

Getting to the bottom of how their pitch-perfect partnership works, Doucet explains: “We’re a composer and sound designer team, where we get hired as a package deal; we’re able to more closely handle the process of post-sound from composer to sound designer, which makes us a little bit unique. I’ll spot with the film with the director getting all the music notes, then Jake will spot with the director, then he and I get to spot it together, which is something that not a lot of composers or sound designers get to do, based on time or location or schedule. So we’re able to spot the film, and say ‘you go high and I’ll go low here’ and trade off, and that’s pretty much what we’re doing.”

The advantages of this collaborative approach aren’t difficult to envisage. Proctor describes the benefits as “almost infinite”. “Being able to have my composer ten feet away in his studio has been excellent. If I need ideas or I have ideas, I can get his pitch on it or give my pitch on it and it really helps the collaborative process - and also saves a lot of time. Being able to sound design to music especially for me is just huge. If I try to sound design to a scene that doesn’t have anything in it it’s a lot harder, my imagination has to take it so much further; whereas when I’m doing sound design for a scene which already has music laid out I can do design in the right key to better close the gap between sound and music”. 

And perhaps, working with a close colleague in this way, there might be fewer ego clashes than on many a post-production process? Doucet laughs – “There’s still a bit of that! It’s difficult when you’re in high-stress deadlines not to have creative arguments! But we’re able to resolve them quickly. What’s great about having everything under one roof is we can shift very quickly our direction - if Jake gets a cool idea and it changes everything I’m doing, we’re pretty good at working as a team to course-correct pretty quickly. When there isn’t time to fully flesh out everything, I can come in and say ‘you know what, I think this is going to be a music scene, so all we need is this one particular sound element’, or he can say ‘I did the sound and got it approved so all you need to do is thread in the emotion here’ - we’ve got shorthand at saving each other heartache and being able to make changes on the fly.”

With such an organic approach, Doucet and Proctor certainly aren’t short of work, handling post-production across film, TV and web series - “anything that’s sound and music to picture”. “Features, shows and commercials is what we’re juggling at all times”, says Doucet. “We just finished a medieval horror period feature film, and we’re starting on a Warner Brothers web series, Snatchers - seasons 2 and 3 back-to-back is what we’re on right now. Then in the middle we might be able to take on a couple of commercials and turn them out too.”

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A love for “unbelievable” reverb is born

It was Proctor who first came across Exponential Audio, discovering them on a ‘Mix with the Masters’ seminar in France. “I was really interested in closing the gap between sound and music even further, and in 2014 I got the opportunity to go to ‘Mix with the Masters’ with Alan Myerson, who is well-known for mixing Hans Zimmer scores, among many other things. He introduced me to R2, as one of his go-to reverbs, and that’s what started it. R2 at that time was such a flexible tool, a real multi-tool as far as reverb was concerned, and it really cracked my mind open to a lot of things that weren’t brought to my attention by other reverbs, because they didn’t have those types of features.”

And so a love for Exponential Audio was born. Doucet recalls how Proctor “got off the plane and started spouting off about Exponential Audio”, and from then on Strawberry Sound knew they had found the reverbs they needed.

In addition to R2, their go-to Exponential plug-ins are Symphony and Stratus – once you get them talking about their uses there’s no stopping them. Proctor enthuses: “They’re both unbelievable. They have different strengths; Stratus is unbelievable for real spaces, mixing dialogue, mixing Foley, stuff like that. Then Symphony offers me a lot of cool things that work better for sound effects. So I tend to lean on the plug-in that I think is going to be best for whatever I’m working on at the time. It’s been awesome to have the ability to reach for either of them for what I need and have those features there.”

From a composer’s perspective, Doucet is equally fulsome in his praise: “I used to have 85 instances of R2 and Phoenix for all my stems front and rear; now all that has been replaced with Stratus and Symphony. I love the ability to have a ‘coloured’ room, which is what R2 was for me for many, many films; and I love putting drums through Phoenix and things like that – it’s often brilliant in commercials being able to kick them on and off. Having those two reverbs has pretty much replaced all the other different developers that I used to have hold everything together in my template, it’s just across the board now.”

One of the most useful aspects, Doucet comments, is how light Exponential plug-ins are on CPU-usage. He remembers: “When Jake came back from France he said ‘You have to check out this reverb plug-in’, and I said ‘Well ok, but right now I have a reverb running off a PCI card that’s the only way I can afford to have so many reverbs’, and he said ‘no no, trust me it’s low CPU’ and I went ‘how low CPU can it be!’ I mean I have literally 85 instances of Stratus and 85 instances of Symphony in my template at all times, and it’s a heavy 3000 track 7-slave template and it’s like it’s not even there - it’s unbelievable what Michael [Carnes, Exponential’s main brain] has managed to do, he’s a mad scientist!”

Proctor agrees: “I have an instance of R2 on every single track in my session, as well as auxiliary sections for every food group of the film mix – dialogue, ambiences, Foley etc, and I’ve never experienced any CPU issues; it’s always full flexibility. It’s always been unbelievable in that sense.”

But low CPU-usage is just one of the attractions as far as this dynamic duo are concerned. When asked what he loves most, Proctor is hard-pressed to choose: “I love everything really! The fact that you can get a real sound and an experimental sound from the same reverb family is just unbelievable. I get people asking ‘should I buy R4 or Nimbus, or Symphony or Stratus?’ And I say for me personally you kind of need both. I love the things that Symphony offers - much longer, much more coloured reverb tails, gate and chorus built in, more of an effects section you can play with; then Stratus gives me an unbelievable sense of realism, whether I’m dialling in reverb for a large or small room, a wooden cabin, or even exteriors, it’s just been really flexible.”

From the musical angle, Doucet adds that “For me on the music side, the sound quality is really evident in the surround algorithms. Up until recently I was using two stereo versions -one in the front and one in the rear - just to keep my returns in stereo, to be able to put more plug-ins on it; but after really experimenting with the surround versions of the plug-ins it’s unbelievable how much better it sounds; it’s all so well thought-out and intuitive.”

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Geeking out and sparking creativity

Doucet even finds it adds to his creativity: “A lot of the new features that have always seemed like utility tools are now creative tools where I’m able to craft more of a sound. It’s really interesting that Jake and I are using the tools so differently; Jake’s probing every knob and going deep and automating, whereas I tend to just put it on my orchestra and go ok I got a deadline, it’s solid and it sounds great. But in the newer iterations, a lot of the tools like tail suppress and tail recovery function has yielded a creative and inspiring result versus using them just as utility tools to “get your sound”. The sound of the plug-in is amazing but also the features themselves sound amazing.”

On top of which, when they first tried an Exponential Audio reverb, the sound and music maestros didn’t have to mess with filters or anything; they just put the reverb on and away they went. Doucet was worried they didn’t have time to mess with their existing set-up with deadlines looming, but they tried it on their system “and it was like ‘don’t touch anything!’ The default setting was perfect! I did three films consecutively where everything worked perfectly, it was just a matter of dialling in the settings. It’s a testament to how unique and clean they all sound.”

Having a filter on the input as well as the output on Exponential reverbs is a massive advantage too: “Oh man, for sound, that is huge for me”, says Proctor. “With the combination of the input filter, a filter for your earlier reflections, a filter for the reverb, gates, the balance page, the tail suppression: there’s like everything I need built in. It saves so much time and energy adding an EQ or a gate or a side-chain compression before or after. It’s got everything in it. I use it constantly”. Experimenting with Stratus and Symphony has become, he admits, something of an obsession: “I geek out, so hard! I’ve clocked hours and hours and hours in the studio going ‘oh wow this is interesting’. 

But it’s not just all about geeking out and sparking creativity; the plug-ins have also come in handy to solve real problems cropping up in Strawberry Studios’ work. Proctor explains: “As a re-recording mixer the freeze mode comes in very handy for fixing tails and quick solutions on the fly. Maybe the director goes ‘I’d really love this music tail to fade out more’ and I look over at Chris and he’s giving me the look like ‘oh man, I’ll have to go and reprint that stem and we’ll have to send it off to the mastering engineer and fly it back in and then you can have your extra tail’, but I’m like ‘no!’ - I just open up the plug-in, put on his settings, and I’m able to use the freeze function to elongate that tail. And the best thing is when you de-activate the freeze function it goes back to whatever your original tail settings were so it sounds natural when you click it on and off. It’s been phenomenal as a problem-solving tool.”

Creativity with intelligibility: complex yet simple

There’s an ever-increasing pressure on mix-engineers to be more creative than ever, while still maintaining intelligibility. Exponential Audio has tried to ease that challenge by making early reflections easier to control, and cohesive all around the sound. Doucet and Proctor have certainly found that to be the case. In Proctor’s workflow, “part of my process when dialling in reverbs is usually to turn off the reverb tail first so I can just dial in earlier reflections, and that’s usually the first knob I go to. For mixing dialogue, mono has been incredible, and sometimes wide mono depending how you want the space to feel; for Foley the wide mono is unbelievable, and I’m a really huge fan of the front-to-back algorithm, it really opens up the spaces and makes them feel elongated and wider.” 

In fact, he says, the early reflections control “might be my single favourite feature of the plug- ins, because there’s no other reverb that I know of (and I’ve played with a lot of them) that offers that kind of flexibility with the early reflections.”

When it comes to maintaining intelligibility, Doucet muses: “It says a lot about a plug-in when it inspires me to start tweaking. Not to say that I don’t ever tweak, but there are some things that I just set, because I have so many other things to worry about - I’ll play the performance around it, rather than crafting the sound when there’s a hard deadline in sight. What’s amazing about this plug-in is that it has the ability for Jake to do quantum physics on it, but at the same time it’s so intuitive that I can go in there and get inspired to tweak more and to craft my sound more. You can go extremely complicated and extremely simple on it at the same time”.

“The fact I’ve yet to reach its limits says a lot”

As for what the Strawberry Sound team would say to other post-production artists considering using Exponential Audio, Proctor sums it up: “The fact there hasn’t been a room or space where I wasn’t able to dial in with the plug-in I think speaks for itself. There have been a lot of reverbs I’ve played with over the years where I’ll use one reverb for a certain type of room or another for exterior early reflections. The fact I’ve yet to reach its limits says a lot about the software.”

Doucet agrees: “Yeah, it’s about really being able to grow into something – it’s got years for us to grow into. Exponential Audio has managed to bring forward our inevitable transition into immersive formats like Atmos from maybe three years away to only one year away. It’s making a lot more possible. Also the fold-downs are 100% reliable; there used to be trauma over whether my fold-downs were right, I’d be checking everything and it would be like rolling the dice. Whereas Exponential’s fold-downs are rock-solid.”

Still enthusing as we wrap up, Doucet concludes: “The real kicker for me, the game-changer, is being able to have 160 instances in my template, which is heavy enough without it, and to keep going. That allows me to print 32-quad stems when I need to, and that is unbelievable to have in real-time in your sessions. I don’t know any other reverb plug-in I could accomplish that with.”