CRAFT: TECHNIQUE; Why McLennan asked what a germ sounds like

Andy McLennan says that sound is crucial to making a good ad.

Andy McLennan says that sound is crucial to making a good ad.

Sound is probably the most ignored technique when it comes to making a

commercial and this annoys Andy McLennan, a sound designer at the Tape

Gallery. ‘People will spend thousands of pounds on filming and a couple

of hundred quid on a bit of music for the background,’ he complains.

When you think of the ads for Barclaycard and Guess Jeans, it’s easy to

overlook the soundtrack and, to McLennan’s credit, he is aware that

people don’t take as much notice of his work as they might.

It’s only when you listen to one of his favourite ads, the ‘chemist’

execution for Polaroid, that you understand just how much difference

sound can make, and why McLennan believes it is important. ‘The ad is

effective and very funny. It’s nothing without the sound effects,

because there’s no talking whatsoever on the ad. Those are the jobs I

like, working on a blank canvas,’ he says.

The ad shows a man with a terrible hangover going to a chemist’s shop to

pick up some photos. When the shop assistant sneaks a look at a

particular picture, a rock and roll soundtrack blares out, with

devastating effects on the hero’s headache.

Although the ad uses stock sounds such as creaking boards, everything

sounds louder than normal, getting viewers to sympathise with the


The Music Gallery, a music composition company within the Tape Gallery,

was responsible for the party music that explodes when the pharmacist

and the shop assistant look at the photos, and also for the ensuing

soothing music when the man finally gets his medicine. The final burst

of music at the end includes a horse whinnying and McLennan explains

that this was only put in originally for a laugh, but sounded so good

that it was retained.

Another of McLennan’s all-time favourite ads is for Domestos, filmed

from a germ’s viewpoint. ‘It was strange. We were sitting in this

meeting with the client, asking each other ‘hmmm, what would a germ

sound like? How would noises sound to a germ?’. I was happy with how it

came out.’

In the ad, the germ is given its own noise - an echoey, futuristic horn

sound - and when the word ‘germ’ appears at the end, the sound crops up


Although McLennan works on his own, there are times when a client tries

to tell him what sound should accompany a film, putting his diplomatic

skills to the test. ‘In a situation like that it’s up to me to do what

they want. I’d try and dissuade them from something that doesn’t ‘fit’

with the ad, but they generally realise themselves when they’ve made a


McLennan worked on the Barclaycard ads featuring the comic, Rowan

Atkinson, as the bumbling secret agent, Latham, and in particular, was

responsible for the sounds in ‘wedding’.

Most of the ads were shot on location, with McLennan post-synching

dialogue on to the film, and adding special effects noises. For

‘wedding’, the ambience of a church was created by including organ music

and the sound of the vicar’s voice in the background. When Latham

accidentally sits on a fragile gift, the sound of breaking china was

added by McLennan, and repeated when the broken present is thrown into a


The effect was created by taking boxes of glass and china, breaking

them, recording the sounds and mixing them. This is quite a traditional

technique in sound design. ‘Now a lot of sound effects are available

from libraries,’ McLennan points out, ‘but these effects, which are

known as ‘Foley effects’, are more fun.’

The Tape Gallery is one of the pioneers of a new sound technique known

as sound-sculpting. McLennan explains: ‘The sound morphing in films such

as Terminator, hasn’t been possible before.’ The Tape Gallery has done

sound-sculpting for a radio campaign for Smirnoff Vodka, sampling a man

speaking and then morphing into a woman’s voice. The Gallery does the

same with a cat’s meow, changing it into a scream. The technique

involves a computer breaking sound waves down to their basic components.

Until recently, it was only possible to record two sounds at the same

pitch, or voices talking at a similar pace, then fade them away before

mixing in new sounds.

‘Sound design is not just about taking three or four stock sounds and

adding them to a film, it’s combining sounds to make a realistic noise,’

McLennan says.

For a Lynx ad, he mixed different sounds to emphasise the noise of

people eating and also highlighted particular sounds, such as when the

male character spits out an olive which bounces off another man’s bald


The Guess ad doesn’t feature particular sound effects, but the entire

dialogue was pre-recorded and had to be matched to the film once editing

was complete.

McLennan is one of six sound designers at the Tape Gallery and although

his studio isn’t the largest, it is one of the more expensive ones at

pounds 275 per hour (prices go from pounds 175 per hour up to pounds


The Tape Gallery is a blossoming company and includes the Music Gallery

and the Voice Gallery (the brainchild of Lloyd Billings, one of The Tape

Gallery’s founding partners and managing director). The Voice Gallery is

a CD-Rom that enables clients to cast actors for voiceovers from the

privacy of their offices. The Tape Gallery Multimedia creates CD-Roms,

and its recent credits include putting the Creative Circle Awards on to

the medium. Finally, there’s McLennan’s own baby, Tape Gallery

Productions, which produces radio programmes.

McLennan’s studio is a mass of gadgets but McLennan makes it all look

effortless as he demonstrates how to make a seagull sound like a dog.

His favourite technical tool is a Synclavier, capable of holding

thousands of sounds on magneto optical discs. The Tape Gallery has seven

Synclaviers in the building - when McLennan joined the company in 1987,

there was one.

McLennan enjoys meeting celebrities through his work and often

introduces them to visiting friends from his home city of Manchester. He

says that success depends to a large extent on his ability to get on

with people. He has the kudos of being the only sound engineer that

Alex Winter, the Brave Films director and co-star of Bill and Ted’s

Excellent Adventure, will work with in London. It also helps to explain

why he is chairing the jury for the craft section of the forthcoming

British Television Advertising Awards.


Andy McLennan had no formal training as a sound engineer, leaving New

Mills School in Derbyshire at the age of 16 and joining a local company

as an engineering apprentice.

The job wasn’t very challenging. ‘I spent all my time making small bits

of metal out of large bits of metal,’ he says.

At the same time, McLennan was also working as a DJ in a local club

where he was spotted by his boss who told him that basically, I couldn’t

keep on two jobs, so I left’.

Luckily, someone from Piccadilly Radio had also spotted him and

suggested he apply for a job there. McLennan worked as a programme

assistant for four years, absorbing as much technical knowledge from his

colleagues as possible, before leaving to run the commercial production

department at Hereward Radio, where he became interested in making ads.

During this time he was still working as a DJ - and after the managing

director saw him working at a club over the weekend he was given the

chance to cover for a Sunday evening presenter.

After two more years at Hereward, he went to the Manchester studio,

Pluto, to run its commercials production side, but left after 18 months

when the owner scaled down the commercials business.

At the same time a friend saw an ad for a job at the Tape Gallery and

urged him to apply.

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