Creative Lives — Axel Kacoutié on being an in-house sound designer for podcast Today in Focus
If you’re an avid listener of the Today in Focus podcast, then you’ve probably heard the name Axel Kacoutié at the end of every episode. Axel works as a sound designer at The Guardian, and is responsible for the melodies and scores we hear throughout the episodes – alternating between mixing and creating narration sequences. Axel’s journey began at Ravensbourne University where he studied music for media, before going on to work as a studio manager for LBC and later the BBC. We discuss what it’s like to create sound for the news, navigating the world of storytelling through audio, and finding the right song for that “plot twist moment.”
Sound Designer, The Guardian (2018–present)
Studio Manager, LBC (2012–2018) Studio Manager, BBC (2018)
BA Music for Media, Ravensbourne University London (2010–2013)
How would you describe what you do?
I work on the post-production of The Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast – a narrative-led daily news podcast. It involves mixing, scoring [using licensed or original music] and sound designing. I like to think that what I do adds another dimension to a news story.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
A typical working day isn’t very typical – but we try! The news agenda does influence how we work at times, but that’s what forward planning is for. It still does average out as an eight hour shift (10am to 6pm or 11am to 7pm). There are days where I’ll dedicate more time to mixing clips and narration sequences, and other days where I spend more time than I’d like to admit on finding the right song for the plot twist moment.
How are you right now and how has this period changed the way you work?
To be honest, finding motivation is proving to be challenging. Working in news can feel very heavy at times. I’m grateful to have a job, and that I can work from home, but I’ve enjoyed my month’s paternity leave as it’s been a strange and lovely bubble. Any excuse for a screen break now!
Today in Focus podcast
Is there anything that is particularly helping you at this time?
Sleep – as much as I can get! I’m appreciating feeling small, grateful for any moments of levity where nothing ‘profound’ occupies my mind. Just feeling present is helping me.
How collaborative is your role?
It’s very collaborative – every episode has at least one producer working on it, and there’s always an ongoing conversation about the mood and sound. The finished work is then handed over to one of the executives, to make sure everything is as it should be.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Seeing how listeners engage with the stories is always heartwarming, as well as the positive emails and reviews about the sound design. I still can’t get my head around the fact that there is a pub quiz team named after me...On the other hand, though, the unpredictability of the work means there’s never a dull day, which can at times impact my work-life balance. But again, we try!
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
My first solo piece, How to Remember [above] being showcased on BBC Radio 4’s Short Cuts. Having my work trusted and developed with [director and producer] Eleanor McDowell from Falling Tree was the best introduction to developing my storytelling skills with audio. I can’t stress enough how much of a rock she is to the craft!
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Organisation! If you don’t create a system where you know what’s where, you’ll go crazy. Establish naming conventions and stick to them – label all your audio tracks and your mixes. Clean your hard-drive and back your work up regularly. Ensure you’re a good listener, in the interpersonal sense of the word. You’re working with people all the time, so regardless of how good you are, if you’re unable to listen and connect with others, then the vision is already compromised.
Are you currently working on any personal projects?
Yes, but I don’t know what it is yet. Just a feeling that involves all mediums of expression, not just sound.
What tools do you use for your work?
I usually write music and record vocals in Reason 11. Now that we’re all working from home, I’ve begun to use Cubase 10 and 7.5 for Today in Focus. I have a Zoom H1n and H4n for recording interviews outside, and a Hooke Audio for binaural work [a method of recording sound to create the sensation of being in the room].
What inspires your work?
Film scores transport me to different worlds – an endless source of inspiration. Other things that inspire me; J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, tarot cards, astrology, people and James Baldwin (I consider him to be my artistic father).
Is there a resource that has particularly helped you?
The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity by James Baldwin is my number one resource. I find UK Audio Network (UKAN) extremely useful for connecting with fellow audio makers, and finding job opportunities. Twitter and Soundcloud have really helped me in moments, too.
How I Got Here
Do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
Yes I do! A degree helps because of the whole, ‘who you know’ principle – but don’t let that fool you into thinking people are better than you if you don’t have a degree.
After graduating what were your initial jobs?
During my second year at university, I got my first ‘proper’ job as a studio manager at LBC, via Twitter. I listened to James O’Brien a lot then so the idea of working there blew my mind. It was definitely a strong first step, but I always planned for it to be a stepping stone to help fund my artistic career.
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
Working at The Guardian can definitely be seen as a lucky break. This role has fused together my experience of working in a newsroom and my creativity. Before The Guardian, I mostly kept my creativity separated from my day job. I had the chance to write the theme song for the podcast and the production meant I won my first award last year. Audio Production Awards (APAs).
Words of Wisdom
In light of what’s happening at the moment, do you have any thoughts on how artists can work together or use their skills to create impact?
Artists give us permission to see things anew and to keep going. They can look around and say ‘not this’ and show us otherwise, or ‘exactly this’ and reveal to us a magic that’s always been there. I think we need that more than ever – collaboratively or in their own little way, we need gentle reminders of what it’s like to be human.
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Don’t wait for permission to do the thing you’ve been thinking about doing. The sooner you get comfortable with doing things badly, the closer you are to finding and developing your voice.