Creative Lives — From band mate to one-man studio: How Peter Duffy got into sound design and composing
Growing up in a music-loving household, Peter Duffy’s earliest career dreams were of becoming a professional DJ. Fast-forward a few years and those dreams had merged with the discovery of music production, as he toured, wrote music for and performed with his band, Man Like Me. Now a composer and sound designer for commercial projects, the experience became the perfect training ground; “Watching how crowds respond to different things taught me so much about what people enjoy about music,” he says. Collaborating with directors including Quentin Jones and Rollo Jackson, Peter’s work sees him create audio on video projects for the likes of Chanel, Selfridges and Google. While he explains that it’s not a role that requires a traditional training, a good ear plays central to everything he does – from picking out what makes for a catchy hook, to fabricating sound effects. He describes his journey from band mate to one-man studio, with lessons learnt courtesy of US department store Target along the way.
Freelance Music Composer and Sound Designer
Chanel, Coach, Selfridges, Louis Vuitton, Charlotte Olympia, Paul Smith, Glenfiddich, Google, Stormzy x adidas, Mini Cooper
Transfer Engineer, Factory Studios London (2005–2007)
Band Member, Man Like Me (2005–2013)
Part-Time Staff, Screen On The Green and Aubin Cinema (2007–2012)
BA Music Technology and Innovation, De Montford University (2002–2005)
Peter Duffy; Photography by Ollie Grove
How would you describe what you do?
Generally speaking I work as a music composer and for commercial videos. My job is often split between writing a musical accompaniment, and creating the sound design component. This can be quite varied depending on who the client is. The majority my work is for fashion films, for clients like Chanel, Coach, Selfridges, Louis Vuitton, Charlotte Olympia, and Paul Smith. However, recently I’ve worked on projects for Glenfiddich, Google, Stormzy and Mini Cooper.
The way I approach a job depends on the brief, and the point at which I’m brought in. Sometimes I’m asked to compose a piece of music before the film has been shot so that they can edit it to the music, other times I’m there at the last minute and have to work to a locked edit, and both ways have their pros and cons.
The sound design element of the audio is always done after the film has been shot, and involves adding sound effects, using existing samples or recordings I’ve made myself. I’ll add these to the parts where sound is missing, or to enhance what was recorded on the shoot. Quite often no audio is recorded on the day and I’ll be required to create an entirely artificial soundscape. I know I’ve done a good job is done if you don’t actually notice that.
“Making music can be quite an lonely activity, so it’s good to have someone around to relieve the cabin fever.”
What does a typical working day look like?
I’ve got a studio in a big warehouse in Limehouse where the majority of my work takes place. I’m there from 10am to 7pm usually; it’s good to have somewhere other than home to work.
The journey alone gives me a bit of time to organise my thoughts and make a plan for the day. Sometimes I’ll work on weekends if I need to get ahead of a busy week, and I find Sundays a good day to work, as anything I can get done feels like a bonus. Unfortunately I spend most of my day in front of a computer so I’ve recently got into the idea of changing my environment a bit. For the last job I pitched on I worked in my kitchen with a very basic set-up, and then polished it up the details in the studio.
What do you like about working in London?
I’ve got a love-hate relationship with London. It’s where I’ve grown up, and all I know really. But it gets me down sometimes; weather, routine, people! But sometimes I take for granted the fact that I have friends that have turned into ‘contacts’, and this is where the most enjoyable work comes from in my experience. And I also like getting cosy in the studio on a cold, rainy day.
How does your freelance work usually come about?
My first jobs in sound design came from my director friend Quentin Jones. We started working together on her university projects before any money was involved, so I’ve been very lucky to work on most of her video output throughout her career.
A great way to get work and build relationships with directors is to do favours for people on artistic projects, which might lead to paid work later down the line. I’m also represented by an agency called CLM; they represent a lot of photographers and directors, and are able to bring me jobs internally as well as getting my work in front of brands and clients they work with.
How collaborative is your work?
Most of what I do is a collaboration between me and the director of the film. They will have the vision of what they want to convey with their work and we’ll work together to make something that fits, and that we’re both happy with.
Depending on what kind of music it is, I’ll quite often work with vocalists and musicians. It’s amazing when someone hears something different in what you’ve created, and then takes it somewhere else. Making music can be quite an lonely activity at times so it’s good to have someone else around to relieve the cabin fever.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable aspects are the buzz of making something you like and then seeing it finished and posted online. The less enjoyable elements are frustrating feedback and endless revisions. I’m either really busy and stressed or the opposite; I’ve been trying to remember to relax more in the downtime.
“Writing music, playing it live, and watching how crowds respond taught me so much about what people want and enjoy.”
What skills are essential to your job?
You obviously need musical ability. I played musical instruments as a child and, although I wish I played more in later life, it set me up with a good musical foundation. However, this is different to having a good ear. I’ve met talented musicians who aren’t able to put together a piece of music, and likewise people who have had no musical training and are amazing composers and artists. Having a good knowledge of musical styles and genres is essential when working with video and brands, as sometimes you’ll be required to work outside of your comfort zone for a particular brief.
Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
I’ve been working with a young artist called Jimothy Lacoste,which I’m really excited about. I reached out to him last year after a friend of mine Jack Murray sent me a song of his, we got on well and started working on his tracks straight away. Since then, Jack and I have started managing him so that’s a new challenge, and a nice change from what I do normally.
What tools do you use most for your work?
The tools I need are a fast computer with Pro Tools, Ableton Live, analogue and digital synthesisers, percussion, a small collection of microphones, speakers, and perhaps most importantly a quiet and acoustically treated room.
It is so important when listening, writing and mixing to be in an environment that sounds good and doesn’t have any unwanted reflections or ‘boominess’. You can buy or make acoustic panels yourself for cheap, with some wood, rock wool and fabric, then place them around the room like blank canvases – it’s amazing the difference they make.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be a DJ before I knew what a producer was. Or a hairdresser according to my primary school yearbook.
What influence has your upbringing/background had on your choice of career?
My dad played me lots of music while I was growing up. I laugh now at how certain songs and their subject matter would lead to awkward questions for him! I’ve been really lucky with both my parents supporting my decision to pursue music; they have undoubtedly made it easier for me.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied Music Technology at university and one of the modules I really enjoyed was Sound Design to Image, which is exactly what I’ve ended up doing. I don’t think it’s essential to get a degree in my field of work, but it certainly exposed me to aspects of making music that I wasn’t aware of.
“Know when to deviate from the brief. It’s always better to make something that you like.”
What were your first jobs?
My first job out of university working was at a post-production audio studio in London called Factory Studios. At the time they specialised in sound design and voice overs. I started out as a runner, then became a transfer engineer. I sat in on sessions as well, which could include up to 10 people from a creative agency and their client. I learnt a lot about professionalism and what’s expected of you when delivering a service. They got me into the habit of double-checking my work, and minimising mistakes where possible.
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
I think the one thing that helped me the most was being in a band, Man Like Me. It was myself and childhood friend Johnny Langer, and we toured and released music from 2005 to 2013. It taught me so much about the music industry; I met lots of people a long the way who I now work with. We had a lot of help and guidance from Johnny’s father, who is record producer Clive Langer. Writing music, playing it live, and watching how crowds respond to different things taught me so much about what people want and enjoy about music.
Inside Peter’s studio
Inside Peter’s studio
What’s been your biggest challenge?
The first TV advert I worked on was for US department store Target’s Christmas commercial. Quentin Jones was directing, who usually gives me a lot of freedom, and I mistakenly thought it’d be the same for this project. What I didn’t know was that for big budget adverts for television, there’s intense scrutiny on production company’s work, with agency and client all having a say.
I was asked to do an insane amount of revisions (I think it was over 45) and, as we approached the deadline, it became clear to me that they didn’t like the music. I’d been responding to feedback from so many different directions, that the music was unrecognisable from the original idea four months previously. Needless to say it was a mess. It was looking like I might lose the job, and out of desperation I started from scratch, sent it over and they loved it. What was perhaps the most stressful, scary job (tears were shed) also taught me the most valuable lessons; I spent way too long trying to adapt something they were never going to be happy with. It can actually save you time to start from the beginning again.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Due to the demands for varying musical styles, I’ve found myself in situations where I’ve had to compose in a genre I’m not particularly keen on. Since I had a lack of funds early on in my career, I had to push the boundaries of what might be considered my ‘artistic integrity’. However, when you’re forced to study what makes a piece of music popular, you can then apply it to something you like.
Another thing is knowing when to deviate from the brief. If you’re hating what you’re being asked to do, that will be apparent in your output. I think it’s always better to make something that you like, that you think works with the picture and your musical taste, which is why you’re there in first place.
“Be patient; it takes years to build a steady stream of work.”
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Not exactly, but I’m happy. It’s close enough to what I wanted to be growing up. I’ve not met anyone who has the ‘perfect job’; I think all work will come with stresses and elements you don’t enjoy.
What would you like to do next?
I’d love to score a feature-length film. I’m terrified of the idea of it, it seems like such a gargantuan task, but I’m hoping to do it some day. With soundtracks there’s room to explore emotions and moods that don’t really come up elsewhere. My plan is to find a short film to work on and go from there.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Be prepared to work on some projects for free at the beginning. Get a part-time job on the side until you start getting paid properly. Make music for fun and save it – chances are it will fit a brief later on and you’ll have a head start. Don’t let negative feedback hurt your feelings. Be patient; it takes years to build a steady stream of work.