Breaking new ground for sound: PitStop Productions celebrates its 25th anniversary with a multi-million pound Sound Design Creation Centre

John Sanderson, founder of PitStop Productions

According to John Sanderson, there’s not really been a joined up approach to facilitating game audio services in terms of skills and career development. He would know, of course, as the founder of PitStop Productions, the Barnsley-based audio services company that this year is celebrating its 25 year anniversary. The seven figure “reassuringly expensive” investment is not just about having 12,000 square feet of office space in the shadow of the Peak District, or a brand new building to eventually house 50 new employees, but to create a “better way of getting new people into the audio gaming arena, in terms of their professional development.”

“We’ll be working closely with universities and colleges to evolve a process whereby we can onboard new talent, we can give them genuine experience and at the same time, start trying to improve the whole pipeline and the process, which has never really been done in the game audio sphere before.”

The new facility, which will take a year to build and another six months to become operational, will stand on prime greenbelt real estate in Barnsley, which suggests why the local council have been hesitant to grant permission for the construction to go ahead. Sanderson is understanding of the issues that Barnsley council have had to consider and says that the authorities have been very accommodating over the two years since plans were first submitted.

SOUND BARRIER

“The biggest issue was actually finding a space,” he says. “The site is set on a hectare of land, and a hectare of land in the UK now is pretty rare. That was the challenge. We had to argue, successfully in the end, ‘look, we’re trying to create quality jobs in a growing evolving industry, and stabilise some employment in Barnsley, where those opportunities are not so available.’ It was a battle, really, of arguing special circumstances to get this approved. And we managed to get that.”

According to reports in the local press, some local residents did have reservations about PitStop expanding its South Yorkshire operations. Close to a residential area, the two story building, set to comprise two recording and seven mixing rooms, will be boast state-of-the-art field recording facilities, the noise from which which was understandably among a number of objections raised by almost 50 local residents, as well as the worry that a precedent might be set for further encroachment into other greenbelt areas. In response, Sanderon delivered an impassioned plea to councillors, saying “It’s a precedent of a brighter future. it’s a precedent of how a small business with genuine good business intentions can invest in Barnsley.”

IF YOU BUILD IT…

When it opens towards the end of 2023, PitStop’s Sound Design Creation Centre will provide three broad overlapping functions. One is as a hub for a whole range of audio projects simultaneously: “The facility will have the ability to actually house multiple teams, do multiple projects, and at the same time allow other people to come in and use the facilities as well.” In addition, says Sanderson, “it’s going to be something that sits within the community in terms of trying to attract new people into the audio gaming arena, but also be able to really further and expand what our creative potential is, what the greater capabilities are, within audio creation.”

The most ambitious aim and arguably the least well thought through (more of a hope, you might say), is for the centre to facilitate something altogether different happening, something unexpected.

“For years, PitStop has been working on a 360 approach to audio. Not only do we offer the voice, voice services, music services, and sound creation services, but we also offer the implementation side of that as well. What it means is this will be a facility where we’ll be able to experiment even further with audio creativity, and processes. The whole intention is to try and create an environment which further enhances the quality of audio and games. To be able to work closer in terms of working the music with the actual sound design. And also be able to use the sound design as much as a creative tool as you would do the music to actually fuse together better.”

HOLISTIC POPULATION

PitStop Productions’ South Yorkshire headquarters (itself expanded in 2020) currently houses 40 people, a number that will more than double in size in the wake of the new facility opening next year. The overarching idea is to provide a centre of excellence where new and experienced audio specialists can bounce of one another

“What we’re really trying to do is create a facility where an individual’s talent can get better and better,” says Sanderson. “They can have that creative ability to pull it together. So within this facility, you may have a group of musicians coming in, working together with sound design and creation, and they’re incorporating the script at the same time, and being able to do that in one facility on multiple projects.”

According to Sanderson, allowing new and established game audio talent to work together is not something the industry has been terribly good at. “What you find is that you’ve got graduates coming out of universities, and they either get the opportunity to go work for a developer, or they have very little choice but to become a freelancer,” he says. “That’s a little bit like passing your driving test and becoming an F1 driver. What we’re trying to do is contribute to the employment process in terms of gaming audio, from that gap from completing a degree and going into a job.”

UNIVERSITY CHALLENGE

PitStop has long partnered with local colleges and universities and it was natural that many of them have supported the Sound Design Creation Centre, to the degree that their letters of recommendation will have undoubtedly swayed the council’s decision towards the positive. For educators the facility can only be a good thing, because, says Sanderson, “it’s actually giving further support to the courses that they’re doing, while at the same time creating a better link in terms of employment opportunities for the graduates that they’re evolving.” Meanwhile, it helps to solve an employment problem that’s been brewing in audio circles for some time: “It means that we can actually bring in young fresh talented people and evolve them in the way we want to. At the same time, with the size of the team we’ve got, be able to give them a lot more experience. It’s like giving somebody in the audio industry ten years worth of experience in five years, by putting them around 20 really experienced audio professionals, where you’ll get that whole process evolving and a better creative understanding between them.”

FUTURE SOUND OF BARNSLEY

Right now Sanderson and the PitStop team is canvassing opinion from long-term partners and others the company has worked with, from within the games industry and beyond, to contribute to aspects of the facility’s operational and technical specifications that have still to be decided.

“The major issue for a lot of universities and colleges is the fact that once the courses are created, there’s a two year gap from them actually going out and being taken up by students. What we’re doing is saying ‘how would this work with your course? Which students do you think this would really benefit? Do you think someone’s ready to come in to do this?’ We’re just going through that process now of working it through. But what makes it really interesting, from my point of view, is that this approach to making game audio pipelines and employment more stable, combined with actually nurturing new talent, combined with working with an experienced team and a large team, I think can only be a good thing for the state of the industry and help the British game audio scene improve.”

As well as making a difference to PitStop and the local community in terms of jobs and gaming industry opportunities, Sanderson is hoping that the eventual success of the Sound Design Creation Centre will inspire those working in game audio to break new ground. “We hope, first of all, it works,” he laughs. “But the ultimate aim is to start making inroads into a completely unique game sound. Not just the emulation of an orchestra within a movie, but something a little bit more. I want to be in a place with PitStop where we can facilitate that, where we can actually merge the talent together and see what comes out the other end. That’s what I find really exciting.” He adds: “For us, it’s a huge investment. It needs every bit of support we can give it, but I honestly think it’ll be a huge success if we get it right.”

About Richie Shoemaker

Prior to taking the editorial helm of MCV/DEVELOP Richie spent 20 years shovelling word-coal into the engines of numerous gaming magazines and websites, many of which are now lost beneath the churning waves of progress. If not already obvious, he is partial to the odd nautical metaphor.

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