I recently had a chance to sit down with sound designer and sound FX recordist Charles Maynes and chat about his new “LA Underground” sound library, available from Rabbit Ears Audio. Inspired by the gritty and seedy Los Angeles shown in countless films, “LA Underground” is a 10 GB collection of ambiences from all over the city, from the industrial centers near the LA River to the heart of Downtown.
Designing Sound: How did this library come about?
Charles Maynes: I had been talking to Zach Seivers and Justin Davey over at Snap Sound, who I had met through Dave Yewdall. Basically, a conversation I had with them last summer was kind of the seed for the conversation I eventually had with Michael [Raphael]. They had been hired to do a film in New York, and they were going to go out on location and record a bunch of stuff in the city and at the practical locations, and they were like, “Hey, this is a really big projects for us, so we’re going to actually invest in some Schoeps mics and stuff.” They were debating whether to go M/S or X/Y.
We got together one afternoon and I gave them my whole dump on M/S, which up to that point was relatively unremarkable. I’ve heard some good stuff out of M/S, but my typical reservation was is that it’s really not a lot of fun to work with after the fact, in the sense that you are essentially working with dual mono which you then have to set up a system to get stereo from. And, if you’re working with other editors, time is ALWAYS of the essence in editorial. First off, M/S is never going to make it to a dub stage, ever. It’s too impractical; it takes too much time for a re-recording mixer to have to set up channels specific to it and then think about it. You just want it to be, out of the gate, usable.
In my experience with production recordists who’ve provided me with M/S for FX and everything, it was like, “Yeah, it’s kind of cool, but it’s just not THAT great.” My leaning at that point was kind of not in favor of it, more in favor of doing straight [X/Y] stereo and that’ll just be easier for most workflows. We spent probably about 3 hours talking it through, and since they had control over their workflow, they thought that M/S was still going to be something that they wanted to go with.
Through the course of talking it through, it really re-piqued my interest in the possibilities of it. I had one M/S mic at the time, which was not a particularly fancy thing, it was a Shure VP88, which I had reasonably good success with oddly enough in music more than FX, it’s a great music mic. But it was one of those things where, with the experience I had with that and with the outputs I had gotten from other production recordists and field recordists in M/S, it was always like, “Well, it’s just not bringing enough to the table for me to make sense.” But again, through this conversation, there was like, “Wow, there’s actually some compelling reasons to re-investigate this.”
I went out of that conversation, and for whatever reason, it was in my mind that I had these Oktava mics, actually three of them, the MK 012s, which I had found to be pretty useful. They’re kind of, if you will, a disposable KM 84, the Neumann. They’re not that dissimilar. I discovered that Oktava did indeed do a figure-of-8 adaptor for the Oktava, which was basically a T-head that you would put on the preamp body then put two capsules on it. It was one of those things where the thing is not terribly expensive, I’ve already got these other mics, all of the capsules I’d need, so I was like, “OK, what the hell, let’s give it a go!”
So, I got it, and for whatever reason, the figure-of-8 setup was timbrally really quite different from what you got from a single capsule from the Oktavas. It was much more in the kind of quality of a Schoeps, much more significant high frequency content, and low-frequency content. I have a bunch of other small diaphragm condensers, which are not super expensive, but reasonably decent, and listening to them in comparison to this rig, it was like, “Wow, this is REALLY different, this is pretty darn cool.” The downside is that the Oktavas themselves are not made to the same precision as the Schoeps or the Neumanns, so the whole contraption tended to require a little more attention to be sure that it was actually doing what it was supposed to. One thing that’s kind of interesting about it is that for whatever reason, they have to have an additional shielding on that setup to make it work correctly. The small diaphragm condenser capsules that come with the Oktavas have windscreens built-in, but essentially there’s another set of windscreens that are part of this figure-of-8 adaptor that are required for shielding.
But, once I started working with it, it was obvious that this is pretty impressive. This was probably in October or November, where I started kind of really beginning to like the thing, and Michael Raphael asked if I would be interested in doing a post for his Rabbit Ears Audio, and that was essentially the fodder for my “How I learned to Love M/S.” With that, doing the blog post, I thought, “Well, you know, it’d probably be pretty cool to do some examples.” You know, just do some fresh recordings with this setup and put it out there as a part of the blog post. So, you know, I just did stuff around [Burbank], which I thought was kind of interesting. In the course of that, I thought, “You know, I’m not really working that much right now, because of my schedule, maybe it would be kind of interesting to go out and do a set of LA backgrounds that I would really like to have,” as opposed to just the representative Los Angeles, which is pretty much what everybody does. You know, like recording Sunset Boulevard; it’s like it all ends up being relatively generic sounding, because I don’t think any of those places have a particular sonic signature to them. They could pretty much be Kansas, or you could be in San Francisco, or San Diego or whatever, it just didn’t strike me as these different recordings are any more interesting than any other recordings I might have in my library if I searched for “LA.”
So with that, I started thinking, “What about LA do I think is the coolest kind of facet of it?” I started thinking about these films, my favorite films about LA, all of them were really gritty in really seedy locations, and how it’d be really great to capture the essence of that. The films that were kind of the big influences for it, the first was “To Live and Die in LA”, Billy Friedkin’s film, obviously “Heat”, “Collateral”, and “Training Day.” I guess beyond that, I just though of more gritty urban dramas, like “The Town” or something like that, where I wanted to capture this sonic quality of LA, to get these places where it wasn’t the tourist LA. That really was the impetus of going out there.
I ended up doing a lot of work down by East Downtown, the area between the LA River and Chinatown, which has the Twin Towers Jail, by Union Station. I found amazing locations there, I went down by these projects, just all these places where I started trying to frame what I thought would be conceptually an interesting thing. And it was like, “OK, well I’m going to go try to find places where I would likely run into a crime scene.
I would just explore, do some urban exploration, a lot down by the LA River. I ended up going down to, I want to say it’s Commerce, where it’s all huge warehouse districts with lots of train activity, and the Vincent Thomas Bridge, where I literally went out and just explored all around there. There was this one angle that was pretty interesting, where I was pretty much right underneath the bridge. If you’ve heard the Vincent Thomas Bridge stuff, that is literally from being underneath it, almost in its shadow. It was really fascinating because it was a location that would’ve been entirely appropriate in “Heat” or “To Live and Die in LA”, there was like this big natural gas processing plant right there, and I found this empty lot that was along one of the channels. I get there, I set up my mics, and immediately four Sherriff’s cars go by to this natural gas plant. Then there was this police riverboat that comes up the slough, and I was like, “Wow, this is pretty interesting!” There’s this really amazing sound coming off of the bridge and everything, and I just thought it was kind of cool.
DS: When you were out there shooting, were you going solo?
CM: Pretty much, yeah. I would just go out in the mornings and late afternoons, and just try to find places where there were very few people but there was interesting activity happening.
DS: Did you ever get bothered by law enforcement or any people around?
CM: Oddly enough, I never got bothered by law enforcement. I had a couple of instances where I had gangbangers drive by me. I tried to set up in places where I could have a really good amount of view, in seeing where other vehicles were coming. Especially down by where the train path goes out of LA along the 10, there’re some side streets there that I would park, in these industrial areas, and I would record for as long as I felt comfortable. But yeah, there were homeless people running around. I think there’s a slate in there that actually has a homeless guy underneath the Western overpass, near [Interstate] 5, where he actually comes with a shopping cart and starts gathering up bottles and stuff.
DS: Were there any particular problems, where you weren’t getting the sounds that you were looking for, or dealing with extraneous noises?
CM: Well, extraneous noises weren’t so much an issue I guess. It was really trying to find stuff that sounded interesting. I would say I probably had a 50% rejection rate, on the stuff that I threw out, or didn’t include as a part of that collection, just due to it sounding more mundane. I did a bunch of stuff up by the landfills, up near the Pacoima power station. You try to find these places where there’s some quality of it that speaks to those films. It’s funny, especially going back and watching “Heat” again, so many of the location are really unexpected locations. You know, like you would go into the Hollywood Hills and end up finding these run-down, almost Louisiana-esque hovels, and think ,“Wow, this is really amazing, literally 5 miles away from here, there are people who make millions of dollars. Down here, there’s a good chance that somebody could get killed over a girl.”
DS: How long did you spend recording everything for the library, and what were some of the highlights over all that time?
CM: I would probably say I spent about 4-5 weeks collecting sounds, and obviously that’d be WHEN I could do it, when it was convenient. I really, really wanted to get rain, and I kept holding out, but it just didn’t happen, which is really a shame. One of my favorite recordings in the series is this metal foundry down by Twin Towers that has this great drop hammer sound, amazing drop hammer sound, and I remember that was one of the very first locations that I scouted. What I ended up doing was going on Google Maps and aerial viewing that area of Downtown, and thinking, “Well, this looks like a good place.” There are these recycling places, it’s all junk places dealing with garbage, it just looks like a war zone, looks ideal. My objective was to mostly get trains, because right where I was is where trains exit Northbound out of Union Station. I drive down there one morning, find this alley that was right where the train tracks were, set the mics up, get the recorder going and just wait. Some trains went by, and it was pretty cool sounding, really nice acoustic property; there’s no EQ on any of that stuff, no dynamics, the only treatments done with the sounds were adjusting the balance between the mid and side, that’s it. It all sounds really huge.
I ended up in this spot, sitting there, and all of a sudden the drop hammers start. My mics were not facing the right direction, but I heard it and was like, “That sounds really good, I’ve got to record that!” I get out of the car and angle the mics to a different position and sit there listening to the headphones. I recorded for 25 minutes of stuff, and I thought, “Yeah, this is great. If this is what this part of the city sounds like, I’ve got to come back.” I ended up going back there four different times, and they never did the drop hammers again. It was rather amazing. I got it the first time I was there, and I got trains and everything else the other times that I went, other cool sounds, but it was one of those things where it just simply never happened again. But I got it, so it was great!
Another really interesting place I was able to record was over where the Westin Bonaventure is, along the 110 freeway. There was a spot that I got there right by where the LA Fire Department ambulances go in and out. That was another thing that was really nice; I got a great ambulance exit, and this really reverberant, “Heat”-esque kind of splash from all the high-rises. It was one of those things where there was no one on the street. I think I went there on a Sunday afternoon at like 4 PM, which is an amazing time to go downtown. I recorded that there, and then I ended up going down by the library. There’s one recording that I think is identified as being by the main library, that has like this Harley going by, in Downtown, it just sounds amazing. It’s everything you would think of a Harley driving in like Manhattan, with the big splash from the high rises and everything.
I also went down by the Staples Center around that time, which was great. It was really interesting, because there was something going on with the police near Staples, where they had like 3 or 4 blocks blocked off, but I was able to go in that whole area around Wilshire Boulevard, where there was almost no traffic on this Sunday. I recorded this essentially empty Downtown; I got some busses going by and stuff, but there was nobody on the street and the traffic was incredibly thin, and I was like, “Wow this is really cool!”
DS: How did you go about working with the Oktava rig?
CM: The Oktavas I found fit very, very nicely inside one of the Rode zeppelins. I could’ve used one of the bigger Rycote ones, but the Rode is a little smaller dimensionally, so it was more convenient, at least for me. Probably the key things I found when setting up the rig was to use one of the Rycote Conn Boxes. They’re amazing. It’s one of those things where, I think it costs like $85-$90, and it’s basically a cable, but what it brings as far as shock isolation was so significant that it was just like, “Oh, I can’t even believe that this was even a question.” All of that was on a single mic stand, a very simple rig. It was for the most part kind of clandestine and guerrilla recording.
DS: Is there anything, if you were to do this again, that you would do differently?
CM: Well, I’m not a big believer in absolutes. Even with the recording I’ve done with weapons and things, I don’t think that it’s possible to get a single example of “ideal” sound; I think it’s all subjective. Something that could be ideal for one application could be completely inappropriate for another.
Now, time… If you had an indefinite amount of time available, you could do all sorts of different things. Certainly, doing crowds would be really great. Crowds are really hard, especially those kinds of crowds. I know in the bonus material I did, which was a yield from a trip to San Francisco that I took, we ended up going to San Francisco after Christmas and staying in the Tenderloin, which is a pretty bad area of downtown. We had a fairly nice hotel, but the thing that was cool was that we were on the 3rd floor of the hotel and had a fire escape outside our window. I would setup this rig and just record the street traffic, and do it at all hours. It was great. This one night, I had gotten up and started recording at like 2:30 in the morning, and I ended up getting this drunken scuffle, with bottle breaks and police sirens and stuff like that, and I was like, “This is really cool, I’m totally safe, my recorder is out on the fire escape, nobody knows it’s there,” and I got this amazing documentary capture of a bad part of San Francisco’s downtown.
What I would love to do is probably go rent some rooms in the proper Downtown area, down by like Broadway, where I can literally record from a 2nd or 3rd floor out on to Broadway, all day and all night. I think that’s the biggest hurdle, really, with any kind of ambience recordings like that; Since we end up being at street level, we just have too much immediate detail. If you find a parking structure that was Downtown, where you had an opening where you overlooked a busy street… Actually, here [in Burbank], I did some recordings in a parking structure right over here, and I was able to get an amazing high traffic, where there were sirens and things like that. There was a little bit of [Interstate] 5, but for the most part I angled the mic so it was facing away from it, so I was able to get all of the splash from the buildings. That’s easy stuff to get, it’s just a matter of taking the time to go do it
I think that the big thing is trying to figure out what would be interesting and having the discipline to be okay with throwing away stuff that doesn’t fit what you’re looking for. Or, not necessarily throwing it away, but just realizing that it might not fit the parameters of a particular product or project. Because, everything is game.
Roomtones are the same deal; you find interesting roomtones, and distant activity, or indistinct people talking on the other side of the wall, that stuff is just great. It’s great stuff, like a quiet lecture hall, where you just have people being quiet, or trying to be quiet, that stuff is just worth its weight in gold. It’s funny how mundane it can be, but you add it to a track and you totally buy it, that is exactly what my mind is expecting this place to sound like.
So yeah, I think that it’s kind of weird in the sense that when we’re kind of on the prowl for sound, understanding that there are a lot of sounds that are really mundane; it could be you setting up a recorder while you do your dishes in your kitchen, or setting it up in your bedroom while you’re doing dishes in the kitchen. It just adds a certain veritas to the sonic experience where it just sounds really natural.
I guess if there’s anything that I would do differently, it would be just to spend more time getting more material.
The library, “REA_015 LA Underground” is available at Rabbit Ears Audio.