In our ninth and final installment about how SFX creators have pushed artistic and professional boundaries, we hear from Charles Maynes, Undertone Sound Library, Brandon Seyboth Audio, and The Sound Keeper.
What is your name, and who are your team members/co-creators?
Charles Maynes: Charles Maynes.
Brandon Seyboth Audio: My name is Brandon Seyboth (pronounced “SEE-bawth”). I don’t actually have any official team members, as I don’t know any sound designers, but I have to thank my very patient friends who are always willing to help me record stuff and are always on the lookout for cool sounds to tell me about—and who tolerate my endless ramblings about things that only matter to me.
When was a time you felt you pushed the boundaries to capture the perfect sound effect?
Charles Maynes: One of the more unusual times was when I worked on the film Mystery Men back in the 1990s. I developed sounds for a device in the film called the “PsychoFrackulator”—a machine that could deconstruct matter and all sorts of other terrible things. It had a sort of comic book quality about it, and I loved the sounds from the WB Bugs Bunny cartoons from the 1940s, so I developed a bunch of synth sounds that mimicked the classic Inertia Starter SFX that Treg Brown used (and that Ben Burtt also used for the Star Wars Millennium Falcon engines). With that foundation, I re-recorded them through a film sound amplifier that I put in a Trim Bin (for the young folks, it was a big sheet metal box that was used to hold film sound and picture clippings so they wouldn’t get damaged). After placing the amplifier in the bin, I then layered pieces of sheet metal and split reels on top of it and recorded the different resonances that the synth made (from my dear Yamaha DX7IID) back onto a DAT tape. It was actually pretty cool sounding… Of course there have been many more since then, but that was one of the more unusual constructions…
Undertone Sound Library: Recording quiet ambiences is getting increasingly hard these days. I needed to record a basic forest ambience bed for an animated film and I figured the perfect bed would be in the winter. So I researched forests within a day’s driving distance, made meticulous preparations for the excursion, and ventured out on a –15º F below morning. Upon entering the forest, I noticed some logging trucks had made tracks along the road in the thick blanket of freshly fallen snow from the night before. To my horror, I discovered they had stopped and backed up in the middle of the forest. My Passat wagon was not equipped with snow tires or chains, so I got stuck. In the snow. In the middle of a forest. No cell coverage at all. I did think to bring a shovel as well as warm clothes, warm food and a full tank of gas, but I was by myself. So the first two hours of my journey was spent digging my car out. I was able to free it by pushing it myself and I found a safe place to park at the edge of the forest, but this meant I had to hike back an extra five miles that I thought I could drive—and I had already lost time.
I made the hike by myself, seven miles to the spot where I wanted to start. I had a QUAD ORTF setup, along with extra batteries, which was a heavy, heavy load trudging through thick snow. I also had a new winter parka and gloves and boots that let me stand for long periods of time in the snow. I had to mark where I came from so I could find my way back, as it was a sea of white fluff and trees that all looked alike. Thankfully, I was able to make it most of the day without getting too cold, and I used hand-warmers and pockets to keep my other batteries warm. Since I got into the forest late, I ended up staying late which meant I was surrounded—though not so close as I could see—by coyotes. Even though I knew they wouldn’t bother me, it took everything I had to not freak out and bolt the minute I heard their blood-curdling howling in my headphones. I admit, I was shaking for a while, especially as I was all by myself. In the end, I recorded some amazing ambiences, and the reverb in a winter forest with a snow-covered floor is AMAZING!
Brandon Seyboth Audio: The thing that haunts and confuses me all the time is that many of the best recordings I have ever made came from when I had no idea what I was doing. I had crappy gear, no concept of how to make a good recording, and only the slightest understanding of how digital audio works (and yes, the great majority of what I made was absolutely terrible). Yet, inexplicably, I made many recordings that sound amazing. In fact, they impress me more now than they did at the time. Now, my understanding of recording is infinitely more developed—I have far better gear, and I am intimately familiar with the workings of digital audio—yet I cannot recreate these recordings I made when I was a clueless fool. Somehow, my greater knowledge and improved skills have been detrimental in some way, and this confuses me. My attempts to explain this have come down the simple concept that BECAUSE I had no idea what I was doing, I was inadvertently thinking outside the box and trying things in unusual ways. Now that I know what I am doing, my first inclination is to attempt the tried-and-true, the approach that is known to work. Although this means that a far larger portion of what I make now is good (as, like I said, MOST of what I made back then was crap), it does mean the tiny slice that was exceptional is missing now. So, oddly, the time that I was pushing the boundaries in my recording techniques was when I had no clue what I was doing, and I wasn’t even aware I was doing it at the time. So, I constantly strive to get back to that way of thinking—the kind of thinking that dismisses known “correct” ways to do things and tries something totally different.
The Sound Keeper: I’m still youngish, lol, so when I go to record, I’m pretty fearless. I probably get too close and put myself into situations that aren’t “safe” on almost every recording. One example was my friend and I went out to record Impulse Responses in a public park. We were actually stopped by the ranger and told that if he saw us recording he would take our gear. That might deter some people, but we aren’t just SOME people. We are recordists!! I didn’t drive all that way to get nothing. We went into that park and recorded all sorts of things (not to mention bringing a starter pistol…). Luckily, we were like secret agents and didn’t get caught!
When was a time you felt you pushed the boundaries to design a new sound effect?
Charles Maynes: I try to do that on as many projects as is possible. I particularly love to find acoustic machines or contraptions that allow for unusual sounds. One of my favorite recent devices is the waterphone and contact mics…
Undertone Sound Library: Several animated films I have worked on required me to create unreal sonic worlds. One recently needed the sound of the edge of the world (of the film) cracking and flaking and snowing, then swirling and getting sucked into itself. I tried dried paint on plexiglass, dried paint on veneer, ice, branches, bark, and many other things. Nothing worked and I almost damaged a microphone when the plexiglass snapped! Then I thought of trying some eggs. We emptied the yolks, did some special mic’ing, and found just the right way to manipulate them. There was my sound. Of course, it was too small, but with some special processing and layering, I was able to make the outer edge of this world crack and peel. Getting “snow” and swirling, along with the suction into the central hole where it all begins, was another tremendously long process of recording and trying different techniques to get the flakes to move without hearing the thing that moved them. Then there was the laborious cutting, processing and blending of the sounds through a number of different techniques so it didn’t just sound like leaves blowing in a wind storm.
Brandon Seyboth Audio: When it comes to design, the angle I like to push the most is deliberately doing things “incorrectly”. I like to use plugins with the settings set where they normally wouldn’t be in that context, cranking sliders to the max and others to the minimum. Basically, I like to put all the settings, knobs, and sliders in the craziest extremes I can. I like to stack plugins that don’t normally go together, and I like to use plugins and processes in ways they aren’t really meant to be used. I do multi-step processes backwards, or I switch steps, omit steps, etc. Basically, when I want to design something crazy, I do everything wrong, and I keep doing the wrong things until I end up with something I like.
The Sound Keeper: I love pushing the boundaries in design. I’m primarily a sound designer (I currently work in video game sound design). That’s my passion. For me, re-creating sound by the “masters” is a great way to learn new techniques and push yourself to grow. I was creating a sound effects library of punch sounds. For me, the most iconic punch sound is from Indiana Jones (since I grew up watching those movies all the time). I did a lot of research to find out what Ben Burtt had done to create that sound. I took that knowledge and tried to recreate that sound through plugins rather than through the recording techniques or analog processing they used back in the day. I did a whole YouTube video of the results, and I think I got pretty darn close! The new approach really pushed me to be creative and think of ways to create some of the more iconic-sounding punches I wanted in my library.
When have you pushed the boundaries in selling sound effects (whether they be yours or others’)?
Charles Maynes: Most of my libraries have been done through other vendors, like SoundMorph and Rabbit Ears Audio. I am a big believer in user value, and for my ‘LA Underground’ library, I did two additional bonus sets for the people who invested in the product.
Brandon Seyboth Audio: My philosophy is to make libraries that are focused on a very specific subject (rather than large “general” libraries), and do everything I can with that specific subject without applying any processing (other than cleanup) so that the sounds are as versatile as possible. I then try to keep my prices low even if the library was a living HELL to make (like ‘Electric Noise’). But you probably shouldn’t take that as advice because nobody buys my stuff.
The Sound Keeper: Boutique sound libraries have now become an integral part of my process as a sound designer. It’s an incredible resource. I come from a background of sound design, so I have a unique look at what I want and need from sound libraries. I actually want a little more color and processing on my sounds. I think there are better recordists out there making pristine recordings of natural and unprocessed sounds. So, I look to push the boundary of creating colored and processed sounds that will make a sound designers job much easier during a high-pressure / little-time situation.
Have you ever created a sound or synth that made you or your team laugh out loud? If so, what was the sound?
Charles Maynes: A number of times. Certainly the Mystery Men film was a great vehicle for that. Here is an example:
Sometimes it can be something very original and unexpected, but I prefer natural sounds that are entirely out of context. For me one of the ultimate moments like that was when Gary Rydstrom put chicken clucks in the final battle of Saving Private Ryan when one of the German tanks got knocked out.
That moment is at 3:58:
Undertone Sound Library: Many. One of the recent times was during a film where a character wore the dresses of a crazy designer—and one of the scenes featured a balloon dress. It was not only her walking, but her side-stepping, stopping, turning. Watching the scenes with only the dress sounds made us laugh out loud.
Brandon Seyboth Audio: I have recorded a few sounds with friends (who otherwise aren’t sound people) that made us laugh while recording. Among these would be the time a friend and I had about 20 pounds of black bear fat (won’t go into the story here) that we spent about a half an hour throwing around, squishing, shoveling, plopping it onto concrete, and so on. It made such delightfully juicy sounds, and we couldn’t stop giggling at just how ridiculous what we were doing was. Another time was when I was working on a sound design competition. Specifically, it was the “Countdown to the Apocalypse” contest by Blastwave FX in 2014. I needed the sound of zombie heads breaking apart from being shot. My friends and I came up with the idea to hollow out a large pumpkin and fill it with Jell-O and spaghetti. We then smashed this horrifying concoction with a large splitting maul. Both the sound and mess were amazing, and it was the source of much amusement.
The Sound Keeper: I created a library of gore sound effects. One sound in particular is crazy disgusting, and when I used it with some visuals, I definitely got some good laughs. I don’t think they were laughing at the sound as a gag…more that it was so gruesome!
What is your advice for sounds designers who want to create and sell their own SFX libraries and synthesizers?
Charles Maynes: Selling sounds and synthesizers are really different things, but they do share a few commonalities. They should both be of high quality. In some cases with sound effects, that might mean acoustic recordings which are processed with EQ / Compression or Noise Reduction, which is something that is a dual-edged sword as sounds which are “designed” can sometimes be over-processed for some applications. It is always nice to have the raw or minimally mastered recordings available as well. That being said, the recent library, ‘Tension’ out on SoundMorph, was heavily processed by both myself and Jason Payne my co-designer. We set out to make very dystopian sorts of effects on that one. As to instruments, the biggest thing really is to have an intuitive user experience, where a manual is not required.
Undertone Sound Library: Be unique.
Brandon Seyboth Audio: First, NEVER, compare your work to others’ as a way of measuring the quality of your work. This may sound odd, since it’s the natural thing to do, and the inclination to do so is strong since it makes sense to compare your work to that of someone you consider very talented. But while this makes sense on the surface, it’s a huge mistake and a very deep hole to fall into. The reason is that your work will never be like anyone else’s, be it sound design, music composition, painting, sculpting, animating, or any other artistic pursuit. Your work is uniquely yours. If you measure the quality of your work by comparing it to that of a master, you will NEVER be happy with it—not because it shows your work is inferior, but because even if it was actually BETTER than the master’s, you would still be dissatisfied with the differences, and there will always be a difference. The only way yours could match theirs is if you straight-up emulated their style, and that isn’t creative. Make your own work, build your own unique style, and don’t agonize over how different it is from everyone else’s. The fact that yours is different is good; it means you have your own style. Hold on to that, and do what YOU want to do. Don’t worry about doing the industry-standard just because it’s the industry standard. It bothered me for a long time that my sounds didn’t sound anything like what I heard in movies and games and other libraries. I felt for a long time that the reason was because they were crap and that I needed to be more like what I was hearing elsewhere. Then I realized my stuff was just different, and there is nothing wrong with that. Of course, I can still respect other people’s work, and I know good work when I see/hear it, but I let their work be theirs, and I let mine be mine.
Also, you can learn a LOT more from a bad example than you can from a good example. This applies to all art, not just sound design. Put simply, if you want to learn how to do sound design or any other creative pursuit, don’t study the best existing examples as they will teach you little to nothing. Instead, study the worst examples because they WILL teach you. Studying a good example hardly encourages personal growth (going back to what I said about your personal style above), because the best you could hope to do is emulate what makes the example good. If you do that, you aren’t finding your own solution or style, you are just emulating an existing style. If you hear a REALLY good sound, all you’ve learned is that that particular sound is really good, and this does NOTHING to explore how YOU personally would have approached making it. At best, all this could teach you is that if you did exactly the same thing, you would have a really good sound. But that’s not growth since the concept for that good sound didn’t come from your own mind. On the other hand, if you look at a really BAD example, you can learn a ton from it. If you hear a bad sound, you can explore ideas for how to make it sound better or how you personally would have done it differently. You can analyze the sound, realize it doesn’t work, figure out WHY it doesn’t work, and come up with your own unique solutions for making a good sound instead—and the concept for THAT good sound DID come from your own mind, and that is growth. If you want to grow as a sound designer, don’t try to learn from Star Wars or Transformers or any other world-class examples of sound design. Instead, find something with bad sound design, and explore how you personally could make it better in your own unique style. Then again, I’m not a successful artist in the slightest, so maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about.
The Sound Keeper: My advice is to keep them coming!! The great thing about sound design and libraries is that there is never enough! I will never have enough rock breaks or fire sounds. As a sound designer, I’m always looking for something new and unique-sounding, and no library will have everything. This is especially true for synth sounds. There is never enough!! Also, I would say record and design sounds you love. You can tell when a library is made out of love rather than for profit or because you think people want it.
What is an area you’d like to see pushed even further?
Charles Maynes: I think the market is pretty healthy, but certainly exotic ambiences from around the world are always super useful. On the tech side with VR, having B-Format recordings will probably be much more in demand going forward.
Brandon Seyboth Audio: If anything, I’d like to see more authenticity in design, as we can all too easily get carried away in making highly romanticized Hollywood-style, bombastic designs without stepping back to realize the real world is totally different (of course, romanticization is vital, but there is a balance to be kept, but that’s a discussion for another time). And I STRONGLY believe in investing a lot of effort and care into small, mundane sounds, as I feel those are more important than most people realize; it’s not ALL about the huge moments. But then again, these are just my personal tastes, and disagreeing with them would not make someone wrong.
The Sound Keeper: I want to see synth-sounding effects pushed more. I love sci-fi sounds (partially because I love sci-fi movies), but I want to see more incredible sci-fi sound libraries. I want to see more unique styles of sci-fi libraries. Shoot, maybe I’ll try to make one!
We hope you enjoyed reading these stories and words of advice. To hear more about their experiences, check out their blogs:
Undertone Sound Library: undertonesoundlibrary.com/blog/
The Sound Keeper: www.thesoundkeeper.com/adventures/