Nathan Smith is Sound Design Supervisor at Dallas,Texas based Gearbox Software. He has worked in TV, films including “The King of Kong” and video games such as the Borderlands franchise. What brought him to my attention was a series of videos he produced demonstrating various boxes and gadgets he constructed to capture sound assets for his various projects. I asked him some questions regarding these devices and his design methodology surrounding them.
What was the first tool or machine you created for the specific use of sound design and why? What was the impetus for “I need to create a device to produce the sound I need?”
The first tool was the “Hinge Pad.” In my daily work, I was often coming up short when it came to having a diverse palette of simple metallic sounds that I could layer together. So, I set out with the goal to create a tool that might fill that need. I started with a large, flat piece of wood since that’s easy to work with. On that I installed multiple hinges, locks, and other small hardware items. I was worried that the resonance of the board itself might become a problem if I started layering multiple sounds together, so I made cuts throughout the board to help give each location on the board a slightly different resonance. I installed the hardware to allow for as many interactions and combinations as possible (with room to add and develop it more over time). The success of the “Hinge Pad” inspired me to build more!
Did you come from a handyman background, or did you learn these skills specifically to make tools for sound design?
I’ve picked up some basic handyman skills here and there, but mostly I use intuition and trial and error. In high school, I often did construction jobs over the summer and had a small lawn business during the year. I’ve always enjoyed learning new things and using my hands, and seem to always have just enough knowledge to get myself into trouble.
What’s usually the impetus for creating a new device? Is it usually a specific need for a project or a need/desire to expand your library?
I’m always looking for new sounds and better ways to record things that are hard to get or control. Some tools I build are devices or props that I’ve tried to construct to get better quality or quantity of recordings into my custom library. Other devices are just crafted from things I may have found on the curb on trash day. And some are just out of curiosity like the coconut horse hooves, where I happen to see a tweet by Randy Thom showing off a century-old set of coconut horse hooves used for both radio and film and I thought to myself “I’ve got to try to make those for my own tool kit.”
What’s the favorite sound you’ve created using some of your DIY machines?
That’s a tough question because I’ve gotten so many great sounds from all the things I’ve made. I could say the favorite part about creating your own DIY machines is both the potential of how that can be used now and how you’ll use them the next day. In the case of the “Button Box”– a tool I made for button and switch sounds– I wouldn’t have guessed that I would someday use it as a percussion instrument.
And what’s your favorite box or other tool you’ve created?
I can’t say I really have a favorite tool, but tend to enjoy the ones that are flexible and can be used in many ways. For example, I have two large tool chests full of foley props. Having props organized and available to use at my fingertips is key to my successes.
With some of your devices like the button box and hinge pad, is it more about just having all of these potential sounds in one place to record rather than having to go out and source a bunch of different buttons or door mechanisms? Or are you crafting the device for specific design scenarios?
I’d say some of both. Having a tool like the button box allows me to get that perfect button sound and performance when I’m working to a linear time-line, like a movie, where the performance needs to fit to picture. It also allows me to get good, clean, isolated recordings for the library, since I find most buttons in the world come with added noises (sometime good, sometimes bad). Using a metal tool box in the case of the “Button Box” came with the added potential to change the tone and body of the box by opening the lid, placing towels inside, as well as letting other things on the box rattle to get extra character. I also installed some permanent PZM mics in different places to be able to have an alternate mic sound or layer. The “Button Box” ended up having so many buttons and switches on it that now I see it as a musical instrument. I ended up using it with a colleague Julian Peterson to record the score for a trailer for the game We Happy Few.
Any new tools/toys you’re thinking about making?
One thing I am interested in these days is circuit bending. I bought a kit to modify a speak and spell, but I’m curious to explore bending other toys as well. Also, I have some ideas to construct something out of a small bicycle to try to help create interesting continuous loops without motor sounds. I typically have more projects on my to-do list than I have time for, but I see that as a good problem to have.
Any words of advice to other sound designers who may want to embrace a DIY aesthetic when it comes to building devices to help them create sounds?
I’d recommend watching videos to see what you can find to help inspire an idea. You can also often find free step-by-step videos to teach you or help you do things you’ve never done. I watch other sound designer’s videos as well as post my videos on my YouTube channel, in hopes it might inspire others to do similar things.
Record, record, record! Try recording something every day for 15 to 45 minutes for an entire year. I started this challenge 13 months ago, and I’ve yet to not have something new that I can record. Sometimes it’s a simple door knob, other times it’s a coworker smashing an old copy machine that I found in the trash; it might be a muscle car your friend has, or the ongoing challenge to capture the perfect thunder crack.
By recording daily you’ll become a better recordist, gain the ability to capture what you need when you need it, and build your own sound library to fit your style and work flow. Developing these skills will be necessary to achieve and deliver the next generation of sound to your audiences.