Interview: Mac Smith on Experimentation

This interview was originally conducted for inclusion in our “experimentation” theme.

Mac Smith is a Sound Designer and Supervising Sound Editor at Skywalker Sound, who has been working on films since 1999. Mac has worked on Toy Story 3, Tron: Legacy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Little Evil, and Transpecos, as well as many other films.

DS: Can you tell us about your background and how you got started in audio and post production sound?

MS: Movies have been a huge part of my life from a young age. I grew up in a family with much older siblings and I was exposed to a lot of movies that skewed towards an older audience compared to the ones that my friends and classmates were seeing. This was the late 70’s, and not only was I going to the local movie theater often, but we were early adopters of both the VHS and LaserDisc formats to experience movies at home. I was also exposed to many different kinds of music, and
my father and siblings were performing music with various kinds of ensembles throughout my childhood.

While I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the film industry, I didn’t discover audio production until I spent some time at KRUI, the college radio station at the University of Iowa. I was there at the moment that we transitioned from analog audio production to some of the early computer audio editing software. I dove head first into learning as much as I could and at some
point I got the idea that maybe there was a way to merge these two things that I loved. So that’s when I decided to pursue a career in audio for film.

DS: What are some projects that you worked on where you did a lot of experimentation?

MS: Recently, I got to work with Scott Beck and Bryan Woods on their horror film HAUNT. Sound is such a driving force in that genre that I wanted to create different sonic environments for the locations in the film. They incorporate sound ideas into their scripts as most people know from their script for A QUIET PLACE. In HAUNT there are also a lot of pivotal moments where sound is driving the storytelling, so I spent some time experimenting with different textures to create not only realistic backgrounds, but ones that would evoke a specific mood when the film called for it. I sent sounds to their picture editor and they were able to experiment before the picture was locked which benefited the film in the end.

Last year, I worked on the documentary The Game Changers which is about living a vegan lifestyle through the lens of extreme athletes. These are some of the strongest, and fastest athletes you’ve ever seen and we had to make sure that came across in the soundtrack of the film. Dotsie Bausch, an Olympic cyclist was featured in the film and she and her teammates are shown racing fixed wheel bicycles in a Velodrome which is essentially an indoor, steeply banked, oval track with a wood surface. I scoured the internet for footage of these races and I came to the conclusion that there isn’t a lot of sound from either the bicycles or the track. Even though it’s a documentary, and we strive to be realistic, we had to create that velocity and excitement through sound. I had to experiment with a lot of different sounds to get the right combination of elements to sell those cyclists racing by the camera at incredible speeds.

DS: What are some factors that are involved in deciding whether or not you will do much experimentation on a project?

MS: Every project requires some level of experimentation, but it really comes down to time. I am guilty of spending too much time trying things out, seeing what new ideas might benefit the story and the emotion that the filmmaker is striving to convey, but at some point you need to just put your head down and get all of the audio material edited and organized for the film in time for the mix phase. If you don’t have a lot of time to experiment, then there’s this tendency to play it safe with the sound because you just grab what you know will work. Often times this is fine and it gets the job done, but you don’t want to get into a rut of churning out the same material over and over again. It’s so much better to keep things fresh and interesting. Having the ability to experiment keeps the job more fun and ultimately some of those ideas that were discovered during the process will elevate the final product to another level.

DS: What are some of your methods of experimentation?

MS: We have a sizeable collection of material in our sound library and I often pull interesting sounds even if it’s not something that I was searching for at that moment. I’ll have a collection downstream in my Pro Tools session of these sounds that may or may not be useful later in my process. We use Soundminer to access the library and I find myself often playing with the speed of sounds as I’m auditioning elements. I use to have the preference checked where the pitch/speed slider always resets when you go to a new sound, but in recent years I’ve found that sometimes I will discover something interesting by having it set to a fairly extreme setting, either fast or slow that otherwise I wouldn’t have found.

I also like experimenting with sound by using tools where I can get my hands on the sounds physically. You can only do so much with a mouse and faders. The two devices that I utilize most often are the Haken Continuum Fingerboard, and Serato Scratch Live with a turntable. I know that there are newer devices that people are using, but these are the things that I’m used to. With Scratch I can map any sound to behave like it’s on a vinyl record and I made a bunch of sounds for Zurich’s smart phone in Burning Sands with this method. Part of the cycling sound that I mentioned earlier was made using the Continuum with Kontakt to get that vibration and wavering elements of the tires moving at such a quick rate along the wood track.

DS: Is recording a big part of experimentation?

MS: Recording new sound elements is so important for multiple reasons. It gives a uniqueness to the project, but you also discover ideas that never would’ve dawned on you had you not gotten out of the studio. We were recording sounds of trash and metal being dumped onto cement in the industrial parts of Mare Island for the film Juanita and we had this magical moment when I dumped out about a hundred empty aluminum cans on the ground and the wind just kept carrying them along the street for much longer than we expected. It was such a unique sound, slightly shimmery, but a little off kilter. While it wasn’t appropriate for that specific film, a year later I needed a sound motif for the grittiness of the slave trade in Thailand for the documentary Ghost Fleet and with a bit of processing, that recording worked perfectly.

DS: How much audio suite processing do you use in sound design?

MS: It depends on the needs of the project, but in general I don’t do a huge amount of processing on the sound effects/design side. That being said, in the last year I have been using reverb plug-ins to process a number of sounds; more than I have in the past. While most re-recording mixers prefer to have control over things like reverb, during a crunched mix schedule, if I can come close to what reverb settings will work then it saves time. I also don’t want to handcuff the mixer, so I’ll have a muted version of that set of sounds without the reverb processing.

DS: Do you experiment with new plugins a lot?

MS: I enjoy trying out new plug-ins when I have time. There’s that word again, time. It’s completely linked to this idea of experimentation. While it’s often easy to get some kind of cool sound out of a new plug-in, it’s likely that it’s not something that you are after. You often get the best results when you really get a chance to spend some decent time with a new tool and discover what it’s good at, and inversely, what it doesn’t do well. Then it’s finding that light touch that enhances something that is already interesting on it’s own. More often than not, you have to start with great source material.

DS: Do you combine all of your elements in sound design and bounce them down to a single effect or do you leave them as individual elements?

MS: It depends on the project and the mixer. Also if it’s something that the client has already heard and they are very familiar with, then I’m more likely to bring to the mix as a single element. If I do that, I’ll do my best to have a bread crumb trail in case I do need to go back to the original source session. Sometimes it’s because the mixer wants more control, but more often it’s because there are additional variations of that sound that are asked for and you need to be able to get back to those elements.

DS: Do you leave room to experiment with re-recording mixing?

MS: I firmly believe that there should be time to try new things on both the editorial and mix side. While I have mixed a few projects myself, I think that having someone else to collaborate with, in this case a re-recording mixer, more often than not helps the project in ways that I am not always confident that I could do on my own. They will often have ideas that I didn’t think of and do something really creative with the tracks that I have brought to the dub stage. They are often coming into the project much later than I am and seeing and hearing it with a fresh perspective. But yet again, this all comes down to time. One thing that I have discovered over the years is that the better prepared the tracks, on all sides (dialogue, ADR, foley, music and sound effects), the more time that is freed up to try things in the mix. If the movie is stricken with terrible sounding audio from the production, then nearly the entire mix process is like trauma surgery. The whole time is spent trying to fix the dialogue, which leaves nearly zero time to experiment. So please, do everything you can to get great audio on the set!

Mac Smith (center) with the Writers/Directors of Haunt, Bryan Woods (left) and Scott Beck (right)

Mac Smith on IMDb

Skywalker Sound

Mac Smith on Twitter

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