Charles Maynes: Constantly Re-imagining Sound

Think of your favorite film and the sound effects probably aren’t the first thing you remember about it. But in subtle pivotal fashion, they play a huge role in a movie’s success, and involve some of the most creative people and technology in the movie industry. Charles Maynes is one of those inspired creatives, involved in sound design on many of the iconic films of the last 20 years, including Twister, U-571 and Spider Man. He's obsessed – by his own admission – by sound and how to create and capture it. He's enthusiastic about his quest for ever more ingenious effects, as well as the plug-ins that have shaped his work.

Early Influences and Lucky Breaks

Maynes traces his obsession back to a teenage love of music and, intriguingly, a particular episode of South Park: “I’d been in bands since I was 11, and I was about 16 when The Clash and The Sex Pistols came out. The whole Clash universe and Sex Pistols politically-oriented rock thing really resonated for me. Right out of high school I started working at music stores, getting more exposure to things like keyboards and synthesizers and ultimately sampling.” Then came a fateful episode of South Park, showing Peter Gabriel working with the Fairlight to great effect on the Security album: “I just remember at the time, when I saw digital sampling and the idea of using sound effects in a musical context. It was like a new door that I couldn’t even imagine being opened.”

By 22 he was the proud owner of his own much-prized Emulator 2, which “opened more doors than I could have ever imagined. At the time I was very into advocating Emulator owners becoming a community. So I ended up being able to make connections with bands like New Order...through that. And the shop I worked at I ended up building up this network of relatively noted people.” Following his passion Maynes got himself a job at the company who engineered sound-ware for Emulator. Then in 1989 he landed a gig at Digidesign. He remembers his time there with great fondness: “I got hired the year they started development on Pro Tools. It was a pretty amazing ride, I was there for almost 4 years and it was one of the happiest segments of my career. Everybody there was just incredible. I have actually stayed in touch with a lot of people there and function still as a beta tester for Pro Tools. I started in customer support and ended up in product testing. And from there I was basically able to leverage getting into film sound professionally in Los Angeles.”

The next turning point in Maynes’ journey was when he saw Terminator 2, sound- edited by Gary Rydstrom, “I just thought, man, that is the coolest thing ever. Gary is such an amazing amazing talent and such an incredibly awesome human being in general. He and Randy Thom [Academy Award-winning sound recordist on hit movies from Apocalypse Now to The Incredibles] certainly were the two of the biggest influences on my choice of careers.”

Once in L.A and working at Universal Studios, Maynes’ lucky break was talking to Stephen Hunter Flick at the NAB Show, “..right after he had won he academy award for Speed. I just remember being there and seeing him, and introducing myself and congratulating him on his achievement... I guess he liked me and invited me to come and talk to him in L. A. when we got back. And I ended up getting hired by him”.

On board with Flick in his new sound venture Creative Café, Maynes assisted on the blockbuster Twister, which could only have been a budding sound recordist’s dream - conveying the sounds of flying cows - let alone the top talent he got to watch and learn from. “Richard King actually ended up cutting the flying cow in that...I did some manipulated cow sounds for him... I used my Emulator 3XP for that., It was very good for that sort of a thing. The people who worked on Twister was  an A list of Hollywood sound people – Richard King has won numerous Academy Awards since then, Greg Hedgepath, who’s a very talented sound editor, and a bunch of other people; it was really quite an amazing group to be mentored by. Certainly, as a newcomer to the industry.”

Re-inventing Everyday Sounds

It’s a fascinating talent, to able to re-imagine how to use an ordinary object or sound to replicate something entirely different. It certainly takes an unusual kind of artistic mind – and a great sense of fun. “I know when I started working in Hollywood the one comment that always drove me crazy from the veteran sound editors – there’s a truth to it but at the same time it’s maddeningly frustrating – they would always say “I do this because I know it works”. And I thought I don’t want to do what everyone’s done before because there’s nothing new about that.”

His inspiration comes from stories like that of Gary Rydstrom sucking dog food out of a can for the sound of the T1000 going through things in Terminator 2. “I thought that is just the coolest thing ever; I want to approach sound like that, in a manner that no one would believe me if I told them what it was. When we did Spider Man my family had fostered a feral cat which had kittens. We couldn’t even enter the room that we kept the cat in because the cat was so dangerous. I remember it spitting at me and me recording it and using that as a component of Spider Man shooting his web sound!”

From Guns to Gear

Throughout his career Maynes has tried to avoid being pigeon-holed into a particular genre. But he has evolved some unusual speciality areas: “I’ve been fortunate. If anything probably the biggest pigeon hole I’ve been set into is military stuff. I do a lot of field recording, and gun recording. I’ve probably gone out on about 70 different gun shoots which is relatively unusual.” His firearms recording expertise has led him to work on numerous video games as well as film. But this gung-ho image he says is rather humourous, given his personal favourite movies: “Ironically my personal preference for films is probably something like Sense and Sensibility - smaller and more dialogue driven films! I like softer stuff, I don’t consider myself to be a violently-interested person. Maybe it’s the exposure to that other stuff, the nasty things that I’m trying to dramatise. I don’t know exactly why that is.”

His musical background and interest in gear since his teens has, he believes, stood him in great stead. It's given him a wider and more experimental perspective than some of his colleagues: “My experience on the music side has given me some good resources to be able to envision stuff. Sound editing is a very interesting thing; we usually try to get to an outcome relatively simply and use only as many elements as we really need to. Many sound editors don’t know how signal processors work or what kind of possibilities there are; they tend to approach it in kind of a naïve manner not knowing what various bits of gear do, as opposed to coming from a recording studio or a music background. There we know what a chorus or a flanger or a multistep delay or a compressor and distortion will do. We can actually envision that sound and know what exactly we need to get that outcome.”

With such respect for what a good piece of hardware can achieve, it’s not surprising that Maynes waxes lyrical about the gear that has been most significant during his career. “I was always attracted to the Lexicon units, particularly the 224 480L, the 300. When I worked on After Earth at Sony, they put me in a sound design suite where I where I had a Lexicon 300; one of the first things I did was attach the 300 to my rig, just to be able to use hardware reverbs again. There are certain things you approach differently when you have hardware versus software; it was nice to have that option.”

Expanding Horizons with Exponential

Maynes recalls with excitement being introduced to Exponential Audio by a colleague hosting a demonstration of the plug-ins at his studio. “I remember watching him [Michael Carnes] go through and demonstrate all the capabilities of each plug in and being terrifically impressed by Michael, as I’d never met him before. The way that he presented the products and the way the design was set up, it just seemed very natural to me. I literally fired him off an email the day after saying ‘Hey, can you help me out here, I’d love to buy these, these are really really good.’ And he’s since become one of the few plug in vendors that essentially I would almost buy their products sight unseen.”

The plug-in Maynes uses more than any other is Excalibur. “It’s ridiculously awesome”, he enthuses. A colleague tipped him off about it prior to release: “It seemed pretty tantalising... I’ve got lots of plug-ins that do reverbs and modulation and things like that which I’m really attracted to intuitively. But when I actually saw the user interface for Excalibur and what it was doing I was just like ‘oh wow, this seems like a plug in I have to purchase’! The one sound in I’ve almost used more than anything else is probably ‘Under the Floorboards' , because its just one of those things you come across that often does just exactly what you’ve been looking for. For so many different things you can just immediately use it. I just thought this is really phenomenal, the breadth of what this thing can do. The idea of having compressors or distortions inside of the plug-in, it really can enhance sound design. You are able do things inside of the algorithm, which would otherwise be impossible to do.”

Under the Floorboards

A sound recordist’s dream, to be able to play around with sounds in this way. Maynes claims its capabilities have been absolutely fundamental to his recent work: “A few months ago I released a sound library and Excalibur was entirely integral to the creation of it. It’s basically a collection of abstract sounds that caters to the ‘David Lynch mind-set’ - the kind of weird sounds that you’d hear in Blue Velvet or The Lost Highway. Excalibur was an integral part of that, allowing us to be creative with sound. That plug-in probably created 90% of the library.”

The Sound of Success

With over 30 years’ experience pushing the boundaries of sound design in the industry, what advice would Maynes give to aspiring sound recordists wanting to follow in his footsteps? The main factor in his success, he believes, goes back to “just being obsessed with sound. I would do this even if I didn’t get paid for it, and that’s probably the most important thing. Don’t lose your sense of wonder, and why you wanted to get into it in the first place. If somebody wants to make a lot of money, get a law degree. Don’t go into this necessarily expecting there to be a huge financial reward.” On top of this, never get complacent. “Every show you have to prove yourself again. You’re only as good as your last movie. That’s what my first supervising sound editor at Universal told me, you’re only as good as your last reel, whatever you’ve done in the past.”

There’s no doubt at all there’ll be many more top reels from Maynes himself, his inventive use of plug-ins and his inspired re-imagining of sound shaping many a blockbuster to come.