Ian Stynes: The Long and Winding Road to the Top

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Ian Stynes has a phenomenal career under his belt. A hugely talented re-recording mixer, sound editor, composer and sound designer, over the past two decades his clients have included most top movie and TV companies you could name, on projects ranging from animation to the recent Ben Stiller-produced Netflix film ‘Alex Strangelove’, and feature-films ‘Other People’ and ‘The Skeleton Twins’. He claims his soaring career to be far more chance than design – “there’s not a straight path, you just sort of wind your way through it … when you look back it makes sense. When you’re going forward it looks totally random!” But the twists and turns of his route have certainly brought him success - and ultimately the role of chief audio engineer and sound supervisor at Great City Post, a responsibility he loves: “the buck stops with you; you gotta make it work”. We catch up with him to hear about the winding corners he’s turned in his career, the gear that’s travelled with him, and his love of Exponential reverbs as a trusted travel companion.

“Quite a roundabout route…”

Stynes’ sense that his career has unfurled with little rhyme or reason starts back in his college days: “I started off as a musician, played a lot of drums in different bands, and guitar too. In college I played a lot of music, then after college I was recording my band, then I put together a studio in my parents’ basement and started recording other bands. At that point I thought I could either go to school to do this more, or I could get into credit card debt…” So he ended up doing both – getting a Sociology degree along with mounting credit card debt building a small studio in the basement – “I kind of figured it was better to get in there and get some equipment and start recording people.”

Stynes’ home studio’s gear was a delightful-sounding mixture of any tech he could get hold of with limited means: “I had a little TASCAM MS16 16-track tape machine, along with a couple of pieces of gear that I purchased, and then I kind of pulled together any weird tube gear I could find, like an old stereo from the ‘40s I used as a pre-amp - a huge piece of furniture! And I had an old tape machine I used as distortion.” He remembers reading how Cyndi Lauper’s producers recorded She’s So Unusual without automation, doing four bars at a time, changing all the settings then putting it to tape then editing it all together later into a song. “I thought that was pretty great as I didn’t have automation either, so I did that with two-track sound forge software on my PC and a CD burner, just doing bits at a time.”

Eventually, he graduated from these ingenious DIY set-ups to “‘real’ studios (whatever that means!)”, mastered Pro Tools, and started reading books. “At which point I became very aware that there’s not a lot of money to be made in music, especially at that time with studios closing, so I decided to shift gears a little, and a friend of mine got me into post-production, which I didn’t even know existed back then.” He worked his way up at various companies around New York City including Rock Star games - producers of Grand Theft Auto - and a night gig at NBC Universal mixing a reality show, before cutting his teeth at Dig It Audio then freelancing and finding his way to Great City. “I’ve been here for over ten years now and I love it.” 

 “It’s been quite a roundabout path”, he reflects, but a worthwhile one. Even his Sociology major hasn’t been wasted: “I think half of this business is dealing with people and reading people and making them feel comfortable with you. Let them know you know what you’re doing and get them excited - and get excited yourself. Half of it is people.”

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“The buck stops with you”

The other half of it, of course, is actual talent. Which judging by his resume, Stynes clearly has in bucket-loads. He professes not to have narrowed his skills down to specialize in one area - “I pride myself on doing a bit of everything” - in New York City, he says, that’s kind of what’s expected: “In L.A. and other places you can specialize in one sliver of post-production audio, so you’re just a dialog editor and that’s your focus, but here in New York City you have to be good at all aspects.”  “I’ve done sound design, editing of all sorts, dialog, effects; then I’ve been focusing more on mixing the last few years.” And now as Chief Audio Engineer and Sound Designer at Great City Post, he’s usually doing the final mix and bringing the whole gig together, a position he relishes. “I do find it very rewarding bringing it all together. It’s up to you to make it work. You might have the right parts and it sometimes just isn’t working and you have to figure it out. Sometimes on the fly you have to switch things around; in the end the buck stops with you so you gotta make it work. It is very satisfying to bring it all together and be the one to take all this great work and make it a movie. It’s even surprising to myself sometimes – I’m like ‘wow, I like it!’”

“It’s important to realize that technology comes and goes”

When it comes to the gear that’s been his most faithful companions on his winding path, Stynes has one particular stand-out: “The TC6000. That was one of my favorite boxes - but it was really hard to use to be honest. I loved the sounds, but you had to use MIDI information and Pro Tools to trigger the sounds, and the names didn’t always come across on the MIDI tracks from the sessions so you had to know the numbers; it was a bit frustrating and a bit expensive. Then they made a software version of it which was great, but I had started using Pro Tools natively so I couldn’t use those. Then I used Altiverb which was a great plug-in.”

But while he looks back on past technology with fondness, Stynes is at pains to emphasize the importance of moving on, even from your firm favorites: “It’s easy to get set in your ways. This job is super-rewarding and fulfilling but it can also get stressful very quickly, so you always think to yourself ‘I have tools that work so why change what I’m doing’. But to me, to have longevity in this business it’s important to realize that technology comes and goes; you have to move to different pieces of gear, it’s constantly changing. There’s always new pieces of gear and plug-ins to buy. You can’t have it all and can’t know everything inside and out, but what’s important is to have a strong knowledge of the fundamentals and the theories behind sound.”

“You want it to be powerful, you want it to be easy, and you want it to be good, but you also want it to have a little character…”

There are some new plug-ins however, that Stynes would write home about. And Exponential’s Symphony, Stratus and Excalibur fall into that category. Stynes recalls his first encounters with them: “I was hearing about Exponential from a couple of different people, some pretty heavy hitters… I was thinking ‘but I have a reverb that works, I don’t have time for this’, but eventually I decided to give them a shot and I loved them.”

Stynes says it better than we could ourselves when he muses, “What are the obvious thing you look for in a plug-in? You want it to be powerful, you want it to be easy, and you want it to be good, but you also want it to have a little character and something unique about it; Exponential really does all that, it’s amazing-sounding and it’s got very unique character if you want it, and you get sounds very quickly. There’s like ten room reverbs that sound great, instantly, that I could use as my go-to room. And I have to choose which one I want, as they’re all great!”

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Stynes’ workflow relies on setting up a certain number of reverbs to get started: “I need a normal room verb, a larger space verb for music - something like a music hall, for the score; a bigger verb like a stadium or even a canyon, some sort of outdoor thing like an alley, for something slappy, and a verb with an extremely long tail that I can mainly feed out if I want to add light to something. The problem is I end up having to use a lot of other plug-ins on my reverb tracks, to get a lot of the effects – delay, EQ, distortion. But with Exponential, it has a lot of those effects built into it, which is fantastic. For instance, Excalibur has all sorts of granular effects: effects that makes it sound like you’re on the phone, effects from behind a wall, outdoor effects, radio effects… Getting a good outdoor reverb sound is hard - usually I have to put a reverb in then add a delay to it from another plug-in; whereas a lot of the settings in Symphony and Stratus are great; they have a delay built in.”

He also waxes lyrical about the down-mixing capabilities: “It’s really awesome that I can mix something in stereo, go crazy with the surrounds, then it folds down and there’s no phasing or any weirdness, that’s great. I’ve struggled for years to push content in surround then have it translate to an LtRt for broadcast, or even movies. It’s such an old technology and it really doesn’t sound great if you put a lot of stuff on the rear channels, it phases and just sounds bad. But I’ve been pushing Symphony and Stratus really hard and it sounds really great folding down. It’s inspired me to make the spaces bigger for surround, especially in films, and not be as worried about keeping all the dialog dead-centre and all the music just in the rears - I can push the soundscape a little. I love the way you can narrow the width of the plug-ins within the plug-in or make it wider, it’s super useful: with films you’re either trying to make things sound big and awesome (if it’s a sci-fi or action thing) or you’re trying to make it sound realistic. You have to make it sound bigger than life, but almost like it could have been from the actual recording. You have to narrow it down and make it match things. So it’s so useful, that little slider!”

The low CPU-usage has also won Stynes over: “Symphony and Stratus have got a lot of power without having to use much CPU, and that’s a big thing. I hear the PhoenixVerb uses even less. I know some people who work on big stuff, like at Lucas and places, and they put just tons of Phoenixes on their session; they just have a whole bunch set to the settings they like and they’ll run stuff - like 10 or 12 - and they’re like ‘you want a room, run it to the room channel, want a big exterior, run it to the exterior channel’. I love it.”

“It makes sense when you look back”

Reflecting on his career once again as we wrap up, Stynes muses on the benefits of hindsight and concludes that his only advice to others following his path would be to “just try to keep excited and keep doing stuff you love, and keep the fun in it and keep going.” No-one can know where their path is going to lead, and rarely is it smooth. “When you look back the path makes sense, but when you’re going forward it seems totally random! You can’t see around the corner - almost never do you see what’s really going to happen in five years. So just keep going forward, and hopefully you’re doing what you like to do… It makes sense when you look back.”

And if it’s variety, success and fulfillment along the way that make the winding path worthwhile, Stynes has certainly taken the scenic route and reached the very top.