Mike McDonough is one of the premier sound designers, engineers and recordists in the industry. We had the honor to ask him about his incredible career in this two part interview. Read part one below!
INTERVIEW PART ONE
Taking a look at your list of credits, it is clear that you have a passion for Sound. Where does that passion come from? What got you started?
As a child growing up in Los Angeles our family friend was part of a children’s television show Saturday mornings on KTLA-TV. I remember being in the audience and marveling at how he could talk into a microphone and every kid who watched this show could hear and see him in their own homes. He also did remote school choir recordings in the LA area, and I would go along with him and help set up the mics. As a result of this, I found myself at age 8 years old with a small battery powered reel-to-reel tape recorder going around the neighborhood recording sounds. It just fascinated me to be able to capture sounds and keep the recordings. I realized even at that young age, I felt there was something magic about that.
I soon found myself taking ideas from news periodicals I read in school and fictionalizing them into wacky radio scripts, and recording them with my friends playing the parts into my microphone. I’d then figure out how to take music and sound effects from records and make little dramas out of them. This began my love affair with sound.
Meeting author Ray Bradbury as a young man at the Whittier Public Library led me to explore his world of fantasy writing, and after becoming friends with him, I was able to secure a grant from National Public Radio to produce a 13 part radio drama series called “Bradbury 13” for NPR Playhouse. That series won a Peabody Award, and got me noticed by a few people in the TV and Film industry. Soon after that, I was recording and delivering original sounds for TV shows being edited and mixed at Horta Editorial in Burbank, like “LA Law”, “Remington Steele” and “The Twilight Zone”. I even did some ghost sound design for Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead for a TV series he was scoring.
At about the same time, I was privileged to become acquainted with Ben Burtt, who was just starting his legendary sound design career with George Lucas. Ben made a trip to my home in Utah, and soon we were out in the Utah desert recording bullet ricochets for “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” together. Ben also landed me my first film job as sound designer on Disney’s “The Black Cauldron”.
What inspires you in your day to day work?
I think the sound work on so many films has gotten so good, even amazing I would say, that going to the movies on occasion in a decent sounding theater inspires me to try and keep improving what I do. There are some very talented sound designers whose work I really admire.
Of course, Walter Murch and Ben Burtt were my first professional heroes, followed by guys like Gary Rydstrom, Randy Thom and Chris Boyes. I’ve had the opportunity to meet these guys, and see some of them work. There are many more great sound designers now, but those guys really helped inspired me when I started, and still do to this day.
In your opinion, what makes great sound design?
Sound design is storytelling. Much like composing music, you have to create a pallet of sound which creates emotions in the audience. The emotions you create with your sounds are as critical to the art of filmmaking as the writing, direction or music. I spend a lot of time on ambiences. I think great backgrounds and ambiences are as important to the overall storytelling as the big featured foreground sounds. You can sell a scene with what you hear as much as what you see. Sometimes even more.
There are many great examples of off screen sounds that are incredibly effective in films. One that comes to mind is the sound of the Martian machines walking around in “War of the Worlds.” Randy Thom made this really terrifying sound that is heard in the background of the farm house scenes. Mostly you never saw the machines in those scenes, only heard them. It created a dreadful feeling of impeding doom. Very brilliant.
As far as I’m concerned, recording my own sounds is where I like to begin. When I first started, there were no sound libraries like there are today, so unless you had a movie studio’s library to use, you were out of luck. I began recording my own sounds on a Swiss-made analog stereo Nagra back in the late 70’s because I couldn’t find any other sources of the sounds I needed. There were only vinyl records with some sounds effects on them, like Major Moods or Elektra Records. BBC had a record library as well, but all of it was mono and very old recordings from the 50’s and 60’s. I needed clean, fresh stereo sounds back then for a Sci Fi radio drama series I was producing for NPR Playhouse, so I went out and recorded my own stuff. It was a blast! In fact, finding ways to record explosions, gun shots and car crashes was the most fun I ever had! It also taught me the basics of sound design. I still love to find an excuse to do field recording.
What are your favorite types of sounds to design?
I love doing ambiences and backgrounds. I can tell a whole story by creating backgrounds. Backgrounds create moods, feelings, and telegraph plot points. Backgrounds also sell the location, especially on period shows.
I love to study older classic films and learn how the sound editors back then used certain background loops over and over, like “Yellow Sky” wind on westerns. Most every Clint Eastwood and John Wayne western used it, and when I was a kid I used to believe that all deserts actually sounded like that!
Sound designers create an illusion of reality on film that I love. Film audiences are so accustomed to hearing certain sounds we’ve created in movies, that when they hear the real thing it’s disappointing. How many times do you hear people on the news say that they thought actual gunshots they heard were just fire crackers for instance. That’s our fault, I guess, for making movie guns sound like Howitzers. (By the way, real Howitzers don’t actually sound as dramatic as movies portray them either!)
Do you have a favorite project out of all the work you’ve done? What makes it stand out for you?
My favorite project was actually my very first professional endeavor, which was not a film or TV show. It was an original radio drama series I did years ago called “Bradbury 13”. It was science/fantasy series, based on the short stories of Ray Bradbury. I loved doing it because I had complete and total control of every aspect of the series. I conceived it, got the grant money from NPR (including some matching funds), chose the stories, and personally wrote the thirteen half hour scripts on an old typewriter. I also did the voice casting, directing, editing, and hired the music composers. Then I was the recording engineer for the orchestra, did the music mix, recorded original sound effects, and put the shows together on 24 track tape, and did the final stereo broadcast mixes. I had a few helpers along the way of course who did voice recording while I was directing and also taking some of the acting parts.
It was a totally creative, fulfilling, and exhausting experience. I was quite young and completely inexperienced, but I decided to just follow my gut instincts and have fun with it. The series won the Peabody Award, and most importantly Ray Bradbury loved it! He said it was the best adaptation of his written word into any other medium that had ever been done. I decided that following your instincts and pleasing yourself with your work is probably the most important thing you can do in any professional career. You may not always be on the same wavelength as a director, but it’s important to be true to yourself and do the best work you can.