MUSIC+SOUND AWARDS TALK TO...
2017 Jury Member +
Film + Ad Sound Designer,
Founder of Machine Head, Los Angeles
Stephen founded Machine Head Music and Sound Design in Venice, California in the spring of 1991. This followed a short period of creating film sound designs for directors like Ridley Scott. Machine Head took on a studio-like environment that became home to a succession of similarly spirited composers and sound designers.
Over the years there have been many prestigious awards, including the first ever (Gold) Sound Design Clio and for a long time Stephen has been credited as the person responsible for introducing the art of sound design as a discretely recognized craft into the commercial production world.
Can you tell us a bit about your career journey, to date?
Back in the ‘80s I worked as a recording engineer / electronic gear whizz for a band (The Thompson Twins) based in the UK. A few years later I had made my way to Los Angeles and a period of freelance Fairlight programming. This in turn led me to Hans Zimmer and my first sound design work on Ridley Scott’s ‘Black Rain’ movie. As that finished, Ridley brought me onto his next project, the now legendary Nissan ‘Turbo Z Dreamer’ ad which then led to a snowballing period of more ads, a couple of films and finally the formation of my company, Machine Head in 1991.
What are you working on at the moment?
Commercial wise, there are a couple of projects (that I can mention). Ads for Northrop Gruman, Pedigree, Michelin and Energy Upgrade California. We’re about to finish creating the soundtrack for an art gallery (Do Not Enter) installation in a space on the fashion mecca of Melrose Avenue here in L.A.
Are there any recent projects you’ve been involved in that have been particularly challenging / rewarding?
The Do Not Enter project has been completely interesting. It has been a collaboration with a good friend, Sebastien Leon AG, a multi discipline artist, who has created a visual theme and soundtrack for the space. Together we contrived a 20 minute ambient piece, the sonic DNA of which is derived from manipulations of sound recorded on site, specifically the sound of footsteps and floor creaks from people walking on the floor above. To the results of those sounds we added a rhythmic underpinning and other harmonically compelling elements that create a mesmerizing mood piece. Interestingly enough, possibly because the root sounds are those of the site, it plays seamlessly in the space. It’s a score to the room!
One of the most powerful tools advertisers have to trigger emotion is sound. Do you think brands appreciate this enough?
Generally speaking, yes, I think they do. I think most people know that sound is an integral and key part of a filmic or experiential work. Plenty of brands and the advertising agencies that create work on their behalf attempt to exploit this, most vividly demonstrated by the practice of licensing popular or recognizable music and the use of mnemonics. But success in this is still mercurial and serendipitous; I don’t believe it’s possible to prescribe a sonic recipe that will guarantee association stickiness. The Intel bong for example, I am sure it sounds nothing like the original spec and simple though it is, it came into being after hundreds of iterations. Sound designers such as myself really enjoy the projects that push us to make bolder and more assertive sound statements that are bespoke to a piece of film and, by extension, the brand behind it.
What’s your studio space like? What’s your favourite piece of gear?
Interestingly, Machine Head is running virtually. For years we had various permutations of studios and work rooms and at some point in the future I am sure I will build another. However, currently, our clients notoriously never attend work sessions anymore and our racks of electronics are now replaced by software tools that do the same things. I personally like to be highly nomadic and thrive on moving around and making ad hoc work set-ups wherever I travel - it’s very stimulating. That being said, I still have a few favorite pieces of gear and they are in use at the reboot of the famous Cherokee Studios, waiting until I make another space of my own. Those are an AMS reverb and AMS Delay with the Chorus controller. There is also a rather rare Sequential Circuits Multi Fx system and the E-Bow is a staple.
Do you get to record original sound content much?
Almost every day I record something, be it a noise I notice as I go, or a specific foley-type requirement for whatever I am working on at that moment. Occasionally a project will ask me to come out to the shoot where I may record key (or random) sounds. Having a little (i.e. portable) mic rig that attaches to an iPhone makes spontaneous, on-the-go, sound capture super achievable. It’s small so generally with me, and the quality is completely adequate for most purposes.
And lastly, what does the next year or so hold for Machine Head?
Ambition. Audio for VR is very appealing as it has what I think of as a ‘tinkerer’ aspect to it. This appeals to the tinkerer in me - the part of me that in the early years would make sound effects and speaker set-ups for the school plays. This is also true for installations, so I intend to delve deeper into those areas as we maintain our commercial activity. Yesterday a short film, ‘Yellow’, that I worked on last year, made its online debut (www.shortoftheweek.com/2017/03/20/yellow/), which is very exciting. I hope it leads to more short film work; it’s a format I enjoy very much...
Visit Machine Head's site to hear Stephen's work: www.machinehead.com