SEBASTOPOL, CA—Last year, Google and the company behind Make magazine and Maker Faire launched a sixweek virtual summer camp, hosted on Google+, aimed at teenagers— but open to older folk—who have an interest in what has become known as maker culture. This year’s Maker Camp schedule included a week on the theme of DIY music, including an hour-long Google+ hangout, “Soundtrack of the Universe!” with Kyrsten Mate, a sound designer and sound effects editor at Skywalker Sound.
The choice of presenter was appropriate: Mate and her husband, Jon Sarriugarte, are hardcore makers. Sarriugarte, a metalworker, designs and builds furniture, lighting fixtures and other home accessories. Together, they have fabricated various mutant vehicles, including Golden Mean, a giant iron snail car; the Electrobite, inspired by the trilobite and built on an electric wheelchair; and the Serpent Twins, two train-like vehicles that first appeared at the Burning Man festival.
Perhaps inspiring a new generation to investigate the role of the sound designer and sound effects editor as a potential career, Mate offered advice on getting into the business and went into great detail on the post-production audio process and the creation of sound effects. Her resume includes some major box office successes, from Apocalypse Now through The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Iron Man 2 to, most recently, Guardians of the Galaxy.
As she cautioned, “There’s no easy, direct path to my job; I ended up in it by accident.” Having studied for a degree in broadcasting with an emphasis on audio production, she initially thought she would become a music recording engineer, but ended up creating sound effects for theater and radio. Then, her soon-to-be husband was offered a job at Skywalker.
“He couldn’t take the job, but had just met me,” and recommended her for the position, she recalled. She wasn’t ready to get into a career right then, she said, but “I had the skills ready; it was my golden opportunity.”
Luck also plays a role in the discovery of sounds, according to Mate. “Most of the best sounds are serendipitous. A lot of times, you go and record one thing and you think it’s going to be super awesome and it isn’t, but you end up with something else that you never expected. It’s more about keeping your ears open all the time, because you never know what you’re going to need in the future.”
Mate is constantly alert to the potential of sounds around her, keeping a list in her head for the future. “I was at my bank; they had the craziest machine room ambience in the hallway. It sounded like I was in a spaceship. So I made a little note to myself to go back and record the ambience.”
For Groot, the giant tree-like superhero in Guardians of the Galaxy, Mate took inspiration from an old recording she had made of adhesive tape being pulled off a file cabinet, making new recordings using a cardboard box instead. “The tape pulling off made a nice wooden-like quality that was resonant and larger sounding. Then I loaded it into my Pro Tools session here and found the best bits.”
Mate layered several sounds for Groot, which she demonstrated to viewers: “I’m looking for texture, because he has little bits coming off him. Then I want a pop sound, because he blooms all of a sudden.” To communicate his power, she added the sound of a fireball. Played together, “We have a little texture, it definitely has a wood sound, it has power at the end [and] it’s got a bloom from the fireball.”
Maker Camp participants attempted to stump Mate with their recordings of everyday objects. Correctly identifying a Slinky, she said, “I’m sure everybody who knows about sound knows about the springy, metallic uber-sound, the laser sound from Star Wars. Those are great for futuristic weapons, and especially if you make them silly. It’s really fun for any oddball futuristic weapons, or weapons that aren’t quite working right, that have a little humor to them.”
As Mate noted, she works alongside Ben Burtt, who created the Star Wars laser sounds, at Skywalker. “I work with the best sound designers in the world,” she said, also naming Gary Rydstrom, Chris Boyes, Shannon Mills and Randy Thom. “They’re all good at different things and they all inspire me.”
One questioner asked Mate to name her favorite composer. “Sometimes the best composers I’ve worked with have given us space with the sound design,” she commented. On K-19: The Widowmaker, for example, score composer Klaus Badelt “wanted to get my cut of all the [submarine] pings so he could compose the music around the rhythm and not get in the way, because it was a story point.”
On Tron Legacy, “Daft Punk said there are places where [we] think our score should take a back seat because the [sound] effects are what’s driving the [visual] effects here, and we drive the scene there. When you tradeoff with composers like that, it’s super awesome; it gives both departments places to breathe and to play off each other.”
Mate really likes her job, she said, but cautioned would-be sound designers: “They’re very long hours, so you have to really like this business to stay in and be excited for it.”