Photo: Anthony Chen

Sound Check

Mike Hough talks sound, music, and Shanghai.

For more than 5 years now, American composer and sound designer Mike Hough has based himself in Shanghai. He’s been on location with everyone from Nicholas Cage to Simon Pegg and Lang Lang. In addition to his film work, he has also produced music both independently as well as through collaborations with other musicians. We head into the studio to talk with Hough about the thankless art of sound design, how he got into composing soundtrack music, and ask him to pinpoint that one sound that defines Shanghai.

What is the biggest misconception people have when you tell them you’re a sound designer?

For starters, it’s a completely thankless art. A lot of people have the illusion when they watch a film that there is some sort of magical microphone that is just in the scene that’s hearing what’s going on—even if it’s in an exterior location, in a busy train station, or in a pool or on a beach or wherever. But, if you’re on a beach the only thing you’re going to hear is the wind and the surf or the people playing volleyball over your shoulder. As a result, most of what you hear in a good piece of sound design is completely fabricated. Apart from the dialogue, 70% to 80% of it is done in post-production. That said, if people don’t notice it, it usually means you did your job well.

In addition to doing sound work, you’re also a composer. Do you think musicians make better sound designers?

Good question. Yeah, I think so. When I’m not swamped down by logistics and just trying not to fuck up and I actually have a minute to just sit there and listen to the sound, you can find a kind of music in it—maybe not music as in tones, but as in the flow in life in general. There are some very beautiful things happening. I’d like to think that being able to relate those things comes from my background in music.

You spent a big part of your life growing up in Athens, Georgia—a place which, for a lot of people, is practically synonymous with music. Did this have any influence on you becoming a musician?

Absolutely. I went to university there and studied music there. I lived there for 11 years. One of the things I really love is that it’s still very indie. But, I think I learned a lot more outside of school, following a scene where you can play anywhere and everybody plays in a band. That part of it definitely dug into the back of my mind.

 If you don’t work in the burrito shop and have a tattoo on your face, you’re not cool.

Is it an easy place to stand out and get noticed?

It’s a small town and great place to get a start and find your roots, but in the end you’ve always got to get out on the road. For me personally though, the thing about Athens is I was never one of the cool kids. I played in a lot of bands, but everyone plays in a band. Everyone there is just so cool and I never really felt that. If you don’t work in the burrito shop and have a tattoo on your face, you’re not cool.

Do you ever go back?

I went back once after being here in Shanghai for four or five years. I was already making a living doing music for films and I thought for sure I’d be cool, but when I went to the clubs and I was chatting with some people I was so not cool. Actually, if it’s possible, I was even more uncool than when I was living there.

How long have you been composing music?

I think it would go back to when I was seventeen or eighteen—when I was learning to play the saxophone. A byproduct of learning the saxophone is that you have to learn how to play jazz because classical saxophone music is pretty much the worst music known to man. But, a big part of doing jazz is improvisation. Learning how the chords go together and actually improvising with a band is essentially composing and that’s kind of how I approach it.  It’s very reactionary to what’s going on around you.

Who are some of your biggest influences?

Clint Mansell really speaks to me. He was the lead singer of Pop Will Eat Itself back in the eighties before he got hooked up with (Black Swan director) Darren Aronovsky. They just started making films and now he’s one of the most recognizable composers in the world. He’s not incredibly schooled in music—he even says himself that writing scores for films is something he thought he someone else did for a living.  Another big one was the Trent Reznor-Atticus Ross score for The Social Network. I actually downloaded the soundtrack while I was in the theater watching the movie.

Your music doesn’t really fit into an album model of creating music. Do you think it is still accessible in the same way as more traditional songs?

I’m not that guy who writes music you just listen to when you want to listen to music.

For starters, I’m not that guy who writes music you just listen to when you want to listen to music. I mean, there is definitely a standard of when you want to listen to a song that you want it to not be thirty seconds long. There must be some sort of logical reason and millions of dollars spent on research about why songs are that long, but I don’t typically adhere to it. I don’t know if there is really a thing or if we’ve just conformed to because it’s been the standard on radio, but were not really in that age any more.

So, how would you describe the music that you write?

Man, I really hate that question. I know that’s just the way people ask, but I’m terrible about answering it. I don’t know how other composers do it, but when I hear people answer that question I tend to think they’re full of shit. It all sounds contrived.

OK, last question: If you have to pick one sound to represent Shanghai, what would it be?

Easy. Jackhammering.


You can check out more of Hough’s work here.

Michael Thede

Michael Thede

Founder & Contributor

Michael Thede is a Canadian screenwriter and story consultant. He studied Film & Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario and is a graduate of the Writing for Film & TV program at Vancouver Film School. He came to Asia nearly 15 years ago and is currently based in Shanghai, where he is also the founder and organizer of the Shanghai Screenwriters Workshop. WeChat: michaelthede78

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