The Story of a Gifted Engineer With a Passion for Music and Sound for Film
When we think of a great engineering mind in the field of professional music recording, we almost always picture someone who spends a great deal of their time sitting behind a console. In today’s world of professional music recording, it may be that we think of someone who spends the vast majority of their time working professionally at a digital audio workstation. But, if we were to look back at the history of professional music recording, we would discover great engineers who also invented the technologies that became the foundation for recording both modern music and sound for film. He is a great recording studio engineer who just happens to be both an inventor and an entrepreneur who has created his own state-of-the-art recording studio facility that is one of the busiest places in Italy for producers and engineers who are working on projects in both music recording and sound for film. He is also a pioneer who has brought the latest technologies into his recording studio facility and introduced them to some of the finest engineers in Italy. He is an artist, an educator and an advocate for taking his passion, intellect and tremendous skills to rid the world of a different kind of pollution— noise pollution. But, he has also accomplished something truly extraordinary, as he has become one of the world’s greatest intellectuals in the fields of both music recording and sound for film and he has done all of this while rising above a disability.
For you see, one of the world’s greatest engineers and audio production professionals has never seen a console before, nor has he seen the circuits, the gear or even the techniques for using it that he himself has invented to bring the world of music and sound for film into our lives. Since the age of four, one of the world’s greatest recording studio engineers— a man who has given millions of people the gift of beautiful music and sound for film— has been blind. In fact, his early life has been the subject of a short film for children, Red Like the Sky, released in 2006, which chronicles his life from the accident which took away his sense of sight, to him taking the first steps to become one of the greatest engineers and sound designers in Italian music and cinema. But, it is his work that has allowed us to both see and hear the world as it truly is. When you step into a concert hall, a movie theater or listen to music in immersive surround sound on a home stereo system, you are hearing what he wishes to contribute to popular entertainment. He is a pioneer, an engineer, and an inventor. He is my friend, Mirco Mencacci. And his life— whether you know it or not, has been about trying to change the way each of us are able to experience the world around us through sound.
An award-winning documentary film, Red Like the Sky, (2006) chronicled both the struggles and the triumphs of the life of the famed sound designer and engineer, Mirco Mencacci.
Mirco Mencacci was born in Lari, Italy, in 1961. Even at an early age, he was fascinated by the sounds that he heard in his small village in Tuscany. When he was three-years old, a child in his village acquired a small reel-to-reel tape recorder. The child used the recorder to record the voices of people in the village. It absolutely fascinated the young Mirco Mencacci, who promptly asked his father if he could have one, too. He would have to wait until the age of seven to receive it, but, when he did— it changed his life. But, fate would change his life as well. At the age of four, a childhood accident left him without his sense of sight. After he had recovered from the accident, he soon received the tape recorder as a gift from his father and it opened up a whole new world for him— a world of sound. It led him to record the world around him, a world that he could not longer experience through the sense of sight. He recorded and re-recorded the sounds of people speaking, people walking, birds chirping and even the gentle breezes blowing through his Tuscan village. He was recording the sounds of life. But, one of the sounds that would have a profound impact upon his life was the sound of silence. Growing-up, Mirco Mencacci’s family did not have a television, but he did listen to a small valve-based radio. Under the terrace of their home was an outdoor cinema. During the summers, the family would watch and listen to films together overlooking the parapet of the terrace. To him, the sounds of these films had a special magic to them.
In Italian cinema and music, a renaissance was occurring. This renaissance would fuel the growth of both new and experimental filmmaking— and groundbreaking efforts to reshape sound and music for film. From an early age, he was influenced by the great work of these new pioneers such as Italian composer Ennio Morricone and filmmaker, Sergio Leone— both of whom, became famous in the mid-to-late 1960s for their collaborative work that would lead to a series of films that are often referred to as the “Spaghetti Westerns,” the most famous of which, of course, was The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, a cult classic film that was released in Europe in 1966 and later in the United States in 1968. The world became a place where what he could hear became his reality and he channeled his tremendous abilities to take the career path of becoming a recording studio engineer. It was not just the films of the late 1960s and the early 1970s that would have an influence upon him, it was also the music. The music of the 1970s was dominated by such groups as the Electric Light Orchestra, Pink Floyd, Genesis, King Crimson, Simon & Garfunkel, Deep Purple, Weather Report, Chick Correa and Joni Mitchell. Each of these groups and their fusion of musical styles— including the inclusion of classical music would have an influence upon his life and career. While his creative world became one of sound, he made his way through an Italian public education system that did not always offer him a pleasant learning experience, but as he came of age, he would find tremendous support from his parents and their local community which would help put him on the pathway to success.
One of the great engineering minds in the world came of age and into his own through the power of listening. The sounds of cinema and music may have had an indelible influence on him, but it was the sounds of nature that gave him a new perspective on the power to shape and create great works of art that could be applied to both cinema and music. He would later note— “Sound is something intangible and does not remain, so the challenge for me has always been to make it a living, concrete and reproducible structure.” Throughout his life he would work to make the immersive world of three-dimensional sound a reality for everyone to be able to listen to and experience for themselves. While desiring for everyone to have this experience, he compared it to one of his favorite hobbies— riding a bike. He could hear how sound was shaped by the world in which it existed, and his sense became much like that of a bat or a dolphin, in that he could sense how an environment was shaped by the sounds in it and how each of the objects that existed in that framework, in turn, also shaped those sounds, as well. It allowed him to also be able to better understand the origins of sounds. He would take his sense of spatial sound and apply it to his professional life and it is this work that has allowed him to have a tremendous influence on the growth of Italian cinema and music.
From Recording Stories to Creating His Own
Even at an early age, Mirco Mencacci was a storyteller, engineer and a producer, as well. As early as the age of seven, he was already recording sounds with his sister and their friends and creating stories that were based on the radio dramas that he and his family were listening to. His father built a system where the kids in the house could broadcast from each of the rooms in the house. He and his sister could create a story in one room and then broadcast it to their parents who might be in another room. When Italian free radio appeared in his village a few years later, he could always be found knocking on their door to volunteer his time to step behind the microphone. As a teenager, he began recording local bands— in his own home. For example, he would set-up his control room in the living room area, put the drums in the entrance, the guitars in the kitchen area and the singers in the bedrooms. He developed a reputation for recording amazing tracks and being able to put together great productions. He also developed his own band and he performed in it, too— playing the drums, harmonica and guitars. But, after the neighbors complained about the noise, he began doing post production projects only— working on radio commercials, interviews and theater soundtracks. He became tremendously successful, but he wanted to learn more and to expand his burgeoning skillset. What he sought was to receive the formal education of a recording engineer and to learn from a master. He traveled to Rome to learn from the best in the business in Italy, and to enroll in a school there— but, the school did not want to take him for one very simple reason— he was blind. To top it off, they tried to make it a point to him that he did not belong. They brought him into a studio where an engineer was recording music for a film soundtrack. He sat in the control room listening to the distorted sounds of poorly recorded drums coming out of the monitor speakers. He was deeply unimpressed, but he was also even more determined to do what they had deemed impossible for him to be able to do— to make it on his own. In 1981, he would begin the process of making it on his own and later, he would create one of the greatest recording studio facilities in Europe.
With the help of his father, a master craftsman, Mirco Mencacci would take a space inside of the medieval walls of his home village of Lari, Italy, and begin the process of turning it into a world-class recording studio facility. By 1988, his recording studio facility SAM had become one of the best— not just in Italy, but in Europe, too. SAM would be busy recording music, soundtracks for film and theater and commercials for radio and television. His work was in constant demand and his business grew and expanded beyond his wildest dreams. In fact, his business expanded to the point that he was able to actually move to Rome where he began to work more in the world of cinema. As the recording world was making the transition from analog to digital, he saw another opportunity. He used his skills, knowledge and talents to become a master educator. And, he opened his own facility in Rome, too, so that he could further his work in audio and video post production after working for three years in post production sound for film. It was just the beginning. His innovative way of working led to a tremendous amount of success. From 1996-2011, his studio would work on over 400 films in a fifteen year period. It was during this time that he began to see not just the value of his great business and engineering success, but also the tremendous importance of his experiences. While working on an array of films, theater soundtracks and music recordings he came to realize that better systems for recording sound for film were needed— especially with the growth and development of surround and immersive sound formats. The great engineer and studio manager now realized that to introduce the world to sound in the way in which it should be heard in film, theater and music would require new and amazing innovations. He would create one of those innovations himself.
Sound is three-dimensional. It is immersive. We hear each of the sounds around us as we walk through our daily lives. We hear the sounds of nature all around us— birds chirping, trees swaying in the wind and water running through a vibrant brook. While formats began to exist that could allow a person in a theater to hear sound in an immersive surround sound format, there did not truly exist a system for recording the sounds so that they could actually fit into it. In 2004, he invented the first of a number of systems, the Spherical Sound system, which allowed filmmakers to be able to record sound three-dimensionally. The first film to use the experimental system was a short work by Michelangelo Antonioni. While his work continued to be experimental and artistic, his studio, SAM continued its growth and its ability to work with clients in music, theater and film. During this time, he continued to be an innovator. At SAM other engineers, such as Andrea Ciacchini who had collaborated with him since 2007 on a variety of projects worked in the studio and continued to do their great work. In 2011, he left his studies in Rome to his collaborators and made his way back to the village of Lari to continue his work at SAM. He went back to work recording music, sound for film and theater and doing post-production work.
Innovation does not just come from creating new technologies. It also comes from using new techniques to record great sound and music. His sense of realism would change the way that people would listen to the soundtracks for films, games and theater productions— and music, as well. His belief is that the best sounds are those that are real, not those that are manufactured or are electronically or digitally created. Through his work, he seeks to make the cinema experience feel like the real world experience. What you would hear and see at the same time in your daily life, he has worked tirelessly to make the cinema experience. He even advocates that in his award-winning work, it is important to also be able to immersively hear the sounds that are truly present, but that viewers may not be able to actually see on-screen. For him, sound should not only be immersive, but it must also have three-dimensional depth. Sound should also have another component— it should elicit emotion. When it comes to recording music he also still believes in natural sounds. In fact, it is his belief that mastering has in many cases, overcompressed the natural sound of music and that at the same time— playback systems tend to not give the listener the truth about what they are actually hearing. For him, it is about creating and sculpting sounds that are natural, but that also means that they should be presented to the listener in a way that preserves the dynamics of their performance.
Mirco Mencacci has been a pioneer in the fields of both music recording and sound for film. In these images, he is using his Spherical Sound system. His system has enabled sound designers to begin to record sound for film in a way that has anticipated such innovations as Dolby Immersive. Images courtesy of SAM Studio and Mirco Mencacci.
His Greatest Work
For Mirco Mencacci, he has always felt that his best work was not just in creating and introducing new techniques in the process of recording music and sound for film, but in also creating the soundtracks for film and theater productions that have truly become works of art. His work with the renowned and Academy-Award winning filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni is amazing. In the film, Michelangelo Eye to Eye, he had to create the sound of a church in silence— and the result was brilliant. Another major film, Puccini and the Girl, was another award-winning film that he had developed the soundscape for and this groundbreaking work directed by Paolo Benvenuti was a very important film that featured no dialogue at all. He is also incredibly proud of his work with acclaimed Italian film director Yuri Ancarani. It is this set of works that have been presented at museums around the world including: the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Guggenheim (also in New York City), the Pompidou Center (in Paris, France), the MAXXI Museum in Rome and at the Venice Biennale— which is the oldest international cultural exhibition of its kind in the world. These groundbreaking short films include: Il Capo, DaVinci, San Siro and the film The Challenge and Atlantide. In 2009, he came to the United States and gave a series of lectures on the principles of sound design for music and film at Syracuse University. But, his hard work in the process of creating innovative sound solutions has also given him tremendous success as he has given a number of seminars on behalf of Dolby Laboratories about the use of his Spherical Sound system for recording audio for film in their new immersive sound format— Dolby Atmos. He has given a number of lectures across Europe about his work and how to improve the quality of sound design for cinema.
His influence on sound for film and the development of immersive sound has had a tremendous impact. Though he does admit that working on films has truly challenged him throughout his career, he has always seen each creative undertaking as a chance to improve the quality of his magnificent work. It has also served to make his work even that much more extraordinary and influential, as well. In music, he has worked with a number of great artists across Europe, and he is very proud of his work in jazz with Klaus Weissman and pop singer, Ornella Vanoni. But, one of the greatest stories of his work has been the painstaking time, innovative thought and the tremendous effort that he has put into building one of the busiest and most successful recording studio facilities in Europe. Since 1988, his recording studio has recorded some of the greatest music and soundscapes for film and theater in Italy and throughout the European continent.
A Legacy of Excellence: SAM Recording Studios
His legacy in education, sound for film, music recording and innovation have made him an important voice in the world of professional audio recording. However, it is his recording studio facility, SAM, based in his home village of Lari, Italy, that has also continued to be one of the busiest and best places in Europe to record music and sound for film and theater productions. While the story of SAM will be written into an article by itself, the studio is now a member of the Miloco Studios family of recording studio facilities. One goal that he has always had is to be able to do more work in the United States, but for now he is more than busy— each and everyday making tremendous contributions to the growth and development of immersive sound and the ability of engineers to be able to capture it.
When he first began to create what would become SAM he wanted to be a member of the team that would take the first steps in creating the first true digital recording system. Though he would not have the opportunity to be a part of that process, his creation of SAM gave Italy one of the greatest recording studio facilities for the creation of professional audio. He gives so much of the credit for both his development as an engineer and that of SAM to his father who never stopped believing in the ability and talent of his son. The belief that his father had in him gave him the freedom and the ability to experiment— to be free to make mistakes and to work to make the impossible a reality in the world of professional audio. He has made us— through his work and innovation— come to appreciate sound for film and music as a form of true art. He is one of the truly great minds in professional audio of our time. He is our friend, the influential Italian recording engineer, sound designer and inventor, Mirco Mencacci.
Mirco Mencacci established SAM Recording Studios in his hometown of Lari in the region of Tuscany in Italy in 1988. Since that time, it has become one of the busiest recording facility studio in Europe. Images taken by Luca Ciarfella and provided courtesy of SAM Studio and Mirco Mencacci.
Special Thanks and Acknowledgement
I would like to take a moment to thank Mr. Mirco Mencacci for his assistance with this project. SAM World Recording Studio has been recording the best in popular music and sound for film since it opened its doors in Lari, Italy in 1988. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all of the wonderful people who have worked with Mirco at SAM Recording Studios over the years who have made it a wonderful place to record great music and sound for film.