Chris Jenkins: How an Acclaimed Hollywood Sound Creator Listens at Home
Academy Award-winning film sound engineer Chris Jenkins spends his days crafting sonic landscapes for movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Fifth Element. The studio headphones may come off by the time he gets home, but the listening is just getting started.
Despite its name, the motion picture would be nothing without the other half of its creative equation: Sound. Behind every booming explosion, whispered line of dialogue, and iconic score is a team of sound engineers helping to orchestrate the cinematic experience. Few do so as masterfully as Chris Jenkins.
As a film sound re-recording engineer, Jenkins uses his discerning ear to propel stories off of screens and immerse audiences in the worlds of such films as Out of Africa, The Fifth Element, and Mad Max: Fury Road. In his nearly 40 years of experience, he’s amassed over 180 mixing credits and won three Academy Awards.
When he’s not helping to craft multi-sensory storytelling experiences for movie theaters, Jenkins is busy doing his part to make sure movies and music sound amazing at home as well. As a member of the Sonos Soundboard—an advisory panel of entertainment industry sound creators enlisted by Sonos–Jenkins works closely with the company’s engineers and product team, offering his professional feedback on the sound of speakers like the new Sonos Beam as they’re being developed. Through a series of hands-on listening sessions, creative advisors like Jenkins have a simple aim: To help Sonos ensure that the original emotion and sonic clarity of films, music, and other content are retained as this work makes its way from the studio mixing board to the living room.
Because he spends all day working with sound, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if he wanted to come home to complete silence, but Jenkins’s passion spans both his professional and personal lives. We visited him at his home on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Jeanne, and two dogs, Daisy and Moose, to talk about sound and learn how he listens off the clock.
How do you transition from listening at work to listening at home? What role does sound play here as opposed to in the studio?
We always have music on here. If I work late in the studio, sometimes a quiet drive home is necessary just to help me reset, but that quiet time makes the listening experience here at home even better.
We live in this beautiful canyon. I love the sounds of nature and how still it can be sometimes, but great music is just a requirement for home. Otherwise, it feels naked in a way. I grew up in a house with music, so it’s always been a rich part of my life, including in my work on movies.
Living out here must be great for decompressing from work and finding inspiration.
I listen to the way things sound out here, and sound comes from everywhere. Nature is everywhere sonically. We have an incredible gift with our ears and our minds to be able to process that. So I keep listening to music and thinking about ways to improve that experience, whether it’s a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar or Luciano Pavarotti with an 80-piece orchestra. There should be no difference in the quality of listening.
"We have an incredible gift with our ears and minds. I keep listening to music and thinking about ways to improve that experience."
You probably wear headphones a lot at work. How does that compare to listening out loud?
I find them incredibly intrusive. I was a second engineer for many years for a lot of great mixers, so I had to wear headphones every day, and I hated them. They’re not comfortable. It’s not a natural way for me to listen to music. Headphones today are intended to shut the rest of the world away. They isolate people, so they have their experience with their phone or tablet and don’t have to engage with other people. When I listen to music or watch movies, I want it to be a shared experience.
My goal is to get people to take off the headphones. There’s nothing greater than watching a room full of people who respond positively to listening to the same thing. There’s so much joy in the room from that shared experience. Even with total strangers.
But headphones are a reality. A lot of artists I’ve worked with have just handed me a pair of earbuds and said, “Make it sound good on these.” People you think would be huge sound fanatics know that we live in the real world. We have to make something sound great for earbuds and 7.1 systems alike.
When you’re mixing, most of the time you’re focused on the listening experience in the cinema. How do you make sure people get that kind of listening experience at home?
We want people to have that same experience. More and more, shows that we work on and soundtracks that we create have much more sophisticated immersive audio. As the technology keeps advancing, people are closer to having that kind of experience without needing a bunch of huge speakers at home. The technology we have now makes it easier to reproduce those soundtracks and make immersive audio so much more accessible.
So how did you get hooked on Sonos?
It was actually my wife! We have this incredible home that we’ve worked really hard on. Every little piece of wood and all the furniture is an important part of our style and who we are as people. We didn’t want to cut holes in walls or run cables and wires and have all this clunky gear around. That’s a part of my world at the studio, but we don’t want to make it part of our home. We bumped up against that time and time again with different gear and different ways of playing back music and movies at home.
My wife has a super keen eye for detail and design. When I first brought Playbase home to test, she didn’t say anything about it at first. I put it on and after about an hour, she came in and said, “What is that underneath the TV?” It sounded great, but for us, the design aesthetic was equally important.
Not everybody is used to having sound gear in their home, and the technology can’t interfere with your ability to enjoy it. And now with voice control, it’s easier for kids to use.
You seem to have a speaker in every room, even the bathrooms.
It’s amazing to have a single mono speaker that can produce such great sounding music in a place you don’t really expect. The living room is the most experiential. We take it for granted now that things are supposed to sound great because our TVs don’t produce good sound. I love being able to stream music from my office and listen off the Playbase in the living room. When we have guests over, we can have every speaker on and put the house in party mode and have that experience in as many places as possible.
"When I listen to music or watch movies, I want it to be a shared experience. My goal is to get people to take off the headphones."
What have you been listening to lately?
Oh, everything. At any time I could be listening to country, bluegrass, classical, Hans Zimmer, or Junkie XL. You should see what my playlists look like. My wife loves Willie Nelson, so we’ll listen to Willie Nelson on our Sonos One in the kitchen while cooking. There’s always something on in any given room. Lately, it’s a lot of The Beatles, Jackson Brown, and Bruno Mars.
We did a movie with Father John Misty this year. It was part of the album that came out. We listen to everything. Music plays a huge part in our life.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.