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Alumni & Friends

The Music Man

Image of Shawn Murphy. Photo by Steve BabuljakShawn Murphy's work recording music for hundreds of films has led to three Oscar nominations, one win and one very large CD collection


Shawn Murphy (B.A., ’68), the Oscar-winning recording engineer and theatrical sound designer, thrived at SF State during the turbulent 1960s.

“I couldn’t have chosen a better time to be there,” says Murphy, who recorded and mixed James Newton Howard’s original score for the recently released “Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the sequel to the 2012 hit he also worked on.

In 1966, Murphy transferred from Orange Coast College in Southern California to major in history and partake in SF State’s noted theatre arts, music and film programs — and to soak in the University’s electric energy.

“The student body was diverse, and the diversity of ideas was pretty wild then,” recalls Murphy, on the phone from Seattle, where he has lived for a decade. “You learned to be accepting of that, to pay attention to what other people were thinking before making up your own mind.”

Studying history and other liberal arts better prepared him for his career than if he’d gone to film school, says Murphy. “You learned literature, history, drama, storytelling. It allowed me to communicate with directors and composers on a different level than just technical or engineering.”

Murphy worked as a sound designer for San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the idea of a wholly integrated sound design was just taking hold in live theater. He developed long-term relationships with distinguished film composers including John Williams, Danny Elfman and Howard.

Williams tapped Murphy to record and mix his scores for “Jurassic Park” (for which Murphy won an Oscar in 1994), “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List” and many other films. Howard called on Murphy for the “Bourne” movies and the “Hunger Games,” whose scores Murphy recorded in London with the composer and an orchestra of top session players. Elfman began working with Murphy in the late ’80s, hiring him to record his music for films as diverse as “Men in Black,” “Mission Impossible” and “A Civil Action.”

“You’re making sure that the recording process is seamless, so the composers can achieve the sound and dramatic impression they want,” says Murphy, who recently worked on a new sound recording system at Chicago’s Symphony Hall. “You provide the tools for them to make the score work.

“You tune into each other,” he adds, listening for “sound quality, balance, dramatic effect. You develop a relationship with a composer because of all those things.”

Murphy feels fortunate that he’s been busy for the last 40 years or so. “What a great and lucky career — to listen to and record music every day, to work with the greatest composers and artists in the world. How can you not have fun?”


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