The Recording of a Film Soundtrack Music
Ed Jones sits in on a major film music session in Abbey Road Studios, London, and reports on how the London Symphony Orchestra and a host of extra musicians recorded the music soundtrack to George Lucas' forthcoming prequel to 'Star Wars' - 'Willow'.
Ed Jones sits in on a major film music recording session in Abbey Road Studios, London.
If you've ever had time-syncing problems, blown a tweeter at a crucial moment, encountered coughing and foot-shuffling during a live take or even tried scoring a piece of music for 'clouds', double bass, gran cassa and a Chinese bahu, then you would have been in good Company at EMI's internationally renowned Abbey Road recording studios earlier this year.
James Horner, a young and very experienced composer of music for films (Aliens, Cocoon, An American Tale, Name Of The Rose), had assembled an intriguing collection of musicians to record the music soundtrack to a new LucasFilm movie called Willow. The film, celebrating the tenth anniversary of Star Wars, is a prequel by some considerable distance to George Lucas' original sci-fi thriller; thus, whilst including the rather obvious, grandiose orchestral themes and leitmotivs, a wide range of other esoteric sounds was also called for.
For those readers interested in logistics (and I include myself amongst them) there was the complete London Symphony Orchestra, The King's College School, Wimbledon boys' choir, the LSO ladies chorus, the group Incantation, a specialist Japanese shakuhachi player, and L.A. session keyboardist Ian Underwood (with a mighty barrage of synths and computers - see photo), all gathered underneath an enormous film projection screen in Abbey Road's enormous Studio 1.
Incidentally, (and of no relevance to this article) there are still people, presumably Beatles fans, coming from all corners of the world to photograph the studios and the renowned pedestrian crossing - every time I looked outside to see if the photographer's car had received a 'Denver boot' there was another tourist snapping merrily away in his own world of musical history.
Inside the control room (called the "fish tank" by the orchestral players - as they are always on the outside looking in through the glass window box) of Abbey Road's Studio 1 was Shawn Murphy (engineer), Greig McRichie (arranger), the music copyist (a stupendous task), the music editor, a producer, an accountant from the production company (!), a tape op, and a few other flies on the wall like myself. Altogether, these sessions were costing megabuckeroos! However, I only sat in on three sessions out of a total of 20 or so with the LSO, and a further few weeks' worth of overdubs and mixing. As you've probably gathered by now, an enormous amount of teamwork and organisation is required to put together a film music score of this magnitude.
Although the LSO are well used to regular film work, this was no regular gig by any means. It seemed as if every instrument under the sun had been written for and was hiding in some corner of the studio. The instrumentation included two alpine horns (played by trombonists using a trombone mouthpiece), cimbalom, contra (yes, contra) bass clarinet, contra bassoon, two concert harps, two concert grand pianos, bongoes, temple blocks, celeste and every other regular instrument. Mike Taylor and Tony Hinnigan, from Incantation, have been in demand from music writers ever since their haunting South American sounds were heard in The Mission; this time around they had brought zamponas (panpipes), quenas, tarkas, ocarinas, mohocena (a traverse, Bolivian bass flute), Chinese bahus, bombos and chajchas (Llama hooves!), whilst Robin Williamson (from the Incredible String Band) had a Celtic harp, bagpipes, citern, shawm, and a bombard. Kazu Matsui was the shakuhachi player. Along with the 24-strong boys' choir, this meant a lot of miking was required! I have enough trouble eliminating headphone leakage, jumbo jets flying overhead, and singing birds from my trusty AKG 451/CK1, so my humble home recording set-up was well and truly put into perspective... still, James Horner wasn't exactly recording on 16-track.
"Although the LSO are well used to regular film work, this was no regular gig by any means. It seemed as if every instrument under the sun had been written for and was hiding in some corner of the studio."
In fact, there were two Mitsubishi X850 32-track digital multitracks (using Ampex 467 tape) pressed into service to capture the cacophony of sound that was eventually to be squeezed onto the film soundtrack. Five overhead Neumann M50 microphones were situated over the front of the orchestral string players, whilst the woodwinds had B&Ks, the choir had Sanken CU41s, and the percussion section had Neumann KM84s. It really was an ear-and eye-opener to sit in the control room and watch the whole process of live music being recorded to picture - an experience so vastly different from shuffling musical 'samples' or sound 'snapshots' against a picture striped with SMPTE timecode.
SMPTE was, of course, used in the control room to synchronise the tape machines to the overhead projectors but, even at this level of professionalism, one six-minute long orchestral 'take' had to be scrapped because the timecode had mysteriously jumped half-way through the cue. Maglink and three TimeLine Lynx timecode modules were being used for synchronisation but, on this occasion, the error was narrowed down to having emanated from a mere human! Just like us mere mortals, even the movie moguls sometimes rewind and use the same piece of tape again - even if it does already have a timecode recorded on it. Timecode was being regenerated (as was an instant stereo music mix) and recorded as a failsafe. At any level orchestras don't come cheap, but in the movie business time is usually the problem, not money. I, however, took some consolation in the fact that I was not the only person in this world of high technology music that has problems with timecodes...
The music for Willow had been written by James Horner during the last months of 1987, then given to the arranger for a month or so, and was ready to be recorded in February of this year. The music copyist then had his work cut out to get all the orchestral parts ready on time - he, being the last in the chain, was the one guy that everybody depended on. Transposition mistakes in the main score can sometimes necessitate a quick re-write only hours before a session; couple this with the responsibility for literally hundreds of handwritten parts, and the copyist needs the help of the orchestra's librarian just to handle the logistics of an orchestral film music session. With both a producer and music editor on hand for the sessions, there was even some instant re-arranging done for some cues - it never ceases to amaze me how someone can actually 'hear' a full score in his head!
Usually, neither the orchestra nor the composer has played the music before so it is a new experience for all persons involved, and when it really works everyone gets a buzz. Sitting in the control room I could positively feel the ups and downs of morale in a three-hour recording session; if it takes a whole session to record just a six-minute cue, then the musicians do not get the same opportunities to understand balance and tuning as might be afforded in a longer, classical piece. In fact, if a conductor spent a whole session on just getting six minutes of a symphony absolutely perfect then he would have a very bored bunch of musicians on his hands for the last hour! Luckily, each music cue comes fresh to the orchestra and, mostly, presents a fresh challenge every time. A good deal of the writing in Willow, and many other contemporary film scores, can best be described as more varied than demanding. For example, much of the string work involves varied bowing techniques (for creating a musical sound effect) rather than virtuoso playing.
Negotiations between orchestras, the Musicians' Union, and the film production companies have enabled film producers to pay a higher, one-off rate for film sessions in the UK that involve orchestral players, thereby appeasing some of the inevitable boredom by simple financial arm-bending! The overall impression I received was that both the film's producers and the London Symphony Orchestra were mutually happy, especially as there was a rumour going around that one film had been taken to Budapest for recording, only to find that the orchestra there could handle neither the score nor the pressure, thus forcing them to return to Germany. The LSO have regularly undertaken film work over the last ten years (since Star Wars) and look likely to continue so doing. It has, in fact, considerably helped the orchestra get over their much-publicised period of financial trouble in recent years. A hard working orchestra such as the LSO is extremely unlikely to have two weeks available in their schedule at short notice, so if you intend using one of the best orchestras in the world for your film score, you had better book them now and start saving!
"Usually, neither the orchestra nor the composer has played the music before, so it is a new experience for all persons involved..."
The actual recording process itself involved several rehearsals of the music without the picture running but with tempo guides for the conductor; the musicians could then learn how and when to follow the tempo changes required by the music. After the general balance had been established (and the correct transposition of the clarinet parts!) a run-through to film was set up. This involved a rough, black and white cut of the film being projected onto a large screen behind the orchestral players, with 'streamers' and what can only be described in layman's terms as 'blobs' superimposed onto the screen. A streamer is a vertical line that passes from left to right across the screen; when it reaches the right-hand side the conductor knows that he has to have the music perfectly in sync for a visual 'hit' point. A 'blob' may flash before or after that 'hit' to indicate any tempo changes, thus enabling the conductor to keep the music flowing in sync. As you may imagine, considerable pro production work has to be done to organise these streamers in order to be able to go straight ahead and record whilst in the studio. As it was, during the first two sessions barely a single note was put down on tape because everything has to be perfectly in sync before a note can be recorded. This can get expensive with 80 musicians hanging around - no wonder there was a production company accountant on hand.
Shawn Murphy, the engineer, had brought some of his preferred tools of the trade over from Los Angeles. These included Wilson Audio Tiny Tot monitors with Entec 9W1 bass drivers, a pair of GML 8200 parametric equalisers, and GML transformerless microphone preamps (used for the Neumann M50s). Some unnamed person had managed to blow the tweeters in the Wilsons but they were soon replaced. Logistics problems such as kitting everyone out with headphones and the consequential sound spillage seemed all in a day's work for the Abbey Road staff. And there's nothing that gaffa tape can't fix - including the coughing of a boy's choir, or the squeaking of a chair!
"Logistics problems such as kitting everyone out with headphones and the consequential sound spillage seemed all in a day's work for the Abbey Road staff."
When the final take of a particular music cue was in the can, it became quite a squeeze in the "fish tank" as members of the orchestra wanted to hear the mix and watch the screen from inside the studio control room. Once the producers were satisfied that the balance, tempos and accuracy were as required, then it was on to the next cue. Interestingly, some of the more esoteric instruments were left out, to be recorded as overdubs at a later stage. As Mike Taylor from Incantation said: " You try playing your first note in tune on a tarka (an instrument that not only looks like a square chair leg but also sounds like one!) six minutes into an eight-minute live take. Sometimes we take three hours just tuning the instruments when we're working on our own group albums. We're now learning to work with the pressures of the film world - and that can mean dropping a cashew nut into a panpipe to instantly brighten up the sound!"
I found myself marvelling at the enormous variety of skills assembled in the studio: from the solo, monophonic, expert orchestral players right through to the multi-instrumental talents of Incantation, with their South American instruments, and Ian Underwood's multi-keyboard MIDI computer set-up. James Horner was the man responsible for creating this profusion of sound, and I can thoroughly recommend anyone interested in multifarious film scores to check out Willow when it comes to your local cinema. Now, if anyone can tell me why 250 dwarfs were needed to film Willow and what they were doing in New Zealand, then the secret storyline will be out of the bag!
I left Abbey Road Studios with a wealth of sound still ringing in my ears and the memory of a pool of real talent amongst professional people who enjoy their profession - from the tape operator right up to the film's producer.
Feature by Ed Jones
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