When you sit back and think about Steven Spielberg’s classic adventure tale Raiders of the Lost Ark several things come to mind first; Harrison Ford’s grizzly good looks, Indy’s hat and whip, that big giant boulder and the rousing score. Now try and picture the film without that iconic theme tune; without the cues that key us into the danger of that boulder intent on crushing our hero, or when he’s getting romantic with Marion, or when the supernatural elements kick in and suddenly we have a very different film all together. Frankly we have a considerably less thrilling film, one that’s not as funny or wondrous and certainly a film that is a hell of lot less memorable. Score is one of the most vital elements in film, be it the shrill, frantic, strings of Psycho or the modern synth laden grooves of Daft Punk in Tron: Legacy. So with that in mind I’ve come to London’s famous Abbey Road Studios, the very place that composer John Williams recorded the score for Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1980 and where just about every iconic film score you can think of has been recorded and/or mixed since.
Along with around ten other wide-eyed film hacks I’ve been invited to the studios by the manufacturers of Abbey Road’s resident 800D monitors, Bowers & Wilkins, to learn about the mechanics of recording and mixing a film score and the importance of the speakers in that process. We’re greeted by Abbey Road engineer/producer, and our guide for the day, Jonathan Allen. BAFTA winner in 2013 for his work on the film version of Les Miserables, Jonathan has worked on over a hundred soundtracks, assisting the likes of John Barry, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, George Fenton and James Horner.
We’re treated to a look at Studio One and gather in the cavernous live room that can house full orchestras for recording. Jonathan points out the layout of the Neumann M 50 mics across the front and, while it’s not visible right now, he shows us where the screen is set up when recording takes place; “When I first started here we were still projecting. First film I worked on was Shadowlands in around 1993. I did the last 6 movies with John Barry. John was still doing 35mm and refused to work with video, there were only 2 projectionists in London who were allowed to work on a scoring session and he was the last of his breed. We’d sync up the film with this clever box which would sync the speed of the projector to the speed of my tape machines. But the magic of seeing the orchestra, John Barry and seeing the picture and hearing the music was a real treat.”
Image Credit: http://www.robmathes.com
When Jonathan first started out at Abbey Road he assisted Sean Murphy who he credits with being a pioneer in terms of soundtrack recordings, ‘Sean’s the Governor. He started to see what the classical guys were doing and adopted those techniques for the cinema. With the later Star Wars movies compared with the earlier ones the soundtrack has this extra rich boom which you don’t really get with the earlier movies and it’s the way Sean pioneered it.”
The mere mention of Star Wars causes a ripple of excitement, we may pretend to be hard-faced hacks but in reality this is a collection of nerds and the fact that we’re standing in the room where Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack was recorded is goose-pimply exciting. Of course Jonathan was too young to have been around for that recording but he was present when John Williams returned to the franchise in the late 90’s to record the score for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and its hugely recognisable theme; Duel of The Fates. “Duel of The Fates was recorded with choir and orchestra - 90 choir and around a 95 piece orchestra in one room. Generally choirs are done separately. It was a lot of noise and in the end John Williams recognised it was just too much. John doesn’t generally like a lot of studio techniques and never uses click. So no Star Wars films were recorded with click track because he has the ability to conduct.”
With that we are taken upstairs to finally hear Bowers & Wilkins speakers in action in Studio Three. Crowded into the control room Jonathan clues us up on the amount of personnel that it takes to record and mix the music for a film; “A lot of directors when they start the film making process want to use temp music as a way of illustrating the emotions and style of music they want to explore on the film. So they’ll get an experienced music editor with access to a library of scores and they’ll have a brief from the director and will then look at other movies that are similar and find cues from those soundtracks that fit the style and theme of the movie.”
“For instance Star Wars was temped with William Walton and The Battle of Britain and instantly when you hear the Walton music you can hear it in Star Wars, but they were very conscious that was what they were going for. It’s like the Battle of Britain in space which is a nicely, simplistic way of looking at it but that template was the excitement of the film, having that simple hook from one thing to another. And that was done musically and thematically.”
“A composer wants to bring certain things to the table that are his ideas and he may have better ideas than the music they’ve chosen. So at that point they begin the spotting process which involves them discussing the style, where they’re at. The composer may visit the set of the film to get more immersed in the story and then they’ll ‘spot’ where the music will go in the film. This goes here, this goes there, we don’t need to know that this character is a baddie yet so I don’t want anything edgy and baddie, maybe it’s a tender scene or maybe give it a bit of edge at the end to give a hint. These things are carefully choreographed so that it’s constantly serving what the filmmaker wants to do. Once that’s all spotted and say they’re going to use an orchestra, they’ll have an orchestrator because the composer can’t simply do that amount of work in the time available. Orchestrator is a skilled job, very well paid because they work fast and furiously. And then we come in. Abbey Road have learned from the best engineers since the 80’s and now have a terrific in-house team. It’s rare to have so many films back-to-back but in 2013 Abbey Road had Rise of The Guardians, Skyfall and Les Miserables at the same time.“
Mixing is something of a frantic process that takes place at the end of the movie. It’s a tight schedule and often scenes are ditched or re-written resulting in the composer having to start again. It’s reasons such as this that Jonathan credits Bowers & Wilkins and their speakers with easing that pressure; “That’s why we have to be reassured that what we’re listening to is the truth so we don’t get any comebacks. If we’re mixing a film and we get a call from the dub that there’s a problem with the music you don’t want to hear that because there’s very little time to fix it. We need to know that what we’re delivering is what we intend and will play in cinemas and translate from here to every other aspect.”
Abbey Road has had an association with Bowers & Wilkins since 1988 when they brought in the company’s Matrix 801 monitors which became a standard for recording classical. At some point when used on louder, filmatic things the speakers would cut out so by the early 1990’s Bowers & Wilkins developed a new technology that according to Jonathan was a, real leap that meant the engineers at Abbey Road knew that they were mixing in a true capacity and that it would be as efficient on pop music as it would be for classical.
The positioning of the speakers in the control room is important. In Studio Three there are reflective surfaces within the room. Most of the energy comes from the ear height part of the speaker while the low ends reach further. In short, if you’re sat at the rear of the room you’ll hear more bass.
Jonathan adds that, “Listening to the music is the most important part of the chain, if we’re not convinced that we’re doing is true, and the detail we’re trying to put in…..if we can’t hear that detail then it’s the weakest link in our job. So working with Bowers & Wilkins has served two ends; not only does it help us do our work because we’ve genuinely found there’s little else on the market that serves what we need but also the variety of clients that we get now. Film mixing in only one element and we have to bear in mind all the other different elements that come through - DVD mixing, plenty of live rock concerts have been mixed in here on the same speakers - and for us they’re the right thing to allow us all to do our job to the detail that we want to do it to. There’s very little opportunity to go back on things so we need to be convinced first time that what we’re doing is right.”
At this point we get a demonstration of exactly what these sexy speakers can do. Jonathan cues up a scene of an independent Canadian film about doping in women’s cycling which we can see on the screen. The scene is the dramatic climax to the film and the score is synth based due, in part, to the budget constraints of the production. To hear the details that the engineers and producers hear we have to get up front to the mixing desk near the speakers. What we get is a Vangelis/Jean Michel Jarre style synthetic sound and Jonathan demonstrates how you can add and remove different elements to make them sound more dynamic. “We hear the kick drum come back in but there’s going to be lots of cycling sound, whizzy stuff, going on top. Then we feed a bit more into the sub woofer to give a little bit more low end which is our secret weapon every time. Two secret weapons are volume and kick [laughs].”
One of the characters on screen then has some dialogue which brings its own complications; “We know that the music may now be a little too much as we can see she’s [the character] talking so to keep the score at that level would involve bringing down the whole thing and then you’ve lost the energy and the dialogue side. So then we take the top off the kick, bring it back down again so you feel the energy of the kick but also some other elements to make it more exciting.”
We then get a peak at a scene from a new Disney Nature documentary from the people behind Blue Planet and Frozen Planet about bears in Alaska. This features music recorded on the mics we saw earlier in Studio One. In the scene we are shown an avalanche that was created for dramatic effect by the filmmakers whilst cutting to a mother and her two bear cubs as they are seemingly in danger from the rampaging avalanche. The composer is George Fenton and we are played the sequence with the final mix which involves some dramatic wind pipes, drums, horns and strings. After we’ve seen and heard how the experts do it we’re let loose on the faders so that we can muck about with our own mix. Needless to say Jonathan won’t be fearing for his job as we’re all frankly rubbish in comparison but it’s something of thrill to get my grubby mitts on a mixing desk at Abbey Road.
After witnessing the process of mixing first hand there’s no denying the importance of these monitors and the fact that Bowers & Wilkins are still building them slowly by hand is exactly why Abbey Road have maintained this symbiotic working partnership with them.
The next time you head out to the cinema or watch a DVD it’s worth noting just how much work goes into the score, how the music in film can shape your interpretation of a scene and how more than likely that film score will have been recorded or mixed at Abbey Road.
If you want to experience Bowers & Wilkins products in person then visit the store locator at http://www.bowers-wilkins.co.uk and follow them on Twitter @BowersWilkins. You can learn more about Abbey Road at http://www.abbeyroad.com/ and Jonathan Allen’s impressive list of credits can be viewed on IMDB.