Scoring films used to be so simple. The composer would write the music, pre-production work would get underway; the music would be recorded, then edited, mixed, and delivered to the dub stage. Finally, if necessary, a soundtrack went to the record company.
These days, proceeding in a linear fashion is the exception, not the norm. Take Kingdom of Heaven, for example. With numerous tracking sessions (on two continents) and a seriously edited final cut (the film was slashed by an hour as well as having been continually reworked throughout the entire production process), recording the score for Ridley Scott’s medieval epic was anything but simple. For one, things were in constant flux. “When I joined Kingdom of Heaven, which was six months prior to when a lot of the recording was done, the movie was nearly three-and-a-half hours long,” explains composer/conductor/co-producer Harry Gregson-Williams [Profile, page 40]. “Story lines came and went, and we ended up with not much over two hours.”
Gregson-Williams and his staff camped out in London’s Sarm West studios to track all of the changes and ensure specific scenes were in sync with the director’s overall vision. (Ridley Scott, of course, would approve of cues.) Scenes would change and sometimes get deleted, and Gregson-Williams, who might have just gotten everything in sync for the latest version of the film, would have to work through more changes. “The filmmaker isn’t trying to toy with you or sabotage your best-laid plans,” explains Gregson-Williams. “There were a lot of last-minute choices that affected what I was doing. This is all part of film scoring.”
“We had to respond to the latest cut,” says co-producer/recording and mixing engineer Peter Cobbin. “The composer in these situations is keeping an eye on whether we need to do new cues, if we need to rescore or readjust, or can we get by with what we have done.”
It seems from the very start, the film was decreed adventuresome. “Harry comes from a rather classical background, which for this film is essential,” said Ridley Scott. “But there is a way to mix it up.”
Gregson-Williams worked from freshly recorded tracks to build an orchestral mock up through samples. (Initial recordings at Sarm West were used to collect raw material to be edited by Gregson-Williams, his Los Angeles assistant Toby Chu or London technical assistant David Walter.) “A sample might simply be a recording of a cello section all playing one note, then a note above, then another note above, then loudly or softly,” Gregson-Williams says. “Then I can play my keyboard as though I am playing a whole section of cellos. It has never been my way to sit down by the piano and fly through a cue and say, ‘This is where the brass is going to come in,’” Gregson-Williams continues. “I write my music and then program it.”
“Harry would take away [choir and viol sessions] and I would do submixes of those and sometimes straight to stereo for Harry to continue writing with,” explains Peter Cobbin. “He could then use that to build up other cues.”
“I inherited a Pro Tools session with something like 160 tracks playing together just for the percussion,” says Pro Tools programmer Simon Changer, who was present at most of the recording sessions for Kingdom of Heaven. “They needed somebody to put that in a form that Harry could manipulate and use so he could continue to write. I would chop up all of [these tracks] for him and bounce it into stereo so he could have it in Cubase, which he writes on. He could then manipulate what I gave him and go back and conform everything he was doing in Cubase with the original multitracks.”
“VIRTUAL” RECORDING SESSIONS
Principle recording and mixing took place at London’s Abbey Road (Studios 1 and 2) from January through March. Additional work was done in Istanbul, Turkey, (supervised by contributing violinist Hugh Marsh), as well as Air Lyndhurst in London. At Abbey Road, Peter Cobbin was recording with a Neve 88 RS routing to Pro Tools. “There were upward of 100 cues, some of which were 200 tracks wide with various orchestras, choirs, viols [Consort of Viols dubbed Fretwork], programming [samples], percussion, synths, and solo instruments,” says Cobbin, who was recording and mixing for over 50 days.
Cobbin used what he calls his “virtual recording” method. “I always record with different layers of microphone settings, so I still have some control when I come to mixing it,” Cobbin says. “Even though the choir was overdubbed separately to the orchestra, they are sitting in the same chairs as the first violins, sweeping right around to the cellos. I would use the identical microphones for the choir as I did for the orchestra to help this homogenous feel.”
Cobbin’s three-layer microphone technique was composed of spot mics (placed three or four feet away from the source; percussion instruments might be miked within a few inches), main perspective mics (10 to 12 feet distance from the source), and “ambiance” — a layer for which Cobbin places three mics at varying distances apart from each other and from the sound source. (For this “wide screen” perspective, a choir might require the left and right mics to be placed six feet apart; for an orchestra, a distance of 20 to 30 feet apart.)
What mics were used? “I used a number of different mics as spots and for my main perspective, it is a combination of the Neumann M50 valve mics. I listen to those to achieve what I call the ‘main balance’ of what is happening in the room,” says Cobbin. “I should be able to listen to the seven mics in my main array and be able to determine how the whole thing should sound. In other words, as I co-produce with Harry, I will give him immediate feedback while we’re recording as to whether we need to change the balance in the room, whether the second violins could actually play up a little bit as compared to the balance of the first violins and so on. I am a stickler for achieving the best possible balance in the room at the time, because you can achieve more by getting the sound right in the room than if you try to manipulate it later.
“Once I am much further out — for the third perspective — I like using some of the European mics like Shoeps and B&K omni pattern microphones that don’t color the sound so much but give me a much more straight up sound of room,” Cobbin says. “I like using those microphones that have a great signal to noise ratio. Obviously, the sound is taking much longer to travel to it.”