Simon Franglen is a respected British producer, keyboardist, and synthesist. He was one of the synth programmers working with director James Cameron and composer James Horner on Avatar. He had worked with them previously on Titanic.
When in the production process did you get involved in Avatar?
What happened was that James Horner had started the film already before I was brought in. He had his team already put together.
Who was on it?
There was Ian Underwood [Horner''s longtime synthesist], Aaron Martin—who''d been working with James over a period of time, who was there to do more of the technical synth programming—and Simon Rhodes, who was [Horner''s] engineer for the last 12 years. They''d been holed up in a house in Calabasas, [Calif.,] where they had put together a rather ad hoc studio, with the control room being the master bedroom, and the master bathroom being the machine room—I wish I was kidding, but you had a bathroom with about 30 different computers in it—all put together, and then a control room setup with everyone having their own substation feeding into Simon Rhodes'' master Pro Tools rig.
What was your role, specifically?
The idea was that I was going to arrange and create the non-orchestral portion of the score under James'' direction. So I was sort of allowed to be the guy in the corner who said, “Hey, why don''t we try this?” James would write out and sketch out a particular cue, let''s say the flying sequence—which is, I think, one of my favorites on the film. And he''d say, “Have you got any rhythmic ideas?” And in this case, I was then given a free hand to program up what I thought would happen in terms of the rhythmic side of the film.
What program were you working in to do the sound design?
There was only one program; all the programming on the film was done in Pro Tools. All the sequencing, everything.
Did you use software or outboard synths, or both?
Between the three people who provided synthetic [parts] on the film, there''s not a single hardware synth used. It was entirely soft synths. Probably the vast majority of what I was using was [Native Instruments] Kontakt 4.
[Spectrasonics] Ominsphere, Stylus RMX. I used Trilian a little at the end; it hadn''t come out until I was getting to the end of the project. [FXpansion] BFD, I was using BFD2 on some of the stuff. I like [Native Instruments] Battery, especially for drum work. It''s very nice the way I can build things in that. And there''s some little boutique ones like [FXpansion] Strobe. I used a bit of [Native Instruments] Massive. But it wasn''t really a synth score.
So you were doing a lot of sample manipulation: repitching samples and changing their timing?
Absolutely. There''s a bit where you see all the “wood sprites,” as we called them, floating down onto Jake. He''s in the night forest. And I remember taking a lot of things like vocals—I had some ethnic vocals—turning them backward and putting them through [SoundToys] Crystallizer.
What''s it like working with a composer like Horner?
James likes writing long cues. There are some guys you work with where you''re working on two- or three-minute sections and you paste it together. James is one of those guys who likes a nine-minute battle cue. And it''s written out as a nine-minute piece with maybe 350 bars and 200 tempo changes (see Web Clip 1), and a lot of different meters, and so on. So you need to have tools that allow you to adapt quickly.
Mike Levine is <./i>EM''s editor and senior media producer.