Wild About Harry

Harry Gregson-Williams, at the bright nexus between sound and picture, manages to make musical magic for a life on and off the silver screen that sounds like it should: GREAT
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Harry Gregson-Williams, at the bright nexus between sound and picture, manages to make musical magic for a life on and off the silver screen that sounds like it should: GREAT

When Harry Gregson-Williams sat down to score The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he’d worked on almost 50 scores over the last 10 years. His vitae ranges from Narnia director Andrew Adamson’s Shrek and Shrek 2, to Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (page 36); from Trey Parker’s Team America: World Police, to video game music for the Metal Gear Solid series. But for Narnia, he quickly spotted a unique obstacle: Set the music for a fantasy world, under constraints of reality. Which is to say, for a fictional place where furry woodland creatures — plus centaurs and fauns — can talk and where he couldn’t set a believable aural backdrop using only traditional composition and familiar instruments. So he hunted down various ingredients to add a suitably fantastic touch to the score and found his match in the kantele, a kind of small box zither from Finland. You can hear it in the score, but you can’t quite place it. It’s like a dulcimer, but lighter. Foreign. Magic. Childlike. Which was exactly the point.

Now take that kantele, add a 120-piece choir and 75-piece orchestra, massive amounts of overdubs, and four months of 18-hour days, and Harry was in the running for a Golden Globe.

Well, okay, maybe that’s simplifying things a little too much.

To start, Harry ardently believes that electronic bells and whistles cannot salvage a potentially dull score. “There’s no button that says, ‘make it great,’ and you push that,” he says. “It’s never, never, all about the technology. It’s about how one can use the technology as a means to an end, to get to where you want to musically.”

Harry’s new three-story Wavecrest Music studio in Venice, California, is his base. There, the aforementioned great power he employs runs along the lines of Cubase SX 3.1 on a Dual Xeon and behemoth mirrored SATA drives. They run MIDI over LAN to Gigas, and use Emagic Unitor 8 and AMT8 for synths and Ableton Live 5. After sequencing, they move audio to Pro Tools, running on two systems — one for adding FX to Gigastudio, one for recording and printing — each with one analog interface, seven digital. They use custom and commercial sound libraries, about 20 different hardware synths, and for recording: an Avalon 727, Eventide DSP4000, Lexicon PCM 80 and 90, and a Manley Massive Passive.

His buddy and mentor Hans Zimmer introduced him to Steinberg’s Cubase about 10 years ago, when Harry left his native England to work with Hans at Media Ventures in Los Angeles. Harry’s musical career began with classical training at age six, 25 years before he first touched a sequencer, so he’s most comfortable working out kinks on the piano.

But, as Zimmer explains, “We’re dealing with recordings. We’re not dealing with a live performance. How can you transcend the limits of a recording, and then make things more exciting?” Harry’s classical training is buttressed by his embrace of technology to create a modern sound, says Hans, who calls him “the first truly modern composer.”

Costa Kotselas is music tech engineer at Wavecrest. “I think that the stuff Harry does is quite electronic and modern,” Costa says, referring specifically to the scores for Phone Booth and Man on Fire. “I think Harry is definitely more into audio editing and plug-ins and effects [than other composers]. VST instruments-wise, he probably uses more of them.”

The scoring process for Narnia began, as always, with Harry’s fingers anxiously tapping a piano, running through scenes and searching for emotional arcs to generate his point-of-view for orchestration. Not a straightforward task. “Many times, one’s actually writing music playing against what you see on the picture, therefore bringing another dimension to what’s happening, as opposed to underscoring the obvious emotion or tension or whatever on the screen,” Harry says. “Before I set sail on a score, there’s usually a couple weeks of panic, thinking, What the hell am I going to do? How am I going to bring something to the party? I spend a lot of time in a state of high anxiety. It’s sort of like getting into a cold swimming pool. There’s no easy way of doing it. You’ve just got to jump.”

But it’s not ‘til after hammering out themes in his head and on his piano, that he wrests the score from its organic phase and into Cubase.

“Once I’ve had those thematic ideas approved by the director, I move to Cubase and start programming and orchestrating my ideas,” translating the final product into a workable demo. “What Cubase allows me to do is to not just tinkle out a little demo on piano and say, ‘Well, when I come to do the orchestra, there’ll be banks of French horns playing that tune. And I’ll throw in a big choir, and it’ll sound great!’ That’s not good enough these days.”

Instead he uses a combination of VST instruments and orchestral samples he recorded with Zimmer, fleshing out the most accurate demo possible. That way, the director can give a quick thumbs-down to the tympani if he’s not feeling it in the battle scene. Or in the better-case scenario, the director loves every track and gives Harry a full-on green light.

“You could play your director your main theme, which you believe in and have worked hard on, and he’ll maybe turn around and say, ‘You know what? That doesn’t move me.’ So, okay, it’s time to move on and find something that does. In one way or another, you’ve got to deal with it.”

Regardless of the director’s gut reaction, a demo’s verisimilitude is key to dealing with movie music. The closer-to-life the samples are, the better the demo will be. The better the demo, the faster orchestration can move. And so on.

Harry elaborates. The demo “may only be samples, but at least the orchestral colors and the emotional content of the cue is there. And with a lot of care and attention and programming, which is what I try and give it, you can make your demos sound absolutely blinding. And then there’s no surprises. For instance on Narnia, where Disney is spending maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars on orchestras and choirs, we don’t get to a point where the director is saying, ‘Well, hold on a second. I don’t think we should have a choir entering there and I’m not sure about how the music sounds here.’ Because of the fairly accurate sounding demo process, these things will have been sorted out already.”

As resident gear guru, Costa helps guide the process from frenetic beginning to frantic end, fixing bugs and rebuilding the studio between film projects. He mentions Reaktor — for both synth and effects — because “nothing else sounds like it. But at the same time, Harry uses all the standard classic synths: Virus, Nord, Supernova. A lot of times, software versions don’t quite sound like the originals.”

And the studio uses “Native Instruments, Steinberg, Spectrasonics — all the big commercial plug-ins. But we also download weird, wacky plug-ins. Some guy makes a set of filters or distortions that’s 35 bucks? We buy them. Or ones you could download for free.”

But essentially it comes down to Cubase for all the creative editing. “Whether it’s a real audio part going through a bunch of effects, or a VST instrument, whether it’s going to be something mangled, effected, treated, or processed to sound like something else — or something that doesn’t exist — Harry’s creative tool is Cubase SX with all the audio tracks, the plug-ins, effects, the VST instruments. That’s really the center of everything. Gigas serve as an orchestra. And Pro Tools serves as a mixer with playback.”

Take the kantele part in Narnia. Costa explains that they sent sheet music and a stereo mix over an FTP server to their Finnish kantele player, who played the part and sent it back. “Once he gets a piece of audio, like the kantele part, he’ll run it through reverbs, delays, all sorts of effects and EQs. Any kind of audio, whether it’s a real kantele player or a drum loop, he’s going to run it through a bunch of effects looking for something that excites him.” Costa doesn’t get specific about which effects they use, exactly, but notes that Harry rarely uses factory presets.

Narnia was a joint effort between Harry and his team: mixer Joel Iwataki, music editors Adam Smalley and Bryan Lawson, Meri Gavin and Toby Chu on score prep and overdubs, and some trusted orchestrators. Harry switched feverishly between fine-tuning the score, conducting the Hollywood Studio Symphony recordings at Todd-AO, and monitoring the choir as it was recorded across the globe at Abbey Road Studios.

Harry: “I recorded the orchestra by themselves. Everything else was overdubbed. And believe me, there were a lot of overdubs.”

“He has a lot more live instrumentalists coming in than I expected before I started working for him,” says Costa. “Beside Harry’s studio he has an overdub booth, which is where a lot of overdubs are recorded. There is a window between the studio and the booth so the person Harry’s recording — like vocalist Lisbeth Scott [for Narnia and Shrek 2], or a wind player or percussionist — can also watch the picture, and Harry can talk back and forth about what he wants.” After fine-tuning a track, they do the final record as-is to Pro Tools, and deliver it to the music editor — who works as a go-between for the director and composer — or the dub team.

Adam Smalley, music editor for Narnia, says the film’s music production process “was extreme in many cases. All the processes that usually happen linearly happened vertically. Writing, recording, mixing, and dubbing were all happening concurrently.” The film itself was shot chronologically; so Harry kept pace with over two hours’ worth of score, composing scene-by-scene to flank the picture. Adam describes Harry as a composer who “works on adrenaline, and that creates this whole speeding train that’s nonstop until you get the last note done. The biggest challenge on this film was that the director is also very musical. It was very rare for the director to clear a piece of music right away. Narnia was the first time he heard a theme and approved it right away.”

“You know, it’s not rocket science,” Harry says. “It is what it is. And I feel fantastically fortunate that I’m involved at the level that I am.”

Hans Zimmer’s take on Harry underscores his characteristically jocular perspective on composition and editing. “It’s playfulness,” Hans says. “[His] inquisitive mind. ‘What would happen if I took those 10 viols that nobody has used in 200 years, and shoved them through a fuzzbox?’ Would it all explode, which would be interesting, or would it create a beautiful piece of music, which would be equally interesting? A healthy sense of anarchy is always very welcome.”

The playfulness and experimentation — be it orchestration or using a homemade filter on a violin track — seems to be working. Harry has three releases for 2006: The Number 23, a “very dark” Jim Carrey movie directed by Joel Schumacher, Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu, and the DreamWorks animated film Flushed Away.

“I went to see King Kong yesterday, and it was only a short line to buy tickets,” he says during a quick phone call from his Venice studio, where he is no doubt grinning on the other end of the line. “And right next door I noticed there was a huge line for Narnia, and people were being turned away because it was sold out. And I had a little chuckle to myself. The lion beats the ape.”