Putting Tsotsi Together - EMusician

Putting Tsotsi Together

We left our L.A. studios for about six months and recorded the score in Johannesburg, South Africa. It wasn’t an easy thing to do logistically, but it was so much easier to be where they were editing the picture — not to mention that we really wanted to work with local musicians. The main components of the score are
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We left our L.A. studios for about six months and recorded the score in Johannesburg, South Africa. It wasn’t an easy thing to do logistically, but it was so much easier to be where they were editing the picture — not to mention that we really wanted to work with local musicians.

The main components of the score are vocals (lead and choir), strings, percussion, and pad-like ambience textures. We felt the score called for a warm vocal approach to make the trajectory of the main character’s story arc believable. The human voice is also the main component of South African music, so it made sense. Because of a limited budget, we decided to hire the best vocalists we could find and an 8-piece choir in lieu of real strings, programming the strings using East West’s string sample library.

We decided from the onset that we would make all our own sounds, with the exception of the vocals and strings of course. We raided my dad’s garage and used everything from engine plates to hubcaps and metal sheets to create the textures and much of the percussion. We hired a percussionist and recorded some ourselves and made a fairly eclectic but extensive loop library, which we used as a starting point in many of the compositions.

We also made pads with multi-layered recordings of our voices and pitched them down a couple of octaves and added some EQ and compression. Same with recordings of whirley tubes (like pool pipes that you swing above your head to create a sound) and guitars with a low string tuned down to its lowest workable pitch. All these pads have an inherent motion and sound organic. We also made a wineglass choir and used that for some rhythmic patterns.

Getting Vusi Mahlasela to contribute his highly original and lyrical voice was an absolute scoop. He was brought into the project at a point where we had scored the majority of the scenes — minus vocals — and so we were able to put him in the booth and see what he came up with over various takes. Most of the time, the first take captured beautifully the lyricism and emotion required to elevate the scene. We created an EXS24 library of various phrases that we were then able to work into the score.

We enlisted an instrument designer in Johannesburg, who found us some interesting local instruments that we used in the score. We recorded using a umakhweyana (zulu bow, similar to a Brazilan berimbau) and a small resonating marimba, as well as some odd shakers and things.

Everything was recorded in a rented studio space in Johannesburg. We each had a separate setup in adjacent rooms. We used a Neumann TLM 103 for all the vocals and close percussion stuff, and a pair of AKG 414s for the room mics and for the choir. These all went through a Buzz Audio mic pre and an Avalon stereo compressor. We both used MOTU 828 audio interfaces running Logic and Live, along with Phatmatik and the Waves plug-ins.

The score was mixed at Gravy Street Studios, by Casey Stone. We employed a Lexicon 9600 to sweeten the sound of the sampled strings, and to bind the score in a transparent and definite space. The splits were then sent to the final mix at Chris Fellowes Studios in Johannesburg, and ported to 5:1 during that process.

As uncredited music supervisors (and music editors) on the film — and having had the opportunity to work on it during its conceptual stage — we found ourselves in the fortunate position of being able to design and pace the musical arc in the film from the intense and upbeat kwaito (South African hip-hop) that dominates the first act — right through to the spiritual (almost religious) choral music that brings the journey to completion.

In general, the musical landscape we tried to define was all about small. Take one sound and give it place to breathe. This is how the movie develops and it mimics, in a way, the photographic concept of the movie, which is all about somewhat static, but large, framing that captures the emotion of the characters without the camera bobbing up and down à la MTV. The sophisticated and mature style of editing needed a score that played to the subtlety of the story telling, letting it unfold in an unhurried and organic fashion.