I got my start recording score music for episodic television a couple of decades ago, when the personal studio trend was just getting going in a big way. Among many others, I engineered music for the ABC series thirtysomething with composers Stewart Levin and Snuffy Walden, and then Northern Exposure with composer David Schwartz. Both started out in fairly modest home studio settings with simple gear, and as the shows and composers gained more success, their studios became more sophisticated. They wrote some of the coolest music I’ve had the pleasure of working on, and I still remember those experiences fondly.
So, I am way familiar with the “standard” model of how most television scoring is done these days, based on multitrack production techniques, using MIDI and audio tracks. Each part is carefully crafted and laid in, one at a time, until it sounds complete. Mixing might be done right then when the cue is finished (if the composer also wears the mixer hat) or at the end when all the cues are finished, in which case it’s often a long late rush for the mixer to finish and make the delivery deadline.
But there is another way to crack that weekly score recording nut, and that’s with a live studio date with live real-time mixing. This may seem like an old-fashioned approach at first, but there are some great advantages, with very contemporary techniques, for the composer with an appropriate musical style and the courage to go for it. It can give you some of your life back, for one thing, with no more red-eyed late nights cranking out mixes, and may even be more budget-friendly then you might suppose. Most importantly, there’s nothing like the excitement of putting expert musicians in a room together; they will almost always give you more than you could ever come up with by yourself, and make it look easy.
Let’s take a look at a couple of recent scores I worked on, and their productions:
Composer Dan Foliart has scored dozens of the most successful shows on TV, so I was excited to get the call recently to work with him on an episode of The Secret Life Of The American Teenager (ABC Family), to record at the famous Capitol Studio B. Dan has always been a big proponent of live players mixed live, and hires some of the best musicians in LA, so I knew this was going to be fun.
Certain types of parts in a score work better performed “live” than others; synth/sample type parts are often better prepared and pre-recorded in advance. Dan’s “synthestrator”, Steve Morrell, records his parts, and also a click track, at home in Logic and then brings it in on a disk on where it’s imported into Pro Tools before the other musicians arrive. It comes up on extra faders where I balance it in with the other instruments.
The mix we hear in the control room is approved by Dan, but there are a couple of levels of safety net. Separate instrument tracks are saved in Pro Tools, in case there needs to be an overdub or a remix is requested. In addition, in the computer session file, the mixed tracks are routed to separate “stems”, divided into sections of the mix such as rhythm, guitars, keyboards, etc. That way on the dub stage, if the mixer puts up all tracks equally then he will hear it as I did, but if he wishes, he can duck certain parts, such as if a melody conflicts with dialog. (“Stems” mixing is often requested by producers; in a future column I will go into more detail explaining exactly how it should be done.)
Now for the cool part! Dan’s well-oiled team of session players made quick work of the cues, adding their unique controlled excitement and sparkle. His band of drums, percussion, piano, bass, and guitar knew just what to do. With a few notes to them by Dan on performance, and to me on the sound, the score was in the can within a three-hour date. In fact there was a few minutes to spare for a couple of Frank Sinatra songs, just for fun! And my work was basically done and off the clock at the same time as the musicians. Ship it! Lunch!
King of the Hill
Composer Greg Edmonson has been scoring episodes of the animated comedy, King of the Hill (Fox), for a few years now. A typical show might have as many as 30 music starts. After spotting, he gets busy writing in his personal studio, and then works with his long-time guitarist,
Craig Stull, recording audio tracks there in Logic.
In order to carefully produce and layer the guitar parts, they are recorded in advance. In the case of King of the Hill, maybe half of the total score is guitar-only cues, often with 2, 3, or more layered guitar parts, electric, acoustic, dobro. The remainder of the score will also feature a small orchestra, usually as the plot gets more intense or comes to a conclusion. On these cues there are also often guitar parts, which are layered in advance (with temp synth orchestra).
With me at the board, we balance and process the guitar parts and lay down a stereo mix track in Logic, as well as an audio track of click, and any other final elements will usually get their own stereo mix track or “stem”. I note the time code at that tracks’ start time (not the same as the downbeat, bar 1 beat 1); this will be used in the next step, which is to place these tracks into the scoring template in ProTools HD.
So, after pre-mixing and exporting those audio files, we switch off Logic and turn to ProTools, where I import them and spot them to the correct time code positions. Note that in Logic there is a separate file for each cue, but in ProTools all of the cues will be in the same single session file. That is so on the scoring stage with the orchestra sitting there no one will have to fool around with opening and closing computer files, and re-assigning inputs and outputs.
This is where I pass the engineering baton to the venerable mixer, Armin Steiner, who mixes the small orchestra (about 20 players) live in a scoring stage or commercial studios, to additional ProTools tracks. There’s no additional time to remix after the sessions; when the players go home so does he. On the dubstage they will have available separate stems of orchestra, guitar, and other elements, if they need to re-balance. If all goes according to plan, they can knock off the orchestra recording in a two-hour session. It doesn’t seem like much, but it doesn’t take long for the magic to happen, and, once again, the added polish, sparkle, and thrill of the expert live musicians playing together raises the vibe and quality of this simple animated show to a new level.
If your score style involves a lot of your own layered performances, or multiple overdubbed tracks by individual musicians, then live tracking may not be for you. But if you can imagine your music played by a band or orchestra, or can adapt your music to that scenario, then why not give it a try? With a good studio and a good team behind you, it’s a great way to quickly make music that’s exciting; how can that not be a good thing?