A Few Thoughts on Film Music
Film music has always fascinated me. As a life-long deeply avowed movie fan I must admit my weakness for film music and its ability to render me emotionally defenseless. The rising recapitulation of the title theme led by Horns and Trumpet, supported by strings and percussion is certain to break down whatever is left of my disbelief as I surrender myself completely to the words and images irrespective of their strength, plausibility or durability. I must also confess that after forty-odd years of song and n-media composition that the most moving emotional experiences I have ever had derive from film rather than recorded music.
This may, perhaps, result from an inability to abstract from song lyrics the depth and pith of what is being proposed or, alternatively, represent an echo of my formative classically immersed childhood where approbation was meted out more stingily and where the performance bar was considerably higher than other forms of popular music. In other words, snobbery.
It has taken years and years of practice to shed the pretensions of the pure classical experience and learn to embrace the sheer physical/emotional connection contemplated by pop music. The journey towards reconciliation has forked and branched continually, providing a rich palette of tools and ideas with which to craft film music.
To some extent film music has weathered post-war pop music unscathed. It is just as likely that the film music listener will hear Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Holst or Britten in the score as a pounding dance groove or, more accurately, one will hear both side by side one cue to the next. This is not to say that pop has not exerted a weighty influence on post-war film composition as its influence is obvious and extant whether it’s the theme to the Pink Panther or a found music cue in Apocalypse Now.
An interesting fusion of pop and ‘classical’ music is found in the work of composers such as Hans Zimmer where the orchestral components themselves are founded on pop tonality and form. Depending on one’s focus this may be attributed to the post-modern style of John Williams where traditional forms and themes were recast as iconic musical figures such as those found in Star Wars. Other composers such as Giorgio Moroder were enlisted to provide contemporary pop sensibilities to films such as American Gigolo and Top Gun to provide a seamless interface between found pop songs and the score. Music Television, especially the arrival of MTV and music videos, has contributed to this compositional approach
Contemporary pop orchestral composition has taken on a life of its own. Composers such as Zimmer can craft an orchestral soundtrack from pop forms and tonalities. The soundtrack from The Rock is a good example where the title theme is a confluence of simple major/minor transitions and the melody itself an exercise in studied pop simplicity – a recurring rhythmic pattern dominated by dotted half notes followed by two eighth notes over sixteen bars. There are, of course, some variations in the final eight bars but the overarching concept is founded squarely in pop melody sensibilities. The melody itself is harmonically simple and straightforward: Major and minor thirds, fifths and the odd seventh accompanied by equally simple chords comprised of unembellished major and minor chords. There is great power and beauty in Zimmer’s work, and, in additional to what has already been mentioned, his use of synth bass ostinatos and massive Japanese Okedo Daiko drum sounds (credit must be accorded Brad Feidel for his pioneering use and treatment of these instruments in Terminator 2 although Jerry Goldsmith also explored these elements in Planet of the Apes) adds sheer visceral drama and power. These elements provide unambiguous signals as to what the audience is about to experience as evidenced in the remarkable third installment of the Batman series.
Contrast this with, say, Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores for North By Northwest or Psycho and one cannot imagine a broader compositional gulf. Herrmann’s scores demand a great deal of the listener and ask the audience to activate their reasoning centers unlike Zimmer’s request to turn on the Limbic System.
How can such a musical range even exist? The answer is simply a function of what the film is asking of the audience. The Rock is asking the audience to be swept away in an action fantasy and any filmic element which pulls the audience from the intent is calamitous. There is no place in The Rock for the atonality of John Cage or the hypnotic contemplation of Philip Glass whereas it is unimaginable that a film such as 2001 could possibly benefit from a Lalo Schifrin or Henry Mancini pop treatment.
Of course any discussion of film music (even one as cursory as this) cannot conclude without at least some mention of Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith is arguably the most prolific and important of all film composers. His CV goes on and on as do his innovations and contribution to the craft. His influence is immeasurable and the film composer cannot escape his shadow.
Recording in General
I have been in love with recording since around 1980 when I started working as a tape operator in a 16-track recording studio. Since then I have always studied the crafts of songwriting and recording. Over the years I have collected tons of gear but over the last twenty years or so I have focused on great sounding gear, some vintage, some new. Part of the rationale for collecting old gear is nostalgia but some of the old stuff has magic and continues to represent the sonic state of the art. To be fair, and not to lionize all things old, there was plenty of junky gear back then which sounded awful (anyone remember Sound Workshop?), most of which has completely disappeared over time. Some gear is quite new or ‘NOS’ based on older designs such as the Manley ELOP and Portico. The bottom line for me is if it sounds great it doesn’t matter where it comes from or how old it is.
(Speaking of Portico, I believe it is destined for ‘legendary’ status. In many cases the 5032 is more usable than the 1073 and I believe it will develop the cachet now reserved for the 1073.) Speaking of legendary, check out the Tube Trap section below.
I am always interested in doing sessions with people who are committed to the craft. This usually means old-timers like me who come from an analog studio background and like to spend time and energy on performance, sound quality, production, and arrangement without rushing. It is true that this can be more expensive than other approaches but it is, in my opinion, certainly the most satisfying way to make a record. I prefer to collaborate on production and arrangement, mix old with new and patiently build up a record.
I recently retired my PARIS rig after many years of long and faithful service. My current rig is built around Cubase 6.5 and an Aurora Lynx converter. Cubase is extremely feature-rich and reasonably stable. As with every DAW it has its challenges but generally I am happy with it. There are some things I would like to see changed such as not resetting all the audio busses when the converters are offline and more consistency in the MIDI editor. The outboard CMC controllers are effective and I love their modularity. I am running six of them – Three fader modules, a transport, channel and AI module. Kudos to Steinberg for having delivered a truly modular controller solution which actually works (the photo only shows three of the controllers – the FDs were added later).
The control room is carefully designed (at least in terms of working within the framework of what is permissible given the limited physical space) and equipped with ASC Tube Traps, custom quad diffusers and Helmholtz resonators. I monitor through three systems – JBL 4430s, Yamaha NS-10s and Urei 809′s. The Ureis and JBLs have been re-coned and I have re-stuffed the crossovers with better caps. This provides a good range of options, especially in terms of ensuring mixes translate to the real-world. I have a pair of original Mackie HR 824s sitting on top of the 809s. I am not using them at the moment but they still serve a useful purpose – they extend the baffle for the JBLs and Ureis and reduce enclosure diffraction considerably thus improving low-end response.
The JBLs are powered by a Bryston 4B, the NS-10s a Bryston 3B, and the Ureis a Carver C500 lovingly restored and optimized by my good friend Nick Soudas (Nick is one of the best amp artists in the world IMO). Nick has also refurbished two other Phase Linear 400s which I use from time to time with the larger monitors.
I added some ASC 16″ and 13″ full rounds to the existing arsenal last year and the room is sounding great. The sweet spot is incredibly wide thanks to both the treatment and the 4430’s biradial horns and I encourage you to stop by and listen to your mixes.
A Word About ASC Tube Traps…
I am an acoustics freak. For longer than I can remember I have been mesmerized by the physics of sound sloshing around in rooms. I have dabbled in developing my own solutions and products and have a fairly rich understanding of the dynamics. But nothing, and I mean nothing, compared to what the folks at ASC (Acoustic Sciences) know. The lead physicist/engineer at ASC is Art Noxon. I have known Art for almost twenty years and he is truly plugged into the deepest reaches of the acoustics cosmos. I have the good fortune of working with some great electrical and software engineers in my day job so I know extreme engineering when I see it. Art is one of those ‘it’ guys whose ideas and intuition result in products which bear themselves out when applying the most rigorous physical measurements available. What is so amazing is that his ideas come seemingly instantaneously and I have yet to come across a situation where the idea did not equate to a brilliant product. If this all sounds gushy I do not apologize. Art’s products are, simply, the best acoustical treatments ever made. Yes, EVER made. I have had the good fortune of experiencing scores of great-sounding studios built by designers such as Tom Hidley and can state, unequivocally, that Art’s rooms sound as good if not better and cost about a million dollars less.
The Tube Trap is probably ASC’s best-known product and the things are simply magical. I defy anyone to find a review of Tube Traps less than glowing. Bad reviews don’t exist because they stand alongside the great and protean audio products of our time. The serious audio community, known for its biases and factional sectarianism, agrees. I will put my control room up against any other, anywhere and I have ASC to thank. Imaging, clarity and a true, discernible fast and tight bottom are the rewards. Art – you are a genius. Chris – you are and have been a great friend. Thanks to you both.
If you are looking for acoustical solutions, just call ASC.
Check out their site, salivate, imagine, dream and see if you can hold yourself back. I doubt it. If you don’t believe me just ask Bruce Swedien.
My latest single called ‘Lips of Bloody Awful Truth’is doing quite well on Jango. If you want more information please visit caseypechet.com
Keith Emerson’s ‘Tarkus’ suite is the high-point of progressive rock composition. I have arranged and recorded a montage of ‘Tarkus’ available here Tarkus
Please email me or call 403 988-6277 and ask for Casey for more info.
vintagebin audio recording is located inCalgary Alberta Canada
3 x CMC FD Controller
1 x CMC TP Conroller
1 x CMC CH Controller
1 x CMC AI Conroller
Aurora16 Channel 192 Converters
2 x Neve Portico 5033 EQ
2 x Neve Portico 5043 Compressors
2 x Neve Portico 5032 Mic Preamps
3 x Neve 1272
2 x Neve 1073
2 x Sytek MPX-4A Mic Preamps
Yamaha SPX 900
1 x Dolby A NR
Roland Vintage Keys
2 x Phase Linear 400
1 x Carver C500
1 x Bryston 3B
1 x Bryston 4B
2 x JBL 4430
2 x Urei 809
2 x Yamaha NS-10
Roland Alpha Juno
Nord Rack 2X
1 x Neumann U87 (circa 1984)
2 x Neumann TLM103
2 x Neumann KM 184
1 x AKG D112
1 x AKG C-1000s
1 x Sennheiser MD 421
Lots of 57s and 58s