The session starts, and the contractor will come out to announce the project, introduce the composer, and maybe also introduce the director or anyone else important. They sometimes say a few words, and then we are off. After the group tunes, I call the first cue. It is important to call out any version numbers, as sometimes we have more than one version of a cue. I will say it a bunch of times to make sure that everyone knows.
The string principals now look through their music and explain any divisi involving more than two parts and anything else they wish to convey. The percussion players are having a look at their parts and deciding who is doing what. This can take a while as they have to then get their gear sorted. Meanwhile the stage hand will check percussion microphone placements and make a list for the engineer.
In a perfect world I will have seen the score ahead of time, but that is not always the case, I might be sight reading as well! I will quickly look through the score for potential orchestration problems and anything else that might not make sense, Being an orchestrator myself, I always have thoughts on things, but it is important that I respect the project’s orchestrator and not change anything without good reason. If this is the start of a day, I will have the protools operator run the click and track so we can make sure everyones can’s are working. If it is later in the sessions and features a theme or variation on a cue we have already done, I will make sure to bring up any changes we made earlier that might apply here. I will let the players know of any cues (optional parts) we should play.
Once the percussionists are ready I will get word from the principal. I now call the start bar and how many free clicks we get. ‘Eight free to the top of the page’ or ‘eight free to 26’. This must be very clear; I say it several times to make sure everyone gets it. I also check the screen and see that the Pro Tools recordist has the session on the correct bar and has allowed for any meter changes before our first bar.
Often we will not actually start in bar ‘1’. The orchestra might enter the cue in bar 5, or bar 55. In this case, it is a good idea to check with the composer beforehand and see if they want to play from the top and all the way through on the first run. In a rhythm section score we might only play on half of a cue, but the director or composer might want to hear the whole cue for perspective. Due to the way composer’s DAW’s work it is pretty standard that the cue will start in bar 5. The original file would have had 4 empty bars to allow for pre-roll and controller dumps. Some orchestrators leave these blank bars in, I am against this practice. It means that I can not say ‘from the top’. I have to say bar 5, and all of the players have to look for bar 5. This is quick, but it can be avoided by leaving out the blank bars in the score. Of course the first bar will be labeled as ‘5’, but the top is the top!
Once everything is set, I say ‘here we go’ and put my hands up. The Pro Tools recordist presses record, the lights go down (depending on the studio), and the clicks roll. It is important at this moment to again double check that we are starting at the right place. It is important to get a routine going with the Pro Tools operator. Make sure they know who is leading. There is nothing worse than holding your arms up for a long time waiting; the players will very quickly start to ignore you and delay getting ready. I like to say ‘let’s go’ or something like that, then have the operator say to everyone ‘here it comes,’ then I put my hands up, then he starts it.
We are all sight reading, so some things could be a little messy. As we go through I make mental notes of things I need to tighten or fix. Once we get to the end of the run it is important to hold the players and not speak until all the percussion has rung out or the natural room sound has finished its decay.
After the run has finished there will be a little chatter in the orchestra as they sort out any obvious issues. I make some notes while the sections get themselves sorted. I let them do this for a minute or so, but not too long. I will then spend some time working with the orchestra. The art is in knowing what I need to bring up and what they will just sort themselves. Stating the obvious is a waste of time and insulting to the players. While we are doing this the composer will be talking to the director or producer and getting their feedback.
As we work to tighten up a cue, here is an important thing to remember that is not often discussed: notation is great at telling people how to start a phrase but it is not great at conveying how to end one. It is my job to make sure everyone knows how to end phrases. Do they need to go right to the barline, or stop at the ‘and’ of four? Do the celli need to breathe with the horns? Do flutes need to taper the phrase like the violins? These are the things I sort out, along with balancing parts and smoothing dynamics. Players might also have questions about notes or articulations. It is important to have firm and confident answers. I try to foresee these as much as possible and then dictate what should happen as opposed to waiting to be asked. If the players have too many questions or start to offer lots of suggestions, you can lose control and it turns into a free-for-all.
If there are things that don’t make sense or are contradictory, and there is an obvious solution, the players or I can fix them quietly. Never make a big deal about it. The speed and pressure orchestrators and composers work at is quite intense, and we all can have a slip every once in a while. Only amateurs make a big deal about finding and correcting a mistake. If we can’t work it out, I will check with the orchestrator or composer. Often I make a quick judgement call about how something should go. If I am wrong, we will at least know to go the other way next time. If I am not assertive with a direction, we could end up getting nowhere. Pick an answer and commit.
Next I will get feedback from the composer. The usual way of working is that he talks to me and I relay instructions to the players. There are some very good reasons for this. For one, not all composers are well-versed in orchestration or notation, but they all know what they want. They can put it in their own words and then I can translate for the players. In other cases the composer may know the orchestra just as well as me, but they tend to talk very fast and need to get through a whole list of notes, and they may not be clear or allow enough time for the players to catch them all. Yet another reason is that it gives the orchestra more time to sort out little details amongst themselves, like bowing, fingering, etc. If there is nothing to address, they can just take a breather while I get the changes. I will make notes of what the composer says, marking my score in a new color so I know it was a change from the composer. Then I can present this information to the players. If there are a lot of notes, I track them on a notepad so I can tick each one off as I give it to the orchestra. There is nothing worse than the feeling you have as you get to bar 75 remembering you did not give the notes for that section! I don’t tell the orchestra everything I am told, though. If it is something that was obvious to everyone there is no point insulting their intelligence. If an entry in the brass was chipped, a solo was out of tune, or a phrase was missed, those involved will already know and feel bad enough for it, they don’t need to be reminded.
A note on rehearsing
I have often said to people we ‘don’t rehearse, we only record.’ That is not quite true, what I really mean is we record right away, we don’t have a separate ‘rehearsal’. The first run is always done with the click and recorded. But we do often work on the cue either as a whole or in sections. An important note; do not rehearse unless you have to! Often the first run is OK and it will get better on the next take. Just give them the notes and record it again. Studio musicians are amazing at understanding and responding to notes, but make them play things for no good reason and they will start to wander.
This process of making changes is the single biggest difference between a studio conductor and a concert conductor. It just does not happen in the concert world. Conductors can impart their style and massage dynamics, but Deborah Borda never turns to Dudamel and says, ‘Bar 27-32 are just not working for me, can you rewrite it and make it darker?’ or ‘The transition from 37 to 38 is sounding rough, can you smooth it out?’ This sort of thing happens to me all the time and is where being a good orchestrator is ideal for a studio conductor.
The best example I have of this was on a film called The Watch. There was a section that was not working for the director. It had already been rewritten once, and we had tried a few new things, but we were headed into the last hour of our last session and he still wasn’t satisfied. Chris Beck, the composer, called me into the booth and said, ‘These sixteen bars, I need you to re-write the brass, make some sort of pyramid build up’. We sent the orchestra on a ten-minute break and I jumped on my laptop to start working. The librarian was over my shoulder the whole time, making note of what I was changing. He could then decide which parts needed re-copying and which could be marked with pencil. After ten minutes the orchestra came back and eighty-five people sat there while I finished the fix. We then had to record two more cues while the parts were redone. We played my fix and they loved it.
As I mentioned, I sometimes work for composers that do not know the orchestra that well. They can ask for things that are impossible, and it is my job to either break the news to them or come up with a workaround.
The conductor is the pacemaker for the session. I am often pressured by people in the booth to go again right away but I have to think about the players. If we have just played a four-minute cue, we need a little pause to regroup or the next run will not be any better. Brass players may need time to recover their chops, and so on.
So we have now sorted out questions, made any changes the composer has requested and are ready to play it again. This second run is often night and day from the first, as everyone has a better idea of what they are doing. Depending on the complexity of the cue and how much time we have, this may be the last time we play it. In TV and low-budget productions where we do not have a lot of time and the music is simpler, we actually get a lot of things the first time and never play them again. Things will always be better on a second run, but if we don’t have the time, we don’t have it, and we move on.
It is important that I listen for our ensemble. The people in the booth will notice if a phrase starts badly but it is usually only me who decides if it is ending correctly. I also have to listen for noises. We can have close to a hundred people in the room and noises happen. Chairs might creak, a bow knocks a stand, a light or a wall panel pops. The people in the booth might not hear it.
Be it for technical or musical reasons, we start and stop a lot, meaning we often don’t record a cue in one pass. I am often the one that decides how we break things up and then where we start for a pick up. I have to think of how this impacts the orchestra and the editing. It is essential that the conductor understands how Pro Tools works and how the engineer will edit things back together. I have been surprised by the odd Pro Tools operator that has not known that you can do lopsided edits, meaning the crossfade in (to the pickup) can be quick, just milliseconds, while the fade out can be seconds to allow the tail of the previous section.
I often ask the engineers what they think. Some don’t mind a tight edit, while others want to play it safe and have a ‘handle’ (a few measures) on either end. One thing to keep in mind is room decay. Lets say we got to bar 25 OK but in 26 there was a massive clam. You can’t just pickup from 26 as you need some ringing over from the previous measure for it to sound ‘right’. If the mistake was not loud, you might be OK though. If you think you might need several goes at bar 26, I will get a good version up to 25, then stop and allow the room to ring out naturally. Then we can start fresh and when they edit it, it will sound natural.
You have to analyze the score and the edit point. Sometimes it is not as simple as everyone stopping and re-starting at the same time. If parts finish a long note over the section, they might have to play longer while others stop. You also have to decide if things like harp glissandi and percussion rolls are played on the way out or way in of the pickup point. The other challenge is in maintaining the right time and intensity if we start in the middle of a cue. It is very easy to be late on the new start and come in at a lower intensity so I often have to remind them, especially after a few takes when the previous sections have left their memories. This is extra important if you are patching something on another day. We often do pickup sessions, where we come back a few weeks after the initial sessions and re-record material that has changed too much to be edited due or there might be new scenes. If you only need 4 bars, why do the whole cue again? It is my job to make sure the patch fits perfectly.
Whatever the details of a particular pickup are, communication is critical. I keep repeating where we are starting and stopping, as it only takes one person to miss the information for the take to be ruined.