Wherever you record, there are going to be some rules for the orchestra, and it is important for the conductor to know and understand these. What is the break schedule? What time do we end before going into overtime? Having a feel for this helps with the pacing of the session.
In Los Angeles, we record under AFM contracts. One good thing with this is that everything is clearly stated and everyone knows what is going on. At the session start time, everyone is seated and as soon as the time starts we can tune. There is a ten-minute break every hour. This actually means a three hour session typically ends ten minutes early as that is the last break. If we have to check something or make changes, we can move the break earlier. The contractor makes sure everyone is back from the break in time, and there are also clocks everywhere that count down to the end of the break. There are often surreal moments where we are all sitting for a minute just waiting for the break to end. Technically I can not give them musical instruction on the break, as they are on break! There is no problem asking someone on the break about a passage or warning them what is coming up, but if I have a note to give to the group, courtesy is to wait until the break is done. There are clocks everywhere so we can see when the session ends as well. If you go over by even a second, you are into overtime. Depending on budget, that may not be a problem, so always check if overtime is approved.
A double is when a player records on a second instrument, for example the 2nd or 3rd flute will double on the piccolo. Common ones like that are usually already built into a budget. But what if someone suggests they play a passage on the tubens instead of the horn? If that goes through, you could have eight people filling out a doubling slip and asking for 50% more for the session, and that could add $1000 to the bill. So it always helps to ask the contractor before the session what doubles are already budgeted and if we are allowed to use any others.
Union sessions in the United States and London have strict rules regarding overdubbing. There are two main types of overdubbing. Most common is when we need all or some of the players to perform new notes over any part of a cue that they have already played on. An common scenario for this is with the strings on an action cue. We need them all to play a motor rhythm, but then we need the melody to come in as well. One could orchestrate this and have less on the rhythm, but we might need the power of the whole section so the solution is to play over the same section twice. The other type is also called ‘doubling’ or ‘stacking’. This is when you play the same material two or more times. A common scenario would be when you have a smaller than you should string section and you want to make it sound bigger or fuller. See my Stacking post for more information. Stacking woodwinds and brass as a whole is not done, but sometimes we play a tune again to be able to make it more forward in a mix. Orchestras in on the Continent, Australia or non-union in the Untied States do not have an restrictions on overdubbing.
99% of what we do is on click track. We are also sight reading. The most important thing is to have a clear downbeat. That is what the players look for when their heads are buried in their stands. I try to do a very clear pattern, a tiny bit ahead of the click. Never conduct ‘along’ with the click. Players are used to seeing the beat before they play and even though they are on a click too, it looks ‘right’ for them if the conductor anticipates the beat just a little. It is possible to make them play behind or a little in front by adjusting where I am in relationship to the click. If the conductor is all over the place, all will not grind to a halt, but the players will just stop paying any attention.
My left hand is quite busy turning pages. When not doing that it helps with shaping and cueing, but a lot of that I have to do with my right hand and my eyes. One technical challenge is turning pages in very quiet sections. It is very easy for the paper to make noise and ruin the take.
I will often rehearse ‘on the stick’, but if it is a rhythmic cue I clap or tap time. If it is loud and rhythmic I use the click track for rehearsals. Players prefer this as it is easier for them to play together. See my discussion of free time below to see why.
While you need to know your patterns and how to cue, they are not the most important skills in the studio. More important are the abilities to communicate and make changes, to rewrite on the fly, and to grasp quickly what it is you are being asked to do. You must understand how the analog orchestra fits into the digital scoring world.
There is a lot of romance associated with free timing. Everyone thinks the music is better this way, because John Williams does it (though even he uses a click for action cues). Most workshops and courses spend a lot of time covering the idea of conducting without a click. It is historically significant, and a good skill to have, but the amount of attention it gets is far out of proportion to its importance in the current recording world. I am as busy as any conductor these days and I can count on one hand the number of projects where we have free timed.
That said, it can lead to some great results. Taking the click track out of the picture lets the players listen to each other more so tuning and phrasing is easier. The problem is that it can take a little more time to record this way than to use a click. For one, the players have to read a cue a few times before they can really look up enough to follow the conductor precisely. Secondly, the conductor needs a few goes to learn where the tempo shifts might be and thirdly, as you are floating the time around it makes it very hard to edit takes together, so you ideally have to get it in one. In reality, it is just not practical for 95% of the music in modern film scores. As already discussed, it is quite rare now that the orchestra is the only element of a cue, so we usually have to line up with the other tracks and that does not work if you are floating all over the place.
The last thing that makes free time not so practical is the way we set up the orchestra. We spread the sections out quite bit to allow for better microphone isolation. At a recent session there was a five-meter gap in front of the horns, and the percussion are always off in their own world in the back. None of this is a problem with a click track, but can be with free time. They can not hear each other as they can on the concert stage. It can be done, as players are masters at adapting, but it takes time for them to work this out and we often do not have it, or the composer or producer does not have the patience to allow us to get it to that point.
But lets say you do get to do it; how does it work?
In the old days they would draw a line on the film to make a streamer. You find the place you want to hit and start on one edge 48 frames earlier, drawing a line that goes to the other edge at the point you want to hit. That will project as a line that takes two seconds to travel across the screen; this is the streamer. 72 frames gives you 3 seconds. They would then punch a hole in the middle of the film at that point (a ‘punch’), and the result is a flash as the projector shines through the hole. Everything is digital now, so we simulate these streamers and punches with computers. The most common way is with a system called the Auricle.
I mark my score with big lines where I will have the streamers, then I tell the Auricle operator where I want them. Don’t skimp here; the more the better. I still use the click track for the count off as that gets us started at the right place and at the correct tempo, but after that they go away. The feeling is like stepping off a cliff or realizing you are standing in front of the band in just your underwear. It is very peaceful when the click stops. The one big change is that your beat has to go ahead, as it does in the concert hall. This can do your head in for a bit if you have been on a click all day.
But here is my dirty secret: the streamers look pretty and are fun, and they do help, but I really just follow the Pro Tools counter. We had a session recently where the clicks were dropping out for some reason, but I just watched the counter on my monitor and pushed my beat ahead, and the orchestra went with me. When the click came back in, we were right on. I can push and pull, if I am behind the counter, I know I need to slowly speed it up. Just don’t do what I did the first time I did this for real. While conducting a ninety-four-piece orchestra at Fox, at one stage I got so behind that I just dropped a beat to catch up. It turns out that it’s very hard for almost a hundred players to jump at the exact same time. I would recommend avoiding this ‘solution’ at your own sessions.