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. People often get a little strict about this, thinking you MUST take a 10 every hour. You don’t actually; you can go longer if you want to finish something. In London, they have a different union and their contract is for a 15 minute break in the 3 hour session. The usual format is to work for 90 minutes, then take it.
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 second or third flute will double on the piccolo. Common ones like that are usually already built into a budget. But what if someone suggests doing 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. A 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 around this and have less on the rhythm, saving some for the melody, but if we need the power of the whole section, the solution is to play over the same section twice, with different parts.
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. Orchestras on the continent, in Australia, or non-union in the United States do not have any restrictions on overdubbing. But for union sessions, unless you want to pay everyone twice, the solution is to record each pass on a different session. This requires some planning! A good music editor will help, but I also have to be on top of this. That means that going into the last two sessions on a project, you have to look over everything that needs to be done and make sure anything that will have an overdub is in the second last session, thus allowing for the overdub in the last one. Going into overtime does not get you a free pass to overdub either, I wish it did!
One thing we often do on Chris Beck scores is to record ‘sweeteners. ‘ One great thing about his scores is that we usually do them all in, and rarely do overdubs, as he only writes for ‘one’ orchestra. As I have mentioned we do sometimes stripe the sections, but if it is just a phrase that we need to bring out more than we naturally can, we will add it to a list of those phrases and just record that melody on another session, usually the last one.
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, the players will just stop paying any attention. I can not stress this enough. Great studio players will often end up ignoring the conductor and making it work. So being a bad conductor is not a deal breaker in the studio, but it is a missed opportunity to elevate the music and efficiency of a session.
A common mistake I have seen is to beat more ahead as the bar goes along, then do a big upbeat and wait for the first click again, somewhat simulating the blow-up things you see outside car dealerships!
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 also have to be careful not to get excited and hit any microphone stands or the podium. It is the worst feeling to blow a take, how hard can it be to not hit anything?
I will often rehearse ‘on the stick,’ meaning without the click track. This is a great way to have the players concentrate on the music and what is around them instead of the click. If the music is loud and rhythmic I nearly always 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.
There is a lot of romance associated with free timing. Everyone thinks the music is better this way, because John Williams does it (but not all the time). 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 with punches and streamers. Understanding how Pro Tools and editing work are actually a more important skills these days.
That said, the theory behind 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 and often better. 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 are and sometimes the people in the booth do not have the patience or budget for this! Thirdly, as you are floating the time around it makes it much harder to edit takes together, so you ideally have to get it in one take. 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 often off in their own world in the back behind baffles. None of this is a problem with a click track, but can be a challenge for 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. Up until a few years ago, and still a little today this is done with a system called the Auricle. It is a DOS based (yes, floppy disks) program. The computer chases timecode and click from protools and sends an overlay to the projector and monitors with the streamers and punches. It also sends out a new click. There are easier ways to do it now, several programs can generate them. The DAW Digital Performer, standalone Streamers and video playback program Video Slave are all options.
I mark my score with big lines where I will have the streamers. 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.
What about just giving the click to the conductor? I do not recommend this unless you are really experienced and it is something I have only ever done once. If it is simple, then you could do it without the click, if it is tricky and you get off, it can be hard to bring it back.
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. This is quite easy to do, you have a visual reference of the tempo from the counter ticking over and you can see if you are ahead or behind. It is very easy to move your ictus ahead so the orchestra lines up on the counter and after a bar or two you forget you are doing it. Sight reading, conducting with just streamers and some punches is very hard. You end up needing to look at the counter anyway, so if you are going to concentrate on that, you don’t need the streamers. That said, if you REALLY know the music and the orchestra is rehearsed, then streamers and punches can work really well. David Newman is a master of this in the live to picture concerts he does, and of course his own scores!
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 then went with me. When the click came back in, we were right on. If you do free time, 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!
He was efficient
The conductor must be clear, concise and confident. If they are not, they will be ignored and the players will find another way to get through the session. They will avoid looking at you, instead look to each other. How you play this ‘game’ is one of the hardest things to work out, at least it was for me! When I started I often came across as too assertive or aggressive. Some players appreciated my no nonsense attitude while it rubbed others the wrong way. I have worked hard over the years to refine my approach, smooth out the edges and find balance. I have been lucky to have some amazing players pull me aside and give me advice. It can be hard to get the truth out of them though. As the conductor you are seen as part of the management, someone who can have players hired or fired, players will always say nice things to your face. Getting past that and finding players that will tell you the truth is not easy.
The number one compliment I get, and what my tombstone will read is ‘He was efficient.’ I don’t mind this, I don’t want to waste time and money, I am being entrusted by a movie studio and composer with a large orchestra and a large budget. Managing and being efficient is a huge part of the job.
I hope you now can see that the skills involved in being a good studio conductor are many. 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 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.
You need the skills of a composer, orchestrator, recording engineer, and Pro Tools editor. This is why it is rare to be ‘just’ a studio conductor. Most of us that conduct for others are orchestrators and composers as well. Some of my colleagues include Pete Anthony, Ed Trybek, Timothy Williams, Gavin Greenaway and Nick Glennie- Smith.