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.
I will explain the divisi plans to the players. Since Covid hit, all stands have had a number on them, which makes life easier when giving directions on which part to play. 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 Pro Tools operator run the click and track so we can make sure everyone’s cans are working. If we are already a few sessions in and a cue features a theme or variation on material 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. I will also remind them that until I ask for a cue, they are to be ignored. Once upon a time in LA and London that was a given, they never asked, but due to some orchestrators over-cueing and then having many played, players have started to ask and this wastes a lot of time.
I will have them run the clicks so we can make sure all of the ‘cans’ are working and the level of any tracks is correct for whatever we are recording. Depending on where you are, lots of players might have brought in their own headphones so this is an important step.
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, something like ‘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 hear the whole cue from the top and go 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 (or 9 etc). The original file would have had four empty bars to allow for pre-roll and controller dumps. Some orchestrators leave these blank bars in, but I am against this practice. It means that I cannot say ‘from the top,’ and instead I have to say bar 5, and then 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!
Is it ‘8 free’ or ‘2 bars’?
I go with the number of free clicks unless we are in 7/8 or something less standard then saying 2 bars makes sense. The main reason for going with a total number and not the bars is that we often the time signature where we start is not the same as the previous bars. You always want to go with what ‘feels’ right for what you are recording. Often there is no harm in having a weird number of free clicks, but for sure at faster tempos, it is easier to count and feel 8 than 7 if it is a 4/4 and a 3/4 or 9 if there was a 5/4! It is often a good idea to remind the pro tools operator that you are starting ‘off the grid’ or they might just instinctively go back 2 bars and you will have a train wreck. Players also might need that reminder too. There are bar counters all over the place in some studios and if they see the counter not in the right place, they might say something or not coming properly.
Here we go
Once everything is set, I say ‘here we go, 8 into 5’ 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, and finally they start 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 composer will be in the booth chatting with the director and orchestrator, getting whatever notes they have for me together.
As we work to tighten up a cue, there 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 bar line, or stop at the ‘and’ of 4? 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. Much of this can be done with your hands as you go. 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.
Mistakes in the score
If there are things that don’t make sense or are contradictory, and there is an obvious solution, the players or I will 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, but in a way that does not make it sound like you are calling out a mistake, just a question. 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.
I had an incident once where I had written a low Gb for Violin II. The principal, who happened to be a friend, asked how I wanted bar 25 to be phrased, so I looked at the score, said ‘oops’ to myself and answered ‘As a Bb’.
Next I will get feedback from the composer. The usual way of working is that they talk 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 always 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.
Look up and down
One thing I often find myself forgetting is to remember that there is a whole orchestra out there, even if they are a long way from you. It is easy just to get cosy with the strings and forget everyone else when giving changes. It is common that a note change in the cellos might also effect the bassoons or one in violins the flutes. Good studio wind players are listening the whole time, but it helps to look up and down the score to see who else a change will effect. And of course if the sessions are split, make note to tell the brass of the change later.
A note on rehearsing
I have often said to people ‘we don’t rehearse, we only record.’ That is not quite true, but 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 their focus may start to drift.
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 the CEO of the LA Phil 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 one of the ways 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.
Giving the changes to the orchestra can be tough. Studio players in LA and London are used to it and all have a pencil and will mark everything. I am still surprised that players in other places that do a lot of sessions will not have a pencil ready nor mark everything. I have to remind them that even the simplest thing needs to be marked in case we come back to the cue in a couple of days, it might even be someone else on that stand. Players that have never done sessions before will NOT be used to being given new notes or major changes, it does not happen in the concert world, so be patient. I was conducing a legit orchestra for an orchestration workshop once and the look I got when I asked them to change some notes could kill a weaker individual.
It is hard in the heat of battle to always get it right and I will admit to screwing this up myself, but it really helps if you give changes in this order; first call out the player or section, then state the measure number, then give the change. Any other order and you will end up with frustrated looks. It really helps to look at the players body language while giving notes, you should be able to tell if what you are saying is making sense. If it is a phrase, consider if someone nearby has it in their part already and can pass it to the player to write it in. If it is more than a handful of notes, it is best to give instructions to the librarian and have them print the part again. Even in LA, giving new notes can be torture and go wrong very quickly.
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. We will all listen for noises. With all of the people in the room, and microphones everywhere, noises happen and can feel louder than they should. Chairs or headphones might creak, a bow knocks a stand, a light or a wall panel pops. It can be tough to break it to the players that a perfect take was ruined by the noise of someones finger leaving the string! I often wish we had some sort of roster where each player got to spend some time in the booth and hear just how loud these noises can come across and then they can break it to their friends that we have to do it again!
Be it for technical or musical reasons, we start and stop a lot, meaning we rarely 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. So long as the final product sounds great, there is no special prize for doing it all in one take.
Know Pro Tools
I think It is essential that the studio conductor understands how Pro Tools works and how the engineer will edit things back together, it helps you decide the best way to break things up. I have also been surprised by the odd Pro Tools operator that has not known how to ‘cut’ clicks or 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. Let’s say we got to bar 25 without problems 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 of or on the way in to 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 or that covers new scenes. If you only need four bars, why do the whole cue again? It is my job to make sure the patch fits perfectly.
It is really enlightening to look at a fully edited Pro Tools session! You will be shocked at just how much tightening and cutting happens between takes. But you will also learn what is possible and this will inform how you work with the orchestra and enable you to be extra efficient in how you manage your takes and pickups.
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.