That was great, now lets make it better
There is nothing like working with the greatest sight readers on the planet. But even if they get every note right on the first run, the magic is not going to be there yet. My theory is that it takes at least three runs before the real magic happens, when the orchestra gets the correct tuning, timing and balance. For my example let’s assume this is an easy-to-medium difficulty cue. Harder cues would take more time, but this theory holds the same for the simplest of cues, even ones with footballs.
First run – No one has seen this music before; they do not know if they are playing the melody, harmony in thirds, or a counter line; if it is all consonant or if there are some rubs. There may be some questions about notes or dynamics to sort out. One awesome thing the players here do is sort most of that stuff out themselves, only asking or letting us know if there are real problems.
Second run – The player knows their part is right. They play it with no mistakes and now they are listening to the players around them more, noticing who they are with and how to balance the music. BUT, they are doing this as they go, so they have to play the note before adjusting, making mental notes for the next run.
Third run – The players see the whole picture now, who they are with, whether they are in the foreground or background, etc. It is not until this third run that the tuning, timing and balance really come together.
Of course there are many other variables that go into this and we often do way more than three takes especially for longer or harder cues. One thing to note, though, is that you eventually get to a point of diminishing returns. I have been on sessions where the director or composer for some reason wants another take, even after we have nailed it a few times. This can wear out the players. They are human beings, after all, and start to wonder why they have to keep doing the same thing over and over. As their mind wanders so can the playing. This is where the conductor can really help. If it gets to that point, I always ask the people calling the shots what we can do for them to make it better, and if they have no answer, sometimes I will suggest they just listen to the last take again. If they are adamant that we do it again, I will let the orchestra rest, then come up with something small that will breathe a bit of life into the cue but not change it too much, thus giving the musicians a reason to play it again. It could be something as simple as bringing a certain part out or asking that a phrase end a beat earlier. But if they have a reason to play, then they will play much better.
Depending on time and budget, we may not be able to run every cue three times. With great players it will be OK, but I still feel that to get magic the above theory holds.
What to say and what not to say
The art is in knowing what I need to bring up and what players will just sort themselves. Stating the obvious is a waste of time and insulting to the players. For example if a first take has some out of tune playing, you do not need to mention it. Every player in the room heard it and knows. But one thing that you will need to mention is rhythm. It is amazing how an entire orchestra can play out of time, together, and as such not realize it.
I find I spend a lot of time making sure the orchestra locks with the tracks. Even though I am dealing with session musicians, they are classically trained and tend to play rhythms in a classical way. That means, for example, they will ‘clip’ up sixteenth notes. I know this will happen, and i will put money on it, so often I have a little argument in my own head as to if I will say something before or after the first take. Sometimes after the take I just say to the concert master ‘you know what I am about to say’
Without any intervention, it is highly likely that the orchestra could sound like this when playing the above rhythm, it is a little exaggerated, but you will see my point.
It is natural to bunch up groups of notes. It sounds fine when the orchestra is by itself, but when we try and line this up with a drum track that plays all the 16ths in the bar, it is not going to work.
In Example 3., they will bunch up, but will also get to beat 3 and 4 early. I will have to ask them to think about beats 3 and 4.
In Example 4., they will wait a little longer than an eighth on beat 4 and play the sixteenths faster to still land on beat 1.
I don’t worry about intonation on the first read through. We are all sight reading, so no one knows what part they have or who they are with. Players will know when they are out of tune and usually do not need to be told. But if it is not working on the second run it is time for the conductor to step in. I am pretty direct when it comes to saying how it is, but I have found over the years that if you can make your point without putting anyone down, you get a better result. If the horns are not tuning with the celli, instead of telling them that right away, I ask them if they can hear the celli and have the monitor mixer put some cello in their headphones. ‘Let’s take an A’ is a universal expression for politely saying something was not in tune. But if you look at the orchestra when you have them do this mid session you will notice plenty don’t even bother! The next trick if a passage is not tuning is to rehearse it without the click so the players can really concentrate on the pitch. You usually do not have to say anything, and they will work it out. If the problem is a timing one, I ask them if they have enough click.
Striping is when we record the orchestra in sections. There are two reasons for this; in movies it is for balance and mix control, and in games it can also be for layering. It does not matter how large the string section is, brass at fortissimo can drown them out. Sometimes we ask the brass to play a little softer, but if we want the sound of them at ff, we will stripe them.
Some scores, notably those from Hans Zimmer and other Remote Control composers, usually record different sections (Strings, Woods, Brass etc) of the same cues on different sessions, usually strings during the day and brass in the evening. This is quite hard and can lead to some less musical results as the brass have no real idea what they are playing to. With no strings in the room, intonation can also be a problem. The conductor must really be alert and thinking ahead when recording like this. When I work like this, I have to think of what the brass will do and make sure the strings phrase in a way that works with the brass. If there is a big theme played by the celli and the horns, I have to make sure the celli know this and ‘breathe’ with the horns. If the low strings are playing marcato notes and phrases, the brass will need lots of room to breathe and articulate and naturally cut notes short. When everyone plays together, the strings hear this and play with them and nothing needs to be said, but if the brass are not there, the strings will all come out longer and it will be too late to fix by the time you hear the brass!
If there are any changes made, good notes must be taken in order to relay them at the later session. Pacing then becomes an issue for the brass. On a normal session they have the opportunity to rest, but on a brass-only one it is easy to push them too hard and blow their chops, or get them worried that they will. The strings may also play with a little less intensity when the brass are not blasting at them so I soften have to let them know what the brass are doing.
An ideal way to stripe is to have everyone in the room together, rehearse it all together but then do separate passes for each section. If there are woodwinds and keyboards they will play with the strings. Percussion might go with the brass or on their own. This way everyone knows what everyone else is doing and the tuning is not as hard to get together. Chris Beck’s score for Ant-man and the Wasp was recorded like this. We had a large orchestra at Abbey Road. Many cues we recorded all together, but if it was a with loud brass and percussion we would rehearse them all together, then record in groups.
Know the Rules
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 about 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. Some people misunderstand this, thinking you MUST take a ’10’ every hour. You don’t actually have to; you can go longer if you want to finish something, you just can’t go longer than 90 minutes without a break. In London, they have a different union and their contract is for a 15-minute break in the three-hour session. The usual format is to work for 90 minutes, then take it. Not that this actually gives you 15 minutes more recoding time per session than with the AFM.
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, it’s a courtesy 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 string section than you want and you need 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-to-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 happens naturally, we will add it to a list of those phrases and just record that melody on another session, usually the last one.
Read the conclusion in Part 4.