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 (and I mean tiny, not like the concert hall). Never conduct ‘along’ with the click. 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.
Look and act the part
When you walk out in front of an orchestra for the first time, they are very quick to get an opinion of you. If they think you know what you are doing, they will follow. If they think you don’t they will just look to the concert master and each other to get through the session or concert. Remember the orchestra really has no idea what else might be going on in the cue’s pre-records or in the screen, so if they just run off by themselves it might sound and feel OK at the session, but it will not mix well later.
My advice is to be firm, with a smile, and have a quick answer for everything. Even if it is wrong, you will find out soon enough and can say ‘Oops, I think I went the wrong way, let’s try this.’ But be assertive in your directions. Always own up to your mistakes; they all know if you screwed up your pattern. While some problems you can address using the standard tricks like rehearsing on the stick to fix intonation, or asking if they have enough click when it is out of time, you will find other issues that require you to be specific and call out a player or section. It is better to do this than to just keep running it hoping it will sort itself out, which it won’t if it happens three times. Maybe there is a reason and the players can tell you, and then you can work out how to make it through the passage. But letting the same mistake happen over and over will just waste time and frustrate everyone else that hears it, but can’t do anything about it.
It helps to look the part as well. I am not suggesting you show up in a suit and tie, unless that is part of your usual wardrobe, but look good, aim for one notch more dressy or cooler than the orchestra. Is that a button down shirt or blouse, a scarf, a blazer, or a leather jacket? Each person is different, but I can tell you it is not shorts and a T-shirt!
I see many studio conductors with their heads buried in the score, never looking up. Worse is when someone is standing there mirroring big patterns (doing the same shape with both hands) and not looking up. What is the point of you being there? You can get so much more out of the orchestra if you connect with them. It is a two-way street. If you want them to look and pay attention to you, you must look and pay attention to them.
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 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 let’s 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 Pro Tools 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 program 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. When 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 on 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 94-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!
While I have said I do minimal gestures and stay out of the way with the orchestra, leading a choir is very different. I have found you get the best results when you do ‘perform’ a little more with them. They really do respond favorably. I have also found it helps to take the breath with them before the first note, it’s a cue they are used to looking for. It should go without saying that you do not use a baton with the choir and your hand movements are more gestural. This part is similar to how I have been doing the orchestra in recent times.
For a more in-depth discussion of the considerations unique to working without choirs, check out this post on the topic.
How to become a studio conductor
I often get asked for advice on how to break into studio conducting. It is a tricky question to answer. Ultimately, I think it is similar to any job in the film world. There are many ways in and it would seem that no two people’s journeys are the same. Let’s look at a few people working today as freelance conductors and see.
Bill is one of the biggest names in our business. He is an arranger, orchestrator, and composer working at the absolute top of the industry. Who does John Williams call when he does not have time to do something, but needs it to come out like him? Who conducts John’s sessions when he wants a break? I think this says it all.
Susie Benchasil Seiter
Susie has worked in music preparation at Disney for many years. She is also a successful orchestrator and now composer, and is often on the road conducting live to picture Disney movies or being a rockstar with Evanescence.
Pete is one of the most successful orchestrators of our time. Newton Howard, Beltrami, Shaiman… need I say more?
Conrad is also one of the top orchestrators, having worked with both Williams and Desplat. He is a go-to for studios and composers when a big project needs guidance. When Howard Shore needed someone to go to New Zealand and produce the score for the Hobbit movies, he sent Conrad.
Anthony has been a very successful bassoonist in both the concert halls and studios of Los Angeles for many years. He is also the most ‘legit’ of us all, conducting real orchestras unrelated to film music, a rare crossover!
Nick has composed many scores but is most known for his decades-long relationship with Hans Zimmer and many other Remote Control composers.
That is me! If you are here, you might know a bit about me already. But my path to studio conducting came through orchestrating. I really wanted to conduct, but I had no experience. It is a classic tale, but I got my shot when another conductor could not make a trip to London. I was already going as I had orchestrated the project and the rest is history.
There are others, and I am not counting composers such as Lennertz, Eisler or Tyler who conduct their own scores as they can hire and fire themselves! But what you will notice is that none of us are JUST conductors, we all have been very successful in a complimentary part of the industry, which is what got our foot in the door.
Workshops and College Courses
I am not aware of any college courses where you major in studio conducting. It is often taught as part of a degree in film scoring or media music or as part of a legit conducting degree. Depending on how much money you spend, you will get more time with an orchestra, usually conducting your own ode to Hans Williams. There are also many workshops all over the world that are worth checking out, but they all tend to focus more on the conducting part while the track is running, not the work done between the takes that I have talked about. I think a lot of the workshops and courses out there are missing PART 2 where you have to do all of the things I’ve mentioned in this series of articles.
So if I were going to run my own program, what would it be like? I am glad you asked. This could work standalone, or actually be really cool as an addition to one the existing ones.
9:00 Meet and greet over oat milk lattes and vegemite on toast.
9:00 Meet and greet over oat milk lattes and vegemite on toast.
9:30 Review my blog articles about studio conducting.
12:30 Lunch (avocado toast followed by more lattes).
1:30 Review my blog articles about orchestration and notation.
4:30-4:45 Conducting patterns and baton technique, but we might finish early.
4:45-12:00am Drinks, maybe dinner, a few shrimp on the barbie. (This is the only joke in this post, we do not actually do that in Australia.)
8:00 Vegemite on toast, and lattes.
8:30 Travel to scoring stage.
8:55 Stand in front of the studio sign for a selfie, make an insta post that says ‘today’s office’.
9:00-10:00 See the scores for the day. I will prepare them, you will not have written the music, you will not know until your turn which one is yours, and there will be too many for you to even mark them all up! There will be a few mistakes and challenges for you to navigate. Some impossible transitions you will need to work out how to record.
10:00-1:00 Orchestra session. You will get 30 minutes to work on and polish the cue. I will play the role of the composer and give you notes. I will have instructed players to make certain mistakes that you will have to find and sort out. There will be a section to re-write on the spot. The Pro Tools operator might start in the wrong place, maybe the pre-records will have slipped a bar, who knows! It will be the recording studio version of an airplane simulator when things go bad, or competing on American Ninja Warrior.
1:00-1:10 More selfies, this time with the players. Be sure to have your baton so Ma and Pa and Auntie Audrey know you conducted at a Hollywood studio (I am not a total killjoy).
1:10-5:00 DeBreve at the pub with some prawns and players who I will bribe to tell you how you REALLY did and not just say you were amazing (like they usually would so you’ll hire them again).
In conclusion, 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, and 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, so players will always say nice things to your face and not so nice behind your back. 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 all of that 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. And remember, unlike in the concert hall, it is not about you. The composer is there and maybe the orchestrator. Your job is to use your skills to make their vision, not your own.