Home is where the art is
For these four busy composers, writing music for film and television is a stay-at-home job.With advances in digital recording systems, more and more film and TV composers are choosing to work primarily from their custom-built, state-of-the-art home studios. While the reasons vary -- proximity to family, the ability to record music whenever inspiration strikes, crippling Los Angeles traffic -- the results don't: Some of the most exhilarating film music of the past year was written by composers who never set foot outside their front door. Following is a look at four successful composers who produce world-class film and TV music from the comfort of their own homes.
About an hour and 35 minutes into 2001's "The Fast and the Furious," there is a scene in which two cars race over a railroad crossing as a freight train rapidly approaches. Although it's difficult to hear over the roaring car engines, an orchestral string arrangement starts with what seems to be random notes, then it morphs into a major chord. But if one listens carefully, one will hear something very odd: whispering.
Yes, whispering. Composer BT (Brian Transeau) took a bold step when he decided to make muted conversation between members of the string section part of his score. But as the composer himself points out, he has been defying musical expectations for years. "I started listening to classical music at 4," he says. "By the time I was 8, I was listening to (Bela) Bartok and atonal compositions." It was in his early teens that BT discovered two significant music-art forms that would define his future. "When I was 13, I discovered break dancing and the Vangelis score in (1982's) 'Blade Runner,'" he says. "I watched the film three times that first day."
The Home Studio: Although most of his work at the house is computer-based and doesn't require much space, BT has turned the majority of his second-story living room into his main studio, with an edit room on the first floor. "I like the sense of an open work space," the composer says, surrounded by plenty of windows and vertical support beams where walls once stood. But there is another, more personal reason for working at home: his young daughter Kaia. "I tour so often, and even though she travels with me, I like to be at home with her as much as possible."
The Gear: As the center of his studio, BT uses M-Audio's Radium61 61-Key USB MIDI Controller to drive his system, complemented by an array of Pioneer Pro DJ gear. He has both a Macintosh G5, running Logic Pro with Digidesign's Pro Tools HD hardware systems, and a G4, allowing him to run older software and hardware interfaces. Additionally, there are multiple AMD Dual-core Opteron computers running Native Instruments' Kontakt 2 with EastWest/Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra and Symphonic Choir libraries as well as Quantum Leap Colossus and Stormdrum and Native Instruments' Kompakt. The space is nothing if not versatile. For his score for 2004's "Monster," BT wanted a more organic sound, so vocals, guitars and percussion overdubs were done in various room at his home. For this, he used a variety of mics, some of the many guitars hanging on his wall and Neve microphone preamps.
New Projects: BT's current project, "This Binary Universe," is a two-disc combo of computer-generated animation incorporating the composer's classical and remix influences. Appropriately, the project ends with a piece of music that was written for, and features, his daughter Kaia.
That One Piece of Older Equipment He Still Uses: BT still adores his heavily modified Roland TR-707, the Roland TR-505, the Roland 505 and the Boss DR-550 MkII. "Anything with that many switches has to sound good," he says with a laugh.
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To get an idea of what composer Sean Callery's busy daily routine is like, one must keep in mind that he currently composes music for not one but three major TV series: Fox's "24," NBC's "Medium" and CBS' "Shark." With a four- to five-day delivery schedule for each show, Callery found that working from his detached, 1,700-square-foot home studio was the best way to go.
The Home Studio: Callery had only one requirement when he decided to base his operations at home: The studios had to be in a separate building on his property. That way, he says, "I give myself the impression of leaving for work in the morning, (followed by) a leisurely walk back to my home after a long day."
The Gear: After the recording has been completed -- which can be "instrumentals only" for "24" or vocals and organic sounds for "Medium" -- it's on to mixing. Currently, those mixes are done in one of Callery's two studio rooms on Digidesign's ProControl consoles. For a mixing reference, he and engineer Larold Rebhun, music mixer on "24," rely on Genelec 1031s, but they always listen back on a pair of legendary Yamaha NS-10s to get an idea of how the mixes transfer to the home TV speakers. Callery sees the technological improvements during the past decade as the reason to remain in his home studio. "With the computers getting faster and the sampling software programs sounding better, I can deliver broadcast quality audio from my home," he says. For final mixing and delivery, he, like many others, found the gravitational pull too great not to be involved in Pro Tools, the postproduction standard.
The Process: "As each new episode of a show is delivered to me, I'll watch it once through, the same as a viewer," he says. "I usually start writing my melodies on the Yamaha Disklavier. I was trained on the piano, and that's the most natural way for me to start any project." Then, it's on to the Synclavier for musical sound design, followed by the conversion of the MIDI tracks into audio for the final recording into Logic. "Once I've committed to audio from MIDI, those parts are completed, and I'll keep moving forward," he says.
That One Piece of Older Equipment He Still Uses: Callery says he can't live without the Synclavier. "I use it constantly for sound design, as I have in the past for several shows," he says. It has become his library of sound effects, both organic and musical.
It's rare to see the same name appear in movie credits twice. Rarer still is the case of John Ottman, who does double duty as both film editor and music composer on some of Hollywood's biggest projects. Given such a daunting workload, Ottman says the decision to work from home was a necessity. "Instead of spending all my time on the freeways driving back and forth to studios, I realized that working from my home as much as possible would be more productive," he says.
The Home Studio: Upon entering Ottman's new home, which he built because he needed more work space, one immediately realizes that the vast, acoustical living room alone could accommodate 35 string players. But it's in the back portion of his home where Ottman creates the rough versions of his larger film scores and the final versions of his smaller projects. The room is centered around his Yamaha Motif ES8 controller, the E-Mu 5000, Roland JV-1080, a number of Pro Tools 192 I/Os and a full complement of recording gear. So, with all that extra available space, does he ever record in the great-sounding living room? "Not yet," he says with a laugh. "It's too close to the kitchen, but on occasion, I'll record an overdub in the studio's office. On lower-budget films, such as (1998's) 'Incognito,' I can mix the score here at the house."
That One Piece of Older Equipment He Still Uses: Ottman's favorite old piece of gear is the Roland D-70 synthesizer. Propped vertically on its side behind his equipment rack, the synthesizer stays plugged in, ready at all times for what Ottman might demand from it. "The D-70 has some great classic string sounds that cannot be replicated," he says.
When you turn 16, and your Dad, who happens to be composer-arranger Hans Wurman, hands you the keys to the car and the keys to his home recording studio, you get a pretty good idea of where life's going to take you. "As soon as I could reach the keyboards, I was trying to play," Alex Wurman says. "In fact, my dad had a Moog synthesizer serial No. 2 in his studio." Twenty-three years later, Wurman does most of his work in his own home, and he wouldn't want it any other way. "Working at home allows me to accomplish more in a given amount of time, work in a comfortable environment and see my family on a regular basis," he says. Indeed, Alex called on the "feeling of family" for his themes in 2005's "March of the Penguins."
The Home Studio: Wurman's backyard studio is equipped to handle recording, mixing and scoring. "I'm using Logic, the (TASCAM) GigaStudio and a G5 as the core of my recording system, with the Yamaha KX88 keyboard controller at the center of my MIDI system," he says. Wurman then chooses from an array of software, including Ableton, Native Instruments and Spectrasonics to create the sounds. His Pro Tools HD hardware is complemented by MOTU 2408mk3s and Glyph Technologies hard drives. "But when I'm recording vocals, guitars, etc., all mics usually go through my set of Brent Averill API mic preamps." The recording process is monitored through Genelec 1031As.
For mixing, Wurman moves to the other side of his room, to the twin Yamaha DM2000 mixers, allowing a total of 96 channels. For his listening reference, Wurman uses a surround 5.1 set of Genelec 8050A speakers. "I have found that the mixes transfer extremely well to the film soundstages and the theaters," he says.
To complement this recording equipment, the walls of Wurman's garden studio have become a gallery for paintings by Pierre Zinenberg, his wife's cousin.
The Process: Wurman's piano is always ready to record. Although it sits 150 feet from his studio, the piano is regularly miked with either an AEA R88 Big Ribbon or a Royer SF-21, running through Gordon preamps. Additionally, the piano is hooked into a MIDI record and playback system that records not only the notes being played but how hard the keys are being hit. "Then, I'll use the MIDI information to trigger other instruments. In the case of 'March of the Penguins,' what many don't realize is that a good portion of the film's score is not an orchestra but actually synthesizers -- synthesizer parts arranged in an orchestral fashion."
That One Piece of Older Equipment He Still Uses: In addition to a few of the original RAT and MXR guitar foot pedals that he plugs into his console, Wurman is still partial to the Roland JP-8000. "It has a nice warm sound and lots of knobs," he says. And, for that end-of-the-day release, Alex maintains a stable of motorcycles, his favorite being the Suzuki SV650.