Sound investment


Six acclaimed composers discuss that one piece of recording equipment they can't live without

While the image of a composer surrounded by an orchestra may be a common one, in truth, scoring for film and TV can be a solitary pursuit made all the more challenging by short deadlines and tight budgets. So it comes as no surprise that most composers embrace any tools of the trade that help them do their jobs more easily and quickly. We talked to several top composers about the recording equipment they log much more time with than they spend with the first violinist.

Marco Beltrami

Credits: Lionsgate's "3:10 to Yuma," Fox's "Live Free or Die Hard," 2004's "Hellboy"
Precious cargo: Digital Performer 5.12

"The piece of gear that I rely on most would have to be my sequencer program of choice, Digital Performer (currently version 5.12). My usual scoring approach typically begins with developing themes at the piano and then developing the film's sonic palette. This consists of not only figuring out which orchestral instruments to utilize but also how I can create new sounds designed especially for the film. This generally starts by recording instruments into Digital Performer and then manipulating the instruments to fit the mood of the film. For "3:10 to Yuma," I wanted to use instruments that would have been around in the mid-1860s, (so) I bought a 19th century pump organ and an upright piano. After recording these instruments into Digital Performer, I then utilized the numerous audio manipulative opportunities the program provides. From simple editing, time stretching or adding effects such as echo or distortion, I can not only customize sounds for the film as a whole but further into each particular scene. The program is always developing as well. When I first began using it in 1987, it was simply known as Performer and was used as a sequencer for a few MIDI keyboards. With each release, it began to give new potential, continually expanding on what already seemed like an infinite universe of possibilities. The options have become almost overwhelming, and I find myself needing to confine my options to certain techniques and plug-ins to give myself parameters to work within. Digital Performer also provides great options which allow me to demonstrate my scoring ideas to directors by using its ability to import video files which play along synchronized to the music. Also, if the director can't meet at my studio, I can quickly export an MP3 file, which can be e-mailed."

John Debney
Credits: (2004's "The Passion of the Christ," 2005's "Sin City," 2001's "The Princess Diaries")
Precious cargo: Reason and Stylus synthesizers

"There are so many tools we have at our disposal now as composers. One of the greatest has been the advent of "soft" synthesizers. I use a wide array of these, and some of my favorites are ones I use when faced with a time crunch. Reason and Stylus are two that come to mind as great synths that are very user-friendly. I also love a program called Live. I use these a lot. I first discovered Live a few years ago when composing the score to "The Passion of the Christ." My engineer and I recorded many ethnic performances and were able to manipulate them easily with Live. We recorded literally hours of material that I then was able to cut up and manipulate to create a rich sonic environment. We did so much musical sound design that brought an ethereal quality to the score. Truly, the sky is the limit when being able to create new sounds and textures these days. It is the quick manipulation of material that truly opens the doors to creativity. This is why I love some of these programs. I love working with amazing performers that bring their own unique artistry to projects. Using new technology enables me to make quick and creative decisions when dealing with short schedules. It is in the time saving and sound manipulation that this gear shines for me."

Alexandre Desplat

Credits: (New Lines' "The Golden Compass," Fox's "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium," 2005's "Syriana")
Precious cargo: Bowers & Wilkins speakers

"I first used them at Abbey Road Studios with John Temperley, a sound engineer who introduced me to the British scene. He's gone now, unfortunately. He recorded (2006's) "The Painted Veil"; that was our last project together. He passed away very quickly from blood cancer. He was a very experienced engineer, and he had these Bowers & Wilkins British speakers. It was the first time I could actually hear a symphony orchestra with the sound I was hoping better speakers should deliver. The first project we worked on was a British movie called "The Hour of the Pig." It was a Miramax movie with Colin Firth in 1992. (It was released in the U.S. as "The Advocate.") That was the first time I had those speakers. I bought some for my house, a few sets. That's what I use when I'm in the studio now.

Harry Gregson-Williams
Credits: (Miramax's "Gone Baby Gone," 2005's "The Chronicles of Narnia," 2001's "Shrek")
Precious cargo: Native Instruments' Reaktor

Between the ages of 7 and 13, I toured Europe as a boy chorister with St. John's College Choir. On each tour we would sing in perhaps 20 different venues -- from Notre Dame to Chartres Cathedral to Yehudi Menuhin's Music School in Gstaad, Switzerland. These places always had one thing in common: amazing acoustics. Such diverse acoustics and the myriad different moods and emotions that can be created by manipulating the space in which any given sound is perceived to be in remain of real interest to me. For instance, the natural ambiance of Abbey Road Studio One was perfect for the orchestral recording and symphonic sound on scores like (2005's) "Kingdom of Heaven" or (Dreamworks/Paramount's) "Shrek the Third" -- big and lush. Conversely, on a movie such as 2004's "Man on Fire," where the score was smaller and dense with grungy drumbeats and dark synth sounds, I recorded the lead solo instrument (acoustic guitar) in a small, padded overdub room, which had no "sound" to it whatsoever. The dry signal that I was left with could then be placed anywhere I wanted by using artificial reverb and other fun effects, thus giving me the ability to create a whole new environment for this beautifully played yet somewhat "unplaced" sound. As on many other similar occasions, this was a moment for me to reach for my favorite toy: Reaktor. Reaktor is a VST (virtual studio technology) instrument and effect that I use within my sequencer, Cubase SX. I love it and would miss it horribly if I didn't have it. It is a mercifully stable piece of software, and I use it in a variety of ways -- as a sound generator, a groove box, a sampler and often as a granular synthesizer. But it is for its unrivaled ability to create all sorts of weird and utterly believable effects, particularly long and cathedral-like reverbs, that I would never want to leave home without it. It is my go-to box of tricks, frequently surprising me with its depth and scope.

Russ Landau

Precious cargo: Neumann U67 microphones
When I found out that these were the mics I was hearing on Beatles records, I rented a couple and was knocked out by their distinctive sound, both present and warm. I started snapping them up. With most everything else in my studio being digital, I rely more and more on vintage outboard gear to help me achieve the depth of sound I want to hear in my recordings.I first used a pair -- I own 11 of them -- on my string session for the "Fear Factor" theme. I crammed 13 guys into a pretty small, boxy-sounding room but still managed to get a good-sounding recording. The thing that really won me over, though, was when I had to sing a song I was demoing for my producers myself and the U67 actually made me sound good! It's also the aesthetic of the mic itself, the design, the glowing orange light on the power supply, the works, that is so appealing. To spend 12 hours a day in the same room every day writing, my surroundings have to inspire me. I love seeing the mic up on its stand. I love thinking that once upon a time, one of my mics may have been at Abbey Road or Capitol Studios and who knows what magic has passed through its windscreen!

John Ottoman
Credits: Fox's "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," 2006's "Superman Returns," 2005's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang")
Precious cargo: Yamaha ES-8

Sometimes too many toys can actually take away time from composing music, so I try to keep it simple. But a little voice inside often tells me when it's time to upgrade to find new sounds for inspiration. There's a plethora of advanced libraries and programs, some of which I've bought for my Gigstudios and V-Stacks, but it's often the simple things that become my favorite "pets." Aside from an ancient Roland strings patch I'll use forever, right now for me, believe it or not, it's my controller keyboard. I decided to upgrade a couple of years ago to the Yamaha ES-8. Things always have a way of happening for a reason. Right after I bought it, I was hired to write the score to "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," a great little film. I knew it would be different for me because I wanted the music to have a retro quality. Lo and behold, the ES-8 became the mother lode of percussive and groovy sounds I needed to layer in with the orchestra. Having sound patches easily at my fingertips better facilitates my ideas, and given the time to write scores these days, access to sound ideas has to be easy for me. If I have to do a bunch of loading of discs, etc., I get out of the creative zone I like to stay in. There was very little money to record "Kiss Kiss," so many of the percussion, electric pianos, etc., from the ES-8 were in the final score. When I look back, much of the inspiration and success of that score was due to this keyboard. Since then, I've gone to it for a variety of synth textures in scores, most recently for "Rise of the Silver Surfer," where I wanted some synth sounds with a more vintage, quirky quality. I have components in my studio that I would say are evil and others that are my friends. ES-8 is a friend, and being that my fingers are on it all day, that's good.