Perspective: A Forum for Film, TV, and Media Composers

 

1) GREG, WHAT DOES THE JOB OF A SCORING MIXER ENTAIL?  I BET THERE IS A LOT MORE THAN JUST RECORDING AN ORCHESTRA AND MIXING THE SCORE, RIGHT?

 

When you mix a film there are months, even years of scrutiny before I might ever see the session. You are there to service the filmmakers’ vision. I’ve found as a mixer you can become somewhat of a liaison between the director or producer and the composer, ensuring that everyone’s vision remains intact all the way to the dub stage. On occasion the craft of mixing a film entails closely matching the composer refs, as they have gone through a stringent approval process. In these instances, you have to navigate the fine line between making their music better, but not too different.

In the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to literally mix hundreds of film trailers. This genre requires a completely different skill set even though it’s the same arena of cinematic music. On trailers, versus films, I am able to bring way more of my personal taste to the mix, often times taking on the role of producer.

Some projects you have more creative freedom, some you are there to technically accomplish someone else’s vision. Personally, I’m okay with either. If there’s anything I can say to those who want to engineer, mix, or even produce, it’s all about being an asset to the people you work with. In this industry, you have to offer something unique and innovative. To me, as a score mixer it’s about making the composer’s life easier. This can take the shape of consulting through the entire technical and production process; pre-production, score coordination, all the way through recording, mixing and delivery to the dub stage.

 

2) CAN YOU PLEASE TALK ABOUT THE LATEST PROJECT YOU FINISHED FOR ‘AUDIOMACHINE’? HOW DID YOU PULL OFF SUCH AN ENORMOUS AND COMPLEX FEAT?

Producing and mixing trailer music has been an incredibly creative outlet. I was involved early in pre-production. We agreed on a somewhat smaller-sized orchestra than audiomachine normally uses based on the style of the music (14/12/10/8/6, 8 woods, 16 brass, 4 perc, 48 voices). For this one we traveled to London and worked at Abbey Road. When tracking, I chose to have the whole orchestra in the room at the same time, this creates a more musical environment. The band can hear the articulations, dynamics and intonation prior to recording, and the brass doesn’t get slammed with a triple forte overdub session. We chose Abbey Road for many reasons: the room is insane, the musicianship is world class, and they insist on doing things the proper British way (my assistant there made me wait until my tea steeped properly before I was allowed to drink it, and he was right). After the jet lag subsided, I mixed at my private studio.

On this release there were 37 showpiece trailers from some of the most talented composers I have worked with in the industry. When you are mixing 400+ tracks down to 2, it’s imperative that you have a vision of what you want a piece to sound like before you begin then start at the top left corner and blast. As I understood each piece and spent time with it, I would live broadcast the mix to the composers in their own studio as well as video conference and screen share. That way the artist is involved and I get instant feedback. It’s also a chance to see their faces when they hear their music performed by London’s finest at Abbey Road for the first time… One of my favorite parts of the process:)

 

3) CAN YOU OFFER SOME TIPS TO COMPOSERS WHO ARE IN HOME STUDIOS MIXING ‘IN THE BOX’? WHAT ARE SOME SUREFIRE METHODS THAT MAKE A MIX ALIVE AND BREATHING? WHAT ARE SOME MISCONCEPTIONS?

 

When you’re mixing prepare all aspects of your session technically before you become creative. Also, go listen to live music whenever possible. No compressor or reverb setting can take the place of knowing in your mind what an instrument sounds like in a live setting. The piece and theme will tell you what it wants to become. Enhance what’s already there instead of trying to force a piece to become what it’s not. Make your mix choices intentional and deliberate. Once made, trust your instincts and move on. Having said all that, I see a lot of artists get bogged down with the technical. I once gave advice to a composer by saying, “Turn off your compressors and write more music. Don’t let the tech distract you.” At the end of the day, your aesthetic and not your gear will guide you through the process of creating a masterful mix.

When I approach a mix I look at each section and visualize where the main focus should be. For me, cinematic mixes boil down to one of three things: emotion, power or energy. For instance, if you have an emotional section, too much power can skew the focus. If you want power, too much energy can minimize the impact. A good mix allows the vision of the piece to hit the listener immediately and viscerally. It’s crucial to present the piece in a way that will convey the clearest emotion.

As far as a mix breathing, resist the temptation to smash the buss and call it good. Ride and automate most everything individually, get your mix to sound amazing while not using any limiter until your mix is 90% there… Then, if you like, smash it into oblivion. I will say, people I work with are surprised to find out that I listen at an incredibly low monitor level while producing such loud powerful music. I only crank it up at the final stage to hear how the sub harmonics are translating.

 

Oh, one last thing… get a sub woofer 🙂

 

4) CAN YOU COMMENT ON THE ISSUE OF ‘THE LOUDNESS WARS’? BASED ON YOUR VAST EXPERIENCE, WHAT ARE SOME METHODS THAT BALANCE MUSICALITY AND LOUDNESS?

In the trailer music world I’ve had supervisors say they move right past an overly squashed distorted mix, and others who say that louder and brighter prevail. I have also heard of a situation where a trailer piece went final based on the overly processed MP3 composer mix, but when it came time for stems for the final, the post mixer could not in any way make the stems sound like the stereo. This became a substantial problem.

In some productions I’ve been involved in, we made conscious decisions to not compete in the loudness battle. My clients enjoyed the unmastered mixes fullness and depth of field. When we overmastered the mixes the back end collapsed. These ended up being some of the most successful releases of all time. However, I would have to admit in the past year or so, my own taste has leaned towards brighter and louder. The methodology I spoke of earlier where you start a mix without any mastering software, seems the best option to me. You will find a great amount of musicality in your mix keeping this in mind. Don’t get me wrong, I process and saturate all over the place, however I concern myself with overall loudness after I’m finished being creative.

 

5) YOU ARE ALSO A PRODUCER/COMPOSER. DO THESE ATTRIBUTES INTERTWINE WITH BEING AN ENGINEER OR DO YOU WEAR EACH HAT SEPARATELY EVERY TIME?

 

They all intermingle and inform one another. I was recently working on a project where my client hired me to find and schedule the musicians, book the studio, design the work flow, run Pro Tools on the stage, produce, then mix and master. That project was all hats on the entire time. Then there is Virtual Reality, where I recently started a company that specializes in immersive sound. It’s been the next step in creating impactful sonic experiences, and has pushed me to discover completely new hats to wear. With any soundscape I’ve created in VR, I essentially became part beta tester, part scientist . But when I’m filling one particular role, I always take a step back.

The incredibly talented people I produce tracks with in the trailer world rely on me to do whatever is necessary to give their piece the best chance to be licensed. That might mean re-conceptualizing the piece by way of re-orchestrating, re-playing percussion, adding parts, editing parts, chopping, distorting, completely changing the focal point, and so on. Having anyone do this to your music can be uncomfortable to say the least, however I assure them I don’t operate with any of my own ego involved. My overwhelming desire is to develop their theme into what they were perhaps trying to achieve in the first place, but were too close to hear. Artists I work with have learned to trust me, and for that I am incredibly grateful.

Writing has been a natural progression of producing. My clients gave me the encouragement and opportunity to move beyond production. I have newfound mad respect for those who tackle the blank page. The place where working in multiple roles becomes tricky is when you mix your own music. Being one step removed emotionally from a piece you wrote can have huge benefits.

You have to stay inspired, which means constantly innovating and adapting. My overall philosophy in music production is push yourself into uncomfortable situations that force you to grow and evolve. If you are prepared to receive and welcome challenges, you will rise to them.

 

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