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It's the creativity that counts

Adrian Kerridge looks at how technology has altered the creation of film scores on area where art is still as important as technology:

Music has always been an integral part of the cinema experience. In the early days, before optical or magnetic soundtracks became reality, Jean Harlot and Harold Lloyd lived and loved to the strains of a live pianist or organist, or in some cases an orchestra in the cinema pit. The composer's role was to interpret the action and emotion of each scene and woo, scare or thrill the audience with the music.

Today, digital audio gives the theatregoer CD quality sound particularly in theatres equipped with THX systems. Large widescreen pictures and superb digital audio make an all-encompassing cinema experience. Dolby Surround Sound and Dolby's development of digital audio for motion pictures opened up a whole new world to the film industry. Other manufacturers were quick to follow with their own digital release formats not wanting to miss out.

Recording music for a motion picture soundtrack is not as straightforward as it seems it takes more than just booking an orchestra into a studio and applying the results to the final cut of the film at the dubbing or rerecording stage. For today's recording studios the process between the two end points is highly involved. The technology is getting progressively diverse, new techniques have to be learnt alongside more traditional methods, and this need for a broad technical understanding has to be balanced with a well developed musical awareness by the scoring engineer.

In the UK and US, prior to the late 70s and early 80s, music scoring to picture was carried out by 35mm projection to the big screen, with the projector(s) running in interlock with the magnetic recorders running dialogue playback, FX and clix and the analogue multitracks (latterly digital 24 track recorders). The ticker ran off a second projector to give the scene a real time read out on the screen.

At CTS we were still using live projection until around 1988 often at the request of composers and producers. Cubby Brocolli wanted live projection for the scoring of his James Bond films, as did Alan Silvestri for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? However, this soon changed with the introduction, in the early 80s, of 'bug free' synchronisers, which employed time code at 25/24 frames per second, with the Americans preferring the use of 30 drop and non drop frame timecode to match their NTSC TV system.


Music scoring changed almost overnight, opening up opportunities that previously didn't exist for many studios providing they had the capital to invest and the expertise. Scoring could now be done by video playback the cutting copy being transferred to tape and TV monitors became the norm for visual reference. Today, using widescreen plasma monitors and, for example at CTS, high resolution digital widescreen projection clix and streaming can be generated electronically. We specially developed an electronic software driven streamer with punches and clix, all instantly movable within the video picture and with a selection of variable streaming lengths at the touch of a button. Gone were the days a music editor had to score the print physically with a sharp point and then punch a hole in the centre of the selected frame, leaving no room for subsequent changes of heart on the scoring stage. Films were then usually ‘locked-off’ by the director.

A successfully completed music score is not solely dependent on having the right technical hardware. Having the right artistic skill and a space big enough to accommodate all the gear that the project entails is of equal importance.

There are physical constraints, of course the studio has to be large enough to accommodate a full symphony orchestra, sometimes augmented with extra musicians and choir. For example, scoring The Mummy Returns required 125 musicians plus a 30 strong choir to be recorded together. This demanded a large space with a good natural acoustic and separation between the artists, to allow sufficient control over the various musical elements at a later stage.

It was a tall order. In the UK, at least, this limits the choice, as there are less than a handful of studios with sufficient space, the appropriate technical facilities, expertise and wide in house choice of microphones including the classic valve models so popular with many engineers. The prime factors used to determine where a score is recorded are: the acoustics of the room, room volume (size) and the number of musicians required by the composer, as well as the choice of equipment and any special technical requirements that the engineer may have. Many US composers prefer to bring their own engineer, as was the case when Alan Silvestri brought The Mummy Returns to CTS.

The relationship between composer and engineer is extremely important and, once developed, has a very positive effect on scoring sessions.


A key contributing factor to the success of any scoring process lies in the engineering planning stages, which should begin long before the musicians and composer arrive in the studio. Initial discussions between the music studio's recording engineer and the composer and/or the music supervisor allow the engineer to form a good understanding of the score itself and its style of orchestration. This part of the process also highlights how various sections of the score and their dynamics have to sit against the dialogue and sound effects elements of the soundtrack. Potentially problematic parts of the instrumentation or orchestration, such as unusual woodwind or percussion instruments, synthesisers and samplers perhaps containing exceptionally wide dynamics can also be underlined at this point, to ensure that sufficient acoustic separation or track isolation have been considered, to make the mixing stage easier.

Technical considerations should be ironed out in advance, such as picture format, sampling rate and final delivery format. The picture format may be generated from a hard disk system or one of the current digital picture players, with the picture source being derived from an editor such as Avid no more film on the cutting room floor The format standard is usually PAL for the U K and Europe, and NTSC for the US and will pre determine the timecode standard. With digital projects, it is imperative that all sampling rates are confirmed, so that all tapes can be preformatted to the same rate and hard disk systems also set accordingly, to match the sampling rate used by the music editor and dubbing theatre. The delivery medium of the final mix needs to be determined, as well as the surround sound format of the soundtrack. The scoring studio will generally supply their mix as left, centre, right and stereo surround, with the final mix in the dubbing theatre being produced in the required format.

Some US originated films may involve only recording the score in this country, with mixing taking place back in America at a later date. US projects will generally involve a greater amount of time being spent re-orchestrating sessions on the studio floor, The planning stage is crucial in ensuring there are no unwelcome surprises during the recording session itself


The birth of computer based score writing and editing packages, linked to a MIDI controlled music system, has brought immense creative benefits to composers, who can instantly listen to and check any section of the score. Many cmposers beef up this technology with a digital audio recording and editing system such as Pro Tools, which has become something of an industry interchange standard between composers and studios. Popular perception may be that 'digital rules', but there are still clients and engineers who simply prefer the sound of analogue and specifically request it.

Cue is the software package commonly found on most music editors' computers, it is used to make notes of all cuts and timings, as well as enter scoring notes to assist the composer and film editor. The music editor then transfers the composer's timings and tempos into another software program called Auricle. This program can generate clicks and coloured streamers, rather like those used with film, but in a video format.

The film industry also has a lot to thank broadband technology for. At one time composers would work to a locked off version of the film's final cut, safe in the knowledge that the film would undergo no further editing. However, reactions from preview audiences or a director's opinion of the film's pace and rhythm may trigger the need to re record and re mix cues sometime after the event.

The use of ISDN, and more recently broadband ADSL, has become increasingly common, as sessions can be directed remotely from a film studio in LA, for example, with stereo programme, talkback and timecode going via ADSL/ISDN and saving a considerable degree of airfare and hotel budget.

As long as the film industry continues to produce winning films there will be an audience to watch them. Despite the much-heralded arrival of DVD, a growing number of people still prefer to sit in the back row of a darkened theatre with a box of popcorn.

And providing there is a steady stream of musicians playing acoustic instruments, there will always be a place for recording studios with the appropriate blend of acoustics, musical awareness, suitable space and technical skill to effect a quality recording.

Technology will continue to evolve, and non linear recording systems will no doubt become standard in music studios as they are for audio and video post production. Development of the recording media will also go hand in hand with the advances in delivery systems, steered by the consumer's acceptance and tolerance of issues such as domestic surround sound, DVD, video on-demand facilities and the plethora of services predicted for high bandwidth networks.

But while recording studios will need to keep pace with the technology, the artistic skills necessary for interpreting and capturing a score be it on hard disk or tape will remain as important as ever. Presenting an audience with the musical essence of a lone pianist accompanying a silent movie is still the prime objective. It’s the creativity that counts - the technology just makes it happen. It's a bright future.


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