How to mix sampled orchestral music

Production of the film music for "Happy Family"

From composition to production
by Dirk Heilmann,

The computer-animated film "Happy Family", for which Hendrik Schwarzer from Orchestral Tools composed the film music, has been in cinemas since the end of August. But how is the film music actually created before it is recorded and produced in the studio? Schwarzer and engineer Tom Rußbüldt tell us which techniques were used in composing and later in the studio.

We are interested in the essentials here - in what the standard recipient often only perceives subconsciously: the film music. Composer Hendrik Schwarzer and recording engineer Rußbüldt spoke to us about the process of creating the music for Happy Family. From the first note to techniques in the recording studio, they explain to us where the challenges lie and what makes good film music for them.

Schwarzer has already had some successes with Orchestral Tools, most of which he produced for Europa-Park in collaboration with the animation studio Ambient Entertainment and director Holger Tappe. This collaboration was also the basis for Happy Family, which has now appeared under the auspices of Warner Bros.

They have also become repeat offenders in terms of the recording studio: "The hall in the Teldex Studio in Berlin sounds balanced and adds a charming shimmer to the whole thing, which is reflected in particular clarity and transparency," says Schwarzer, and Rußbüldt cannot disagree either.

Hendrik, "Happy Family" is an animated film. Are there fundamental differences in composition for animated and non-animated films?

Hendrik Schwarzer: Happy Family was more about themes and motifs than about sound design. The nice thing about it is that you can work with clichés; I always try to add something of my own to them. With this film in particular, the director wanted to emphasize certain gestures in the score with accents (what is meant is the so-called "Mickey Mousing"; Note by ed.). It's a technique known from old cartoon films. This is not done that often in animated films these days; but that's exactly what I find so exciting about Happy Family.

Tell us something about your basic approach to composing film music. Do you still go the classic way of composing a separate theme for each character?

I started writing music for theme parks at a very early age, and then later on to write animation films. These were all productions that had a special focus on themes and melodies. I usually start at the piano, develop ideas and work on them. Sometimes these are themes for a specific character, a love theme or something similar. This is what I need most of the time, because you always need the imagination of what it will sound like or could sound like later when the orchestra plays it. Some themes develop over the course of the film or appear in an altered form. I then do the instrumentation on the computer. The great thing is that you hear the results right away.

I have been sampling my own orchestra for several years to adapt the articulations and sounds I work with to the style of my music. From this, Orchestral Tools emerged in parallel. We have built one of the largest virtual orchestras under this label, including is also used by Hans Zimmer and in numerous film productions around the world. For me it is elementary to use tools that fluidly adapt to my workflow and sound ideas. In addition, I think it is particularly important today to deliver good-sounding mockups (the preliminary versions from virtual instruments). In the meantime, directors are used to high quality and always compare with the temptrack on which they initially produce.

Were there any particular challenges in the implementation in the studio?

We decided to record the big themes and emotional parts with a full orchestra, but separate many underscore elements - first strings, then wood, then brass. This gave us the flexibility to shift better in editing or to do it later, e.g. B. to turn down the sheet metal, it should collide with the rest of the sound design.

In total, I had written almost 100 minutes of orchestral music, 90 of which we recorded with orchestra, on six recording days in the Teldex studio in Berlin.

Tom Rußbüldt was the recording engineer for the recordings. What is special about his work in the studio?

Tom and I have been working together for a number of years, and it is really beneficial when both of you understand the vision of the finished film and the intended sound. Tom also mixed the soundtrack and was therefore able to use special mic setups for the recordings, which he could then work with in the mix.

In addition, I have never met an engineer who can use Pro Tools so quickly. Within seconds he changes takes, builds clicks or implements certain requests. This is worth gold when you consider what every idle minute means with a 60-man orchestra.

In addition to mixing and engineering, Tom also runs Scoring Berlin GmbH. He also offers contracting (arranging orchestral musicians and other relevant contacts) and draws top people from the major Berlin orchestras such as Radio Symphonie Orchester Berlin or Berliner Philharmoniker. Here, too, we had explicitly decided on big band brass to capture this crisp, American sound.

I think that it was a film with Warner Bros. on board and that Holger Tappe as director music is very important, we had a very reasonable budget for the recordings. This is not common with German productions. It was particularly important to the director to produce an international film that could keep up on the top level, but was produced in Europe.

What constitutes "good" film music for you?

That the music is based on its own idea or an interesting concept, that it sometimes dares something and, above all, contains tangible topics. In the best case, the music represents a kind of meta-level that tells the story, in certain situations even complements it or stands in counterpoint to it. I also love good instrumentation and interesting timbres and combinations.

Describe briefly again what such a counterpoint can look like. And did you have the opportunity to use this technology at Happy Family?

When the music is in particular contrast to the pictures. Happy Family has this scene in which the family is chained to the ground under a giant, artificially created snowball from Dracula. The family faces their own fate of freezing to death, while Dracula speaks to the family from an extendable platform, confident of victory and exalted above the family. In contrast to particularly dramatic music - which would certainly be appropriate here - I decided to compose a particularly beautiful and liberating sounding score, which is mainly based on strings and an overlying choir. The effect of the opposites increases the seriousness of the situation without sounding exciting or dramatic.

Tom, what is the difference between a film score and a "normal" music production for you?

Tom Russboldt: The fact that music is never treated as an independent medium always raises the question: How do we create an interplay of these completely different worlds - seeing & hearing - into a film experience?

It's not just about creating massive walls of sound, being as loud as possible or even creating an over-produced hi-fi sound. The task is to reinforce or just accompany emotions, which ideally are already present in the picture. Music seldom has the chance to be the center of attention or manages to stand on its own. But even in the days of silent films you noticed that a picture alone does not make you happy. Unfortunately, this realization has not yet reached all levels of the production chain, so we have to see how the music can be better placed in the film by simple means.

It already begins in the composition and then ends in the mixing process that sound effects (SFX) and dialogues are not simply ignored, but considered. We try to deliver the music in such a way that many dynamic journeys are already present in our mix. Because otherwise the entire music is usually made quieter, just so as not to drown out the pounding in the picture!

Even if the music is not too hi-fi-like, the chances are increased that it will prevail better, not only because many of the SFX are super loud and low-frequency. The listening impression of high-pitched mixes is quickly too loud and penetrating in relation to dialogue and SFX, which is why the music is often pulled down and therefore sounds very thin.

The mix of the soundtrack / CD version then comes closer to “normal” music production because it is all about the listening experience of the music.

Please tell us which microphones you used for which instruments and why exactly these worked well for you.

What makes up 70 to 80% of the sound are basically the main microphones, consisting of the Decca-Tree (Neumann M50), the additional outriggers (M50) and the surrounds (M50). All spot microphones are more or less chosen for reasons of taste. For example, I prefer the Neumann U67 Tube for the first string consoles and the KM84 or DPA 4011 as standard for the others.

When it comes to brass, I use everything from Coles to U47 FET or Tube or Sennheiser MD 441. The choice of microphones has actually evolved over the years and for me it represents a working setup that I know will work out-of-the-box for the time being. Most of the time I add a microphone or two to see what comes out and whether it enriches the recording. Which microphone I prefer for which instrument was actually a trial and error game over the past few years, which has certainly not come to an end for a long time.

Otherwise it has to be said that the choice of spot microphones plays almost no role, especially when recording a tutti, as the microphone sometimes has to be very close to the instrument. Otherwise we would have everything on the mic, just not the relevant instrument.

The sound development of classic instruments usually only takes place at a distance of 1 to 2 meters, which is why the main microphones are so important. The spots are used more for texture design than as an aid to make an instrument louder. Nevertheless, they offer a certain sound aesthetic that may be wanted, e.g. B. in the alto flute solos in the Happy Family Score.

Is there any equipment that has proven particularly useful for Happy Family?

With projects of this kind, you can't really say that you have benefited from a single piece of hardware or software. It's the interplay of an incredibly good hall, great musicians, good microphones, preamps and converters.

Otherwise you need a DAW for exactly these projects that you can simply rely on, and for me that is Pro Tools HD (HDX2), which gives me the opportunity to work with over a hundred tracks as quickly and flexibly as possible, both during Recording as well as mixing. Because every wasted minute costs a lot of money.

During the mix, four Bricastis were used, which were used both discreetly and completely over the top. But no matter how you use these devices, they always create a wonderful reverb.

What was your Pro Tools session like? How many traces do you have to expect in such a project?

The final mixed session of Happy Family had a total of approx. 560 audio tracks plus various buses, masters and VCAs due to splits, overdubs, additional solo instruments and percussions etc. If we counted all the faders individually, we would get around 650 tracks.

Do you use effects in the DAW?

Plug-ins on individual signals are actually only used where there are actually problems or in the event of intentional alienation - never turn the signal across the board - otherwise, of course, on sub-buses, parallel buses or effects buses. These then either have hardware I / Os, e.g. B. to the Bricastis, or my favorite reverb plug-ins from Exponential Audio or effects from FabFilter. My sessions are rarely full of plug-ins. The main sound has to be created during the recording.

How would you describe the interface between Hendrik as a composer and you as an engineer?

Projects with Hendrik are always very unusual projects. We have known each other for years, and here too I was involved from the very first minute. As soon as a cue was ready, I got it to attach to the picture, so I knew the score inside out before it was recorded. There are also projects with other composers where you never heard of the music until the first take.

The nice thing about us is simply that the competencies are very clearly distributed and are not doubted by anyone. This makes working super relaxed and leaves no questions unanswered.



Mickey Mousing

If elements of the images shown are reproduced onomatopoeically in the film music, one speaks of Mickey Mousing - based on the good old black and white cartoons.

The more conventional and less exaggerated technique is underscoring, which, along with the leitmotif and mood technique, is one of the essential techniques in film music composition. Occurrences, movements and depicted feelings are paraphrased synchronously here.

Temptrack

In most cases, the film music is "composed over" the finished film at the end. To fill this acoustic gap during production, directors often use placeholders with music that comes close to the desired style - so-called temptracks.

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