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Monday, October 15, 2007

Five Scores, Five Composers, Five Weeks

Inside the Scoring of the John Ford Silent Films
and Their "Live" Surround Mixes

A few weeks ago, a select group of about 20 people gathered in a screening room at Fox Studios in Century City. We were there to enjoy the fruits of our labors in an interesting summertime project: the newly restored and scored "The Iron Horse", a 1924 silent film by the famous director John Ford.

Leading the group was composer Christopher Caliendo. This 135- minute epic gave him the opportunity and challenge of writing a huge amount of music in a relatively short time, a little over a month from spotting to finished recording, and all agreed he knocked it out of the park.

"The Iron Horse" is a fictionalized drama about an historic event in the history of the United States, the building of the transcontinental railroad. It features thousands of people and horses, steam trains, dramatic scenery, Abe Lincoln, heroes and villains, soldiers and laborers, several wild and violent Plains Indians attacks, a barroom brawl or two, and of course a handsome young hero (played by George O'Brien) and a spunky but sweet maiden (played by Madge Bellamy) to inspire the action.

Of course, a silent film has no speaking or effects to carry the drama along. The only language or dialog information is the occasional card or slide, as you may have seen. So the music is front and center, a concert experience really, and Christopher's score was literally wall-to-wall, 76 cues in all.

You might think that in this day and age, our experience with the way contemporary movies are made would lead this to be a somewhat old-fashioned and quaint experience. But it's remarkable how complete and often thrilling "The Iron Horse" turned out to be. There wasn't a boring or lagging moment throughout, and a big part of credit for that can be attributed to the exciting music.

The five films

"The Iron Horse" was one of five early silent films by director John Ford that got new scores this summer. I had the privilege of recording and mixing all five scores, done over a period of about five weeks. All were recorded in commercial studios (two in Capitol Records Studio A in Hollywood, and three in Firehouse Studio in Pasadena), and all featured live Los Angeles virtuoso studio musicians, and not a single MIDI instrument or sample. While the musicians were playing, I mixed "live" to 5.1 surround and simultaneous stereo tracks; there were no separate "remix" days and very little post-production mixing was required. More about that later.

These five films are part of a 21-disc DVD package being prepared by Fox's Home Entertainment department, offering a career retrospective of films directed by John Ford for Fox throughout his career, from the 1920s through 1960s. Most of them have sound, of course, and original scores which were not touched. But with these first five from his early career in the era before recorded music, Fox chose to commission new scores for this release. Behind this whole package, from research and restoration of the films to commissioning the new scores, was producer Nick Redman, a noted expert in the history of film and filmmakers.

(Films of the silent era had a variety of situations with regard to original music. Some may have had a score composed for a live Hollywood premier, but then when presented in other cities might have relied on improvised music from local musicians. An Internet search of "Iron Horse", for example, turns up at least two credited previous scores, one by the Hungarian Erno Rapee from 1924, and another by the English composer John Lanchberry, composed in 1995 for a VHS release; according to Fox neither version was available for this new release. For more information: )

The five John Ford silent films, in order of our score recordings:
  • The Iron Horse (1924), music by Christopher Caliendo
  • Just Pals (1920), music by Jon and Al Kaplan
  • Three Bad Men (1926), music by Dana Kaproff
  • Hangman's House (1928), music by Tim Curran
  • Four Sons (1928), music by Christopher Caliendo

Composers, musicians and studios

The two films with the largest ensembles were The Iron Horse and Four Sons, and featured anywhere from a dozen up to about 32 musicians, including brass, woodwinds, piano, accordion, guitar, percussion, and strings. We were fortunate to record them in Capitol Records' famous Studio A.

The other three films were scored with trios, offering no less a challenge to the composers. For Just Pals, Jon and Al Kaplan worked with piano, clarinet, and country fiddle; on Three Bad Men Dana Kaproff wrote for piano, guitar, and fiddle; and on Hangman's House Tim Curran used piano, cello, and flute. These scores were recorded in Pasadena's Firehouse Studio.

I've mentioned composer Christopher Caliendo, an exciting and infinitely energetic talent whose star is on the rise. I was also pleased to work again with my old friend Dana Kaproff, a master composer for whom I have engineered for close to twenty years. In addition, I enjoyed becoming familiar with the talents of brothers Jon and Al Kaplan, and also Tim Curran. Each in their own way wrote a score that was challenging, entertaining, and really helped make these old silent movies come alive.

One of the biggest reasons that all of the scores were so successful was the high quality of the professional studio musicians who played, and credit must be given to master contractor Joe Soldo for persuading some of L.A.'s finest musicians to be involved. In addition to contracting, Joe provided expert score reading and performance evaluation and approval, and kept things going smoothly in the studio. (This was all A. F. of M. sanctioned, recorded under the Low-budget Feature Film agreement.)

There's not room here to list all the terrific musicians, but a few are worth special mention. The one player common to all five scores was pianist Bryan Pezzone, who blew me away with as close to perfect sight-reading as I think I have ever seen. Each composer wrote music that was sometimes fast, dense, atonal, or otherwise challenging, and Bryan just ate it up. There may have been requests from composers regarding expression, style, and occasional copyist errors, but I don't think I ever saw a take stopped due a piano flub.

A couple of other players who had featured parts on several of the scores were flutist Sheridan Stokes and country fiddle player Richard Greene. In addition to orchestral flute parts, Sheridan added to the frequent Native American (Indian) characters on screen with ethnic flutes, and Richard provided a colorful flavor of the Old West with his laconic fiddle style.

Others come to mind: soft-spoken Frank Marocco on accordion, another darn-near perfect music reader, his sound added a lot of size and dimension to the orchestras; guitarist John Goux, who played mandolin, banjo, dobro, and a rainbow of beautiful-sounding guitars; cellist Armen Ksajikian, who performed with such passion and also brought everyone Russian chocolates; and percussionist Dan Greco, who couldn't whirl around fast enough for a bass drum hit and so nailed it perfectly behind his back. For photos of these and others, click on my "Gallery" tab.

Recording with "Live" mixing

As I mentioned before, I engineered each of these five scores with "live" mixing to 5.1 surround and simultaneous stereo tracks. What do I mean by that? As the musicians were playing, I wasn't just making a rough mix for monitoring purposes, but instead was going for the "final" mix during each performance. With every cue, while the musicians were sight-reading and learning the music I was also learning it -- who had the various featured voices, and other balancing. Of course, we recorded everything, in case a first take was the keeper, which sometimes happened. By the time they had a master take, I usually did as well.

Scores and records used to be recorded this way all the time; it's still done on occasion but I'm surprised that many composers are unaware of this option, making it something of a lost art. That's too bad, because there is something wonderfully immediate and exciting about going for the live mix. I've been fortunate to keep in practice with live score mixes, and have also done small-group jazz album recording that way. (I'm grateful to composer Dan Foliart for opportunities to mix some of his shows "live" over the years, including episodes of Home Improvement and Seventh Heaven.)

It is also a terrifically cost-effective way to work. We had no additional post-production mixing days booked, with associated additional engineer and studio costs. I was told that with the money saved, we were able to have several additional musicians in the orchestras -- more of the money ended up "on the screen", or at least in the speakers.

I do work with a safety net, so to speak: in my Pro Tools session files, prepared in advance, I have a track for every microphone, in addition to the stereo and surround mix stems. That way, if needed, I can remix. Situations where that would become necessary might be if there were any punch-ins, edits, or overdubs, or if we took note of a mix that might stand improvement. Typically in a day of recording, we spent an hour or less on remixes and other clean-up after the orchestra went home.

I am a believer in having my Pro Tools sessions have pre-recorded click tracks, and try to have all the cues for a day's work in the same single file. This minimizes time wasted for computer management, loading files, input and output assignments, etc.. The goal is to have as many minutes as possible available for actual recording -- no one should have to sit and wait for the control room. I consider this kind of efficiency essential, especially for low-budget projects. As much as possible, every dollar must sing!

When is live mixing a good choice?

What kind of scores are good candidates for live mixing? In general, anything that can be performed live can be mixed live. Mainly, this means any score in which there are all or mostly live musicians. MIDI sample and synth parts can be accommodated if they are pre-recorded or at least pre-mixed (i.e., a player with a rack system who provides mixed outputs). Of course it won't work for every production style, particularly scores involving lots of overdubbing or layering.

I feel it works best if the sound of the score is primarily that of acoustic or orchestral music, natural sounding as opposed to heavily effects-based. Live mixing also works well with rhythm-section or jazz-type ensembles -- a good example of this are Dan Foliart's Seventh Heaven scores, which feature acoustic guitar backed up by drums, bass, piano, and woodwinds.

Obviously, live mixing requires working in a good commercial studio or scoring stage. It helps if the studio has good acoustics, is well maintained, and that the personnel have experience with this kind of high-intensity recording. One of my favorites for middle-sized jobs such as these is Capitol in Hollywood -- things there always go "like butter". But I have also done successful live sessions in less expensive studios; the key is careful selection and advance preparation.

It also takes courage and trust on the part of the composer, and the ability to make decisions quickly. But the advantages are huge: in addition to cost savings, the sound of real virtuoso musicians can add a noticeable increase in the "quality" of the sound, and a certain "thrill factor". Any composer accustomed to grinding away all night with sequencers and samplers should give it a try.

Coming soon

We've been told that the John Ford DVD collection is scheduled for release about the first of December, hopefully in time for holiday shopping. In addition to the large 30-disc package, there are discussions about the possible release of the five silent films as a separate smaller package. I hope so.

There's also the possibility of at least one performance of "The Iron Horse" with a live symphony orchestra, conducted by Christopher Caliendo, which would be a once-in-a-lifetime concert event. (Such a live performance was tentatively scheduled at the recent New York Film Festival, but then canceled; there is talk of rescheduling that, but no plans have been announced by Fox at this time.)

I know it's going to be exciting and fun to see these movies, as it was to be involved in making them. I can't wait to sit down with my family and friends and enjoy them -- I know everyone will say "Wow!"

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