Sound Engineers Panel Luncheon – March 21st, 2007

Music Scoring Mixers Panel Offer Practical Advice
by Jeannie Pool

The March 21 ASMAC luncheon at Catalina Bar and Grill focused on sound engineering and celebrated Dan Wallin’s 80th birthday with a cake and a chorus of “Happy Birthday,” con gusto. Dan Wallin, whose most recent credits include Because I Said So, Rocky Balboa, Grilled, Relative Stranger, and Mission Impossible III, today is the oldest working music scoring mixer and one of the most highly revered in film. About the current state of the art, Dan Wallin said, even with all the new technology sound recording, “is still all about the acoustics and getting an accurate reproduction of the true sound of the orchestra.”

Each panelist gave a thumbnail sketch of his background. Scott Cochran, whose most recent credits include The Lost Gold of Khan, Snow Princess, He Loves Her, She Loves Him Not, The Land Before Time XII, Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj, The 4400) hails from Texas, where he got his start doing radio jingles. He said, “Almost 30 years ago, while I was in college, my dad, a banker, encouraged me to do I wanted to do. The University of Texas had a Radio Television and Film major, and in one course out of all four years called “Audio Production,” I found my niche. I broke into the jingle business in the city that invented the singing radio call letters, where I learned to be a fast engineer.” He described the routine: five minute drum sounds and such, rhythm at 10, brass at noon, vocals at 2, mix at 4 and Fed Ex by 6, day in and day out. Several months after he came to L.A., he realized that record sessions and the two weeks that people took to get a snare sound bored him. He said, “My personality lent itself to the 10 am downbeat of film and TV sessions.”

Damon Tedesco agreed to join the panel at the last moment when one panelist did not appear. Damon grew up in the music business; his father was studio guitarist Tommy Tedesco. Damon began his career working at Warner Bros and a Fox at the Newman scoring stage and four years ago became independent. Damon’s clients include music recording and mixing for Don Davis, Stephen Endelman, Maria Newman, David Baerwald, and Jason Johnson. In addition to film scoring, he has recorded music for literally hundreds of commercials from directors Spike Jonze, Jake Scott and Samuel Bayer for clients including Nike, Toyota, HP, Disney, and Ford. With his mobile recording facility that he started in 1993, he has recorded Randy Newman, The Estrada Brothers, a “Tribute to Woody Herman” as well as alternative rock concerts for She Wants Revenge, The Brazilian Girls and The Sounds.

Both Scott and Damon said that they have learned a great deal from Dan Wallin’s work over the years. Dan Wallin said he started his career in sound recording while in the Navy during the World War II in radio broadcasting. After the war, did remotes for CBS (by the way, with Jerry Goldsmith) and ABC. He was fortunate enough to work at Warners during Hollywood’s Golden Years. He was now working with Michael Giacchino which he enjoys very much.

The panel’s moderator (the author of this report) asked each to describe a perfect moment in their work, when everything was going exactly right. Dan said that working on the very complicated score for Accidental Tourist (1988) with John Williams (Williams was nominated for an Oscar for Best Score for his work on this film), which was an entirely live mix was amazing. He also mentioned the Incredibles (with Michael Giacchino) and Stanley and Iris (1990) (John Williams). Probably the biggest moment was recording Alfred Newman’s score for Camelot (1967), orchestrated by Leo Shuken and Jack Hayes (who is still working as an orchestrator in his eighties). There Wallin says he learned, “what really great sound could be.”

Then the moderator asked them to describe one “moment of hell” at a recording session. Dan Wallin said he does not recall a moment of hell at a recording session, saying that this is avoided by intense and careful planning. He said, “I don’t take any chances when I’m recording. I always go early; I often show up the day before to check things out.” He said he still very much preferred analog sound and records to tape whenever possible, in addition to recording to hard drive. He also said he did not use tube microphones, except for a vocal microphone, recommending the U47, “if one can be found.”

Asked about their favorite rooms for orchestral recording in Los Angeles, Dan and Scott both agreed that they loved the scoring stage at SONY. Damon Tedesco said he loves recording at the Newman Scoring stage at Fox because he knows it so well, having worked there for 7 years. Dan Wallin agreed that Fox had better “separation,” but that he also had loved the Samuel Goldwyn scoring stage which, of course, now is gone. All of them had praise for the high caliber of musicians working in the studios in Los Angeles.

There was also some discussion about using a “tree” for recording. A tree involves groups of three omni-directional microphones, four feet apart, plus one group over the conductor’s head. Wallin discussed the “delay time” in some of the larger rooms, which he feels is further exacerbated by the “tree.” Instead he prefers a stereo microphone pair over the composer’s head, plus microphones throughout the room to capture individuals and sections. This assures that he hears what the conductor is hearing in the room. Dan Wallin said that his goal was to record an exact copy of the actual sound of an instrument.

When asked what composers and orchestrators could do to better prepare for recording sessions, the panelists offered keen advice. Tedesco said that many young composers do two-track mixes and assume they know what their music sounds like and are not necessarily open to a new mix. He recommends that they hire someone to do the mix because a professional mixer can show them aspects of their music that they may not have truly heard before. He also advised composers to hire professional orchestrators and to learn the craft of orchestration. Often beginning composers have fallen in love with the midi version, and do not quite understand why the orchestra does not sound like their midi version. Dan Wallin concurred that a professional orchestrator is a wise investment.

The panelists also said that if a composer does the pre-lays themselves, they should know exactly what the frame rates and sample rates are before they come to a session. Running a click is also essential as well as making sure it works well for the players before recording.

Cochran had excellent advice about session preparation. First, put your ProTools sessions on a grid so you can call out bar numbers. Secondly, know your basic delivery requirements frame rate, sample rate, bit rate, stem needs etc. Be sure to use a sequencer that will time stamp your sound bites to do your “prelays” for easy insertion into ProtTools.

Many composers generally do not have the experience to know how to warm up digital synthesizer sounds. Scott Cochran has several suggestions about how to make the technology work: First, put every piece of gear on one great master clock. He recommends Apogee’s Big Ben. Secondly, use “boxes” like the Finalizer sparingly. First, mix with it in bypass and then add it to enhance the mix, but not dominate it. Also, he recommends that one go into the editing parameters and adjust each frequency band of compression. His favorite plug-in to adjust the “EQ” of a sound is the Waves C4. Frequency-dependent compressors are living breathing “EQS.” You can manipulate the sound in a very organic way to take out harshness. Finally, pull down the high frequency instruments and pan them wider so that they are still noticed, yet do not dominate the mix. The panelists generously entertained questions from the audience.