World Wrestling Entertainment

Apr 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By David Weiss

The Reigning Champs of Crunch-Time Composing

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Are they at the Triple Threat Match? Maybe WrestleMania? If you're in search of the ultimate World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) tag team, the best place to find them isn't in the ring, but in a studio in Stamford, Conn. That's where Jim Johnston, WWE director of music, and Chris Argento, director of audio post-production, create a powerfully large catalog of sound, using an efficient workflow to battle a positively brutal schedule.

Responsible for providing the music and sound effects for approximately nine original hours of programming and eight to 10 promos a week; three hours of pay-per-view and a home-release DVD per month; video games; and a new full-length CD of complete songs called W Originals, this duo and their colleagues, including mixer Tim Roche and audio assistant Darryl Harvey, are a force to be reckoned with. Adding to the stress is the fact that their audio plays out to some of the most opinionated audiences anywhere.

“I'm writing music for an entity that people don't tend to be lukewarm on,” notes Johnston. “They tend to really be fans, or they think this is either the most boring or insane thing in the world. Music is such a wonderful and vital thing that in so many ways makes our lives go. It's what makes TV go, and it makes our cars go — just take the CD player out and the driving experience becomes very different. It's pervasive in the WWE, because it's the storyline for all these characters.”

Everyone in the WWE's TV production studios starts with the same directive: “Do good work and do it quickly!” Argento says with a laugh. “You get very immersed in what you do here, and the fact that we can turn out the volume of work that we do in a building where there's maybe 100 people is pretty fantastic. The whole building is like a big machine, a tremendous clock with everybody performing a function and moving along.”

Getting immersed in the job is easy for Johnston, whose spacious and calming Russ Berger — designed facility is tailored specifically for his needs, and his needs alone. “Russ' goal was to make this place heaven for me, and he was successful,” says Johnston. “I call this the ‘ultimate project studio.’ At its core, it's an absolute world-class studio with the most amazing equipment imaginable. The distinction is that other great studios — and I'm not taking anything away from them — are a place to record in that you rent. You come in with the people or instruments you'll use, and each time a different set of sounds is coming through the door. Here, it's the best of both worlds, with my collection of amps, drums and every synth module imaginable — to have it all set up the way you like it is just a wonderful scenario.”

The signals in Johnston's control room go through an SSL 9000 J console and MOTU Digital Performer 4.1, and are monitored via Dynaudio C-4 and AIR 5.1s and Genelec 1031As, among other speaker systems. His assortment of outboard gear is expansive and positively slamming, stocked with such units as a Focusrite ISA 430 and four Neve 1073 mic pre's; a Fairchild 670; four LA-2As and four Tube-Tech CL 1Bs for dynamics; two Pultec EQP-1S and DW Fearn VT-4 EQs; a Sony DRE-S777 sampling reverb; and microphones from Neumann, Earthworks, Blue and Royer, among others. Synths include a Korg Triton rack, Roland XV-5080 and two Synclavier 6400s. Meanwhile, his adjoining live room is a playground for instrument collectors, with a wide range of guitars, basses and keyboards, plus multiple recent and vintage amps, all miked up and ready to go at a moment's notice.

When Johnston gets an assignment — often on a Monday morning from a producer on the road needing a new theme in a few hours — he's ready to take it on completely by himself. He works happily in solitude without co-writers or an engineer, and plays almost every instrument. “The studio was designed according to my incredible level of impatience,” he explains. “The key is easy accessibility — to jump from a keyboard scenario to a complete live setup, or from recording on hard disk to 24-track tape. It's a wonderful luxury to work in a place where everything is exactly the way you want it and doesn't break the creative flow.”

The seeds for Johnston's singular method of working were sown at a tiny recording lab in college, where he learned how to create complete songs by bouncing tracks first on a 2-track and then on a 4-track. “That teaches you to compose ideas that are concise and get you to where you're going without 7,000 tracks,” he says. “For me, 48 tracks is a big project.”

Because Johnston has the creative process down to a science, when a rush order for a 30-second entrance theme comes in, he can constantly come up with new ideas in styles ranging from rock, urban and hip hop to opera. “The most frequent needs are themes for the WWE superstars themselves,” says Johnston. “A standard scenario is we get a call from our executive producer: ‘We’ve got a new guy coming,' or ‘He’s breaking out of a tag team and he needs music.' It's like scoring for a movie: Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Is he light and svelte and quick-moving, which dictates a fast tempo, or is he a big plodding kind of a guy, in which case you need a big, heavy, the-wrath-of-God-is-coming-upon-us sound?

“At the end of the day, I think of myself as a scoring composer because it's my responsibility to make sure the audience feels the right emotion when any one particular character comes up,” Johnston continues. “So it's, ‘Here comes Steve Austin! What's he going to do this time?’ Or with Rey Mysterio, you want his Mexican background to come through — it's part of his character. We did a song where he literally did a rap: It's half-Spanish, half-English, with a Mexican infusion into the beat.”

The tricky part of composing and performing everything on his own is that Johnston must take care not to repeat himself. “I feel a real sense of responsibility to make sure that each of our superstars has a unique-sounding piece of music,” he says. “For the audience, it's name-that-song in one note. I want them to hear the first bar of music and know and feel exactly who's coming out that door and immediately be in the mood of that person. One of the greatest challenges I have is trying to make things sound different. A lot of times, I'll try different amps and different combinations of things, just to get away from what everybody's expecting.”

Not surprisingly, he expects each piece in the signal path to make a solid contribution to the song. “If I'm going to put something in my recording chain, I'm choosing it for a sound,” Johnston states. “I look at it the way I choose a guitar: If I want something bright, I'll reach for a Rickenbacker or a Telecaster; for a crunchy sound, I'll use the Les Paul. If I want to EQ something, I want a device, particularly tube stuff, that's capable of altering the sound. It's like an old stereo set: When you turn up the bass, it gets bassy. That's also why I'm not a big fan of plug-ins, because they tend to change the sound but flatten it out with a very 2-D quality.”

Johnston's style starts from the philosophy that if it sounds good to you, it will sound good to other people. “A strong sense of rhythm is really important to me,” he says of his themes. “If the basic groove is not there, it doesn't matter how much you put on top of it, it's going nowhere. Most of my rhythms, especially my rock stuff, have a level of funk to them.”

Once the music is recorded, Johnston will mix in his Neve Capricorn — equipped Studio B. Then he passes it to Argento, who works with the music, sound effects and shouting VOs in his surround post suite, upgraded by Pro Audio Design with a seven-speaker system from Dynaudio Acoustics. Control flows through Airsoft Softwair and a Euphonix System 5 console. “We're a little bit sport, but we're heavily post-produced,” Argento says. “Our packages are more akin to film trailers, with drama and great graphics packages. I find that I bring all of my skills to bear with one show.”

For the fierce audio competitors shaping the WWE's sound, the thrill of victory comes from generating one great idea after another. “We've been Number 2 on the Billboard charts, Number 3 twice, and have done about 700 themes to date,” Johnston points out. “I love writing music — I love everything about it. I'll hear a completed thing — it's just there — and I can't wait to get to the studio and make it come out of the speakers so that everybody else will hear it. It still captivates me in the same way as the first time I ever recorded something into a tape recorder and played it back. It's magic.”






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