'Cowboys & Aliens'

Aug 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Blair Jackson



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A Western-Sci-Fi Mash-Up (Continued)

While Gregson-Williams’ more organic recording elements serve the Western theme, there’s always a place for an orchestra among the 60 cues and 80 minutes of music in a sci-fi film like this. “A big orchestra is the powerhouse that one tends to lean on when things get nasty,” Gregson-Williams says of the tension-filled battle scenes in the film. “And the last couple of reels are when one really needs weight and gravitas.”

The main orchestral and choral recording for Cowboys & Aliens took place at the Sony Pictures Scoring Stage in Culver City, engineered by longtime scoring mixer/collaborator Malcolm Luker.

The synth masters—now loaded onto a Pro Tools rig and brought to Sony—are the building blocks of the recording and meant, to a large degree, to be replaced by live recording. “We’re able to add these large live recordings and replace my samples,” Luker explains. “And by doing that, it changes everything—for the better. You put a bunch of live players on a track, and they live and breathe and move. Suddenly it brings things to life, and that’s a very satisfying experience.”

As is often the case, a second Pro Tools rig (Pro Tools|HD6 64/80 IO, with Advanced Audio Genex AD/DA converters) will be running in the control room for recording, with the first rig playing the synth masters through the console for monitoring. “We usually have two Pro Tools operators: one taking care of the record side of it, and one taking care of the pre-records and making sure that everything’s going to where it should go,” Luker says. “We just have it so that it’s available, and we can mute it so that when we’re replacing strings and woods, et cetera, it’s available to hear, as a guide, if needed.”

The rigs are satellite-locked, via Ethernet. “What’s great about that is, if you’ve got the video running off one rig, off of our synth master rig, then you can actually rock and roll it from the other rig,” Luker explains. “If you frame jump, you remain in sync all the time.”

The orchestra contained 14 first violins, 12 seconds, 12 violas, 12 celli and eight basses, double woodwinds, as well as two trumpets, four horns, four trombones and a tuba. Luker is assisted on the Sony stage by his son, Jamie, a partnership in place for a number of years.

The two own a substantial collection of microphones for use on such sessions, including Luker’s main mic of choice, the Brauner VM1. “Those are hand-built from Dirk [Brauner] himself,” he notes. “We’ve also been using a number of mics from a company in Australia called Bees Neez—their Lulu FET mic, which we use for spot [miking].” Luker is particularly keen on the Brauner VM1S, a stereo version of the company’s VM1. “I use it on different things, like for woodwind overheads or in front of the horns. It’s especially amazing on harps, because the top is just gorgeous. You can put it six feet away, and it gives you a little bit of a stereo spread, instead of just coming from one pinpointed position.” He also used Sennheiser MKH Series mics, and Neumann TLM 50s and TLM 170Rs. They use Swiss Vovox cables for the mics, and employ 64 channels of Grace Design m802r preamps.

“The cable run from the microphone to the microphone amplifier is as short as possible,” Luker says. “So you amplify the signal up to +4 and then you do your longer run. And they’re remote controlled. I have the control unit right next to me, so I can be adjusting mic level from the control room, which is perfect.”

Luker brings his favorite monitors—Quested V3110 self-powered speakers—wherever he goes. “Roger Quested, who designed them, was the chief engineer at a studio where I first started in London, Morgan Studios, when we were kiddies,” he laughs. “He’s developed a product which is absolutely excellent. And it’s great for what we do.” 

Once recording is completed, the team heads back to Wavecrest for mixing. The studio has an Avid Icon D-Command ES Console, with an extended surface containing 40 faders. The room also has Quested 5.1 monitors, another plus for Luker.

Luker brings in his own reverbs, including a pair of Bricasti M7s, four Lexicon 96S surround processors, and a Lexicon 480. Luker’s collection of favorite plug-ins includes Waves, Lexicon, and SoundToys plug-ins. Equalization is accomplished using the Manley Labs Massive Passive Vari-Mu passive equalizer.

Three Pro Tools rigs are used during mixing: the main mix rig (96 I/O HD6), a print rig (72 I/O HD6) and an extra, for any additional work, if needed (64 I/O HD3). Luker makes use of a number of Apogee A/D and D/A converters, including 16Xs and Rosetta. “I’m looking forward to working with their new Apogee Symphony system, as well,” he notes.

The stem layout is 64 channels wide, with 5.1 strings, 5.1 brass, etc., as well as 3.1 bass channels. Luker also creates surrounds from Gregson-Williams’s stereo sampled material. “You add surrounds, so that each stem has its own dedicated surrounds and LFE. So whenever any of that’s edited on the stage, everything remains together.” The reverbs come along for the ride, as well. “That’s really important. All of the different reverbs and effects are all dedicated for each individual stem, so that if you want to take out any one element, you can remove it, and it’s gone.”

Gregson-Williams, of course, counts on the expertise of his experienced music editors, Richard Whitfield and Meri Gavin, to keep up with any picture changes and keep a clear log of all and any versions of a cue. “As soon as a new cut arrives at our studio, we hit the ground running and make the changes immediately together. Harry likes to keep on top of it,” Gavin explains. “If we get a new set of reels, he likes to go into Cubase right away and make the alterations needed, thereby rarely leaving us to cut up his cues!” Adds Gregson-Williams, “They started by turning over a new cut to us once a week, but toward the end, we were seeing reels arrive every day.” This meant having to change start times and addressing any music edits for the 60 or so music cues in the film.

As challenging as the process might be, Luker still finds working projects such as Gregson-Williams’ here in the States a satisfying experience. “I’ve worked here, as well as in Europe, and the difference is that the attitude here is, ‘Okay, let’s start at perfection and see how much better we can make it. We’re doing this for the world market, it has to be the best that it can be, and that’s it.’ And Harry’s music comes together that way. A lot of it is done in the writing and in how it’s orchestrated. It’s a lot of subtle things that come together. It’s a great platform to work from.”

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