How do you approach a new project?
I’ll phone the composer and if convenient set up a meeting to go through the sessions and hear the mockups. If time doesn’t permit that then we just do a call and I get some mp3s downloaded. Also I’ll figure out if all the click track, midi files and pre-record elements are session ready and if not, make arrangements to have it all correctly prepped in plenty of time. If it’s a brand new project, I’ll go about doing plenty of listening and figure out a great studio setup that will give us what we’re looking for; this is always the most exciting part and if it’s done right the sessions will just run like clockwork and we can get an amazing amount of work done really fast. If I have any doubts on the approach I’ll set up a second set of mics that I can fall back on if my first instinct wasn’t right, so either way it leaves a bit of flexibility on the day. Usually on the first session of a new project we’ll jump in and start recording right on the downbeat and just keep moving, and if I want to change anything I’ll do that on the 2nd cue. Since everyone needs to warm up and get acquainted with the style, it’s usually possible to come back to redo the 1st cue later on, and that’s always better than losing momentum at the start of the day.
If it’s a sequel or in any way a continuation of a previous project or series, I’ll use the session notes and recalls to get a start point based on previous work. That’s not always as creative but it really helps me to get a quick start and be able to identify what changes night need to be quickly made.
What do you feel is the most common mistake composers make when mixing their own scores?
Most composers have an intuitive understanding in the link between the notation and the timbres of sounds. However, it’s important not to forget the brilliance of Beethoven who whilst working on his greatest compositions was only able to imagine in his head how it actually would sound.
When it comes to recorded sound it’s far too easy to over focus on the technical tonality of what’s coming out of your speakers rather than the musical balance. As a quick test, take any CD which sounds amazing and has survived the test of time, then make 2 EQ’d copies of it…1 with an extra 2db of 10k, and another with an extra 2db of 100hz. The next day, listen to all three versions and I’m sure you’ll find they all sound great and certainly more than acceptable. The point being that making something that sounds really good and timeless is much more in the musical realm than worrying about a few db’s of EQ or dynamics. I always try to mix to the sound of the music and not to the sound of the speakers.
Where do you feel the world of mixing will evolve to in the future? Are there any groundbreaking things on the horizon in mixing technology?
I think some of it is already here: 3D sound out of stereo speakers. It’s just a matter of learning how to harness it better. Also, mixing in the box is here to stay, so coming to terms with it and the importance of gain structure are the keys.
What is the single greatest tool in your mixing arsenal?
Single tool? Well, that would have to be good old mono! Whether working 5.1, stereo or multi-stem, every day I’ll always check things out quite regularly on one-speaker mono just to see how things are coming along, and focusing and then adjust accordingly. Some of the most listenable recordings ever made were in mono, and it’s really a tool that often gets overlooked.
So I want to get into mixing! In just a sentence, what is the best advice you could give?
Well, degrees in music, electronics, acoustics, architecture, construction, business and people skills are all attributes that might come in useful, however, it helps getting plugged into a related field straight out of college, and then good old interning till you get the breaks.
What is one plug-in you can’t live without? What is one tool you can’t mix without?
There’s actually two I regularly use…the EMI /Abbey Road collection (obviously!) and the UAD collection, although that needs an extra card in the rig and can often necessitate an expansion chassis. The biggest danger with plug-ins is the autosuggestion they convey mostly through their graphics, and if I can use them without being over influenced by the visual image they conjure up, they’re of much more creative use.
The other single most influence on DAW mixing is having a really great state of the art master clock, and at the moment the Antelope is my favorite to keep things as transparent and clean as possible.
What is a defining characteristic of your work?
That’s a hard one for me to answer, except that I attempt to create a sonic identity or branding for each composer that is instantly recognizable, but reflects his or her personality and taste. Whether or not accumulatively it also always sounds like me is more difficult to say. I’d like to think it always sounds fresh, but most importantly has a sound that conveys the soul as well as the balance of the score.
Jesper Kyd's score you recorded for Assassin's Creed II has received wide critical acclaim and recently won the G.A.N.G. Music of the Year Award at GDC. What makes it different from any of your previous work?
That comes back again to having a totally original sound and identity. I really don’t think Jesper sounds like anyone else, and the AC2 score created a palette of sounds that worked perfectly together with the game. We had a meeting at his house just a few days before the scoring sessions and he went through some of his mockups and what he was looking for with the orchestral elements. The recording schedule was incredibly fast-paced, so again it was vital to have everything concerning the sessions completely planned to the minutest detail and if you like, premeditated. The choir sessions were even faster still and we decided to keep Jesper’s samples in the mix. To make sure this would work, Jesper brought in the effects hardware he’d used on his sampled choir and I used it identically on the live singers getting a surprisingly effective blend. Neither the strings or choir were particularly large in numbers but it was a great example of getting great energy and power out of a medium-sized group. Jason Poss who I’d worked with on The Lord of the Rings scoring sessions did a great job with orchestration and conducting, and we had an incredibly efficient support team in Capitol’s control room.
Tell us about the StarCraft II sessions.
Composed by Russell Brower, Neal Acree, Derek Duke and Glenn Stafford, StarCraft II was recorded at Skywalker Ranch with The Skywalker Symphony comprising 78 players and conducted by the wonderful Eimear Noone. I’d discussed the setup with Russell Brower and what the approach for sound would be, and after throwing a few ideas around, we came up with a layout that had the trumpets and trombones split wide left and right in the room and the French Horns in the center. This was a little unconventional but the players quickly adapted to it, and they produced some impressively powerful and epic results. The choir was recorded about a week later at the church in Seattle. The differences in the venues initially raised the question of how well the blend would work since I normally try to provide Russell with live stereo stem mixes of orchestra and choir. So on this occasion we made both mixes somewhat shy of artificial reverb so that in post-production there was some freedom to add a common ambiance to both.
Any final thoughts or advice in general?
For me it’s all about first getting really focused images in my mind of how I expect each recording to sound. I guess it’s not unlike a director making a complete storyboard then going out and shooting to it. It’s also essential to be prepped and totally organized. If there’s going to be any spare time left over for creative ideas or suggestions during the tightest orchestral recording schedule, it can’t happen unless all the technical and logistical details are sorted beforehand. And since setup time is infinitely less costly than session time, I’ll never rush the setup. And finally, if you make some decisions along the way, the final mixing doesn’t have to be long and arduous.
For more information visit www.johnkurlander.com and if you missed Part 1 of this interview, you can read it here.