Interview with John Kurlander Pt. 1

John joined the team at Abbey Road Studios at the age of 16. His first major assignment was as the assistant engineer on The Beatles’ “ABBEY ROAD” LP. He quickly went on to become one of the world’s leading recording engineers for classical music, orchestral classic rock, musical theatre and then crossed over to film scores. He is perhaps best known for his engineering and mixing work on “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING,” “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS” AND “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING,” for which John took home 3 consecutive GRAMMYS for Best Score Soundtrack Album and 3 consecutive TEC Awards for Best Film Sound Production. His recent notable projects include engineering the score sessions for the Academy Award winning film THE HURT LOCKER (music by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders), the G.A.N.G. Music of the Year award-winning video game score ASSASSIN’S CREED II (music by Jesper Kyd) and highly anticipated computer game STARCRAFT II (Blizzard Entertainment).

How did you get started in recording and mixing?

At the age of 13, my school classmates were taken on a field trip to nearby EMI Studios in St John’s Wood where we were to record some crowd-like noises for the studio’s sound FX library. We recorded for a couple of hours that morning down at the live end of Studio 2, being most careful not to touch any of The Beatles’ instruments which were set up at the far end of the room, ready for them to record later that same day. And that was the day in 1965 my mind was made up to follow this career!

How long have you have you been in the industry and what has drastically changed in the world of mixing over the span of your career?

I started off in 1968 as an assistant recording engineer, “tape-op” or even “button pusher” as it was referred to then, and got my first engineering gig 2 years later. In those days, the mixing desks had been purely valve and only had 10 faders, although by 1970 solid-state desks had been introduced, and I recall the first desk I mixed on was an EMI TG12345 with 24 Faders. We recorded on to 8-track tape machines that had a considerable amount of tape saturation, particularly on transients so when we played off tape, a lot of things sounded different to how they were going in. Therefore, one of the earliest skills I needed to master was how to make those compensations before tape so it would come out ok. Then again when mixing down to mono or stereo, more saturation and losses would occur, so there was a lot of pre-compensation and thought needed all the way through.

I did my first classical recording in Liverpool, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 1975 direct to stereo tape, so in as much as it was only ever going to be one generation of tape saturation, it was somewhat easier to know at the time what I was going to get. We always listened off tape.

Analog tape recording then up scaled pretty rapidly from 8-track, 16t, 24t, 32t and eventually 48-track by which time the machines were using analog to digital converters. When I made the move to Los Angeles in the mid 90’s most film scores were being made to a Sony Digital 3348 tape machine, and Pro Tools was an 8-track device used for final mix-downs and its editing capabilities. With the approval and impetus of composer David Newman, we (Marty Frasu, Digidesign’s Tom Graham and I) put ourselves on the spot by being the first team ever to assemble and use a 48-track input /output Pro Tools rig as principal recorder for a live orchestral scoring session. Although having the safety net of a tape backup running, it was still an exciting day at 20th Century Fox Scoring Stage to be at the bleeding edge of the next stage of recording technology.

What are important external elements like monitors, room, acoustic treatment, etc. to recording?

All of those are equally important, but most importantly is that you are totally comfortable with the choices and that ear fatigue is minimized. If I’m choosing speakers for instance, I think it’s impossible to make a snap decision; you have to live with it for quite a while as the feeling or discomfort with the monitor system gradually becomes apparent. It’s often not the most instantly flattering system that is your best choice. When choosing monitors (or mixes, for that matter) it’s just human nature that most of us automatically are drawn to either the brighter or louder of any two options, so making a wise choice going against that pattern is always tough. Having made that choice, I still find a quick 20 sec. listen on a pair of good headphones also confirms you’re on the right path.

What is the most important internal element to recording?

After about 3 years of recording and mixing, I learnt that you have to be excruciatingly honest with yourself. It’s always really easy to recognize when a mix is right. It will sound great on every system and in every room or situation. The problem comes when it doesn’t sound that way, and you either doubt yourself or worse still, you try to convince yourself that it’s because you’re tired or bored with it, and it really does sound alright…it probably doesn’t. Moreover, the kiss of death is when you find yourself saying to the others around “what do you think?’ Well, by that point, for sure, it’s wrong.

What about an understanding of acoustics and of the instruments you are mixing?

I think it’s important to know how each instrument vibrates the air around it and the different directions the air moves in.

When talking about recording acoustic instruments, particularly large orchestras, understanding room acoustics is really vital because microphone selection and placement is the key. Not only acoustic treatments, but also how geographically speaking, rooms of similar size and dimensions can perform so differently. For instance, a room built to earthquake-code in Southern California will sound very different to a more solid East Coast or European room. The floors, walls and ceilings are all completely different in terms of mass and density, and this will have quite an influence on the resonance and transmission of the low end. Oh, and don’t forget all the crazy esoteric stuff like relative humidity! (Yawns)

What are the most important keys to success when it comes to recording and mixing?

Well primarily, I consider myself very lucky… in fact, one of my favorite composers consistently attributes a great sounding session to me having got lucky! I’ll spend a disproportionate amount of time doing homework research and planning a setup just to make sure that I’ve got all the bases covered, and hopefully I’ll continue to get lucky on a consistent basis! I think that the setting up and miking is one of the key things to get right, and if you get that right, the music will mostly mix itself. It’s also quite important not to leave too many decisions right up to the end so I try to do some premixes along the way whilst keeping all the original elements available yet hidden. That way if an issue arises we can back paddle a little, but generally mixing as you go along can make the final mix a lot quicker, spontaneous and enjoyable.

Another thing is that in a mix, if things aren’t going well, I’ll mostly just take a break or better still go home, and come in earlier the next morning and sure enough a different path or solution will present itself. I believe it’s very important not to over labour anything…recording and mixing should be easy. It certainly isn’t rocket science, so subjectivity and state of mind is really the main thing, and if a complex mix doesn’t come together in about an hour or two, I’ll generally move on and return to it later. If we have say 5 days to mix a project I’ll aim to get everything done by the end of day 3, then review them all and re-approach the more complex or problematic cues a 2nd or even 3rd time. Starting on easier cues and working up to the more difficult ones is also a great way to get better acquainted with the style of the piece and usually provides most of the clues to the puzzle along the way.

You have mixed some an amazing variety of scores and albums, how do you adjust from mixing a game score to an album of an entirely different genre?

To me it’s all music, and my approach is equally diverse and appropriate whatever the end use might be. On my first game score, KOTOR 2, I was intrigued to find out exactly what the different requirements were from making albums, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that other than the delivery format of stem mixes as requested, I found it to be no different at all. I think it’s quite important to realize at the onset the end use of the music, and for instance on a game score, I’ll often take a quick listen at the start of an orchestra session through my MacBook speakers just to see how things will translate. It’s better to do this at the start of the session because then it’s easier to make the small mic adjustments that end up making all the big differences. It’s also really worth doing some mp3 transfers along the way just to see how things are going to turn out through the bottleneck, rather that finding out that kind of thing right at the end, when it might be too late.

I’ll plan every new recording with an open mind and hope to envisage a sound that will suit that project. Of course if I’m dealing with sequels or multiple part projects then it’s the reverse – everything is kept identical in order to maintain a high degree of continuity, unless we’ve decided to change direction for artistic reasons.