Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Music from the Studio at the End of the Universe: Scoring The House Between 2.0

By Mateo Latosa

Scoring the The House Between 2.0 was a very different experience to scoring season one. In great part that was because I was working without Cesar Gallegos, co-composer and friend from THB 1.0. I really missed the musical give and take that created a situation of alchemy during our recording sessions.

Many pieces from 2.0 were recorded in multiple versions, new permutations, at different recording sessions because ideas occurred to me only I got home and listened to them. On 1.0, Cesar and I would generally work out the kinks of a piece before we recorded it. I don’t have his insight for music (I have mine, but not his) so I felt like I was flying blind (add that to the earlier metaphor).

Now let me say, working with John Kenneth Muir is NOT a thankless job. He is effusive in his praise and gratitude. Ultimately he, JKM -- the boss -- is the music editor. He knows what he wants, where it will go, and how long it will play. But despite his instant reactions to new pieces, I wouldn’t really get a sense of whether the pieces worked until I saw the finished episodes weeks later. Sometimes they’d be there, underscoring the scene to which they were intended. Other times they’d be missing completely, replaced by other cues. Judgment rendered!

John always apologized when he nixed a cue, and I always reminded him that his opinion is the only one that matters when it comes to music editing (placing cues to film). The fact that he used 99% of everything we sent him is more important than where he’d placed it.

The score for THB 2.0 was recorded at the home studio of the L.A. band, Diversion, and engineered by two of its members: Jose Sanchez and Anthony Godoy. They had their own musical sensibility but had never worked on a score before. It was awkward at first; we didn’t know each other well and had never worked together before. But by the second session we were able to kick it into high gear and started to crank out the cues. Anthony was the principal engineer while Jose doubled as guitarist on a few pieces. Their suggestions regarding instrumentation, over-dubbing and mixing were invaluable. It was a different experience than the THB 1.0 sessions, but a no less fruitful one.

Oh, and another thing…we had a budget! The Lulu Show came through and made this an officially commissioned score!

The Scoring Process

John had sent me an overview of season two’s episodes. This included a brief synopsis of the story of each episode—a brief description of each character’s arc, an introduction to the new characters and certain plot points that would need specifically composed cues. The first session’s cues were written to this overview.

Later John would send me a cue list for each episode (or two) in which he’d detail where he felt music was needed, its tone and length. Generally, I’d compose cues for more than one episode at a time. I’d literally check them off his printed email as we recorded and mixed down each cue. As in season one—even more so—I composed to email—not to a click track or any video at all. The first time I’d see the episodes was when the viewing public did!

Once all the cues for that session were mixed (as WAVs), we’d convert them to MP3s and email them as a zipped bundle to John. He would unzip them and listen to them while I listened with him on my cell phone. He’d give me his first impressions of each cue right then and there. Talk about instant feedback!

Compositional Structure

For THB 2.0 I set out to compose and record fewer cues but with a longer average length. I felt we’d fallen into a trap during season one by making cues so specifically timed to the action of a scene that their future utility as library tracks was limited. So I set out to record longer pieces with natural pauses from which sections could be excerpted to fit the lengths of multiple scenes.

This was different from the solution we’d come up with for season one; we were aware of the potential problem then as well. In season one we recorded “re-voiced” versions of the same cues so that if they were reused, they would have different instrumentation and therefore not be readily recognizable as a repeated cue.

Also, if a cue had multiple layers, we’d separate out two or three layers and record them as an alternate version. In this way one cue could provide three or four different variations.

Equipment/Programs/Instrumentation

For THB 2.0 I used the following:

Equipment:
Mackie 24 channel 8 bus mixer
P.C. computer
Presonis 8 channel sound card

Programs:
Cubase
Soundforge

Plug-ins:
Cakewalk
Roland Groove
PSP Nitro
Instruments:
Oxygen MIDI keyboard
Gibson Les Paul guitar

2 comments:

  1. Fantastic post, it's good to hear your side of things! One question - if John ever sent you footage of edited scenes to work from instead of just text, how would that change your approach to the scoring?

    John and I had a talk as we were wrapping up 3.0 shooting, and I told him even though it had been infuriating at times, I was glad he hadn't revealed all Astrid's secrets to me at the beginning, since it might have colored my performance (subconsciously or otherwise) so I wonder if seeing the scenes as you compose for them might limit you in the same way, or not.

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  2. Anonymous3:48 PM

    During season one, we did have rough cuts of the episodes on DVD. But we didn't have a click-track program, so we just watched the series to get a feel for the tone and tempo of the series. We were scoring the series based on its tone and tempo (dark, mysterious, slow and deliberate). We also tried to develop musical themes for each character (including the house).

    I feel that John and I are sympatico (in the English sense of the word), and that he was able to communicate effectively what he was looking for. He stated clearly that he didn't want an electronic sci-fi score (and I use the term sci-fi specifically). I understood that he wanted it scored as a drama. I expressed this to Cesar when he came on board. Now, of course--and I told him so at the time, we HAD to deliver an electronic score, but that it wouldn't sound like an electronic score.

    Now that said, we watched your performance and it DID affect the cues we composed. The same for the other actors. We used a lot of piano for Astrid while also taking inspiration from Howard Shores themes for Agent Starling in Silence of the Lambs (Astrid's first exploration of the house). We wanted to highlight her inner fragility under the streetwise bravado.

    For Arlo, we perceived him as a child-like adult, and so his theme is almost like that of a music box--an idea that John later incorporated onscreen. Now that was an honor!

    Hope this answers your question.

    Mateo

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