3D Movies are all the rage. But what's it like to compose, mix or re-mix the music for a 3D film? In fact, not just any 3D film, but the recently created "Flying Monsters" by the legendary David Attenborough? Scott Freiman, composer, mixing engineer and trainer extraordinaire just finished up mixing Flying Monsters and took some time-out to share his experiences over Skype.
In the first part of this illuminating two-part interview, Scott describes his approach to surround sound mixing and composing, getting organized during the mix and the work flow challenges involved in mixing live instruments with samples on some high profile films. Scott also reveals his secrets for breaking into the film and visual media world as a composer and mixing engineer. Read on to find out more...
Want to sit back and listen to the interview with Scott Freiman? No problem! Here are the original recordings for your listening pleasure! Let us know in the comments if you enjoy having the audio to listen to!
Hi Scott, thanks for making the time to do this interview (just two days after Christmas!)
No problem! Glad to be a part of it.
You're well known amongst the macProVideo audience for your excellent Pro Tools, Native Instruments and Reason tutorials. What is your musical focus when you're not creating tutorials for macProVideo?
Well, I tend to focus on music for film and television, although I do like writing the occasional song and when I'm working with film and TV the genres can be all over the map. I can do something very orchestral, with a lot of orchestral samples... sometimes with live orchestra... sometimes something more electronic, more 'dancey'. It really depends on what's called for. So when I'm composing I really let the video dictate to me what style I should be writing in.
So what's your creative approach? I noticed that you scored (the music) for "Life" and "Flying Monsters" by David Attenborough...
I didn't score Flying Monsters, I just mixed that. I did score part of Life, which in America is with Oprah Winfrey. And they re-did the whole score in America which is how I got some work out of it. They originally hired me to do the music mix and all the surround mixes. They had a lot of composers working on it and scoring different scenes.
There was a big time crunch and a lot of composers were enlisted. So you were getting people working in Cubase, Digital Performer, Pro Tools, Logic, and no one was using consistent samples. No one was really sending things in in a consistent manner. So my job became a lot of music editing and a lot of mixing to make sure that all the samples we used were sounding as good as other people's samples. And then we also had a live orchestra that was recorded in the Czech Republic (by the legendary Gary Chester), so a lot of times we were mixing live orchestra with sampled percussion and other sampled sounds and then doing this all in 5.1. It was a lot of fun. You need to be able to do a good 5.1 mix that also will sound good in stereo.
During the course of this project they asked me to compose some music for it so I was lucky enough to do that. The project I just completed is a film that just premiered yesterday (26th December 2010) on Sky TV 3D, Rupert Murdoch's channel, it's called "Flying Monsters". It'll be out in the big IMAX cinemas and the like in early 2011. I did a surround mix for that which was just wonderful. The score was by Joel Douek and it was a combined orchestral score with the orchestra recorded in the Czech Republic and sampled instruments: percussion and loops, etc. It was just a blast to mix that.
Do you have any tips on how to mix a live orchestra and sampled instruments? It must be quite a challenge!
Yes, it is! The thing to start with which works for me, whether I'm mixing a singer songwriter or mixing a TV Score, is first you have to listen to the music and you need to forget about mixing for a moment and just listen to what's there. Then figure out what are the parts of the music that need help. How's the spatial arrangement and balance of the instruments. And I always try and divide up editing and mixing.
I find that if you try and edit while you're mixing, so if you're taking out a bad note in the middle of a mix, it's almost like it's two sides of the brain. So I like to edit everything and make sure that all of my starts and ends are lined up... When recording an orchestra you have count in's... at the end of the piece you may have people who start talking, so I trim all those. I make sure if there's anyone who's played a wrong note I get it out of there... If there's samples that have been used and there are long periods of silence... I'll do everything I can to get it cleaned up and then I'll begin to mix.
To begin the mix I'll start with a little bit of overall balance, making sure the instruments are in the right locations and are relatively in balance with where I want them. So I don't have my strings too loud, my brass too low and my loops too far in front and so forth. And then I can start tweaking. So the next part becomes figuring out that (for example) the percussion loops that the composer put in and the cello part are clashing in the same frequency range. I might need to carve out a little of the frequency spectrum from one or the other.
I tend not to use a lot of compression and EQ except where necessary. I'm not one of those guys who starts putting that stuff all over the place. If it's a good recording (and I've been fortunate to work with some good recordings) then you shouldn't have to do a lot. If Mic placement was done well, the players were good, the loops you are using are good, then it doesn't call for a lot of EQ. EQ should be used sparingly and it should really be used where there are conflicts or where you really need to bring out some part of the frequency spectrum to enhance the quality of the sound. So that's the sort of overall approach I take.
You mentioned that you were mixing in 5.1 as well. Was that for Flying Monsters, which is being shown at IMAX cinemas?
It's on TV this weekend on Sky 3D TV. It's the first 3D 'made-for-TV-film'. It's been built for the Sky 3D TV channel and then it will be in IMAX theaters later. So we mixed it for surround but we also provided stereo mixes as well.
It's interesting that it's in 3D. When you were watching the program before (or during) mixing did you watch it in 3D?
Unfortunately, I didn't get to. The music mixes I did were sent to London where it was mixed in with the dialogue and any other special effects. They were working on a sound stage with the full 3D rendering. I had a preliminary version, so I saw the sketches and the schematics and the frameworks of a lot of the 3D creatures. But the 3D work (was) being done by some of the same people that work on Avatar, so I can't wait to see it myself!
As Flying Monsters is being screened in 3D and for TV and for IMAX... what was your process for emulating what it (the mix) would sound like in an IMAX theater environment?
Well, the truth of the matter is that the IMAX mix will do done in the next month or so. They will take my music mix and then we'll do a specific IMAX mix because IMAX theaters tend to have more speakers and so forth. So, I haven't done the final music mix for that. What we did when we prepared the mix is a couple of things:
First of all whatever studio you're working in (in this case mine) has to be tuned properly. You have to make sure that what you're hearing is accurate. The speakers you're using, the speaker placement, the audio baffling in the studio and so forth. You have to make sure that what you're hearing is going to be accurate and is going to translate to other studios. I always make sure before I start a project that I double-check all my calibrations.
Then when I mix I have certain levels and so forth that I aim for, knowing that when the music gets mixed with the dialogue they might push the music down, I'm mixing as if it's only a music score.
When I'm working on a film where I'm also doing sound effects, room tone and dialogue etc, then I will mix the music with everything else. But in this particular case for Flying Monsters my job was to make the music sound as good as possible and the final Re-Recording Mixer would mix that in with everything else.
I provide the Mixer a 5.1 mix, a stereo mix and then I provide several stems. So I'll provide an orchestral stem, maybe a woodwind, maybe a brass, maybe a loops, maybe percussion, keyboards, harp, so forth. It really depends, but I'll try and standardize it for a project. That gives the final Mixer the flexibility to bring something in or out as needed. So if they find that the orchestral score sounds great until they have the big explosion and they want to bump up the percussion a little bit, they have a separate percussion stem and they can get access to that element. So I make sure that the files I give to the final Mixer give them some flexibility.
And the final thing, no matter what you're doing... The naming conventions, the directory structure, the organization. All of that is absolutely critical, because there's nothing worse that being in an environment where things aren't named properly, you can't find files and things are missing! You have to make sure that everything you're doing is named right and in the right directorys and so forth.
One of the things that happens with some DAWs like Pro Tools is someone gives you a disc with some files on it, you start editing and Pro Tools is saving your edits onto that separate disc. The disc goes away and all of a sudden some of your files are missing. I always do a Save Session Copy in Pro Tools to make sure I've gathered, not only the session, but all the associated audio files. You have to do the same thing in Logic and other programs as well. You must make sure that everything is there and someone should be able to look at the file names and see very clearly how everything is laid out.
So you mentioned the re-recording mixing. For the benefit of our audience can you explain what the role of a Re-Recording Mixer is vs a Sound Mixer?
Sure. On a film or TV project - a larger project - you'll often have people who are just responsible for mixing dialogue, and people just responsible for music or others just responsible for sound effects and so forth. At the end of the chain someone has to put it all together. That is typically the role of the Re-Recording Mixer. When I work on smaller Indie films I'm all of those people! I mix my music, then put it in and then edit the dialogue and the sound effects.
But, on bigger projects we have teams of people. If you ever look at the credits on a Hollywood film you can see that the sound department is massive and ultimately that sound has to get mixed and it's usually mixed in groups like I mentioned. Then those final groups are put together in the studio to make the final mix for the film.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to embark on a career scoring for film/TV or becoming involved as a Mixing Engineer for visual media?
Well, a couple of things. Number one, whatever you're doing with music you must listen. Watch films and listen to the music or watch TV or put on CD's and listen to different composers. You learn by listening. You tune your ears but you also find out things you like and you don't like. And if there's a mix that you really don't like that bothers you... Why is it? You need to find that out. If there's a mix you really like, why is that? If there's a song you really like, what made it so good? If there's a strange instrument, what is that strange instrument? So listening is very important.
Reading. Staying up to date with anything from magazines like SoundOnSound to forums like VI-Control which is where all the film/TV composers hang out. There are also great topics of discussion there. I learn a tremendous amount from those forums.
Probably the third thing is to find a mentor of some kind. I'm fortunate to have a lot of people around me who are in the business, who are very willing to help, whether it's Steve Horelick who lives in the next town over who can help me with all my Logic questions to some great composers and film/TV people. I'll often pick up the phone and ask them a question. Also, when I started out I did a lot of work for free just to learn. Without going to a school or anything, sometimes you can learn more by being thrown into a project.
So educating yourself, whether it's listening, reading or talking to people, who know the biz so to speak, is incredibly helpful as well as watching all the videos at macProVideo.com!
And did you find that when you started out you were basically knocking on a lot of doors and trying to do work for free?
I'm still knocking on a lot of doors although I'm not doing much for free anymore. But yes, I took on a lot of student projects that were great learning experiences. I had some projects with horrible sound and I just had to do something with them... or just atrocious films that I had to write a score for... and you learn! But, if you don't have access to a university with film students around then there's plenty of stuff on YouTube or out on the web that you can just take and for your own purposes... erase the sound and put your own score on it. (Just for practice). That really, really helps.
There's a communication aspect to this business that people often ignore. The idea that you're working with directors and producers who may not be as familiar with music as you are. They don't understand what technology you're using. They don't understand, you know, major and minor and what a bridge is and whatever. You have to find out a way to communicate with that person because that person is your boss, your employer. If you do a good job you're making your work better, whether it's your score or your mix... it's critical that you realize you're working on behalf of their vision.
So the way to talk to people is very important and you get that practice by doing projects and you find out how far you can push your ideas before you have to back-off. You find out when they tell you they don't like something... you have to find out ways of asking them why they don't like it, where they may not have the same language that you have to describe something. It becomes a very important learning experience on how to communicate with these people.
Thank you. So I noticed another film you've done recently has received critical acclaim across the world called "Budrus". Can you tell us a little about that project?
Sure. I was asked to do the mix for Budrus. This is a case where I did the complete sound mix, dialogue, effects - although it's a documentary so there aren't any effects - and of course music. It's in Hebrew, Arabic and English which makes it very tricky to do a sound mix because you have to make sure you're not cutting off something that's important in one language that's not important in English.
Since it's a documentary, you don't have the luxury of having multiple takes to go back to. If there's an explosion in the background and you have someone speaking over the top of it you've got to use that and you have to find a way to make it work. So it's a real challenge.
It's a great project. Budrus is a film about Palestinians who are protesting the Israeli occupation in a non-violent way. It's a great message to show that there can be non-violent protests for various causes or conflicts throughout the world. I'm a big supporter of non-violent protests so it's great to be able to do something I love for a project that I care a lot about.
The film has been getting a lot of acclaim. It's been shown in Congress, in the United States. It's been shown all over the world, including all over the Middle East. I think it's getting a lot of people talking which is the best thing. Whether you agree with everything in the film or not it gets people discussing it and anything that promotes non-violence I think is a good thing!
... Link to Part 2 of this interview (coming soon) will appear here. Amongst other things, Scott candidly talks about his studio, the Beatles and more...
To discover more about Scott Freiman's Pro Tools, Native Instruments and Reason tutorials check out his trainer page.
For more info on Scott Freiman the composer and to hear his music visit this site.