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How Do Composers Score Music During a Pandemic? One Single Instrument At a Time

Inside the painstaking and “very convoluted” process of building film scores in Covid, which involves meshing together hundreds of individually recorded files from every member of an orchestra

ELIZABETH DEBICKI and JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action epic "TENET."

Warner Bros. Pictures

Ludwig Göransson was in the middle of scoring Tenet, Warner Brothers’ most anticipated film of the year, when the pandemic struck — not only pausing most of the film industry’s releases, but also keeping his entire orchestra sequestered, unable to get together in a room and rehearse or record together.

With no clue about when the global lockdown might ease, Göransson and Paul Broucek, Warner Brothers’ president of music, were scrambling. “None of the stages were open yet, we hadn’t figured out the protocols, the musician’s union hadn’t figured out what they were willing to expose musicians to yet, and no one knew what to do,” Broucek recalls.

But director Christopher Nolan was intent on finishing up the film, and Warner Brothers was still looking to wrap up projects that were in post-production. Broucek and Göransson couldn’t wait for recording studios to reopen. The team already had a couple days of orchestral recordings done from nearly a year ago for Tenet’s trailer, and they searched for 30 to 50 local musicians who had an adequate recording setup to play from home. They spent six weeks recording 30 minutes’ worth of music, piecemeal. With Nolan protective of his work, Broucek couldn’t share the unreleased music with other composers, so in mid-April he took a few musicians from Göransson’s team and paid them for extra time to record a rendition of English folk standard “Greensleeves” as a sample to prove to other composers that putting together an orchestral score in quarantine could indeed be done. 

Scoring a film or TV series the normal way — often requiring a hundred musicians to clamor into a room side by side for hours at a time, bellowing spit out of instruments — presents a major public-safety danger in the midst of a pandemic; to avoid that, composers, musicians, and studio staff across entertainment sectors have had to either pull off socially distanced recording sessions in very spacious studios or ask each player to record their own track from home, then painstakingly compile the files, one musician at a time.

“In those early days, where we were all in the dark with no idea what to do, there was value to even say to people ‘we’re testing another way to work in the meantime, and it’s viable,’” Broucek says. “Ideally you wouldn’t have to pick it for most scores, but it started the conversation. I played [the ‘Greensleeves’ demo] for anyone who wanted to listen. Agents, composers, friends of mine. You’d have the doubters who’d say it wasn’t something they’d want to do, and maybe so, but if we need to finish the film, we need to look at any way that’s reasonable and acceptable.” 

Peter Rotter, who contracted the orchestra for Tenet along with several other projects that developed during the pandemic, said Göransson and Broucek in particular helped reassure him that remote sessions were viable. He, in turn, tried to evangelize the concept to his clients.

“Before they did the test with Tenet, no one knew how this was going to work, it could’ve been a disaster. When this happened I looked at this as a musical Dunkirk — I knew my musicians would die if we didn’t rescue them,” Rotter says. “So I looked at every composer, every studio I know and told them that we need to continue to do this and that it could be done. Thankfully, several jumped on. Phil Eisner’s a good example, he agreed to doing his last few sessions of Empire remotely. The Bleeding Fingers team did it. Hans Zimmer came through and did it remotely. They could’ve said they didn’t want to deal with the headache or hassle, but they came through for this community to support the musicians who need to make a living.”

Tom Holkenborg, better known as Junkie XL, is a composer who prides himself on his ability to turn on a dime. Holkenborg is accustomed to wild-swinging, fast-paced deadlines as he’s spent the past several years scoring blockbusters like Deadpool and Mad Max: Fury Road — but Covid’s unpredictability has been something else. Seeing cases rising early in the Netherlands, his home country, Holkenborg started remote recording in March and has employed a volatile mixture of remote and socially distanced recording sessions throughout the year.

“I’ve been all over the board with the six projects I’ve done during this period. The rules can be one-on-one recordings at home, to only allowing five players in a room, to the rules changing to a maximum of 24 in the studio,” says Holkenborg, whose work during the pandemic has included The Army of the Dead, Godzilla vs Kong and a director’s cut of Justice League. “Then it’ll go back down to a maximum of 12 in the room, then three, then one at a time in the studio, but there’s an hour break between each player to let the room ventilate and get cleaned with disinfectants.”

Recording in Covid forces a time-management crunch, too. Holkenborg is used to recording a project in six days; he says the average time for his pandemic-era projects has been 10 to 12 weeks. The technical aspects of remote recording suck up a lot of extra time: Many studio musicians have never learned to work extensively with recording software or equipment on their own, and they often need to be trained by composers or sound engineers remotely walking them through the steps to maximize sound quality. Holkenborg acts as his own engineer. 

“It’s very convoluted and takes a lot of preparation. One person is recording in one software, another may be using a different one. Some might have preamps to boost their mic, others are just recording on their iPhones,” Holkenborg says. “That’s where my experience as a traditional engineer comes in. My job is to bring all these instruments together and make it sound like a group. That takes time when one person is recording in their basement with carpets on their walls, while another is in their bathroom.”

David Newman — whose career spans nearly 40 years with compositions for The Sandlot, The Nutty Professor and about a hundred other movies or shows — had 50 musicians recording their lines from home for his score for Netflix series Green Eggs and Ham, rather than the 90 musicians originally expected to perform. He spent 15 hours over a couple days recording his rhythm section (drums, guitar, bass and keyboard) one at a time. The rest sent their individual files separately.

One of the greatest challenges, Newman says, has been the fact that removing musicians from one another removes any sort of leader to follow. Keeping in tune in a vacuum is a challenge too. Musicians “can’t tell if you’re in tune with somebody else because you’re all by yourself. There’s a lot of pitch fixes that have to be done, and level matching, and you have to make up a room. And you have 16 violin tracks to balance, some are playing louder than others, you have to go through every single track. It’s a nightmare.”

Facing the brunt of that nightmare was Noah Snyder, Newman’s sound engineer on the project who worked most with the files. The quicker two-day process was pushed up to five days, he says, and he’s had to deal with significantly more files. But as laborious as the task is, he needs to take it on.

“We are out on a limb. There’s not a lot of options for us. There was no plan for this, we’re just figuring it out. We’re all trying to take care of each other,” Snyder says. “This is how Covid is in all industries. Everything is 20 times as hard. When the other option is nothing, I’m grateful we could do anything at all.”

This summer, lockdown restrictions eased a bit, and some composers were able to record, socially distanced, in studios like Abbey Road in London and Fox Studios in Los Angeles. Alan Silvestri, the composer behind the music for Forrest Gump, Back to the Future and most of the Avengers films, recorded his latest film The Witches at a socially distanced Abbey Road — though Silvestri himself was halfway across the world. Silvestri would tune in early from his home in Carmel, California, and his team recorded each orchestral section (strings, woodwinds, harps, piano, percussion and brass) separately, one at a time, to give the musicians enough room to keep apart from one another. He and the team recorded in eight days, twice as long as a non-Covid session. It’s a costly provision as Warner Brothers had to pay for twice as many days in the studio.

While Covid cases have risen significantly in major cities since summer, Broucek maintains that Warner Brothers, at least, is still carving out recording studio time for scores: It wrapped up orchestral sessions to Suicide Squad last week, with Covid safety measures in force.

“This is how Covid is in all industries. Everything is 20 times as hard.”

But like much of corporate America, the film-scoring industry has discovered a silver lining out of Covid: It’s realized that not all work going forward needs to be done in person. Composers may not need to travel across the world for sessions. And recording in smaller sections or one-on-one segments has given composers far more control over their sound.

As Silvestri says: “When you have 95 people in a room, there’s a level of physics that comes to play by the very fact that you have all of these people and all of this happening at the same time. Doing these sessions under a microscopic lens, there’s a possibility of really hearing everyone in a unique way that just couldn’t happen before.”

Holkenborg says Covid has given him a couple new strategies to keep around. He misses connecting with musicians and filmmakers in person, but his team has improved its productivity and performance quality. “Covid or not, I always ask for two takes where they give everything they’ve got, and most interestingly, the performances have been insane,” Holkenborg says. “They’re playing at 100%. When you’ve got 10 to 15 other musicians around you doing a stellar job and it’s just not your day, you can truck along, it’s natural. But when you’re alone… you can’t send that to the composer. There aren’t off days.”

Still, there’s something to be said about the larger-than-life sound of a hundred musicians playing in unison.

Silvestri’s final product was on par with what he could have made with everyone in a room together, but “I can’t help but think that it would have been different had they all been together, reacting off of each other, balancing off with each other,” he says.

Recording orchestral parts by individual sections, or “stemming,” isn’t an uncommon practice in music production, Newman notes — but making musicians play while devoid of contact with one another does change the sound. “When you hear other people around you, it’s like a big code. Everyone has their job, and their sounds help carry each other,” he says. “There’s something musicians add into their music when they’re collaborating and synergizing with others. It impacts how things well up, how aggressively you play, how softly you play. Bodies in a room make a difference.”

From Rolling Stone US