Settling the Score: How Film Composers are Handling a Global Pandemic

Film scores are the emotional backbone of every movie. Film composers and their music are able to pull at the heartstrings of audiences worldwide and allow the dialogue to be properly conveyed through the screen. It is so integral to the movie experience that we have specific awards dedicated to multiple aspects of the music making process within film. The experience of recording a film score is often lengthy and involves large scale studios that can accommodate many musicians at once. However, during the past year COVID-19 has changed the rules completely. These unprecedented times created not only lack of work for musicians, but never before seen challenges for film and tv composers. With limited space and sanitization concerns film composers are having to come up with various new ways of getting their music to sound the way they want.

Recording Individually in Tenet

Tenet was ground zero for this new style of recording.

One method which is being used currently to record music for film in a safe way is recording different parts (instrumental or vocal) individually. One of the first films to utilize this unique recording style was Warner Brother’s Tenet, which was wrapping up production right when the global pandemic shut down. According to Rolling Stone magazine, Composer Ludwig Göransson and President of music at Warner Brothers Paul Broucek hired 30 to 50 local musicians to record 30 minutes’ worth of music in their home studios. This amount of music, which could normally be recorded in a single day with a full orchestra, took an astonishing 6 weeks to piece together. Tom Holkenberg, the composer responsible for the upcoming film scores to Godzilla vs Kong and the director’s cut of Justice League, has been quoted as saying his usual 6-day recording timeline has increased exponentially to anywhere from 10 to 12 weeks. This process is painstaking and often very taxing on the composer and producers responsible with putting out a score that is expected to sound just like one which was recorded with a full orchestra. Sound engineering know-how is invaluable to composers nowadays and having to compile different recordings from multiple software with various sound qualities is a feat not many wanted to originally take on.

While Göransson and Broueck proved it was possible, the task of “spreading the good news” about this new recording method fell heavily on Peter Rotter. Rotter is a well-known music contractor in the visual media business and owns his own company Peter Rotter Music Services. He was the music contractor for the “ground-zero” film Tenet and was able to tell his other contracted composers how they can utilize this method for their projects. Mr. Rotter also assisted Kris Bowers in finishing recording for the FX series Mrs. America during the early days of quarantine.

Kris Bowers utilized new recording methods for both the score and source music for Mrs. America.

Bowers talked about this experience with podcast host Jon Burlingame on the Disney podcast For Scores. Bowers recounted how it was Peter Rotter (his contractor at the time) who helped him find musicians to record themselves for this show. This recording session was even more thorough than that of Ludwig Göransson’s as they required each musician to record themselves with varying sound implements and distances from the microphone. After the successful scores for big projects such as Tenet and Mrs. America, acceptance for this method spread to other big-name composers in the realm of TV and Film. Composers such as Fil Eisner and Hans Zimmer took up the challenge of completing projects from the comfort of their own homes.

There are a few perks to having musicians record themselves. Recording from home, while time consuming, also helps composers not have to worry about the ever-changing rules of recording studios. These rules constantly have to adapt and vary based on location and government regulations. Studio rules can range anywhere from 5 players to a room, to 24 people in the studio, to being shut down all together. Day to day changes in studio regulations also cause a rising cost in using them as double the days spent recording equates to double the cost. These are a few motivators to utilize musicians who have good recording set ups in their homes.

Combining Live with Digital in Safety

Even though production was wrapped for this movie pre-Covid, the music process has only just begun.

A majority of composers today take advantage of music writing software to put their ideas down in notation form. Popular programs for this include Sibelius and Finale. Composers also use digital audio workstations (DAWs) to create a reference sound before recording the music with live musicians. Both of these implements create versions of the music out of their respective Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI sound). Previously, MIDI files were known to not sound realistic and often thought of as a stepping stool to live recording. As time and technology have progressed however, so has the realism of MIDI instruments. Composers are starting to see further potential for them, and the music world is becoming more excepting of them. Composition graduate programs even allow MIDI versions of scores to be submitted on applications.

This increased appreciation for digital sounds has come in handy during the time of government mandated lockdowns and quarantines. While some film score composers are taking the time to record dozens of musicians individually, others are finding ways of getting results quicker. One such example is Grammy-winning composer Marcus Miller who outlined his experience on Disney’s For Scores podcast. Right when he was beginning come up with ideas for the Disney+ original film Safety the world was shut down due to COVID-19. Miller however, being a well-versed jazz musician and recording artist, came up with a uniquely creative solution. Some elements of this score were recorded live by individual musicians similarly to the method outlined above pioneered by Ludwig Göransson. However, for instrumental sections such as the drumline it was one musician who played all the parts. With such a sparse live recording sound, how did Miller achieve a full sounding score? He utilized digital instruments. Supplementing the live sounds with MIDI from computer software gave the soundtrack a very unique sound that was still able to evoke the emotions being portrayed in the movie. Not many composers in today’s movie culture would be brave enough to submit a digital score as the final copy but Marcus Miller made it work and the results fit perfectly with the movie.

Conclusion

The world is changing in a significant way in regard to work culture. Many businesses are beginning to see the viability of working from home. While this is more difficult for those in the music business, it still permeates their livelihood. More musicians are having to learn about recording and how to use various software so that they can keep their main source of income. Composers are having to think outside of the box to achieve something thought virtually impossible a year ago. Musicians are now able to connect and collaborate on projects from thousands of miles away. This means that a new foundation is being built and musical standards are being shifted out of necessity. While the original way of cramming dozens of musicians into a recording studio may seem out of reach right now, I’m sure that it will return soon enough. Until then, we have these ways of creating music together.

Professional music instructor focused on analyzing musical concepts and trends in popular music.

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