Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


Monitoring the Score

Today’s motion-picture audiences expect high-energy, enveloping scores that complement the director’s vision and ensure a fully involving atmosphere.

Part 1: The Composer

Emmy Award-winning composer Geoff Zanelli uses PMC
MB2S reference monitors to monitor his productions.
Today’s motion-picture audiences expect high-energy, enveloping scores that complement the director’s vision and ensure a fully involving atmosphere. Both composers and scoring engineers need access to state-of-theart production systems to realize that sound dimension.

“Compared to a pop-music session,” offers composer Henry Jackman, “the wide dynamic range of an orchestral score puts extraordinary demands upon a monitoring system. A rock song needs to be loud and aggressive, with a narrow, carefully controlled dynamic range, whereas a score is often entirely subtle, with low-level instruments working together with loud crescendos. I need to be able to hear everything that is happening in the score.”

Jackman studied classical music at St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School, Eton College and Oxford University, and has composed music for such successful films as The Da Vinci Code, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, The Holiday, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Black Knight and Monsters vs. Aliens. He has also made three solo albums, including Utopia, a CD of original music that combined Latvian choirs with innovative Electronica, as well as programming music for Mike Oldfield, Marc Almond and Kirsty McColl. Recent/in-progress projects include scores for Gulliver’s Travels and XMen: First Class for director Matthew Vaughn.

“With the right reference monitors, I spend less time worrying about the sonic content—am I hearing everything on the track, from the subtleties to the highly dynamic parts?— and can focus more on what’s supposed to be happening emotionally in the cue. I remember listening to a mix for Henry IV made here [at Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions in Santa Monica, CA] on another set of monitors. In bar 7, I could hear a page turn (a low-level scraping of paper against the music stand) that I had not heard during the mix. I need that level of analytic resolution; once I trust my monitors, I can get down to the business of composing and making really detailed judgments about internal balances, which are critical.

“Although I do not have a subwoofer in my composing room, the frequency response of these reference monitors extends to 20 Hz, with a very controlled bottom end. With my previous speakers, I was never really sure what was happening in the lower frequencies, which was a problem for film cues that contained deep bass lines and low, rumbling percussion.”

A mix also needs to translate accurately to the environment in which the film score will be re-recorded and then played back to movie audiences. “When I’m writing my music,” emphasizes Emmy Award-winning composer Geoff Zanelli, “I want to be as close to the final sound on the dub stage as I can. I need to hear what is happening in the lower registers, to provide a clear picture of what the low end is doing. The score can build from quiet, subtle passages through loud drum rolls. Or it might include a giant drum played softly, so it is essential that I know what is happening within the composition to ensure that voices work well with one another.”

Composer Henry Jackman monitors his work on PMC
IB2S reference monitors.
Zanelli has worked on a number of landmark film scores, including all three films in The Pirates Of The Caribbean Trilogy, The Last Samurai, Hitman and Gamer; he co-wrote the song, “Don’t Make Me Wait,” for Disturbia. His score for Into the West won a 2006 Emmy; in 2010 he co-wrote the score for HBO’s miniseries, The Pacific.

Within their custom-designed composing rooms, both Zanelli and Jackman use orchestral samples and synthesized elements to develop a temporary score for review by the director. “Then we re-record the orchestral parts with a live orchestra on the scoring stage,” Jackman explains, who works regularly with engineer/ mixer Alan Meyerson. “We might also record additional elements—percussion, for example, or a choral part— that will be added to the score before the re-recording process.” “During all these stages,” Zanelli emphasizes, “I need to know that all these parts will translate accurately across the various environments and there will be no surprises when we put up the final score. Consistency of monitoring is of prime importance. There should be no translation issues between the composition process and the final film mix.”

“Film music is about subtleties,” continues Zanelli. “Composers must trust their speakers; they shouldn’t deceive you while you’re working on a score. During quiet sections my reference monitors should produce a superbly clear audio picture with the highest clarity, but not run out of headroom when the score gets louder. I need to ensure that the timbres remain the same at all playback levels, otherwise the internal balances will be thrown off; I need to know that the sound will translate at high playback levels on the dub stage. In the film world, the mid-range [frequencies of a score] is competing with the important dialog track, so the sound needs to be linear in that critical range. And, given that I might be working 16 hours at a stretch, I need monitor speakers that are neither fatiguing nor harsh.”

Zanelli adds, “I have eliminated the need for a subwoofer—my main left, center and right reference loudspeakers comfortably handle the low end without the need for augmentation. There have been zero translation issues from my composing rooms to the final dub stage, which ensures an efficient work process.”

In Monitoring the Score, part 2 next month, we’ll hear from scoring engineer Tommy Vicari, scoring and remix engineer Robert “Bobby” Fernandez and recording/ remix engineer James Hill.