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The Team Effort Behind Elysium

SANTA MONICA, CA—“Last weekend, this was the Number One film in the world,” said score recording, mixing and mastering engineer John Rodd, introducing Bringing the Elysium Score to Life: Tips from the Team in late August.

Mixing the Elysium score at Clearstory Sound (clockwise from back left): Rich Walters and Dave Lawrence (music editors), Ryan Amon (composer) and John Rodd (score recording and mixing engineer). SANTA MONICA, CA—“Last weekend, this was the Number One film in the world,” said score recording, mixing and mastering engineer John Rodd, introducing Bringing the Elysium Score to Life: Tips from the Team in late August. “The weekend before, it was the Number One film in America; I’m proud to have been a part of it.”

The panel discussion, hosted by American Cinematique at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, also featured the film’s music editor Dave Lawrence, lead orchestrator Penka Kouneva and conductor/orchestrator Alain Mayrand. Composer Ryan Amon and supervising music editor Rich Walters were unable to participate. All net proceeds from the lecture benefited Students Run L.A.

Amon’s involvement in Elysium, written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, is something of a Cinderella story. Living in Bolivia at the time, Amon received a terse email from the director asking if he was responsible for the music behind a YouTube video. Shortly thereafter, the trailer and reality TV music composer found himself working on his first movie score.

“Any first-time composer thrown into the deep end needs a good team,” commented Rodd, who in May 2012, also received an email out of the blue, from Amon, asking what he would charge to mix the score. Rodd hooked the composer up with Lawrence and Kouneva, and in January of this year, the team traveled to Abbey Road’s Studio 1 to record the score with the London Philharmonia, returning to Rodd’s Clearstory Sound commercial facility for the 5.1 music mix during February.

“My role, as score recording and mixing engineer, is to determine the sound of the end product, figure out what the composer wants and what is going to work,” said Rodd. “It has to serve the film cinematically. Part of that is the sound of the room the musicians get recorded in.”

The orchestra—62 strings and 15 brass, recorded separately to get a punchier sound as well as to provide maximum flexibility—were set up along the short axis of the rectangular room: “I prefer the way the room works in ‘portrait mode,’” he explained.

Separate passes for the orchestra sections is commonplace these days in scoring sessions. “But you sit them where they would sit if they were playing together,” he noted.

Although the room offers a four-second reverb time, said Rodd, in order to mesh with Amon’s electronic music, which includes elements of sound design, “I wanted to bring the orchestra forward, [making it] more present, in your face.” Typical for a scoring date, the three main mics—Neumann M50s—were positioned on a Decca tree above the conductor, together with a pair of M50 wide mics, surround mics and various spot mics.

The orchestra was “absolutely on an equal footing with the electronics” in the hybrid score, he commented. “That’s another reason to have more presence.”

Rodd, who worked on the Fox scoring stage for seven years, acts as more than an engineer on tracking dates. “In a small way, I’m helping to produce,” he elaborated, listening for tuning, timing and performance issues while following the score.

Amon wrote much of the music before seeing a frame of film, creating 95 cues, many of them very dense, reflecting his trailer background. Rodd laughed, “I had more music to mix than the length of the film!”

There were 30 to 130-plus tracks per cue, reported Rodd, who had to sift through the sessions and highlight some elements while downplaying others: “There was a lot of sculpting and carving.” Paramount in his mind, he said, was ensuring that the music mix sounded great not just on the dub stage and in theaters, but on any playback medium, including laptops.

“The final mixes were quite different from Ryan’s rough mixes,” he observed. With such a dense electronic score, Rodd “isolated potentially contentious sounds,” such as musical sound design elements, into separate stems.

Options were also built into the orchestral tracks by taking up to three passes of the strings and four of the brass. Rodd created a total of 13 5.1-wide stems, also including percussion and miscellaneous tracks, for delivery to the dub stage, in addition to the full mix. “The stems sum into the full mix,” noted Rodd, who printed all of the stem mixes, the full mix and the stereo fold-down simultaneously in Pro Tools 10 at 48 kHz.

“I was very pleased with how the score sounds,” he concluded.

John Rodd