Eric Tomlinson: The Recording Engineer

An interview with Eric Tomlinson by Matthias Büdinger
Originally published in Soundtrack! Vol 9/ No 36; 1990
Text reproduced by kind permission of the Editor Luc Van de Ven

Eric Tomlinson at the mixing console at CTS Studios in Bayswater during the early 1960s

If there is a type of man we could call an ‘English Gentleman’ the name of Eric Tomlinson would come to mind. His distinct features, pleasant voice and fine and warmhearted way of dealing with others make him a person you have to like from the very beginning.

Eric Tomlinson is one of the most prominent recording and mixing engineers of film music, and he is certainly one of the most skilful. The list of his credits is impressive indeed. He has worked with composers, John Williams (STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK), Jerry Goldsmith (ALIEN, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL), Maurice Jarre (RYAN’S DAUGHTER, LION OF THE DESERT), Henry Mancini (CHARADE, A SHOT IN TIlE DARK, WHO IS KILLING THE GREAT CHEFS OF EUROPE), John Addison (SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION) and James Homer (BRAINSTORM, AN AMERICAN TAIL) among many others. Recently Eric was in Hungary recording Basil Poledouris’ score for FAREWELL TO THE KING,

He is full of anecdotes about the composers he has worked with; the result of his many years in the film business. But these stories only seem to surface when you do not explicitly ask for them. So he did not divulge too much when the tape was running but he did when we finished our ‘professional’ conversation. Maybe it’s better that way because otherwise I would have had mixed feelings about printing them. But Eric ought to write a hock some day.

Eric, how did you become a recording engineer?
That was quite a few years ago. I think it was by default really. I studied aeronautical engineering. I love aeroplanes and I was actually a mechanical engineer. I got a job in a London studio repairing German tape recorders; the Telefunken ones. I got very bored with that and heard music coming out of studios. I wanted to get at it. I just got in there when somebody got sick one morning and I did it. That really started the whole thing. Basically I am a very frustrated musician. I can’t play anything except gramophone records. I wasn’t even very good at that. I wasn’t trained in any way. I just have a love of music.

But you can read music, because you followed up Chris Young’s score (HELLBOUND) in the booth.
Yes. I have to admit I can’t say “That is a B flat” when it isn’t a B flat, but I know where the wrong notes lie and I know usually which section of the score I’m in. Of course it’s very useful to be able to follow the score because you can see all the intricate things that composers put into the film which are not always heard. So it’s nice to bring up some of the counterpoint in the harmony lines, little interesting sounds which are written there. Unless you look at the score you don’t know they are there. It’s necessary to see them.

When did you start recording film music sessions?
Basically we started in the sixties with John Barry and the Bond movies and Henry Mancini. They were probably the first major film scores I ever did. I had worked before that with Muir Mathieson on a couple of things but only in a very small way. At that time I was employed in London Studios which were basically gramophone record studios. When CTS in Bayswater opened they wanted to bring movies into London. That’s where I really broke into recordings in a big way with countless films, mainly John Barry, a lot of Mancini and visiting American clients like Elmer Bernstein.

Did you always work in England?
I had worked in America a couple of times. But I’ve only been over there for a specific recording. I haven’t lived over there. I have always lived in England. I have travelled around and recorded in places from Ireland to Vancouver, in Los Angeles, and in Hungary. This is my third trip to Munich. The first trip was several years ago for a TV show we did at Union Studios, and then again for Stanley Meyers on a picture which hasn’t been released. It was called THE VICTORY and it was all shot in Germany.

Could you briefly tell us what you take care of as a recording engineer?
I like to take care of everything – from discussing with the clients, looking at the scores with them whenever possible, overseeing the set-up of the studio to suggesting specialized musicians, any odd instruments besides regular fiddles and cellos and woodwinds. I check everything and I just generally like to feel that I assist in the production of the score once the orchestra starts playing. It’s a very simple job.

But when you look at the many buttons you can’t imagine it is that simple.
When you look at a flight deck of an aircraft it’s pretty horrendous, but an awful lot is duplicated for each of the engines. This is really just lots of the same modules which are attached to a microphone. In the end they all do the same thing.

ET at Anvil
Eric Tomlinson at the Neve mixing console at Anvil Studios used to record many Maurice Jarre, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams scores during the 1970s

Eric, you have worked with so many composers. Do you recall any memorable events, something funny or disastrous?
I was telling the musicians the other night of a rather bizarre recording session for an American who came over to London to do three days’ work. He arrived in the afternoon. The first recording session was in the evening. He was met at the airport by his contact who took all the music scores to have them copied. Because there was so much to do in so little time he gave them to two or three copyists around London. To celebrate the fact that he got some work, one of them bought a bottle of Scotch while he was working. He didn’t quite complete work for a 7 o’clock start. When the conductor rose his baton to start playing, only half of the orchestra came in. They slowly drifted in during the rest of the evening, delivered by taxi drivers. The first evening was wiped out. But we caught up the next day. The conductor didn’t lose his temper. He got a round of applause for his behavior. That wasn’t funny. That was alarming and it shouldn’t happen.

The other night Chris Young mentioned one story involving Benny Herrmann that you told him…
He was a character. He was almost objectionable but you had to admire his talent. If he didn’t like you he would be terribly rude to you. Once a poor music editor cane out and said, “Mr. Herrmann, you missed that streamer”. Bernard Herrmann growled back, (Eric imitating Herrmann’s W.C. Fields-like voice:) “If you’re gonna run this picture in the cinema with streamers on them the audience will know. But you don’t run it with streamers on it in the cinema, do you?” The editor was wrong. It did fit because your eye doesn’t see it actually. Herrmann was an aggressive man. But he did marvelous work. Hitchcock used to use him in the old days, didn’t he? They had a terrible row.

Yes. Did you ever work with Herrmann on some Hitchcock films?
No. I’ve only worked on one Hitchcock film, FRENZY. We did that with Mancini. After his score was thrown out, Ron Goodwin came in. That’s what happened to BATTLE OF BRITAIN as well. William Walton’s music was nearly thrown out. Ron Goodwin came in and did bits of it. That was an embarrassing scene for everybody around.

What was the problem with Mancini’s score?
I don’t know. Hitchcock just didn’t like the music. It was a bit too doomy. He wanted something a bit more melodic.
I worked on quite a lot of films with Charlie Chaplin. He had the rights for his silent movies. Before they ran out of copyright he had music put onto them. Chaplin was good fun to work with. A generous old man he was. We took him out to a little restaurant where the day before they had prepared a boot on a plate of rice. He didn’t know about this. That was like in the film GOLDRUSH where Chaplin was imprisoned in a hut in the snow. He had nothing to eat and he ate his boots. So we served then in this restaurant. Chaplin said, “What is this?” – “It’s your lunch, Charles”. It was nice to recreate this classic scene. He told us that in the film the boots were made of liquorice. He couldn’t stand liquorice but he had to eat it.

He was extraordinary in that he just whistled his tunes – then somebody else wrote them down.
He whistled pretty well. There were two people who went over to Switzerland where he was living. They stayed three or four days sorting out and writing down his themes.

Let’s come back to your professional career and your work in the music studios.
After I left CTS we moved to Denham Studios which was the old Alexander Korda film studio. Here we really took off. We did six or seven major musicals, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR, musical after musical. We also did RYAN’S DAUGHTER with Maurice Jarre, STAR WARS, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, ALIEN, etc. We did very well. Then unfortunately the studio was demolished to make way for progress and new buildings. So we had no hone. I made a deal with Abbey Road Studios. We put film projection equipment into Abbey Road Studios and ran there those successful pictures like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, RETURN OF THE JEDI; many films. Then we got into a situation where the CD market was booming. I couldn’t get my bookings into the studios. It was so difficult to get film sessions booked in. So we would then use facilities like St. Paul’s and other church halls. There are only two or three studios in London that can handle big film orchestras. They are very busy. You don’t want to talk about the high cost of musicians in England, do you?

Maurice Jarre and ET
Eric Tomlinson and composer Maurice Jarre

I’d rather not. Do you still work for one certain studio?
No, I freelance now. I work anywhere.

Recording the musicals you mentioned – are there any differences to recording film music?
Oh yes, it’s vastly different. Recording a musical is a complicated system. The music is recorded first. Not necessarily completely – it might just be with a rhythm section; these are then used to play back to the artists on the floor. At that point the director might say. “I need another 30 seconds to get the artist from point A to point B. The music is not going to be long enough.” So they cut the music and they put clicks in that. It’s such a mess when the music comes back. We then have to sort it all out. You have to overlay the orchestra to fill these gaps. Then you have to do the dramatic underscoring. Musicals are very interesting, very time-consuming and very expensive. That’s why there aren’t so many being made these days. It’s a pity.

Another problem is that there may be actors who can’t sing…
That’s right. That’s all part of the interest. This happens very often. You like to try and help them and work with them as much as possible. In FIDDLER ON THE ROOF they were all good actors but they weren’t all good singers. It’s nice to make then sound good.

How about another striking event…
Working in America was very interesting. I worked at Paramount Studios the first time I went over there. I always wear a tie. There I was in L.A. where you don’t see ties. At the end of the first day I worked there, a memo appeared on the wall: “Mr. Tomlinson is working in the studio this week. All personnel involved in the recordings will wear ties. Those who do not have ties please see me.” The secretary got a big bag of ties. She made everybody wear one, even if they had a T-shirt. That was very amusing.
A few years ago I worked in Ireland. The orchestra was just not playing together very well at all. I said to the conductor, “You better come in and have a talk and have a listen”. He came in and said, “This is awful. There is no bass sound. I got six basses out there”, I said, “There’s only five”. — “Six. Where’s the contractor? I booked six basses.” The contractor said, “To be sure, you did, sir. But the sixth one wasn’t very good. So I didn’t book him and saved the money.”

There must be funny stories about Hitchcock and FRENZY.
He didn’t come over to England. We used to ring him every night after the recording sessions, about 11 o’clock English time, and play the tapes over the phones to Los Angeles. He insisted on chat. That was just a matter of holding the phone up to the loudspeaker. He listened and said, “Yes… Yes… Fine,fine,..” He didn’t feel very well. That’s why he didn’t come over at that particular time.
In CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG Irwin Kostal was the musical director. There were two big numbers, the overture and another one. We rehearsed them. They were quite different. Kostal said, “Eric, we’ll do the quiet ones first. Is it all right?” Then he whispered to the orchestra, “Do the loud one”. Of course I was all set for the quiet one. And then BANG!!!! It sounded fantastic. We used it. Irwin Kostal used to play tricks like that.



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