A conversation with Mike Ross-Trevor by Dirk Wickenden
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.74/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Dirk Wickenden
Whitfield Street Recording Studios are situated next to a public house called ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, in a quiet, unassuming street just off the Tottenham Court Road, London, England. Fronting the entrance is a stone obelisk, fondly referred to as ‘The Tombstone’ by those inside. An entirely appropriate nickname, as the well-thought of film score TOMBSTONE by Bruce Broughton was actually recorded here. Once through the entrance and past reception, one walks down stairs and through corridors, their walls replete with framed CDs, LPs and their sleeves, featuring engraved plaques. Film scores such as BEST SHOT (the UK title for HOOSIERS), TOTAL RECALL, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, JUDGE DREDD and also many non-film recordings – one could stand and admire them all day. But there’s an interview to do, with one of the premier recording engineers in the business and that man’s name is Mike Ross-Trevor. Before our appointment, there is time to relax and prepare in a comfortably furnished lounge. A pool table stands near the rear wall, a Steinway baby grand piano by a partition behind which there is a small kitchen and in another corner, atop-of–the-range Sony large screen television, video recorder, radio, tape and CD players and a DAT machine. One could get used to this!
Mike takes me up to the studio, through the mixing room and into the room where some of the world’s greatest composers, conductors and musicians have performed the music for countless film scores. Whilst taking in the sights, I comment to Mike that many of today’s scores, including such works as Jerry Goldsmith’s STAR TREK: INSURRECTION and THE HAUNTING feature a large amount of echo, whether natural or electronically produced, and that it actually results in poor-sounding movie scores. Mike is in agreement and comments that the current trend is to get lots of echo – a quick clap of the hands demonstrates the clear sound the room gives back when filled with musicians. One senses regret in the tone of the engineer’s voice when he says that a lot of composers appear to have been caught up in this less-than-desirable trend and have started to stay away from Whitfield Street and opt for recording venues such as Air Studios and Abbey Road, where they can get this huge echo. We agree that there is less definition with echoey recording rooms and it is difficult to pick out individual instruments on recordings. Another trend is to go with overall miking with less miking of these individual instruments and one will then hear the sound as it would be ‘live’ in a concert hall. When he attends concerts, Mike finds himself wishing he could ‘twiddle’ a knob and dial, to bring up more of some of the instruments.
The interview itself took place in the mixing room, which features a window in front of the enormous mixing desk, looking out into the studio, with hundreds of dials, buttons, knobs and a couple of computer monitors, with many more pieces of equipment situated around the room. In fact, it really does resemble the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and Mike points out some of the features of the main desk. Usually there are strips of paper specifying which set of controllers are set up for the strings, brass and so on but Mike obviously doesn’t need these – he knows the desk and studio like the back of his hand.
Can you explain exactly what a recording engineer’s job entails?
A recording engineer’s job is to liaise with the composer or a producer, to find out their requirements and then to set up the studios and the mixing desks accordingly. That’s more or less the preparation of it. Then the main job is to balance the orchestra, get the sound, place the microphones in the right places and generally, listen to the composer or producer’s comments about sound and try and achieve what they’re looking for in their heads.
‘Engineer’ is basically a term for a technician of some sort…
In a nutshell, it’s a technician who can convert their musical ideas into a technical form.
So, you must have some artistic, aesthetic sensibility when setting up to capture musical sound. How much would you say is technical and how much relies on artistry?
Probably half and half, I would say. You have to have a love of music, to be able to understand what the composer wants to do. So understanding music is ninety percent.
Yet people see it as just a technical job, the same as composers.
Yes. That’s right. But in my job it’s mainly converting musical ideas into technical form.
Does a recording engineer have to be a musician, or does it not make a difference? I know you said that you need to be able to appreciate music.
You don’t have to be a musician, but you have to understand music to a certain (degree). Music from a layman’s point of view is fine. To be able to play an instrument and read a score obviously is an advantage, but I’ve never found it a disadvantage in not being able to play an instrument because there’s so many musical geniuses in the room when you’re actually recording (and) there’s only one engineer.
Have you ever had any desire to do so?
No, not really. I came into the business because I was interested in electronics. My route was to come in through electronics and the music sort of came with it. But no, I’ve never found it a disadvantage, I understand music, I can memorise things quite quickly. I’ve only got to hear a piece of music once and immediately I know what’s going on.
Can an engineer specialise in recording a certain type of music, for example, classical, jazz or film scores or do they, by the very nature of the occupation, have to be flexible?
The business has changed somewhat. When I came into the business, which was in the sixties, there was an engineer and you had to record everything. You know, symphony orchestras, rock groups, TV commercials… everybody who came into the studio, you had to record them. But as the years have gone by, engineers have started specialising in different areas. I started basically in the sixties doing rock bands and then in the seventies I found myself recording orchestras because I was working in a big studio and for some reason, I was doing more orchestral work than rock band work and then I got pigeonholed as an orchestral engineer. Then, I sort of got from there just doing anything to do with orchestras.
Do you still do stuff other than…
I still do the odd orchestral overdub with a pop group – I do quite a lot of that, string overdubs on pop songs. But as such I’m mainly on orchestras; anything to do with recording an orchestra involves me.
But to go back to your original question, in the sixties an engineer had to be able to record everything, whereas now in the nineties, you don’t necessarily have to be expert in every field. Engineers today tend to just do one type of work and leave the other type of work to somebody else.
If one wanted to pursue a career as an engineer (not me!), what sort of qualifications and skills are required? I know you were talking somewhat about skills just now.
A good understanding of electronics, maybe an electronics degree of some kind. There are now schools that have engineering courses, where you would learn music – you go through music exams, electronics exams and practical recording exams. They would train you to be a producer/recording engineer. But if you had kind of a basic knowledge of music and a basic knowledge of electronics, you should be able to come into a studio and be able to learn the job in a period of say th ree to five years.
Who is the initial contact when sessions are booked? Is it the composer’s assistant or the orchestra contractor?
It works in several ways. In the case of an American session, the composer would be contracted to do the film and the film production department would then call our studio booking department and book the studio. Now, in the case of composers who do a lockout deal, whereby they actually pay for all the recording sessions, they say it’s going to cost a hundred thousand pounds to record this score, the composer is given a hundred thousand pounds. So it’s his job to record that score and (account for) all expenses and everything, all in the hundred thousand. So then it would be his office or himself who would get to book the studio. It’s whoever’s really holding the purse strings at the end of the day.
How far in advance is the studio booked for a session?
For a film, it can be anything up to a few months- three to four months. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll all be coming in within four months. These days, films are always getting moved, you know, the cutting gets behind, the shooting gets behind. Like here we are in March, if we have a film session booked for the first week of August, I can guarantee you by the end of July it will move into the first week of September and then it can move into October and it can also move into November. We’ll finally be doing it in November for a session that was booked in August and this happens ninety percent of the time these days because of the editing, it just gets behind.
When it does become time for the session, presumably things are tight for the film’s release, how soon after you record would it have to be mixed in the film and off to the cinemas?
It’s usually in a hurry, you end up recording a score, mixing it and you finish, say, on a Saturday and it normally goes to the dub on the Monday morning. Most films these days, you have to finish on time because they’re dubbing on Monday morning, there’s no question of, “well let’s finish mixing it on Monday”, you have to stay all night if necessary on Saturday or even Sunday, so it’s at that dubbing theatre on Monday. If something’s not quite right, whether it’s how it’s been mixed or the actual performance, once you get to a stage where it’s got to go, you’ve just got to let it go regardless.
It has to go because you’ve got marketing lined up and you’ve got release dates. If something was really terrible, then they would come back to the studio in the middle of dubbing and fix whatever the problem is and then send it back to the dub. They work in reels, so if they’re working on reel one and there’s a problem, they can drop reel one, work on reel two and then bring reel one back to the studio and we’ll fix whatever needs fixing.
As we know, scores can get rejected quite often…
Yes, a lot.
… have you been in the situation where composer it “A”, let’s call him Jerry Goldsmith has had a score rejected and then you’ve had to record the replacement score by, say, John Scott?
It’s never happened to me, where I’ve had to record the same film twice.
I know it’s difficult to say but, what do you think would be your feelings if that happened? If you were recording a score by someone you liked a lot and then you had to do a replacement score also by someone you liked a lot, would you have any sort of…
Not really, I just think you have to be professional, it’s a job. I have actually recorded many scores a second and third time. I worked on one recently where they came in and they said, “Oh, this is the third time we’ve done this” – I didn’t work on the first two times but I did the final one, which is weird – (rhetorically) if this is the third one, how many more times are they going to do it?
Very often the original may be better.
2001 for instance.
Usually, really, there’s not that much wrong with the first time, it’s just that it doesn’t appeal to the director or the producer.
They blame it on the music.
Jerry (Goldsmith) did a fantastic score for a film PRIVATE EYE.
Oh yes, PUBLIC EYE.
PUBLIC EYE, that’s right.
Mark Isham replaced it, didn’t he?
Yes, but Jerry’s score was fantastic!
It’s like AIR FORCE ONE; Randy Newman’s music got thrown out. I heard some of that – our chairman (of the Goldsmith Film Music Society) happened to have a copy and you could tell Newman was pastiching the whole thing. I think Jerry (also) was in a certain way, but people just said it was over the top. But to me, AIR FORCE ONE was, you know, in your face and really patriotic – and to me it worked –
As it should be.
That’s what the film needed and it worked well because of that. Could you describe a typical set up for the following: A standard symphony orchestra, an orchestra with synthesisers, a jazz quartet and a pop singer with backing group? I mean the positioning of mikes, how the mixing desk (is set), any sort of slight variances between all of those or are they perhaps set up in very similar ways?
Pretty similar. An orchestra set up would be set up classically, like a symphony Orchestra as seen in a concert hall. That’s the normal arrangement. You would tend to use five main microphones, which would pick up the entire orchestra and then you would use what we call spot mikes on things like woodwinds, brass, percussion, harp, possibly a piano, to focus those instruments within that five mike recording pickup. That would basically be how you would record a symphony orchestra.
And if you had synthesisers involved?
Now if we had synthesisers, they would be what we call, directly injected – you don’t use a microphone. You take the output from the synthesiser, feed it into the desk, so it’s completely isolated from the orchestra and the composer then will listen to those synthesisers on headphones, as will the keyboard players and they’re recorded on separate tracks. Then they will be mixed into the orchestral mikes after all the musicians have gone home.
Do they tend to be recorded live, these synths, at the same time –
They are recorded at the same time as the orchestra.
How often do you get pre-records?
Quite often. Pre-records are now getting popular; we’ve had quite a few sessions recently, where people have come in with the synthesisers already recorded. So the synthesiser tracks are then played out into the headphones and the orchestra will then play with them. But all the mixing, particularly with synthesiser work is always done after the event: you can’t do the synthesiser balancing live because of the levels, they’re unpredictable.
Say a jazz quartet; have you ever recorded anything like that yourself?
Oh yes. In the case of a jazz quartet, the musicians’d probably each have a microphone. There’d be a main three microphone pickup and then we would use spots on all the instruments…
So pretty much the way it’s done during a concert where they use mikes in the bells of the saxes.
… and again they would be recorded on separate tracks and then we’d fine tune them later.
Finally a pop singer with a backing group of any type of instruments – does that apply as with a jazz quartet?
… Very much the same as the jazz, everybody would be miked, everybody would be on separate tracks. The vocalist would be in an isolation booth because you quite often have to redo lines of vocals. You know, the flatness and sharpness.
But would you say that very often then, they are still singing at the same time as the other musicians?
In the case of middle of the road jazz, the singer would record with the instruments because of the nature of the music. But if it was kind of like club music or out and out pop music, then the vocal would be recorded after the musicians and it’ll be done in a building process.
I read that in the case of a Frank Sinatra recording…
… he would always record live.
His Duets albums, though, I believe the singers were recorded separately.
The Duets albums, he tracked. What they do is, they lay down the orchestral or big band backing, he would actually sing live with the orchestra and then the duets would be put on afterwards, usually by ISDN line because the performers were in other countries. So they would send the backing track and Frank down the ISDN line and then they would record the vocalists, say, in England and then send that back down the line and they would record it onto a multitrack tape machine in LDS Angeles. Then they’d end up having the two vocals and they’d mix it.
Have you ever recorded Sinatra yourself?
No. He only recorded once in this country and that was his album called ‘Great Songs from Great Britain’, which was recorded at the old CTS studios and Robert Farnon conducted. That’s the only time he ever recorded anywhere outside America.
What is the typical time span for recording the following: A ninety minute film score – an average length, perhaps (Mike felt the proposed length was in excess of a typical length and suggested a sixty minute score).
There are two answers to this. It depends on budgets and money available. Now, if it’s an American film, the budgets are usually very generous when it comes to music recording. Normally they would book probably between eight and ten sessions and then you’d probably spend maybe two to three days mixing.
Now if it was a British film, with a very tight budget, things are done much more quickly. So if it’s an English film it’s usually four to six sessions of recording, a couple of days mixing.
There are major differences between British and American budgets.
Is it very unusual to get a longer score?
Yes. If it was ninety minutes, you’d be into about fourteen sessions.
Have you done many of those?
No, the most I’ve ever done is about ten.
What about a typical episodic television score?
For a TV episode it would be a three hour session and about three hours to mix it. It would be a day’s work, probably – five, six, seven hour day, to do one episode.
We’ll say you’ve got a small drama series that ran for half a dozen episodes on British television. Would the music be recorded all in one group?
You’d do it in one group.
Once one has recorded the score for a film, is that the end of their connection to the production or do they remain ‘on board’ for a period after the recording?
Once it’s mixed, they walk away with the tapes. That’s really the end of my job.
Unless they come back to…
Unless they come back to do any remixes or any re-records. Sometimes the composer might invite you down to the dubbing theatre and if you’re free, you’ll wander down but just do it purely as self interest.
If a soundtrack album is to be recorded and released to tie in with the film’s release, when is it assembled and to what extent is the recording engineer involved?
When we do what we call the 5.1 mix for the theatres, we run a stereo mix at the same time. The stereo then goes to say, a mastering studio, where it’s edited, chopped up, mastered and cut down to an average CD length, probably about seventy minutes.
How often would you say, you hand the tape ready for that sort of thing but then the score’s never released as an album?
For every score that’s probably ever recorded, there is a stereo DAT around. So even in the case of rejected scores, the tapes are available.
Jerry will have a copy of every score that didn’t get used and he’d have PUBLIC EYE too. He probably wouldn’t have the rights to release that.
No, it’s the studios, isn’t it?
Because it’s owned by the studios, and they’re not going to release a rejected score on a CD because they’d already turned it down and if it sells, it’s embarrassing to them, the fact they’d turned it down.
Certainly Varèse have released a rejected score a couple of times.
So unfortunately, rejected scores are gone forever.
Unless there’s a bootlegger at work somewhere but we won’t talk about that!
Which is highly illegal (laughter) but we won’t talk about that!
Could you relate the history of Whitfield Street Studios?
Whitfield Street Studios started off in the early sixties as a company called Oriole Records, which was a small English record company and they were doing quite well just releasing singles. They had a couple of hit records and they were also connected with the old Embassy label, which was the Woolworths label and Oriole Records used to produce the product for Embassy. In 1965, CBS wanted to get an outlet in England and as Oriole Records had a very modern pressing plant at Aylesbury, they were interested in a buy-out for Oriole. Not because the record company was particularly amazing, but they wanted that pressing plant at Aylesbury. So the CBS record company bought Oriole Records plus the pressing plant and then CBS was in operation right up to about 1989. The Sony Corporation bought CBS Records, which in America is called Columbia Records and then the CBS logo was dropped, the record company became Columbia Records, we then were in a situation of “what do we call ourselves”? because we had been called CBS Studios up to that point. So there were several meetings and they thought well, we don’t really want to call ourselves Sony Music Studios because people would think that it’s something to do with the retail side of television, radio, walkmans – that kind of thing. So we wanted our own identity. For a while, we were called ‘The Hit Factory’ because Sony put the management of the studio in the hands of the company called Hit Factory in New York and they ran us for a couple of years. Unfortunately, because of the distance and because of the time delays and all that, it didn’t really work.
It would work now perhaps because of the internet, would you say?
Oh, possibly, we could work by the internet. Anyway, Sony then took back the management from the Hit Factory and they decided that they would call us, for obvious reasons, Whitfield Street Studios, which is named after the street because generally, studios named after the street that they’re on usually works (for example, Abbey Road.) So we became Whitfield Street Studios and we’ve been trading under that name to the present day and very successfully. In fact, the era of Whitfield Street Studios has been more successful than the previous two eras of CBS and Hit Factory.
As an aside, when was the ‘tombstone’ erected out the front?
The tombstone was part of Whitfield Street. When we became Whitfield Street Studios, a lot of money was spent. We had a new mastering floor built, we had a new suite of offices built out the back, lots of things were updated and the tombstone arrived (laughter).
Could you detail some of the equipment you use at the studios? Is there one piece of equipment which you would hate to be without, which makes the job easier?
We have a Neve VR 72 channel desk with VSP film panel and we have quite extensive outboard equipment – Lexicons, Eventides, Yamaha, AMS, Neve compressors, echo units, delay units, anything you can name. We also have 5.1 monitoring and a controller. We have quite an extensive range of microphones, from vintage, right up to state-of-the-art nineties style. Out of all the things we have here, probably the things I’d miss most would be our selection of valve microphones, which have a very characteristic sound, which modern mikes don’t have and also our original EMT echoplates from the sixties.
Nostalgia, in a way, then?
Kind of nostalgia, yeah, and they do have a particular sound of their own. I’d miss them if they weren’t here.
You do not just record film scores; can you tell me some of the musicians, singers, etcetera, that you have recorded?
Let’s think of the regulars… We’ve done about nine albums with Lesley Garrett here. We’ve also done about thirty-something albums with John Williams, the guitarist. Probably about thirty albums with James Galway, the flautist. I do a lot of work with Evelyn Glennie, in fact I’ve recorded all Evelyn Glennie’s albums – they’re the main ones, who I work with extensively and I also do original cast albums like Chicago.
What have been some of your favorite sessions, both for film and otherwise and why?
MEDICINE MAN is a particular favourite, due to the blending of orchestra and electronics and I also have a soft spot for LEGEND, because it’s the first time I ever worked with Jerry. It’s a special score – I think it was a magic time. I’ve never forgotten that, really. I think TOMBSTONE is a great event to – I think it’s just an amazing score.
I think it got a lot of recognition for the sound quality…
I think we probably got a lot of work on the strength of TOMBSTONE.
Any others at all, that come to mind immediately?
No, nothing that kind of leaps out. Oh, LINK was another favorite.
Are you tied exclusively to Whitfield Street or do you record elsewhere?
I’m based here, this is my home, but I do take on freelance work when I don’t have to be involved at Whitfield Street. Obviously we have freelance engineers that come into Whitfield Street and use these facilities and that kind of frees me up to go somewhere else. But yes, I do record at Abbey Road, CTS and Air Studios.
But certainly, home is…
Home is here.
Home is where the heart is!
Home is where the heart is, this is home, but I have recorded quite a lot at Abbey Road and also a lot at CTS. We usually visit those studios two or three times a year (CTS Studios in Wembley have recently been sold to make way for a car park).
I think you did BEST SHOT (aka HOOSIERS) abroad…
HOOSIERS we did in Hungary. There was a time when a lot of people were going out to Hungary.
Why was that, just because of budgets, really?
Budgets, yes. It was so much cheaper out there. In those days it was cheap and people used to go there. We did quite a few things there, HOOSIERS was a particular favorite. But of course, like everything else, these countries ‘catch up’ and they start charging English rates and it’s not so viable to go there anymore.
I know that Prague gets used a lot, mainly for Silva (Screen) re-recordings, don’t they?
Silva go there a lot.
I don’t know if they do that many film scores themselves, do they as such?
They do the odd TV thing – Carl Davis has been there a couple of times. Generally Prague’s not that busy for straight film scores but it could change in the future.
I know that IRON GIANT was done there but that was because Michael Kamen said that they were (my words) unfettered by ‘western commercial behavior’.
Oh really (bemused look from Mike).
But certainly, the sound they get, to me … I don’t want to say ‘old fashioned’ but it certainly looks back, what their musicians are doing. Certainly the saxes I’ve heard on some of the stuff they’ve done is a bit of an older sound.
Usually it depends what they’re doing. I’ve heard all kinds of different sounds coming out of Prague and each engineer comes up with their own sound.
As regards performances, to my mind obviously the best English orchestra for film scores is the London Symphony… the Sinfonia of London is quite good, things like JUDGE DREDD and ROBOCOP.
I have found generally though, that the standard is so high in this country that the performances are as good with the LSD, the Philharmonia, the Sinfonia of London – they’re all as good as each other. I don’t think you can actually point the finger and say “this is the best band in England”.
Perhaps more so from the point of view of someone just listening to a recording…
There are many other factors where I would say one orchestra is better than the other and not just in the playing, it’s more in discipline and quickness of picking up the music… and how quiet it is, during a take.
How many rehearsals would you say tend to happen?
On recording sessions, it’s normally rehearse and record. You know, you normally run it through a couple of times, to smooth out any wrong notes and get people used to it and then it’s a take. So it’s kind of a couple of rehearsals (and then a) take and sometimes, when things are pushed, you’ll record the rehearsal and in many cases it gets used.
Do you often watch films and if they happen to be ones you’ve recorded, do you find it difficult not to pay attention to the technical side of things and just enjoy the film?
If I watch a film that I’ve done the score for, it’s very difficult to watch the film and I find myself just listening to the music and nothing else.
What about ones you haven’t recorded?
Then I’ll enjoy the film – and usually I don’t notice the score (smiles).
Can you recognise the signature of other engineers and would you say that you have a particular style?
Yes, each engineer does have a sound. There’s not a lot in it but engineers can notice it. I doubt very much whether the general public will be able to tell the difference. I can.
What about amongst your peers – any favorites?
Yes, I think Shawn Murphy is excellent. I think he’s got to be the best around, without a doubt.
He did a lot of Horner stuff and now Horner seems to be using another bloke – Simon Rhodes.
Simon Rhodes is also excellent. Simon does great work – he’s also a very fine musician too.
Have you any anecdotes you’d like to mention about some of the sessions you’ve been involved in? Something that just did not go right or something went wonderfully or…
Horror stories… I suppose the worst horror story was being stuck in Hungary with Jerry on HOOSIERS and about a couple of hours before the session, we realised that the wrong brand of tape was sent to us for recording. We couldn’t actually record onto it. So a couple of hours before the session, I had to tell Jerry that we didn’t have any tape. Luckily we had a test tape, which is used for lining up tape machines ahead of the session and we actually recorded the first session on this test tape and managed to get word to London that we needed tape. Somebody managed to get on a plane that morning with a box of tape and managed to arrive in the lunch hour for the afternoon session.
And it was the right tape (laughter).
It was the right tape this time but it was very scary.
I remember reading about Bruce Botnick. He said that when they were doing STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, it was one of the first digital scores and the machine just wouldn’t work, and apparently a friend of his told him to try a medium. Apparently she placed her hands on this machine and told him to use a new tape! Anyway, anything funny at all that you just, you know, if you don’t laugh you cry sort of thing? Was HOOSIERS that case?
Anything funny… I can think of a funny story but it’s not related to film music, Dirk. It was related to a Lesley Garrett (an operatic singer) session. We were recording Lesley and we kept hearing this squeaking noise, couldn’t figure out where it was coming from and in the end we sort of had to say something. We had to say “Lesley, you know, we keep hearing this squeaking sound. You haven’t got a loose floorboard or something under your feet or something?” and she said “No, no but do you know what I think it might be, I think it’s my bra”. Apparently she had a metal bra of some kind or it had some metal straps on it, and every time she breathed in, you know, to hit one of the big notes, it would squeak.
It was quite funny and I went out there (onto the floor) and she gave me a demonstration and sure enough, I stood by next to her and I could hear this squeaky bra and then she went and took it off…
I see (laughter)!
– and it was fine after that, we managed to get the recording done but it was hilarious because the orchestra were just falling about!
I think this really answers what we were saying earlier but, going into a bit of detail on individual scores: How long did it take you to record such film scores as Jerry Goldsmith’s MEDICINE MAN and Bruce Broughton’s TOMBSTONE?
MEDICINE MAN was ten sessions, which would be Monday to Friday and then we spent about four days mixing it. It was quite a difficult mix because of all the Latin American instruments and the synthesisers. It didn’t naturally balance itself, so we had to create the acoustic, it was hard work. I think the results were worth it.
As regards TOMBSTONE, was that purely orchestral or was there any synthesiser in that? I can’t remember.
We had regular piano and jangle piano, there weren’t any synthesisers and we also had a natural cymbalom. That recording session was done in quite a hurry because I don’t know whether you know but, Jerry was originally going to do TOMBSTONE -.
That’s right and he actually suggested Broughton, didn’t he?
– and he actually suggested Bruce because the cutting again got behind and Jerry couldn’t do it because he had to go onto something else. Bruce came in, I think it was like twenty days’ notice and I think he wrote it in twelve days, the whole score, and it was recorded very quickly, we did a live mix on that, which I’m quite proud of because it wasn’t mixed (in the normal way). As we recorded it, it went straight down to 5.1 tape and what you hear on the record is the live mix there and then, off the floor, straight to tape –
So very often, it can be successful without a lot of “fiddling”.
– and I think that’s why that score sounds so good because I think, the energy was there from the beginning. You know, we didn’t spend four days fine tuning it. Sometimes, if you spend too long fine tuning stuff, you can lose it and because it was a live mix, it benefited because of that.
Now, I can’t remember, where was LOST IN SPACE (also by Broughton) done – in England or was it in America?
I was going to do that one but again, it got behind and I couldn’t do it. So an engineer called John Timperley recorded LOST IN SPACE at Abbey Road and Air Studios. They had to re-record the last reel because they cut it after the score was recorded and Bruce then had to come back to record the last reel and I recorded that here in Whitfield Street.
Certainly, I think he was really pressed for time on that but he came up really great.
He did (emphatically). I think Bruce is probably one of the best composers around.
It was, shall we say, a very straight score but it worked for the film. Again, it’s a film I like but it was a flop, so that shows you my taste…
I think Bruce is superb, I really like his work. I think he’s very underrated, personally.
Going onto records now: How long did it take to record the Goldsmith-conducted A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE?
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE was done in four sessions and it was a live mix, it wasn’t mixed, it went straight down to stereo.
I think when you’re recording something that’s not to strict timings for a film; you’ve got room to manoeuvre.
Oh, sure. I enjoy playing the CD, which is rare for something I’ve recorded; you tend not to play things you’ve recorded.
It had a great sound… All the solo instruments you pick up are really good. The Excalibur series on the Intrada label, some of those. How long roughly would say for those?
They will usually go, let’s see… four sessions. They were done in four sessions, each one, JULIUS CAESAR, IVANHOE and also JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. Again, mixed live, you know, we go straight to two track on those.
In general, would you say it’s more relaxed when you’re recording an album, as opposed to recording a film score?
Oh yes. Much more relaxed. You’ve got less things to worry about and you’re basically just interested in getting a nice stereo sound You’ve got less people to worry about, you haven’t got producers and directors coming up with comments. You don’t have any assistants or assistants of assistants and the control room is usually very quiet. You’re usually only dealing with a producer and an orchestrator. It’s quite peaceful, compared to a film session.
I imagine someone like Jerry Goldsmith is probably very relaxed in both, he’s done so many of them. But do you notice a change in, say, Jerry’s character in the way he’s handling things?
Jerry’s probably a lot more relaxed if it’s just a record because, if he was doing a film session, he’s dealing with a picture, he’s dealing with things like getting sync points, does the performance work with the picture, is the performance musically correct? You know, there’s so many different things to worry about.
There is an Oscar® for Best Sound in a film. Should there be one (or indeed is there) for best music score recording?
There isn’t one and it’s one of those things we music recording engineers probably complained about over the years. Whenever a film gets an Oscar for sound and there are many, many Os cars for sound recording, it goes to the people who record the sound for the picture; it’s usually the dubbing mixer, the guy who records the dialogue and that includes the music recording, which I think is totally unfair. So yes, I do think there should be an Oscar for music recording, without a doubt.
Jeff Bond said in Film Score Monthly that THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS won an Oscar for best sound and he thinks a lot of that was down to the music – a lot of that was what I think of as Jerry’s sound design.
That was recorded in England, wasn’t it? I presume you weren’t involved on that.
I wasn’t involved on that one, no.
You should have been!
Well, there should be some kind of music recording Oscar as such. I mean there are music recording awards and things like that, the Ampex Magnetic Recorders and all that, but they’re kind of just manufacturers’ awards. It’s usually a way of selling tape.
I think it’s very unfair that the sound recording includes the dialogue recording, the music recording, the sound effects recording and the dub and it involves probably, you know, about twelve different guys. You’re all lumped together and I’m not really sure to this day who actually picks up that Oscar (laughter).
As you can see, Mike has very strong thoughts on many film music related subjects and his appreciation of movie scores and their composers is obvious. He has a particular love of classic film scores of the forties to the sixties and one presumes they form the backbone of his personal record collection. He feels that the next generation of composers will be “non musicians” and this is something I can appreciate. He also finds that it is a distinct advantage to have a composer who conducts his own scores, as they can make live changes during the scoring sessions with ease. The engineer obviously has a great fondness for Jerry Goldsmith, who will often fix things in his score whilst on the podium. Sometimes, he’ll have a synth set up in the mixing room and when the composer listens to a playback, he might say “something’s missing” and “tweak” it by playing ideas on the keyboard.
Whilst chatting after the interview proper, Mike recalled that he had also worked with singers such as Charlotte Church (a teenage soprano currently “big” in the UK), Chris de Burgh and Shirley Bassey, as well as film composers John Scott, Lee Holdridge, mentioning particularly Holdridge’s score for the IMAX film INTO THIN AIR, John Debney and Tomita. Singers and groups such as Madonna, The Spice Girls (well, I suppose someone has to record them) and Texas have also used the studios but not recorded by Mike. Soon after I leave this fascinating facility, he’ll be recording the backing tracks for a BBC Television light entertainment programme entitled STARS SING THE BEATLES. Well, it’s time to let him get to work.
My deepest thanks to Mike Ross-Trevor for taking time out of his busy schedule and I hope the results of our conversation have shed some light on the work of one of the unsung heroes of film music. My thanks also to studio manager Matthew Villa.