Tim Boyle: The Music Scoring Mixer

A Conversation with Tim Boyle by Paul Andrew MacLean and Darren Cavanagh © 1993
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.12/Nos.45/1993
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven

tim-boyle
Tim Boyle and composer Elik Alvarez during the recording session of “Where I Stand” (2008)

In recent years, the recording engineer has become nearly as constant and trusted a collaborator to a composer as the orchestrator. Without the correct mike placement and mixing, the meticulous efforts of composer and musicians can be quite easily ruined, and the volume and power of an eighty piece orchestra reduced to half that size.Thus, it is not surprising that many composers have come to prefer specific engineers. Notable collaborations of this kind which have sprung up in recent years include Jerry Goldsmith & Bruce Botnick, James Horner & Shawn Murphy, Alan Silvestri & Dennis S. Sands, and George Fenton & Keith Grant – just to name a few. David Newman and Basil Poledouris have also found a trusted collaborator in Tim Boyle, who has handled most of their Los Angeles session work for the last several years.Boyle began in the recording business in 1973, working in San Francisco for Wally Heider (a famous innovator in the recording business, and the inventor of remote recording). When Heider opened a studio in Los Angeles, he offered Tim a position there, and while in LA., Tim became acquainted with engineer Dan Wallin (best known for his work as mixer on the Los Angeles sessions of Bill Conti, John Williams and John Barry). Tim was taken on as second engineer on Wallin’s sessions, and from that experience soon acquired the expertise to become a scoring mixer himself.Darran Cavanagh and I first met Tim at the Sony Studios scoring stage (which is actually the old MGM stage which dates back to the thirties), where he was working with David Newman on PARADISE. Tim’s working method is professional, good-natured and entirely level-headed, in an almost perpetually tense and high-pressure atmosphere.Tim Boyle’s unique recording method (which he describes in the following interview) makes him one of the most sought-after scoring mixers in L.A., and he has engineered many varied film scores, among them BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, TORCH SONG TRIWGY, TERMINATOR II, THE ADDAMS FAMILY, and CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS- THE DISCOVERY, as well as television scores for COACH, QUANTUM LEAP, MURDER SHE WROTE and THIRTYSOMETHING to name but a small few. Tim has also been active in pop music as well, having recorded for pop stars such as The Rolling Stones, Madonna, Melissa Manchester and Billy idol.Tim recently worked with Basil Poledouris on WIND, a challenging assignment in which the score’s three main elements – orchestra, rhythm, and synthsizers (realized by Michael Boddicker) – were each recorded on separate twenty-four track recordings at three different studios, with Tim later mixing them all together for one composite music track.

Paramount Studios recently offered Tim the prestigious position of heading up their newly-refurbished scoring stage, where he now serves as its resident engineer. – Paul Andrew MacLean

At what point do you become involved when recording a score?
After all the principal photography is finished and hopefully after all the editing is finished (although that doesn’t always happen,), so the film is pretty much in the shape of being a final cut, because a composer obviously has to write specifically for scenes and, if the scenes are going to be cut, then the writing is out the window and will not fit. So it’s at a very final stage, which is a shame because that’s always when the budget’s run out!

So your job really begins when you arrive at the session.
Pretty much. If it’s an orchestral score then there is not a lot I can do beforehand to prepare for it. I have to know what the numbers are – the orchestra set-up, how many violins, etc, so I’ll be ready to go. Occasionally if there are “pre-records” for a film (which there are in a lot of movies if someone is singing on camera or there is source music that is not straight score,) then I can get involved before photography. They have to have that music finished so they can shoot to a soundtrack so it will remain in sync.
Sometimes if there are a lot of synthesizers involved, and we’re adding orchestra on top of synthesizer or there is some sequencing involved, and then I can get involved two or 3 weeks earlier. But I’d say 70 to 80% of the time; I do not become involved until the very day that I show up for the orchestra.

How important is the ability to read music for a recording engineer?
I don’t read. I can follow scores because I can count. I know rhythms, and I do play a little bit, but reading is really not essential at all. The basic talent in mixing scores is being able to listen and pick out what principal instruments should be featured at what time, which is quite simple because usually someone is laying a melody and the rest of the orchestra comps around them. I listen to a score critically the first time it is played and I think to myself, “Gee, I can’t hear that oboe I am supposed to hear,” that’s not a reading, but a listening capability, so I just say, “Have the oboe player blow out a little louder in this bar.” That’s also where the counting comes in. I can say, “Somewhere around bar 15 or 16 I see an oboe lead that I should hear but can’t hear, so have him play louder.” So you really don’t have to read at all.

When you listen to a cue over and over, when do you actually decide that it’s perfect?
When the composer turns around and says it’s perfect. Usually it is performance-dependent. Film scores are a little funny, because they’re not exactly like classical composition, because in a classical performance, those guys rehearse it over and over for days, so they can fine-tune it. The conductor can say, “I want this bar to be louder, I want this to be legatto, I want this to be staccato,” and so forth, and they can really play with it. But because of time constraints you really don’t get that option in film scores. You have to do it now. So the level of perfection in film scores will never reach the level of perfection that you get from a classical CD. But on the other hand, the session orchestras are very, very good at sight reading, and very good at being able to interpret what a composer wants on the spot, because there is such a variety of composers, and they all have different approaches.
I think David Newman is the best conductor I work with. In fact I think he’s the best in Hollywood. I’ve seen enough of the guys around now – some of them will sit back in a chair and wave a pencil! Other guys will conduct with their body, but not have the ability to get the emotion across. However, when you watch David conduct, when he makes a move, he’s asking with his body language. First of all, his family background was obviously an influence. His father was a great conductor. And the other thing is that David was a very good violin player. He played in Hollywood session orchestras, which is where I first saw and met him. He and his wife were both violinists, actually. There’s a musical quality that violinists have to achieve that really has helped David. I love what David Newman does. I love his use of counterpoint and his orchestration.

What other composers do you work with besides David?
Basil Poledouris, Brad Fiedel and David Kitay. I don’t work with anybody else on a regular basis. Just those three guys. I also do a ton of television scores. Basil Poledouris is not only a workmate; he is a good friend of mine, and a great guy. He is one of the most honest people I’ve ever met in my life, if not the most honest. He’s great to work with, and his writing is unbelievable. He writes great melodies, and he also covers the electronic music quite well. HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN is a great score, and that was all electronic. What he did for WIRED was also great, as was NO MAN’S LAND, which was the first time I worked for him.
It was funny, when my ex-wife was pregnant with our youngest daughter, she went to Valley Presbyterian for “new mommy” classes, and the teacher was Bobbie Poledouris, Basil’s wife. So they met long before I ever met Basil. Basil was one of Dan Wallin’s clients, when Dan was still active in the scoring business so when Basil and I finally got together we had a little common ground.

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER was scored for orchestra as well as chorus. What kind of problems does that introduce in recording?
Wow, you picked a good one for problems! The director of that film, John McTiernan, is a very much hands-on director. He did a lot of cutting after we were supposed to be locked. So a lot of the score had been written, and then they made cuts, particularly in the first scene when the Red October is charging down that harbor, with everybody singing their hearts out. We had recorded the orchestra without the chorus, and then they had made the cuts, so we had to take what we recorded on the digital 48 track, and then cut it so it fit the new picture, and then re-work the words and record the chorus. There were other problems, because we wanted one hundred singers who spoke fluent Russian. That would have been perfect. Well, you don’t find that many in L.A. The original thought was to go to the Russian orthodox church choir and use them.
Basil wrote the lyrics, and they’re based on the date of the revolution in October. He then got together with John McTiernan’s Russian assistant and advisor, and they rewrote the lyrics into Russian. All we had were 25 singers. We couldn’t teach a hundred singers all at once how to pronounce these Russian words, because they would never get it right. So we had 25 singers on a big set of risers, and the guy would sit there and teach them the pronunciation for 8 bars, and they’d have to run through them about 60 times, and when they finally learned them we would turn on the machine and quickly record those 8 bars. Then we would stop, and go through the teaching of the next 8 bars. I’ve spoken to a few people who speak Russian, and they said it wasn’t bad, but it was detectable they were not Russian singers. It would have sounded much better had we been able to get a hundred singers. There would have been no comparison. I really prefer to have live singers and orchestra together. The sound is tremendous, it’s beautiful. When you have 25 singers and record them 6 times it doesn’t sound like a hundred signers, basically you’re just adding the same voices on top of the same voices.
When I first started out, there were a lot of guys who couldn’t afford a large violin section, so they would record a piece with 16 violins, and then record the violins a second time hoping to get the sound of 32 violins. It never works. In fact it makes things punier. I tell people now, “If you can’t afford a large band, let me record it the way it is and I’ll make it sound large.”

How do you do that?
It is a little level dependant, a little reverb, tiny little pre-delays in your reverb so that they sound a little bit later, so you get a sound, then a re-sound, then the reverb. And I seat them in a way that I take the first violins and put them on one side of the mix, and then the second violins on the other side of the mix, and it makes things sound bigger.
When BILL’S AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE came out, people came up to me and said, “Wow, what a great sound. How many guys did you have in that orchestra? It sounded huge!” And I would say, “No, it’s 39 players.” It was a small, television-size orchestra, because there was no money for anything.
I’m a pretty unique mixer in this town, because mixers in L.A. do not use the stereo plane. What they do is put up 3 mikes, and the orchestra plays into those 3 mikes and you get the space and the sense of where the orchestra is sitting from the directionality of those mikes. Well, in that case it always sounds like the violins are sitting on the left, and the cellos are on the right, and the basses are behind the cellos. You always hear it sound like an orchestra.
My feeling is when you go to a concert hall to see a big symphony, even though the violins are sitting in one section, because of the acoustics and the bouncing and the way you’re sitting far enough back from the orchestra, you never really hear it that way. You hear it as a large wall of sound coming at you, and you’re not quite sure where all the sounds are coming from. When I see a film which has the fiddles on the left, it always sounds small to me. So what I do is to record in sections, particularly the violins, which I put right and left, just to make sure that they sound like they’re coming from everywhere.

You notice that when listening to RED OCTOBER and MR. DESTINY.
MR. DESTINY was the only time where I had a large fiddle section and I actually put the firsts on one side of the room and the seconds on the other side. Neither David nor I liked it after it was over. We didn’t dislike it, but we didn’t get from it what we had hoped to get.

What happened with the release of the RED OCTOBER CD, because that took a long time to come out, even after the success of the movie…
A CD had always been planned. It took us a little time to mix it. With that movie we were right at deadline. When that was released, there was some question as to whether we were going to make that March 17 release, because there were cuts in the film after it was supposed to be done. They took it to the exhibitors, and the exhibitors had some questions about the ending of the movie. It’s a pretty convoluted ending, and they didn’t really readily figure out that the Dallas had taken off and pulled the torpedo away from the Red October and back onto the Russian sub and that that was the one that blew up. That wasn’t particularly clear, and they felt that they needed to fix the ending of the movie. So they went back in and re-shot some stuff, and looped some dialogue lines to make it absolutely clear. So that pushed things past a comfortable date of being able to finish the movie and getting it to the lab to make the prints. So we really didn’t even get to do the record until afterwards. Basil and I actually remixed it for the CD. On most of the records that come out from films, they just take the film mix and split it out left and right.

The album has kind of a brief running time, about 29 or 30 minutes, and one cue which is completely electronic. Was this due to the re-use fee?
Exactly. A few years ago, the musicians’ union signed a new deal that you could use up to a half hour of music, so we had to cut a lot of stuff out. There is some great music in there that we just couldn’t put in. We both felt a little guilty, actually – 29 minutes of music for $13.99! We would have rather seen a full forty-five minute record, but that was the deal, and we felt bad about that. We wanted to give people their money’s worth.

What is your method for recording synthesizers with an orchestra? I once read of a method where Jerry Goldsmith and Bruce Botnick used to hook the keyboards into guitar amplifiers, and then actually miked the amplifiers like the rest of the orchestra, so that Goldsmith could balance it all “live” from the podium.
I don’t do that, because almost all of the synth players in Hollywood now give you a left and a right out of their mixers, so it is meant to be heard panned full left and right. When you do it in the room, you get it center located and it’s a mono sound. That might be desirable sometimes, if it is going to be performed as another piece of the orchestra, but a synthesizer is neither fish nor fowl, it’s a different treatment. On most scores that I mix, I’ll do a three-track mix of the orchestra, and then a separate three-track mix of synthesizers and that gives the dubber the option of playing the synths up or down. That way they can put the synthesizers where they like. Personally I would rather deliver a three-track mix every time, and say, “This is the way it ought to be,” but it can’t always work that way. A lot of composers depend upon the synthesizers to perform heavy rhythm functions, and the balance of a rhythm section in an orchestra is hyper-critical. If it is too loud it makes the orchestra sound puny, if it’s too quiet, it doesn’t sound modern and it doesn’t sound big. So there’s that balance of whether it is in the right pocket. I think BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY was a real good use of synths. David did all the sequencing himself.

Composers are very obviously influenced by their forbears and even their contemporaries. Can the same be said of recording engineers?
In my case, I am a Danny Wallin fan. I love the way he records. I think OUT OF AFRICA is one of the finest recordings I’ve ever heard. It is gorgeous, absolutely beautiful.

To me it seems that many engineers seem to have different and unique styles. Compare John Richards, who seems to favor close miking with electronic reverb, and someone like Armin Steiner, whose sound is generally unreverberant, relying more on room acoustics. How is something like that determined?
It is all feel. I hope I don’t have a style. I would like to think it changes with every movie that I work on, and I hope I can adapt over and over again, because I think that’s important. Armin Steiner has been around for a long time. I remember hearing Armin Steiner long before he became the scoring maven that he is. He always had the propensity to go after the old “tube” sound, or the old microphone sound. That’s always been his shtick. His style of recording works really well with eighty, ninety pieces, but I’m not sure it works so well when there are twenty-nine players that are supposed to sound like eighty. You can’t do it under those circumstances. That’s why I’ve gone in my direction and he’s gone in his. I don’t know anybody besides Wallin who does it the way I do it. There are other guys who use a lot of mikes and make them close, but I try not to get a close sound. I don’t like having one microphone on every two violins, that’s not my style. I don’t like a close sound; I like an orchestra to sound like an orchestra.
I think it depends upon what stage you work on. Armin has been over at Fox a number of years, and it is a very large stage and a wonderful-sounding place, and he uses the sound of the stage quite well.

Have you ever gotten the opportunity to record overseas?
No. I have yet to go out of the country for a recording. I have never even been to Europe! Isn’t that terrible? But hopefully when I grow up I’ll be able to get there (laughs).

Is there a particular studio you are fond of, or one you would like to try?
I would love to try Fox. Eventually maybe Armin will retire, and I’ll be able to work there. I think the old MGM stage in Culver City is the best. That has an incredible sound. Sony, now that they own that facility, is thinking of refurbishing it, and that’s frightening. I don’t want to see that happen. I’d rather see it stay just the way it is.
I have very often seen acousticians come in and advise people on what to do at a particular studio, but when the results come in it is never as advertised. Sometimes it’s better and sometimes it’s worse. A perfect example is the Universal stage. They received an Academy Award for that stage when it first opened, and now people don’t like to work there. It’s not a horrible room, technically it’s really together, but the acoustics are very difficult.

How do you like the Warner Bros. studio?
It’s nice. It’s very controlled, with a nice, big sound. Bobby Fernandez, the resident engineer at Warners has, over the last 3 or 4 years, turned into one of my favorites. I really like his sound.

We were just at the new, smaller scoring stage at Warner’s a few days ago, and that has a really nice sound.
I’ll tell you why it sounds good, and it’s the same reason Universal doesn’t sound good. The Warner’s studio was built on a concrete slab, but they raised the floor. You see, the reason an orchestra sounds the way it does is because it’s performed on a stage. A stage is never concrete, it is always raised up and there is always air under it. It is that sound that you get when you step onto a hollow surface that brings you the sound. You can change the walls, you can change the ceiling, you can change the baffles, you can change everything, but if you don’t have a stage you don’t have a sound. The bass response particularly is tremendously different. I tend to be a bass freak. I love the bass. I might roll a little bass out of a high-hat or the cymbals on a drum kit, but that is it. Everything is flat, and everything has as much bottom as I can get. And I just absolutely love that sound, and you cannot pull that out of Universal, because there is just no reverberation in the low frequencies in the floor.

Could you tell us about your work in the film music program at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute?
Sundance was a great place. It was so much fun, and Bruce Broughton was a big part of why it was so good. My work as an engineer is what I really love to do. I love talking about it and doing it, and I always have fun and laugh a lot, and Bruce is the same way. David Newman is that way too. When we all went up to Sundance it was an opportunity to be with very, very bright young composers – young in that they haven’t been in the scoring business a long time. I don’t mean chronologically young, because there was a woman there named Nancy Laird Chance, who is an incredible composer in her own right – a serious composer who was 63 years old. But she was young in a scoring sense, because she had never scored films before, and she was one of the fellows.
At Sundance we would get up at seven, and go to breakfast with the fellows to start the day. Then we would work all day long, and they would write like crazy, and I would record their stuff. I would teach them about Dolby matrixes and all the technical stuff, and I would also mix their cues. We would wrap at six in the evening, and every night there was a screening and the composer was usually there, and he would talk to the students afterward about his score. We would finish that at about 9:00 or 9:30, and then we would high-tail it into somebody’s cabin, and booze would start to flow, and we’d talk until two or three in the morning, stumble off to bed, get up at seven and do it again the next day. And we would do that for twenty-one days in a row. It was fantastic. It was great!
It’s a shame that Sundance is not what it used to be, but it was expensive, very expensive to run a facility like that. Robert Redford is an incredible guy, real helpful.

It is a shame that Steven Spielberg doesn’t do something, with his clout.
I’d like to see George Lucas do it up in Lucasland. It would be a great idea. There are a lot of guys I work with now who came out of that program.

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