When I entered Air Studios Lyndhurst Hall on September 26th at 10 AM, it was already very busy. Musicians were preparing for the recording and the control room was already gearing up. When everything was set up, composer Hans Zimmer went to say good morning to the orchestra and they started preparations to record the first cue.
Hans has been working on Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game of Shadows for quite a while now. In the score he tried to avoid the theme from the original movie as much as possible, though he did include it here and there. This particular day they had two sessions (three hours long each) for low strings only (double basses and celli) and later one for brass instruments. In whole we spent over 8 hours there.
I knew I would meet him during my trip to London literally days before I left. That’s when my meeting was scheduled. I didn’t know or expect, however, that we would be invited for a recording session, to see how all the big boys in Hollywood work. Though, as Hans remarked to me during a break: „that’s not how things should be done.” Indeed, he tends to stem a lot and some musicians actually do complain about it, but mostly they prefer it, because it gives them all the conductor’s attention and they don’t have to deal with the brass, which is dynamically drowning out everyone else. Stemming is a specific technique of recording where each section is divided, recorded and mixed separately. The word section is crucial here, on this particular session there were no violas and violins, just the low strings part of the string quintet. Though the brass section did feature all possible instruments (of course, the cello has a very big range, so it also covers tenor and baritone sound range). Afterwards, each bunch is separately mixed into one channel, it gives a lot of flexibility to the final film dub. Bass woodwinds (contrabass clarinets, bassoons and bass clarinet) were recorded the next day.
Hans discussed what kind of ensemble he needs with engineer Geoff Foster a few days before the session, while playing his demo. There was a discussion whether they should get 8 or 12 trombones for it, but in the end he got 3 tenor and 3 bass trombones, 2 tubas, 3 trumpets and 6 horns.
We witnessed most of the work from the control room, where Zimmer, Foster and his music editor Bob Badami would supervise the recording. The composer and his recording engineer would feed performance feedback to the orchestra, referring either directly to Gavin Greenaway, who conducted the work, or to the principal perfomers, Mary Scully on double bass and cellist Anthony Pleeth. All the discussions are heard by everyone in the orchestra, but they are disciplined enough to let either the conductor or the principal players do the talking. Both are veterans in performing Hans Zimmer’s music. The score was also followed by cellist Tristan Schulze, also a Zimmer veteran, who has performed as part of his trio Triology on scores such as The Road to Eldorado and Spanglish.
A lot has been already said about how Hans played the demos to the orchestra and it should be explained, what the demos really are and how does the general Zimmer process look like. Hans always starts projects by writing thematic suites, which are later shared with additional composers and adapted to the movie. The suite we got to hear both in recorded and demo form was for the main theme of the new film (Shadows part 1-3 on the album). Hans also approaches sequels a bit differently. As he said, in multiple interviews, mostly related to Pirates of the Caribbean (technically the first sequel he scored was Hannibal, but neither movie in the Hannibal Lecter franchise had any kind of musical continuity), he prefers to start with the new thematic material and only after he has it laid out, he adds the old themes appropriately.
Hans creates the demos before starting to score specific scenes. As he remarked in the liner notes to the More Music from Gladiator album, they are “sort of a diary of one idea being developed.” In other words, he lets it appear in many different arrangements and solve every possible issue (different colors, different emotions). Hans’ demos are always fully arranged and orchestrated to the point of him rarely changing pitch, sometimes changing the dynamics. The demos aren’t only about having the themes and motifs laid out, but also about finding the right sounds in terms of electronics, color and orchestrations. In some cases Hans tends to use the recorded suites as End Credits music, cases in point here are definitely Beyond Rangoon and Crimson Tide. Also, his original demos are used as temp-track when the movie is edited, which is why he doesn’t have any temp-track love with the director. That said, the first Sherlock Holmes was famously temp-tracked by The Dark Knight, which is why Hans Zimmer got the call about the movie.
After creating the thematic material, Hans gets to score the movie itself. And this leads to one of the biggest misconceptions about the way he works. So to say it once and for all. Hans Zimmer is not lazy. When I interviewed composer Jim Dooley (who, while scoring TV series and indie films, is still working in Remote Control Productions), he told me: “Hans is the hardest working composer I have ever seen. The need for 'additional’ arranging and composition is very reflective of the schedule of film and the way Hans writes. For example, Hans built most of the electronic sounds for Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron from scratch by himself to create as unique a sounding score as possible (Hans told me personally that he always starts with programming sounds, so he creates the necessary soundscape for a film and only then gets to writing the themes, sometimes even he prefers creating the sounds to writing the melody). The amount of time doing this does not allow for him to personally do all the cues as well. In every effort to serve the film and the score, composers like myself come in to help extend the vision of the composer to allow them enough time to be as creative as possible under such deadlines.“ Add to that a whole bunch of meetings, calls from other projects and you have a composer who, as he told us, is “just trying to write a score!”
Another misconception, partly supported by Hans’s own statements, is that he is musically an idiot. He has talked about it many times, once he said that he wanted to write big action music like John Williams, but he was “original in the virtue of his stupidity” and in the interview with me he remarked that he’s an “idiot sauvant” (a term he surely has heard at the latest when working on Rain Man, since it’s a term used for some autists.) What I witnessed on the recording session is that, first, he can follow the score to the point of talking about specific bars to the orchestra, second, he is changing orchestration details (even if mostly he changed the dynamics) during the session itself. Two particular moments happened when once he wanted part of a bar to be performed sul ponticello (a specific string effect achieved by putting the bow very closely to the bridge) and the rest in a normal fashion (all that always with concern regarding playability and the orchestra players’ well-being, while repeating a loop he said that he “doesn’t want to kill anybody too much”), in another part he asked for every second player of the double basses to play the note “col legno” – with the wooden part of the bow. He is also very, very sure of the sound he wants to achieve. When both Mary Scully and Geoff Foster recommended him that that it should be performed by the second half of the players (as in, first three bass players playing normally, the other three playing it col legno), Hans was very adamant about it being played by every second player in the orchestra. He knows what sound he is after and keeps pursuing it. Hans told me later: “I think the only thing to be concerned with at the session is the energy of the performance. And that’s really about interpretation of dynamics or playing styles, of rehearsing and keeping things moving along so everybody is involved and excited.”
A recording session led by such professionals as Hans Zimmer, Geoff Foster and Gavin Greenaway is a joy to watch. Foster just listened to the demos days before the session and immediately after a short discussion knew, how the instruments should be, as professionals say, mic’ed, which means, how should he set the microphones up, so Hans gets the sound he wants. To a composer who cares a lot to get a specific soundscape it’s very important. When we were talking about Inception some time ago, Hans told me that he starts with creating the sounds, sometimes preferring creating them to actually writing themes. When he has the sound that fits the project, he starts working with melodies.
A simple and short story will show Zimmer’s genuine character and how professional the players and conductor are during such a session. Hans kept telling us that the best sound you get from the gallery. AIR Studios is a no longer used church and the hall, where orchestra recordings are made in, is the biggest part of it (in fact the studio’s canteen uses the church’s former benches.) The gallery is probably where the choir used to perform during service. In fact, choir is often recorded from the gallery itself, rather than on the floor below. After telling us how great it sounds from there, at one point, telling us to be as quiet as a mouse, he simply took us up there.
There we didn’t hear the control room chatter and the original synthesized demo that was also, through headphones, fed to the performers and conductor. At first silence. You could understand that the recording will start from the silence right before and Gavin Greenaway’s moves, telling the orchestra to prepare. Then the heavily busy cue (divided into a few bars that were recorded every single time) was performed, rocking the hall and they finished. The orchestra players (mostly Mary Scully) or Gavin Greenaway would talk first to the control room and then react to the feedback, it would get completely silent for a while and again, the performance would blast the hall.
The experience of sitting in the gallery was great and Hans himself, who accompanied us for a while, was deeply enjoying it. I think one of the most obvious, but also most interesting and captivating lessons of a recording session is witnessing a lot of people, who know what they are doing. Based on the experience of this recording session I would compare the composer (even, as is the case with Hans Zimmer, when he is not conducting himself) to a film director, who has a certain vision of the score, knows what exactly he wants and gets things done that way. A lot of course depends on the crew, but if you look at the credits of his albums, he has worked with those people for years. He knows what they can deliver and they know how to do exactly what he envisions.
The professionalism and concentration of the session was something I learnt from a lot myself. The job has to get done and it’s better if you are able to fully enjoy it. Hans had his fair share of projects he didn’t enjoy and he told me in the interview he gave me over a year ago, “you can hear in my scores the movies I wasn’t in love with.” But above all it resorts to having fun, which Hans definitely likes. It’s still his job and he does his best to serve the movie his way.
If someone told me three years ago that I would be invited to a Hans Zimmer recording session and be allowed to write this report, I would probably laugh you all off. But it happened. It was one of the greatest experiences in my life and told me a lot about how does Hans work and how things are done in big Hollywood movies. It proved me more than anything that Hans is not lazy and that he is not completely musically illiterate. The experience itself is one I will cherish.
Special thanks to my wonderful host and friend Richard Carter, Andrew Zack and, especially, to Hans Zimmer for meeting me and inviting me to this session.
Photos by Richard Carter