Alan Meyerson has been mixing music for movies for 15 years. His long list of notable credits includes blockbusters Gladiator, Shrek, King Kong, Sin City, the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and Transformers.
Alan talks with us about the art of mixing music for movies, the benefits and challenges of working in a new digital era, and about how he uses iZotope Trash to enhance his complex mixes.
Alan, you're most often credited as a music scoring mixer, right?
Right. That's where I spend most of my time now-a-days.
So what does that involve for some of the people out there who might not know what that job is?
Basically, when you make a movie there are three major aspects of post production sound, one being dialog, one being sound effects, and the other one, the bastard child of them all of them, is music. I say the bastard child because on a 100 million dollar movie about one percent of the budget goes to music.
I work with the composers, music editors and sound designers and I record all of the music score. The composers now work mostly in a digital environment, so they're working in a sequencer where they're recording their elements. Then usually we take it to orchestra. And what I mean by that is we'll take that synthesized version and take many elements from it, but at the same time there is a live orchestra that's going to play along with it. Then I take all of those elements, the synthesized elements, the orchestral elements and whatever solo instruments might be played, and mix it. I'll do a nice music mix which will then get combined with dialog and sound effects in the final dub of the film.
Today a lot of films are these high budget action films and the sound effects and dialog are so complex and the music matches that complexity. By the time you're done things are massively huge, and most of the music I tend to work on has tons and tons of stuff in it.
You've worked with Hans Zimmer quite a bit for example.
Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams, Danny Elfman, quite a few guys.
These projects can get very complex. You came from the recording records world...
The mixing records world, actually. But I came from the 80s when records were getting complex already. And so that sensibility has sort of been my weapon - bringing that "let's create something new and fresh in the mix" attitude of making music to film scoring, which has been what's worked for me.
What are some of the current projects you've been working on?
I did Pirates [of the Caribbean: At Worlds End] and the day after I finished Pirates I started Transformers, so those were my big summer movies. I just finished a movie called The Game Plan with The Rock. I'm about to do a movie called Bee Movie which is a Dreamworks animated feature with Rupert Gregson-Williams. And after that I'm going to do I Am Legend which is the new Will Smith movie. So that brings me through October.
How many movies do you typically work on in a year?
About 10 a year. It usually works out to about 10 to 12 a year.
Is it a hectic job then?
It's a hectic job when the times are hectic. It's a very deadline-oriented job. Usually in modern filmmaking, it's so easy to put off making decisions because it's all in a digital world. People are using Final Cut and Avid to do all of their editing; people aren't really cutting film anymore. It's so easy to decide not to make a final decision. And what that does is it makes post production crazy. If you don't get a final edit until a week before something is getting delivered then the music is constantly changing.
So basically, you might have changes you have to make right up to the end.
We always have changes that have to be made right up to the end. I can't tell you how many times I've had to stay in the studio until five in the morning trying to get something ready for the next day. It happens a lot.
How long have you been doing this?
I've been doing films for 15 years, and before that I did records for about 10 years. So about 25-30 years now.
You've seen a lot changes in technology over those years, definitely. Looking at your studio now, it's mostly based around software.
I like to sort of walk that line. I still have a love for tubes and analog equipment. The compliment of what I use has gotten smaller and smaller but I've gotten it down to a few key things that I just can't live without. But I'm a digital guy now for sure. That's where the world is and I've embraced it.
Does it make the process easier to not have to deal with the ins and outs of hardware?
No. It makes the process in certain ways harder but in some ways more interesting and you can do a lot more. You can have at the sound in a new way. It's really different. It's not harder or easier. It's different. And people have to treat sound making now differently than they did 10 years ago, and I'm sure in five years it's going to be completely different again.
When you're working on a project like, say, Transformers, what kind of stuff is delivered to you? Do you have some things coming in a surround format?
Well, you could. But for the most part the way the composers work, they have surround samples and they do use them, but a lot of the stuff they're doing is in stereo. And that's part of what I do, I take their stereo samples, or their compositions and synth masters, and create a surround environment out of them.
Then when we do the live orchestra recording, we obviously do that in a multi-mic environment and I can create very nice organic and acoustic surrounds out of that.
With soundtracks and mixing the score, you're not doing a lot of the effect-y stuff that you hear with surround, right? Is it more of a subtle process?
Not necessarily. It depends on the movie. There are a lot of movies where you do want to keep people focused on the screen and you don't want to distract them - a lot of dialog-driven movies and romantic comedies. But when you look at a movie like Transformers or Pirates you have a lot more freedom and flexibility to play with all the speakers and I certainly love doing that and will take advantage of it when ever the opportunity is given to me.
There are a lot of times where I'll try to make the most of it. A movie like Transformers is as much an amusement park ride as it is a piece of filmmaking. In a good way. I want people to have that experience, so if I can make things fly around a little bit, why not?
It must be nice to be able to take advantage of a dedicated subwoofer channel as well, which on rock records you don't have.
Right. But you've got to use it very carefully. In a movie theater the subwoofers, or the low frequency effects channels as they're actually called, react differently than what a subwoofer in a home stereo or home theater system will do. There are more of them, and the decay time tends to be a little bit slower, so things can get muddy pretty quickly. I've always found that the less I use it the better it is, so that when it comes in it's more fun than having something there all the time.
When you're doing preparation for a movie, are you thinking about other releases of a movie for DVD or TV?
Yes and no. A good music mix is going to travel well. The bigger issue is going from a surround environment to a stereo environment, that's challenging. To try to get this great experience of this thing with all of this air around it, and trying to get it down to a one-dimensional listening experience without feeling like you're cheating something out of it.
A lot of times I'll work in reverse. Although I'm mixing through my surround world I'm actually listening in stereo, so that when I go to listen to stuff in surround it's a plus as opposed to going from surround to stereo and it being a minus.
You mentioned that you're a big fan of Trash. You use it in a kind of unconventional way, though. In some cases you do use it as more of a traditional distortion plug-in but not primarily.
I use it more as harmonic generation than as distortion. I find that it's amazingly useful on a wide variety of things.
One of the things that happens in modern film scoring is there's a tremendous amount of density. You have massive percussion and large orchestral sounds and synth drones, and there's a tremendous amount of stuff that happens. When people tend to write in their own rooms it usually comes to me sounding great but it lacks a depth and dimension. They're listening in a stereo environment that's probably not maximized for good sound, plus they're listening with a different intent in mind than I am.
The value of Trash for me has been the ability to subtly create differences in the amount of harmonic content. It enables me to make things speak much, much better in this complex world without using EQ. I find that EQ is very limited in how much you can affect things, whereas the generation of additional harmonics or sub-harmonics really does so much more with so much less. And that's where I tend to use it the most.
We see that you're using the "Trash" module...
I also use the filters quite a bit, and the delays also. I tend not to use the amp simulation that much because that's a more traditional way of using Trash and it's not something I have to do very often. I must say that there was one cue in Pirates where we wanted to make the whole orchestra sound like it was going through a guitar amp. We did end up using Trash as our guitar amp. We tried everything from Trash to real amps and other plug-ins, and Trash ended up being the winner in that case.
I can't tell you which one I picked... because I don't even look. When I do settings a lot of the time I'm not looking at what I'm doing as much as listening to what I'm doing. I try to be an engine-ear instead of an engine-eye. Sorry about that, old studio joke!