Composer Spotlight

Ecology is a word you don't hear too often in the context of recording studios, but it suits film composer Carter Burwell's home-based facility in New
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Ecology is a word you don't hear too often in the context of recording studios, but it suits film composer Carter Burwell's home-based facility in New York.

“One of the first things I said to my architect, John Storyk, is that I wanted the studio to be an ecology of technology,” says Burwell. “I wanted all these different species of machine to live together in some symbiotic way. I've always loved the fact that my life is filled with machines and that they're all going to talk to each other, and new ones will be born and old ones will die. An ecology is a messy, complex thing, and we have to accept that that's what it's going to be.”

Those who have followed Burwell's work will not be surprised to hear him liken his studio to a living, breathing being. After all, Burwell's scores are universally acknowledged as some of the most organic and original in the film industry, enriching already brilliant films like Joel and Ethan Coen's Blood Simple and Fargo, David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner and Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich.

For most of his career, Burwell worked out of a self-built studio on West 37th Street. While that space served him well as a composition room, it did not stand up as a professional mixing environment. So, when Burwell moved to a 3,000-square-foot loft in TriBeCa in 1999, he seized the opportunity to build a world-class studio that would encompass all of his musical activities, from writing and programming to recording and 5.1 channel mixing.

“When I decided to build a studio here, I felt I wanted a good listening environment and also a room where I could do my 5.1 film mixes,” explains Burwell. “I really thought this was an opportunity to build a room I could mix in myself and have so much more control over that part of the process.”

Before the room went up, Burwell had spec'd a Euphonix CS3000 digitally controlled analog console. However, when he saw the Euphonix System 5 — a 24-bit, 96kHz-capable digital console — at the Audio Engineering Society convention in New York in October 1999, he quickly switched gears.

“Clearly, in the future the signal path is going to be all digital, and I felt that while we're building the studio, we might as well acknowledge that fact,” says Burwell. “If I put in some other type of board, I'd be replacing it in a few years; if I put in a digital board that's 24 bits and capable of 96k, then that's probably a piece of equipment I'd be able to live with for a decade.”

The 24-fader System 5 is complemented by a Doremi V1 video disc recorder; Macintosh G3 and G4 computers running Pro Tools and Digital Performer systems; two Tascam MX-2424 high-resolution hard disk recorders; and racks upon racks of synthesizers and samplers, including various Roland models (notably the XV-5080, VP-9000, S-760 and JV-1080), a Korg Wavestation and two NemeSys GigaSamplers.

Processing equipment includes the TC Electronic System 6000 and Finalizer; Lexicon PCM 70, 80 and 90 Series reverbs; Empirical Labs Distressors; and an Eventide H3000 Harmonizer.

Burwell's front left, center and right monitors are Genelec 1038s, with a Genelec subwoofer. Fully aware that the rear speakers should match the front in a professional surround room, Burwell intended to use the same monitors for the back, but had to make alternate plans because the 1038s physically wouldn't fit along the back wall of the control room. The solution? Storyk enlisted audio specialist Ted Rothstein to custom-design rear speakers, using Dynaudio drivers, to match the front L/C/R array.

Although Burwell had never met Storyk, he hired him based on the architect's reputation as the builder of more than 1,000 state-of-the-art facilities all over the world, starting with Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady in New York. “I knew I needed a professional to achieve my goal, so I went to John Storyk because he's so well-known,” says Burwell.

As is often the case with building a studio in an existing space that must also function as a residence, there were limitations to what Storyk could do. Burwell says, “One of the biggest challenges was the question of windows and light. I was insistent on keeping all the windows I have here, which doesn't help the acoustics, especially when you're doing 5.1. But John managed, by covering everything else with soft surfaces, to make the acoustical space still work.”

Storyk worked in tandem with architect Kathy Chia, who designed the residential space and consulted on the studio, and Burwell's wife, lighting designer Christine Sciulli.

The attention to detail and the investment have paid off for Burwell, who says he takes pride in knowing that all of his film scores are mixed in his own apartment.

“My mixing engineer, Mike Farrow, who lives in L.A., flies out here to mix all my projects,” says Burwell. “Mike says this is his number one room to mix in. It's his preference, as opposed to any other room in the world. On any of these projects, we have a choice of rooms, and if Mike wanted to mix somewhere else, we would.”

Besides its state-of-the-art mixing capabilities, Burwell's studio offers amenities and flexibility that rival those of multiroom, multimillion-dollar facilities.

“One of the essential parts of the design is that the whole place, including the residential end, is fully wired so that eveything talks to everything else,” explains Burwell. “So we have eight tieline panels throughout the residence, each with a couple of video lines, coaxial lines, Ethernet, telephone, and analog audio and digital audio.”

The studio's flexibility was tested to its fullest capacity recently, when Burwell, Farrow and Burwell's assistant, Dean Parker, were mixing the score to the upcoming film Simone, written and directed by Andrew Niccol (of Gattaca and The Truman Show fame) and starring Al Pacino. The problem was that Burwell — who admits that he is at the mercy of producers and directors when it comes to scheduling — had to start composing music for another film, The Bourne Identity, directed by Doug Liman, based on a Robert Ludlum novel and starring Matt Damon.

“We took the GigaSampler and the Roland XV-5080 out to the living room, along with a keyboard and the V1, and I basically had a little composing situation out there,” says Burwell. “But both the GigaSampler and the XV-5080 had sounds that were required for the Simone mix, so they had to be playing back the mix that was happening in the control room, even as I was using them to write out there. Well, it turns out GigaSampler has four MIDI ins and eight outs, and the Roland has two MIDI ins and eight outs, so we sent the MIDI from the Digital Performer file running the Simone mix into our network.

Then, from the panel in the living room, I was able to plug those MIDI connections into the two synths, took a couple of digital audio outputs from those machines and put them into the panels, and they came up back in the control room. So all day long, I was out there listening to certain outputs and using certain MIDI inputs and hearing the score I was working on, while in the control room, those guys were using the same machines but hearing totally different sounds and working on a totally different film.

“It was wonderful,” Burwell adds. “It represented the best use of the flexibility that those machines have, and the flexibility of this place, meaning the residence as well as the studio.”

As if those two projects haven't kept Burwell busy enough, he has also recently completed music for a low-budget, independent film called Searching for Paradise, and is scheduled to start working on the next feature by Jonze, the video director who made his film debut with the acclaimed Being John Malkovich. The Jonze picture, Adaptations, stars Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep.

Juggling multiple — and completely different — projects is nothing new for Burwell, a lifelong musician whose career got off to an auspicious start in 1984, when an obscure pair of brothers named Joel and Ethan Coen asked him to score their debut film, Blood Simple. That movie's critical and commercial success laid the foundation for a career-long association between the Coens and Burwell that has yielded such other highlights as Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Burwell's relationship with the Coens continues. He has scored their latest film, The Man Who Wasn't There — which is scheduled for release later this year — and is about to begin a new Coen feature titled The White Sea, based on a James Dickie novel and starring Brad Pitt as a World War II U.S. pilot who is shot down over Japan.

If Burwell shares the Coens' eyes and ears for the ironic, then his offbeat sensibilities have also attracted the attention of such other film auteurs as Mamet, Michael Caton Jones and Richard Donner, who hired him to score, respectively, The Spanish Prisoner, Rob Roy and Conspiracy Theory.

Whether working on a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza or an indie film, Burwell stays true to his artistry by approaching each as a method actor would tackle a role.

“I feel that working on big Hollywood films is really useful for me,” says Burwell, “not only in that it financially subsidizes this studio, but it allows me to work with players and in places and with schedules that wouldn't be possible on independent films. The fertilization goes the other way as well. Working on independent films, you're constantly challenged by budgets and working with ensembles that are maybe 10 or 12 players instead of a symphony orchestra. It's a much more interesting challenge as composer and orchestrator to be faced with 10 players and try to figure out how to get a variety of colors and sounds from them, and it's a bigger challenge for the players as well.”

With a studio that can handle any project and a musical sensibility that attracts all types, Burwell is poised to continue enlivening his films with some of the most memorable scores in modern times.

“It really helps me to go back and forth between different kinds of projects,” concludes Burwell. “If I were just doing low-budget films or just doing big-budget films, it would be a significantly less interesting and a less enlightening life for me.”

Paul Verna is Mix's N.Y. editor.