The United States Army Field Band has been performing musical outreach around the world since 1946. Led by Colonel Jim Keene, these “Musical Ambassadors of the Army” entertain and inspire local, national and international audiences with more than 400 performances each year.
This fall, the ensemble will release Soundtrack of the American Soldier, an immersive collection of music embodying the spirit of the Army and those who serve in the military. Works include new arrangements of classic film, TV and game scores by Jeff Beal, Michael Giacchino and John Williams; Mark Isham re-imagined his iconic “Army Strong” campaign theme for the project.
Commissioned works include Laura Karpman’s “Brass Ceiling,” a portrait of General Anne Dunwoody, the first female 4-star general in the Army; and an arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” orchestrated by Field Band arranger and composer Master Sergeant Adrian Hernandez.
“We partnered with extraordinarily talented composers,” Keene says. “They were chosen because they work in the business of telling stories. Most of them work in the film and television realms and are comfortable weaving stories with their music.”
Pre-Production With Immersive in Mind
Given the Field Band’s mission “to connect the American people to its Army,” Keene believed that creating a recording based around the Dolby Atmos format would offer a deeply meaningful listening experience. “The properties of the immersive listening environment provide the opportunity to show exactly how good a group really sounds from within, which is a rare opportunity that only performers fully experience,” he says.
Before the project was under way, Keene reconnected with Grammy-nominated producer Dan Merceruio, who helmed the Field Band’s 2018 recording The Legacy of Leonard Bernstein. “After that project was finished, he turned to me and said, ‘What I really want to do is a project in immersive audio. Can you suggest anywhere that we could go?’” Merceruio recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, of course. Let’s go to Skywalker.’”
Merceruio has produced a number of immersive projects for the label Sono Luminus at Skywalker Sound, a world-class center for audio for film, television, games and music production/post-production located in Marin County, Calif., just north of San Francisco. The facility’s six feature mixing stages, as well as its scoring stage, are all now equipped for immersive sound mixing, and the facility has collaborated in development of theatrical and venue-oriented audio formats for more than two decades.
When Mix visited in mid-February, engineer Jim Anderson and producer Ulrike Schwarz were completing the latest immersive album by Patricia Barber; Anderson earned Grammy Awards for Best Surround Mix for Barber’s Modern Cool and Jane Ira Bloom’s Early Americans, both mixed at Skywalker; in 2019, Anderson and Schwarz were nominated for a Grammy for Best Immersive Album for the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra’s Kverndokk: Symphonic Dances, also mixed at Skywalker.
Skywalker director of music recording and scoring Leslie Ann Jones, a multiple Grammy winner, was nominated for Best Surround Album in 2014 for her work on mediaHYPERIUM3’s Signature Sound Opus One compilation. “We’ve done surround for a long time in this room,” she says, “including 5.1.4 and 7.1.4, and of course we’ve been doing immersive film mixing for years. Pixar’s Brave was the first feature film mixed in Atmos. That was mixed here, and Skywalker was the first facility to have Atmos in every mix room.”
Tradition Comes Full Circle
Pre-production for the U.S. Army Band project focused on configuring the ensemble to highlight the musical arrangements and the immersive experience. “We really wanted to embrace the idea of coming up with a unique arrangement for the musicians inside the space, depending on the instrumentation and based on the music for each tune,” says Merceruio, who attended three days of rehearsals, interpreting scores with staff arranger Hernandez. “I suggested the various setups after hearing them play in the room and then literally moving them around while we were all together.” Each song dictated a unique seating arrangement, often with exaggerated separation between players.
“Any time you change the environment of a musician, you change everything,” adds Keene. “Moving even a couple of feet can completely change what you hear, not only from other instruments, but, more importantly, from your own! I remember a bassoon player who told me that when he sat in front of the trombones, he would often stop playing because, ‘What’s the point?’ When moving him 10 feet, he heard another universe. That same bassoonist then sat in the audience and shared that he had no idea that that was what the group sounded like.”
Merceruio and Jones mapped out seating for the sessions on Skywalker’s scoring stage, a 60-x80-foot room with a 30-foot ceiling and variable acoustics. The mission was to create an experience that would be immersive in an enveloping way, without resorting to gimmickry.
“We certainly kept in mind what was going to create the greatest impact while also providing a balanced experience,” says Merceruio. “You can go crazy and do anything you want, but you always have to come back to, ‘What’s the mission? How do we best serve the music?’”
The soundstage for each selection was informed by the musical arrangement; generally, the 65-piece Field Band and 28-member Soldiers’ Chorus were seated in a circle surrounding Col. Keene’s conductor podium, with the chorus in the back.
“We always like to create balance,” Jones explains. “I place piano and harp on opposite sides, for example, because they often play in the same register. That informs these decisions—things like balancing out the percussion, having a nice, round woodwind sound—so it feels like it’s enveloping you, whatever activity there is in the orchestration.”
A typical microphone setup included Neumann M50 mics at main left, center and right; M149 omnis on wide left and right; an M49 to capture LFE; and M150s at left-back and right-back. Four Sennheiser MKH H800s were used as height mics; spot mics captured sections of the band and chorus.
“I tended to rely more on section mics or dividing things up into stereo pairs so that I could move them around a bit in the immersive landscape,” Jones explains. “When we had the chorus, we repositioned height mics so that they could pick up the chorus as well, because we had baffles between the chorus and the band.”
Because the chorus was often recorded together with the band, Jones used microphones that offered strong rejection. “I often think of microphones in terms of the kind of picture that they’re taking of the sound,” she says. “If I’m a camera lens, what is it I’m trying to capture? If I’m a microphone, what am I looking at? That would dictate whether I use a small-diaphragm mic if I need separation or a larger-diaphragm mic if I need to have a larger picture of something.”
Joseph DeBeasi’s “American Sniper Suite” features two drum kits, which were recorded in iso rooms to make it easier for the colonel to follow the drums and to allow Jones the flexibility to position the drums in the front or in the back of the mix. “This particular arrangement, everything’s very powerful and very close,” says Jones. “There’s not much lushness to it. So it’s not like you have to pretend that the drums were in the room at the same time; they can just have their own personality.
“Apart from the sound of the room, the whole orchestra is going to one reverb, and then I might put the chorus a little in that and then maybe add something a little extra to them,” she adds. “Same thing with the drums, because I didn’t want them to sound like they were necessarily in the room at the same time, but they have such an important part that they afford to be treated differently. Most of those sounds stay the same no matter what tune I was mixing, though there was some compression added to the drums on this one to give them a certain sound.”
Laura Karpman’s “Brass Ceiling” features a barrage of percussion, including mallets hitting artillery shells; the music was arranged specifically for the recording space and refined through phone conversations with the composer. “Laura’s piece utilized five different percussion stations,” says Merceruio. “It quickly became a query: Wouldn’t it be really great if we could have them surround the ensemble, and therefore the listener? Starting with a main microphone array in the middle, we moved the instruments around to portray an aural picture that would not only serve the music, but also provoke the listener into having an experience that’s larger than what you could obtain in a stereo format.”
The project was originally planned for 7.1.4 release in Dolby Atmos, but as some consumer Atmos-capable receivers downsample 7.1.4 to 5.1.4 automatically without a native way to play the side speakers, Merceruio and Jones decided to play it safe and mix in 5.1.4. “That changed the mix flow slightly because we had recorded in and were listening to it with side speakers,” says Jones. “When we mixed it, we didn’t have the side speakers, so I had to create that phantom image.”
Creating a 5.1 mix brought different challenges: “When you spend a couple of weeks mixing with the height speakers and then you go down to a regular 5.1, you’re so used to hearing it being deep and tall and immersive that replicating that in 5.1 is a little harder,” Jones says. “That is why every tune had a different amount of height mics added in to give us what we needed to make that work well.”
After completing the surround mixes, Jones recalled them and rebalanced them to create stereo mixes. “Of the downmixes that we’ve done to stereo, most have included the height mics, but in various volume levels,” she explains. “Some have not included the height mics at all because it tended to add a little bit of delay that you wouldn’t necessarily want when you go to stereo. And sometimes we’ll vary the amount of the height mics because having that little bit of fairy dust that they add is a good thing.”
As consumers start to embrace immersive music, providing the best listening experience to the broadest range of listeners means focusing on capturing artistic intent, says Jones. “We’re trying to have the best immersive experience we can in this room,” she adds. “Once we get to mastering we might do some playbacks through a soundbar or something like that, just to see what that sounds like. Apart from the 5.1.4 mix, we have a 5.1 mix and then a stereo mix, so we’re pretty much covered for any way that somebody might want to play back. But as long as the arrangement comes through and as long as the intention of the recording and mixing comes through, to me, regardless of the playback equipment, that’s the most important thing.”
In the end, Soundtrack of the American Soldier is a cultural document, a connection to a world-class ensemble made more meaningful through immersive sound. “One of the most difficult things to do in music is to describe what music actually sounds like from the conductor’s podium,” says Keene. “My first listen sitting in Leslie’s chair was a revelation. Listening to the recording was like a time capsule in that I could remember exactly how the group was positioned in the room.”
Lieutenant Colonel Domingos Robinson, a band officer and conductor who serves as the Field Band’s deputy commander and was familiar with the scores, sat in the booth helping to translate what he was hearing.
“From the first playback on day one of the recording sessions, I knew it was going to be good,” he says. “When I heard the mixes at Skywalker this past February, I couldn’t believe the clarity of the score and depth of the sound. Leslie Ann was actually able to capture what it’s like to listen to this magnificent ensemble up close and personal. I can’t wait for people to hear this recording!”
“Something like this is such a collaborative endeavor,” Merceruio says in summation. “All of us are trusting each other to represent our roles at the highest level possible. In this case, the payoff is providing the listener with a deeper understanding of the music in a way that is more impactful than it otherwise would be.”
“When I’m thinking about this from the perspective of someone who has never heard an immersive audio recording, when they sit down in that seat and they go, ‘Wow, I hear so much more, this is so much more dynamic,’ I am transported back to the time when we created this,” he says. “Those kinds of conversations provide the guiding light for us being on the right path of offering an experience that’s translatable to anybody who’s used to listening in stereo, who has never enjoyed an immersive format before.”
Adapting the Control Room
The control room at Skywalker Sound’s scoring stage is based around a Neve 88R, with B&W Nautilus 802 monitors in L, C, R, L/S, and R/S, and Neumann 310s for additional sides and height channels.
“When we first started doing immersive, we already had the Neumann 120s and really liked the way they sounded,” says Leslie Ann Jones, Skywalker’s director of music recording and scoring. “We auditioned a pair of 310s, and they had a flavor that was so much like the B&Ws that we decided to use those for the sides and the height speakers, and it’s worked out really well.”
The Neve’s monitoring capabilities have been expanded with the addition of a Grace Design M908 surround monitor controller. “The console itself is not capable of monitoring anything greater than 7.1,” Jones explains. “If we go past that, we have to have some other way of hearing things. The Grace has been fantastic because it allows us to do everything we want and assign things the way we want. And, my favorite, it’s got a big volume knob!”