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Christmas With the Kranks


John Debney

Sleigh bells, an accordion and a theremin. Oh, and a 100-piece orchestra, too. Those are some of the ingredients for film composer John Debney’s latest release, Christmas With the Kranks. And while Debney is most proud of his score for The Passion of the Christ, he is best known for his work in comedies such as Elf, Bruce Almighty and Liar Liar.

So does recording a comedy score differ much from recording for a dramatic film? “The short answer is yes,” says Academy Award — winning scoring mixer Shawn Murphy, who recorded the score for Kranks at Sony Scoring Stage in mid-October. Debney and Murphy have worked on countless films together since their days at Walt Disney Studios in the early 1980s.

“The way it varies depends on the musical approach and on the picture itself,” Murphy says. “Comedy, somewhat like animation, requires a little more of a spotlit presentation in the orchestra. You want to make sure that all of the detail in the orchestra is brought further forward because it is often commenting on either dialog or action on the screen.”

Often, particularly in Debney’s case, comedic scores feature an additional mix of unusual instruments. “It’s a rather eclectic blend of everything,” says Debney. “We’ve got tubas and piccolo solos. And lots of percussion, particularly on this film, with crotales, glockenspiel and celeste playing to give it a nice Christmas-like feel.” And, of course, an accordion. “John uses that a lot in his comedy scores — I think it’s a little bit of a trademark now,” notes Murphy.

To bring those spotlit instruments forward without sacrificing good overall balance, Murphy works with microphone choice and positioning, balance, equalization and a small degree of reverb, “to keep it a little more up front, a little drier, a little more defined than you would in a full symphonic treatment that might be devoted to a dramatic presentation,” he says. “Just so that all of the elements that are specifically meant to go with action are available and don’t have to be pushed forward in the mix, requiring the dubbing people to move the whole orchestra forward.”

Murphy would normally use ribbon mics, such as Cole 4038s, for the woodwinds, but for this film, he uses Schoeps 4s and 41s placed closer to the instruments, which allows them to pop through to a greater degree. He typically uses a Decca Tree setup with Neumann M50s, though for this film, the Tree was outfitted with Schoeps 222s with MK2H capsules. “Because of the kind of score it was, and because I knew there would be a lot of spot miking, I didn’t feel that I needed a lot of reach.”

Debney credits Murphy for his skill in balancing the orchestra, helping to create a clear recording with good separation, which proved helpful later on the dubbing stage. “It’s critically important, depending on what room we’re in, to balance the blaring brass or the hits on the percussion so that nothing becomes too overblown,” Debney says. “I don’t know that a lot of other engineers I’ve worked with are as aware of that as Shawn is.” Says Murphy, “A lot of it really depends on good orchestration. John uses a top-notch orchestrator, Brad Dechter, who writes the music so that it’s playable and balanced internally very well.”

A loud cue doesn’t necessarily need to be played loud to provide full effect. “A studio’s not a concert hall,” notes Murphy. “In a live room, the music might be played in four times the room volume, which means the sound has a chance to dissipate in the room and not necessarily come back quickly or at a high amplitude. In a studio with a 100-piece orchestra playing fortissimo, what comes back quickly is what you don’t want to hear: reflected material off walls and floor, which comes back delayed and, consequently, out of phase with the direct material. It causes a lot of congestion and lacks clarity.”

Kranks was recorded to 192 kHz/24-bit Pro Tools 6.4, 36 channels wide, using Genex GX A8 8-channel AD/DA converters provided by Burbank, Calif. — based DMT Rentals. A second rig, 24 channels wide and running at 96 kHz, was provided by Gear Works Professional Audio in North Hollywood. That rig, operated by Erik Swanson, was used to mix stems, play back pre-recorded material and record overdubs. Murphy often records live stem mixes during sessions, particularly on a film such as this, when dubbing was taking place almost concurrently with recording.

Regarding Pro Tools, Murphy says, “I look for a sound quality that’s as close as possible to the original source. Up until about a year ago, there has been nothing that I have preferred to analog tape. Over the last eight months or so, though, we’ve been concurrently running 192kHz 36-track Pro Tools with Genex converters to get a handle on what it sounds like. It’s come to the point where I’m satisfied that we’re getting a close enough replica to the bus that, after switching back and forth, I’m happy to use that as a master and not analog tape.” Murphy still runs 2-inch analog as a backup, which — after the Pro Tools takes are checked during breaks and at the end of the day, and backed up to two other drives — is wiped clean and reused.

Debney likes the results Murphy achieves. “There’s a transparency to his sound that I’ve not found from many other guys,” he says. Murphy credits the overall picture. “Good composition, good orchestration and proper attendance to the dynamics in the space so that it sounds good in the space, and making sure the loud dynamics never get too loud and the balances stay intact. If you do that, it will always sound better.”

Matt Hurwitz is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles