photo: Andrew Schwartz/Universal Studios
Frank Wolf is caught up in a classic case of things moving full circle — the hilarious 1968 Mel Brooks film The Producers gave way to a 21st-century Tony Award — winning reinvention on Broadway, which then led back to the silver screen with this year's The Producers: The Movie Musical, starring Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell. While all of that critically acclaimed history might bring its fair share of pressure, Wolf, serving as recording engineer/scoring mixer on the Universal film, simply recognizes the unique joys of creating a soundtrack and an album.
“I love the diversity of it,” explains the easygoing Wolf, temporarily relaxing outside of Sony Music Studios' Neve 88R — equipped Studio B in New York City. “It could be a giant orchestra one day, a jazz band the next and a rock band the day after that. In this project, the orchestra is mostly what I would call an expanded ‘pit’ band. I am sort of technological, and there's a challenge in trying to make everything work, but most importantly, there's something about the fact that you do the music relatively quickly. It's an intense musical event in the studio, and as far as recording, there's a certain live excitement about soundtracks as opposed to a rock or pop record, where everything is mostly done separately, a little bit at a time and tweaked.”
An experienced rock, pop and jazz engineer/producer, Wolf's portfolio of soundtracks began to grow in the 1990s with credits for such films as Toy Story and Toy Story 2, The Mambo Kings, Hercules, Monsters, Inc. and Meet the Fockers. With that experience comes the ability to craft a road map that can guide a movie musical's massive logistics, ultimately turning a Broadway songbook into a sparkling 5.1 film soundtrack and accompanying stereo album release.
Wolf's Producers job began in February 2005, with a call from the project's orchestrator and producer, Doug Besterman (who also served as orchestrator of the Broadway show). “They actually flew me out to New York for a pre-production meeting before we started, which they generally don't do with an engineer; usually, I'm there the first day in the studio,” Wolf says. “We talked about how to approach the music for The Producers, which is quite complex. There are almost 30 songs, and we're often coming in and out of dance sequences, coming in and out of tempo. The actors sang live with the orchestra, and some of these tunes are eight minutes long and quite complicated.”
Because The Producers contains multiple scenes with the actors singing and dancing to the music on camera, the first step was realizing that all of the music had to be recorded before shooting began. “We record all the songs with the actors singing live to an orchestra so they have playbacks to shoot to,” elaborates Wolf. “Then we polish those vocals, taking different takes and putting together a performance they can sing to repeatedly during playback when the filmmakers shoot the scene.
“Keep in mind that they're also recording the singing actors' vocals with shotgun mics when they're shooting the scene, because sometimes they'll actually get a better performance during the shooting. If the actor's performance on set is usable — and it's not always usable because you've got the sounds of people dancing and shouting from off-camera — that's better because then the audio is perfectly in sync with the visuals.”
For Wolf, the initial orchestral/vocal recording stage took place at Right Track's 4,600-square-foot Studio A509 on Manhattan's West 38th Street, taking full advantage of the room's 96-input SSL 9000 J, 35-foot-high ceiling, five iso booths and bountiful natural light. “We knew we were going to be recording in New York, and Right Track is the place,” Wolf says. “It's about the right size for 60 pieces, and it provides several iso booths, which, in this case, were really needed. The drums were isolated, the singers were isolated and any close percussion was isolated. The players, who were mostly from the Broadway show's pit orchestra, were great — everyone was really excited about doing this project.”
Wolf's experience with recording vocals and his knowledge of the subtle differences between the needs of the film's soundtrack and the album release allow him to capture the best possible performance for both situations. While in the studio, in addition to recording the singer with the standard close mic, Wolf simultaneously employs a shotgun mic set farther back to emulate as closely as possible what would be recorded on the set. Only the higher-end studio mic will be used for the album mix, but the film mix will incorporate a crossfade that begins with the shotgun before transitioning to the studio mic. “In the context of a film, if you've got dialog suddenly breaking into song, the dialog was recorded from a shotgun mic,” Wolf points out, “so it's more believable if the song begins as if it were coming straight from that same mic.”
When possible, Wolf will take the time to make the best match possible between the vocalist and his or her microphone. “Recording vocals is an expertise I have that comes from my background doing [rock and pop] records, whereas many of the guys primarily doing orchestral work may not have done as much rhythm section or vocal recording,” he says. “I have a half-dozen mic choices, including the AKG C12, Neumann U47 tube, Telefunken 251, the Brauner VM1 KHE and, more recently, the Sanken CU44x. I like a 47 for a female singer because it has a lot of body to it and helps to support a higher voice. I like the Brauner for somebody who is putting out a great sound because it's capable of capturing anything — it's a great, clear, powerful microphone.
“A lot of times, if I'm working with a singer I haven't worked with before, I'll A/B them with a couple of passes at different mics because you never really know. In the case of The Producers, however, we were moving through so intensely that the setup I had for the Sennheiser shotgun mic and the Sanken mic stayed. We'd have Uma Thurman for an hour, she'd leave; Matthew Broderick would come in; then Nathan Lane; and there was no way we were going to be able to experiment with different setups. I chose the Sanken because it's a current mic: If we plugged it in, it would work and be repeatable. There's no fussiness that you sometimes have with older mics. The mic pre's were Millennia Media, which I find to be extremely clean and reliable. Everything was recorded into Pro Tools|HD. In this case, it was 48k/24-bit, even though almost everything I do now is 96k.”
Wolf takes a Tonmeister approach to recording the orchestra, using careful mic selection and placement to get the most out of the sections, including harp, strings, woodwinds and brass. “I have a trio of Neumann M50s that I carry with me, which I set up in a Decca Tree,” he states. “There are two setups that I use: sometimes five mics across the front and sometimes a modified Decca Tree and two wide mics. For the overall orchestral sound, that's 85 percent of what I use, and then I fill it with close percussion, drums, guitar, accordion — instruments that don't speak in the room — but a big part of the sound is the room mics.”
Raw tracks in hand, Wolf began making rough mixes for the film crew to shoot to, delivering stems that included orchestral stereo, rhythm section stereo, choir and separate vocals. Supplied with those elements, the music editor could go to the set prepared to play any combination requested by the director or the actors, including a mix-minus vocal in case Broderick, for example, decided he wanted to record his vocal live on set.
For Wolf at this stage, knowing the shooting schedule is critical. “They'd say, ‘Next week we're doing this tune and that tune,’ so I'd concentrate on those songs. I was always ahead of them by a few days,” he says. “We had 400 orchestral takes and as many vocals, so it all had to be temped down to a way they could play it on the set and not have to manage anything — just hit Play and there it goes.”
After the scenes were shot, Wolf was sometimes handed back vocal tracks recorded on set to incorporate into his final mixes. Before he could move into that phase, however, there was a sticky problem that he expected: In the process of shooting the scenes, the director and music editor were sometimes forced to create holes in the music that would be filled later on. “This happens a lot,” Wolf reports. “They realize, for example, that Matthew Broderick needs extra time to get from here to there, meaning the music editor has to open it up for four measures and now there's a hole. So we come back to Right Track and record inserts with the same orchestra.
“Re-creating the parts is tricky, but we knew we would be coming back, so we snapped the console, measured the mics' distance and hopefully we can come back and record right into the same set of tracks, sound for sound and level for level. Then I reinsert the new pieces at Sony through the same setup, and in theory it should go right across. That's par for the course in a musical: There's no cart you can put before the horse or vice versa. You have to start somewhere, and if you start with the music, invariably the music will change.”
Afterward, the rough stems will be updated, allowing the creation of a temp/director's cut where the music will be edited to match to picture, opening the door for Wolf to finally execute a final 5.1 mix for the film and stereo mix for the album on Sony Studios' Neve 88R and ATC monitors. “The big difference between making a pop record and one with an orchestra like this is that there's not a lot of processing,” he says. “I'd say on 95 percent of the vocals, however, I use an Eventide Reverb 2016. It has a smooth sound, leaves the vocals in clarity and puts enough warmth and hall around the vocal so it's supported inside the music. It's very controllable and friendly to use.”
Once the final mix is complete, Wolf will deliver it to the dubbing stage with a choice of flat and dry or processed vocals to give the dub stage mixers complete control for a believable transition in and out of dialog. There, his colleagues will balance the final levels between his music mix, the dialog and the sound effects. Meanwhile, the album sequence and mix will also be trimmed in the interest of cutting it down to the best 60 to 70 minutes of songs that feature vocals.
At that point, however, it's safe to say Wolf will have begun treating himself to a few days of R&R, as he wraps up an intensive journey with four months of studio man-hours logged between February and October, quite possibly qualifying The Producers: The Movie Musical as his most intensive soundtrack production yet. “When I hand the mix off to the dubbing stage,” Wolf says with a grin, “I can light a cigar.”