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Recording the Score for Troy


Brad Pitt stars as Achilles in Warner Bros. Pictures’ epic action advention Troy, also starring Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom

Photo: Simon Smith-Hutchon

How do you write and record a new score for a major studio feature that’s already been dubbed with only seven weeks before release? In a big hurry. That’s what film composer James Horner and scoring mixer Simon Rhodes were up against for Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, released by Warner Bros. on May 14.

“James had 13 days to write the music,” Rhodes says. “There was a moment when he was writing 10 minutes of music a day and there’s about two hours of music in the film, a fair amount of it orchestral, and we had 12 days to record it.” Recording began on April 10, working seven days a week until completion on April 21, with final dubbing done in London the following day.

Top: Brad Cobb, DMT Pyramix engineer; Jim Henrikson, supervising music editor; David Marquette, Todd-AO scoring recordist; Simon Rhodes, scoring mixer; and Marc Gebauer, Todd scoring technical manager. Botton: Doug Botnik, president DMT Rentals, and Ramiro Belgardt, music editor/operator

Rhodes’ setup at Todd-AO comprised two Pyramix workstations and two Pro Tools systems. One Pyramix rig served as the primary recording system (recording to an SATA RAID hard disk recorder, with a pair of 2-inch analog tape recorders for backup), while the other was used for editing. The engineer used one Pro Tools rig for recording overdubs and small ensemble cues, while the other was used for mixing. The mixer and music editor’s workstations were equipped with a pair of keyboard video monitors (one to display the system’s edit page, the other its mixer) with a single screen for the recordist. The systems were switchable, permitting control of both the Pyramix and Pro Tools systems by any user.

Rhodes recorded directly to the main Pyramix rig, utilizing all of the system’s available 56 tracks: 48 for instrumentation, plus a live 5.1 mix and a stereo mix. “I actually used all 96 inputs of the studio’s SSL 9000 console,” he says. The 118-member orchestra — the largest such group ever recorded at Todd-AO — and the 20-member London Bulgarian Choir were recorded without a click track, conducted by Horner himself.

Rhodes had the studio’s acoustic panels removed for the occasion, preferring the room’s natural resonance. “I get bolder and bolder each time we do a show here, in terms of how many to pull down!” he enthuses. “The room is tuned so it has a color to it. When you remove the panels, it makes a more naturally acoustic color rather than a dry, colored one.”

The orchestra was miked using a selection of the engineer’s favorite microphones, including Neumann M50s used for primary overheads through EAR preamps. The orchestra was unusually seated, with groups of similar instruments on either side to allow pickup of stereo pairs of such instruments. “James actually writes antiphonally,” notes Rhodes. Rhodes also miked the choir, including soloist Tanja Tzarovska, with a large grouping of U67s, KM84s and U89s. “I wasn’t sure if they’d be singing across a full orchestra, in which case they wouldn’t carry, so I had an extra 10 microphones covering them.”

Another interesting trick was using several octave dividers, a favorite tactic of Horner’s dating back to his work on two Star Trek films from the early 1980s. Contact mics were placed on the third and bass trombones. The signal was fed through a TC Electronic M5000 octave pitch-shifter and then through a loudspeaker.

Recording was to a SATA RAID hard disk recorder. Rental house supplier DMT’s Doug Botnick notes the importance of recording at as high a sampling rate as possible to reduce Nyquist effects. While Rhodes was able to record a previous film at 96 kHz, storage limitations came into play when planning the recording of Troy’s lengthy soundtrack. “On Stroke of Genius, we were getting through 73 GB a day,” Rhodes notes, “so I figured by the end of Troy, I’d be up to a terabyte.”

The solution, suggested by Botnick and DMT engineering project manager Brad Cobb, lay in recording the primary microphones and mixes at 96 kHz (run through Pacific Microsonics Model 2 192kHz processors for A/D conversion) and recording the spot mics at 48 kHz (through Genex converters). “Though I would have preferred to have done everything at 96, I’m confident the end result hasn’t suffered,” says Rhodes. The 96kHz tracks were actually split by the converters into dual 48kHz data streams in a dual-wire arrangement. However, Rhodes comments, “If those two signals ever become unlocked, you’ve had it.”

The typical recording day saw Horner rehearsing the orchestra in the morning and then recording one of the film’s longer cues, some of which run as long as nine minutes.

Following the morning’s session, the orchestra would sometimes be let go early, at which time the music editor went to work. For editing, each take of the morning’s cue was copied to the secondary Pyramix workstation located in the tape machine room adjacent to the control room. The data was transferred via a gigabit Ethernet connection, allowing the music editor, listening only on a pair of headphones, to assemble complete cues per Rhodes’ session notes and conform them to video. Once completed, the editor simply transferred back an Edit Decision List (EDL) file for the cue, which was placed in the main Pyramix station’s document library. The system could then play the completed composition through the control room console, retrieving the data from appropriate takes as notated in the EDL.

“It’s faster and better for editing than using Pro Tools,” says Rhodes. “In Pro Tools, the system edits each track as an individual file, which is quite cumbersome, while the Pyramix creates just a single-session file. The edits are available instantaneously and can be tweaked quickly and flexibly.”

Not to say the engineer doesn’t still find Pro Tools incredibly useful, particularly for overdubbing. Rhodes had two Pro Tools rigs at work. His “synth rig” held the synthesizer MIDI files, video, dialog and sound effects. Auricle MIDI data was also imported into the synth rig to act as a tempo map, simplifying the recording of pickups.

It was on the synth rig that, following receipt of the editor’s EDL back to the Pyramix, Rhodes would record overdubs in the afternoon, typically synthesizer parts and nonorchestral cues. “My synth Pro Tools rig was actually quite big: 48 in and 80 out,” says Rhodes. “With James, on occasion I’ve been so tight for tracks, I don’t take any risks anymore and give myself a great number of outputs. If James wants to layer with 48 tracks of overdubs, I’m covered. And for doing overdubs, Pro Tools is a joy to work on.”

Pro Tools was also the way to go for Rhodes to produce his 5.1 mixes on a second such rig used solely for mixes. Even though Rhodes would, during recording, send 5.1 and stereo mixes to both the Pyramix and mix Pro Tools rigs late each evening, he would produce new 5.1 mixes recorded to the mix Pro Tools station to allow recording at a 48 pulldown rate (47.952 kHz), the same as would be used in the dubbing session. Combining both technologies proved extremely beneficial, says the engineer. “You have to run the edited master through the Pyramix just to hear it. So we’re not delivering monitor mixes; we’re delivering proper, thought-out, in-depth mixes that we haven’t compromised over.”

On completion of his nightly surround stems, Rhodes uploaded the mixes to a local Digidesign DigiDelivery FTP server for immediate download 5,500 miles away in Shepperton Studios’ Korda Theatre in London. “Because we were on such a short schedule, we actually had to record the cues in order by reel and then provide the mixes immediately for the dub mixer in London the very next day. We finished recording on April 21, and the dub was completed on April 22, and they were print-mastering the following day. For us, DigiDelivery proved to be the fastest and the best solution.”

Oddly enough, director Wolfgang Petersen never heard any of Horner’s music until it was played during the dub session in London. “Wolfgang wasn’t at any of the recording sessions because he was busy on the dub stage in England,” says Rhodes. “He was terribly anxious, as you can imagine, but as we started to record the score, people became more and more relaxed, until, at one point, they just ran out of superlatives.” And, to its credit, the creative combination of recording technologies helped. “I can’t rave enough about Pyramix — it’s just been a complete lifesaver. [Without it], we would never have been able to complete the score without dropping our standards.”