Best technology available, but nobody alters acoustics

Everybody has a favorite scoring stage. Often, composers defer to the scoring mixers to decide which room will provide the best sound for the specific needs of a score and a film. Sometimes, the choice is dictated by the studio that’s releasing the film.

What’s interesting about the five big rooms in L.A. is that all have been around for decades. Some date as far back as the late 1920s, although historical info about most is sketchy. Todd-AO started as Republic, Sony used to be MGM, and so on.

What is clear is that no one wants to alter the acoustics at any location. While the consoles are updated and everyone offers digital recording capabilities, the rooms themselves are largely unchanged.

James Newton Howard recorded most of his “Dinosaur” music at Todd-AO in Studio City, Calif.

“It has a crisp, very live, wonderful sort of ring,” he says. “It has a natural echo of three or four seconds, which is very helpful in achieving a warm sound in the orchestra. But it’s also big and bright enough to have a lot of crack and pop on big action movies.”

Todd-AO — the same room where composers recorded dozens of Republic Westerns, and later Four Star and CBS TV shows — recently accommodated James Horner’s 123-piece orchestra for “Dr. Seuss How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Thomas Newman, who recorded parts for “Erin Brockovich” there, likes its “really rich string sound.”

Sony’s scoring stage is a favorite of several composers including Hans Zimmer, who notes that “Sony gets me closer to a concert hall sound.”

It’s also one that Howard likes, and where he recorded “Vertical Limit” — “an all-around spectacular recording environment,” he says.

John Williams, who recorded “The Patriot” at Sony last year, holds the record for the biggest session (110 players plus a 50-voice choir for “Amistad”).

Originally a shooting stage, MGM converted it into a scoring stage in the 1930s and recorded everything from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Singin’ in the Rain” there. And according to Sony officials, the room has remained unaltered in order to maintain the original sound.

Twentieth Century Fox reopened its scoring facility and renamed it the Newman Scoring Stage in 1997 (after brothers Alfred and Lionel, who oversaw music at the studio from 1939-85). This was the same room where such landmark scores as “The Robe,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Laura” and “How Green Was My Valley” were recorded.

Today it’s a favorite of Alfred’s son David Newman, who used the site for last year’s “The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” and “102 Dalmations.”

Newman likes its versatility, noting: “To me and my engineer, it’s the most flexible, best-sounding stage, for the most disparate kinds of music.”

Zimmer, too, praises Fox (where he recorded “The Thin Red Line”) for its more intimate sound.

At 7,500 square feet, it’s second only to Todd-AO in terms of size (Todd-AO boasts nearly 8,000 square feet, while Sony comes in at 6,100) and, according to Fox officials, can accommodate up to 150 players.

Warner Bros. also claims classic status. Its scoring stage, where Max Steiner scored “Casablanca” and “The Big Sleep,” and Erich Wolfgang Korngold recorded swashbucklers like “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “The Sea Hawk,” was restored and modernized in ’99. It’s been renamed for director Clint Eastwood, in part because he has long insisted that his films be scored locally and because he was a driving force behind its restoration.

Eastwood’s regular composer, Lennie Niehaus, used a 93-piece orchestra and 26-voice choir for Eastwood’s latest, “Space Cowboys.”

“The sound is much better since they refurbished it,” Niehaus says. “Everybody seems happy with the sound.”

The Warners room is about 5,000 square feet, slightly larger than the room at Paramount, another venerable scoring stage. The latter is where Victor Young once thrived, recording scores like “Samson & Delilah” and “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and where Elmer Bernstein recorded “The Ten Commandments.” In subsequent years, it was operated by Glen Glenn Sound and the Record Plant; now, it’s simply called Paramount Stage M.

Last year, Stage M hosted Michael Kamen’s “Frequency” and Alan Silvestri’s big-band score for “What Women Want.” Christopher Young recorded the highly regarded “Wonder Boys” there, too.

“I was looking for a really tight, pop-jazz sound,” Young says. “That room is ideal for recording smaller groups, and we got that close-miked sound that I was looking for.”

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