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For movie musicians, home is where the art is

Tech advances make writing, recording scores easier

Gone are the days when Cecil B. DeMille, filming his remake of “The Ten Commandments,” listened as composer Elmer Bernstein plunked out Egyptian and Hebraic themes on a piano. Nowadays, directors expect to hear something approximating a finished score before giving composers the go-ahead.

But the reason for the change has less to do with helmers’ egos run amok than with technological advances. The rise of the home studio has made writing, recording and mixing scores easier — and cheaper — than ever before. In fact, just about the only aspect of this process that digital technology hasn’t improved on is human imagination. Directors still need composers for that, at least for now.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t have a home studio,” says composer David Newman (“Serenity,” “Monster-in-Law”). “You have to mock up the symphonic scores for the directors and producers, so nobody who does this doesn’t have a home studio.”

According to Newman, the trend is relatively recent, occurring over the past 10 to 15 years or so. “I switched over in the middle of the whole thing, in the middle 1990s,” he says. “I started by using a notation program instead of writing by hand, and then slowly but surely, it just ramped up.”

Though not all composers mix their scores at home — as Newman and many of colleagues often do — writing music and creating mock-ups are rarely done without the help of home computers. Only the recording process itself generally remains beyond the resources of the home studio, and that’s only because most composers don’t have rooms large enough to contain a full orchestra. But when scores require just a few players or synthesized instrumentation, even that’s not a hurdle.

“You just need a nice microphone,” says Newman, whose home studio in Malibu was added to his house in the mid-1990s. “I’m not saying it’s cheap, but it’s affordable. Petty much anybody can make a wonderful recording if you know what you’re doing.”

Alex Wurman wrote and mixed his score for “March of the Penguins” at his home studio in Mar Vista, Calif. The space had been a two-room guesthouse before he bought the property 2½ years ago. “I put in a little bit of flooring and a couple of sound absorption panels, and I rolled in the gear and plugged it in, and that’s about it,” he says of the conversion.

Wurman steers clear of using his home studio to mix action pics. “I’m a bit cautious about the sub,” he says, referring to big low-frequency speakers, but little else seems to daunt him. Indeed, he appears to regard the theoretical shortcomings of a home studio as a welcome challenge. “One of the things I love about film scoring is the need to be practical,” he says. “Wonderful solutions are born out of pragmatic requirements.”

Though capable of mixing at his home studio, Mark Isham (“Crash,” “In Her Shoes”) doesn’t always prefer to. “Sometimes it’s better to deliver a score unmixed, in what we call stems,” he says. “That way the dubbing mixer, whose job it is to assemble music, sound effects, dialogue, has some flexibility. So if, for example, the drums are interfering with the dialogue, you can just turn the drums down. I can’t always make that decision, and you couldn’t do that if I delivered a complete score.”

Yet Isham had no trouble assembling his score for “Crash” at the 10-year-old studio that shares a lot with his house in Hidden Hills, Calif. “For indie films, the only cost-effective way to do it is inhouse,” he says. “But if money were no object, it would be easier and even more efficient to go outside. And if you have enough money for an orchestra, you should have enough money for an outside studio.”

Mark Mothersbaugh, whose work includes the music to Wes Anderson’s films and the “Rugrats” franchise, is one of the few composers who can appreciate the situation from just about every angle. At the moment, the composer doesn’t have a home studio. Instead, he operates Mutato Muzika — a full-service recording operation used for his far-flung musical enterprises — in an Oscar Niemeyer building on Sunset Boulevard.

“When I first started scoring for TV and film,” he recalls, “I had a modest setup in a back bedroom in my house. But then it started taking over the rest of the house. One day, I realized I couldn’t go to the bathroom because there were singers using it as a vocal booth. So I bought the house next door. Then I bought the Niemeyer building, which the home studio paid for.”

Ironically, Mothersbaugh is “craving” a home studio again, and his new house, still under construction, will include one. “Now that I’m sleeping more erratically,” he says. “it’s nice to have a place that’s just 10 steps away for writing in the middle of the night. Without that, what you remember the next day won’t be exactly the same. It loses its freshness.”

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