Providing atmosphere, lending emotion and propelling the action, an orchestral score adds much to a TV series, so when the coronavirus threat shut down Hollywood five weeks ago, composers faced a quandary: How to retain that special sound if musicians can no longer record together in the same studio?
The answer, as heard in Tuesday night’s “Empire,” and upcoming episodes of “American Dad!” and FX’s “Mrs. America,” among others, is to record remotely. Like the millions mandated to quarantine at home, individual musicians are continuing to work and making technology work for them.
With the help of tech-minded composers and skilled engineers, separate tracks are assembled into a seamless musical blend for each cue in a score. “In the rock world, this is nothing new,” says “Empire” composer Fil Eisler. “We do remote sessions every day. In fact, it’s how I used to make a living, when I first came to Los Angeles as a guitar player. But in the classical world it’s almost unheard of.”
Eisler was the first to go public with the concept: Reduce “Empire’s” standard 35-piece orchestra to around 15 players, record them individually and blend their sound with samples to simulate a full ensemble. The experiment worked and for the “Empire” finale, airing Monday on Fox, audiences will hear the full 35-piece orchestra playing Eisler’s music — a virtual ensemble, indistinguishable to the average listener from music made the traditional way, with everyone playing together in the same room.
“It is a huge challenge for the crew,” Eisler concedes, “because it’s really three times the amount of work to prep, orchestrate, giving additional instructions on the orchestration. And then when the parts come in, it’s another challenge to collate everything technically and edit every single part to make it sound like a section.”
Says musicians contractor Gina Zimmitti: “As a community, we’ve answered the call to make the most of a very unexpected situation. Our industry is wearing vulnerability on our sleeves; we’ve been dependent on in-person collaboration. But in this difficult time, we’re working hard to maintain our craft and support each other personally and professionally in new ways.”
Word of the new plan spread quickly and, Zimmitti adds, “We hear from musicians daily, letting us know they are set up to record remotely, or have recently assembled a studio in their homes, often with the help of their colleagues.” She estimates there are “at least 75” L.A. session musicians equipped for the job.
Eisler wasn’t alone, however. “American Dad” has relied on a 35-piece orchestra from the start, and composer Joel McNeely was determined to keep that “live orchestra” sound as its season also winds down. So he chose 12 key players (a string quintet, one woodwind player, one trumpeter, one trombonist, etc.), recorded them separately, and added samples “very quietly behind them.”
The musical style is much different for the animated comedy, with 20 or more short cues, some as brief as three or four seconds, per episode. “It’s a huge logistical challenge,” says McNeely. “Everybody’s recording in a different space. And then making it sound like we were at Fox” — its legendary Newman scoring stage — “which was the goal.”
Engineer Rich Breen found “a reverb setting that was sampled” from the Fox stage. “We did one show and it was very successful. We’ve just finished another one and we’re mixing that now,” McNeely says.
“I don’t think we could do this with ‘The Orville,'” his other Seth MacFarlane-created series, McNeely notes. “It’s just too symphonic and the music is much more complex,” often played by 75 to 95 musicians. He does think that a film that requires more atmospheric music, possibly mixing acoustic sounds with sampled ones, could be accomplished this way.
“We got through most of episode 7 before the shutdown,” says “Mrs. America” composer Kris Bowers. “We had to pivot and figure out how to score the last two and a half episodes.”
Working similarly, he trimmed the ensemble back from the 25 he had been using to “eight to 10, string quintet plus harp, single winds, brass every now and then, piano and percussion. We sent them the audio files, the click and their parts,” referring to the tempo and sheet music, “and they sent us back the final recording.”
Adds Bowers: “It’s so much trust in the players to really bring out as much emotion and shape to the music as possible when they’re performing by themselves.”
“Star Trek: Discovery” composer Jeff Russo (pictured) saw this as a giant “jigsaw puzzle,” especially challenging because he is working on four series at the same time (the others being “Fargo,” “Umbrella Academy” and Netflix’s upcoming “Cursed”).
He had 38 players on Netflix’s “Umbrella Academy,” but experimented using between four and 16 players on different cues, “all recording the individual parts on their own, at their home studios, then sending it back to me. We edit it, compile it and mix it as though it’s the orchestra. It worked really well. But I think it’s going to work even better when I expand the number of players. The only problem is, the more expanding I do, the more complicated it becomes on the back end. Something that would normally take us three or four days to do, will now take a week and a half to finish.”
And it’s less fun, he adds. “The most joyous part of the job is to get in front of the musicians, to conduct and interact with them as we’re creating the music. But I think we have to all do whatever we can to keep everybody moving forward.”
Academy music governor Laura Karpman, who has just begun recording the score for a new cable series (still to be announced), did a test with a “warm family theme” for 30 strings and piano and pronounced the results “fabulous.”
She is already talking with engineers about using VR technology “to simulate an actual recording session” where everyone is playing at the same time. “There are baby steps to get there,” she concedes, but “we are looking toward the future” in case the coronavirus crisis lasts longer than anyone imagined.