Spotlight on Soundtrack

In previous decades, British composers such as Malcolm Arnold, William Walton and Ron Goodwin turned a global spotlight on the UK’s recording industry, and talents such as John Barry, Stanley Myers and George Fenton have since cemented its reputation. In addition, landmark facilities such as Abbey Road Studios, home to the first purpose-built recording studio, and AIR Studios, originally a 19th-century church and missionary school, enable composers, orchestras, musicians and technicians to create award-winning scores for international projects of all sizes.

Recent years have seen many Oscar-winning scores created at UK studios, including Gravity (Steven Price, 2013), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Alexandre Desplat, 2014), The Hateful Eight’s live-to-vinyl soundtrack (Ennio Morricone, 2015), as well as Thomas Newman’s BAFTA-winning Skyfall (2012) and Hans Zimmer’s BAFTA, Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated Interstellar (2014). John Lunn also won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Music Composition for Downton Abbey in 2012 and 2013, an honour typically given to US-based composers.

The widening array of international talent who claim the UK as their recording home can be linked to an influx of feature films from overseas. Attributable partly to the UK’s competitive tax incentives, many within the industry give equal credit to the musical heritage and teaching traditions that contribute to the unique and sought after sounds.

Recording Studios: Abbey Road

London is home to several highly regarded recording facilities, including boutique offerings such as Islington-based Angel, which houses three studios in a former church, and British Grove, opened by Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler in Chiswick, west London.

On a larger scale are Abbey Road and AIR studios, which are both located in the north west of the city and boast similar sized largescale orchestral studios, allowing them to enjoy a symbiotic operational relationship.

“We are the only two facilities in London with the same clients, so it makes sense to work together,” says Abbey Road Managing Director Isabel Garvey, who reports that demand for recording space has risen thanks, in part, to increased bookings from Hollywood’s major film studios.

“We have a tight-knit relationship with Hollywood and, because of this, we work closely with AIR in accommodating more space. It’s to both our advantages to keep the studios full and clients happy.”

Abbey Road’s Studio One, constructed in 1931 by EMI-predecessor The Gramophone Company, was made famous by the Beatles but it also saw the creation of John Williams’ iconic scores for Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Originally built for 200- piece orchestras, Studio One is equipped for musical productions of all sizes and contains a unique blend of cutting-edge technology and custom-built vintage equipment stored as part of the EMI Archive Trust.

For the recording of Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech with composer Alexandre Desplat, Studio Manager Fiona Gillott recalls offering several 1930s microphones used by King George V and VI: “Tom Hooper couldn’t believe these were in existence. Colin Firth recorded some of his speeches using [Abbey Road Director of Engineering] Peter Cobbin’s ‘Royal Tree’ microphone set-up and the orchestra was also recorded through the original royal microphones.”

Other specialised offerings include software and hardware emulations of Abbey Road’s vintage equipment from the RS124 compressor, TG mixing console, artificial double-tracking and plate reverbs to virtual instruments that have recorded and sampled the studios’ classic drums and pianos.

“We have an amazing technical team that finds rare parts and keeps the equipment running,” adds Garvey. “It doesn’t just sit around like a relic; it’s used from session to session and is what makes Abbey Road so special.”

In addition to Abbey Road’s existing three recording studios, a further three are being built. Two are specifically for emerging recording artists, while the other is a state-of-the- art post-production facility.

“We want to give filmmakers the chance not only to record and mix the music here at the studios, but also to complete the dub rather than having to travel to Soho to oversee the final mix for the movie,” says Garvey.

“Essentially, we want to offer everything a post-production facility can offer; not only the music but sound design, ADR [additional dialogue recording] and final mixing in a brand new Dolby Atmos Theatre.”

Recording Studios: AIR Studios

AIR Studios has two recording rooms and two mix rooms, the largest recording room being Lyndhurst Hall, which can accommodate a full-size orchestra and choir. “There are not many studios like AIR or Abbey Road anywhere in the world,” says Studio Manager Alison Burton. “It’s not just the amenities and the ability to create lush sounds, it’s the experience. We are surrounded here by turn of-the-century stained glass in an old church designed by the architect behind the Natural History Museum. It’s beautiful and, for many composers, it’s like a second home.”

Clients include composers Hans Zimmer, David Arnold, Clint Mansell and Craig Armstrong, and companies such as 20th Century Fox, Disney, Lionsgate and DreamWorks.

“There are more recording studios cropping up in Eastern Europe but London’s musicianship is second to none,” Burton says, adding that the growth in visual effects means London can also offer top-rated post-production houses and more fi lm production complexes such as Pinewood and Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden.

“This, together with London being an exciting cultural city where people speak English, makes it a top recording destination.”

Zimmer, who relocated from London to Los Angeles in the late 1980s and most recently worked on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, still calls AIR his home and records the majority of his scores in Lyndhurst Hall. “There is nowhere else like recording in London,” he says. “I can’t pinpoint the sound but it’s emotional, it’s what music is meant to sound like. I know every crevice of AIR’s studios. The acoustics are second to none and the facilities are helpful in making sure you have what you need, whether it’s a certain organ or any other kind of rare instrument.”

Mansell, the composer on the upcoming Loving Vincent and Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, also sings AIR’s praises: “We had a very small music budget when I worked on Black Swan,” he says. “Alison [Burton] worked hard to get us into the studios at an affordable rate. Every project you work on, they go out of their way to assist you, they want you to succeed.”

Musicians and orchestras

Orchestral Contractor Isobel Griffiths has fashioned a decorated career out of sourcing musicians for international composers who come to record in the UK. Whether they require a swing band, a small chamber group, an ethnic specialist musician, a rhythm section or a large-scale orchestra, Griffiths and her team work to arrange all aspects of their hire.

“In this country we have the luxury of a huge pool of brilliant musicians to call on from all the listed symphony orchestras, chamber orchestras, quartets and theatre musicians,” says Griffiths. “The musicians, studios, engineers, music editors, orchestrators, conductors and choirs are all world class.”

This view is shared by some of the world’s leading composers, including Hans Zimmer. “Because of the film music traditions dating back over the last 100 years, the choirs are second to none, the brass players are amazing and the orchestras, such as the LSO and Royal Philharmonic, are outstanding,” he says.

Emmy and BAFTA winner George Fenton points to the diversity of musical talent in the UK: “From baroque to country, [UK] musicians can magically play it all.”

The composer, who recently completed scores for Nicholas Hytner’s The Lady in the Van and the West End version of Mrs Henderson Presents, adds: “When I scored Sweet Home Alabama with a rhythm section based here in the UK, some people thought I was crazy not to go to Nashville but when you listen to the score, you can’t tell. That’s how good the musicians are.”

UK-based composer Daniel Pemberton, who is currently working on Guy Ritchie’s Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur, also sings the praises of the UK’s unique players. “I loved finding these fantastic British players, who I fully used on Guy Ritchie’s 1960s-centric The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and being able to incorporate them into the score,” he says. “Britain punches above its weight on the global scale with its creativity and artistry. It’s accepted here to be individuals, to try new things.”

David Arnold, who starts work on the latest Sherlock TV series this summer, along with the Zach Galifianakis comedy Keeping Up with the Joneses, credits the exceptional training received by UK musicians.

“Whether they play in one of the orchestras such as the London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic, Philharmonia or they are a freelance musician, they are able to attend a session and start playing without having seen the music before,” he says. “They also know the picture is going to change, so you might be changing notes, chords or dropping instruments out and adding things in. It’s a bit of an assault course for a player. We sometimes take for granted how excellent they are.”

Scottish composer Craig Armstrong, who has completed work on Oliver Stone’s Snowden and Thea Sharrock’s Me Before You, cites London Sinfonietta as yet another rare offering in the UK’s musical landscape. “I have worked with orchestras around the world and it is incredibly hard to find musicians who can play both classical and film music,” he says.

Steven Price also praises London’s diverse orchestral offerings, having used musicians chosen by Griffiths for Gravity, for which he won an Oscar, as well as the Philharmonia for David Ayer’s second World War drama Fury.

“I love the experience of hearing what you played come back at you in a way you could have never imagined,” he says. “That is part of the reason a lot of American composers like to record in the UK.”


Alongside the musicians, UK technicians – including orchestrators, copyists, music editors, Pro Tools operators, programmers and engineers – ensure recording sessions are seamless and the musicians sound their best.

“Music is the last deliverable in the postproduction process,” says Abbey Road’s Gillott. “It can be very stressful. You want a strong team of people, who know what they’re doing. We are very lucky here at Abbey Road that we have engineers like Peter Cobbin, who have such a vast wealth of knowledge in the maintenance of vintage instruments as well as sound engineering. Each engineer can interpret what the different composer needs and wants.”

Indeed, Los Angeles-based Clint Mansell is so attuned to his engineers, Geoff Foster and Matt Dunkley, that he takes them on his travels when he is not able to record at AIR Studios.

UK composer Harry Gregson-Williams also lives in Los Angeles but makes every effort to record in London – most recently for Ridley Scott’s The Martian, as well as The Zookeeper’s Wife starring Jessica Chastain and Daniel Brühl, and Ben Affleck’s Live by Night – thanks largely to the talent of our technicians.

“I love to come back to Abbey Road for the sound of Studio One and the engineer Peter Cobbin,” he says. “They have a microphone collection that is second to none, plus I went to school with many of the musicians and technicians [St John’s College, Cambridge, and Stowe Music School, Buckinghamshire].”

It is this wealth of talent across the board, working together to create incredible music, that attracts so many film and television scores to the UK, says Pemberton. “There is nothing better for a composer than being surrounded by a team of people who are better than you, whether it’s the sound recordists, mixers or engineers.”

Behind the Music, words by Tiffany Pritchard, was originally published in UK in Focus 2016 in association with Screen International.

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