DAVID WEST: The Sound Of The X Files

Interview | Music Production

Published in SOS February 1997
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

West Productions' innovative work on the audio post-production of cult TV series The X-Files netted the company two Emmy awards in 1996. PAUL WHITE talks to company founder David West about the sound element of major TV programmes, including X-Files creator Chris Carter's new series, Millennium.

 

West Productions was founded by David West over a decade ago. The company's first premises were West's own garage: now they occupy 15,000 square feet of prime real-estate in Burbank, California. With 13 Timeline Studioframe workstations, digital ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement), Foley stages [where sound effects such as footsteps on different surfaces are re-recorded for dubbing] and three Dolby SR-equipped re-recording stages, this Emmy award-winning post-production company has worked on a huge number of major TV shows, including Hill Street Blues, The Wonder Years, LA Law, and currently, Chris Carter's X-Files and Millennium for Fox TV

As viewer expectations increase and the year 2000 approaches, the soundtrack has become a major part of the 'multimedia experience' that is television. I was keen to know how much creative freedom a company such as West Productions is allowed when working on today's major television sound productions. David West:

"My concept is that you bring your project here because you think my opinion is important and valid. As a mixer and editor, I take it as part of my job to add to a picture as I see fit, in order to offer the client and the director what I perceive their vision to be and beyond. Rather than just going in to provide a mix, I feel it's my responsibility to produce something more than just the obvious. The music is at the executive's/producer's discretion. I've been on the stage and fought to keep the music in, or sometimes I've fought to keep the music out, if it's right for the picture, because we are the last stop, and everybody else's job is over when the picture comes to my company. The control always rests with the guys paying the bills, but we do offer a lot of creative input. Every sound guy goes to the spotting session [for the placement of spot effects in sync with the picture], where he sits with the director or the producer, who says what he wants, but if you can satisfy that, and then deliver a bonus on top, that's what makes the difference.

"There are tricks that people have been using for years in features, adding this sound to that sound. You can layer up stuff -- we've got cowboys and indians going in one scene but you'd never know. In every show there are lots of creative decisions -- there were a couple of flashback scenes in The X-Files and we didn't know exactly how to play them. The producer had just visualised it with a voice-over, but by giving it a little bit of reverb, a little bit of the old tube sound, it works! I follow no rules: I'm just true to the movie."

JOIN THE Q

I understand that you're a keen proponent of QSound. How do you use it?

"I use it on everything! We have a nice manual Neotek mixer with a lot of inputs, and QSound gives me automated panning. It delivers a big bang for the buck -- you can take a static track and give it some kind of movement. I put stuff on rotating panners all the time; I'll often use lots and lots of layers -- 12 or so loop groups -- but where can you pan them? I put them all on different rotating panners in different directions -- and now I've got everything going around the room. It's one of those random acts of creativity that makes things work.

"We do the same thing with effects: take a couple of mono wind tracks, put them on rotating panners, take another track, put it on the surround channel, and those three mono tracks can sound like 10! At times, what QSound does may alter the quality and some engineer may say he hears some phasey, flangey stuff, but who cares? So long as the person listening to the TV can feel something happen, have their attention grabbed and focus on my work -- it's OK."

Is there any technical conflict when using QSound with Dolby surround?

"We work in Dolby surround all the time, and I haven't had any real problems. If we have a slight mono compatibility problem, I say -- buy a new TV! The people who pay my bills want it big, butch and awesome. The only way I can satisfy them is to do anything I can to get more volume within the level standards specified by the network. We're used to all of this dynamic range now, but with TV sound, you can't use it as effectively as you can in film. Now we're flat from 50Hz to 20Hz, and it's all dynamic, and it's real hard work giving the client the excitement and beef and providing the network with a track they can broadcast. QSound gets things moving around for me, it gives me the ability to take a few tracks and layer them so they've got spatial action.

"On a recent show, I had some old Martin Luther King dialogue, and I went through and did as much noise work on it as I could; I put it through the [Aphex] Compeller, then I put it into my reverbs. There are three main reverbs I use -- Lexicon 300, PMC70 (which includes some of the useful effects not found in the PCM80), and PMC80, plus an Eventide DSE 3500, which has a lot of programs in it that we've created here. I put the dialogue into one of the Lexicons so that I could use some of the spatial processing to work up some low end and put some warmth back into it, then took the output from the Lexicon and put it into QSound so that I could localize the source. QSound works better than conventional quad panning a lot of times for me, but I have to be careful of the compromises it makes with the bottom end.

"I learned from my dad, a film guy, and basically he had to deal with 80Hz to 8kHz. He sat around the console all day messing with the tone of the dialogue by adjusting at 1kHz and 2.2kHz -- there were less options then. I concentrate on trying to produce a warm, smooth, round consistent dialogue track. Give it some bottom, some beef and some localisation and perspective. Every sound guy has problems and they all have their own way of solving them, but we have to find a way to work with what they bring us. We've tried re-dubbing dialogue, but for The X-Files we want to use the original dialogue with its performance life and punch. We've had to work with very difficult sounds -- but when we've finished with it, the network's approved it and the show is a major success. In many cases, it's better to live with the quality of the original sound rather than try too hard to fix it. It's a case of having the script and performances stand up."

THE MAGIC TOUCH

"I've worked with the best people in this business. These guys can walk on the soundstage and they don't care so much about the technical noise -- they'll say, 'That music cue is 30 seconds out of sync.' And the composer says 'What are you talking about? I wrote this!' And when you move the cue, a whole new movie appears and everybody goes, 'How did he do that?' They're not worried about the crickets in the background or all the bullshit we've been working on all day -- they see the movie, the emotion, the big picture!

"We've had some big names in here, and when you get four or five big egos in the same room, it's not about mixing any more -- it's about keeping people happy. In a lot of cases, you have to be able to let go of your own ego and buy into the vision of the people you're working with. Not only do you get the show done, you also get the respect of the people you work for."

MILLENNIUM

I hear you're working on a new show called Millennium, which comes from the same stable as The X-Files. What special challenges does this show present?

"Millennium is a really exciting turn -- Chris Carter wrote it and David Nutter directed it. I'm hoping that the pilot for Millennium will be our Emmy next year. We explored the entire realm of creative sonic recording, and I think the pilot soundtracks are the best we've done. Yet nobody's heard it right! The network ran the first eight minutes in mono, the LA theatre we ran it in had tremendous problems with double-decoding a Dolby A print -- it has yet to be heard outside a dubbing stage the way it is. Even so, it stood up on TV and Lance's [Lance Henrikson, lead character in the new show] voice is brilliant -- he's got this wonderful voice with a thick, round, raspy flavour.

"Millennium is darker than The X-Files, and it has more of a focus, although I've only seen three shows, and who knows what Chris will come up with? Every aspect of it has been different and fresh -- I don't know how Chris is able to keep creating so much genius on two shows with so little time.

"At our end, we're doing the same things -- we're using QSound, but we've got different supervisors and we're taking care to look at it in a different way. All in all, every hit show comes down to the script -- no music or sound effects can make a script work. It's the same as with recording music: can you put enough reverb on my voice to make me sound like I can sing?"

PROBLEM SOLVING

What kind of technology do you use for flying in effects -- do you rely on samplers or hard disk recorders?

"The process I have for solving any problem is first to discover what the real problem is. I might have a guy who, for whatever reason, has thought of something he wants to do right now. He wants to throw in a new line, and I don't want to send him down to the ADR stage to do it, then come back up to my stage, because the moment is lost. Our task is to do the job in the fastest way -- to get the sound into our system and put it in the right place in the mix ASAP. My head engineer came up with a method from many years ago -- we run a half-inch, timecoded tape along with the mix, it has a dedicated buss, and we can bang sounds into there and get instant access. We don't have to open files, we don't have to crash our systems. We're putting so much information through our systems that we don't want to talk to them -- we just want to change the reels and let it be. For me, any solution for a film, be it on 35mm, audio in cassette, 4-track, Pro Tools or a sampler, is the right solution, as long as you're really clear what you're trying to accomplish. The digital medium should be used as a tool in making successful films, not as a complete solution."

WORKLOAD

As the company grows, do you find enough time to keep doing work you want to do?

"As long as I don't sleep I'm OK! Work is my passion. However, I'm not getting enough time to explore other avenues for my company. I'm mixing 60 hours a week most of the time, and I live a long way from here. I have an excellent team, including our president Dave Rawlinson. We've got around 55 people at the moment, all of whom are given a great deal of responsibility. Delegation, communication and co-ordination are the key to making this work, and as I expand, I'm going to need more good people. We need people who love what they do. There are so few people who really know what they want to do and who are willing to put in the effort to get there.

"I love to expose and train new people in this business. I started with the kids from Hugh's Market who were stocking shelves. It was a new job, an exciting job, and they loved it. As a team we succeeded. My future relies on new blood, anxious to be the best or make the most of an exciting opportunity."

What do you look for when you take somebody in?

"I look for life and zest -- people who look me in the eye. I want people who are on the same page! Desire followed by consistent action -- I can show up, I listen, I learn, I grow, I explore, I get my job done and save your ass. That's all it takes -- everything you have and just a little more.

"People should be prepared to work endless hours -- I'm here endlessly, I'm signing the cheques, I've been in the business for 20 years, and I'm here. I sleep on the floor trying to get stuff done. I'm working till two o'clock in the morning all the time. People have to sign up for the fact that it's going to take their life. We are prostitutes to this business; clients will pay us any amount of money to work all night, with or without food, until we drop. That's what the business is about -- unless you're on the screen, you're disposable. If you sign up for that, you can become the greatest thing there ever was -- for a little while."

 

SOUND EFFECTS

How do you come up with original sound effects?

"Record, record, record. File recordings always benefit a picture, often even by mistake -- you never know what you'll get. I've had some crazy things happen to me when I've gone out to record. I've been attacked by turkeys, chased by police... And in the end they all turn out to be absolute gems -- accidentally. Plus, new movie, new sound effects always made sense to me.

"You have to look for things that aren't obvious. Anybody can go out and record a gun shot -- people tell you what they want, and theoretically you can figure it out. It's when they say they want a new spaceship sound that you have to be creative. Or you go out to get a better gunshot sound by mixing something in with it, like a backwards lion growl or firecrackers. In a lot of places, doing nothing makes something different -- there are places when we've used just the reverb return on gunshots, or used a close-up shot of the barrel and just had the sound of the bullet going through the rifling. Anything that's not expected can be right. We don't do much with synthesized sounds. I leave that to our composer, synthesizer assistant or sound designer."

 

Mark Snow

SCORING THE X-FILES

 

Mark Snow's quirky yet haunting X-Files theme tune was last year's surprise worldwide chart hit, and his atmospheric scoring plays an important part in setting the mood for this darkly compelling television phenomenon. DEREK JOHNSON discovers that the music is out there...

 

When talking about the sound of the X-Files, there's one very important element that deserves separate consideration: the music. Soundtrack composer Mark Snow's simple yet effective theme grabs the attention and sets the mood for the episode to come -- and that episode is likely to contain more original music than the average TV show, with about 30-35 minutes of music in each 45-minute programme.

I first asked Mark about how he got the job of scoring The X-Files: "Well, one of X-Files' co-executive producers, RW (Bob) Goodwin, is an old friend of mine, and he suggested me to the show's creator, Chris Carter, who I didn't know. Chris and I both live on the west side of Los Angeles, so he came over, saw my studio and listened to some of my music. But he played it very close to his chest, so I had no idea of what he was thinking. He visited twice, and it was the same both times: very nice, very respectful, but he left saying 'We'll be in touch' or 'I'll call you...' So I was thinking 'No problem, this will happen or not'. I didn't get a sense of his intentions one way or the other, and two weeks later, I got the job."

What kind of brief did Chris Carter give? "At first, he didn't want story-telling in the music. He didn't want obvious melodic, traditional, over-the-top scoring. He wanted very supportive, very sustained atmospheric stuff that didn't get in the way."

Carter provided a temp reel -- a copy of the pilot with a soundtrack made up of music from other sources. "It was sort of my direction to go in, and I did that at first. It worked out very well, and set a tone for the show. As the shows progressed, I definitely think the music has become more involved, more musical, more melodic, more emotional, but still in that honest, minimal approach, which I think is the key to it."

The X-Files was almost an instant hit; was Mark aware of what was coming, or did he see it as just another job? "It felt a little bit better than just another job, working with a really intelligent group of people. I thought it could be successful, but I didn't think it would turn into this! Especially -- selfishly -- when the theme became a big hit. The music got to be so noticed; I never thought that would happen."

The Emmy-nominated Snow has a long list of pre-X-Files credits, including TV shows such as Hart to Hart, Crazy Like a Fox, and some episodes of Cagney and Lacey. Mark's traditional, orchestral background is further exemplified by his time at New York's Julliard music school. He studied oboe there, and still professes a great respect for baroque and other pre-classical music. His musical interests pass by the romantic era and get straight into the 20th century, with the likes of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Ravel, and Bartok: "Maybe I've become more mature about these things, because I certainly respect Brahms, Mahler and Bruckner and so on, but there's something inherently schmaltzy about their music, which at times doesn't quite feel honest -- in today's sensibility, that is -- whereas some early music is so potently beautiful in its simplicity." Mark's musical background isn't completely restricted to the classical: several years at the beginning of the '70s saw him touring and recording with the cult-ish New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, which also featured fellow soundtrack composer Michael Kamen.

ALL GEARED UP

Despite his extensive experience of working with real orchestras, Mark does all the X-Files music at home, in his private studio. "First of all, there isn't the time to do a live orchestra score with this show. The copying, orchestrating, getting the musicians and so on, would be just impossible." Mark's equipment of choice is a Synclavier system: "About six or seven years ago, I got into the Synclavier (with Direct-to-Disk module). That's still my main piece of gear, and I find it the most elegant, fast, best-sounding thing available. People think that it has a 'sound', and it doesn't! It's just a storage device, an architecture and a digital sampler that's so fast and immediate. The sound is what's in the library, what's on the disks. People talk about all of these samplers that cost nothing compared to the Synclavier; well, that's fine, but this is still by far the best. Actually, even if there were months to do each score live, working from here is still preferable, because the Synclavier provides a marvellous collection of regular acoustic instrument sounds, in combination with all the atmospheric, textural things."

But, of course, New England Digital, the company behind the Synclavier, is now no more: "It was unfortunate, but I've had very good luck with my machine: it hasn't broken down too much at all. And now there's a company called Demas, based near the original NED site in New Hampshire, that is offering Synclavier support and software updates. Demas even employs some ex-Synclavier people."

Despite having a Mac in his studio, Mark actually also sequences with the Synclavier, in a linear fashion: "It's not a hugely powerful sequencer, but luckily I don't have to do a lot of dance arrangements or pop things, so it's just fine."

The Synclavier system may be at the heart of the studio, patched through a Soundcraft Sapphyre LC mixer, but that's not it for "MIDI boxes", as Mark refers to them: the studio also accommodates a Roland S760 sampler, Kurzweil MicroPiano module, an Emu Proteus 1, 2 (source of the famous X-Files whistle, in combination, apparently, with a sample of Snow's wife whistling!) and 3, Emu Morpheus, Korg M1R and Wavestation SR. But these are adjuncts to the core sound produced by the Synclavier and its large library: "I have all these great samples on the Synclavier's magneto drives." Mark doesn't do much sampling of his own: "There are so many sample disks available that I have people transfer them onto Synclavier format." And is there anything else he'd like to add to the studio? "Well, the only thing that means anything to me is new sounds or new combinations of sounds. All I care about is if somebody has a great new sound library. That's what I'm looking for. Since my background is music, rather than electronics and technology, I just know as much as I have to. There are so many other composers who know about sampling rates and all that technical stuff, but none of that really interests me. So apart from new sounds, I could maybe upgrade the RAM and the number of voices on the Synclavier..."

THE FINAL SCORE

I wondered if Mark's classical background helps him to create more convincing electronic simulations -- anyone who has listened to an X-Files soundtrack will vouch for its organic feel, even at its most impressionistic. "That's a really astute question, because in this day and age where these machines are so widely available, anybody can be a composer. But coming from an acoustic background, I tend to hear things in a very human, emotional, real way, and I strive for that in the samples and my electronic mock-up of the orchestra. It's a very important thing for me: the music has to have a sense of life to it."

When it comes to the final music mix, analogue two-track is definitely a thing of the past: "We use Tascam's DA88 8-track digital recorder -- I actually have Sony's PCM800 version. The music editor stripes a tape with timecode, and we mix down to that. We just drop the cassette into another machine at the mixing stage."

Given the extensive use of QSound 3D processing and Dolby Surround on the final mix, I wondered if any allowances had to be made at the music stage: "At first, we maybe had a little bit of trouble getting that right, but I think the two most important points are that things shouldn't be split to extreme left and right and that the lows and the highs -- especially the lows -- shouldn't be overdone. You can't think of it as a movie score where the lows can be just really packed in: you have to be a little discreet, because the low end tends to spread and wash everything out on television."

TOWARDS THE MILLENNIUM

Of course, Chris Carter has recently launched another series, Millennium [mentioned in Paul White's interview with David West, starting on page 154], which debuted on satellite in the UK at the end of December last year, and for which Mark is also providing the soundtrack: "It's doing pretty well. At the moment, I think it doesn't quite have the broadness of The X-Files. It's sort of a one-note piece, more of a murder mystery, but it's really expanding now, and the lead character, played by Lance Henrikson [of Aliens and Terminator fame] is really great: he plays it so quietly and deliberately, it's very, very cool... Musically, it's a whole different approach. The theme features a live violin playing a sort of sad Irish melody, with big Japanese drums in the background, a nice change of pace from The X-Files. The music started off fairly one-dimensional, just low, sustained synth with drum accents, but the show is broadening out, which is good."

Snow's obviously in demand: how does he handle the workload of two network TV shows? "It's not like two shows happening every week at the same time -- there are breaks. Over Thanksgiving, it got pretty bad because there was a two-part X-Files that had a very short turn-around and needed a lot of music, but that's as bad as it's been. The workload seems to be manageable!"

 

SINGLE FILES

The single version of the X-Files theme last year proved to be a surprise hit, so I asked Mark what prompted the release. "I think it was the record company's idea. Someone called me up and said: 'We need a four-minute version today!' I said 'I'm in the middle of doing the show music!' They said 'Put it aside, you gotta do it!' So I just elongated the track, added another section with the whistle sound, and made the strings do some oddball triads over the top -- I must have done it in half an hour. I just wanted to appease these guys at the label and get back to work. The four-minute version originally appeared as the first track on the Songs in the Key of X CD, and it was just luck that Warner Brothers thought it would be good to release it as a single. They were just amazed that it took off. To me, as a musician, it was hilarious: here's a hit record that has no singing, no bass, no drums, no guitars, and that stays in D minor for four minutes! It's unbelievable."

And the single version of the theme tune, along with several of the dance remixes, did rather well worldwide -- so well that there has been talk of a follow-up, not to mention bizarre requests for European tours. What did Mark make of the remixes? "I think 70% or 80% of those remixes are pretty good. But I've heard a couple that were just awful: they didn't even get the melody right, and you can't get much simpler than that! But I think most of them have been great." Mark specifically approves of the DJ Dado remix, and the Flexifinger mix that appears on the CD The Truth and the Light: Music from the X-Files.

There are actually two CDs of X-Files-related material out now: Songs in the Key of X is a Don Was co-production [SOS talked to Don Was back in December 1994] featuring a variety of bands performing series-inspired music, while the recently released The Truth and the Light: Music From the X-Files contains Mark Snow's music from the series, plus some new material, pieced together with moody snippets of original dialogue. "I had nothing to with the Songs CD; Chris Carter is a real fan of modern music, and all the people on the album are fans of the show, and they all wanted to be on it. A lot of the hardcore fans thought it was really bogus because none of the songs (save for a track by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) had been on the show. But it still sold pretty well. Now the thing that's disappointing to me is the CD with the show's music, which a lot of the fans have been waiting for, isn't getting much publicity. I mean, it's selling better in France than it is in America. I questioned the label about it, and they said 'Madonna's not on it, REM's not on it, so we can't really put much into it.' I said, 'But this is The X-Files! This isn't just any ordinary TV show...' We're hoping that it'll just stay around long enough to still be selling in years to come. It feels like that'll be the case, as word of mouth spreads."

 

WIRED FOR WEIRD: X-FILES ON THE INTERNET

Almost as soon as the first episode of The X-Files aired, sites dedicated to the series sprung up on the internet, and now the choice is almost unlimited. If you must have a browse, try the official sites first -- they provide credits and episode guides, plus data on upcoming programmes. Fox in the States has two sites (http://www.thex-files.com/ and http://www.foxhome.com/trustno1/), and Sky TV runs a UK site at http://www.sky.co.uk/one/xfiles/. A small corner of the BBC's web site offers details of UK terrestrial broadcasts; start with http://www.bbc.co.uk/index/all.html. It would be impossible to give even an abbreviated list of unofficial sites here; a good starting point is James Shum's Big List of X-Files Links -- and believe me, it's a big list (try http://www.io.org/~jshum, or http://www.geocities.com/hollywood/6050/xfsites.html).

On a musical level, Warner Brothers' web site (at http://www.wbr.com/marksnow/) has several pages dedicated to Mark Snow and both X-Files-based CDs. Here you'll find biographical notes, plus details and track listings of both the CDs.

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Mike Stevens has worked with some of the world’s biggest pop acts at countless high-profile live events, including the Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee concert.

 

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