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BEN BARTLETT: Music For Walking With Dinosaurs

Interview | Composer By Matt Bell
Published February 2000

BEN BARTLETT: Music For Walking With Dinosaurs

In all the hullabaloo over the wizardry that brought long‑dead reptiles back to life for last year's smash TV success Walking With Dinosaurs, the story of the production of the musical score from a small home studio — a tale no less impressive than that behind the programme's visuals — was overlooked. Matt Bell sets the record straight with composer Ben Bartlett.

'Music for Documentaries' is too often a phrase associated with the aural equivalent of beige‑painted woodchip wallpaper; work undertaken by people who haven't yet fathomed better ways of making money from their art. Happily, this is not always the case, as with the extraordinary musical accompaniment to one of last year's great TV success stories; although to be fair, Walking With Dinosaurs was no ordinary 'documentary'. Fittingly for a program which broke so much new ground in the field of visuals, WWD had a musical score to match. By turns stentorian and soothing, and never less than strikingly cinematic, it was also admirably suited to the subject matter of its parent programme, but stood head and shoulders above previous efforts in the same genre. In comparison, the soundtrack to, say, Jurassic Park resembled something Flat Eric could knock together in half an hour with a comb, some loo roll and a kazoo

Curiously enough, although the score undeniably benefited from the input of the BBC Concert Orchestra, the major part of the production process for both the TV music soundtrack and the recent BBC Worldwide CD of music from the series took place at a studio in which Flat Eric might well feel at home, in the West London apartment of classical composer Ben Bartlett. Ben wrote, composed, orchestrated, and even part‑conducted the fabulous score, and as if that weren't enough, he also mixed the music production masters at his home studio. But if all this makes him sound a little terrifying, bear in mind that he did all this using little more than Cubase VST24 for Mac, a couple of samplers, a VHS VCR, a hired DAT machine, and a home‑made rack half‑full of effects and synth modules.

From Steinway To Steinberg

BEN BARTLETT: Music For Walking With Dinosaurs

Far from being a troubled and temperamental self‑styled classical genius, Ben rather resembles his working methods; he is modest, friendly and very dedicated. Classically trained with a view to becoming a concert pianist, Ben eventually decided not to attend a dedicated music college and went to University instead, taking a leading role in directing the musical accompaniment to the college's Drama department productions. After graduating in the mid‑'80s, he had high hopes of becoming a professional classical composer, but, realising that he would have to support himself in this endeavour, he decided to seek work composing music for TV advertisments. However, at the time he lacked both experience and knowledge of recording, and was unable even to record his own demos, having no equipment of his own. During a visit to a commercial facilty it finally occurred to him that technology might help lift him above the sea of people hoping to make a name for themselves: "I went to The Beat Factory to do some demos. They had an Atari 1040 ST with Steinberg's Pro24, and an Akai S900. As the engineer produced me, I realised that this technology was what I needed. I knew straight away that I'd better start saving up, and I worked out the minimum I needed to spend by reading Sound On Sound. That was where I found out that I needed synchronisation, a video player, MIDI, and so on."

Ben bought a basic system, comprising an Atari ST (at first running Steinberg's Pro24 and subsequently Cubase), a Roland D110 and a Kawai K5, and was finally able to graduate to making demos. He got himself an agent (after a disastrous spell trying to represent himself), and progressed from making library music through to writing jingles for advertising. Although he still had to do stints as a painter and decorator for several years, he eventually made a name for himself and upgraded his equipment, switching from Atari to an Apple Mac 7200. By the late '90s he had a decent setup based around the Power Mac, two Emu ESI32 samplers, and various rack synths, with a MOTU MIDI Express providing sync via SMPTE to his VCR for work to picture.

This Is The Bbc

Ben's appropriately decorated G3 Mac running Cubase; the heart of his working methods. His Tannoy Reveal monitors can also be seen.Ben's appropriately decorated G3 Mac running Cubase; the heart of his working methods. His Tannoy Reveal monitors can also be seen.

Ben's big break came when he was aked to do some station ident themes for Radio 3. "I had learnt a lot through my work for commercials; how fast you have to produce things, and in how many different styles. I had access to the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra for that job, but recorded it in a very odd way. Together with the musical idents, the plan was to have a Radio 3 promotion on BBC TV, featuring an animated musical score. I did a MIDI demo with an impeccably timed track in precise time with the planned animation. When I came to record it, I realised I could never conduct a full orchestra with such precision. So I broke up the piece into its different musical elements and recorded the sections of the orchestra separately, much to the bewilderment of the director. Then I put them together in Cubase later. In the end, they decided not to use idents on Radio 3 at all, and it was all scrapped — but that established my connection with the BBC, and I think that was what led to Dinosaurs".

When Walking With Dinosaurs was at an early stage of production, Ben was asked to pitch for the job by the producer of the series Tim Haines, and the director of the first two episodes to be made, Jasper James.

"Tim had seen Jurassic Park and been inspired, but he was disappointed that there was only a relatively small amount of animation in the film as a whole. Right from the start the plan was for this programme to have more — and consequently, there was to be a lot of music as well. In the end, there were about 10 minutes of purely orchestral music per 60‑minute episode, which is a lot.

"We were all learning, even Tim, because he's basically a documentary maker and a scientist at heart. With Dinosaurs, he had to make a storyboard, because obviously you can't go back to the Cretaceous period and shoot dinosaurs. You're into a world of fiction, not non‑fiction; creative scriptwriting, rather than just a mirror of what's happening, which is what most documentaries are. His vision was to still make it look as though it was made just by watching what was happening, and I think he managed to do that pretty well."

Determined to give the project his best shot, Ben took to writing demo material in his preferred manner — the old‑fashioned way, with piano, pencil and manuscript paper. Later, he worked some of his ideas up into sample‑based orchestral demos in Cubase VST and dubbed them onto the pilot film which Tim Haines was himself using to try and obtain funding for his project. Tim liked the music, but not the way Ben had used it on the film, so he asked him to try again. On the basis of two of the new pieces, (which were eventually titled 'Giant Of The Skies', and 'Islands Of Green' on the BBC Worldwide CD release), Ben was offered the job. He had really pulled out the stops to try and show Tim what he could do with sample‑based arrangements, employing the services of a virtuoso violin player friend on 'Giant Of The Skies' for extra realism. Ben recorded him directly into Cubase at home with a capacitor mic hired for the occasion, and strategically placed duvets on the reverberant surfaces in his flat!

What really gets me going is imagining combinations of sounds, or an orchestra ready to play.

With the job in the bag, Ben immediately prepared himself for the task. Only the two tracks that had won him the commission were re‑used in the final programme, the other demo material being abandoned — he was to compose the rest from scratch. The first thing he did was upgrade his equipment. "I bought a few main things when I got the job; an A3 Laserjet printer, because I knew I'd need one for large‑format score printing; a G3 Mac, and an Akai S5000 sampler. I needed lots of RAM, hard disk space, and processor ability — my old 7200 just wouldn't have coped with the number of tracks I was going to be mixing. I also got my big hi‑res monitor for onscreen score work, so I could fit the whole width of an A3 page without having to zoom. It would have been maddening having to scroll around all the time.

"I also had to buy a new storage drive, so I took out the G3's internal Zip drive and put a 9Gb drive into the IDE chain; IDE is faster on the G3 than SCSI anyway."

As with the pitching process, the basic plan was for Ben to view the Episodes to be scored with the directors, discussing where music might best be used, then take the video away, write the music, mock it up with his samplers, and submit it to Tim Haines for his approval. Following this, the music would be recorded with a full orchestra.

Ben decided to go all out and produce the best possible home demos he could, with the intention of impressing Tim Haines. To this end, he went as far as building up a sample library of every possible orchestral instrument, sampled in a staggering variety of perfomance styles, and keeping track of their MIDI channel and Program change numbers in a self‑built database, so he could always recall them at a moment's notice. He also meticulously kept copies of all the demos he created, some of which ran through multiple versions as the episodes he was scoring were recut. He admits, "I was on a bit of a crusade. I really wanted to write music that would show off how incredibly expressive, powerful and varied an orchestra could be, and to mock it up to the best of my ability with samples, so that the final recording would be even more impressive. The sample database was a big headache to set up, but once it was up and running, it did work. And the storage was so that if they ever came to me asking 'what happened to that demo from back in April...?' I could always retrieve it. I had to keep all the versions and date them, because there were plenty of times when I couldn't even tell the difference between two versions. Sometimes, one was at 105bpm and another was at 106 to fit a different video cut. You have to keep absolute tabs on this sort of thing, and that's why I kept this record, with the SMPTE times for each cue as well".

The Creative Urge

Ben's (home‑made) rack and Allen & Heath GS3 mixer. The rack contains the following (top‑bottom): MOTU MIDI Express, Alesis 3630 compressor, Lexicon Alex effects, Alesis Midiverb III effects, Roland U220 synth, Emu Proteus 2 synth, Emu Proformance piano module, Iomega Jaz drive, Emu ESi32 samplers (x2), Akai S5000 sampler, Sony DAT machine, Cambridge Audio Power Amp, various digital storage media.Ben's (home‑made) rack and Allen & Heath GS3 mixer. The rack contains the following (top‑bottom): MOTU MIDI Express, Alesis 3630 compressor, Lexicon Alex effects, Alesis Midiverb III effects, Roland U220 synth, Emu Proteus 2 synth, Emu Proformance piano module, Iomega Jaz drive, Emu ESi32 samplers (x2), Akai S5000 sampler, Sony DAT machine, Cambridge Audio Power Amp, various digital storage media.

So much for preparation; how did Ben actually go about composing his music? "To be honest, I always felt a bit inadequate, because the directors and Tim were always asking for 'big themes' everywhere. I don't feel I'm a natural melodist like, say, Paul McCartney or Mozart; I have to almost intellectually construct my melodies. I tend to be harmony based; I have some chords and think of notes that work within those. What really gets me going is imagining combinations of sounds, or an orchestra ready to play. I might imagine a sound... say three alto flutes, a muted trumpet, and a xylophone or vibrophone playing together, and think, 'right, that's the classic '50s TV theme tune sound... (see the 'Art Of Orchestration' box) how can I use that?'. Once I feel I've got an interesting sound in my head; then I play on the piano and try and work out what material would suit those sounds. For example, Episode 2 of the series covered the really big dinosaurs. Straight away, I knew that I needed wide‑spaced chords on brass, slow‑moving but with movement somewhere. That movement came in the end from the violas, in the middle range. From thinking about that, a tune just came out. You can also hear this at the start of the 'Tyrannosaurus' theme I did. It starts on one chord, and although there's a rhythm there, it holds that chord for ages and ages, because I was just enjoying the sound I'd created. I'm very influenced in this approach by Bernard Hermann, who did all the Alfred Hitchcock film scores." target="_blank" onmouseover="CSAction(new Array('B4AA3C306'));return true;" csover="B4AA3C306

"Because it's sound that sets me off creatively, I tried to create a different sound world for each episode of Walking With Dinosaurs. That was easy, as they all had different moods. The first episode is all about heat and bloodlust, parched deserts and so on, while the second one was pastoral, peaceful, and beautiful, about dinosaurs living in symbiosis with the forests. And so on.

"The approach seemed to work, because eventually, as I was writing more and more of these themes and getting them accepted, I got more confident and found that I was beginning to think more melodically anyway. It's totally down to state of mind; when you're confident, you just have to think for a bit about a few ideas, and a tune will more or less just come out. When you're not confident, you have to grind through a process to create."

Ben was given rough SMPTE‑coded VHS tapes of the visuals as work progressed. To help himself, he used his G3's built‑in video capture card to convert some of the video to QuickTime movies, so that he could work entirely within his computer. "I wanted to experiment with non‑linear video in the Mac. It was pretty amazing, but I had to keep my wits about me, because I needed to be very accurate, and QuickTime definitely drifts on something that's half an hour long."

Once he had tweaked his demos to his satisfaction, Ben would record them onto the VHS tape and send them off to Tim Haines for his approval. "I had to rig up two VHS recorders at home. I'd create a new arrangement in Cubase, put all the audio demos on the correct position on the timeline to match their SMPTE cues. Then, I'd play the original tape on one VHS, while Cubase played back the music, and I'd record the output of both on the second VHS. It looked crap, but sounded OK.

"Next I'd have a meeting with Tim and he'd make changes, so I'd go back and do a second demo, and try and get him to agree that this was the final change, because the orchestral recording date for that particular episode would be looming. In theory, I'd then get final approval, come back, save all my approved demo files, and make sure they were neatly stored somewhere safe before making new Cubase files for the score printing."

Having spent so much time working on the files already, it seems odd that Ben should have had to rework them. But there is a good reason, as he explains: "I'd have to be quite destructive to my MIDI files to get them to score right. This is a definite shortcoming of Cubase — of any MIDI sequencer actually. Because the scoring is track‑based, whatever's on one track becomes one line of score. Imagine eight bars of music, with woodwind and brass and strings. I might have the strings doing five detached notes followed by a lovely sweeping note. For the five detached notes, I'd probably use two sets of samples, one for the down bow and one for the up bow, to make it sound really nice, then the long held note would be three separate layered samples — again, to create the right effect. Now in Cubase you could have two separate parts on the same track, but invariably they'd overlap or you'd have a program change problem. So you'd end up making two or more tracks for one instrument, but in the final score, all of that will be played by violins only; you want one line of score, not the two the program will print. Of course the same is true of all the other instruments too. So that's why you've got to distill.

"The converse can be true as well, because I might have a line in the demo played as chords on a generic string sound, which in the score needs to be split up and scored for cellos, basses and violas. I also needed to sort out which sounds were going to remain sample‑based — there were some synth instrumental lines and sound effects samples which I had in the score which the orchestra were not going to play, and I had to get them on the right MIDI outputs to trigger the right sounds for the final recording session. I also had to create a click track for the orchestra; they all wore headphones at the session. I wrote tempo changes into the click so that you'd get a natural sense of crescendos in phrases, for example.

"When I'd finished distilling the score, I would end up with a score MIDI file which played back really roughly, but which produced a score which the players could read.

"All this is so nearly not necessary. there's a Folder Track facility in Cubase, and if you put lots of tracks into a folder and then select that on the Arrange page and go into Score mode, the contents of the tracks in the folder all appear on the piano stave together. But you can't have more than one folder track open at the same time, otherwise I could have had a 'Woodwind' folder, and a 'String Section' folder, and so on. It's a shame, and Steinberg say they can't make it work the way I'd like it to."

Ben printed the completed scores off at home with his new printer, generating an A3‑format full score for the conductor, and a large pile of individual players' parts on A4 sheets.

Session Time!

Ben's hand‑drawn schematic representation of the production process for the Walking With Dinosaurs soundtrack.Ben's hand‑drawn schematic representation of the production process for the Walking With Dinosaurs soundtrack.

The recording sessions, four in all, took place at Angel Studios, Islington, early last year, with the results recorded to 24‑track analogue tape with Dolby, and, for the third and fourth sessions, Otari RADAR II. Ben "Through the BBC, we had an amazing deal allowing us 12 hours with the BBC Concert Orchestra. There were to be dubbing sessions to put the finished music on all six episodes of the programme afterwards.

"It would have been good to have had three 4‑hour sessions, but the Musicians' Union doesn't allow that; they consider it to be three hours and an hour's overtime. So we had to have four 3‑hour sessions; and even then, there has to be a 20‑minute break. That meant that the fourth session fell outside when we needed it for the TV show, because we could only book the Orchestra when they were available; that was the deal. So we had to record two episodes' worth of music at each session. It did mean, though, that we could satisfy BBC Worldwide's desire for a CD of music from the series; we devoted the last session to recording some extra tracks for the CD.

"I took my travelling rig; my G3, the two ESIs, and the Akai S5000. Cubase on the G3 was the main sequencer, and I'd left all my MIDI‑only tracks as they were in my original demo arrangement.

"It was the biggest orchestral endeavour I've ever undertaken, and I learnt so much from the first session. Practical things, like handing out the parts to the players before the session, numbering pages... tiny logistical things that can really screw up a session. You find 20 minutes has gone down the drain like that, and you don't get that back from the players at all.

"One of the tricks of the trade is to record a piece for wind only first, and then a piece for strings only. Then you can record the strings while the wind are off having their break, and vice versa. By the time we did the third session, we had all that kind of thing sussed."

Something else Ben learned after the first session was that the string section was a bit short on manpower. "In the first session we had, we splashed out on percussion, but later I realised that what we really needed was an extra five violins to fill out the string section. But we had a deal for a limited number of players. So we had to remove real percussion from then on and replace it with synthesized tuned stuff. We decided that was a small price to pay if we got a better string sound.

"I was always striving to make the strings sound bigger with my arrangements. You really need at least 10 first violinists — around 30 string players — for a really good sound. You can then write a single line for the first violins and it will sound really rich. Instead, I had to write that line for the second violins and violas as well, to get that same richness. So when I wanted a fuller harmony and had to split those instruments up again, I would make sure that I was doubling the strings gently on clarinets. Clarinets are a very good instrument for doubling strings, because they can play in a way that supports the string sound without having too much of a distinctive tone themselves. Horns can do that as well; and you might use a gentle flute doubling right on the top line, too. This kind of trick helps with intonation, because when you've got fewer players, their individual intonation starts to show more clearly. Doubling like that can have a steadying effect. So I was mindful of that in the arrangements I wrote after the first recording session."

In what later turned out to be a fortunate move, Gary Thomas, the engineer at Angel, placed certain sections of the orchestra, such as the brass, timpani, vibraphone and percussion, harp and sometimes the strings, into the isolation booths at Angel, or behind acoustic screens. After the first session, this was adopted on all the subsequent recordings, as a potentially disastrous problem arose. Ben: "In January 1999, a very carefully planned schedule was made, where certain days were set aside for printing parts, preparing for sessions, improving demos, and so on. The whole thing was planned so that when we went to Angel, we'd do a day of orchestral recording, and a day of mixing. The idea was that, even if it went on until two in the morning, the next day we could deliver a timecoded master DAT of all the material needed for the two episodes being done at the next dubbing session.

I was always striving to make the strings sound bigger with my arrangements. You really need at least 10 first violinists — around 30 string players — for a really good sound.

"Unfortunately, the production of the visual side of the program fell behind, and the dubbing sessions were moved. It was difficult to get music approved for some scenes, because they hadn't been fine‑cut by the time they should have been. So some scenes were not fully scored. I didn't want to end up having to put MIDI recordings on the final TV program because we had no orchestral stuff, so I had to do something different. We did some sub‑mixes at the Angel mixing sessions of just the isolated brass, strings or other instruments. I was then able to take those elements home on a DAT and, with new sample‑based textures, construct completely new pieces of music based on them. I didn't really move music from episode to episode much, though, because I was keen to have this different sound world for each episode.

"It was a real luxury to be working that way; no copyright issues, Musicians' Union problems, or anything. I owned the copyright, and I was only doing this to use on the same job for which everyone was being paid. Out of politeness, I did check with the orchestra first to see if they minded."

"The first recording session was for Episodes 3 and 5, and they went smoothly. The next one was for 1 and 4. 1 was tricky; I had to do some hard disk work on that, and so was 4. But it was on 2 and 6 where time was really running out; particularly 6. I had to create pieces of music from scratch, almost using the orchestra in kit form. In the end, we recorded 18 minutes of music per 3‑hour session. There were, as I said, about 10 minutes of purely orchestral music per episode, but being able to re‑use orchestral sections to create new pieces helped.

Mastering At Home

Part of Ben's score for Walking With Dinosaurs, as seen from the Score window in Cubase VST24.Part of Ben's score for Walking With Dinosaurs, as seen from the Score window in Cubase VST24.

Back home, Ben was faced with the daunting task of writing new music to support the orchestral sub‑mixes he had brought back on DAT, and of recombining everything to make a final stereo master. Once again, Cubase rose to the occasion. Using his Akai S5000 as the digital clock master, Ben laid the contents of his samplers back into Cubase VST24 as audio data, although he was forced to work a stereo pair at a time from the S5000, as he had no multitrack way of getting data out of it digitally (the S5000 now has an optional 8‑channel ADAT interface, but this was not available at the time).

Once he had all the audio back in Cubase, Ben created new stereo masters, topped and tailed them in BIAS Peak, and then, with reference to the correct SMPTE times in the final video edit of the TV programme, which he had been supplied on VHS, placed the masters into a Cubase arrangement at the right SMPTE locations and ran the whole lot out to a hired timecode DAT. A hired TC Electronic Finalizer also helped polish to the so‑called Production Masters, which were run off twice, once at 44.1kHz to produce the BBC Worldwide CD, and once at 48kHz for use in the TV programme.

The World Awaits

BEN BARTLETT: Music For Walking With Dinosaurs

With Walking With Dinosaurs being acclaimed around the world, I can't help feeling that no small acclaim is due to Ben Bartlett, if for nothing else than for his determination to see his part of the project through at the highest possible quality at every stage, from composition to transmission. With Dinosaurs behind him, Ben is now looking for his next project. He's been snapped up by international agent Air Edel, and would like to use his Dinosaur‑shaped calling card to break into scoring for films. But it's not as easy as all that... "It seems I am regarded now as someone who makes music for documentaries, not films! I've got to find some way of moving across, and perhaps I can do it via animation — that's what the dinosaurs were, after all."

Personally, I wouldn't be surprised to see Ben Bartlett's name appearing on a blockbuster film in the near future (some of his Dinosaurs music would sound fantastic over a Bond film). His versatile musical ability is more than a match for the ever‑shifting musical desires of any Hollywood mogul, and because he's no slouch when it comes to the technical side of producing his music either, he can even be the one to recut the music to suit any last‑minute alternative endings the studio can dream up. For now, he remains, as he puts it "poised to take the next step. Poised and skint!" Watch this space.

The ART Of Orchestration

Far from forgetting his classical training, Ben remains in awe of many classical composers, and freely admits their influence on his work. "I revere Shostkovich, and a lot of other composers as well: Stravinsky, Ravel, Mahler, Debussy, Koechlin; a lot of French classical music from the first half of the 20th century. It's that combination of symphonic grandeur and a French obsession with sound, or sound for its own sake.

"Ravel was a master orchestrator, but he's often considered a second‑rate composer, which I think is rather sad. You'd equate him now with an excellent producer or arranger, who knows exactly what hi‑hat sound to put with what bass line; but Ravel did that with an orchestra. You know, which area of the flute's range works best with that horn, and how can you layer that with other instruments to create the most interesting effect... It's almost with trembling hands that I read through a Ravel score, looking vertically down the stave to see how a particular sound or emotional effect was achieved by the combination of certain instruments at a certain time. I learn from things like that. Vertical setups are what interest me.

"Here's an example; the Henry Mancini sound. That is, the sound of a '50s/'60s TV orchestra. Typically, it would be a muted trumpet, alto flutes and some kind of tuned percussion — either a vibraphone, celeste, or xylophone, all in unison. The result is the sound like the one from that old TV programme Bewitched; a jazzy, slightly Broadway kind of sound. It was first done years earlier by Ravel, but only for a moment; and then he was off onto another idea!

"The clever thing is that sounds like that will have a certain effect on even non‑musicians. You don't have to know what makes up that sound to recognise it, you just immediately think 'it's a '50s TV show!'. The skill is in knowing what pushes those buttons in people's brains.

"The skill is also in being able to hear; to be able to listen to a passage on a CD over and over again, and pick out what's in there. Is there pizzicato violin in there as well? Is it a harp or a piano? And so on. It seems to be a dying skill."