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Ben Salisbury

Composing For The Life Of Mammals By Tom Flint
Published June 2003

BBC Bristol's natural history series The Life Of Mammals was a high-profile production, with stunning visuals that demanded an equally impressive soundtrack.

Every few years the BBC's Natural History Unit put together another of their breathtaking TV series on the natural world. Recently The Blue Planet brought stunning underwater photography to the screen while The Life Of Plants showed time-lapse photographic sequences from every continent.

Ben Salisbury:Photo: Richard Ecclestone

Both productions owe a debt of gratitude to David Attenborough's 13-part series, Life On Earth, which set a benchmark for both visual presentation and narration, and created the epic serial format that all subsequent productions have tried to match. Even the music, created by composer Edward Williams, was innovative in its use of electronic sounds rather than traditional instrumentation.

Since Life On Earth's UK screening back in 1979, technology has moved on in leaps and bounds, but David Attenborough, who celebrated 50 years in broadcasting in 2002, is still the first-choice presenter. This year BBC Television showed yet another astonishing Attenborough series called The Life Of Mammals. The 10-part series of hour-long programmes required a musical score which would complement the amazing footage and now-familiar Attenborough presentation. With a budget big enough to hire the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, something special was expected. From a selection of suitable candidates, experienced freelance composers Dan Jones and Ben Salisbury were picked for the job. SOS met up with Ben in his Bristol home to find out what it takes to work on a major Attenborough project and how the music for the series was created.

Getting Going

I began by asking Ben how he got the job in the first place. "Producers get sent hundreds of showreels every week, but on Mammals they shortlisted about 20 people, all of whom had done quite a lot of stuff before, and they asked us all to send in our current showreels. A partnership was needed because several programmes had to be edited at the same time, so the music needed to be written for at least two programmes concurrently. They could have used an existing partnership but they asked me and Dan if we wanted to work together.

"I worked on the five-minute opening montage of the first programme, which meant that Dan had to continue with the rest of programme one. By the time I'd finished the opening montage another programme — which was actually programme three — was coming off the production line, so I started work on that one; and so we went on."

BBC Life Of Mammals CD artwork cover.Typically for a production of its kind, Mammals required the simultaneous completion and integration of several key elements: the music, the film footage, the narration and the location sound. Although it would have been far simpler for Ben and Dan to write their music to the locked picture (ie. a finished edit), the production team decided to take a more ambitious approach. It was agreed that throughout the project composers Ben and Dan should work in collaboration with the sound team and with David Attenborough. This approach required a higher degree of planning, and flexibility from all parties involved. Ben explains the reasons for working so closely. "The standard way to compose is to have a complete picture-locked programme — when there's going to be no change in any of the pictures. You then have a viewing with the director to decide what the music should do and where. The trouble is that when people have been working in isolation, the footage, sound, narration and music only come together in the final mix, by which time it can be difficult to create something meaningful from those elements. For Mammals we were trying to bring all three processes together, so we began writing during the editing process. The footage was often running 10 minutes over length at the time we first saw it, but we could still start picking out sequences that might need music.

"At that point David hadn't done his final commentary, but the producer gave us rough scripts so we knew where David might be speaking. David is a very accomplished piano player and he loves to get involved and make suggestions, so we also tried to get at least a rough version of the music to David before he did his commentary so that he could narrate to some form of the music. You can hear that working really well in programme three: there is a seven or eight-minute music cue over the images of hunts from all around the world, and you can hear that David's voice really ebbs and flows with the music — he does very musical commentaries because he really has a feel for it."


While Ben and Dan worked on the roughs for the music, the sound team were editing together the sound to match the action. Although some film footage was recorded together with the sound — narration to camera being the obvious example — much of the series' sound was made up from libraries, or cut from appropriate sections of location recording. For example, a lion roar might, in effect, be the voice of a different lion taken from a stock location recording. This process of montage meant that the sound team were flexible enough to adjust their work according to that of composers Ben and Dan and vice versa. "There were a number of occasions where we planned a musical sequence but the sound proved to be enough," explains Ben. "For example, I thought that the elephants in the cave sequence in programme three would need music all the way through, but as soon as I heard the rumble sound the elephants make in their throats and the cave ambience — which was like music in a way — I could tell that there was nothing more the music needed to do.

"Conversely, it was the music that was driving the big hunt sequences, so in situations like that we tried to get the music done early so that the sound person could fit their sounds around the energetic drumming, or whatever it might be."

Rough Stock

The initial production schedule allowed Ben and Dan five weeks to create the music for each programme, from the showing of the rough cut to the submission of their finished music. Although the pair could commence work on some rough ideas straight away, they could not finalise anything until a final picture-locked film edit was available. In their studios both Ben and Dan used Emagic Logic Audio sync'ed to a video recorder, and so approximately a week after the rough cut showing they were provided with a VHS tape containing the picture-locked edit and its timecode. That still left them four weeks to produce the finished musical scores, although by programmes nine and 10 things had got tighter, and picture-locked edits were arriving with only two weeks to go.

Firstly the music had to be composed, and both Ben and Dan decided to build the bed of their compositions using an interesting variety of acoustic instruments and percussion played by specialist musicians rather than sequenced samples. Ben: "There were running themes for the whole series but Dan and I both wanted to create a unique sound world for each programme and that was quite often provided by the instrumental palette used. Once we'd seen the footage Dan and I would get some sort of idea of what instruments might work. We'd then call up other composers and ask them if they knew anyone who could play those instruments. The ideal people could play lots of strange instruments and could improvise.

The main gear rack in Ben's studio (from top): Novation Supernova synth, Emu Proteus 2000 sound module and ESI4000 samplers (x2), Tascam DA20 DAT recorder and CD-RW700 CD burner, Emu ESI32 sampler, Lexicon MPX100 and Alesis Midiverb 4 reverbs, MOTU MIDI Timepiece AV.The main gear rack in Ben's studio (from top): Novation Supernova synth, Emu Proteus 2000 sound module and ESI4000 samplers (x2), Tascam DA20 DAT recorder and CD-RW700 CD burner, Emu ESI32 sampler, Lexicon MPX100 and Alesis Midiverb 4 reverbs, MOTU MIDI Timepiece AV.Photo: Richard Ecclestone"Occasionally I'd flick through a sampler and find the right thing, but in the case of Dirk Campbell I had his showreel demonstrating all the wind instruments he can play, so I took a look at that. We also used an instrumentalist called Stuart Hall who initially came to play guitar, but he is a specialist in other weird string instruments so I asked him to pack his car with them. He brought an Armenian fiddle called a kamencha which makes a great ethereal, and occasionally comical, wailing string sound. It became a thematic link throughout programme four.

"I asked him to improvise lines over the top of a sequence I'd written and we just messed around and see what would work. I took that audio away, chopped it up and experimented, using it very much like my own sample library. The samples were often placed in completely different places from where Stuart had originally played them.

"The other guy we used throughout is a renowned percussion player called Paul Clarvis. He plays a huge variety of hand drums and percussion instruments and he inspired how we went forward with a lot of stuff. We took very basic sequenced mockups along to the studio, we'd explain what we were after and he would replicate the idea, add to it, or sometimes come up with his own ideas. We got to know how he worked and we were letting him take the lead on certain things. Sometimes he was just providing us with rhythmic beds that we also used like a sample library.

"The global hunt sequence comprised about six minutes of percussion. I gave Paul a tempo and a very simple notated rhythmic guide on which I simply wrote in where it needed to get fuller, more exciting, or where it was about to head towards the climax. I took away absolutely loads of drumming and edited it together in the computer. We managed to do the whole six minutes of television entirely from percussion instruments.

"I also created some sounds in my home studio using drones from the harmonium and my hammered dulcimer. Similarly, Dan created lots of effects, bells and drums in his own studio."

 Becoming A Composer 
 If you are interested in writing music for TV then you may well be wondering how one gets to work on a series like The Life Of Mammals. For Ben it took many years of education to get the break, but at first he was pretty reluctant to take that route. "As school I didn't do music 'O' or 'A' Levels, mainly because it wasn't particularly cool and I was embarrassed to do that! I had piano lessons on the quiet, however, and I was always into improvising and composing. I played piano in local pubs, creating all my own backing tracks on the Roland D20. That was very good practice and that was my first introduction to music technology. I soon realised that music was what I really wanted to do so I took a music 'A' Level at night school and got into Newcastle University to do a music degree where I specialised in composition. They had a great recording studio that no-one else seemed to want to use apart from me and one other guy. It was the time when the early Roland samplers were being released, so I got into that.

"At one point I went to the summer school of the Darmstadt Music School — the place was set up by Stockhausen and it's the apex of modern music — and I tried my hardest to fit in but I realised it wasn't me and that I wanted to write music that lots of people would enjoy rather than just a few.

"When I finished my degree I found out that there is a catch-22 situation: it's easy to contact a director but they always ask to hear something you've done for someone else's film, and the problem is getting over that first hurdle. For that reason I did an MA a course in Bournemouth that was run by Stephen Deutsch who now runs the Bournemouth Media School and the Royal Academy flim music course. At the time it was one of the first courses specialising in music for film and TV. We had our own workstation setups with a sampler and a sequencer all sync'ed up to video using timecode — which is the same way Dan and I work now. There were other students there taking their MAs in film-making, and Bournemouth College of Art and Design has a very good film school, so we had the opportunity to write music for their films.

"I came out of Bournemouth having written the music to a short film called Going Home by Miguel Sapochnik. That short ended up winning some section of the British Short Film Festival and it was broadcast on Channel Four. After that I got a massive list of producers working in Bristol which is the home of the BBC's Natural History Unit. I send them my showreel to as many people as I could find. One person liked the piece from Going Home and asked me for something similar for their film called Africa's Forgotten Elephants which was one of the Echo Of The Elephants series."


Perfect Harmony

Not too many TV series have a musical budget large enough to afford an orchestra, but The Life Of Mammals was the flagship series in the BBC's winter schedule, and that meant that Ben and Dan had extensive access to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. While the pair recorded and arranged the solo instrumentalists' contributions, they also had to finalise their orchestral ideas so that they could be turned into proper scores. Ben used his sample libraries to create rough orchestral compositions. "I've started using the EXS24 sampler more and more. I've got a couple of old Emus in my rack and they are great for keeping stock samples but I've now loaded everything into EXS24 so I've got the whole orchestral palette available in an orchestra template setup. Dan does the same.

"When you know that you are going to be using real players it actually frees you up because you don't have to worry so much about the programming details. A real orchestra will sound well produced, and so it can be quite a speedy way of writing once you know the setup. We had a decent budget but with a smaller budget you have to make do with samples. The difference between 30 different human beings playing one string chord and you trying to fudge it on samplers is still big. I know there are new Giga string sample libraries coming out, but we were using the Peter Siedlaczek stuff for mock-ups — you can get away with it for still, slow stuff."

Once they had prepared the mock-ups, Ben and Dan set about organising the orchestral sessions, hiring orchestrators, copyists, and suitable studios. "Dan and I would have to decide what size orchestra we needed for each session. We were normally using about 50 players or more. At that time we could start getting music out to orchestrators and copyists. Chris Austin, the conductor, usually joined us a week before recording because he was orchestrating a lot of Dan's stuff. We tried to make sure he listened to the sampled versions of all of my stuff before conducting the RPO too. It was quite a big music production team at work.

"For the orchestrators I printed my scores directly out of Logic and I think Dan did the same. Mine are usually quite messy with handwritten instructions like 'Here we need to do this.' I am not a great expert with the notation side of Logic so I just make sure the notes are there and write anything else in by hand.

"The orchestrators didn't change any notes, but they were given free rein to experiment where necessary. Occasionally I would write something like 'It would be great if this line could be passed through the woodwind,' and 'Maybe this chord could be played by the strings, what do you think? Might that sound better with some brass added as well?' On those occasions I would leave that to their expertise. Elizabeth Purnell, who did most of my orchestration, would say 'I've slightly altered this here where you've put this on the strings but I thought it might sound better by thinning it out and having the woodwind play that line. What do you think about using a cor anglais instead of a clarinet there?' and I would have the opportunity to say if I really wanted the clarinet there or not.

"No-one knows exactly what it will sound like until the orchestral session, so some changes are made on the fly. For example, I might have marked something to play a big tremolo string chord but if it didn't sound very good we'd change it to play a legato, so it is a combination of being as prepared as possible but also being ready to make quick decisions."

Once the orchestral arrangements were being prepared by the copyists, it was time to hire the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and a suitable venue to record the orchestral parts for two or sometimes three programmes at the same time. Typically a day was booked so that three-hour sessions could be fitted in the morning and afternoon, with the aim of recording all the orchestral parts for a programme in each session. The tight time schedules and budgetary restrictions made life difficult. "The sessions were great fun but they were very stressful because there wasn't unlimited time with the orchestra and we didn't have the free rein of, say, a Hollywood feature film," admits Ben. "One conductor I've worked with said that Danny Elfman was recording about a minute a day for Sleepy Hollow because they had the money to get the orchestra to play it over and over again until it was exactly right!

"Musicians will down tools as the second hand comes up to the hour, and it seemed like every session we'd have the last cue to do with a minute to go and they would have to get on with it without a click. If we had time we would get the orchestra to do semi-improvisational stuff; you try to use up every available second so if you have got any time at the end of a session you just try to get a cluster of notes going that might be useful. Or we would record different versions of themes, one without a brass section or just with the strings.

"We had a set music budget that governed everything from our composition fees to the orchestral payments and conductor's wages. You have to be aware of how you are spending the budget all the time. There were times we had cancel a session to save money, so we had to decide which things were more important. There was a learning curve for me because although I've done a three-part series, the amount of money involved for a 10-part one, and the organisation involved, makes it more complicated. It amazes me that we managed to get it all done on time and to budget.

"There was no way we could afford to produce 25 minutes of orchestral music per programme and it wasn't necessary to do that. Dan and I thought that there have been occasions, in all forms of TV, where an orchestra has been used for the sake of it. Sometimes it is nice to use a small setup and we did cues with just a guitar, some percussion, a clarinet or something completely electronic. Quite early on we decided which cues needed orchestration. There are certain things, like the underwater shots of blue whales, that cry out for a big sweeping theme and the only way to achieve that successfully is to have the full force of a symphony orchestra.

"Other places it can be small and intimate using just a small section of the orchestra. For example, I did programme four on rodents and that was all small animals, and I found that I needed very few orchestral cues."

Taking It Home

More often than not, the orchestral recording sessions took place in the last week before production, which meant that it was imperative that Ben and Dan could take the finished results away with them immediately after the session. To this end, the sessions were mixed straight away in the studios where they'd been recorded, so that Ben and Dan could take away stereo files to incorporate into their arrangements. Equally important was that the orchestral recording would fit neatly back into the rest of their compositions in Logic Audio. Having worked in Logic sync'ed to the timecoded VHS tape they were able to produce a click track for the orchestra that was in sync with the official timecode. To help the conductor a large screen was set up at the sessions to show the footage, and this also adhered to the same timecode stamp.

"We had lots of pre-recorded percussion parts played by the various session players and they were useful to hear in the control room and occasionally for the conductor to hear through his headphones, but the orchestra musicians tended to just want a click. At the sessions there was a Beta SP running in the control room for sync'ing the film and the DA88. We'd had the click for everyone on one channel of the DA88 and any synths, sample parts, or pre-recorded soloists on a stereo pair. The musicians had the score and there is a standard practice of giving two bars of click in whatever time signature you're in, and the conductor is the one who controls all of this. Chris knew that there were two bars of intro and after that he controlled the orchestra, so the click was just a guide for the musicians.

An orchestral session for Life Of Mammals at Sony Studios, Whitfield Street, London.An orchestral session for Life Of Mammals at Sony Studios, Whitfield Street, London.Photo: Ben Salisbury"We recorded at Angel, Sony Whitfield Street and Phoenix Sound studios and we'd use their expertise of their engineers to mix everything. We started by putting the mix of the first two sessions on Dan's Tascam DA88. Thanks to the timecode, that would slot back into both our systems as an audio file. Later on Dan got a laptop and we ended up using that as our recording source and click. Dan just kept the audio it on his laptop but I burnt my sequences and orchestral files and maybe a couple of takes onto CD.

"Using the laptop was a very successful way of getting it back to the studio, but the more sophisticated technology gets the more you rely on one bit of kit to run the whole show and then there are more problems. If a computer crashes, which occasionally happens, you've got 50 people sat in the orchestral suite doing nothing. The Tascam was slightly more reliable but more time-consuming because I had to borrow Dan's machine, plug it all in, sync it all up and convert the audio files."


When it came to mixing, time was extremely tight for Ben and Dan. Often the orchestral session happened only a day or two before the final deadline leaving no time to experiment with mixing ideas. "We were often spending all night after the orchestral session getting those bits finished so they didn't need anything else done to them. Dan and I mixed our work separately but if we were struggling we would ask for each other's opinions. Like everything to do with TV music, it had to be done very quickly. If there was anything we were particularly worried about in terms of how it might fit in with the programme narration and sound we would provide a number of different passes for the dubbing mixer, singling out the percussion or the orchestra.

"I mixed all my sequences using the Logic mixer and the Yamaha 03D. Dan uses a Mackie 12-buss and Logic. I used quite a variety of plug-ins in Logic and there are built-in effects and processing on the 03D but I tended not to mess with the orchestral stuff. Very occasionally I added a touch more reverb or EQ here and there, but most of that was done at the session mix.

Ben's contributions to the Life Of Mammals soundtrack were mixed using Logic together with his Yamaha 03D digital mixer.Ben's contributions to the Life Of Mammals soundtrack were mixed using Logic together with his Yamaha 03D digital mixer.Photo: Richard Ecclestone"There are certain consideration when you're mixing for TV. Even in a big musical moment you have to hold off a bit if there is narration. It is best to avoid too many fader moves in the final mix, so if you can, you build the fades into the music. There were times in the orchestral sessions where we had the film running and we realised that we'd have to pull out the brass and everyone had to be a bit more restrained when a big orchestral chord came in because David was speaking to camera and the dubbing mixer would only pull it down anyway.

"There are also things that sit better with the human voice than others. For example, cor anglais and oboe battle with the human voice, possibly because they have a similar timbre and register. But for anything you know is going to get pulled down you may as well write it into the score."

Avoiding The Obvious

One of the key features of The Life Of Mammals is that it contrasts the characteristics and habits of many different species and their native environments. For Ben and Dan the challenge was to complement the images without allowing the music to become cliched.

"I've done about 40 natural history films now so I hope I've learnt the pitfalls along the way — but the animals I found hardest to do were the little cute ones, because it is very easy to slip into Disney caricatures and start anthropomorphising things. A good example was the piker — which is a rabbit that collects plants to store as hay. There was a sequence of it bouncing over the rocks looking very cute, and to a certain extent you have to make sure the music is fun and light-hearted. At the same time you don't want to be over-sentimental, and there is a danger of being unnecessarily emotional in wildlife films. It's a matter of judgement. Dan did a programme showing hunting meat-eaters, and he made a conscious decision to bring out the drama but not to make too much of an emotional response. Just because something has been eaten, you don't have to write sad music or horror music.

"There are certain situations that you can deal with as dramatic moments: there is a bit at the end of the third programme where hyenas were attacking a type of antelope called a topi. As part of their mating rites, the topi had been battling each other to exhaustion on the savannah. They were so knackered that they collapsed and the hyenas picked them off one by one. I could have used a really brutal score or dramatic heavy percussion but I chose to treat it very serenely. As the topi are attacked the film goes into slow motion so we gradually took the natural sound away leaving just the score, which was quite arresting.

"In contrast Dan scored a chase sequence with chimps hunting collobus monkeys where he went for the drama of the chase. He used very heavy percussion music, but he made it fairly unemotional because that is just how they feed. The sequence after that was very horrific, where the chimps attacked one of their own kind. When we heard the location recording of the screaming chimps beating each other to death we felt that to add music would be inappropriate and was unnecessary.

"At the start we decided that we didn't want the music to stand in front of the film, but try to respond to the film and work with it. There were sequences of beautiful pictures which required beautiful music, but in an Attenborough series there is quite a lot of information and in most cases you have to make sure you allow that to take the foreground. When you do have a chance to come through, hopefully you do it in the right way. There are purists who write in after every wildlife programme to ask why they can't just hear the sound of the animals without any music, and to a certain extent I agree with them, but we are making entertainment and hopefully helping tell the story and linking the scenes. If you've seen a wildlife programme before it has music added you can see that the music really does help tell the story."

One of the features of The Life Of Mammals was rapid continent-jumping which happened whenever one animal was linked to a similar species in a different environment. Once again, Ben and Dan had to decide if the music should reflect the hop or if it should relate to the images in a different way. "Musically, mirroring David's moves from place to place would result in a jumbled mess and it would also be far too literal," says Ben. "I worked on a series called Congo, and in that I used lots of African music interwoven with an orchestral score, but on Mammals the choice of instruments was almost entirely due to their quality as instruments rather than where they came from. The duduk is a Turkish instrument and it was used throughout the third programme because of its haunting quality rather than any association with place. Dan did use an Indian instrument called a sarangi on the leopard scene in India, but that was really because the sarangi suited the image of the stalking leopard."

And In The End

Ben is justifiably proud to have worked on what is another classic Attenborough series. Alternative mixes of the musical score has been made available on a new BBC CD and the series is no doubt on its way to being shown in many other countries around the world. Ben reflects on what he sees as one of the main highlights of the project."The first time we turned up at Angel Studios, a big orchestra played the opening montage theme while the film was projected up on a big screen. There is a bit where the music climaxes and a blue whale rises up out of the water and you're watching 50 of the finest musicians in the country playing a tune that only a couple of weeks ago you were humming in your head as you walked up the stairs. I don't think anyone could ever tire of that."