From a garden studio in Wales, Danny Chang scores multi‑million pound animated productions for TV companies throughout Europe. Paul White talks to him about the gear and techniques involved in writing music for cartoons.
Danny Chang started out as many of us did; he learnt to play the guitar, formed a band, and then tried for that elusive string of hit records with a view to retiring on the proceeds. A deal with Magnet records followed, but Danny didn't manage to achieve the 'unbelievable wealth' part of the dream, so he turned his attention to TV work as a possible source of income, and banged on producers' and directors' doors for about a year before he landed his first job. Once he'd got his foot in the door, the business took off — but it's not all plain sailing.
Danny now has a spacious, well‑equipped studio at the bottom of his garden, a full‑time engineer in the form of Rob Reed, and a new assistant, Paul Kadmon, whose duties include keeping track of previously recorded work. There seems to be as much work coming in as Danny can handle, so I asked him how he arrived at this enviable position.
"Because TV has changed, every composer working for TV has to have their own facility with all the bits and pieces needed to be entirely self‑contained. You have to have a live room, and you have to have all the gear in order to stay ahead of the field. If you keep giving good service, gradually the money comes in; all the money that I've made over the past six or seven years has been ploughed into this studio.
"The studio was designed by Andy Allan, who is a studio designer and owns the Coach House studios in Bristol. I didn't have a huge budget, and there are size limitations, so the acoustic treatment is a compromise, but it all turned out exceedingly well. The job was done properly, because with a project like this, you have to get it right from the beginning, and if you have to spend extra money on getting the right people, then you have to do it."
What was your first TV job?
"It was a children's drama called Snow Spider, where they gave me just a VHS copy to work from — and I had no SMPTE lockup facility. I did all my demos on an 8‑track Fostex, and in those days they gave me the budget to go into the TV studios and record it. At the time, the TV studios didn't have any MIDI facilities at all, so when you went into the studio you had to take absolutely everything with you — it was awful. It was quite embarrassing because it was a major TV programme that got nominated for several awards, and when the director came down to my house, I had to manually start the 8‑track and the VHS together to give him the idea of where the music sat."
Why the move to specialising in cartoons?
"I met a director of animation called Tony Barnes; he did the first series of Shoe People, which was BAFTA nominated, and I asked him if there was any work available. There wasn't, but one day Tony phoned me up to say he was working on a tune for a cartoon idea, and could he come down and work through it with me. We liked each other, got on well, and built up a relationship, and then a year later he was commissioned to do all the Viz cartoons — Billy the Fish, Roger Melly, Syd the Sexist — and he brought me in. That was followed by the music for the second series of Shoe People, and then a commission from Carlton and a French company, PMMP, for Transylvanian Petshop which we're working on now."
What additional equipment do you need to be able to produce music for cartoons?
"The minimum you need is a stereo VHS player, with a frame shuttle/jog wheel, so you can have time code on one audio track and dialogue on the other. We work with the time code recorded at about ‑7VU and the dialogue not above 0VU, otherwise it can crosstalk onto the code and cause reading problems. A sequencer with SMPTE capabilities is needed, and your multitrack recorder must also be able to slave to SMPTE. When we did our first cartoon, we actually did everything on the E16 via a 4030 sync box, which was never very reliable. Now we have a couple of Akai DR4d hard disk recorders, and a Tascam DA88 digital multitrack. Alternatively, I suppose you could use one of the newer MIDI‑plus‑audio sequencers such as Logic Audio or Cubase Audio."
What format is your end product? Obviously it must have at least two audio tracks plus time code, so do you use timecode DAT?
"I used to put it on quarter‑inch with centre time‑code, but I had trouble finding any dubbing facility that had a quarter‑inch machine — they were all using time‑code DAT. At that time, the only time‑code DAT recorder was the Fostex, which cost around five and half grand, which I just couldn't afford, so I used to master onto my Casio DA7 running free, and then line up the start of the music with the appropriate film frame at the dubbing theatre. Most of the time it would stay in sync, or if not, they'd put it into something like an Audiofile so they could resync certain parts."
With more independent people now working in TV sound, is there a standard system of formats and practices emerging, or does it still depend very much on the individual company you're dealing with?
"Some TV companies still expect you to work from U‑Matic, and when you tell them you don't need that, it worries them because they think of VHS as something that isn't professional. But all we're using it for is to sync our equipment, so why go to the expense of a U‑Matic? Any consumer VHS machine will do so long as it has the required jog wheel, but many TV companies don't even have a hi‑fi VHS machine to make up the working tapes, so I have to take a U‑Matic and get it transferred to VHS myself.
"Since we bought the Tascam DA88, we use that for all our final mixes because the dubbing theatre also has several. The good thing about working this way is that if you have two stereo music cues that have to crossfade, you can record these on different pairs of tracks. Most of the time the DA88 is used purely for mastering, though if we're doing a lot of acoustic work, Rob, my engineer, will do a final mix from the Tascam which he'll bounce onto two tracks of the DR4d. Even though we have just 16 tracks, we're not really restricted in any way, though we may well add another DA88 at some time."
Do you find the DR4ds easy to work with?
"Definitely. They're great for cutting and pasting up different cues, and when you're working on a cartoon, you can often use earlier cues after cutting them to length. Everything is frame accurate; we just take the SMPTE location from the TV and use it to punch in the cues. The memory is backed up to DAT after each episode is complete, and that takes a bit of time, but it's not a problem. The actual layout of the machine is straightforward, and it's quick to use."
The studio is currently built around an Allen & Heath GS3 mixing console, though Danny is planning to replace this in the very near future.
"All the facilities on the GS3 are really good, especially when you consider the price, but it's just not robust enough. The front panel is so flimsy that when you press down on the mutes, the panel flexes and you're pressing down on the circuitry underneath. We've had problems with it and there isn't time to get an engineer out to strip it down and fix it. I'm planning to replace it with a Mackie 8‑buss and I'm really looking forward to getting that in. Rob has a Mackie 1604 and the quality is really good.
"For sequencing, I'm still sticking with the Atari running Creator/Notator, and though Logic looks interesting in some areas, we're used to Creator and know we can get the job done, even though we're probably just scratching the surface of what it can do. I just don't have time to go through all the rigmarole of learning a new software package.
"Monitors are the most boring things to buy, but they're also one of the most important things. In my old studio, I had a pair of NS10s which we had some good work out of, but the mixing engineer has to know their limitations and mix by feel, almost. The Dynaudio M1s that we're using now are the best speakers for reference that I've ever worked with — what you hear is what you get, especially now that the room has been acoustically treated. However, I think we also need some larger, full‑range speakers to impress directors when they come in here. We know that our mixes will work on a full‑range system, but the directors don't. I think ATCs are wonderful — that's what they have over at the Coach House — but I think they're outside our budget.
"In the outboard department, we have a Lexicon LXP1, which I love, and a Quadraverb, which is great for certain combination effects. We were using a Korg reverb unit, but it was very crunchy‑sounding and extremely noisy. There's also an old Roland DEP3 which is controlled by real knobs, a Drawmer LX20 and a Yamaha compressor."
There's little unusual about the hardware — other than that this is the first studio I can remember visiting that doesn't have a Drawmer gate — but what's really interesting is the way you work. Because of the speed at which you have to get jobs done, I gather that you work with engineer Rob Reed, who also plays keyboards, rather than trying to do everything yourself.
"Rob's been with me for five or six years now and he's invaluable. One of the things I've learnt is not to let your ego get in the way and insist that you do everything yourself. Rob is a better engineer than I am, and he's also a classically‑trained musician, which means that he can help with arrangements as well as playing the more technically complicated pieces. The current project is a cartoon called Transylvanian Petshop, each episode of which runs for 25 minutes, which is an awfully long time for a cartoon. In total, we have 26 episodes to do. It's aimed at age groups from seven or eight upwards, and it's a four million pound project, with most of the money coming in from France and Germany.
"The main difference between doing a cartoon as opposed to, say, a drama, is that cartoons are always cut quickly. The method I use is to consider the music as almost another character, where the music mirrors the action on‑screen. The music is constantly coming in and out, and the reason there's so much music in cartoons is purely business. Once the TV companies have invested so much money into a cartoon, most of them publish themselves, which means they try to get around 50% of the music publishing. If you consider that on network TV you get around £50 per minute of music, they're going to want to include wall‑to‑wall music, and in a 25‑minute cartoon, there can be as much as 22 to 23 minutes of music.
"The music mustn't be boring, but also it mustn't get in the way of the dialogue in key areas. My three main tools for running the PRS meter, but without getting in the way of the dialogue, are the bassoon, marimba and pizzicato strings. With that you can come in and out of the dialogue, spotting various things, then you can move into bigger productions to vary the dynamics of the cartoon. The instrumentation is a mish‑mash of classical and pop styles — it's a spoof horror cartoon, so there are pipe organs with diminished chords, but the French also like rock music, so in a couple of sequences, we've used rock tracks. There's also a CD to be made of the music, so we're having to work on that at the same time. The cartoons were written without the songs in mind, which makes it all the more difficult to write them in.
"Because of all the fast video cuts, you don't even have to cut musically. There is no problem with chopping a piece of music dead to come in with another item. In drama, you tend to segue between two sections, but with cartoons it's really cut and paste, which is where the DR4ds come in. You just have to look at the SMPTE numbers on the screen, lock in the cue and you're there. For example, if you want a brass stab when somebody gets punched on the nose, you can position it spot on.
"With cartoons there's somebody else working on the sound effects, which I never get to see. That makes it difficult, because you're working to a video that's only got dialogue — you have no idea what the effects are going to be, so sometimes you can write a piece of music, filling in all the gaps, and then you find the effects guy has already taken care of it. Usually it works, but sometimes, when you get to the dub, you find that it doesn't and something has to be changed."
Presumably this means the sound effects guy has to ensure that his effects aren't musically pitched, otherwise this could lead to some awful discords?
"That's right, but occasionally something does clash. Conversely, there have been occasions where I've assumed a space was going to be filled by a sound effect, and the sound effects guy has assumed that the space was going to be filled with music, so there's been a bloody great gap. Now I fill everything and they can take what they want. In an ideal world, it would be great to put all your musical spot effects on a separate track, so that during dubbing they could use what they like, but in reality there isn't time. Everything we do is mixed to stereo, with the spot effects dynamically mixed so they'll always be louder than the rest of the music. The volume in cartoons goes up and down anyway; you can be midway through a track, really loud, and then the dialogue comes in and the music level is pulled right down. We try to anticipate this, but we've ultimately no idea of how it's actually gong to be mixed.
"The composer always gets the worst deadline, because they'll say when the deadline is going to be for the dubbing session, which may be in a month's time. Then we'll find out that they've screwed up some shots, so it has to go back to the Far East to have the shots redone, and then it comes back and the time code has been corrupted... in the end, everybody else can fall down on their deadline, but the composer never can because he's at the end of the line. There have been times on this job when there have been delays leaving us with three or four days to compose, record and mix one episode, which is almost unworkable when you consider that you still have to get the session players in, show them their parts and do the recording.
"We work with top class musicians who know what we want, so we don't have to score everything out for them — they come in to busk — but when we're working close to a deadline, it becomes more expensive, because instead of planning a session where the musicians can put down their parts for maybe four episodes, you're working on one episode at a time. The bass player works to the music tracks only, while the players doing spot effects, such as violin or sax, will work with a TV monitor. We'll also record a range of bass guitar notes so that if we do have to shorten a musical phrase to match a picture cut, we can add the appropriate note to finish it.
"You also get the situation where a director comes down and tells you what he wants, and then he comes back a day before the dub to check what you've done, and he doesn't like it. Then you've only got one day left to sort it out. And some directors are really unhelpful; he'll maybe say he wants it funky, so you do something funky, but what he meant was that he wanted a dance track, so he plays you a Shamen track and asks for something like that. So you do something like that, and he says he hates organ sounds. You're thinking, 'The Shamen use organ sounds', but you try a different pad sound — and he still doesn't like it, because to him, that's an organ too! In the end you do everything you can to keep him happy, because at the end, he's paying the bill. You might feel like losing your temper, but you just have to keep a fixed smile on your face and keep going."
"There was a time when you had to mix for TV using a small speaker to make sure it would sound OK, but now so many people have stereo TV that we mix everything full‑range, stereo, just as you would for music. But because there are still so many mono TVs around, we have to check everything for mono compatibility.
"We dub at Taran in Cardiff, and I've asked them their opinion on the mixes, and all credit to Rob, they've said his mixes are the clearest they've ever heard. The only thing they might do is add a touch of top with their Calrec desk. Taran are now building their Dolby surround setup, so that's something else to think about in the future. It's not practical to put a full Dolby system in here, but this is where the DA88s are going to come into their own; what we're going to do is to mix everything onto five discrete tape tracks representing the centre, left/right and rear left/right signals. Most of the mix would be centre front or front left/right, but there are various odds and sods, effects and reverb that would work well in surround. All we need to put in is a five‑speaker system, where we can mix by assigning separate subgroups to the different speakers. Then, when the tape goes to Taran, they can encode it into Dolby."
A typical application might be to use the insert send (patchbay top socket) to feed an effects unit, which could then be returned into a spare mixer channel. This saves using up valuable aux sends on occasions where the effect is only needed on one channel. Incidentally, this is also one of the quietest ways to feed effects; the only proviso is that you remember the insert point is pre‑fader, so if you need the effect level to change when the fader is adjusted, return the effect to an adjacent channel and move both faders together.
- Casio FZ1 Sampling Keyboard
- Korg M1
- Roland Juno 106
- Yamaha DX7 (x2)
- Akai S900 Sampler
- Akai VX90
- Alesis D4 Drum Module
- Cheetah MS6
- Emu Proteus 1, 2 & 3
- Emu Vintage Keys Plus
- Emu Morpheus
- Ensoniq SQR Plus
- Kawai K1M
- Kurzweil 1000 PX Plus
- Oberheim Matrix 1000
- Roland D110
- Roland U220
- Aiwa XDS‑1100 DAT Recorder
- Akai DR4d Hard Disk Recorder (x2)
- AKG C414 and D12 Mics
- Allen & Heath GS3 32:32:8:2 Mixer
- Atari 1040ST & Emagic Notator SL
- Casio DA7 DAT Recorder
- Dynaudio M1 Monitors
- Fostex E2 Tape Recorder
- Harman Kardon CD491 Cassette Deck
- Neumann U87 Mic
- Shure SM58 Mic (x4)
- Tascam DA88 Digital 8‑track
EFFECTS & PROCESSORS
- AKG Spring Reverb (very old!)
- ART HD15 Graphic EQ
- Award Sessionmaster Preamp
- Boss RDD10 Digital Delay
- Drawmer LX20 Compressor
- Korg DRV2000 Digital Reverb
- Lexicon LXP1 Reverb/effects
- Mesa Engineering V‑Twin Preamp
- Nomad Axxeman Preamp
- Roland DEP3 Digital Effects
- Yamaha GC2020B Compressor/Limiter
- Admira Spanish Guitar
- Fender Stratocaster (Limited Edition)
- Fender Acoustic Guitar
- Godin LR Baggo 12‑String Guitar
- Paiste Cymbals
- Premier Fusion Drum Kit
- Various World Percussion
- Alba & Philips TV Monitors
- Panasonic NV‑FS100 HQ Hi‑fi Stereo Video
As Danny is foremost a guitar player, I asked him about the array of guitar preamps in the studio and what he thought of them.
"The first guitar processor I bought was a Nomad Axxeman; I just loved the overdrive sound and the uncomplicated way it worked. It also has one really nice clean sound. Rob later introduced me to the Award Sessionmaster, which I was also really pleased with, because you could get a pretty authentic blues sound out of it, but when I wanted something with a bit more bollocks, it sounded rather thin in the 'chunk' area. Then I read Vic Lennard's review of the Boogie V2 in Sound On Sound and thought it looked stunning. So I went down to Cranes in Cardiff, tried one out — and that was it. I love the sound of it, having a blue light on the Blues channel is fantastic, and having a little red LED to illuminate the valves is a nice touch. The sound blows the other two away if you want that fat, American rock guitar sound. Now I'll have to practise my guitar!"
"For orchestral stuff, the Proteus 2 is great; we have the Proteus 1, 2 and 3, plus the Vintage keys, which I think are 'musts' for this work. Having said that, the fact that everyone has the same gear means there's a risk of everyone sounding the same. But what we try to do is always use a real bass player, and a real solo instrument, whatever the solo instrument is at the time. Anyone who imagines that they can get something that sounds like a real solo violin player from something like a Proteus 2 is just kidding themselves. The problem with all these sample players is that you start to think they're the be‑all and end‑all, but they're not. You can get away with harmoniums and things like that, but with solo woodwind, you're stuck — though the bassoon on the Proteus is very good. Sample players are fine for ensembles, pizzicato strings, pads, and so on.
"There are so many things you can do in a cartoon with real instruments — a violinist can do scratches and odd noises that you just can't get from anywhere else. And with bass sounds, samples are so clean they tend to sound thin when compared with the real thing. A lot of our budget goes on musicians, but they're worth it.
"The Morpheus was recommended to me by Paul Wiffen, and when you're doing a drama, it can get you out of trouble on a long cue where you don't want to sit down and compose a piece of proper music lasting perhaps a minute and a half. If you want to express something like tension, you can hold one key and the sound will start morphing and moving around — it adds so much atmosphere. I wouldn't say it was necessary as part of the basic setup — it's more like icing on the cake.
"The Roland U220 and D110 are still here because I don't like selling anything, and most things have one or two good sounds in them. The U220 has a sound that's similar to a Mellotron but cleaner, and we use that a lot, plus there are a couple of other odds and ends, such as grunge guitar and strings. I like the drum kit on D110, but it's a bloody noisy synth — the early Rolands have this kind of fuzz on everything.
"I adore the old Kurzweil 1000 PX, and though there may only be a few sounds on there that we use, it's absolutely superb. I also think the Ensoniq SQR is vastly underrated, and I feel that it helps to have as many different makes of synth as possible when it comes to mixing your sounds. We do quite a bit of layering.
"Our Akai sampler is still an S900 which no longer samples, but we have a large library of samples for it. There's also an old Akai VX90, which is just used for cartoons where a grungy, outer‑space character is needed. The Oberheim Matrix 1000 is good for weird noises too, but it also has some sounds that can really cut through. Everything is so big and fat on it, and the bass sounds are huge — I just love it and I'd like to have two. Other analogue sounds come from a Cheetah MS6. Then there's an old Casio FZ1 sampler, which really is a good‑sounding machine.
"On the keyboard rack there's a Juno 106, which I love because it has fader controls. Recently I was working on a cartoon that needed a sound effect for a dolphin, a kind of clicking sound, and within a few seconds, I got what I wanted. We also have two of the older DX7s, which still produce some classic sounds, including the harmonica, and a Kawai K1 which I used to think of as a poor man's D50 — in cartoon work, it's really useful for toy pianos and bells.
"The main keyboard is the M1, which I think is one of the best keyboards that's ever been made — it's a classic instrument and has so many good sounds."
Danny Chang is managed by Zomba Music Services, which was launched in the UK to serve the television, film and advertising communities, operating in conjunction with its sister office in Los Angeles. Zomba's Richard Kirstien explains the role of the company and offers a degree of insight into the animation marketplace.
"ZMS acts as a channel through which clients can source products and services from any Zomba Group company, be it published songs from the ZMPL catalogue or recorded material on either Jive or Silvertone Records. We also represent a roster of specialist composers who produce commissioned soundtracks for feature films, TV series and commercials.
"In mid‑May, Cardiff played host to the International Animation Festival, a bi‑annual event organised in collaboration with CARTOON (European Association of Animation Film). The mood was felt by many delegates to be bullish and optimistic, with many pan‑European projects already completed and more in development. CARTOON, a key industry organisation, promotes the grouping of European studios who want to pool their creative, technical and financial potential. CARTOON's intention is to consolidate the European position on the world animation market by supporting the development of such large groups in the face of competition from the American and Jpanese giants.
"The above highlights the necessity to withstand pressure from the US studios who would wish to Americanise British/European productions as a condition of financial input. Changes deemed necessary to make a UK series palatable to the American market may include amendments to voice‑overs, music, and even graphic character. The future growth of the UK animation industry depends upon the promotion of its very Britishness as a distinct national style to separate it from US rivals. Great headway has already been made by Bristol‑based Aardman Animations, with Nick Park's Oscar‑winning The Wrong Trousers. Pan‑European collaborations further advance this cause as championed by Michael Forte, Head of Children's Programmes at Carlton Television. Animated series Transylvanian Petshop, as commissioned by Forte, brought together the forces of Welsh director Tony Barnes (of Fairwater Films), leading French Production Company PMMP and Zomba composer Danny Chang. These joint collaborators are currently in production on Transylvanian Petshop, which is scheduled for UK network broadcast this year."