Composition runs in David Newman's family, and he's become one of Hollywood's most sought-after writers of music for film.
Given his family background, it seems inevitable that David Newman would become a composer. Son of legendary composer Alfred Newman, David is also brother to composer Thomas Newman, cousin to Randy Newman, nephew to composers Emil and Lionel Newman and cousin to composer Joey Newman. Though trained as a violinist and conductor, David now spends the majority of his time composing film scores and was nominated for an Oscar for his score to the 1997 animated film Anastasia. His more recent work includes Scooby-Doo and Ice Age, but the list is huge and includes many of the lighter Eddie Murphy films, the excellent Galaxy Quest, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead, Throw Momma From The Train and Critters.
Most of David's scores are for orchestra or a combination of orchestra and electronic sounds. The main body of the composing work is done at David's home studio near Malibu in California, where David works with engineer/technical guru Marty Frasu who ensures that the studio runs smoothly. Indeed, David and Marty work so closely together that during the interview they ended up answering each other's questions and finishing each other's sentences — they clearly function as a very efficient unit, which is just as well given that some film scores have to be completed in only a couple of weeks. The building contains separate rooms for composing and mixing.
"Primarily the studio is based around a Logic/Pro Tools TDM system using the Emagic TDM Bridge so that we can run both Logic and TDM plug-ins," explains David. "The main samplers are Gigasamplers running on six PCs fitted with removable drives for backup. They're fitted with 120GB drives and we fill them all up with samples — five of them are used for orchestral samples, with the remaining one handling any other stuff. We may need to expand this further, because every time a new library comes out, we have to reconsider what we're doing. We also do a lot of in-house work with the samples, combining elements from different libraries to provide the best orchestral sounds we can. The Logic Environment is set up so that the whole orchestra is available, but what's weird about this is that Gigasampler isn't yet able to do what we did on our Roland hardware samplers, which is set several different parts to the same MIDI channel. We're hoping this will be addressed in an imminent update. Each PC is identical and all are fitted with RME Hammerfall cards which have both lightpipe and analogue outputs. There's no real mixer any more — we have a Mackie 3204, but that's really just for monitoring. All the sequenced parts are ultimately saved as audio tracks and mixing takes place in the Pro Tools TDM environment. All the hardware synths and Gigastudio PCs return into ADAT Bridges and 1622 interfaces. That way you get the mix balanced in Logic the way you want it, you save it and you're good.
"I have a Logic Control and expansion unit, which is all kind of new. It's very nice but there's also a kind of obtuseness to it. Also, when you're used to controlling Logic from the mouse and screen, then all of a sudden the control is over here, you've got to readjust your thinking. It's necessary for me to be able to work really fast — almost like touch-typing. I have my sampled orchestra already set up in my Logic default song so I can just start playing, and the video is running slaved to Logic so I can use Logic's markers to identify cuts and cue points. I work through the project in a serial manner, writing as I go along. Pro Tools is great for recording and editing audio, but I write in Logic and then when we're done and the director signs off on everything, we make audio files of everything — of all the synths that won't be replaced by the orchestra. From then on we work in Pro Tools.
"I come from a notation-based classical music background as a violinist and conductor and originally I would orchestrate all my own scores — I had no orchestrator at all. Then, because of the schedules, I started using an orchestrator. Now, I can get a score 70 to 80 percent orchestrated within Logic — Logic has a scoring facility, but it's not really professional enough to print. When I'm done and the director is happy with the cue and the scene is locked, I will do one of three things. Either I will print out my Logic score, which is somewhere in between an orchestration and a sketch, or I will stay within Logic, then send the piece to an orchestrator who will import a MIDI file of the cues into Finale, which is what the copyists use, then whatever issues need to be dealt with by the orchestrator will be handled before it is sent to the copyist. Because orchestral music generally varies in tempo throughout, I spend a lot of time using Logic's Rebar feature to create the correct tempo map for what I've played so the score will look right. I don't think Logic handles this as well as Digital Performer.
"I have actually orchestrated some cues using only Logic and had parts printed from it, but it doesn't look very good and it's difficult to print up the standard 9 x12 score sheets. It's lacking quite a few professional features — it's bad with uneven meters such as triplet meters, and you can't even step-enter them. It's also impossible to have different parts playing the same bars in different time signatures, which is sometimes necessary for avant garde things. However, since Apple bought Emagic, I'm hoping that they will continue to improve the scoring aspects of the program to at least make it good enough for academic and commercial use, something session players can work from. If they did that, I probably wouldn't use an orchestrator. I have to orchestrate everything anyway, insomuch as I have to mock up every cue using samples so that I can sell it to the director with the video going."
Although the orchestral elements in a David Newman score will ultimately be recorded by real musicians, it's important to demo them with a realistic sampled orchestral representation so that the director has a good idea how the finished thing will sound. I asked David to describe his sample library: "I've got just about every orchestral library there is, and I mix and match samples to get what I think sounds best for different situations. My legato strings, for example, are made up of four different layers from four different libraries. I think we've bought almost everything — all of Dan Dean's stuff, tons of Ilio and Spectrasonics, but it took several months to put together the orchestral samples that sound good and then layer them so they were easy to play. I use the expression pedal to go from very dark to very bright and the volume pedal to add dynamics.
"The setup is liable to change every few months as new libraries come along. For example, this new Vienna orchestral library looks very interesting, but I haven't heard it yet. Apparently it includes all the legato intervals as separate samples, which is a pretty cool thing to do. For example, if you go from an A to an F sharp on the D string on a violin, that's a different sound from using your fourth finger on the A string. If they've got it right and the voices can really speak that fast, I will be really interested because it's hard to do staccato and other fast things like that."
When the time comes to have a real orchestra replace David's sequenced orchestral parts, he uses his own mobile Pro Tools rig, which he brings down to the film sound stage. "I always have lots of electronic tracks, so once the orchestral side is complete, I'll make a stereo mix of all my synth elements as an AIFF file," explains David. "I can't time-stamp this, which is another bugaboo for us right now — we haven't got the OMF thing sorted out yet — so Marty has to take the file and place it at the correct SMPTE location in Pro Tools. Then he puts it into our mobile Pro Tools HD system, which goes to the sound stage where we record the orchestra. While they play, my synth tracks play along. If something changes at that stage, then either we'll edit it there and then, redo the orchestra stuff, or we'll just go back and do it another day. Things get changed all the way through the dub, and actually things change to an almost ridiculous degree. It's not the fault of the directors so much, but rather the system itself and the process."
"One of the biggest advantages of taking the Pro Tools rig down to the stage is that although the music is recorded in one piece, we may do a couple of takes, so we can edit together a best final take right there in front of the director," adds Marty.
"I don't really understand why other composers don't work this way," continues David. "Because everything is non-linear, we can jump to any section of the recording to replace a section or do a pick-up. It's so easy and so fast, and as Marty said, we use the AVI option in Pro Tools so the picture is always there, and if you mess up a take, you go back and in 20 seconds you're done rather than waiting minutes for separate machines to lock up. It doesn't look professional when you're waiting two minutes every time for the audio and video to lock up, and of course wasted time with an orchestra is extremely expensive. Add up the wasted time over the course of a day and it could be 45 minutes — which equates to around 20 or 30 grand!"
The 'mobility' of David's Pro Tools setup is strictly relative — it resembles a very large wardrobe, and you can't just pop it in the back of the car. "We get these big cartage guys — they show up, they push everyone out of the way, they roll it into the studio and it's the same thing on the way back!" laughs David. "The system we had before that was a little more conventional — we had a Euphonix desk, racks of outboard gear, we'd rent a tape machine and it took an entire day to set up. I remember being absolutely exhausted, but with this rack, we can hook up the audio with a couple of ELCOs, plug the power into the wall and I'm away."
Marty adds: "A lot of it comes down to intellectual planning. Everything is Pro Tools — we have a Pro Control control surface when we're mixing here, but down on the sound stage, the Pro Tools rig is just working as a tape recorder. They have a huge SSL console on the Fox Studios Newman sound stage — there's only four or five places you go to record anyway and we can hook into their systems easily. We have been talking about using some out-of-town facilities, in which case we're going to have to talk about ways we can do that.
"Some people are still reluctant to use hard disk recorders because they think they're less reliable than tape, but we've worked at the Newman sound stage a lot and the Sony 3348 digital tape machine they had was always breaking down. As a backup, we take along a couple of Tascam 24-track HD recorders, so in an emergency, if anything went horribly wrong, we could pull the drive out of the Pro Tools system and drop it into the Tascam machine and keep on working. We've never had to do it yet but I've tested it to see if it works and it's OK.
"A lot of the smooth running has to do with file management and backing up — it's a whole different paradigm to tape. I've already talked about the unmanageability of doing it the old way, and as you rightly pointed out, it's a moving target. This is the only we we know to manage everything in a way that doesn't send us crazy!"
One of the characteristic features of David Newman's work is its juxtaposition of classical, orchestral elements with synths and non-orchestral samples. "To me, every score is a hybrid score because I try to use some electronic elements in everything," he explains. "They may be electronic but I just think of them as other sounds — as an extension of the orchestral sound set. If you sat down and listened to something I've done, you might not notice the electronic parts that much, but there's usually more going on than there appears. If I pulled out the electronic elements, it would probably sound as though something was missing, but when they are in, it's not always obvious that I'm using sampled or synthesized elements. This is the advantage of working the way I do — the reality is that I orchestrate and listen to all the electronic parts as I go. If I need something in a certain range or with a certain texture or colour, I might solve that issue by using an electronic instrument. In a typical movie, maybe 90 percent of my cues will include electronic elements, but usually their contribution will be subtle unless the movie demands something more electronic-sounding. There was a movie I did recently called Brokedown Palace which was set in Thailand, and that needed some more exotic sounds — and there were quite a lot of electronic elements in Scooby-Doo. Because that's essentially a kids movie, the score included a lot of beats and rhythm elements.
"I did a film very early on called Heathers, which was a very popular American film with an all-electronic score, and I did approach it completely differently to my orchestral compositions. I approached it really minimally, but in the main it's not what I get to do. However, I do often start doing orchestral cues with electronic sounds and there was one — a Danny DeVito film I did recently called Death To Smoochy, which did really poorly at the box office, even though I think it is a terrific movie — that appears to be all orchestral, but there are lots of sounds that are not orchestral, like growling, mean and toy-like sounds. I built the orchestral parts around that.
"I'm a violinist and received an undergraduate degree from USC in Los Angeles, and I vividly remember rehearsing Stravinsky's Petroushka when I was at college where the bass clarinet wasn't there because he was sick or something, and it was as if the bottom was gone. And that really stuck with me — each sound has its own place, and if there's an electronic element, it means you don't necessarily need to have an orchestral element."
If a composer writes with sounds he knows, such as the orchestra, then the need to audition samples is relatively limited. However, when working with a large library of electronic sounds, it's vital to have them organised in such a way that they can easily be auditioned and incorporated into a session. "Because I have so many sample libraries, it would take an age to try them all, so Marty has put all my sample libraries into iTunes as MP3 files and then categorised them so I can audition the different sounds very quickly using what we call our 'beat browser' to search," explains David. "It's like a musical database that you can cross-reference from your laptop without actually having to load any samples. You find something inspiring that leads to something else and it grows, then you get to a point where you know where you're going with it.
"I don't have all my hardware synth sounds in iTunes, but I think all this hardware is going away at some point. I have my setup arranged so all the synth patches come back when I open a song, but it's easier with plug-in instruments — with hardware, you have to keep track of whether you've edited a patch or not, then decide how to save it. I can pull up any of the software instruments we have and you get a great user interface — you're not wandering though menus wondering where the filter settings are. There's a case for having hardware synths with a plug-in style interface so you can drive them from your monitor and mouse.
"Having said that about hardware, we are using the Roland VP9000 and we still use our Akai samplers — which are good for working where all the elements of a Spectrasonics Groove Control loop are split out separately. I particularly like the way the Groove Control loops leave space for you to put your other instruments and sounds. Some of the stuff out there is so busy that there's no room to add anything else. Noise Box and Stark Raving Beats work really well with the elements split out. As well as those two, we used Skippy's Big Bad Beats all through Scooby-Doo. Stylus is also good for variable-tempo things — all that elastic tempo stuff is great. It wonderful to be able to take something at one tempo and use it at a very different tempo, and I've also used the VP9000 a lot — for example, I did a movie called Bedazzled, which had a whole section of flamenco guitar, and I had to accelerate it to match the tempo of all the foot-stomping on the video."
When it comes to software instruments, David also has his favourites: "I'll tell you what I'm in love with — that Emagic Clavinet. It sounds so cool. I just got the OS X version and it's inspiring. Their electric piano is also very nice and I think the Native Instruments B4 is great. My great concern at the moment is that when I start piling up all these virtual instrument and plug-ins as well as the video, the computer is going to reach its limits. Hopefully they will let you chain up a bunch of those XServe rackmount Macs to get around this. I'd like the whole system to be scalable. OK, you have to learn how to use the software, but beyond that, the technology should just disappear — the technology should be transparent. I don't want to have to think about anything other than my musical ideas."
Both the composition and mixing rooms at David's studio are equipped with surround monitoring systems. The mix room is again based around a big Pro Tools system, but this time controlled from a large Pro Control work surface. The removable drives from the mobile system can be slotted in here, whereupon the orchestral recordings plus the synth tracks (saved as audio tracks) can be mixed into five-channel surround plus any discrete tracks that may be needed for break-outs. The recording system can output up to 64 discrete tracks at once.
"Before we had this, a cue would take me an hour to burn to audio," says David. "Now, we put the whole cue in a Logic folder, spread it over a few drives and do everything in one pass with all the plug-ins and everything. I need to print everything with the plug-ins active, which is something I'm a little on the fence about because ultimately, I think I'd prefer not to print with plug-in effects, but there's no way to get the plug-ins from here to the mix. You could print each track twice, once with plug-ins and once without, but then you have to explain to the engineer what the plug-in was that you used and what it was doing. I'm sure this issue is not unique to me. Perhaps there should be some form of read-only plug-in that you could send along with your projects allowing the engineer to make final adjustments at the other end — or at least something that saves the plug-in screen graphics so the engineer has some idea of what you used and what settings you had. We can't do that so I print everything except the reverb. It's important — if you move a project from one Pro Tools studio to another and the second studio doesn't have the same plug-in, what do you do?
"When I'm done with a couple of cues, I burn a CD of the audio files and give it to Marty. This is where the OMF thing comes in. We still haven't got it to work exactly the way we'd like it, but ideally, we'd OMF it into our Pro Tools Session."
David Newman already has one of the most impressive track records in Hollywood, but he shows no sign of relaxing just yet. "As you've probably noticed, most of the films I've done are pretty light-hearted and it would be nice to do more of a variety of styles," he says. "However, in this business, one does tend to be asked to compose for one particular genre over another. You do tend to get typecast. About 20 percent of the films I have done have been dramatic or art movies, but the films that have been the most successful are romantic comedies or just outright comedies. I would like to do more films where I have a bit more freedom to experiment with this synthesis of orchestral and electronic melding. I find that element to be one of the most interesting aspects of scoring for films."