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Mark Russell: Writing Music For Radio Shows

Interview | Composer By Nick Magnus
Published April 1995

Though Mark Russell's work includes writing for film, TV and commercials, as well as big‑name tour arranging and musical backup, he's probably best known currently for his lavish music for the Radio One super‑hero series, Batman, Superman, and Spiderman. Nick Magnus was invited to Mark's home studio to talk about his gear and working methods.

Regular listeners to Radio One may well be acquainted with the recent series of DC Comic inspired, dramatised episodes of Superman, Batman and, currently, Spiderman, broadcast each day as part of the Mark Goodier Show. These three‑minute 'audio films' are accompanied by extremely sophisticated, lavish‑sounding music scores reminiscent of big‑budget Hollywood movies. The man behind this music is Mark Russell, a composer and musician whose list of past achievements indicates versatility, variety, and the fact that he is in popular demand by TV, radio and video producers alike. Mark's musical history also includes live work: namely Tanita Tikaram's 1988 world tour, a recent European tour for Julia Fordham, and musical arrangements, concert tours and a recent album for the acclaimed Chinese flautist, Guo Yue. Not being prone to inactivity, Mark also co‑presents Radio 3's broad‑spectrum music show Mixing It, now in its fourth year. Classically trained, he was a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral until the age of 13, and gained a BA (Hons) in Music & Film and Composition at York University. I set off on a splendidly sunny January morning to interview Mark in his home‑based, South London studio to find out how he achieves these impressive sounding productions.

Convincing Orchestrations

The large‑scale orchestral scores featured in the Superman, Batman and Spiderman radio dramatisations are superbly crafted and realised. How are they accomplished, and what led you down that path?

"I've spent a long time working on this, due to the demand from TV and commercial producers for orchestral scores. The budget is rarely available for the real thing, so the need was there to at least demo it up accurately. It all started when I got my first Roland S750, but straight away the things I wanted to do were limited by the polyphony of just the one instrument. I subsequently got an SP700 and, later on, an S760, to overcome this problem. It took three years or so to collect my sound library from various sources, and I now have a system where, by utilising the full memory capacity of each sampler, I can spread the entire orchestra between all three. Using Cubase on the Mac, I have the screen set up like a piece of orchestral score paper, with all the instruments listed vertically. All I have to do is click on the instrument I want, and it's ready to go. In the case of these Radio 1 audio film series, they wanted it to sound like a Hollywood film score, but they didn't have the budget, so that's what really prompted me to develop the orchestral simulations, using the samplers."

So the samplers have a ready‑made orchestral setup that loads up in the same way every time?

"Yes, but it took a long time to develop and refine, and I still modify it now and again. Previously I was using the S750 (with 18Mb) and the SP700 (with 32Mb), but I was still limited to shortish samples to get everything in. When I got the S760, with its additional 32Mb, the difference in terms of realism was astounding — it gave the extra edge. I could now have, say, flute or clarinet patches that were 25 or 30 seconds long, as opposed to only four or eight seconds before. Timpani, for instance, need multisamples at various velocities crossfading each other, as well as real, sampled rolls which have been well looped. That's very important. It may seem an obvious thing to say, but memory is the key."

Presumably you make extensive use of sample libraries.

"I would say that the Roland sample library provides the mainstay of the whole setup. Because the orchestral side of things is my main work, I've spent quite a bit on library CDs. I have the Roland Orchestral Percussion and Winds, and the Denny Jaeger and Pro Sonus Strings CDs, amongst others, but I find myself returning to the Roland library much of the time. I've also collected a fair amount of specially created material which is otherwise unavailable and therefore unique."

Having assembled the desired orchestra, are there any sound treatments you employ to add to the sense of realism?

"You do need a really good reverb to create the impression of a concert hall, and for that I use a Lexicon PCM70, which is excellent for providing the right space. I've spent a lot of time learning to get a real sense of spatial depth, so the timpani sound further back than the violins, just as you would hear them in a real life situation. Some people try it using different reverbs, but I think I'm getting there... it can be quite tricky. I'll probably get a PCM80, but I think I'll keep the PCM70... I love it too much!"

Given the opportunity, do you use real musicians?

"Oh, yes, in every case. If somebody gives me the budget, I could either use a real player or keep the money for myself. But I go for the player every time. Samples are only a simulation, a snapshot of one moment in time. In virtually every case the real instrument will be better. For example, I used a cello on a commercial I did for Danone yoghurt. To reproduce all those articulations and nuances with the sampler would take up so much memory and take so long to do, and ultimately it would sound much worse than a good cellist's performance. This particular guy was the principle cellist of the LSO... you just show him the music, he plays it perfectly straight off and you think, wow! I love real musicians! Working with other musicians means that, even if they play exactly what you've written, they can transform it in ways you could never have come up with. In many ways you're limited by your own playing style and your own frames of reference."

When the budget forces you to go it alone, are there any other aspects you feel to be important to the successful simulation of an orchestra?

"Without any doubt, MIDI controllers are essential. I use so much MIDI volume... I just couldn't do without it. If you think about it, an orchestral instrument never plays at the same amplitude throughout the course of a note. It has phrasing and dynamics, which are so important to breathe life into it. The problem with a lot of so‑called orchestral modules, which I dislike on the whole, is that they just don't sound realistic even with the use of MIDI volume messages. The Roland samples, on the other hand, together with careful use of LFOs, respond beautifully. Beyond the technical aspects, I rarely quantise any of the orchestral instruments. Orchestras seldom play in time, so it's all played in by hand with only occasional note shifting as a correctional measure. You also have to consider if the instrument in question is being asked to perform something that is actually possible, like playing within its true range, for example. Getting the right combination of instruments is also important. It's strange but sometimes there's an instrument patch which sounds marvellous on its own, but it doesn't sit well when added to the orchestra. It's sometimes a case of the less impressive sounding patch being the one that actually works best. I listen to and study a lot of Hollywood film scores to hear how the orchestrations work and to make sure I'm on the right track. My time in the St Paul's Choir School when I was young also provided some really good training. Having said that, I don't think that a classical training is actually necessary; you just need a good pair of ears. There are friends of mine who can put together very good orchestrations without any sort of classical training. If you print out your score from the sequencer, you can always get someone to look it over and check for mistakes or inconsistencies."

In theory, if the score sounds good with the samples, it will sound even better with the real thing...

"That's the theory... although, curiously, I did a score for LWT, which was played by a chamber orchestra. It sounded OK, but the strings just didn't have enough bite. We ended up adding the sampled strings together with some of the sampled percussion to beef it up, and it sounded great. You wouldn't know, listening to it, that there were samples playing, but it's just got more edge to it. Sometimes the two work really well together. You do have to be careful, though, because you can sometimes cancel out all the good things about the real instrument by adding the sampled one. The good thing about synths is that you can try something out, and if it doesn't work, fine — you don't use it. It's never written in stone."

Do you use other controllers aside from MIDI volume?

"Occasionally, yes. The Yamaha SY99, which is also my master keyboard, is useful in that it has three wheels which can be assigned to do whatever you want. This is great for organ sounds, switching between slow and fast Leslie, for instance. I sometimes control filter cutoff frequencies this way, especially with some of the orchestral percussion sounds, and on the samplers you can crossfade between samples using a wheel. Generally, I stick to MIDI volume mostly, as I have to work quickly, and setting up anything else can be quite time consuming. Velocity is the other essential means of control; most of the timbral changes I do are dealt with using velocity switching or crossfading."

Are there any sounds that present a problem to simulate realistically?

"With these simulated Hollywood film scores, the brass is probably the most important thing. My S760 is almost totally given over to brass samples. For example, it's loaded with several types of french horn; solo, velocity switched, muted, sforzando, swoops, swells... and it all takes a lot of memory. Difficult sounds to imitate on a keyboard, like string section trills, glissandos and tremolando, need lots of multisamples of the real thing in order to work across the entire range, and I use all these effects, often velocity switched in combination with normal performances, to enhance the sense of realism."

Radio Times

When you write the music for an episode of Spiderman, how do you go about synchronising the music to the action? Being an audio‑only production, there is no picture — is there some sort of timecode involved?

"No, there is no timecode as such. I receive a DAT with about 20 episodes on it, and these have all the dialogue and sound effects, mixed in Surround Sound. I digitally copy the relevant episode into Pro Tools, including a sync 'plop' at the start of the episode, indicating a known start point. Then, running Cubase Audio, the dialogue and effects are locked to the sequencer, and I can record the music in perfect sync. I then mix the music onto DAT, including the sync 'plop', so the director can lay it into the original soundtrack as he sees fit. Since there are no measurable speed fluctuations, it all matches up perfectly."

Are there any special points to take into consideration when writing music for these shows?

"Well, you have to pay careful attention to the frequencies of what's going on because it's so busy, there are so many sound effects and voices. You have to do the instrumentation in such a way as not to obscure frequencies that are already used up. I give each character a motif, something that doesn't conflict with the sound of their voice. A deep voice wouldn't have a bass trombone, for example; instead you find a sound that complements it."

When composing, do you start out with a basic guide track which you arrange later, or do the arrangements evolve along with the music?

"I use both methods. In order to keep yourself fresh and interested, you have to do things different ways all the time. With commercials, which are normally 30 seconds, you may have to put across as many as six different moods in that time, whilst still managing to hit all the frame‑accurate points that occur. The composition has to be incredibly tight, so a bar and tempo map with all the appropriate tempo changes has to be constructed from the start. In those cases, given that known themes have to be incorporated, I'd then lay down a guide piano and orchestrate on the top of that. With Spiderman, I tend to work it out as I go along. That way you can come up with some interesting spontaneous orchestrations that you might not have considered if you were scoring it out on manuscript paper first. To speed things along, I keep a stock of ideas, and by the first 20 episodes I've probably accumulated most of the material I'm going to use, which is necessary anyway to maintain continuity."

The scores sound very complex — how long does each episode take to complete?

"I may have to do as many as five Spiderman episodes in a day, so I have to work quickly — it's quite a rigorous schedule, when you consider there are 50 episodes for each series. And it's pretty much wall‑to‑wall music. That's getting on for 150 minutes of music, most of which is completely original. I save files of every episode, so if there is a recurring theme I can load up an episode which used it before and cut and paste it in. The timings do vary, though, so some themes may have five or six versions saved, of differing lengths, that I can call on to reshape and re‑orchestrate as necessary. Often it's easier to write new things anyway."

The Spiderman theme has some rather familiar sounding guitar on it...

"Yes, in actual fact, the theme was written by Brian May of Queen. I spent some time in his studio adding orchestral sounds to it, and the engineer gave me MIDI files together with guitar stings, stabs and solos, wild on DAT. I've loaded them into Pro Tools, so I can spin them in whenever the occasion demands."

Essential Gear

Your choice of instruments seems to cover all bases, yet it's enviably compact. Is there a philosophy behind this?

"I don't like equipment hanging around that I don't use, so as soon as I stop using it I tend to sell it. Everything in the studio is something I use all the time."

Of the gear you use, what could you simply not live without?

"Well, the samplers, obviously. And I love the Korg Wavestation — I've been getting into programming it, and it's great. For setting up atmospheres, particularly in soundtrack work, the Wavestation is fabulous. The SY99 is also a favourite. Because I made a point of learning how to program the DX7 when it first came out, I find the SY99 incredibly easy to use as a result."

What other instruments do you use?

"There's the Emu Proformance piano module, which, for the money, is stunning, and the Oberheim Matrix 1000, which is very good for dancy things and synth pads. And the Alesis D4 is a wonderful drum module. I got it originally just to provide a click, but I found that the bass drums were remarkably good. Until recently I used to use samples all the time, then out of necessity I started using the D4 and found it sounded very natural, very acoustic."

Judging by the quality and depth of your recordings, a good mixing desk would seem to be an important ingredient. What are you currently using?

"I use a Mackie 32‑channel in‑line desk. It's extremely compact, and very well spec'd. That's what attracted me to it — it's got a really nice warm sound, and the EQ is really brilliant."

Do you enjoy engineering your own work?

"Being first and foremost a musician, I'd rather have someone to do the engineering for me! By virtue of having to, I learned about mixers and effects units, although I'd prefer to concentrate solely on the music. But that's the way things turn out. Mind you, even though I had a classical background, I've always been fascinated by the sound of pop records. When I first heard Trevor Horn's productions, I was intrigued as to how he got those sounds. So to say I'm not interested in the technical side would be untrue. It's important to understand your equipment and to read the manuals, because that understanding enables you to experiment in otherwise untried areas. Many off‑the‑wall, fortuitous accidents can happen that way, and it's one aspect of working alone that I appreciate. On the other hand, at the end of a long day, having been immersed in tiny details, you can lose perspective. That's when being able to take a break while the engineer sets things up can be so beneficial. You come back with fresh ears and another person's unbiased input. There are pros and cons to both situations, but at the end of the day there's a lot to be said for working with other people."

Mixing It, co‑presented by Mark Russell, is an entertaining and eclectic show covering all types of music but focusing on the obscure and less‑heard. You can catch Mixing It on Radio 3, Monday nights.

Mark Russell Studio Equipment


  • Alesis D4 Drum module
  • Emu Proformance Piano module
  • Korg Wavestation A/D
  • Oberheim Matrix 1000
  • Roland S750 (18Mb)
  • Roland S760 (32Mb)
  • Roland SP700 (32Mb)
  • Yamaha SY99


  • Alesis RA100 Power Amp
  • Denon DR‑M24HX Cassette
  • Mackie 32/8/2 Console with meter bridge
  • Marantz CD65 MkII CD player
  • Panasonic SV3700 DAT ("I love the scrub play on this.")


  • Dynaudio Acoustics PPM1 ("The depth is stunning, loads of bass end for their size.")


  • Alesis 3630 Compressor
  • Alesis MIDIverb ("I still like the grainy quality — comes in very useful.")
  • Alesis Quadraverb
  • Lexicon Alex
  • Lexicon PCM70 ("The best!")
  • SPL Vitalizer ("For me, the best of its type. The stereo enhancer is excellent.")


  • Macintosh Quadra 650 (20Mb RAM, 160Mb internal drive)
  • Macintosh Powerbook 145B (8Mb RAM, 80Mb internal drive)
  • Ostermat DAT drive ("I use this to back up the hard drives.")
  • Philips 21‑inch monitor
  • Seagate 1Gb hard drive


  • Digidesign Pro Tools, 4‑track version
  • Opcode Galaxy Plus synth editor
  • Steinberg Cubase Audio ("I'm looking forward to the new version of that.")


  • Sony Trinitron Monitor
  • Sony VP5040 Umatic


  • Accessit Patchbay
  • Apple CD300 CD‑ROM (for sample libraries)
  • DAC RW6000 DMS Optical drive (for sample storage)
  • Mark Of The Unicorn MIDI Timepiece 1
  • Microtech Gefell Microphone
  • Syco Mouse/monitor switcher
  • Tascam PB32P Patchbay x 2

Radio One Comic Strip Programmes

  • Batman — Knightfall
    65 episodes
    transmitted 17/5/94 — 8/7/94
  • The Adventures of Superman
    50 episodes
    transmitted 11/7/94 — 16/9/94
  • The Adventures of Superman (Doomsday and Beyond)
    50 episodes
    transmitted 19/9/94 — 25/11/94
  • The Amazing Spiderman
    50 episodes
    transmitted 16/1/95 — 24/3/95