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Mark Thomas: Composing & Recording For Film And TV

Interview | Composer By Paul White
Published May 1995

Mark Thomas finds himself very much in demand writing and recording music for film, television and library albums. Much of the music involves orchestral instruments, and even 70‑piece orchestras, but as Mark explained to Paul White, the bulk of the work can still be carried out in a home studio.

I met up with Mark Thomas at CTS studios in London, where he was recording a string ensemble from the RPO as part of the soundtrack for a series of dramas destined for Sky TV. By the time I arrived, Mark was in the studio conducting the musicians while a CTS tape op and engineer were recording the results direct to Mark's flightcased ADATs. In less than three hours, the session was complete, so in the relative peace of Studio 2's control room, Mark filled me in on his career and working methods.

On leaving Cardiff University, after majoring in music composition, Mark Thomas tucked his music degree under his arm and embarked upon a career as a professional violinist. After he had freelanced in London for a while, a job came up with the Royal Ballet company for a first violinist, and Mark got the gig. Though the work was enjoyable, the relentless touring aspect of it was pretty tough, and when Mark married (he met his wife on tour) he went back to freelance work and signed up with a diary service — which, he says, is essential if you're to make a success of freelancing. This provided Mark with valuable session experience, working with a number of orchestras, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and London Symphony Orchestra. As Mark puts it, he spent around 10 years of his life working as "a galley slave", but the insight he gained was to stand him in good stead when he finally moved to the other side of the control room window.

I asked Mark why he had returned to musical composition.

"I'd been a latent composer all the time, but boredom was a major factor. Being a professional musician is a fine profession, but I felt it wasn't stretching me enough. Then, right out of the blue, someone asked me if I'd compose some music for a television programme — which is a very unusual thing to happen. The most difficult thing about writing is to get your foot in the door, but although this first commission was only a small job for PBS in America, I was also asked to do some orchestration work for a large orchestra, and the combination of the two things made me realise that composition was what I really wanted to do.

"There's a healthy broadcasting industry in Wales, and when the Welsh companies realised what I'd been doing, more work started to come in. During this period, I'd still been working as a player during the day and then composing at night, but I couldn't continue this indefinitely and I had to make the decision to give up full‑time playing. One other deciding factor was library music; some breaks came along in that area and that's where the bug bit hardest."

What kind of library project do you undertake?

"The most recent library project was for Chappell's Recorded Music Library (November '94), where I was given a very specific brief by Jez Poole, the head of Chappell's Library. He wanted big, orchestral news and current affairs tracks that would all have several usable versions including 59 seconds, 29 seconds, beds for voice‑overs, stings and so on. The object was to produce over 70 minutes of music for a library CD that would contain cuts specifically aimed at users in the media world — TV, films, AV, and so on. I was afforded the luxury of a 70‑piece Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the music was recorded over one week at Battery Studios. We had a great team, with Jez producing, Paul Golding Engineering and James 'Jimbo' Brumby as tape op. This project was the culmination of 10 years' involvement in library music; the library scene was my way in as a composer, and now, some 15 CDs later, I still value its importance. Andrew Connelly, head of recording projects for the RPO, reminded me that there are very few people who get the chance both to write and conduct for the RPO."

One producer I worked with recently said that using a sampled orchestra would be like using a cardboard cutout person to read the news!

So far you've described yourself as a traditional, classical composer, but to date you've worked on classical scores, synth‑based pieces and works combining elements of both disciplines. What was your first encounter with technology in your music making?

"I realised I needed the technology when I started working to picture. On the first series I worked on, everything was done to a stopwatch, but I found myself in the situation where I needed to be able to work to picture — and I also needed to be able to demo stuff to picture for the directors. So I got myself a MIDI system. Now I could demo the composition, locked to picture if need be, and then when the material was accepted, I'd either re‑record it with real musicians or use a mix of synths and real instruments to produce the finished project.

"I'm at home with a symphony orchestra so I know there's no real point in trying to emulate what they do with samples, when they do it so well. MIDI is a means to an end, because on a film project, when I come to record the music using real musicians, I know that the geography of the music within the film is OK, which allows me to concentrate on fine details.

"I started using C‑Lab's Notator a long time ago when I did a couple of library projects with Pat Seymour, who was the Eurythmics' keyboard player at the time. He was an endorsee of Notator, and the score‑printing aspect of the program appealed to me straight away. I use it now to produce scores for session players and for directors. I could lock Notator up to picture using SMPTE, and since then the system has grown, so that now I have three ADATs and a BRC which can also be locked up."

What are the processes involved in a typical composition — do you start with time‑code video?

"If I was taking a film cold, I'd probably work that way, but these days what tends to happen is that the directors will come to me with a script, and I'll try to realise some musical ideas that are a reaction to that script. Then I'll play my ideas, and if they're somewhere near to what the director wants, at least when I come to write the score to picture I have a starting point.

"On the other hand, this film which we're doing today — Rachel Hardcastle — which is the sixth in an S4C series called A Mind to Kill, is unusual because the villainess is also a concert pianist, so I had to write music that wasn't only encapsulating the drama of the film, but also featured in a concert at the start of the film. The concert scene was filmed to playback with a MIDI guide part plus the real piano. Then the editor decided he wanted to elongate the piece, which was difficult, because the plot goes from a concert situation to a cutaway of a murder, so the music had to work both for the concert and to be in sync with the action elsewhere."

It also seems unusual that here you are in CTS studios, working with live string players and a Neve desk, yet you're recording the parts directly to your own ADATs.

"The object of the exercise is to cut down on the cost of post‑production, so while I use a commercial studio for recording ensembles and orchestral parts, all the mixing is done back in my own studio. And in that respect, the ADATs have already paid for themselves. If I were to record a whole film, I'd probably record all the studio parts in a couple of sessions — the rest is done at home.

"In the studio, the players work to a click track that I've already recorded, based on the tempo changes in my original MIDI recording of the part."

Home Base

What setup do you have at home in Swansea?

"The studio is based around an Allen and Heath GS3, which I can't fault. There are three ADATs and a BRC, plus, pretty much, a full set of Proteus modules. I find the Proteus modules extremely good for sketching out classical music — it's as if that's what they were made for. But don't get me wrong by thinking that I only do classical‑type, serious music, because I also do a lot of other compositional work which combines both samples and rock elements. I'm in the business of providing music for film, television and animation. When you set up to be a commercial company, you have to be able to provide whatever you're asked for.

"I use samplers in many different ways and I have an old Casio FZ1 as well as an Akai S1000. My next film project, for example, is called The Making of Maps, and there's a lot of bird and wildlife imagery, so the plan is to create a lot of musical collages using bird‑song mixed with orchestral elements, and for that, the sampler is absolutely essential. I also use the sampler in a more mechanical way to enable me to take something and then drop it into the mix at the right place.

"I'll only get into the creative side of sampling if it's really necessary for a project, because sampling can be very time consuming. Most of the time I'm busy working, so I don't really have the time to tinker with these things purely for fun. Having said that, if I had a project that required the use of specialised samples, I'd employ a sampling specialist in the same way as I'd employ a session musician. There's a lot of stigma attached to sampling when it's used to emulate real instruments and I feel there's a strong backlash about sampling at the moment, especially in big orchestral film music producers. One producer I worked with recently said that using a sampled orchestra would be like using a cardboard cutout person to read the news! Fortunately, he was able to provide me with the budget to use the RPO for his film, Wild Justice, which is destined to be screened on ITV.

"For effects, I have a couple of Lexicon Alexes, Quadraverbs, and a little Yamaha half‑rack thing which I forget the name of now, but which is very good for certain tasks.

"Because everything is to time code, I mix to a Fostex time code DAT machine, though I also tend to mix onto two tracks of ADAT so that I can produce another copy with time code at a later date."

I know that you love working with real musicians, but there must be projects that don't have the budget to do everything the way you'd ideally like to. Do you ever produce synthesized orchestral parts in that case?

"Oh yes, but I always try to blend in some real instruments, and I play quite a lot of instruments myself. Violin is my first instrument, but I also do a bit of percussion. There'll always be some element of performance in what I do — I think that's fundamental to making music. I would hate to think that the entire thing had been generated by a box, but there are no rules in this business, and if the person you're working for likes what you've done, that's what counts.

"When you look at the subtle nuances of musical phrasing in classical music, the detail is so fine that samplers just don't get anywhere near to the real thing, but then for other types of job, an obviously synthesized piece of music might be exactly what's needed."

Do you avoid quantising when you're sequencing parts, so as to keep as much of the performance feel as possible?

"Usually, yes, but then again, some musical styles rely on quantisation, so it's a matter of picking what works. One side of me is the traditional musical purist, but on the other hand, I like the rest of it as well. I enjoy anything from Motzart to Zappa — music is all one thing."

How do you record the violin at home?

"For a classical feel, I'll have the mic about three feet above the instrument, rather like we're doing here today, and I have been known to use a second ambient mic further away. I have several good mics, including one of those Russian jobs which I bought after reading your review; it works very well, though I probably wouldn't use it for violin unless it was for a solo part, because it is quite flattering. If I was recreating a session, I'd probably pick something with a less up‑front sound such as an AKG451. I've even recorded the Blackpool tower organ with a pair of 451s and it sounded terrific. On a rock track, I'd close‑mic the violin a bit more.

"To recreate an ensemble at home, I'd obviously multitrack the part, but I try not to simply double up the same lines because I feel that you can create a bigger sound by having more parts. If you look at Stravinsky, or any of the other great orchestrators, the division they have in the parts is incredible."

Today you're working with a string ensemble, and the mic setup is a large diaphragm (Neumann) on the cello, with individual overhead mics for the violins and viola, plus a pair of ambient mics either side of your conducting position. Though we're monitoring via a Lexicon 224 reverb, you appear to be recording the tracks dry onto six tracks of your ADAT.

"Every engineer sets the mics up slightly differently, and today Paul Golding (who also worked with me on the library album) is running the session. The separate close‑miked and ambience tracks are mixed at home using the Lexicon Alex units, which I really like the sound of. The big Lexicons sound wonderful, but they're complicated beasts. The Alex is relatively clean and you can dial up the sound straight away. And to be quite honest, with acoustic music, I like to hear what the instruments really sound like rather than colour them too much. Of course, strings need some bloom to them because they're designed to be heard in that kind of environment, but having said that, the music still has to go through the dubbing stage, where more reverb can be added if required. That being the case, it's best to err on the dry side."

Post Production

"My post production is also done with the help of an engineer, Steve Howard, who comes to work at my studio, so that I know that when the product leaves me, it's as technically good as it possibly can be. Steve also works at a dubbing facility called Taran in Cardiff, so there's a benefit in that he knows what can be done to the material afterwards. When you're producing a lot of music to a deadline, you tend to work in a manner that is expedient, so it may be that I'm recording music while Steve is mixing. I've also worked extensively with engineers from the Sounds In Motion and Soundworks dubbing studios."

When you're working on a whole film, do you put down contiguous timecode and then record the cues in place, or do you record each cue separately and then compile them all afterwards?

"These days I do the whole thing in sync, and if two cues overlap, I'll record them on different tracks. In fact, the next stage for me is to go to something like Sound Tools or Pro Tools so that I can handle all the editing myself. At the moment I'm still working with Notator on an Atari, and the reason I still have that is that I didn't want to switch platforms mid‑project. At some point I'll have to change, but I feel hard disk recording will get cheaper yet, so I'm going to wait a while before deciding which way to go. I know my current system works, and though the newer systems can do some cute things, like having your video running in a box on the computer screen, I understand that the cost of a practical system is still astronomical. And when I do change, I'll have to take some time to learn the new equipment, which is time that I can't spend working. And at the moment, there's no sign of the work slowing down!"

Using ADAT

Why did you go for ADATs, when the UK market seems to have polarised in such a way that Tascam's DA88 has found its way mainly into the post‑production market, while ADAT seems to have become the established musician's digital multitrack machine?

"One reason was that ADAT was available so far in advance of the Tascam machine. Also, I was working with other ADAT owners, both in this country and abroad, and to be honest with you, I swear by them. The lockup is pretty much foolproof, which is what I need, and though the fast‑wind time isn't hugely fast, I just work at the speed the machine works at — for my purposes it's perfectly adequate. You have to allow ADATs a little time to lock up, but that's not a problem. I haven't upgraded to version 4 software yet, but I understand that tightens up a few of the transport things.

"The sound quality of the ADAT is exemplary, and it doesn't seem so critical of overloading as other digital equipment. You can hit the end stops occasionally and still get away with it — in fact I don't recall hearing the machines crunching at all. I've only ever worked in professional studios — I didn't come up via the Portastudio route — so from my point of view, the simplicity of the system and the quality of the recording is what matters most. ADAT really can emulate the quality of recording you get in these places, and in that sense it's absolutely brilliant."