From Rain Man to The Lion King, and Gladiator to Mission Impossible 2, Hans Zimmer's music is known by audiences worldwide. With business partner Jay Rifkin, Zimmer is also responsible for Media Ventures, a music studio that offers a unique environment for media composers.
"To pick up girls! Isn't that how everybody gets into it?" laughs engineer and producer-turned-executive Jay Rifkin when asked how he got into music in the first place. Despite the modesty, Rifkin and his business partner Hans Zimmer, the Oscar-winning composer and music technology evangelist, have spent 10 years building up their company Media Ventures, to the point where it is among the most high-profile studios for media music.
These days, Media Ventures is home not only to Zimmer, but to several other composers he's helped to bring into the business. These include Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell, who worked together on films like Antz, Chicken Run and Shrek, and Klaus Badelt, who assisted Zimmer on Gladiator and has recently scored films like The Time Machine in his own right. Media Ventures is a unique collective, providing film-makers with a one-stop shop for music production, and composers with all the musical and technical support needed to complete a project.
Zimmer and Rifkin first met in England after being introduced by some mutual friends while Jay was at university. Aside from an interest in music, they also shared the fact that England was a second home to them: Hans was originally from Germany, while Jay grew up in New York and moved to England when he was 13. "We started writing together and put together our own studio in Brighton, which became this kind of music hub," explains Jay. "At the time there wasn't a lot going on in Brighton from the recording studio point of view, so we were kind of a magnet for a lot of different bands and activity. This soon morphed into playing less music, and I started producing and engineering, working with a number of different bands and really whatever came about; it wasn't in any exact organised manner then."
After planting the seeds with the studio work in Brighton for what would later become an even more successful partnership, Jay moved back to the States and started working at studios in New York, LA and Miami. Hans moved to London, and after a stint playing in bands like The Buggles, found his way into writing music for commercials and later, for films. "I was working as an assistant for another film composer, Stanley Myers, and he would just let me write film cues. He'd never tell the director what I'd written and what he had written, and inevitably, in the beginning, everything I wrote was always chucked out and had to be rewritten. After a while, I got better at it, but I don't know how or why, other than by doing it — you sort of get an instinct for it."
Given that he was successful in the record industry, what made Zimmer turn to film music? "Number one, I always loved films, and I felt the record business had become so narrow that the freedom wasn't really available any more to experiment and try different things. If you have a hit record in one style, the record company instantly assumes that your next record has to be in this style. So if you have a hit record as a techno act and the next record you want to do, you suddenly want to change to, say, psychedelic country-western heavy metal, they're not going to let you do that."
Before I spoke to Hans, a friend in Germany had described him as one of the 10 most interesting people to talk to in the music technology world. Hans' use of technology in music has always been something of trademark, so I was interested to find out at what point the technology reached a level where it inspired him to make music. "Oh, right away. I mean, this will show my age: I started on a Roland MC8, which I thought was absolutely the most amazing thing, because it cost a shitload of money and I had better learn it since I had to go and earn some money! But the MC8 crashed most of the time, had 8k of memory in it and was incredibly cumbersome to use. After that, I had a Prophet 5 and started doing sessions in London — the Prophet definitely paid for itself.
"At one point, I managed to wangle a Fairlight, and it was really the Fairlight that made a lot of things happen for me, just because I loved the way the sequencer worked and because it was really monophonic — I had to learn how to write counterpoint, to make each note count. All those early movies I did, like Rain Man, were all done on the Fairlight sequencer, so there's never more than 16 notes going on at the same time — you really learn how to cheat."
The turning point for Hans came when Barry Levinson's wife played Zimmer's score for A World Apart to her director-husband. Levinson was sufficiently impressed to give Hans the job of scoring Rain Man in LA. "I didn't want to come over to LA until somebody offered me a job because I thought I'd make a really rotten waiter!" laughs Hans.
The project also reunited Zimmer with Rifkin, as Jay explained, "Hans called me up when he had a project in LA, and I engineered and mixed the score, co-producing it with Hans. After that, we really just started producing all the scores together.
"Rain Man was a frustrating experience because Hans had brought a Fairlight and what to most people was an enormous amount of keyboards and gadgetry, and we had such a tough time forcing it onto tape. Afterwards we said 'We're not doing that again, that was really hard work!' So when it seemed like we might have another gig or two, we booked a cheap studio for three weeks and we ended up staying for about two years!"
The partnership went from strength to strength, and with Hans carving out a space for himself in the world of film scores, Jay found an ideal way to exploit his own talents. "I started writing some of the songs for the films Hans was doing scores for, and we did that for about seven years straight! I wrote a song for Iggy Pop that was in Black Rain — I was really thrilled when Iggy Pop cut one of my songs! And in Days Of Thunder, that was really a song and score kind of a piece with 'Show Me Heaven', which I wrote with Maria McKee."
Hans' custom-recorded orchestral library has become something of a legend for those who create orchestral mock-ups with technology, so I was very eager to get the inside story. "This is what I do for a living. I sit in front of a pair of speakers all day long and that's how I spend my life, so I thought I might as well sit in front of a pair of speakers and listen to sounds that I actually think are good. I think we did this in '96 or '97, and most of the sample libraries available at the time were absolutely terrible.
"I always work with pretty much the same orchestra in London, so I did a deal with them, which was basically 'Let me go and sample you guys at AIR Lyndhurst sitting in the chairs you sit in whenever we do an orchestra recording, so the perspective is right.' And the other part of the deal I made with them was that I wouldn't use the samples without using any real musicians — it wasn't to replace real musicians. In fact, I think 90 percent of the movies I've done ever since I've recorded in London and kept those musicians busy. All the other composers in my studio, like Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell, have access to these sounds and both Shrek and Chicken Run were recorded in London, so I think the musicians themselves really profited from it.
"My musical education is two weeks of piano lessons and anything else I picked up on the way, so for me to orchestrate things — and I like doing all the stuff myself — I needed to be able to hear it. And the other thing is, it's very hard to tell a director when you're plonking around on the piano how it's all going to sound with eight horns and 32 violins, because the emotional gulf between tinkling on the piano and having the chaps sit there and giving it some is enormous. So it seemed like a very simple idea: let's go and sample them, and maybe we can shove the samples into, at the time, eight Roland S760s.
"Well, guess what? We were very wrong! It turned into... it wasn't a nightmare, it turned into this adventure. When I was sitting there doing the samples, this friend of mine was sitting next to me and said 'It's a bit like pushing a BMW up to the edge of a cliff and seeing if it can fly as you're pushing it over,' because that's about how much money we were spending at the time, and that was when we still believed it was going to be eight S760s. There came a point where I think it was more like seeing if a Rolls Royce could fly off the edge of a cliff — it became really expensive.
"I'm just about to start doing a new set and there's no reason for it other than that I'm a bit bored with the original set. There is no reason that I need another set of samples, and there's no reason I would ever need to buy another synth or whatever, but you know how that is; it's that thing where after a while familiarity breeds not just contempt, but simply boredom. I'll do it at AIR again, this time in 5.1 and 24-bit, and some poor bastard will be sitting there cutting up literally thousands of samples."
With so many samples, won't it take Zimmer and his team years to edit them into playable instruments? "Well, Klaus, the man with the 40 Gigasamplers, always thinks about the most efficient way of doing things and he's written all sorts of really intricate little subroutines that can do a lot of editing and cleaning up automatically. You shove your recording in and you just see the computer work away, and afterwards you just need to fix a few things — it's pretty cool, so I love having him around."
However, such a project still requires a huge effort, so what is lacking in the off-the-shelf libraries that drives Hans to create his own? "It's partly the players. I managed to get hold of who I consider the best players in the world, in one of the best halls in the world, with one of the best engineers in the world; and I've worked with these guys forever, so I'm not going to let them get away with anything. It's very hard to give meaning and intent to a single note in isolation, and a sample needs to have some sort of sense of a performance. I think what I managed to do was not bore them to death, because you are capturing the emotion of people in that moment, and I think it shines through — or not.
"We keep putting other libraries against the stuff I did, so we have a direct comparison, and it's not just me because I did it or spent the money, but anybody who comes in goes 'Oh no, we'll have Hans.' There's just something about those players in London. When we were recording Gladiator, I was glancing over at the French horn section and I'm going, 'Oh look, there's the leader of the LSO horn section, there's the leader of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; oh, there's the leader of the London Brass, there's the leader of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra — and that's my front row!' In which town in the world do you get that many great players so you can put that section together?"
If you want to know where you can buy Hans' sample library, unfortunately it's not for sale. However, you can judge the quality for yourself because Hans included his original orchestral mock-up for Gladiator's battle sequences, the now-infamous 'Gladiator Waltz', on the second Gladiator soundtrack album. It's certainly impressive, and the brass samples in particular are little short of amazing. "Well, it's the same guys that played the real thing! I sort of put that track in on there on purpose because I wanted people to see what my process is."
The sequencer is probably the most important component of any hi-tech composer's studio, and it wasn't long before the Fairlight's sequencer was surpassed by better software capable of running on standard computers. "For a while I had an Atari with Notator, which I thought was absolutely brilliant, and rhythmically it's still the tightest system around," says Hans. "There was something very good about Ataris because you could find one in any corner shop, so whenever one went up in smoke, you could find a replacement in the middle of the night!
"My problem with Notator was that I was forever saying to them, for instance, 'Why can't you have it on two screens? You want to have the edit page on one screen, and the arrange page on the other, so you don't have to switch back and forth all the time.' And the answer I would always get back from them was 'You're just using it wrong, that's a terrible idea!' So finally I went 'F**k it!' and started using Cubase when it came out on the Macintosh. I phoned those guys at Steinberg and they said 'Yeah, that sounds like a good idea' — it was a much more democratic program. And, OK, so there have been a few years recently where it was a bit unstable, but now it's really stable again."
So what does Hans think of Cubase SX? "It looks really good and is a huge step forward. We've got it on the PC and I've been playing around with it a bit, but because I'm so used to working on the Mac, and just because I have a deadline right now, I'm still working on the old version."
When it comes to using samplers, Hans is a big fan of Tascam's GigaStudio. "I use a lot of Gigasamplers, which I think in England everybody thinks is a toy — nobody really knows how they work yet or how powerful they are. It took us a while to really figure out how to specify the computers — you can't just go to Tandy or Dixons or whatever and buy a PC and hope that it's all going to work. In fact, it will work: the problem is you just won't get 160 voices out of it. What I get out of each one of mine now is 160 voices, 32 discrete outputs, and the way I've got it set up is so the first 16 outputs are literally outputs, and the next 16 are actually aux sends out of GigaStudio.
"We've been using them for a few years and trust me, you just never want to touch another sampler, other than maybe Kontakt because it's a completely different thing, it's much more of a creative tool. A sampler is an inherently boring thing that just regurgitates sounds — it's what you do after the samples come out where it gets interesting. I just rebuilt my studio here at my house and I came up with this idea of how to build the ultimate GigaStudio by putting these Creamware Scope cards in, and it just works so great because each one is a little studio in itself. I have a load of plug-ins, including a whole modular synth that I can run my samples through, so it becomes a real sound-mangling environment. If I just want to get pretty string sounds, I'll have decent reverbs and decent EQ in there as well."
In the past, Zimmer has been known for using a vast arsenal of samplers, which makes me almost afraid to ask the inevitable question: just how many GigaStudio-equipped machines does he use? "I'm quite modest compared to other people in my studio," he admits. "I've got 10. Well, that's not entirely true, I've got 10 in my room at the studio and I've got 10 at my studio at home. But then, one of our composers, Klaus Badelt, who just did the Harrison Ford movie [K-19 The Widowmaker], I know he's got 40!"
So are there any hardware samplers left in Hans' studio? "I saw an E4 on the floor the other day, but I noticed it wasn't plugged in."
However, such extreme use of technology is nothing new, and Media Ventures has always been keen on using the latest music technology, as Jay explains. "We'd always be very adventurous and take some risks with the technology, whether it was the first time we used Pro Tools, or the first time we used a particular sampler — whatever we could do to bring interest and something new to that particular project. On Crimson Tide, we did one of the very early ISDN sessions, which was a big deal at the time.
"That whole methodology is carried on now, creating a palette for a particular film and trying to create a sound for it, both from trying to come up with an interesting score, but also for inspiration for the composer too. It's like, you go into a music store and hit patch 00 and say 'I know what to do with this!' And the machine sits there and never leaves 00, but it's played a very valuable and important role just being that one sound. It's really whatever's going to get the project advanced, and doing all those things does bring a certain amount of energy, risk, and leaves you pulling your hair out going 'Why the hell didn't we just do it like we did the last one?' But, still, you find a better way to do things, it's just progress."
Some critics have debated the influence of Holst and Wagner in Hans' score for Gladiator, especially for some of the battle sequences, which sound reminiscent of Mars from Holst's Planets Suite. I was interested to know if this was deliberate, and whether it was a case of Hans making a playful nod to the composers he admires.
"It actually didn't start off as a Holst thing; I was actually thinking about Shostakovich much more when I was writing. But I think what happens is that it's a certain language Holst used, which you use for those martial-type things. Prokofiev did it too, if you listen to the Scythian Suites and stuff like that, it's just a certain sound. And the Holst thing is in 5/4 — I was trying to write waltzes! So everybody's going 'Oh, it sounds like Holst!' Well, I think I'm taking that at as a compliment. I wasn't trying to crib from him, you know!
"And Wagner? Obviously, completely! I mean, Ridley shot the entry into Rome like Leni Riefenstahl's most fascist statement. But you know what was really scary? I whipped that sort of faux-Wagner out in about 10 minutes and realised how German I am! The Wagner stuff was so tongue-in-cheek. I mean, you've got to have a laugh — we're not doing brain surgery here, we're doing film music! And we were doing a gladiator movie: men in skirts and sandals. Let's not be too serious about it! So you can do a bit of the 'nudge, nudge, wink, wink'. You have a game, otherwise you start taking yourself too seriously!"
In Hannibal, I notice that Mahler gets a credit in the sleeve notes. "Absolutely! I went to Ridley and I said 'I've got this great idea! Let's make a romantic comedy and use that sort of decadence of the late 19th, early 20th-century Vienna, and for Hannibal himself, let's use the Glenn Gould Bach.' So I had those two things: Mahler and Glenn Gould playing Bach, and I suddenly figured out that maybe I wasn't up to writing it, because whatever you think of Mahler, he was pretty good!"
As a Maher devotee, I needed little convincing, and I was curious to ask about the influence of Mahler's famous Adagietto from the fifth symphony, most notably on 'To Every Captive Soul'. "Oh, absolutely! Totally conscious! If you think about it, Hannibal is set for the most part, or the part that I think is interesting, in Florence. Ridley lit it like Death In Venice, and in Death In Venice that thing is played over and over. So that is my conscious 'nudge, nudge, wink, wink', you know, it's a bit of a joke too because I always thought Hannibal was a preposterous movie. As I said, I wanted to make a romantic comedy, and for people to understand the absurdity of what we were trying to do.
"Of course, in America nobody got that because there's a sort of lack of irony that pervades everything, but I think in Europe people got what we were trying to do, having a bit of a laugh. But OK, while it's a bit of a laugh, I was still trying to write something beautiful and it's really hard sometimes."
The Lion King proved to be a major turning point for Zimmer and Rifkin, winning them a host of awards including a Grammy and an Oscar for Hans' score. But it was a massively complicated project, as Jay explains: "We'd gone to South Africa to record a lot of Lion King, all the vocals and so forth, and were just overwhelmed with how many talented people were there. We'd done some work in Africa during The Power Of One, and actually we tried using all kinds of different choirs in LA to get that sound, and it just sounded wrong. So we ended up going to South Africa and Lebo M [the extraordinary South African singer/songwriter Zimmer had searched all over Africa to find] helped us arrange a lot of the choirs in South Africa, so we weren't going in there blind. There were some musicians who we just literally picked up a DAT and went after them to get them involved."
With the recordings made in South Africa, coupled with the more traditional orchestral and choral recordings made in London, The Lion King presented quite a challenge when it came to assembling all the musical components together. "This was pre-Pro Tools, so it was very tough sync'ing up. We were using a lot of samplers, locking up tape machines, offsetting and punching stuff in, and basically doing whatever it took. It was a case of using whatever format you had handy there and just trying to, wherever possible, get some sort of reference to line it up later. In the final mix we used multiple 32-track tapes with literally hundreds of tracks, and the job was to mix that down to 64 tracks so we could just work off of two locked 32-track machines."
The music was a hugely successful part of the The Lion King and resulted in massive sales of the tie-in album, which presented an opportunity to Jay. "I got the idea to do a sequel album because the first album was 15 times platinum and I figured there were probably a few people that would be interested in hearing more music. I was kind of disappointed that what ended up in the film wasn't really representative of some of the great talent and music we'd been exposed to in South Africa, so the Rhythm Of The Pride Lands album was much more about the music that inspired us, which later inspired the stage play.
"After Lion King, we moved studios, and during that project we were actually working on other projects and building out our first building in Santa Monica to house our studios. The work increased, and also my passion to expand the concept and take the process we'd developed; our assistants became composers in their own right and the idea just started to take shape. We finished Lion King and we had five rooms immediately busy working on one project and thought 'We're on to something here.' As post schedules are more and more compressed, you just need to be able to throw a lot of firepower at a project, or else really hurt yourself doing it, having a very small team with just a limited number of workstations."
Hans is well known for fusing different, and often opposing, elements in his music, and in addition to the neo-romantic approach taken with Hannibal, there are also plenty of electronics. 'Let My Home Be My Gallows' on the soundtrack album crafts this style of juxtaposition to perfection, and I was particularly curious as to where Hans got the idea for such stylistic variation. "I just think it worked. While Florence is the renaissance town, you look around and there's all these sort of modern, wonderful, Italian-designed things floating around — and it works. You can have a beautiful Olivetti-designed something in the window of a renaissance shop, you know, and all I was trying to do was see if I could get away with bringing two worlds together in that way."
Zimmer also combined two different worlds in Black Hawk Down, although for very different reasons. "The string piece with Baaba Maal on top ['Still'] was very much designed so that it would be really foreign to him, and what he would do would be really foreign to us. I wanted to see what happened if you have two cultures just collide, and whether something beautiful can come out of it, instead of doing the thing I've done in the past with The Lion King where I'm trying to sort of adapt my culture to theirs and vice versa. So I stick with my thing, they stick with their thing, and I think a third idea comes out of it that could never have been there otherwise."
I wondered if his approach to Black Hawk Down was typical of Hans' interest in juxtaposing styles and culture. "It was more to do with what I wanted to say about the movie. Do I set out and think 'Oh, I want to write a piece where you have two cultures colliding?' Actually, funnily enough, in that case yes, I've always wanted to do that! But most of the time it comes out of conversations with the director, though we don't talk about music — we talk about whatever it is we're talking about and the notes are very much secondary. That's the problem, you see, because I always go 'Oh, the notes are secondary!' And then I sit there forever not coming up with them — I find it immensely difficult to write anything."
Isn't that easy to say when you always end up writing something that sounds amazing, though? "Well no, I always think I got away with it again — that's basically the feeling at the end! But there is a moment in the middle where it all suddenly starts coming together, which really truly makes it worthwhile. That moment of the creative process is like the best sex you can never have!"
Zimmer has previously commented about the sense of panic he has when writing, and I wondered if he felt that contributes to his work sounding consistently fresh and original? "Completely. Fear is a great motivator. Plus, look, I'm an arrogant German bastard, let's face it! I still feel I want to write something good and I feel I've only written a few things that maybe get close. I haven't written anything great — I've written good, and I would like to get to great."
One of the aspects of Hans' work that makes it stand out is the sound palette he chooses, giving each film a very distinctive sonic character. For example, his use of an unusually large number of cellos and basses in the Mahler-inspired moments of Hannibal really plays with your emotions. "I don't think people really realise it, but the orchestra is 28 cellos and eight basses. And in that second-to-last piece, not the opera piece, the violins literally only come in for the last four bars. But I love that sound of that many cellos and basses — just all the low, dark, muddy stuff."
The choir sounds on Hannibal are particularly effective and, as someone who spends far too much time wondering about these things, I had to ask a boring question: were the choir sounds, particularly the 'Agnus Dei' sample, from the Spectrasonics Symphony Of Voices CD, or did he rerecord them with another choir? "Of course they're from the Spectrasonics CD! I didn't have a choir on Hannibal — it's all fake. But my friend Rupert Gregson-Williams recorded them, and they sound great. I mean, I am not proud, I will use anything that works to make the thing come alive."
After Hannibal, Hans' next collaboration with Ridley Scott was Black Hawk Down. Having listened to that soundtrack more than once, I had to find out the source of the great synth sounds used. "That's my secret weapon! That's Creamware stuff, which nobody seems to know about — they build brilliant synths that just sound really good. Actually, one of the tracks on the album is named after one of the synths: 'Synchrotone'.
"They just did a model of a Minimoog, and, you know, everybody's done models of Minimoogs, but this one — I put it up against my real, slightly ailing Minimoog and it's absolutely identical! I was talking to two software guys over there called Klaus Piehl and Matthias Klag, who are brilliant DSP engineers, about how they did it, and they have no aliasing in any of the sounds because they oversample all the DSP. Right now, as far as devices that sound really good, their stuff is the best.
"John Bowen, who worked on the original Prophet 5 and also on the Pro 52 for Native Instruments, was always saying to me: 'So you like the Pro 52?' And I was saying 'Yeah, I love it, I like all that Native Instruments stuff.' So he said 'Well, let me build you one on the Creamware platform.' And he literally had somebody go and analyse the oscillators and the filters, and his Creamware version sounds very different to Pro 52.
"I love modular synths, but I can either write music or spend hours patching things together. So John built this type of thing called the Red Dwarf, which is like a fixed structure, but you can just switch and change the oscillators, the filters and the envelopes. It's a very quick and very efficient way of coming up with different sounds, and I think quick and efficient is something that's important."
So does Hans still enjoy getting his hands dirty and programming the synths? "Absolutely! When I can't think of something to write, I just tweak knobs and suddenly you can get something quite interesting, and I do like coming up with wild, weird and wonderful landscapes of sound. But what I like doing is mixing and matching, because if you only have the amazing, expensive high-quality sounds in there, occasionally you need a small Casio just for contrast. If you don't have contrast, you don't have anything.
"The guys at Emu once asked me what that great piano sound was that I was using, what those great samples were I used on Driving Miss Daisy and all that stuff. And I had to confess that it was a cheap Roland MKS20, which I was using for years. And no, it didn't sound anything like a piano, but it behaved like a piano."
Media Ventures are constantly looking for new ways to bring their skills to other markets, and one area Media Ventures are expanding into at the moment is production music, in partnership with British-based music library Extreme Music. "We just had a few CDs out there, more or less on a test basis, and we started picking up some attention," Jay explained. "Extreme Music came across it and they chased us for about a year and a half! I was really disenchanted with the way most people were running and positioning libraries, like 'this is the dirt you sweep off the floor' in the music world, and I thought our stuff was better. Eventually I saw what Extreme was doing and I felt they were going to market and position it in way that was different — and they have, and it's actually really starting to take off for us now.
"Our demos are definitely better than most production music, but we do it collaboratively so it's less of a bear: for a composer to do a library album, it can be a real chore. But if you know you're contributing to a compilation album, it's much more interesting. We have enough of a breadth of composers so everybody contributes what they have time and passion for, which is a much better approach — and it shows in the music."
The partnership with Extreme Music has also spawned the London-based Hothouse company "to provide music supervision services and a composer agency". The aim is provide support network for composers in a similar fashion to Media Ventures itself, but based in London. Hothouse are currently in the process of signing composers, but the music supervision side is already looking after the next Lord Of The Rings film.
And so with Media Ventures expanding and becoming more ambitious, what are Hans' own plans for the future? "I'm sticking with film until I get bored with it, and I'm not bored yet. I'm still thoroughly enthusiastic about the whole process, and I think the reason is because when I go from one film to the next, I can reinvent myself and work in a completely different style, so I don't get jaded. I might do some concerts because I like working with other people: I loved working with Lisa Gerard on Gladiator, I think that was really good. But trust me, my days are filled! Ultimately this is the best life I could have hoped for: I get to play music all day long."