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MICHAEL NEILSON: TV & Film Soundtracks

Michael Neilson By Sam Inglis
Published April 2000

MICHAEL NEILSON: TV & Film Soundtracks

Name: Michael Neilson

Studio Premises: Room in flat

Report by: Sam Inglis

Main Equipment:

Apple Mac G3 / Pro Tools TDM computer recording system, Emagic Logic Audio Platinum sequencer, Mackie 1604 mixer, Yamaha NS10m monitors, Samson 170 power amplifier, Roland A90 master keyboard, Roland JP8000 synthesizer and JV1080 sound module, Akai S3000 sampler, Digitech Studio 400, Alesis Midiverb 3 and Yamaha SPX1000 multi‑effects, Drawmer DL241 compressor, Rode NT1 microphone, Panasonic SV3800 DAT recorder.

Michael Neilson has travelled halfway across the world in his quest to make a living by composing music, yet the opportunity which has finally allowed him to realise this dream is a peculiarly British one. Since he set up his home studio in his North London flat, specialist publishers BBV have commissioned him to produce, edit, score and post‑produce their audio CDs, which are 60‑minute dramas based on minor characters from the television series Doctor Who — a series not well known in Michael's native Canada. "I got this job from an advert in Sound On Sound. I sent in a short demo, didn't hear from them for months, and then they phoned me up and said 'Can you start tomorrow?' I think one of the other guys must have quit, and they had a play that was already done, because they already had the DATs with the dialogue on. I met the guy the following day, and he gave them to me with the script, and said 'Go ahead'. I was pretty nervous at first — I said 'Oh, yeah, I can do it, no problem, easy,' but I didn't really know what I was getting into!"

Unusual though his first break was, it justified Michael's brave decision to move to London to seek work as a musician — an ambition which took root when he broke his back in a snowboarding accident at the age of 20. "I had to spend two months in hospital to recover. It was at that time that a friend of mine lent me a guitar, and I learned to play. I wanted to go to music school, but it took me a while to get in, because you have to audition, and I really wasn't that good — I'd only been playing for a couple of years. Finally they let me in after my fourth audition, and it turned out really well. I learned lots and got pretty good at arranging and writing, and studied music theory.

"After that, I lived in Japan for a couple of years. Then I came to London to pursue a career as a musician, and I tried to get in bands, but it just never worked out. That's when I really decided that what I want to do is write music for TV and film. I think soundtrack stuff is something I'm more suited towards than playing in a band, anyway. I'm not good live, because I get really bad stage fright!"

Dialogue Decisions

The most recent BBV CD to feature Michael Neilson's work (described as 'superb' by The Doctor Who Magazine!) is Sontarans: Silent Warrior.The most recent BBV CD to feature Michael Neilson's work (described as 'superb' by The Doctor Who Magazine!) is Sontarans: Silent Warrior.

Though Michael was presented with the dialogue pre‑recorded on DAT for his first BBV project, he now records everything in his own flat. "The actors come over here and I take everything out of my studio and bring it in to the living room, and all the actors go in there. I set the mics up in there and then record the dialogue straight onto my computer. The first couple I did, they would send me a DAT and then I'd have to transfer it from DAT onto the computer, so it saves quite a bit of time to bring them here; then they can put it straight down onto the computer and I can start editing right away. It takes the actors about a day to record the dialogue. They don't do a lot of takes! If they screw up a couple of words or something, they'll just run over it a couple of times and I'll edit it in later."

Michael's original setup was based around a second‑hand Pro Tools 2 system running on a Mac Quadra 650: "I took out a loan and I bought the sampler, and the JV1080, the power amp, the master keyboard and my old Mac with the Pro Tools 2 system, and a few other bits and pieces. I got it all from a guy who worked at one of the music stores in the West End — he had it all together as a package, so I just bought everything. I did the first CD on that, and after doing that I had to upgrade right away, it was just too much. I was using a 2Gb drive for the first CD, and I was dumping everything onto DAT and recording it back in. It was quite a bit of work, so after the first one I bought the new Mac, a 9Gb drive, and a refurbished Pro Tools 3 system. It was good, because it was pretty cheap for a TDM system. It only has 16 tracks but it's still pretty good, I don't have too much of a problem with it."

The BBV projects are a serious test of both the Pro Tools setup and of Michael's skill as a composer, sound designer and producer, consisting as they do of 60 minutes of dialogue heavily laden with atmospheric music and special effects. He treats each CD as a single Session within Pro Tools, first editing the dialogue into shape before adding any special vocal effects and dropping in sound effects. "Each one takes about three to six weeks, depending on how many actors there are, how many effects I have to put on, and what the characters are like. The last one I did had some aliens in that needed some vocal effects. That took quite a bit of time, because I had to go through, cut out all their dialogue and then put the effect on.

"I use a couple of mics; there's usually a maximum of four actors, two on each mic, and they're not all acting together. Usually it's just a couple of the actors together in any one scene. Some of the actors double up if there are small parts — they'll use one actor to do a few different takes, and then I'll just pitch‑shift the voice. On the last one I did there was a spaceship with a flight computer that comes on and makes an announcement. It was just one line, so one of the actors did it and I dropped his voice in and then put a few effects on it. The director of the last one, he did the alien voices, and then when the producer got the tape, he didn't like it, so my brother and I redid it!"

Effective Work

Michael Neilson's Pro Tools/Apple Mac workstation, with Mackie 1604 monitor mixer (top left), Roland A90 master keyboard, and Roland JP8000 synthesizer (right) atop a Marshall speaker cabinet from guitar‑playing days.Michael Neilson's Pro Tools/Apple Mac workstation, with Mackie 1604 monitor mixer (top left), Roland A90 master keyboard, and Roland JP8000 synthesizer (right) atop a Marshall speaker cabinet from guitar‑playing days.

Having edited the dialogue and added vocal effects, the next stage is to incorporate sound effects. Upgrading to the Pro Tools 3 / G3 system has allowed Michael to carry out this part of the production cycle within Pro Tools, rather than having to rely on the Akai sampler. "For the first couple of jobs I did, I would do a lot of the sound effects using MIDI. I put them in as samples, and then I just had tons of sound effects in my sampler, and then had them all assigned to different keys. It took me forever, I had programs that were just a couple of keyboards full, where each key had a different sound effect on it, and I would just play them in as it went through in the MIDI sequencer. It's a neat way of doing it, and it worked really well, because you can do a lot of editing with the sampler — it's so easy to change pitch, and you can get different ideas by having stuff on the keyboard. So at first I was using a lot of MIDI, but then when I got the new Pro Tools system I started just pasting the sound effects in.

"I've got some Hollywood Edge samples from CD, and for the last couple of jobs I've put them on my audio drive. I just took the sound effects I needed off the CD and edited them a bit. I converted a lot of them from stereo to mono to save space — I've only got 16 tracks, and when you're pasting in effects, it's fine to use them in mono; you can put the pans in yourself. I'm going to take them off there and put them on that old 2Gb drive, so on that drive I'm just going to have all my effects.

"Sometimes I'll take a standard generic Hollywood Edge sound effect and, either using the plug‑ins in Pro Tools or Prosoniq's Sonic Worx, change it around so it sounds more atmospheric and sci‑fi. Usually I bring the pitch down a lot, which makes things sound big and eerie. Sonic Worx is a really good sound‑design program. You can just take any sound and do all sorts of cool stuff with it. It's really good for post‑pro and sound effects, it's got tons of morphing effects, and this telephone line simulator that I use: sometimes they're supposed to be in space suits wearing helmets or speaking over communicators. The only thing I wish you could do is load the Prosoniq plug‑ins into Pro Tools. At the moment I've got to shut down Pro Tools completely to open up the file in Sonic Worx, because they use the same audio output."

Music Making

The outboard rack in Michael's studio: from top, Drawmer DL241 compressor, Yamaha SPX 1000 and Digitech Studio Vocalist multi‑ effects, Pro Tools audio interface, Roland JV1080 sound module, Akai S3000 sampler, Samson Servo 170 power amp.The outboard rack in Michael's studio: from top, Drawmer DL241 compressor, Yamaha SPX 1000 and Digitech Studio Vocalist multi‑ effects, Pro Tools audio interface, Roland JV1080 sound module, Akai S3000 sampler, Samson Servo 170 power amp.

The final piece of the jigsaw is Michael's incidental music, which runs through each CD. This is the one element he currently can't create in Pro Tools, since the version 4.3 software he uses does not have the MIDI sequencing facilities of the new version 5. For this reason, he creates a guide mix of the dialogue and effects and transfers it to Logic Audio to write the music. "First I record the dialogue, then I edit all the dialogue, then I paste in the effects, and then I mix all the effects in with the dialogue and mix it down, bounce it to disk and then open it up in Logic Audio, and do all the sequencing in Logic. I could then mix the CD in Logic, but I want to put it all back into Pro Tools, so I save the sequences from Logic as a MIDI file.

"With the old versions of Pro Tools, before 5, you can import MIDI files; you can't really edit them, you can just cut and paste things but that's about it, it doesn't have any of the really good sequencing stuff on it. So I'd import all the MIDI from Logic, and then from there I record the outputs of the sound sources in to Pro Tools as audio. It's easier, because once you record the music in, sometimes you have to adjust some of the levels on some of the other stuff. If I record the dialogue and effects down to a stereo track and then do everything else in Logic, sometimes when I mix the music in the levels won't be good, so I'll have to go back into Pro Tools and remix it. So I bring all the MIDI in here so that I can have all the effects still editable — I can go in and adjust the volume, pan, and whatever — because a lot of the time you have to bring certain things up, especially the dialogue, when you have the music.

"I've got my Sound On Sound chart of the orchestra [from Philip Meehan's March '99 article] — I use it all the time, that's why I put it up on the wall, because I kept going back to the magazine. I did exactly what he said, and I mapped the strings and set up my own string pad, and my woodwinds and brass programs, so I had them all worked out, and I saved it onto an optical disk, so when I want a string pad, I don't have to load in the CD‑ROMs and stuff, I've got it all saved on my optical disk, and I just throw it in there and load it up on the sampler. It was a bit of work, though, it took a long time."


With the MIDI sequences imported alongside the dialogue and effects in Pro Tools, almost everything is mixed in software, with Michael's Mackie 1604 largely relegated to the role of monitor mixer. "I used the Mackie a lot on my other computer, but now I do mostly everything in here. I still bring the sampler and the JV1080 in there and send that into Pro Tools on a stereo channel: it's easier to mix the music like that, because sometimes I double. If I've got a string patch on the sampler, I'll use the strings on the JV as well, sort of in the background, just to warm them up a bit. I've got some sample CDs from the Peter Siedlaczek Orchestra series, and some of the sample looping isn't that great, but if you put the JV behind it you can't really notice, they've got nice fade ins and it's not so harsh.

"For the mixing I find it a lot easier to use Pro Tools. I use the vector automation, which is so cool — you can just draw everything in where you want it and then it's done, you don't have to worry about it. Because there's so much going on in here with the effects and the music and so on, you want to keep everything as it is, whereas sometimes on a hardware mixer you move things around and you forget what you've moved.

"It's great to have the automation, you can get the levels and fades and the pans the way you want them, and it's there until you want to change it. But my hand gets really sore from using the mouse all the time! It'd be nice to have like Pro Control or something like that.

"I'm going to upgrade eventually — I want to get Pro Tools 24/Mix, because I've only got one DSP Farm card, so I can only have a couple of plug‑ins plugged in and then it's pretty much maxed out. So I use the outboard gear; I've got the Yamaha SPX1000 and the Digitech Studio 400 — on the Pro Tools mixer I set up an auxiliary send so it just goes out into the Studio 400 and back into the Pro Tools system, and then when you bounce everything to disk it plays it all through the effects processors. So I use the SPX for reverb, and the Studio 400 for delays and other weird effects."

Next Up

Given that Michael's determination to make it as a musician has led him to move from Japan to London, it's no surprise to find that he doesn't plan to stand still: "I'm working on a web site right now. The company that does the CDs, BBV, they've got a web site as well, and that's where they sell a lot of stuff, so I'm trying to get my site up and running. 'Cinematic Sound' is going to be the name of my company, so the web site is at

"I'm starting to look for other jobs now. I've got quite a bit of experience doing this; it was the first job I got when I came to London, so it was good, because it's given me experience doing music and editing and sound effects. It keeps me writing all the time, too. Every month I've got to come up with something new; for each story I've got to do a new style of music or whatever. I'd like to do more of the music side — what I really want to do is compose for television and film."

The Upgrade Path Is Paved With Broken Glass

Like many people, Michael Neilson encountered some serious problems when trying to move from an old Mac to one of the newer blue and white G3s. "The worst thing was the security key disks, because there's no floppy drive, so I got a Super Disk drive. The company I bought the computer from said they'd set it all up and it was all working fine and ready to go, but when I got it, it wasn't. They hadn't done anything. I had to install everything, and then I had some major problems with it, so I had to reinstall everything from scratch — the operating system and everything didn't work at first. I'd put the Pro Tools key disk in and it just wouldn't work. I had to get another extension off the Internet, because the one that came with the original Super Disk software didn't work with Pro Tools. It took me about three or four days after I got the computer to make it work properly, and it was right in the middle of a job.

"When I first got the upgrade to Logic Platinum 4.0 it worked perfectly. Then I upgraded to 4.1, and now it crashes all the time and I don't know why. It's got a sample editor, but if I use that or any of the Audiosuite Pro Tools plug‑ins it crashes. It's just been a nightmare."