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Peter Cobbin: Recording Music For The King's Speech

Interview | Composer By Sam Inglis
Published May 2011

Oscar‑winning drama The King's Speech tells the poignant story of King George VI's struggle to talk in public. What better way to record the soundtrack than with a microphone built for George VI himself?

Peter Cobbin with the microphone that EMI made for King George VI in the 1930s.Peter Cobbin with the microphone that EMI made for King George VI in the 1930s.

Alot of classical and orchestral people sometimes think there's not much to making a good pop record,” says Abbey Road's Chief Engineer Peter Cobbin, "but there's a lot of fantastic techniques and skill involved in making any music sound good.” And he should know, for it was Cobbin's ability to straddle the pop/classical divide that led to his being head‑hunted to work at the world's most famous recording studios.

Having trained as an engineer and producer with EMI in his native Australia before going freelance, "I was rung up out of the blue by Abbey Road. They said 'We're looking for an engineer who could feel comfortable doing both rock & roll and orchestral music, would you be interested?' I certainly was interested. I thought I might come here for a year or two, and here I am 16 years later, fully immersed and still passionate about the place I now call home.”

As budgets for pop production have diminished in those 16 years, film soundtrack work has become increasingly important to Abbey Road. Cobbin's own engineering and production credits reflect this trend, but even when working with a 110‑piece symphony orchestra, he still finds a place for the techniques he's learned in rock and pop production. He clearly sees his role in soundtrack work as going beyond faithfully reproducing an orchestral performance, and is willing to try almost anything in pursuit of an immersive sound world and an emotional connection with the audience.

Small But Perfectly Formed

King's Speech composer Alexandre Desplat with Peter Cobbin's 'Royal Tree', set up in Abbey Road Studio One. This has the older King George V microphone, made of white marble, in the centre, with the Elizabeth and George VI models on either side. King's Speech composer Alexandre Desplat with Peter Cobbin's 'Royal Tree', set up in Abbey Road Studio One. This has the older King George V microphone, made of white marble, in the centre, with the Elizabeth and George VI models on either side. Photo: Peter Cobbin

Peter Cobbin and the Abbey Road team have worked on some of the most successful movies of all time, including Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy and all but one of the Harry Potter movies. In between the magical blockbusters, however, Cobbin has also pulled strings in order to accommodate promising smaller films that wouldn't normally stretch to an Abbey Road budget. One such was The King's Speech. Director Tom Hooper had entrusted Alexandre Desplat with the scoring, and the composer was soon convinced that he was working on something a bit special.

"We were about to start work on what was then the next Harry Potter, and were quite busy. [Alexandre] called and said 'Look, I've got this really small film that I've just been shown, but there's something about it that I think is really special.' He said 'Tell you what, let me send the film over to you and tell me what you think.'

"So he sent the film over — and at this stage, films are far from finished. It's usually not the final edit, the dialogue's not finished and there's no music. It's like when a band has done a good demo, you get an idea of the potential of the song. I don't think I've ever been so enthusiastic from the outset about a film's potential. There was just something about it that worked. I called Alexandre straight away and said 'Let's do this.'

"I get to work on lots of big films, and also I do love working on small independent films, and this definitely came in the bundle of small film, no budget, 'We don't have the money to do anything expansive even if we thought we wanted to do that.' So it really was 'Is there a way that we could work on this in a small time‑frame which could fit within what they want?'”

Instead of scoring for a full symphony orchestra, Desplat decided on a smaller ensemble of around 40 musicians, in which a string section was complemented by featured instruments such as piano, harp and woodwinds. This more intimate sound palette suited both the film and the budget, and Cobbin managed to find space for a recording session in Abbey Road Studio One's schedule. The engineer was also planning a surprise for Desplat and Hooper.

By Royal Appointment

Studio One at Abbey Road is one of very few purpose‑built studios that can accommodate a full symphony orchestra. This shot was taken part‑way through setup for the smaller ensemble that recorded The King's Speech; around the conductor's position at lower left are visible three Neumann M50s in a Decca Tree formation.Studio One at Abbey Road is one of very few purpose‑built studios that can accommodate a full symphony orchestra. This shot was taken part‑way through setup for the smaller ensemble that recorded The King's Speech; around the conductor's position at lower left are visible three Neumann M50s in a Decca Tree formation.

One of Peter Cobbin's long‑standing initiatives at Abbey Road has been to highlight the technical innovations that EMI have introduced over the years. This has led, for instance, to the marketing of hardware and software recreations of classic Abbey Road equipment like the RS124 compressor and TG‑series limiter and EQ. It has also seen him bring lots of vintage gear out of store and back into use in the studios, "to encourage our younger engineers to enjoy the heritage of this company and benefit the projects that we are doing”. Some 12 years ago, Cobbin was visiting the EMI Archive at Hayes in pursuit of the TG‑series mixing desk that now features as a sidecar in the Studio Three control room. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed an ornate box on a shelf.

"I said to the archivist 'Wow, I didn't know this company made a microphone for King George V.' She said 'We don't have many details, but yes, EMI did do that.' That just lodged in my brain as thinking 'What a fascinating part of our history,' and I left it at that — until I was shown this film, where the central character is King George VI. So I made some enquiries: do we still have that microphone that was made for King George V? And not only was it 'Yes', but 'In fact, we have five of them! Including one that was used by King George VI.' I thought 'Wouldn't it be great to have the microphones used by the royal family, and ostensibly the one used by King George VI, here at the sessions — just as a nice visual inspiration?'

"Sure enough, Tom came in and he couldn't believe it. He was very excited and rang quite a few people, including his parents, to come and see these microphones. It can be an enjoyable experience for some of the cast to visit music scoring sessions, and those who came, including Colin Firth, showed considerable interest in and fascination with these old microphones.”

Not Just A Pretty Face

Director Tom Hooper was understandably thrilled to be greeted by the actual microphones that had been used by the royal family.Director Tom Hooper was understandably thrilled to be greeted by the actual microphones that had been used by the royal family.

What Hooper still didn't know was that the royal microphones were to provide much, much more than just visual inspiration. They would, in fact, become central to the sound world of the King's Speech soundtrack.

"The EMI Archive Trust delivered the microphones to us here at Abbey Road about a week before the recording sessions. We had our lovely microphone technician Lester Smith look at them, and he actually got three of them working — [the mics that were made for] King George V, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.”

The first of these was also the earliest, and its technology reflected its 1920s origins: an octagonal piece of marble had been hollowed out and filled with thousands of tiny carbon granules. When a DC voltage was applied, variations in air pressure on a diaphragm pressing against the granules would cause a small signal current to flow. The other two microphones were made a decade or so later, and used the more familiar moving‑coil (dynamic) principle, albeit with a unique diaphragm design that was unfamiliar both to Smith and Cobbin. All three were strongly directional.

As soon as he learned that the royal microphones could be made to work, Cobbin was determined to record them. Given that there were three working microphones, the natural choice was to set them up as a Decca Tree. "I've called it my Royal Family Tree,” he laughs. "The older one, the George V, which, in terms of technology, is 10 years prior to George VI, was a lot narrower in its frequency response, and in fact in some ways it had a more engaging 'Wow, that really sounds like someone speaking through a radio in the late '20s or early '30s' quality, because it was a bit more peaky. The noise floor was significantly louder, but there was something about it that just sounded great. I had it in the centre, and it just so happened that the technology of Elizabeth and George VI [the two moving‑coil mics] were the same, so even though there were individual differences, they made a great pair of left and right, with the centre part of the component being this slightly different sound. That's what I would do anyway when I'm doing a modern film score — I will attempt to make the centre sound different to the left and right.

I had a quick listen and thought 'This is going to sound great,' but decided not to monitor it that way for the whole session, just so we could keep focus, knowing that I had four or five days' mixing time to work out the relevance of this idea. While it sounded good, such things may not be appropriate when you're finally putting it together. Mix time is really important just to have that space to present an idea, without a whole control room of people listening in.

"When we were recording, at that stage it's really important to make sure we're doing our job, that the music is functioning in the way that it should for the film, and making sure that Tom is happy with what we're doing. Balancing this function with achieving the right musical performances is my job. Essentially, I'm the go‑between: the communication between the director, who'll sit behind me, and Alexandre, who's in the studio [conducting the players], to ensure that we're getting what we need. And of course I'm recording the thing in its entirety with all the full array of mics I would have used anyway.”

This array was also based on a Decca Tree — of Neumann M50s — plus numerous spot mics. "I would always record a Decca Tree, because it's such a great spatial instrument for being able to control the width of stereo.”

Mixing Mind Space

Well, they could have used an old pair of tights and a coathanger... Abbey Road microphone technician Lester Smith holds the handcrafted silver pop shield that was made for the King George V royal microphone.Well, they could have used an old pair of tights and a coathanger... Abbey Road microphone technician Lester Smith holds the handcrafted silver pop shield that was made for the King George V royal microphone.

It was only at the mix stage, with the recordings safely in the bag, that Peter Cobbin was able to properly evaluate the results of his Royal Tree. "I love mixing, and what I tend to do is give myself the option of things that I can experiment with. So I generally will record more tracks, with more microphones, than possibly what I'll end up using or needing. The recording part of my job is a different mind space. When I'm recording, I'm really content knowing that it's all going down technically right and it's all there, I'm capturing these things. And what I'm doing as a producer is understanding musically what is rocking the boat, or not, of the director — and is the composer being able to achieve what he set out to do? It's a communication thing, and I'll almost turn off the idea of thinking too much about the sound. Balance is important, and understanding what the performance is, so I'm going 'Well, this needs to be intimate — it says pianissimo on the score but it's not sounding intimate. Alexandre, what can we do about this?' That's the level. It's almost like I'm mixing verbally at this stage.

"Then, when I get to the mix room, having put all that together and having a much better idea of what the director likes and doesn't like, then I've got a full palette. And as anyone who's done a lot of mixing knows, you can do one thing one day, you pull up some faders and do some stuff and it can sound entirely different to another day. Which is why, for me, one of the most fascinating and important things about mixing is actually understanding what I'm doing, instead of blindly putting up faders and trying something. I'm sure I could make something sound good, but is it going to be appropriate for the context? It was only when I got to the penthouse — our mix room upstairs — that I could hear how unique these old mics are.

When he finally pushed up the faders, the sound that had been captured by the Royal Tree outdid even Cobbin's wildest hopes. "I had grouped the royal mics on a group fader so we could preview them very easily, and by the end, Tom Hooper was actually pushing me, on some cues, to have more of it. Some cues would start with nothing but the three microphones, which somehow just made us feel like we were in 1930s Britain without even trying. But where it was appropriate, we'd scale up the sound, sometimes so you'd barely notice that we were starting to envelop the whole sound space with more modern microphones. There was no rule of what worked, it just depended on the specific cue of what felt emotionally right, because even I — and I've been doing this for 30 years — was just knocked out at the difference. It's somehow intimate, without being too 'shiny'. And so even though obviously the [directional] principle of these microphones is going to favour what's in front of them, you can still hear the ambience of that large room. It just gives a nice bloom around the sound.

"Alexandre had attempted to write music that was somehow trying to reflect the vulnerability of King George VI. We've got this image that the king should be capable of anything — he's got the resources, the power, the money — but the poor bugger couldn't speak. This can make someone sensitive and exposed, and so I thought Alexandre's music was really poignant to reflect that. I think the sound dimension really helped this sense of vulnerability.”

What's more, the lo‑fi magic of the royal microphones was only magnified by their use within a 5.1 context. "It's special, to hear not just in stereo but an entire surround sound field filling up with this old sound. It's almost like a contradiction, because we tend to think of old sound sources as being monophonic. The space of Studio One at Abbey Road around these old microphones sounds fabulous in surround.”

Surprisingly, making these 80‑year‑old microphones work within a modern context didn't even require a lot of processing. "All I did was, particularly on the older one, not noise reduction, just a filter. A little bit of filtering at both ends of the spectrum — compared to the others, it was less smooth. I didn't want the noise to be a distraction. The sound quality was so lovely, I didn't want people to go 'Oh, they're trying to make it sound old,' because it was happening so effortlessly anyway. I was really keen for this not to sound like a documentary: 'I'm trying to make this sound like 1924, 1936, 1939...' because the film wasn't doing that. While the film is based on significant events in British history to do with King George VI, it wasn't a BBC4 documentary, it was a film feature, which was going to be played cinematically in surround sound in modern theatres all around the world.”

Old News

The microphones used as props in the film were authentic 1930s models, as used by the BBC at the time, but the film‑makers were unaware of the existence of the EMI royal microphones.The microphones used as props in the film were authentic 1930s models, as used by the BBC at the time, but the film‑makers were unaware of the existence of the EMI royal microphones.

Peter Cobbin often returns to the theme of taking the engineering techniques he's learned in a pop and rock context, and applying them in film soundtrack work. Nothing is off the agenda, whether it be creative use of reverb and delay, parallel compression or re‑amping (see box) — and in using the royal microphones to produce a lo‑fi, 'character' sound, Cobbin was employing another technique that is a staple of rock recording.

"Just because we're capable of recording high fidelity doesn't necessarily mean that it always has to be that way. Obviously, I've used these microphones in a context they were never imagined for. They were built for the King's speeches, and they have not been used since then. So to use them on music was certainly an experiment, and having found a way of using them for this specific music, I was thrilled with the outcome. After the project, I couldn't but help listen to them with drums as a sound source, and sung vocals, and they've got the most amazing lo‑fi sound that's unique.

"I do have a fascination with old‑style recording techniques, and when I listen back through our archives of historic recordings, I can never work out what makes something sound old. Is it the performance? Is it the instruments that they were using? Even 100 years ago, musicians were using different instruments and tunings to what we might have now. The skills of balancing musicians in a room, through to the microphones and the technology being used, are other factors. There is no one thing that makes something sound like a period recording, it's a combination of these things. However, what I did learn is that when you put one of these old microphones into a modern context, the possibilities that you can create are quite exciting. It's the first time these royal mics have been used since the kings and queens they were built for — and it's certainly the first time they've been heard in full surround!”

The King's Speech would go on to be the stand‑out film at this year's Oscar awards: not only was it named Best Picture, but Tom Hooper and Colin Firth also won Best Director and Best Actor respectively. Desplat's score was also among the total of 12 nominations the film received, while it was also in the running for Best Sound Mixing. Peter Cobbin's gamble on a small film has paid off in spades. "I am delighted at the well‑deserved achievements for Tom Hooper and Alexandre Desplat, and that The King's Speech has received great acclaim and acknowledgement. I am also really proud of what my team at Abbey Road and the EMI Archives have done creatively, in some small way, to help contribute to these successes.”  

Peter Cobbin On Pop Techniques In Soundtrack Mixing

"While obviously I'm proud to have recorded a lot of prestigious film scores, I really do love my roots and working in popular music, and the techniques that I would apply work hand‑in‑hand across the board,” insists Peter Cobbin. For example? "Whether it's pop music, or orchestral music, or good old rock & roll, I love the process of re‑recording things and re‑amping things. We benefit here from some fantastic acoustic spaces — Studio One, Studio Two, even the smallest Studio Three — and I will often send out, say, a section I've recorded on close mics, like the woodwind mics from an orchestra. I'll send them out through speakers into a room and re‑mic them up with some room mics, or older ribbon mics, just to look for a different type of sound.”

Exactly this technique was used to lend authenticity to the speeches that King George makes in the film. "Near the end of our music mixing sessions for The King's Speech, I could see our director was so thrilled with the authenticity that the EMI royal microphones were contributing to his project, he was yearning to have the speeches in the film redone using these. The logistics of getting Colin Firth and other cast available in the remaining last day seemed improbable, so I promised to come up with a plan to re‑record the speeches 'through' these old mics. Tom Hooper had his sound department send us a flat transfer, with no processing, of the main speeches used in the film. While I was finishing mixing in the [Abbey Road] penthouse, I had my assistant, John Barrett, set up two B&W 800‑series speakers in Studio One — one each for the Georges, father and son. We altered the distance from the microphone to the speaker to achieve the best proximity, just as you would record a singer. We adjusted the height of the old mics between the mid driver and tweeter to get the best tone and then the level of playback for the maximum signal‑to‑noise ratio. We then pressed Record and stood there quite mesmerised — a genuine spine‑tingling moment. It sounded so wonderfully authentic — no EQ'ing, no filtering, no distorting, just the sound of these mics in a room. Wouldn't these make a great plug‑in, I thought! These recordings of the speeches did the trick and were then used in the film.

"In the following days after finishing the score, my colleague Andrew Dudman also used these microphones for the source music exerpts. With the soundtrack, source music and speeches all recorded with these grand old mics, there was an audio homogeneity rarely achieved even on the largest‑scale film productions.”

Cobbin's application of pop techniques in film soundtrack work doesn't stop there. "Even on The King's Speech, I would have used, on some of the orchestral mics, a whole series of not just pre‑delays but also pre‑echoes that just dissolve. And I would have done that in Pro Tools, where I would have set up auxiliary sends coming from certain microphones in the room, feeding a stereo delay line, and I might put the regeneration and filters on that so it's just slightly diminishing in its quality but at very low level, and then send that not to the mix but to an acoustic space, whether it's my own convolution or another reverb like a Lexicon — to create a certain dimension — and then just blend that in. It would never be static, I might just ride that up and down. A lot of this is really subtle, but that's one of the things I enjoy doing. I think it helps build a certain dimension to certain tracks. Sometimes you can't describe what it's doing, you just know if it's working or not.

"I'm also a big fan of side‑chain compression, particularly if it's a compressor with character, like the Chiswick Reach valve compressor or the old Teletronix LA2A — or we've got the old EMI RS124, and the Beatles' Fairchilds here. Compression is such a fantastically both under‑used and over‑used tool, and sometimes misunderstood. Sometimes if I want to bring a certain dynamic presence into a recording, instead of putting a compressor over the whole lot — which I might do anyway — at a different ratio and a different attack and release time, I might send a direct signal off a conventional auxiliary send, like you would a reverb, to a limiter, and might put that on a much harder setting than I would if it was by itself, and return it back into the mix. Depending on how you blend that in, it can make whatever it is you are adding it to, like the bass, drive it much more.

"For example, I might have a microphone at the side of the room picking up the orchestral bass players. I might not need that microphone in the mix itself, but there could be something where I feel like I want it to fill out a little bit more. I could take that microphone and side‑chain it and bring it back in, and filter it, so you're not hearing so much of the top end of that, but you're feeling some sense of weight on the bottom end, and that could just be ridden to come in on certain phrases. For me, it works fantastically on vocals, mixing a song with a lead vocal. I might do the pre‑delay thing that I talked about, but then use side‑chain compression to bring back some of the presence, which can make something feel and sit beautifully within the context. And then I might compress the whole thing after that. It's a technique that I swear by.”

Preparation Is Everything

Even a relatively small soundtrack project like The King's Speech involves 40‑plus musicians, all earning Musician's Union rates, and the financial stakes are even higher on the blockbuster soundtracks that often come to Abbey Road. With session time at such a premium, meticulous preparation is therefore absolutely vital.

"I'm doing my pre‑production now for the final Harry Potter film, which I start recording at the end of next month,” says Peter Cobbin. "It's the final film in this series, the final film in the franchise, it's the final everything, so there's a lot of pressure and expectation. And we'll have a large palette. We'll have easily a 100‑piece London Symphony Orchestra, choirs, ensembles, ethnic instruments, musicians and singers. And going into the studio and recording something like that doesn't mean just turning up and putting the mics out how you had them last time, and hoping everything works out fine. There's a lot of technique to ensuring that, come the downbeat of that first session at one minute to 10, not only are we ready to record, that we should be in the ballpark of everything sounding the way I would expect it to.

"I would have had at least a whole day before to set up the microphones, to test them, to run some music through them, to check the phasing, the compatibility, to check the balance of the overall sound source in the room to the direct [spot] mics. On The King's Speech I was throwing up these three fantastic old mics as a possibility, because I'd never heard them before — and I was thrilled to be able to make the most of them at the mix — most times you don't have those chance elements. You don't have the time to make things like phase errors when you've got such expensive recording time.

"Even though we have a full‑time microphone technician here, and even though I know the serial number of a microphone that's being put out into the room and even though it's been used on a session the day before, I'll always want to listen to it. The most basic of tests is to scratch the microphone grille, just to check the signal chain from the floor. Depending on which tie‑line it goes to, and then interfacing on what part of the desk, it's got a journey to go through. A basic scratch will let you know that most microphones will be in working order. You have to train the person scratching the microphones to know the basic principles. If it's a condenser microphone, they will need to scratch it with less pressure than, say, a dynamic microphone. I really try to engage them with understanding: 'Well, actually that condenser microphone is for a flute, which is a softer instrument, therefore the gain in the control room on the preamp is going to be higher, so when you scratch it, just be mindful that you'll need to do it a little less than on a microphone set up for a bass drum or an orchestral side drum.' In that case it'll be a different microphone — a dynamic microphone — and it'll be a lot softer, so in that case I almost get them to thump the microphone, because I'll have the gain set quite low.

"The scratching sorts out the basic connectivity. And sometimes even if there's a loose connection between the microphone and the XLR cable, scratching it you'll hear all this crackle and distortion, I'll know straight away there could be a physical problem.

"After the scratch, straight away I'll get my assistant to actually talk into the microphones. For an experienced engineer, the voice is a really good, quick way of knowing whether something sounds the way it should. An engineer's significant tools are the microphones, and you choose microphones because they have different colour, and they might do a job in a specific context that another microphone might not. So even though you might be using this microphone for a 'cello, you'll know what it sounds like on a voice, and so if it sounds thin, I'll know immediately that although the connectivity is working, there's something about it that's not right. And it could be the microphone, but it could be the preamp, or it could be something in between. So I will always do a voice test on every microphone, even if I've got 80 of them, prior to a session, so that if anything goes wrong, it's not because I haven't checked the microphone. A lot of microphones have pads and filters, and you can generally pick up whether something is in that shouldn't be in, or the other way round.

"Once I've checked all my signal flow — it's coming into the desk, it's going out on the right bus, it's going to the converters then to Pro Tools — I'll then hear it coming back at the return so I can check the whole signal flow. If I've got time I'll compare the input with the output.”