Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton

Music for silent films
Keyboard, voice, percussion and more!

The Sound of Silents (from Mix magazine)

By Matt Hurwitz

Dec 1, 2005 12:00 PM


Epic films can put both composers and scoring mixers to the test, requiring considerable amounts of cues, stings and lush melodies to accompany visually stimulating imagery. But try providing four hours of nonstop music for a film. That tall order is what silent-film composer Robert Israel faced for a 1999 restoration of Erich von Stroheim's 1924 epic, Greed. “Three hours of that was original composition and the other hour was arrangements of existing music,” he corrects. “So it was very substantial.”

Substantial is an understatement. Silent-film composers must come up with inordinate amounts of content, often working with heavily reduced budgets from what contemporary film composers have available. “That's the biggest challenge,” says producer/engineer Joe Carroll, who worked with composer Donald Sosin on a recent score for a Criterion Collection DVD reissue of Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 version of The King of Kings. “The first thing I learned about scoring a silent film is that if you score a 160-minute silent film, it contains 160 minutes of score. For a sound picture, you have musical cues here and there with maybe 30 or 40 minutes of music. But here, you've got cues going all the time.”

In the silent era, according to Israel, scores were often compiled from existing music that was easily accessible to local theater organists or house music directors. “For road show attractions or bigger films,” he says, “the studio might have actually hired a composer to write a complete score,” which was provided to theaters in large cities, such as New York's Roxy, for an orchestral performance. “The smaller cities, though, might, at best, have a piano or, if they were lucky, a Wurlitzer theater organ,” an instrument Israel is himself accomplished at playing. (The composer can often be seen in Los Angeles venues playing at various silent-film screenings.)

But just because a film may have an existing score available doesn't mean that when the time comes for a DVD reissue or a new live performance, such music is still applicable or requested. For Warner Home Video's new reissue of The Wizard of Oz, Israel was commissioned to write a completely new score to accompany the 1925 silent version of the film, which appears as bonus material. “Occasionally, I get a project where a score is intact and they'd like to use it. But the simple fact is that sometimes the original scores just aren't very good.”

Israel, who records for such distributors as Flicker Alley and Turner Classic Movies, among others, works to stay on budget by recording most often in the Czech Republic, with members of the accomplished Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. “When I started working with them in 1999, it was because of the expense,” he says. “But at this point, I've developed such a good relationship with them that it just works very well from all standpoints.”

One advantage of using the orchestra, which records at the Reduta Auditorium in Moravia, is that it comes with engineer Vladislav Kvapil. “He used to be the concertmaster, he was the first chair violin,” says Israel. “We're not talking about someone who's without capable musical ability. He's a virtuoso.”

Kvapil and Israel record a 26-member selection of players, about the size of the typical theater orchestra of the 1920s. A live stereo mix is tracked onto Pro Tools LE 5.0.1 and on DAT, as opposed to multitracking and mixing later. “We prefer the live mix because it preserves the live experience,” says Kvapil, noting that he records dry, making use only of the hall's natural reverberation characteristics. Israel applies solely his experience for balancing the orchestra. “When I'm conducting, I can actually conduct it as a real orchestra. If I want the flutes to play a little bit louder, I can tell them to voice things that way. When we're recording, you're really getting a very organic performance as you would in the concert hall.”

The need for a live stereo mix is often more an issue of budget than taste, though both can come into play. “Sometimes, it's a matter of getting it together quickly because you just don't have time,” says engineer Brian Friedman, who has recorded Israel when he works in Los Angeles. “You don't sit there and obsess over one little microphone. When you're dealing with an orchestra, you're dealing with the entire room anyway. So, sometimes, with our schedules, if somebody blares out or makes a mistake, there's not a whole lot you can do except have another take.”

Friedman will mike, say, a 30-piece silent orchestra using a cache of old favorites. “There's usually 13 strings, 6-2-3-2 [six violins, two violas, three celli, two bass], which I'll mike with Neumann U87s [violins], AKG 414s [violas] and AKG 452Ebs for the celli and bass. I'll also use 414s on the woodwinds, which are usually a clarinet, flute, oboe and bassoon. Brass — usually a trumpet or two, French horn and a trombone — usually get an [Electro-Voice] RE20, which gives them weight and helps limit the top end when the trumpets are in the top range.”

Another instrument commonly heard on silent-movie scores is, of course, the multipipe Wurlitzer theater organ. Friedman has recorded several, including the one at the Old Towne Theater in El Segundo, Calif., which has all of its pipes located in one plane at the back of the venue's small stage. “I'll usually mike them with three mics: a pair of U87s left and right [set to omni pattern to pick up the room] and a U47 in the center, placed 10 to 15 feet away and about seven feet high. You want to avoid picking up too much of the bellows and the mechanics of the organ, though you want some of that in there to retain the realism of the instrument.”

At some larger venues, such as downtown L.A.'s restored historic Orpheum Theatre, which features a 6,000-pipe Wurlitzer, he splits the organ's instruments into two cavities: left and right of the stage, high above the audience. “For a venue like that, I would still use a pair of U87s suspended from the ceiling, if possible, eight to 10 feet away, but supplemented with 414s to pick up the chimes, flutes and other high-end sounds, and RE20s to pick up the low reed instruments.” For the studio, Israel finds the Allen Digital Computer Organs a close enough fit in lieu of the real thing.

MIDI instruments can actually become the orchestra of choice, especially when budgets are low. For Sosin's The King of Kings score, the composer penned 155 minutes of “wall-to-wall music,” as he describes it, nearly all of it written and played on synthesizers. “I added an eight-voice chorus, a soprano solo and live violin, but the orchestra was synthesized,” he says. Sosin wrote the score at his home studio using Digital Performer and a Roland RD700 keyboard. “I used the RD700 for many of the sounds, even though I knew I was going to end up with samples later on down the road,” he says. “I started with a couple of very nice string patches in the Roland library, some of which actually made it into the final mix, and then added horns, solo woodwinds and percussion, all of which kept it very symphonic.”

Once the score composition was completed, Sosin brought his Digital Performer file to Joe Carroll at the Manhattan Producers Alliance. “We're sort of a hub for a whole bunch of producers,” Carroll says, “so we end up spending a lot of time working out the technical procedures for moving from one guy's studio to another. And it's far from simple.”

Indeed, transferring Sosin's Digital Performer file into Apple Logic Pro was a cumbersome task. Sosin explains, “The client had asked for a single continuous track to avoid having to edit 100 separate pieces of music with different start times. It's something I've done before, and it can be quite convenient. But we ran into a difficulty when importing the file into Logic. He had one huge MIDI file, 155 minutes long.”

At first, the team attempted to import the file as a single standard MIDI file, but hit a wall. “The DP file was 5,000 measures long, and we discovered that Logic has a measure count limit of 2,100 bars, so the whole thing just choked,” Carroll says. Once the issue was identified, he broke the original file into eight individual reels of music, which were synchronized into five separate Logic sequences.

Once the file could be handled, Carroll says, “We then spent about a day or more creating a palette that would enhance the sounds that he had in his original score.” GigaStudio and the EXS-24 virtual sampler within Logic were employed. “EXS is very efficient in terms of using horsepower in the computer,” Carroll explains. “It doesn't use up a lot of resources within the Macintosh, so we can use a whole lot more of them.”

Stems were then recorded within Logic Audio and bounced down to Sound Designer 2 files. “We provide ‘a,’ ‘b’ and ‘c’ music stems,” Carroll explains. “We had to leave a head and tail on some of the cues to allow some overlap for the mixer, because sometimes a final dissolve might not be locked yet for films that are still undergoing restoration.”

In addition to creating a score that helps move the storytelling along, Sosin, like many silent-film composers, is often called on to add sound effects to match action on the screen. For Charley Chase's film, Mum's the Word (1926), Sosin says, “There's a scene where he picks up an alto sax. So I synthesized a sax line because I think it's more fun to watch. I tried very carefully to match his fingering. God knows what he was playing, but I tried to get the timing right.” Similarly, for Kino's release of Siren of the Tropics, “[Josephine Baker's] in a Parisian cabaret, and you can see what the makeup of the orchestra is,” Sosin says. “So I tried to create a jazz dance for her that used the sound of the instruments that you could see and follow the beats of the conductor to make it as real as possible, as though you were simply watching a sound film.”

Bringing in New Blood

For the past six years, Turner Classic Movies, along with co-sponsors Todd-AO, Film Music magazine and Guitar Center, have offered the opportunity for up-and-coming film composers to compete in TCM's Young Film Composers Competition (YFCC). Winners are assigned a silent film to score, with the winning entrant afforded the opportunity to have his/her score recorded at Todd-AO in Studio City, Calif. Previous winners have scored films by Lon Chaney and others, while this year's winner, Marcus Sjöwall, mentored by Hans Zimmer, will provide a score for Souls for Sale, a 1923 Goldwyn Pictures film that gives a satirical behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood.

“It's an unbelievable challenge for these guys,” says scoring mixer Dan Blessinger, who has recorded all of the YFCC scores at Todd-AO, the most recent with recordist Tom Hardisty. “They win the competition and it's very exciting, and they get thrust into probably the challenge of their career.” The films typically have between 40 and 50 cues, some as long as three or four minutes in length.

The scores are usually recorded in about three days, with an additional week for mixing. Husband and wife team Ross and Audrey deRoché, of deRoché Music Services, help usher the composers through the process. “They act as contractor and really help the composer produce the sessions, and they help keep the sessions on time and on track,” says Blessinger. “There's so much music to record, they really have to make sure they get it all done within the time that we have.”

Blessinger records the cues in Pro Tools in a linear fashion. “We prelay all the click tracks ahead of time and put them in Pro Tools,” he says. “Then we'll record each cue in its appropriate place, with reference to the timecode, even doing multiple takes within the same Pro Tools session. The whole movie then is actually done within one Pro Tools session.”

The first time he recorded a score in this manner, Blessinger says, people gave him a few funny looks. “Normally, you would record one cue at a time. But the advantage of doing it this way is that you can easily go from cue to cue without having to reopen files. And on a session like this, where you have to move really, really fast, you can't spare the two or three minutes per cue to open up another session. If you make any changes to your template, you have to make that change 50 times if you have 50 cues, and we don't have that kind of time. This is much more efficient.”

Adding new blood to the silent-film composing family is good for silent movies, says Donald Sosin. “Each generation adds its own take. That's one of the wonderful things about silent-film music — it is going to keep changing.”

“I think it's exposing a lot of people to the great films that exist out there,” adds Blessinger. “And it really gives some of these classic productions some new legs and a new, fresh presentation because they really are masterpieces.”

Recordings and Live Performances

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