15 Jan Why Mastering a Score for a Film is No Mean Feat
There is nothing quite like it when great visuals and excellent music coalesce, and a remarkable film with an impressive score is the product of this fusion of sight and sound.
But before a film can offer its audience such audio-visual nirvana, the score has to be mastered first, and that is exactly what mix engineers or score mixers do.
Mastering a film’s score, though, is no mean feat. The challenges are plenty, including budget constraints, tight schedules, the amount of work, industry pressure, ever-changing audience taste and preference, and new technologies.
Alan Meyerson is one of the greatest scoring mixers of all time, and he knows all too well how challenging it can be to master the score of a film. Finding the right approach and balance, for one, can overwhelm the average Joe. As Meyerson told Film Mixing and Sound Design, instrument placement is of utmost important to achieve such balance, and that means he needs to place his instruments at all the right places. It also means incorporating the most appropriate reverbs and placing sounds impeccably all throughout the score.
Meyerson, a master at his craft, admitted that stress comes with the territory, too, and it is amplified when a deadline is looming or a time frame is changed. Then again, he has been doing this for such a long time now that he has figured out ways to combat on-the-job stress. “I try to breathe and calm myself in situations like this,” Meyerson said. “I also call up and talk to friends that I trust and rely on for advice, or just a chat to calm down. Taking breaks—whenever necessary, or even as many as it takes—works as well.”
Advancements in technology have brought about a different set of challenges, too. Los Angeles-based score mixer Les Brockmann has managed to keep up with today’s rapidly changing times, without any of the training in basic audio techniques that students now have the privilege of getting. “Digital audio and computer technology has revolutionised production techniques in so many ways,” Brockman acknowledged, before pointing out that such innovations have allowed low-budget films to call on composers to do their own mixing.
Technology, however, is a double-edged sword, with Brockmann noting that electronic music sources, samples, and synths often have “a flat unemotional characteristic.” This is why he is hoping for an increased awareness of the “importance of real live skilled performing musicians in score music.”
With these challenges and a host of other difficulties facing them, Meyerson, Brockmann, and their peers deserve much credit for the work they do to create a silver screen-worthy soundtrack. It is not just the music of film composers that sound mixers have to deal with, as they will also have to frequently mix a popular song that is synonymous with the movie. For example, if the film focuses on a certain subject then the music will follow tonally and a sound mixer will have to skillfully integrate the song.
A good example of this is to look at how popular songs are integrated to a particular genre of film. For instance, if you take famous poker films, popular songs that either reference the game or reflect the mood, are often mixed into the film. Partypoker in their list of the top poker songs, cite Clint Black’s “A Good Run of Bad Luck” from the Mel Gibson film Maverick as a good example. The up-tempo single has become quite a hit among poker players as it seems to be about poker but it actually isn’t. This chart-topper is actually about falling in love, though it uses poker metaphors in the lyrics. Yet with the help of deft sound mixing, “A Good Run of Bad Luck” nonetheless became perfect for the poker-inspired film Maverick. Other examples of the perfect marriage between song and film include Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” for Titanic, Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” for Rocky III, and Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” for The Bodyguard.
So, the next time you watch a film, enjoy both the sights and the sounds, as it took a whole lot of work to master that film’s score.