As I promised, I wrote a “short” report about the “Ausbilder Schmidt” scoring sessions in Prague.
“You will probably not make it in the booked 2,5 orchestra sessions.” – “Err, well, can we book another half session?” – “Sorry, that’s not possible, we can’t record 12 hours a day, it would just be too exhausting for the musicians and anybody else and the next day after your choir session is already booked by someone else.” – “Oh, err… well? What do we do?” – “Well, we’ll just try our best and hope to get it done.” – That was the situation we were in a few days before April 19th, our arrival day in Prague. I had sent out the score sheets 10 days before recording to the copyist who probably got a bit nervous and told James, our orchestra contractor and booking agent from Tadlow music, that we will have a hard time recording all that music in just one day. The problem was, that the amount of music we needed to record rose quite a bit after we had booked the sessions. “We need to put a small cue there, too to get that comedy accent right.”
Another fact that didn’t make it easier for anybody was that we were going to record a comedy score, lots of pizzicato passages and small motifs which need lots of concentration by the musicians, not because of playing difficulties but because of counting correctly, it needed only one string player to not count correctly and one take would be spoiled.
We arrived in Prague on Saturday quite nervously, Moritz, Cornelius (one of the producers of the movie) and Sam (a friend of Moritz) got there by plane, Benny (our scoring assistant) and me arrived by train from Dresden a few hours later. We met up in the hotel and went out to have a coffee to calm down our nerves :) It had started to rain before we walked back to our hotel so we got quite wet on our way – what a great start :) At 6 pm we met up with Jan – our sound engineer and James in the Smecky Studios, just about 50 metres away from the hotel to load the Protools sessions into their system and talk about the set-up for the next day, recording order and all that geeky stuff.
After that we went out to have dinner, we knew about a fancy restaurant in Prague which was supposed to have excellent Sushi and walked there to at least have a good meal before THE day. Well, we got there after walking for 30 minutes (I exaggerate this value just to make it more dramatic :) just to find out that there was a private party in there. Well, we went to an Italian restaurant after that. Yeah, trying to eat Asian and actually eating Italian in Prague, we know, that’s like cultural food-rape but we’re ignorant music snobs and I had an excellent Lasagne which is an excuse for almost anything :)
I didn’t sleep that night, well or at least only a few hours. Actually I wasn’t too nervous, the problem was the air conditioning in my room which obviously only had the mode “35°C”. Opening the window was no option as there was a main road with a few striptease bars right there and lots of people trying to get anybody who walked by into these bars. That happened a few times to us as well, the weirdest thing was getting a flyer for a location which obviously had the show act of “A dwarf being shot through the air by a cannon.” Are there actually people who pay for such stuff? Well, anyway, I didn’t sleep that night and I just repeat it to emphasize on the dramatic situation I was in the next morning.
We met up for breakfast at 8am in the hotel where anybody except me was having sausages, bacon, eggs and all that stuff. I felt like some weird alien on the table by eating “normal” stuff. Yeah! Everybody was crazy except me! Well, anyway, our adrenaline level rose continously. Moritz seemed to have a nervous breakdown or something like this between two portions of ham and egg because he decided to actually eat “normal” cornflakes in between.
“Ok, let’s go to the studio.” – We arrived there at about 8:30am, the sessions were to start at 9. We sat down in the studio which had a nice new big screen to watch the movie while recording and waited for the musicians to come in and tune up (by the way, they tune to 441Hz, which is quite fun if you try to lay over some prerecorded elements being recorded in 440 Hz. :) Richard, our conductor, came into the recording booth a few minutes before the session started and talked to us in perfect, accent-free German. We later found out that he grew up in Germany and studied in Austria, a really cool guy, being extremely busy in Prague, conducting “Der Fliegende Holländer” by Wagner in the state opera when he wasn’t conducting our stuff in Smecky Studios. Speaking of Wagner…
We had one cue which has parts of the “Ride of the Valkyres” by Wagner in the score. This piece is actually one of the most difficult to play track in the whole orchestral literature and we could have spent our whole 2,5 sessions just to record that track decently. It was also one of the reasons why James and all the guys got concerned about whether we would be able to record everything we wanted in time. We talked with Richard about how to get an acceptable result for this track without spending hours and came to the solution to tell the musicians just to emphasize on the target notes. Now if you know “Ride of the Valkyres”, you may have noticed that the accompanying patterns consist of lots of short runs, especially in the strings. Those are the things that make it difficult. So deciding on just hitting the target notes of these runs properly and just glissando-ing to them makes it alot easier for the players without having a dramatically different sound. Yeah, Wagner might kill me for that statement but we had to think economically, so that was the way we wanted to try and hope Wagner might forgive us for doing it that way because he definately wouldn’t forgive us for butchering his “Ride of the Valkyres” and putting Wagner sound-alikes we came up with in between. So if I might be hit by a flying dutchman some time, it might be his revenge. This day I decided to stay away from Holland for the next few years. :)
So there we were, sitting nervously in the recording booth, waiting for the session to start. We decided to start with the “Kalutschistan National Anthem” – an anthem I came up with for the fictional country “Kalutschistan” in the movie which could musically be located somewhere between Eastern Europe and the Middle East. We decided to start with that cue because we didn’t need it to be recorded with click, it was quite easy to play for the musicians to warm up, it involved almost every instrument and had some loud passages, which was important for Jan to set the levels for the recording decently.
After that track was recorded and obviously caused a lot of fun with the musicians we jumped into cue order to not lose too much time with musicians searching the correct sheet. The next cue was a kinda agent-like action track, with some jazzy influences, which of course caused the musicians after the first take to ask back whether there were wrong notes in the score. “No, it’s Jazz.” Stanja, our translator, replied back. And she was way more than a translator. She was actually co-producing, coming up with advices and suggestions and another pair of extremely fine ears: “I think not everybody in the first violins is playing it the way we told them to, yet. I will tell them again.” After that wrong-note-incident I told her to warn the musicians before each jazz-influenced cue we were recording in advance so they might not ask back because of wrong notes :)
The first session went by pretty smooth, we recorded around 4 cues per hour which was pretty good. As we did a lot of musical spoofs in the score referencing from Lawrence of Arabia, Saving Private Ryan, Back to the Future, Mission Impossible, James Bond, A-Team, Band of Brothers to our own last score Tell, the musicians had lots of fun doing that.
We decided to put the Valkyre before the lunch break, which turned out to be a good idea because we nailed a decent version of it within 4 takes and our plan went out nicely. It sounded like the “real” Valkyre, just not for Wagnerians, which was good enough for us. :) We did a few more cues before the break and got a bit behind then, having approx. 17 minutes of music recorded in the first session, which would leave about 8 minutes unrecorded after 2,5 sessions if we stayed at that pace.
So we had to speed up quite a bit to stay in schedule. I lost my appetite in that minute but decided to eat a club sandwich in the British Pub right across the street, yeah, after Italian and almost Asian why not eat British in Prague? Well we always went there in the lunch break between sessions before and I made sure to emphasize the “always” to make it sound as if I recorded there “every few weeks.” :) Unfortunately Cornelius noticed it and said “Oh you say that just to make you look cool, don’t you?” Damn. :)
Oh well, the club sandwich was good AS ALWAYS. Benny obviously lost all his appetite as he only ordered a portion of french fries – sorry British pub – chips. By this time Moritz and me didn’t look too happy, not because we weren’t happy with the results we had so far but because of the cues that lay ahead of us. We still didn’t have any of the complicated score tracks recorded and decided to do so almost at the beginning of the next session to not put them too far at the end when everybody starts to get tired.
So we went back into the studio waiting for the next session to start at 2pm. We started of with the finale of the movie which was quite an easy track for everybody to get warm again and moved on to the western version of the main theme after that which we knew was quite a tough track (sounding D6 for all 3 trumpets), heavy timpani parts and quite difficult rhythms for everybody.
The first take went pretty well, the musicians were laughing and cheering after the first take, we were pretty happy as well. Everybody was happy… well almost. After only a few seconds the timpani player came in with his sheet for this cue, said something in czech (we knew he was angry), threw the notes at our table and went out again. We all were looking at Stanja: “He said he would pay a million euros if we found anybody who was able to play this.” Well, I knew it was a part that would need rehearsing and I was hoping for the player to simplify it himself to get a decent version of it. Unfortunately, he obviously didn’t want to do it. We decided to record that cue without him and put sampled timpanis on the recording later. He was playing again on the next cue but from then on he always walked by in the following breaks without looking at us. So if you read this: I’m really sorry for this part, it was all my fault and I hope to have you playing again with a smile on your face next time!
We knew we had to speed up quite a bit, so we stopped doing “safety takes” of cues we were happy with to save time. We moved on doing some really cool recordings of cues we thought would be quite tough (especially the ones with BigBand like brass writing) but we had excellent players on the trumpets and trombones who really nailed these cues.
The last session started at 7pm with 10 cues still to be done in 2 hours. So anybody who can count and knows our plan “4 cues an hour” realizes that it will be quite impossible to do it in time. Nevertheless we tried it. We knew that many players had played for 8 hours already this day and we couldn’t afford getting slower and unconcentrated. So we started this session with quite a bad feeling. We moved on as quickly as we could, deciding to fix problems in the editing as long as we have one take of every part of the cue that is allright. We decided to take out the percussion on a few tracks to add them later with samples and be able to move on quicker as they had a few difficult passages which caused a bit of chaos.
We somehow managed to get through most of it before the break, leaving us 5 cues to record in the last 45 minutes. The feeling that we needed to go overtime (which was not possible by the way) rose, I was thinking about which cues to leave out and cut together later from cues we have already. I don’t remember how and why, I probably passed out in between but we actually finished 5 minutes BEFORE the end of the session, leaving us time to get out to the recording stage and thank the orchestra, conductor and concert master for their great work, they applauded back (probably not the timpani player) and slowly started to leave the stage. I can’t really describe how I felt this moment. I needed a few minutes to realize that we actually made it and got it all nailed in time. We remained in the studio for a while, talking to James and Jan, taking some pictures of us and somehow started to play the piano, ending up in a wild improvised blues playing session with Moritz and me on the 2 pianos on the stage. Oh well, somehow we needed to compensate for all that stress of the day. :)
Happily and exhausted we went back to the hotel and decided to meet up after 5 minutes again to have dinner in a quite fancy restaurant James recommended. Well, not only the restaurant was fancy, also the prices were. But at least it had live music by a quite decent bossa-nova playing quartet and 2 waiters serving us. I had a Lasagne that evening and no, that’s not a deja-vu. The Lasagne was excellent by the way :) Moritz and Cornelius decided to finish the evening with gambling (both lost around 50 Euros) in a Casino next to the restaurant while Benny and me decided to get back to the hotel, I really needed to get some sleep.
I slept better that night, my aircon was working again and I was just so tired that there was no other option but falling asleep immediately. Also I knew, the half choir session the next day would turn out way more relaxed than that day. Well, that’s what I still thought that night. We met up for breakfast again at 8am on Monday, of course I was again the only normal person on the table, everybody else was having sausages, ham, eggs and other non breakfast-compatible stuff. We knew we had 10 cues to overdub with the choir, which should be okay in half a session. We ordered a 20 piece soprano choir because we needed the choir only to add some “heavenly” texture to some of the cues. I knew I had written some pretty difficult passages, difficult because they were damn high, sounding A5 and B5.
The weird thing was, that we needed quite a few takes on some cues to not have the top A5 too flat while we only needed 2 takes on another cue to get it properly which had a B5 in there. We ended up needing to record quite a few takes of some cues to get one version that was in tune. And that’s where our problems began. We had again 5 cues left in the last 45 minutes. And it’s not that easy with a choir than with the orchestra. The singers need to rehearse certain passages for a while before one can record while we did recordings of the first play-through with the orchestra.
So again we got into time crunch, but solved it by leaving out some passages which weren’t absolutely neccessary and finished 2 minutes late. We went out to thank the ladies and conductor Miriam (who conducted our Tell score last year) and called it a day.
We went back to the hotel to get our stuff and check out while Moritz left 2 HDDs in the studio to copy all the data (60GB by the way) to them. Benny and I needed to hurry a bit because our train was supposed to leave at 12:20 at the central station while Moritz had a flight that left around 8pm. So we said goodbye to each other and split up. Well, we didn’t knew yet that our train would be 40 minutes late and we could have had a decent lunch with everybody but anway. We spent the time listening through some of the monitor mixes from Sunday and searching for the best take.
So all in all, we were having a great time again in Prague, even if it was the most stressful session I had so far. But thanks to the great team in Smecky and the enthusiastic musicians we were still able to nail it. Thanks again to the musicians, Stanja, James, Jan, Benny, Richard, Miriam for letting us have such a great time in Prague again. I’m looking forward to be back there soon.