Industry Spotlight: Recording Engineer JOHN KURLANDER

Film Music Magazine • February 18, 2010

John Kurlander is a world-renowned music recording engineer and score mixer whose extensive career ranges from working with numerous classical and popular music artists to recording hundreds of feature film scores and symphonies including recording soloists and small ensembles as well as large orchestra and choir. John joined the team at Abbey Road Studios at the age of 16. His first major assignment was as the assistant engineer on The Beatles’ “ABBEY ROAD” LP. He quickly went on to become one of the world’s leading recording engineers for classical music, orchestral classic rock, musical theatre and then crossed over to film scores. He is perhaps best known for his engineering and mixing work on “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING,” “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS” AND “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING,” for which John took home 3 consecutive GRAMMYS for Best Score Soundtrack Album and 3 consecutive TEC Awards for Best Film Sound Production. His recent notable projects include engineering the score sessions for the Academy Award nominated THE HURT LOCKER (music by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders) and the award-winning video game score ASSASSIN’S CREED II (music by Jesper Kyd).

Can you tell us about how you got started as a recording engineer and score mixer?

I started as a “tea boy” at Abbey Road Studios in 1967 at the age of 16, straight from school. After an initial training of 3 months I began to assist on some sessions both pop and classical. At the beginning of 1969 I was approached by George Martin and Geoff Emerick to be the principal “tape op” or assistant engineer on The Beatles’ upcoming album, which was later to become known as “Abbey Road”. This was an unbelievable experience and an amazing start so early in my career. As a music lover of pop and classical, the studios gave me a unique chance to work in both, and by 1970 I was engineering my first sessions for Badfinger, which Geoff produced for Apple Records.

Please explain your role when working with composers. What is the engineer responsible for during the recording process?

The recording engineer / mixer is responsible for session planning, room setup, mic selection, creating the sound recordings, and eventually refining and finalizing those sounds in the mix. It’s a truly wonderful job and just the chance to be working with so many talented musicians is a joy in itself. The best thing is that as technologies and tastes are quickly updating and changing, no two recordings are the same, and it’s a constantly evolving art. Having said that, many of the challenges and pitfalls can easily be avoided by doing lots of homework, research and forward planning. Especially on the large orchestral sessions where time, money and reputations are all on the line.

During your career, you have worked on popular music, musicals, classical releases, and soundtrack recordings. How do these types of projects compare in terms of their demands for the recording engineer?

Not really so different as one may think, however most orchestral sessions as I said need lots of forward preparation, whereas techniques for recording bands tend to be much more made up and improvised on the sessions, and because of that it is probably better not to start off the sessions with too many preconceived notions or ideas. There is much more chance to be inventive, as almost everybody is looking for original new sounds. In orchestral recording, especially classical, updated technologies are constantly coming along, aiming to get closer to the elusive true audio reproduction.

Among your many credits, being on board and recording The Beatles’ “ABBEY ROAD” album and their subsequent solo releases has not only become a blueprint for production values spanning 40 years but the production is just as fresh and still maintains a progressive quality in spite of technology and departures from analog recording. How do you explain this production phenomenon?

I think as with most music recorded in the sixties, with limited track availability, major final decisions for both music and sonics had to be made as we went along. This made the recording process more vital, and the final mixing quicker, more efficient and therefore much more spontaneous. To give an example, many Beatles 4-tracks and 8-tracks would end up having a percussion track such as shaker or tambourine added at the final overdub stage. This was often to compensate for the drums having been locked into a rhythm track early on, and therefore we were unable to get in there to rethink that pre-mix. Nowadays with DAW recording and unlimited track counts, most decisions can be (and are) left to the mix, making that part of the job much more arduous and time consuming than is ideal. Although it could be argued that the mix is the most important part of the process, an absence of any premixes can often lead to an overwhelming number of decisions that need to be made at the eleventh hour.

“Abbey Road” was also the first and only Beatles recording to be made on a solid state EMI desk, and I think that the freshness of that newer technology inspired some truly imaginative and innovative sounds and effects. The Beatles were constantly striving to move forward in a linear fashion – and at no time was there any thought or desire to second-guess, go backwards or recapture that old “vintage” valve sound, as is so prevalent nowadays. I think the single most important lesson I learnt from those days was to constantly move forward and, as I remember Paul McCartney saying so simply, “just make it sound good”.

To what extent did you influence the production quality and orchestra use in the album? You were also responsible for “Her Majesty” surprisingly closing the recording?

As such a young assistant I can’t really claim to have influenced them in any way at all! It was a wonderful period, but at the time I just kept up real concentration on doing my job efficiently and not screwing up: in those days the chances of accidentally erasing a tape or damaging it by having it fly of the deck when spooling were quite real, so as long as I behaved myself in a professional manner everything was well. Although I was aware of working on something extraordinary, I honestly never imagined I would still be answering questions about those days 40 years later!! And yes, whilst assembling a rough a cut of the medley at the conclusion of the album, I did pick up the unwanted “Her Majesty” off the cutting room floor, and tagged it “DNU” at the end of the album, where it surprisingly and most famously stayed.

Some years later, you became known as the premier engineer for orchestral tracking for popular artists. How did you accommodate the challenge of integrating orchestral performances by the likes of London Philharmonic into pop and rock songs? Did you find any artists especially memorable to work with?

The integration is really just a question of careful dynamics: in other words, the orchestral elements need to be compressed and equalized to match the tracks, but done in such a way that the illusion of orchestral grandeur and perspective is created. Maybe bizarrely a session with Ozzy Osbourne and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra doing an orchestral rock ballad was the most memorable day, especially as Ozzy had been in all the newspapers only days earlier for biting the head off a live bat on stage. Also the sessions for Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas”, which was a rock fantasy based on Prokofiev’s “Troika” was unforgettable. There were several years at that time where all the biggest rock names from Elton John and Toto to Howard Jones were trying to outdo themselves in orchestral might and power, and although in retrospect they were all somewhat Spinal Tap experiences, these were some of my best days in the studios.

You are also known as the figure behind numerous classical recordings. What it was like to work with so many eminent orchestras, conductors, and soloists. Of the hundreds recordings you have overseen, are there any particular standouts for you?

The main thing about working with these artists is that they are consummate professionals …totally rehearsed and honed in their skills at the highest level. Most times the session would start at 10:00 AM with the conductor saying “the piece is already rehearsed and I’m ready to roll tape” (without any sound check)…in those situations the engineer’s job is to be equally prepared and say “I’m ready to go”. My first ever classical recording was an LP of works of Frank Bridge by Sir Charles Groves and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 1975… a nerve-wracking few days for me but all turned out well. Another memorable session was the first recording with Eugene Ormandy, the long time maestro of the Philadelphia Orchestra, where we recorded him for EMI in a new venue for the start of what turned into a 15 year recording contract with that orchestra. It’s almost impossible to pick just a few highlights from so many, but long relationships with Placido Domingo, Itzhak Perlman, Ricardo Muti and Bernard Haitink, really stand out!

You’ve recorded major motion picture soundtracks including most notably Howard Shore’s “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” scores. What were your challenges and memories from these major projects?

This was a massive undertaking, with all 3 movies having pretty much continuous music throughout, with at least 3 hours of score for each film, plus an additional 30 minutes for each Extended DVD. We needed to record in no fewer than 4 principal venues… in Wellington, New Zealand and Abbey Road, Lyndhurst, and Watford Town Hall in London. However in order to allow for extensive editing between performances, the sound had to be 100% consistent between takes from all venues, in some cases with different orchestral personnel – the edits had to sound like a single performance, actually a single performance that was recorded over a time span of 3 ½ years. My classical training and discipline became invaluable as I devised a studio set up that would be recreated in the 4 rooms and I adopted an almost fanatical attention to detail (or simply ‘continuity’ as Peter Jackson accurately referred to it).

In order to allow Howard time to write and orchestrate new music as the final picture edits came in, we initiated a 2-3 month recording schedule consisting of approximately 3 ½ recording days per week. Concurrent with the recordings, an edit and mix team was set up at Abbey Road and the final mixes were securely uploaded to the dub in New Zealand. Half way through each film’s scoring sessions, Peter Jackson would need to return to New Zealand, so we continued without him and had numerous video conference playbacks – common enough nowadays, but somewhat new back in 2001!

“THE HURT LOCKER” is a leading contender for this year’s Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Original Score (composed by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders) and is receiving universal critical acclaim, so it must be gratifying to see a relatively small film capture the attention of critics and now audiences worldwide. How did you and the composers approach the recording for this film compared with your previous collaborations? Were you surprised by the film’s growing momentum and success and how do you think the score contributes to leaving a lasting impression on audiences?

Hurt Locker was an extremely low budget project, and many of the instruments were played by Marco (keyboards) and Buck (guitars) themselves. Three string players (violin, cello and bass) as well as a couple of ethnic instrumentalists were brought in to Marco’s home studio and recorded separately – a truly minimalist set-up in a space just large enough to accommodate one musician at a time. However, at the core of the composition was the integration of some electronic sounds, which were created partly with new elements and some provided by the sound designer. For most of the first half of the film, we achieved a mix of music and ambient sound design interwoven into the fabric of the drama, so much so that some people were unaware of any music per se, until later on in the film when the melodic themes are introduced and featured. I think the camouflaged blend of musical tonality and sound design really helped sharpen the raw tension, that this film has been so lauded for.

Marco had a gut instinct that this was to be a very special project, but we’re all very happily surprised by the extent of its critical success.

The recent blockbuster video game ASSASSIN’S CREED II (composed by Jesper Kyd), for which you engineered the orchestra and choir recording sessions, has garnered many glowing accolades including a Hollywood Music In Media Award for Best Original Score (Video Game) and nomination from The International Film Music Critics Association (IFMCA) for Best Original Video Game Score. Do you feel game scores are now on the same level of quality as film scores? How do you see the medium evolving in the future?

Jesper wrote a great score, that I believe was at the very least, worthy of any major feature film. It seems that most composers working in games are not under the same pressure to conform to the director’s temp scores as their film colleagues are, so if the music side of gaming continues to gain the respect and appreciation it deserves (cheers, VGL!) the possibilities are very real that this art form can indeed equal or exceed that of films.

What types of scores interest you the most? Do you have any preferences when considering new projects and what’s next for you?

Ideally I look for challenging projects where I can create a unique sonic identity, something that will reflect the personality, voice and style of the individual composer, and this discovery is in itself perhaps the largest satisfaction of my job.

I’ve been most fortunate to often be offered work at the top end of film and game music so I’m seeing the really great orchestras and facilities being utilized. As a trend, I think that high end game scoring is actually on the rise as far as budgets are concerned, though unfortunately film scores are polarizing into the few huge mega budget productions, and a regrettably larger number of low budget sample-based scores. But for musicians and engineers, we all just love making great music, and whether filmgoers or gamers get to enjoy it, it’s all good.

For more information, visit http://www.johnkurlander.com



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