Two Days With The Doctor…

Recording and Mixing Doctor Who – Series 4

Over the last six weeks he has been face to tentacles with The Ood, battled Stone Beasts in old Pompeii and saved the world from the choking clutches of the evil Sontarans, but Murray Gold can’t rest just yet… This weekend sees the mid-point of series four of Doctor Who and I think it’s safe to say there is plenty more for the composer and the Time Lord to do. Saturday night television doesn’t get any better than this…

Beating The Clock

I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of days with Murray and the Doctor Who music team last week, as they laid down more music for the current series. Scoring television, as I discovered, is nothing like scoring film – though this is hardly your average television show; how many shows can harness the might of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales on a regular basis?! Unlike shows like The Simpsons, episodes of Doctor Who aren’t exactly ‘scored’ by the orchestra; instead the ensemble is gathered three times in the run up to and during the series’ production to record chunks of music for use in that series. So on a blazingly sunny May day at the BBC’s Llandaff studios in Cardiff, just over an hour of music was recorded for use in the final episodes of the fourth series.

Over two three hour sessions Ben Foster conducted the orchestra, while Murray kept an ear out in the control room. The pair, who are enjoying their fourth year of collaboration as composer and orchestrator/conductor, have a great rapport and while the task at hand is important and in need of much concentration, they manage to attack it with a lightness of spirit and professionalism that made the whole process seem less like a day at work and more like a walk in the park. Sitting in the control room with Murray, I witnessed the creation of orchestral cues from the ground up. At 2pm the red light illuminated for the first time – ‘the first twenty minutes is always a bit… interesting’ says the composer as he and engineer Gerry O’Riordan readied themselves for a crack at the first cue of the day. In a recording session the clock is ever ticking by, each minute that passes is costing not just time but money and there’s a deadline and a quota to be met. By 9pm they need to have recorded over fifteen cues, some of which are weighty and intricate action cues that span over four or five minutes. The first cue isn’t so long, but it packs a punch as it’s a thrilling march for a classic villain; after fifteen minutes they still don’t have it. Recorded run-throughs take place, then a complete take, followed by re-takes of particular sections so that choices can be made later, and then, as happened a lot, a final take ‘just in case!’. Of course not every cue took this long to get in the can (or indeed on the hard drive); once the orchestra have warmed up and gotten into their groove, things move along much more quickly and by the time the dinner break came things were right on schedule.

With full bellies and a final drench of sunshine on our skin we returned; it was time to finish what was started, and although the schedule was on track there were still a few meaty pieces to get done. Once again I was blown away by the scale of this ‘television music’ and the enlarged orchestra, featuring no less than seven horns and two harps, worked wonders in the final session as some key music cues were bagged. The pace was much quicker in this second session; some cues only needed a couple of takes and the air was relaxed and chilled. Murray was seemingly impressed with Foster’s orchestrations, which were indeed lovely, and he sat back and enjoyed the performances as much as I did. The performance by the orchestra was just fantastic; in a piece for clairvoyant subservients ‘The Ood’ they moved me, and during a cue for a major plot moment my spirits soared. I was of course privy to some major story details, but I wouldn’t dream of divulging them for fear of being jettisoned to Raxacoricofallapatorious (home of the irksome Slitheen for those not in the know).

During those six hours magic was made behind the glass, as the orchestra brought to life Murray’s music. Gently twinkling waltzes, light horror passages and dizzying, ear-splitting chase cues were just some of the highlights – the latter examples were particularly impressive; as one was playing out Murray turned to me and said ‘I would never have written a chase like this in series one or two…’ It’s indeed true to say the composer is getting more daring; each cue really was a mini masterpiece, the scale of which not bound by the constraints of the screen size – this truly is movie music for the small screen.

In The Mix

A few days after my visit to Cardiff I made a right at the M4 and headed to London; Murray had very kindly invited me to join him at Air Studios to see what goes on during ‘the mix’. I joined Murray and his regular mixer Jake Jackson in Studio 2 for the last day of mixing. Sitting beside Jake I felt a bit like the co-pilot of a great starship – a cliché I know, but it’s so true – as stretched out before and around me were hundreds of buttons, faders, dials and lights. Planted on top of it though was a small computer keyboard and a flat screen monitor and I suddenly realised that all the work was happening on that, and not the desk. Computer technology has come so far that these giant mixing desks really are becoming relics of a soon-to-be bygone era. That said, Jake had used the desk initially and had marked up all the faders to correspond with each mic’d instrument; that way he could single out performances more quickly, literally at the push of a button.

’You really must be bored by now..?!’ he said to me after a couple of hours of my staring at his monitor while he spliced, tweaked and mixed down Tuesday’s recordings into aural versions of what was on the printed score. I really wasn’t, I found the whole process fascinating and couldn’t wait to hear the final mixes. For one lengthy action cue he passed me a conductor’s score to follow, which was great as it opened my eyes to what I was actually hearing and what he was playing with. For those of you who don’t know what it is to ‘mix’ something, here’s a quick rundown: Basically for a single cue Jake was given all the takes from Tuesday, whether that’s whole takes or sections of takes, along with the printed score and notes taken in the control room. From that he pieces together the cue from the best bits of the best takes. Aside from that he is also able, with input from Murray (and Ben), to alter the way the cue comes across – more emphasis can be made on a particular instrument, or less. It’s really a case of getting the cue to sound how it was intended, cleaned up and ready for any additional elements to be added… which is where Murray’s toybox comes in.

While I thought the music already sounded pretty spectacular in its raw orchestral state, it’s officially far from finished as layers of programming need to be added. Whilst I was there Murray and Jake mixed in some bits and pieces and the familiar Doctor Who sound finally came to life through the speakers. At one point Murray decided he’d like a bass guitar line on an action cue, so he popped into his makeshift studio in the adjacent room, plugged in his bass and recorded the line there and then onto the orchestral recording. Most of the time I was there, Murray was actually ensconced in that room as he had a lot to get on with: ‘I have to deliver an episode on Monday and I haven’t even written it yet..!’ he said to me as I arrived; such is the crazy adventure of making music for this show.

By 6pm the final cue was being mixed down and I was headed back out into the sunshine, bound for the Royal Albert Hall and ‘Filmharmonic’. I left Murray with his hands full; following a phone call to a director in South Africa he came in and announced ‘I have to write a Hymn and send it to him in twenty-five minutes!!’ So when I went in to say goodbye I wished him luck with the Hymn – ‘Thanks, I’m gonna need it… I’m about to sing it!’

The Fourth Series of Doctor Who continues on Saturday night at 7pm on BBC One.

My thanks of course to Murray Gold for inviting me into the inner sanctum and to Ben Foster, Jake Jackson, Alex, David McCleery and Julie Gardner for their time, conversation and making me feel so welcome.

 

Originally published at Music from the Movies in May 2008, then again in – as part of Doctor Who December – in December 2009.