Klaus Badelt: Less Is More in High-Tech Film Scoring
Acclaimed composer reveals how downsizing to the ProjectMix I/O has opened up a world of creative possibilities
German-born film composer Klaus Badelt is known for work on a diverse array of films, including Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Recruit, Catwoman, K-19: The Widowmaker and many more. After moving to California and working with Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer on films such as Gladiator and Pearl Harbor , Badelt began creating his own scores. As the scale and profile of his projects have continued to increase, the opposite trend has completely transformed his studio. Over the last several years, the constant innovator has pared down his extensive and costly studio system to a few simple pieces of gear including M-Audio interfaces and controllers—a flexible and streamlined setup that has allowed Badelt to take his music to new continents and new heights.
How has your studio evolved over the last decade?
Ten years ago, before I started in America, every studio cost about 200 grand. When I got here, I had to spend about $150,000 to build my first writing room. It had 25 E-mu and Roland samplers, plus Kurzweil—racks of stuff. In the machine room, I had four or five Yamaha 02R recording consoles going into each other. Then I got tired of always saying, ‘Where's that sound? Where's the CD-ROM? That sampler's full…'
Then I discovered GigaStudio. I remember seeing it and I told everyone in our studio, ‘this is gonna be it,' so I bought 16-18 PCs for each studio. I had 40 PCs, three Macs, plus Logic and Pro Tools systems—the racks of E-mu and Roland gear became racks of PCs that gave me an unlimited sound library. They were networked, so I could look at the big server drives and find the sound I wanted and load it. At the time, I was using the M-Audio Delta 1010 as my main sound card for my sequencer. I think I also had like 50 MIDISPORT 4 x 4, 2 x 2, and 8 x 8 interfaces. I did that for a couple years; it was great, but not flexible enough for me—I wanted to have more control over the individual sounds.
My idea was to have everything in one machine. At some point, the guys at Logic talked to me and they said, ‘Klaus, why don't you use EXS for your sampling instead of the Gigas so it's all internal?' I laughed and said, ‘I have 16 GigaStudios. That's hundreds of EXS's!' But they made me think and we talked again. Finally I said, ‘I think I'm gonna try this,' so I bought the fastest Mac available, and I started the first movie. I think the G5 made all the difference. I had a poor guy and his team convert all my sounds from GigaStudio into Logic's EXS24—about 11,000 sounds. It is quite a library.
So now I have a G5 with as many screens as you can connect, my keyboard and the ProjectMix I/O. That's all I need. I was looking for this kind of a piece of gear for quite a while—I needed one piece of gear that does at least two things at a time. I used to have a MIDI fader box to do all my expression in the sounds plus a controller interface to do my mixing and automation. With the ProjectMix I/O, I can be mixing audio, and then switch modes to do all my MIDI expression with the faders—I don't need two boxes. And with the built-in audio interface, I can even run all my audio into my speakers, even surround. This replaces everything I'm using, so not only can I downsize from 20 PCs to one G5, I can now downsize all my stuff, my clutter on the desk and only have this one piece. I do still use Pro Tools a lot, and it's fantastic to be able to use the same piece of gear.
What motivated you to make such extreme changes in the way you work?
I'm into downsizing, as you can see. Downsizing is cool, because with very little gear, you don't have to be so much of a technician. If there's any troubleshooting, the problem is very easy to find. And it's cheaper. You don't have to buy that much so you can start making music much earlier and still do high-end stuff.
Technology can change your way of writing and influence you. I like to push the envelope, and I'm always inspired by technology. Everybody wants innovation and expects a composer to have new ideas, without losing the functionality of a score. It has to still be the same as it was in the '40s, '50s, '70s. But we all want to do something new, and that's how we excite the audience again. Each film is different. Every time we re-invent something.
I understand you recently took your studio on the road to record and sample everything from large orchestras to very obscure ethnic instruments.
I spent the whole summer working on a film in China [working title: The Promise, or Wuji]. It was a complete Chinese production, with an international cast. They shot 250 days compared to what you usually have here, 60 days of shooting−so for seven months we were on the road, all over China. Just to give you an example of the scope of this film, they had 1,000 extras every day, and more effects shots than The Lord of the Rings.
But there was no infrastructure for what I do. Thanks to M-Audio's help, we put a mobile recording set-up together, and recorded into the laptop. We used the M-Audio Octane connected to the FireWire 1814 via Lightpipe. In no time, we had a very high-quality recording set-up in surround. I do all my samples in surround—we did four-, six-, seven-channel recording there. Everything is on such a high-quality level—just five years ago you had to spend a fortune to get to this quality level.
They have the most amazing musicians in China—flute players, ethnic flute, all these ethnic instruments. So I took a lot of samples, as I usually do, to write with these instruments in mind. The plan was to record the instruments again later for the final score. But at the end, it was crunch-time, so we didn't even record some of the instruments again. I had to use the samples. So we had to have good recordings of those.
What is your usual creative process when working on a film in your home studio?
Every sound I have is in my library here—it goes through basses, blown instruments, bowed instruments, orchestral strings, woodwinds, electric guitars, ethnic guitars, drum kits, all kinds of stuff. I start with an empty sequence in Logic every time, nothing is loaded, and if I need a sound I load it as I go. It's very convenient; it's very quick. It just takes a couple of seconds until most sounds are in, so it doesn't hold you up in your creative process.
I am mixing the whole movie out of the computer now too. So the engineer basically comes in here and looks at my sequence, and starts from where I leave it off. I mix quite a bit while at work, but I want to still have an engineer who really knows what he's doing to polish it, and really mix it, and add the live orchestra or whatever live instruments we recorded.
Samples are like a security blanket, in case the musicians couldn't play or you don't have much time to record. If the musicians can't play it 100 percent exactly, you can be happy earlier with them knowing that your samples can augment it. But I never see samples as a replacement for real sounds. For me, samples inspire me to write, especially with obscure instruments that I would never write for if I didn't have the sound. These templates inspire me, which is why I need this library, and the sounds, to be very expressive. And, honestly, sometimes it does happen that you record it again, and you go back, the samples had this certain something, and something is lost in recording. So sometimes, there is really something to the samples.
There was a time when I only had 10 days to work on a film. And I took an approach where the writing was done when the recording happens. So I assembled a small band, a guitar player, a fiddle player who played some lap guitar, and a synth player named Michael Brooks. We had a recording studio, and we put the film on the screen on the wall, and discussed each scene. I had two days to write some themes before we started. And then we sat in the room and started playing. Our engineer was fantastic, recorded everything and mixed it at the same time, kind of like the old days where they had to go direct to 2-track. And that was it; I couldn't touch it anymore. You do interesting things when you're under pressure like this!
With the prevalence of so much new technology, some fear that musicianship is on the decline. What is your philosophy on the interplay between technology and talent?
I remember when the desktop publishing revolution started, where everybody suddenly had a scanner and a laser printer, and everyone thought, ‘oh, that's the end of graphic designers.' But it's still the same as it was before—you need good talent. Gear does matter—you need the gear that is right for you. But it's always the creativity that counts.
To watch the Klaus Badelt video interview, click here.