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A Touch of the Past and the Tools of the Future

Simon Franglen - Composer

Sennheiser’s Pro Talk Series on YouTube features interviews with the industry’s most respected audio professionals, including composer Simon Franglen, best known for his work on Titanic and Avatar. Franglen has also served as a record producer and session musician on albums with Michael Jackson, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston.

Franglen’s passion for music began at age 13, after writing to the BBC asking how to best become a record producer. “My first proper gig was working [as a programmer] for record producer Trevor Horn at SARM West [Studios],” he says. After a while, “I left and became a producer on my own.”

Years later, Franglen worked with American producer Humberto Gatica, who encouraged Franglen to move to the states after taking notice of his unique working style. “Although I was happily doing alternative records in England, what was going on in America sounded more interesting,” explains Franglen. “When I got to Los Angeles, I thought I knew everything. I knew absolutely nothing. I stopped being a producer and went back to being a programmer. I started working with David Foster, a famous American record producer. We had an awful lot of success, and it wasn't just for David. I started programming for everyone: Quincy [Jones], Michael Jackson. I was doing constant number ones. I think the first film I ever did was the soundtrack to Dances with Wolves with John Barry, who was like my hero.”

From that work, Franglen moved to working with Alan Silvestri and Howard Shaw and then eventually was introduced to James Horner. “It was this project that everybody knew was going to be the biggest disaster of all time,” he adds. “This film was going to bring down two film studios (FOX and Paramount). It was called Titanic. People talk about this groundbreaking sound of the score. There's lots of things that we created for the score that I'm very proud of, but a lot of it was because we had so little money that we were doing everything synthetically. My speciality at the time was working with the Synclavier, making an orchestra inside the computer. At some point, James brought me this piano sketch for Celine (Dion) and I programmed up this song, ‘My Heart Will Go On.’ She listened to it and loved it. We finished the song, Celine sung, the ship sank, everybody's happy. [So,] I'm mixing the song for the film and I want to do all this testing. Word comes [that] it must sound exactly the way [it was done originally]. Everything is just what I programmed early on because the worry was that Jim Cameron would change his mind about putting this song in the end. So it stuck. It stayed the way it was, and that's what you hear in the film.”

Eventually, Horner and Franglen reconnected on the blockbuster hit Avatar. After watching just five minutes of the film, Franglen was certain he’d have to work on the project. He offered up a week of time, and the production team, in turn, requested a month. That month turned into nearly a year.

“It was 11 months of solid work on that score,” continues Franglen. “The projects I've done for Jim Cameron have been the most satisfying musically because Jim is unique. He's challenging everybody to work at a higher level. And, because there's only one person to please, the ideas don't get too diluted. And I like that.”

In the years since the success of Avatar, Franglen has delved into the 3D and VR spaces, working on large installation-style projects that require an interesting score. “In Shanghai, for instance, they gave me the top of the Shanghai Tower, which has a 244 loudspeaker, 3D environment as an art space, with a beautiful sculpture; it's exquisite. I wrote a piece that involves four interlocking orchestras. 3D in an orchestra is very much localized to the instruments you hear, so I had to create a way of making a much more interesting 3D sound. I wrote a score with four separate parts so that it looked like a north, south, east, west space.”

After that, Franglen moved onto a project with Pink Floyd for an installation about the band that’s expected to garner millions of visitors called Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains. The band “asked us to produce these 3D mixes from the original master tapes, so we set up this three-dimensional array at Abbey Road Studio Two. We set up with nine speakers on the ground floor, seven in the first level and two in the voice of God. We were not trying to make something new, we were trying to make the most magical rendition of these mixes that we could come up with. Pink Floyd themselves were coming in and listening, it had to be perfect. It couldn't be anything else. Part of the exhibition was this 3D sound room. We built this room based on the specification generated at Abbey Road. What you hear in the room is using Sennheiser’s AMBEO output system [and a] Neumann internal [speaker] system. This isn't like a VR thing, it’s live sound in an actual space with loudspeakers, so we were effectively generating a mix from the masters to create an ambient mix. We found a way of creating it so that you could always feel that you were in the mix, but you could focus on the bass or you could focus on the drums. That's why it sounds so good, and I'm insanely proud of those mixes.”

As a result of the Pink Floyd project, Franglen has been approached by other artists looking to have their work processed in the same way. “It's this ability to actually sit inside the music, and it's above you in the voice of God, six meters above; it's cool.” Today, Franglen says his workflow is purely software-based. “Pro Tools is essential to my life because I'm moving so much material back and forth between editors and engineers.” In addition to his digital tools, Franglen must also still rely on a wide array of hardware. The new U 67 that Neumann came out with, which is like the old 67: thank God they didn't fix the problems. I have two microphones that David Royer made before Royer microphones appeared, he made 20 of these two and I bought a pair. His job before he made microphones was repairing microphones and I was talking to him about why they sounded so good. He said the problem with the manufacturers at the time was that people were making new versions of microphones trying to fix all the problems in the old microphones. [But,] the problems are what make the microphone sound the way that they do. We don't want perfect, what we actually want is beautiful. I'm constantly looking for imperfection… the wrong note. As I get older, I'm finding that I'm wanting less perfection and more character. I look for the little off [bits] to try and bring stuff to life. I use a lot of unusual controllers because I'm trying to find ways of humanizing what I'm doing, and it allows me to really emote.”

For playback, Franglen also takes his own unique approach, implementing Neumann KH 420s with KH 870s underneath, as well as running a surround system with multiple KH 310s. “I spend money on three things: my speakers, my screens and my chair, because those are the things I use most. I think speakers are incredibly important. There's that tactile feedback that comes from hearing what you think it should sound like. It's actually an enjoyable thing when it sounds good. These [Neumann] speakers tell the truth, which is really important to me, but they actually also make me want to work harder. [They] sound amazing. I like the fact that there's a balance between being clinical and being enjoyable. That's tough to do because there’s an awful lot of clinical speakers out there, or these overhyped enjoyable ones that actually don't tell you the truth. I think this is the best combination I've ever come across. The dynamic range on these is truly incredible. They never distort -- and I mean never. Including when I throw insane synthesizer basses from films into them. We've got to a point where the house starts to resonate before the speaker distorts, and I genuinely mean that.”

Franglen speaks of these from actual experience, following a project at AIR Studios in London. “It's quite incredible what can happen with the low-end here,” he says. “There's something about the combination that is unique in that [KH] 420 itself is a very good speaker. When you combine it with the [KH] 870, the top-end gets better. Suddenly, the top-end seems to open up. It's effortless across the entire frequency range. I can go from desperately quiet to ridiculously loud. Simon Rhodes, one of the greatest engineers in the world, thinks they're ridiculously staggering.”

And Rhodes isn’t the only one taking notice of Franglen’s setup. “Four-time Oscar winner, [Chris Boyes,] and his team were here and Chris has now got a set; he just thinks they're incredible,” he adds. “A film director that I was working with a few months ago phoned me up complaining bitterly that there's a problem with all the reference mixes and I’m getting really concerned. So, what we ended up doing was taking these reference mixes down to play them in the dub stage, which is another perfect environment. They sound exquisite and lovely. The director and the film editor suddenly realized all the problems they had in their own set up and now they want to buy exactly this set up for their system. Once you get it right, it translates everywhere. It's immaculate. They could just be the best speakers I've ever used. The [KH] 420s are really good, but it's the combination with the [KH] 870 that makes it into the greatest speaker in the world.”

For Franglen, having the best equipment is just one part of what has made his career so great. “If I was giving advice to a composer these days, I would [tell them to] understand that the world is a lot bigger than you think,” he says. “Although you may think writing film scores is the best thing on earth, it's only one of the many, many opportunities you're going to get. You're going to find that for every action [film], there are only so many [identical scores] that the world can live with. You're trying to find something new. I have a picture of Igor Stravinsky [holding a saxophone] on my wall. He was always trying to find something new, always trying to find the ‘next.’ I think, as a composer, trying to find the ‘next’ is an essential part of what we're doing. We can actually now create in a 3D space, and I think it's the first time we've ever been able to do a lot of this. The quality of the recordings we’re making is finer than there has ever been. For every U 67 that you have, which allows you the ability to touch the past, you also have an opportunity to take all the stuff -- all the toys and bells and whistles -- that we have here to try and make the future. It's meant to be an evolving art. So you have a responsibility to try and make sure the quality of the music you do reflects the fact that you have these incredible tools.”

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