I hope the title doesn’t sound too redundant. I’m up to step 4 of my 7 steps of music editing. To be more precise, I’m up to step 4A – the editing I have to do before the scoring session to get everything prepared. After the session, I’ll do additional editing. That will be step 4B.
For all episodes of THE SIMSPONS I have to insert the Main Title, Lisa’s sax solo, the End Credits, the GRACIE FILMS logo music, and the FOX logo music. While I do start with an editing session template in Pro Tools (more on Pro Tools in a future post) that has all this music already in it, I still have to check that they are placed at the correct timecode for the particular episode. Longtime fans of the show know that the Main Title can vary in length from week-to-week as can the couch gag which sometimes has custom-scored music. And the overall length of the episode can vary by a few seconds each week. So I can’t just open the template and go. I have to check everything and make sure it’s all correct for the current show.
Now that we record the music into a computer rather than onto tape, we have an almost unlimited number of tracks available for scoring. In days gone by, we were limited to 24 analog tracks on tape, but now we can go up to 192 digital tracks or more – we are only limited by the power of the computer we’re using and the amount of available hard disk space. On THE SIMPSONS we record 15 tracks to capture the live orchestra. More on that in step 5 of Music Editing 101 on scoring. I bring it up because once in a while I need to add a track or two if we know that there will be specialty instruments or vocals to be recorded. So as part of my pre-scoring editing, I’ll also adjust the Pro Tools template to add the extra tracks we need, if any.
Next is the issue of licensed songs. THE SIMPSONS has always used a lot of current popular music (and also classic oldies for flashback scenes) by the biggest bands and singers in the biz. When these bands or singers are not appearing in the show as an animated character and we are using their music as score or montage, then we usually use one of their CDs for the cue in the show. I transfer the CD track into my computer, bring it into my editing session, trim it down to the part of it we want to use, and place it at the correct timecode in the show.
Sidebar: Music licensing is one of the biggest additional costs in producing any television show. The sky’s the limit when it comes to the cost of obtaining permission to use the recording of a song in the show. The more popular or in-demand the song or artist is, the more expensive it can be. Once-in-a-great-while the cost can be very minimal because the artist recognizes the publicity and exposure having their song on THE SIMPSONS can bring. There are two costs associated with licensing a song: 1) Licensing the song itself – the intellectual property – this permission is granted by the publisher (AKA the owner) of the song; 2) Licensing the master recording – the record company owns the recording and separate permission and fees must be negotiated. In the film music world, the license for the song is called a “sync” license and the license for the recording is called a “mechanical” or “master” license. Sometimes, if the producers feel that it’s not necessary to have the original recording in the show (that the song itself does the job in helping to sell the story point), then we will only obtain a sync license and Alf Clausen will record his own version. Sometimes we try to imitate the original, sometimes not. It’s all up to how the writer of the show and Al Jean envision the song in the final product.
Finally, if the show has a musical production number, I add it into the editing session at this point. OK, fasten your seatbelts as I explain the process of producing one of our famous, EMMY-winning musical production numbers. Although this is a HUGE part of the overall SIMPSONS music editing job, I decided not to include it in my “7 steps” blueprint because it doesn’t happen every week, and it rarely happens on any other shows I work on. It’s very specialized.
In a previous post I told you of my shock at the first spotting session that we would be scoring the show after it was produced and edited rather than before. Well, when it comes to the musical production numbers we do record the music before it’s animated. It begins when Alf Clausen receives the script pages containing the lyrics to the song(s). People often ask which comes first, lyrics or music? It’s different for every song-writing team that has ever existed. But on THE SIMSPONS, the words always come first and Alf sets the words to music. Next we head into the recording studio to record the song using just a small combo of instrumentalists – most often just piano, guitar, bass, and drums – and enough studio singers to cover the parts that will later be sung by the cast. This recording is what’s known as a “scratch” track. I’m not sure of the origin, but “scratch” track means a track that gives the correct pitch, tempo, length, and vocal performance of a song so that all involved with the production knows what the song will be like when it’s finished, but will be ultimately thrown away when the combo is replaced with an orchestra and the studio singers with members of the cast.
Each studio singer is recorded on a separate track. That way they can be isolated when I make a CD of the song for a particular cast member and they can learn just their own part. Our cast is supremely talented and are all very quick studies when it comes to learning original songs, but they admit they are not trained musicians so it’s very helpful when there are complex harmonies for each cast member to be able to focus on just their own part. After we finish recording, the individual CDs for cast members are made and a “full mix” digital file – all vocals included – is emailed to Al Jean for his approval. If he signs off, then the cast CDs are distributed and a digital file version is also sent to the editing room so they can assemble it into the show when the rest of the dialog is recorded. This step takes place anywhere from 6 to 9 months before the show will air.
Once the cast has had some time to listen to their CDs and digest the song, then we go into the studio and record their vocal performances. This is one of the highlights of my job because I get to be part conductor, part producer. I teach, coach, and direct each cast member through the song for however many takes it requires to get a solid, complete performance. I’ve had great personal fun and professional satisfaction over the years working with our cast and guest stars directing the singing – Yeardley Smith’s heartfelt rendition of “Jazzman” in 2F32 ” ’round Springfield”; Dan Castellaneta’s rousing “They’ll Never Stop the Simpsons” in DABF12 “Gump Roast”; Nancy Cartwright’s & Pamela Hayden’s Broadway-belting of “Springfield, Springfield” in 1F06 “Boy Scoutz ‘n the Hood”; Harry Shearer’s delightful-but-sinister turn in “See My Vest” in 2F18 “Two Dozen-and-One Greyhounds”; Hank Azaria’s joyful “Who Needs the Kwik-E-Mart?” in 1F10 “Homer and Apu”; Julie Kavner’s love-for-Homer-filled warbling of the Gerswhin standard “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in MABF03 “Million Dollar Maybe”.
As if that wasn’t cool enough, I’ve also directed many of our guest stars when they’ve been pressed into musical service: Kelsey Grammar as Sideshow Bob; Anne Hathaway as Princess Penelope (she won an EMMY for her performance!); Berverly D’Angelo as Lurlene Lumpkin; Mandy Moore as Tabitha Vixx; Lea Michele, Corey Monteith and Amber Riley as singing, dancing GLEE lookalike-campers; Bono and The Edge, David Byrne, Weird Al Yankovic, Katy Perry, The Smothers Brothers, and The Dixie Chicks as themselves. I’m sure I’ll remember more as soon as I hit “publish” but you get the idea. I’m not just lucky enough to have the job, I’m lucky enough to live the job.
After all cast and guest star vocals are recorded and edited, they’re sent off to editing and to animation. I won’t hear any of these tracks again for anywhere from 6 to 9 months. That’s when I’ll get to see the finished product at the spotting session. At the scoring session for the episode we will then record a full orchestra version of the music that was originally performed by the small combo all those months ago. Then it’s all edited and mixed together for your enjoyment.
Sidebar: I can hear many of you asking, “But what about Michael Jackson? Didn’t you get to direct him?” Nope. Michael opted out of doing his own singing for his guest appearance in 7F24 “Stark Raving Dad”. Earlier this year, this fact became a revelation of sorts for fans who hadn’t been with the show since the beginning. Yeardley Smith was cornered by TMZ as she exited a restaurant and in the course of the impromptu interview was asked about Michael singing on THE SIMPSONS. She dropped the “bombshell” (TMZ’s word, not mine) that Michael had used a voice double. Apparently this came as a shock to TMZ and many of their viewers, but it was not a big secret back when the show originally aired. I even remember reading with amusement one reviewer who stated that it was clear to him that Michael had done his own singing but not his dialog (the reverse is true). Michael agreed to let Kipp Lennon do his singing for him in the episode. Kipp is a great singer/musician in his own right and also has a great gift for mimicking other vocalists. Kipp also sang our parody of the CHEERS theme in 8F08 “Flaming Moe’s”, “The Sound of Grampa” in 1F21 “Lady Bouvier’s Lover” and, most recently, “Waverly Hills” in LABF10 “Waverly Hills 9-0-2-1-D’oh!” among others.
Next time in Music Editing 101: The Scoring Session and the 2nd half of editing.