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Interview with Dennis Sands

Versión en español

Behind every great composer, there is always a great team. People in the shadows that perform an absolutely indispensable work in the success of a soundtrack. The sound engineer is one of these people. He is the main responsible in recording sessions, in squeezing to the maximum the quality of the score written for a movie, in coordinating the orchestra and listening to the composer's requirements.
Nowadays, Dennis Sands is one of the most important and professional sound engineer. A real referring in his work, nominated to the Oscars in several times, and winner of a large number of awards and acknowledgements due to his recordings.
A real gentleman, in the interview he granted to us, he not only clearly explains the inner details in his work, but shares with BSOSpirit a number of interesting anecdotes occured during his career. He shares his reflections about the demanding universe of economical points surrounding a movie production. And finally, he talks about his close friendship, forged through years of work, with composers as Danny Elfman and Alan Silvestri, paying special attention to their last works together: Spider-Man 2 and Van Helsing.

BSOSpirit (BS): How did you start in the film music world? Was it something you was looking for?
Dennis Sands (DS): I actually started my career in a music recording studio (MGM Recording Studios in Los Angeles, owned by MGM Records... now Cherokee Recording Studios) in the late 1960's. Because of the type of clientele we had, we did many live orchestral, big band, and jazz recordings. I was also additionally fortunate to learn from a number of old time engineers who were working at the studio at that time... Ralph Valentin from Columbia Records, his brother Val Valentin from MGM, Verve, Jack Hunt from Liberty Records. These guys taught me great tricks for micing, setups, editing. So, when everyone else was concentrating on rock and roll and recording one instrument at a time, I was learning micing techniques, recording and mixing, etc., of a band and/or orchestra. And the first time I ever experienced a film score recording session there, I was hooked! I knew this was what I wanted to eventually get into.
I met an engineer there with whom I eventually became partners. I left the studio after about 4 years. We formed a company, and did engineering independently. One of our clients did some television "variety" shows, so we started recording them. Because we had a lot of work of our own and couldn't get into quality studios, we opened our own studio in 1977 (Group IV Recording Studio). The studio brought me several important opportunities. I recorded "On Golden Pond" in 1981. This was my first "important" movie that elevated my career and gave me my first real notoriety. I also met Alan Silvestri there working on the "Chips" television show. We became good friends and, in 1984, we did "Romancing the Stone". That movie substantially elevated his career, my career, along with a number of others. From that point onward, I have been strongly positioned in the film music world.

BS: Do you think it's important to be able to read a music score in order to make a better recording sessions?
DS: Reading music score is quite important, especially for recording and mixing orchestral music. Unlike Pop music, Hip-Hop, etc., the musical dynamics of orchestral music are created in the room. By reading the scores, the mixer can participate in the dynamic adjustments necessary to help create the appropriate balances the composer intended. For orchestral recording capturing the room dynamics is essential, because by doing so, you're actually mixing via the performance rather by moving faders. It's much more effective sonically.

BS: Let's talk about recording sessions. How is the structure of them?
DS: The mixer is in charge of the recording session. It is my responsibility to determine the placement each member of the orchestra in the room, isolation booths, etc., which microphones to use, which preamplifiers, effects, reverbs, limiters/compressors. Additionally, as most sessions are now recorded to Protools, the format, track count, and layout has to be specified. There is a huge amount of infrastructure to assemble for these large sessions to take place. And the mixer is in charge of this assembly.

BS: Is there some criteria to place the performers?
DS: There is always a specific criterion for performer placement. I have conversations with the composer to find out what he or she has in mind for the score. I also try to see the movie prior to the scoring sessions. Then I make my creative decisions as to performer placement, orchestral layout, isolation, and mixing.

BS: Does a recording session begins and ends for you in the studio, or your previous work at home is important?
DS: I generally do a substantial amount of homework prior to the first recording session. In addition to the conversations with the composer mentioned above, I'll speak to the orchestrator(s), synthesizer technicians, Protools operator(s), scoring stage setup personnel, scoring stage recordist, maintenance technician. Many times I will speak to the orchestral contractor, who does the actual orchestra hiring and payroll record keeping, to get the entire orchestra complement.
I'm quite often involved in budgeting, agents, studio negotiations, and numerous other business aspects. So my job has greatly evolved from music recording and mixing to multi-faceted businessman!

BS: Is it easier to mix an orchestral score or an electronic one? With which ones you enjoy the most?
DS: Neither type of score is "easy" to mix. The challenge in orchestral mixing is setting the proper dynamics in the recording process. An electronic score, or an electronic/orchestral hybrid score, is more demanding in the mixdown process. This is due to the fact that each electronic sound coming out of whatever source device typically needs processing. This is time consuming and creatively demanding. This having been said, it also presents the greatest challenges to a mixer, but also the greatest potential for creative achievements. It's quite difficult to get synthesized sounds to mix together with orchestral sounds in a pleasing, mutually enhancing way. If the synthesized sounds are too loud, the orchestra will sound small, even though it may have been physically quite large. If the synthesized sounds are too quiet, they will loose impact and interest. So it becomes a delicate balance, but the challenges of this score style are the most interesting to me.

BS: In which studios you work most often?
DS: I primarily record in one of 3 studios in Los Angeles: Sony Pictures Studios, Fox Scoring Stage, and Todd-AO Scoring. These are large studios capable of handling orchestras in excess of 100 players. I sometimes record in 2 other studios: Warner Bros. Scoring and Paramount Scoring. These are smaller studios capable of handling about 70+ musicians. I like mixing in either Warner Bros Scoring or Signet Soundelux Studio B.
I have also recorded in Abbey Road Studios, Air Lyndhurst, and CTS Watford Coliseum, in London. Abbey Road has, what many feel, is the finest scoring stage in the world.

BS: Yearly you worked once on the recording of 11 soundtracks. Can this work be tiring? or if you work with what you enjoy, you always want more?
DS: Yes, this is extremely tiring. I work many long days, often in excess of 14 hours/day. And numerous days in a row. I am always grateful for work, and love what I do, but the film business is somewhat seasonal, with 2 major "seasons" (Summer and Christmas), and is always quite busy around these times. Working in the independent world with loyal clients, you have to remain available and accommodating. This translates into difficult, tiring schedules. But it's the nature of my business.

BS: There are black legends floating around about recording sessions: Directors or producers complaining, composers irritated with the bad orchestra performance, orchestra directors that are changed... what is your experience about this?
DS: The film business is a highly volatile, extremely risky venture. It is not uncommon for an effects laden event film to cost in excess of $180 million. With this kind of investment and risk level, it is quite understandable that there will be nervous people responsible for the completion of this product. As a result, nerves get frayed, and people under this kind of pressure sometimes explode. It definitely happens, but it is surprisingly rare. I have been around some very difficult moments, but the vast majority of my experiences have been calm, reasonable, and professional.

BS: I am sure that through all the years you have worked, you have surely been involved in some funny situation. In BSOSpirit we would love to hear some of them.
DS: One of the most amusing incidents occurred when I was just starting out. As I mentioned earlier, I worked at MGM Recording Studios. I was ALWAYS there. It seemed like I never went home. When there weren't sessions going on, they'd let me take a tape into the studio and practice mixing. So I became pretty familiar with the operation of the gear. One Friday evening, there was just one session scheduled, so I was going to help out on the session, then stay after to practice mixing. The mixer who was scheduled to do the session showed up so drunk, he couldn't even stand up. The producer and I put him in a cab to take him home. As it was Friday night, all the mixers had left for the weekend and were unreachable (remember, as this was in the late 1960's, it was way before cell phones, beepers, answering machines!). I was literally the only person in the building who knew how to operate the equipment. So, I did the session. It turned out to be the first solo album by the great jazz guitarist Joe Pass, for Pablo Records and Norman Granz, and was a big hit. Norman liked me, and I ended up doing quite a few more projects for him including artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Milt Jackson, Big Joe Turner, Sarah Vaughn, and many others. Just being in the right place at the right time! Dennis Sands and Marco Beltrami

BS: You have worked with a lot of great composers such as John Williams, Thomas Newman, Randy Newman or Marc Shaiman, but without doubts, you work more often in the works by Danny Elfman and Alan Silvestri. Let's start talking about Elfman. How is to work with him?
DS: Danny is a great person to work with personally, and very challenging and creative professionally. I truly enjoy his music and his projects, and he has achieved the enviable ability to have developed his own voice and perspective in film score. Danny allows me quite a bit of latitude and input to the mixes. Additionally, he trusts my sensibilities, which adds to the collaborative experience.
I have been quite fortunate to have worked with so many interesting and creative people. And I say this referring to my entire career, especially in my television experiences. I truly learned how to record and mix doing episodic television work. As the music was typically recorded and mixed live, without any remix, you had to be on your toes. It allowed me experimentation in a much less pressurized environment, so I could discover what worked and what didn't.

BS: Recently you mixed the music for Spiderman 2. What could you tell us about this work? which technical features has the music?
DS: This was actually one of the simpler scores, in terms of synthesized elements, for Danny. That having been said, it was still about 95 minutes of score recorded over 9 days and mixed in 15 days. So it still required a huge amount of work.
We recorded to 2 Protools systems, one designed for recording the orchestra at high sampling frequencies (96/192 KHz) which has 48 channels of very high end outboard digital converters, and one system for the synthesized elements which has high track count capabilities and numerous plugins.

BS: Did you think about your previous work in Spiderman in order to plan the recording of the follow up?
DS: Typically not, as one movie (even a sequel) has little to do with another. And our recording style and technology was different on this movie as opposed to the last. The one strong consideration to the original Spider-Man movie was relative to the "Main Title" music. They loved the original piece so much, we basically re-recorded it. There is just one small added musical theme relating to the new villain, Doc Ock. Otherwise, it's identical. Though I prefer our new mix to the original!

BS: It seems that composers such as John Debney, Christopher Young or Joseph LoDuca wrote additional music because it was impossible for Elfman to continue working in the film. What is what actually happened? Did you participate in the recording of the additional music?
DS: Danny had a prior commitment to move on to do some preliminary work on 2 upcoming Tim Burton movies. Sam Raimi and Sony executives wanted some additional music and changes, but Danny was unavailable to address them. As a result, they brought in some other composers to execute the changes. I was not involved in recording any of the additional music.

BS: With Alan Silvestri you started working in 1984 with Romancing the Stone. 20 years later you two are still working together. What can you tell us about your work with him?
DS: Actually, Alan and I started working together in 1978 on a television show called "Chips" (mentioned above), so it's 26 years later and we're still together! Romancing the Stone was the first feature we did, and was a huge one for all involved. I've lost count, but I think we've now worked on some 60+ features. Alan has given me wonderful opportunities and I owe him a great deal. We have traveled to London, Paris, and Budapest to work. Some of the projects for which I am most proud have been Alan's (Forrest Gump, Predator, Back to the Future, Roger Rabbit). Alan has displayed great trust in my abilities, and we have a very collaborative relationship.

BS: Recently you recorded his powerful score for Van Helsing. How was the experience?
DS: This was an exceptional experience. The music was wonderful... big "muscle" music, with lots of synth elements. It was a wonderful combination of old-time horror music, with some rhythm elements. It was really fun to work on, but was a huge amount of work. As I dubbed the movie as well as recorded and mixed the score, I worked for some 5 weeks straight without a day off. It was grueling, but, at the same time, very rewarding. Steve Sommers (director) and Bob Ducsay (producer/film editor) are both great guys, extremely enthusiastic and supportive. The perfect combination!

BS: What is the last score you have worked on and what are your plans for the future?
DS: The last score I worked on was for a French movie called "A Very Long Engagement" with a composer named Angelo Badalamenti. As for the future, I have the new Bob Zemeckis movie coming up next month called "Polar Express" with Alan Silvestri. I hope to stay reasonably busy doing film score recording and mixing. It's what I love to do.

BS: In case is not a so difficult question, what is the recording session you are most satisfied with?
DS: This is a VERY difficult question, as I've been so fortunate to record so much spectacular music. How could I pick between Ella, Count Basie, Alan Silvestri, Danny Elfman, ...??? But I don't think I've ever been truly satisfied with any session, as I typically feel I could have done better, or maybe would have done something a bit different. But I feel that being my harshest critic keeps me on my toes and pushes me to continue to try to improve my work. I also stay very involved in the newest technologies, though this subject could be a conversation unto itself!

BS: And the best soundtrack you have recorded?
DS: This is probably a question for someone other than me, but I would probably pick the following:

  • Planet of the Apes - Danny did a spectacular job on this; huge music, massive amount of tracks to mix (200+); I was very proud of the final mixes. Forrest Gump - Great score and movie; got my first Academy Award nomination.
  • American Beauty - Highly stylized, unique score; I was very involved in the production of the score.

BS: We'd like to thank you again for your kindness and willingness to answer these questions.
DS: You're very welcome. Thank you for your interest in what I do.

Interview for BSOSpirit by Rubén Sánchez and Pablo Nieto

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