This interview with hans Zimmer appeared in the KVR audio magazine. It covers a discussion of the way of composing and producing through the years, the equipment challenges and the -many- compositions by Hans Zimmer and his team. Please note that the (c) are with KVR audio. The original article can be found here.
Perhaps the most recognized name in film scoring today belongs to a man who gets sincere joy out of recognizing his colleagues. During his brilliant career as an award-winning film composer, songwriter, bandleader, and innovator Hans Zimmer has built a talented network of co-composers, arrangers, orchestrators, and technical people by being very smart, generous with credit, and loyal to everyone he works with.
In addition to his talent and creativity, one of the reasons that Hans is hired is that he collaborates with all concerned, and never loses sight of a film’s story, and the importance of music to enhance and sometimes even change it. The collaborators with whom he has worked, from producers, to directors, to co-composers will say the same thing – Hans lives the movie and the story, and that music is just his most articulate means of contribution.
Over the years Hans has spent much time and resource wrestling cutting-edge tech into something that allows him to be incredibly prolific, while staying out of the creative path. He’s used sequencing and synthesizers at a very high level since before the invention of MIDI, and he was one of the first to take advantage of computers throughout the creative process. He has worked closely with music companies like Steinberg and more recently Spitfire, as well as respected music technology people like Mark Wherry and Peter Gorges to develop an ever-expanding ecosystem.
A big part of that ecosystem is his orchestral library. He is very passionate about working with orchestra musicians whenever he can, but often it’s not feasible because Hans works late into the night. He has been sampling musical instruments since the earliest days that sample playback devices became available, from the CMI Fairlight to the powerful computers of today. His adventures with sample library creation began with the Roland S-770 and S-760 in the 90s when constraints forced him to use one device per instrument. As computers gained more cycles and memory Hans moved his Roland libraries to GigaSampler. Around 2006 he started recording the massive and still growing library that he and his team use today.
His first effort to develop his own software to manage this was with Wizoo. As things sometimes happen though, Wizoo was acquired by Avid, who had its own priorities. A few years later, as things sometimes happen, Avid was in the middle of a round of layoffs, and Peter, being the entrepreneur he is, decided to leave. Hans, being the person he is, reunited with Peter and his DSP architect and today, under the name of ujam, they are busy developing next generation products, while assisting Hans with the software infrastructure to support his studios in London and Los Angeles, as well as dozens of staff around the world who contribute to his musical vision.
Part of Hans’ Moog Modular (actually this is stack of Roland System-100M modules, not moog, Admin)
Hans was kind enough to speak with us from the London studio.
This is an honor. We’re all fans of yours, so I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.
You’re so wrong, being a fan. I mean, you’ve got some good taste though (laughs).
You have studios in both London and Los Angeles. Are the studios perfectly mirrored?
There are parts which are perfectly mirrored, and then there are things like that (points to Analog Solutions Colossus), which don’t exist in LA. Behind me is a Moog Modular that is mirrored in LA, and the machine room that has our custom samplers are mirrored of course. And we’re huge fans of this little Waldorf Iridium, of which we have everywhere.
The Colossus is amazing. I’d like to ask questions about both your music and your use of technology.
Right, well it’s all the same thing.
You’ve had so much success over your career. What gets you up in the morning now?
Actually, nothing gets me up in the morning. Nothing happens before 12:00pm at the earliest (laughs), but really more like 2:00pm in the afternoon. And I must say that I’ve managed to train my colleagues in Hollywood in that, because when people who shall remain nameless phone me first thing in the morning, I’m really good at pretending I’m fully awake and I can have perfectly reasonable conversations with them. And then a couple of weeks go by, and they go, “what happened to that project we talked about?” and I’m going, “what project?” I just think the world is a little nicer place after people get over the shock of their first emails and the whole world wakes up to whatever the crisis du jour is.
But the question is a good one, what excites me? Ideas excite me. People I get to work with and people I get to play with. Technology excites me. It depends on the day, you know. The unanswered question—that’s what excites me. Questions excite me; answers are boring.
Two of your most recent credits are Dune and Top Gun: Maverick, where there are themes and motifs from the original. Was your approach any different?
Not really, but there were lots of things going on. I mean…let me tell you why I took on Top Gun. Tony Scott was one of my best friends and I loved him. Jerry Bruckheimer and I have worked together on many things, and I think Tom Cruise and I have done seven movies or something together. Harold Faltermeyer and I are both from the same neighborhood, literally. I think there was a point where Harold, Giorgio Moroder and I were all living in the same house in Munich, and I didn’t know them. I think there was a time where Jerry Bruckheimer only hired composers out of that house, which I think was a complete coincidence, but there you go.
So why did I take it on? I took it on because of Tony. I took it on because I like Harold and I liked his theme. And I took it on because of Tom. And a few things happened, good things and some bad things. A good thing was, for instance, Lady Gaga came and joined the band. And my friend Dave Fleming, who is another great musician and great composer, and I were in LA with her spending nights playing. She was writing a love song and I was going, “let’s make it into a love theme,” so I always thought it’d be really important that whatever that song was would carry thematic weight throughout the rest of the score. After all it’s not like the ’80s anymore where you throw a song in, and you ignore it for the rest of the movie. In Lion King, I never acknowledged any of Elton (John)’s songs. I just did my thing and Elton just did his thing. But now I try to pull a song off in a legitimate, committed way. First of all, work with the artist. Secondly, have the artist be part of the team, so that was the good part of this.
And the bad part of it all was Covid. I got Covid and I was sick as a dog. And in stepped my friend, the very talented Lorne Balfe, who happens to have a relationship with the rest of this crew anyway. He’s doing Mission Impossible with Tom and has done movies with Jerry Bruckheimer. He came in to fix things and add his creativity. I really enjoy working in a collegial band type of situation. I like people bringing ideas to the table, especially when I’m sick in bed and they’re saving us.
And Dune was quite different than that…
Dune was very different, and by this point, Covid had truly hit. I had gotten past the worst of it, but I realized that I couldn’t work in my normal way, so I turned my sitting room into my studio and the only other person allowed to come in was my assistant, Alejandro, who is here in the studio with me now. So, he’ll tell you if I start lying about things (laughs).
OK. Let me write that down…
We had started Dune a year earlier in a weird way. Denis Villeneuve (Dune Director) and I had already figured out that we wanted to use female voices. And through Edie Lehmann Boddicker, who is the greatest vocal contractor in the world, although actually it was her husband Michael who found Loire Cotler for us. And, where did he find her? YouTube of course. Where else do you find people these days?
So, Loire came over, and it was her and Edie and Susan Waters. The four of us were just doing samples and trying out ideas when Denis came by and saw where we were going with it. He was gobsmacked because we were heading into a really interesting direction. We knew what we wanted to do, so we made the architectural plan, if you will. And then Covid hit again. I was back working from home with my touring band and we added Loire. It was basically people I’d been playing with for a very, very long time who can all record at home.
The Dune score is very electronic. I think sometimes you don’t realize how electronic it is. We would drive people like Urs Heckmann crazy by going, “We need 4 Resonators in Zebra now,” because we have this idea that one could turn the sound of a Tibetan horn, and superimpose the spectrum of that onto Tina Guo’scello. And I think Urs thought we were crazy, but it worked out alright.
It sure did. How often do you use soft synths as opposed to hardware synths these days? Do you have any favorites?
Well, it’s really simple actually. Look, I love my hardware synthesizers, but I think, in the time of Covid, we weren’t going to rip things out of the walls—and we were all at different places. And it helped for instance, that Pedro Eustache, our woodwind maestro, is actually a secret synthesist. He has two original Lyricons laying around. And, I know Zebra really well—the ZebraHZ version, or the Dark Zebra, that’s my version. I love making sounds. A big part of my music editor’s job is to go, “Okay, time to start writing some notes.” (laughs).
The Dark Zebra
So, my favorite soft synth is Zebra, and I’ll tell you why. The underlying quality of the sound is not going to let me down. The code in each module is really well written. The oscillators are great, and the circuits are great, and there’s one module that’s a bit dodgy, but they’re all of an equal quality.
And I like a GUI that is intended for a softsynth as opposed to an emulation. I experienced this years and years ago when I first got very excited about Arturia bringing out their Modular Moog soft synth. But, I spent as long making a sound on that as I would spend on the real thing, which was standing right next to me, so it took the same amount of time to end up with something that wasn’t quite as satisfying. I had this conversation with Urs once where I said, “There’s little imperfections you get on analog, digital is too perfect,” and Urs just shot back at me, “No, you don’t understand, analog is perfect, not digital. Analog is perfect because it’s a straight wire with something going through the straight wire. There’s no computation. There’s no errors in computation. It’s genius design of choosing genius components that makes it work.”
And a second point, which is the point that always surprises me, because I start off just playing around with it, fully thinking I’m going to use a different synth today and I’m just playing around with Zebra, and it inspires me. It never bores me. I still get fabulous new things out of it. So, your initial question was, what gets you out of bed in the morning, and I can say the same about synthesizers. What’s my criteria for synthesizers? It’s very simple. The quality of the sound is something that I like, and that it doesn’t bore me.
Have you had experiences where your music may have changed the storyline of the film you were scoring?
Sure. I can give you a few examples, but I think one is Gladiator, which was cut in my studio.
The film editing?
Yea, they were doing the film editing, because it makes sense. I did Rain Man in Barry Levinson’s cutting room. I did Pirates 2 and 3 at Gore Verbinski’s cutting room, so it makes sense that we all pile together.
In Gladiator, because the movie used to start off, according to the script—what little there was of a script—prior to the gladiator into the battle. I kept saying, “Ridley, you’re a poet, you’re an artist. You’re not giving yourself that freedom. You’re not announcing to the audience that you’re a poet, and there’s no female soul in it, really.”
So, we had this long discussion about that, and Pietro Scalia, our editor, had three CDs on his shelf and one of them was Dead Can Dance, and once Ridley agreed to this idea that maybe a female voice would be interesting in the score, Pietro pulled out Dead Can Dance and said, “What about Lisa Gerrard?” And somebody had her phone number. I’d never met her, and Ridley and I went, “Yea, that’ll be good.” And then we came back the next morning and Pietro had found that one minute of footage of the hand on the wheat, so that became the opening shot. If you think about it, if you start off a script with one minute of footage of an extra’s hand on the wheat, no dialog, just music, there aren’t even titles over it. It’s just completely just that. That would probably be the first thing that would get torn out of a script.
The opening scene of Gladiator
I also remember being in LA and Chris Nolan, who was working on his first Batman movie in London, phoning me and saying, “I’ve got a problem making the shot of Batman standing on the skyscraper overlooking Gotham City work. I don’t know how to get to the shot. The shot itself is great, but we’ve got to make it the iconic shot.” He explained what was going on beforehand, so I sketched something that enabled him to have that shot.
It’s like, Frost/Nixon comes from a play, and I remember Ron (Howard) and I sitting there for two weeks just discussing music and songs and ideas, and then the dailies started to come with shots that I knew were motivated by the music, helping to turn a play into a film, and were motivated by something I had promised him I could write, and than I had to make good on it.
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is almost forty years old now. How did MIDI change your approach and contribute to your career?
MIDI saved my life. I come from the days of the Roland Microcomposer, typing numbers, and dealing with Control Voltages. I was really happy when I managed to have 8 tracks of sequencer going. From the word go, I thought MIDI was fabulous. I know it had latency, and I figured out ways to get around that. I knew it could be unstable, and I figured out ways to get around that. But it could do a lot more than controllers using Gates which was my method up until that point.
I’m pausing a bit here because I’m remembering the early transition to MIDI. I had a Fairlight sampler that at that point didn’t have MIDI. It was only later that they bolted on a MIDI interface to the back. And that was smart. Conversely, the Synclavier guys were so obnoxiously arrogant that they didn’t want to implement MIDI because they thought it was a substandard protocol, which of course it was, with that little DIN plug. But here’s the thing, what did you say, forty years?
It was 1983.
Yea, it’s been the length of my career, so that might answer part of it. But the other part about it is, it’s one of the most stable computer protocols ever written. I have friends, who shall remain nameless right now, who were part of writing the original OS for Apple. I don’t know where we are right now in Mac OS, but they can’t help themselves and open up the OS anytime a new version comes out and go, “Wow, there are things I wrote when I was a kid, and they weren’t very good, but they’re still in there because the thing can’t run without it.” It’s so rare that a protocol doesn’t get changed. I remember Jeff Rona and Chris Meyer, that wonderful guy who used to work for Roland when they did MIDI Timecode. They would add unbelievably great things. And because it was a limited 8-bit system, everybody sort of figured out how to make the best out of it.
I literally just had this discussion as I recall with my engineer Steve Lipson, who made great records with MIDI, like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and at the same time he was talking about a plastic quality that crept into music in the ’80s and maybe that wasn’t such a good thing. And I don’t think it had anything to do with the MIDI protocol. I think it had more to do with, because there was a protocol where suddenly anybody could write a VST synthesizer or effect.
And, we’ve got to give Steinberg lot of credit here for inventing that protocol. I remember the Propellerhead guys coming by my studio one day and they had this little bit of software which was two modeled Roland 808s and a 303 and leaving that with me and saying, “Hey, this is something we just cooked up. What do you think of this virtual instrument?” And of course, I thought all of that stuff was fabulous. Of course, I still have the hardware. You know, earlier I said we have boatloads of these Waldorf Iridiums. They’re not VSTs in a box if you see what I mean. They’re legitimate synthesizers with a proper polyphonic aftertouch keyboard—so that’s not a VST. But VSTs are fantastic, where they got to, and we’re way past the ’80s and we’re way past those first…it looks like a mini-Moog, but it doesn’t sound anything like it… emulations.
Given that you’ve always been on the cutting edge of things…
You know something, I’m not. I’m not. I learned that very quickly. One thing you don’t want to be is the first kid on the block with anything that has a microprocessor or software in it, because when it crashes in the middle of the night, you have a deadline. You’re in big trouble. So, there used to a producer here in London, Steve Levine, who did all the Culture Club records. I was in the studio next door, so when he would get something new, I would just see how it’s going for a while before buying it. If there was a lot of tearing out of hair and people in white coats coming over, I knew it was time to wait a little while.
That was actually going to be my question. Did you ever have a situation where you needed to hit a deadline and something wasn’t working, and how did you deal with it?
Yup, the first version of Pro Tools. We had done a whole movie in Pro Tools, and I remember one scene had 256 edits and it worked great. Then we were up at Lucas Ranch, and it would not play back. The boys came over from Palo Alto and they couldn’t make it work either and it was truly embarrassing. Our poor music editor had to recreate all of the those edits. So, that was not a happy day.
Ouch. Let’s talk about sampling. You’ve done a lot of libraries over the years, and I know that you’ve worked on a new one with UJAM.
I just saw Peter Gorges last week. Years ago we started working on a software sampler, because in those days Kontakt didn’t do what I needed it to do. Being in the film business everything I’m doing is in surround and Kontakt didn’t have it. What we initially decided to do was very much bespoke, and the idea was it would be a one trick pony. The orchestra is a defined set of parameters. You have woodwind, strings, brass, etc., but there are very few fuzz boxes or distortion perimeters you can build into it.
So, we were going to go and build the thing that’s going to play an orchestra back, and as soon as we started, Digidesign came to us and said, “That’s fabulous. Can we buy you?” And I wasn’t going to keep Peter from that, so my first soft sampler went off to the world of Avid/Digidesign. And then, Mark Wherry, who was brilliant and bright and a journalist and a friend said to me, “You’ll never get your sampler because this will happen every time. But let me sit down and build you something.” So, he built a sampler for us which was, to this day, quite revolutionary in the way it works.
Then, of course the way this business is, if you’re in this business for long enough, you see these waves. Everybody at Digidesign got fired, and that meant that my original team, including Peter, suddenly become available again. By that point, we had this really great sampler with an editor, which was actually built by the people who ended up building HALion for Steinberg. In those days, it was pretty revolutionary because it was multitrack and non-destructive, so we just started sampling an orchestra in one hall very specifically.
Find the Stradivarius cello…
And it’s interesting what happened with some of it because some of my favorite players would retire, or my favorite cellist, who had a Stradivarius cello couldn’t say no to a collector in Hong Kong, and suddenly that cello was gone. Except, before he sold it to them, I made him sit in his seat in our studios for two weeks and sample any musical possibility that we could think of, so some of it is nearly archaeological. It’s like, I’m keeping things alive.
So, you are archiving both the instruments and the players…
Yes. There was an oboe player that was absolutely wonderful, but you can only play the oboe for so long. You will age out because your lips won’t have the strength anymore. He got to the point where he was worried that he wasn’t going to make a beautiful sound anymore so he went to one of the bridges over the Thames and just threw his oboe into the Thames, so that was the end of that, except I can still play him at the peak of his sound through the samples we made. You know, we really went to town. We really did every nuance and every dynamic and everything.
And everything in Surround…
The difference between the sampler and what other samplers did was that we had an additional layer which was basically 32 mics which would then feed whatever surround channel structure you wanted it to be. So, you didn’t have to go through that thing which now is very obvious, you know where you have the ambient microphones, but they’re still mixed down. We could always get back to the raw microphones. If you wanted to do something intimate, we could always go and lose the ambience, you know, or we could shift things around quite a bit.
So, you base your libraries on the player, and the instrument, and the score?
They’re based on all those things. But one of the things that is important is that the player is the player that will play on the score that will sit in that position in that hall with that microphone above him. I get it quite a lot where the players come in and they hear my sort of demo, and they go, “Why don’t you just use that?” and I’m going, “No, no, no, no…I’m playing this to you because you have to beat this now. It’s not that you have to beat this in accuracy, but I want your human spirit in there. I want some fire. I want everything that real people can do. But, since I’m after a real performance and real performances sometimes have the wrong note or something in it, I can—just for a bar or whatever—just switch the samples. Nobody will be able to tell the difference.
You can take the recording of a part and then strip in a couple of samples here and there to fix notes?
It’s the same people in the same hall with the same microphone above their head. They might have been playing a bit differently, but for a moment or two…look, there are movies I’ve done which everybody assumes to be completely acoustic and they’re 100% electronic and vice versa.
Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you would like to be asked?
No, there’s a thousand things that you haven’t asked me, but no, there’s nothing. Look, it’s quite simple. The way I see it is we are at the very beginning of this technology. You know, it’s not like pianos, which have 600 or 700 years of precedence in making them. We’re just at the very beginning, and it’s very interesting. And at the same time, the only thing you need to watch out for is that the underlying quality of the sound is great. That’s it. The thing is it has given everybody a chance…you don’t have to be a multimillionaire to afford a computer to make music well. I bet you—not me, because I’m old fashioned in a way by now—but I bet you can do a score on an iPad, no problem.
Maybe YOU could.
Look, look, there’s one really simple secret to any of it. You’ve got to write a tune, because without a tune, you’ve got nothing….