Apocalypse Now: The Synthesizer Soundtrack

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(Originally published in Contemporary Keyboard, January 1980. The original pages and a slideshow of great original images follow the text.)

The scenario sounds as if it were lifted from The Andromeda Strain:

Several Specialists are contacted by the Mission Director. Each is asked to leave home and report to Headquarters as soon as possible, to bring all of his electronic instruments, and to plan to remain with the Mission indefinitely. Once at Headquarters, the Specialists demonstrate their skills to the Mission Director, who selects a team of four of them to remain with the Mission. A thorough briefing follows. The team learns that the Mission is part of a Campaign of unusual importance and complexity. The Commander has been leading the Campaign for four years. He has given the Mission top priority in order to meet the schedule for the Campaign's completion. A similar Mission, manned by a different team of Specialists, did not meet the Commander's requirements and has been terminated. The briefing ends with the Mission Director explaining the Commander's overall strategy and stressing the need for teamwork. He discusses the duties of the team members without mentioning the grave dangers that lie before them....

The campaign, mission, and team of experts are all real. It actually happened. But despite the sci-fi overtones, there is no connection with visitors from outer space or high-level espionage. In fact, the commander was Francis Ford Coppola and the campaign was his epic film Apocalypse Now. The team of specialists were synthesists Patrick Gleeson, Bernie Krause, Don Preston, and Nyle Steiner; their mission director was producer David Rubinson. The mission was the realization of the film's synthesizer score, a unique multistage effort that tied up three of San Francisco's 24-track studios for seven months. The dangers that the synthesists braved were all psychological—many tempers were maimed and egos battered. But the mission was a success, the commander concluded the campaign, and the story of the Apocalypse Now synthesizer score can finally be told.

Writing The Score
Set in the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now is the story of a secret mission to find and assassinate Colonel Kurtz, an ex-Green Beret officer who has gone off the deep end and set up his own jungle kingdom in Cambodia. Members of the mission, headed by ex-CIA agent Captain Willard, proceed in a Navy PBR boat up the Nung River through the steaming jungle. The farther up the river they go, the stranger and more violent their environment becomes, until Willard finally faces the total irrationality and evil of Kurtz's enclave. To tell the story, Coppola and his crew spent over a year in the jungles of the Philippines filming the scenes, and three years back at Omni Zoetrope (Coppola's headquarters in San Francisco) editing the footage. Despite the violent, bizarre nature of the subject matter, critics agree that the film is a work of great cinematic beauty, a powerful commentary on war in general and on the American way of doing things.

In addition to being one of the most talented filmmakers of our time, Francis Coppola has an extensive musical background. His father, Carmine Coppola, is a Juilliard graduate and a composition student of Joseph Schillinger. After serving as first flautist under conductor Arturo Toscanini, Carmine turned to film score composition. His score the The Godfather (also a Francis Coppola film) won an Oscar. As a young man, Francis listened to a great deal of symphonic and operatic music. David Rubinson says, "Francis has a fabulous musical vocabulary. He can sing most Western music verbatim. He's an avid opera fan."

Francis's concept of the score evolved when he first began working on the film. Carmine recalls: "At the beginning, Francis saw that he would have to go beyond rock and roll. He wanted something operatic and symphonic. He wanted to combine popular music with symphonic music to highlight the dramatic emotionalism."

Francis heard a score that was not separate from the dialog or sound effects, but was part of a sound montage continuously evolving out of other sonic elements of the film. According to Rubinson, "From the very beginning, Francis knew that the machine guns had to become the bass ostinato, and that the whine of the bullets was supposed to become the secondary melody line. He knew that the motorboat would sing the lament for the PBR captain, and that the radios playing the rock and roll of the period were one other element of the sound that was going on."

The concept of music of symphonic richness in which many sounds were derived from sources other than acoustic musical instruments led naturally to a synthesized realization. Francis was influenced by the works of Japanese synthesist Isao Tomita. He went to Japan and spoke to Tomita through an interpreter. He was even interested for a while in having Tomita do the synthesizer portion of the score. But contractural obligations interfered, and Francis decided to make other arrangements. Carmine explains, "Tomita was under contract with RCA and that meant that the original score album would have to be an RCA album. But Francis was using some of the Doors' music ['The End'], and in order to do that, he was obliged to give the album to Electra."

Early in 1977, while Francis was still filming in the Philippines, he contacted film composer David Shire about writing the synthesizer score. Shire then retained Sound Arts, a Los Angeles-based electronic music production company, to help design an electronic music studio at Omni Zoetrope, and then to realize Shire's score. The Shire-Sound Arts team began to produce music when Francis returned from the Philippines. For reasons that we can only speculate on, neither Francis nor the Zoetrope staff accepted any of the cues realized by Sound Arts. Other synthesists were brought in, and Carmine composed music for some of the cues, but the musician-filmmaker communications link never became clear enough for Francis to feel that the music agreed with his own vision of the film. After more than a year of work and $100,000 in music production expenses, Francis turned to Carmine to compose the entire synthesizer score, and to David Rubinson to assume the role of Film Music Producer and do whatever it would take to satisfy Francis's requirements.

Laying Down The Tracks
As film music production goes, Rubinson's role was somewhat unusual. In a typical Hollywood film, the film director hires a composer. The composer produces a written score based on what he or she understands the wishes of the director and the requirements of the film to be. He may or may not show the director any of the work in progress. When the written score is finished, the composer hires the musicians and records the music. During the recording sessions the conductor (who is generally the composer) will watch the film while conducting, but the musicians often play without seeing the film. They're too busy watching the conductor. On some gigs the musicians are not even told what kind of film they're playing for! When the score is recorded and mixed, the composer delivers it to the director. If all is well, the music is turned over to the film mixers for inclusion in the soundtrack.

It was obvious that this approach would not work for Apocalypse Now. The score would have to flow smoothly and precisely from dozens of sound effects that were, of course, synchronized with the film. The tone colors would have to be constantly revised and refined until they fit and made aesthetic sense. Cues that didn't fit perfectly with the rest of the soundtrack would have to be reworked. And above all, Francis Coppola would have to have continuous access to the music realization process so the synthesists would know exactly what he was thinking and would therefore be able to keep his concepts at the forefront of their minds.

Rubinson started with two musicians: Bernie Krause and Shirley Walker. Krause is one of the most experienced film synthesists on the West Coast. He learned to play all string instruments as a boy, then held down a variety of gigs that included playing with the Weavers, working for recording studios and radio stations, and studying electronic music at Mills College. In 1967 he met Paul Beaver, the acknowledged guru of Los Angeles's then-tiny electronic music community. During the eight or so years that followed, Paul and Bernie produced five albums together (the first of which was the Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music [Nonesuch, HC 73018]), and worked on the scores of over two hundred movies, including The Undersea World Of Jacques Cousteau and Mick Jagger's Performance. Since Paul's untimely death in 1975, Bernie has combined studio gigging with research for a Ph.D. degree in marine bioacoustics.

Krause was hired by Sound Arts to work on the Apocalypse Now project. He in turn brought in Shirley Walker, a classical pianist who had considerable experience in the production of scores for industrial, travel, and educational films. When the Sound Arts involvement with the film came to an end, Krause and Walker were asked to remain at Zoetrope. Working from Carmine's partially completed score, they produced the first two cues that Francis accepted. Shirley did most of the keyboard work while Bernie set up and shaped the tone colors.

During those sessions, Bernie and Shirley worked out the methods for synchronizing the music to the film while retaining the expressive tempo variations that Francis sought. Shirley recalls: "This is a totally new technique. I was hired as a keyboard player for Bernie. As we worked on the very first cue, we tried to decide how we would actually do this. I did the piano guide track myself as a keyboard player. We had at least twenty lines not including doublings, and it had to sound like a strong expressive unit. We were able to achieve that by following the piano guide track in place of a rigid click track. Francis said, 'Ah hah, we can use this technique for the entire score.' In a way, Francis was the one who saw how the piano guide track could be used. It was like going back to the pianist who played for silent movies."

The recording of a piano guide track, rather than a machine-generated click track, thus became the means that all musicians would use to realize their cues with the correct timing. Shirley would arrange the piano track from Carmine's score, and then record it while Francis conducted her. As she explains the process, "We began with a U-matic that had the picture, with the sync code on one track of a 24-track tape. Thus my piano performance was done on the tape in sync with the picture. Francis would be there, conducting me to the film. My piano guide track included pickup notes before downbeats, and delineations of time where there were long silences." Whatever changes Francis made in the score during the recording of the piano guide track would be fed back to Carmine, who would correct the master score.

With Carmine's score written out in conventional notation, and Shirley's piano guide track on the 24-track tape, any of the synthesists who were to work on the project could contribute one or more tracks to a cue and be sure that their timing, at least, would be what Francis wanted. Furthermore, the 24-track tape with the sync and piano guide tracks could be copied. Musicians at two or more locations could work on a given cue simultaneously. During the mix, of course, these two tapes would be played back in sync. Rubinson realized the incredible flexibility of this way of working. He told me, "With this method we could deliver to the musicians, no matter what time of day or what studio they were working in, a complete expression of exactly the way Francis wanted the music."

Rubinson then auditioned over a dozen experienced synthesists. The final team that he and Francis selected were Patrick Gleeson (who assumed the title of Master Synthesist), Bernie Krause, Don Preston, and Nyle Steiner. Gleeson is well-known to CK readers, having served as a columnist. He has several albums of synthesized orchestral music to his credit, and currently works in his own 24-track studio (Different Fur Music) with a large microprocessor-controlled synthesizer. Preston has an extensive jazz keyboard background, including innumerable gigs with Frank Zappa's group between 1966 and 1974. Steiner is a classically trained trumpet player (he's soloed with the Utah Symphony) and a well-known instrument designer and manufacturer.

Rubinson looked for consummate professionalism in each of the synthesists, and individual skills that complemented one another, so that an additional dimension would be added to the music by having more than one person work on each cue. According to Rubinson, "No one musician could conceivably have done this. Almost every cue was worked on by all the synthesists." Shirley Walker recalls, "Don and Nyle were able to produce the most organic performances. Nyle's EVI [Electronic Valve Instrument] was used to play most of the exposed melodies. Nyle and Don were consistently able to come up with voices that sounded like cloth and wood. Bernie was the strong realist. He produced the best combinations of real and machine instrument sounds. Patrick was at his best when the music was abstract. As Master Synthesist, he kept us trying to be original in our approach, not falling back on traditional instrument sounds."

In working on their cues, the synthesists were instructed to adhere to the melodic and harmonic relationships of the score, but were encouraged to experiment with tone colors. Rubinson recalls, "Experimentation was important. We wanted unique sound to the film music. Half the process in the studio was finding the right sounds." As the synthesists recorded their lines, Carmine Coppola learned of the resources of the electronic medium. He told me, "I always associated electronic music with eerie sound. But I didn't realize that you could do almost anything with electronic music. Synthesizers supply a control of sound that a regular orchestra cannot. We were able to get colors that an orchestra simply does not have."

David Rubinson's team began working in early February 1979. Their initial deadline was eight weeks away! Rubinson cleared his studio (The Automatt), Gleeson cleared his, and the synthesists worked to the deadline. But shortly after that the film release date was pushed back some three months, and much more time was allotted for the production of the music. Despite the deadlines, none of the musicians felt pressured. Don Preston recalls, "There was no pressure. Nobody was watching me, telling me to get it done. I had complete carte blanche to get it right. I was totally elated all the time. That freedom is what made the music come out as good as it did." Bernie Krause adds, "Unlike a typical studio gig, there was no time pressure. We worked to our own time schedules and pace. In this way we wound up working as efficiently as we ever have worked."

The musicians were also given complete freedom to select whom they worked with. Don and Nyle frequently worked together on the same cue. Nyle remembers, "Don and I would often play two voices at a time. We would alternate lines, thus getting the sound of four people playing. We would do that on two or four tracks. We'd do that until we had eight tracks. Then we'd mix the eight down to a two-track stereo mix, and erase the eight. We've built up as many as a hundred voices using this technique." Often Shirley and Nyle would work together, Shirley playing the keyboard while Nyle played his EVI. Bernie frequently worked with keyboard player Andy Narrell to produce lines of complex timbres.

Patrick, on the other hand, usually preferred to work alone, using the techniques he developed in his own studio. As he points out, "I have an E-mu keyboard where I can store a lot of stuff in a memory. First I would load the notes in a memory and let it cycle while I worked out the moves I wanted to make on the panel. Once that was worked out I would play the keyboard by hand onto the track."

Realizing the complete score was a process of continuous revision, correction, and refinement. All the while, Francis was encouraging everybody to be creative in any way that they could. Bernie observes, "We were stretched to beyond what we thought our limits were because Francis didn't know what the limits of synthesizers were supposed to be." From Nyle's point of view, Francis was like "a sculptor with a piece of clay. He keeps sculpting and molding it, saying, 'Just change the shape a little bit.' Sometimes a cue would have to be entirely rewritten, other times some little thing had to be added."

The Mixes
In recording a regular record album, the record producer mixes the multitrack tape down to a two- or four-channel master in one pass. The Apocalypse Now score, on the other hand, went through at least three separate mixes before it emerged as a component of the final soundtrack.

In the first step, Rubinson started with the 24-track tapes onto which the synthesists had recorded. Tracks on these tapes tended to be disorganized and fragmented, a natural result of all the revisions, submixing, and doubling of lines that went on when the tracks were being laid down. Rubinson's job was to mix these 24-track tapes down onto a group of tracks on a new 24-track tape so that (a) the tone colors were grouped together in a way that made musical sense (string timbres on one group of tracks, horn timbres on another group, etc.), and (b) the balance of levels on the new tape was approximately correct. That's a lot of mixing! In Rubinson's words, "If I didn't have a Harrison automated console, we would still be mixing the picture. We had two 24-track machines rolling in sync with the music on them, and we'd have to mix it to six separate tracks of another 24-track machine. It was a killer. It was the hardest thing I'd ever had to do."

The tape containing this first mix was turned over to Richard Beggs, a recording engineer who was responsible for remixing the music to place the sound spatially and smooth out any difficulties that might occur in mixing the synthesized music with the other components of the soundtrack. As Beggs explains it, "I mixed the music to the picture. At that point we had an effects premix and a dialog premix in rough form. This has never been done before. Usually by the time you get to the final mix you're just given a music track. In a situation like that, if the trombone is interfering with something someone's saying on the screen, you simply sacrifice all the music at that point. But this way we could pull down the trombone part and leave the integrity of the music intact. In other words, we could hand-fit the music to the picture."

Beggs mixed the music down to five tracks, corresponding to the five speaker placements in the theater: left front, center, right front, left rear, and right rear. In most theaters there is a sixth, sub-woofer channel into which everything between 40 and 75Hz from the other five channels is fed.

The final mix was performed under the direction of Walter Murch, the Sound Montagist for the film. At this point, three mixers worked together. Murch and his assistant, Mark Berger, handled the dialog, effects, and narration tracks, while Beggs worked all the music tracks that he 'hand-fit' to the film. In order to reduce the number of tracks to manageable proportions, groups of tracks were premixed, thus adding yet another generation of recording to the music of the final soundtrack.

So You Want To Be A Film Musician
Louis and Bebe Barron produced the first "electronic" film score in 1956, for the sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet. Since then there has been a tendency to associate electronic film music with weird, spacey flicks. Gradually that association is breaking down, as film directors perceive more of the capabilities of the electronic medium and as electronic musicians learn the considerable skills associated with conventional film music production. Wendy Carlos's A Clockwork Orange score stands as a landmark in the progress of electronic film music. Her score is a masterpiece of the evocation of specific moods through precisely controlled deviations from conventional orchestral style.

In terms of total production effort, the Apocalypse Now score is without precedent. Francis Coppola taxed the capabilities of four of the most experienced synthesists on the West Coast, and demanded the state of the art in mixing facilities. Five years ago the Apocalypse Now score could not have been made, simply because there was not a mixing studio in the world that could sort 48 jumbled tracks out into six or so organized ones in a reasonable time.

Now that the ground at this level of complexity is broken, film musicians seeking to produce electronic scores in the near future will find the going somewhat easier. The net result is that we can expect more high quality electronic film scores, and therefore more synthesists will pursue careers in film music. Some of you readers, excited by the possibilities, may be wondering, "What can I do now to work toward a career in film music production?" "What's it like to work on a film?" Or "Are my talent and temperament suited for the Big Gig?" Here are some answers as provided by the people who experienced the ecstasy—and the agony—of producing the Apocalypse Now score.

All agreed that a basic classical music background is absolutely essential for any one involved in film music production. The ability to read conventional written scores rapidly and accurately is indispensable. Of course some scores are improvised (as was Mickey Hart's percussion score in this movie), but it is unrealistic to hope to carve out a career in film music solely on the basis of improvisational ability. Carmine Coppola feels strongly that "all film musicians need strong traditional backgrounds in harmony, counterpoint, notation, and orchestral color." Shirley stresses the need for a well-rounded background: "I can improvise, sightread, accompany ballet, memorize, and play by ear. All of those skills are important in this business."

Next on everybody's list is knowledge of your instrument. Bernie Krause says, "You have to be so secure with your knowledge of sound and how to produce it on your synthesizer that the realization of what you have in your mind is never a consideration. You never falter for a minute between concept and realization." Pat Gleeson reflects a similar idea. "I don't think you can experiment on the gig. I think you have to have done all your experimenting on your own time, and you arrive on the gig with a certain ability to come up with something that's new without experimenting. That means that you have to spend a lot of time by yourself every day, working with your instrument. At the present time I limit myself to two hours of that a day." "However," Shirley warns, "experience in one area is a mixed blessing. Great experience speeds you up but narrows your vision. Sometimes the customer doesn't want 'your sound.'"

Studio experience is also important. You can begin to educate yourself in studio technique by setting up your own home studio. Nyle Steiner, who has had his own private studio for many years says, "I do jingles, modern dance scores, whatever comes along, I never turn down a gig." An alternate to having your own setup is taking a job in a professional studio or radio station.

Last, and perhaps most important, is your attitude. As a film musician, you must realize that you are producing material that is but one element of the finished film. A musician is taught to regard music as a self-contained, self-sufficient art form. The cinematographer regards music as another dimension of the environment in which the film is experienced. This dichotomy of views caused some very serious misunderstandings and misgivings. The synthesists would spend hours, even days, working on a cue, only to have it taken apart and used in a different spot on the film. Since a skilled musician is trained to take his work seriously, this sort of thing becomes hard to handle.

Shirley Walker observed, "People with conventional musical skills were blown out emotionally by the experience. It was too tough for them. It was too hard for them to work on something that had taken them all their effort to learn how to perform in a certain way and then have their product used in conjunction with explosives and gunfire and insects and stuff like that. I think we all felt, 'Oh, my God, did I get used!' at one time or another."

David Rubinson supplies a different perspective. "Look, millions of dollars and beads of sweat were spent for scenes never seen on the screen, that never ended up in Francis's picture. Likewise, a lot of notes never got onto the soundtracks." Anyone who intends to work as a film musician must resolve this conflict in his or her mind. If you don't, you will certainly develop a sour attitude and that will influence your productivity. Realizing a film score is not like appearing on the stage of Madison Square Garden. It's not even like playing in the rhythm section during a disco session. It requires the ability to completely subordinate your ego to the vision of the film director, while still performing with a professional level of musicianship.

Bob Moog's name has been a household word among musicians since his pioneering work with voltage-controlled synthesizers in the mid-'60s. He has been a Contemporary Keyboard columnist since our first issue.

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