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McMafia

Orchestrator Chris Warner talks about working on the front line of a new major BBC Drama series, McMafia

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8 Episodes, 8 Weeks, No pressure

Tight deadlines for TV Drama music teams are not uncommon. Our schedule for scoring BBC1’s McMafia was particularly brutal however. But with an experienced, disciplined and friendly team, even the toughest deadlines are achievable without tantrums. So it was with the folks I was privileged to work with on this 8 Episode drama.

It’s always a pleasure working as orchestrator and musical problem solver with fellow composer Tom Hodge. In addition to being a renowned musical explorer and pioneer, Tom always appreciates the value of a thoroughly prep’d and beautifully presented spreadsheet. When it came to scoring this new major BBC series, it was indeed a spreadsheet that kept the music team fit, on track and able to cross the finishing line.

The McMafia Music Team: Chris Warner (scoring assistant, orchestrator, score preparation), Mark Wylie (mix engineer), Tom Hodge and Franz Kirmann (composers) @ Air Studios

The McMafia Music Team: Chris Warner (scoring assistant, orchestrator, score preparation), Mark Wylie (mix engineer), Tom Hodge and Franz Kirmann (composers) @ Air Studios

Finding A Workflow

Working with Tom and his writing partner Franz Kirmann (the classical crossover pioneers behind the highly successful Piano Interrupted outfit) mix engineer Mark Wylie and music editor Gerard McCann, my first task was to create this epic 8 episode cue by cue spreadsheet, with which we could keep track of which cues had been signed off and approved, which needed live recording, and where each cue was in the: approved - recorded - pre-mixed - mixed - stemmed - delivered - workflow. I could then get to work planning and orchestrating the piano and strings elements for our 8 sessions with The London Contemporary Orchestra. The sessions took place at a combination of Air Studios or Air Edel over a three month period, and the turn around time from session to mix was typically tight. Following each session I had to work at speed to quickly edit and comp the takes ready for the final, mix prior to episode delivery which was quite often just one or two days after the session. Tom and Franz work exclusively in Logic X so I also had to devise a quick, efficient and foolproof method of grabbing the Pro Tools session files and getting them back into Logic for the final mix. With so many cues to mix for each episode - in both 2.0 and 5.1 formats - task facing ace soundtrack engineer Mark Wylie’s was unenviable. Before delivering the cues to Mark I also took the time to organise, clean-up, consolidate, and where possible pre-mix each one so that by the time it arrived on his hard disc he could get straight down to the mix. The requirement for both 2.0 and 5.1 mixes was an additional headache, but with careful mix prep and a rock solid stemming workflow that I devised early on in the process, we managed to stay ahead of the deadlines.

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Extended Scoring Techniques

It’s great working with Tom as orchestrator. The journey we go on is always more creatively adventurous than a mundane ‘sample replacement’ trip. Heading into the scoring process for McMafia we already knew that the string ensembles (a mix of 6.6.4.4.0. and 1.1.1.1.0 line-ups) would be used to provide a broad palette of textures and that we could achieve this through employing various extended techniques. I was also able to bring to the table a number of suggestions for how we could keep the scoring sessions efficient yet capable of delivering up spontaneous and sonically interesting results. With a background in jazz and improv. it’s always been important for Tom that studio sessions retain space for musical exploration. I devised a method of building explorative elements into each cue as I scored them, and much of the material we generated in the studio as a result of these ‘options’ became fundamental to the McMafia sound world and to Tom & Franz’ compositional process. These explorative elements included passages where I emulated some of the electronic sound design and glitch-based processing they were using. For example, there were places where I scored out patterns of delay and granular processing for the live instruments, such as turning a synth line into a cello solo in He’s Home (taken from the BBC Soundtrack, in which you can also hear me playing the piano part:)

And the track In This World You Are An Innocent features a string arrangement of some of Tom’s original clarinet improvisations becomes a feature:

… scoring out electronic delay lines.

… scoring out electronic delay lines.

… accessing ‘alien’ notes through scordatura tuning.

… accessing ‘alien’ notes through scordatura tuning.

There were also some cues where I opted for scordatura tuning (when the performer retunes one or more strings). This yields a couple of subtle but intriguing results. Firstly, you gain access to notes normally below the range of the instruments. Secondly, such normally unachievable notes, when played, have an unnatural, unsettling effect on our ears. We’re not conditioned to recognise these pitches or the resonances that they generate, so they seem alien to us. For some of the sessions I also suggested recording at a 96k sample rate. I then created alternative edits for Tom and Franz that played back at the expected 48k but without resampling. This yielded yet further palettes of dark and curious sonorities which found their way into the final soundtrack.

(Back row left to right) McMafia Producer Paul Ritchie. Composers Tom Hodge and Franz Kirmann, orchestrator and scoring assistant Chris Warner @ Air Studios.

(Back row left to right) McMafia Producer Paul Ritchie. Composers Tom Hodge and Franz Kirmann, orchestrator and scoring assistant Chris Warner @ Air Studios.


The McMafia Series 1 Soundtrack, published by Decca, is available on Spotify and iTunes. McMafia returns for Season 2 in the Autumn 2020.