Les Brockmann is a Los Angeles-based score mixer whose credits include work for motion pictures, television, theatrical venues, the record industry, and ad campaigns. With over 20 years' experience, Les Brockmann offers a full range of services, from pre-production and tracking to live mixing and digital editing. He has recorded sessions for top clients in the music industry.
Nick Dolan: To start off, what is your musical background besides being a score mixer?
Les Brockmann: I have a bachelors degree in "music engineering" (music plus studio technique, with a minor in electronics), from University of Miami. I play piano and sing in a choir. Not every successful score mixer has quite that much music training, but it is really helpful to be able to read music, understand musical structure, and be familiar with instruments of the orchestra.
Score music, in many ways, has a lot in common with classical music, as well as pop styles. A lot of the composers and musicians you will encounter are highly trained, and it's an asset to be able to communicate with them in an intelligent way about the music. Score music today is often a combination of electronic and acoustic, but there are likely to be acoustic instruments involved.
When I'm working with a composer, I'm not there to write or comment on the music. But it sure is handy to have one more set of trained ears in the room. If you have been around orchestral instruments and know what they sound like blended together, and what those musicians need to make them as comfortable as possible, you are going to help make things better in recording. Likewise, when you mix, you'll know what characteristic and balance to go for.
ND: How did you get started working as a score mixer? What was your first experience like?
LB: I got my degree in music but always knew I wanted to be an engineer, and the "music engineering" degree program at U. of M. included comprehensive recording engineering training. I grew up loving recorded music and music production. I sat in front of the speakers and memorized the sounds of all the records I loved, as well as the lyrics and chords. And I liked recorders, mics and other gadgets, so engineering was a natural for me.
When I first came to LA I worked in studios on pop recordings. A session musician visited the studio, and said that he wanted to start writing music for television, and would I like to work with him on that? That composer went on to compose for a number of hit TV series shows in the 80s and 90s. So that's how I made the tradition to score music.
ND: What challenges do you face when mixing a score as opposed to "popular" genres of music?
LB: Score music needs to complement other sounds that are going on. It's rarely the “front and center” focus of attention, more likely to be in a background or supportive role. One must consider dialogue and other sounds, and carefully balance the score to work around that. Also, score music is sometimes mixed in 5.1 “surround”, rarely used in popular music, which has more technical complexity and some additional aesthetic choices.
ND: What is your most memorable experience?
LB: A couple of years back I had a fun challenge: Fox wanted to re-release a boxed set of DVDs by the famous director John Ford. Some of these films were silent movies that didn't have attached recorded scores, so new scores were commissioned, with several composers. A score for a silent movie is definitely the sonic center of attention, since there are no other sounds. And it is wall-to-wall — a two-hour movie has two hours of music in it, a big challenge to compose and record.
On a couple of the most important films, we recorded a full orchestra, over several days in the famous Capitol Studios here in Hollywood. To save time and money, I was called on to remix “live”. In other words while the players were playing, I was recording the final balance. No additional time was spent after the musicians went home.
If you get a chance, check out “Iron Horse”, with a thrilling score by Christopher Caliendo. I always expected silent movies to be a bit like goofy cartoons, but this was a true epic with as much high production value as today's blockbusters. It was recorded with an orchestra, live to 5.1 surround mix. LA's finest studio musicians, the best in the world, made it sound like they had been playing it their whole lives, with perfect takes after just one or two rehearsals.
ND: What has changed in the way scores are mixed today since you started your career?
LB: Of course digital audio and computer technology has revolutionized production techniques in so many ways. Samples and other software have led to bigger sounds and accommodated smaller budgets. In the case of very low budget work, particularly TV, composers may be called on to do their own mixing. Many are coming to their careers from schools which have given them training in basic audio techniques.
ND: What changes do you see happening in the future?
LB: I hope I see increasing awareness of the importance of real live skilled performing musicians in score music. A good score is all about enhancing the emotion of a story, and you can get more good captured emotion in one real violin or woodwind or piano, than in all the samples you can stuff into a room full of computers.
Electronic music sources, samples and synths, have become very common and are used constantly in score music. But samples often have a flat unemotional characteristic. They can also make music, and the whole film, sound dated — if you don't believe it, check out so many popular films of 20 years ago with electronic scores. They just don't stand the test of time.
Even one real musician added to an otherwise electronic score makes a huge increase in the emotional impact of the score. And a composer who works with his own team of real musicians can really develop a voice that's distinct from others. If you can find an experienced engineer/mixer to collaborate with, it will help you concentrate on your strengths of writing and producing great music. There's nothing like teamwork — you can't wear all the hats and truly be excellent.
ND: For young engineers who would like to move into score mixing, what would you say are essential skills to have? What skills can be transitioned from other types of mixing?
LB: It's harder to get a broad knowledge of recording and mixing than it used to be, because there are fewer commercial studios and soundstages. If at all possible, find a way to learn from someone with more experience, as an assistant engineer. Being knowledgeable about one particular software (i.e. ProTools) is not the same as being a well-rounded and experienced engineer.
Don't forget to take time to listen. A true love of the sound of well produced and mixed music is essential. It's good to listen to recordings of score music (you may learn more from the CD then from watching the movie). Make it a habit to listen to classical orchestral music as well. The great composers are the inspiration for some of the finest score composers, and it's important to know what a real orchestra sounds like. Go to symphony concerts whenever you can!
Pop music styles are important as well, and you hear a lot of pop influences in television and film scores. Be familiar with every style of music, and every era.
One other thing, which I mentioned elsewhere in this interview — increased use of samples, decline in budgets, and other factors have led a lot of composers to do their own mixing. So be aware that it can be challenging to find sufficient work to support a career as a score mixer.
ND: What are some things you would like young composers to know about when it comes to approaching a mix?
LB: Mixing is a whole different way of listening than composing. You have to switch off the part of you that cares about any composition or performance aspect of the music, and instead think about tone quality and balances. Good practice would be to mix someone else's music — maybe you can trade off with a fellow composer. Mixing score music often involves fewer plug-ins and effects than pop might — keep it simple.
And always check with the dialogue track, and with the music turned down to the kind of quiet level that would be typical for a score. In a film, the story is most important, and that story is primarily told by dialogue, so stay out of the way!
ND: And what's next for you?
LB: I'm scheduled to mix a documentary score this week. Beyond that, as they say in Hollywood, “I'm looking forward to my next project, and exploring my options”. I'm grateful for the opportunity to meet and work with talented composers and musicians, and there are constantly new folks arriving on the scene with incredible abilities and wonderful sounds in their souls. It's a challenging and competitive scene but I'm constantly finding new inspiration.
Thanks Les for such an in depth look at your career! To see more of Les' projects, check out his IMDb page.
Film | Music
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