Henry Jackman (IMDb page) is a British-born composer who started his musical career in classical music, moved on to music production and programming in the electronic/pop scene (working with Seal and Art of Noise), and is now an accomplished film score composer who has worked on Hollywood live-action movies and blockbuster animation movies (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain Phillips, X-Men: First Class, Turbo, Winnie the Pooh, ...).
He is also a user of our granular sound effect SaltyGrain, and we asked him to share some thoughts on the past, present and future of music production, composition and technology. Here is the full unabbreviated interview (January 2014):
SampleSumo: Hi Henry, first of all thanks for taking the time to do this!
I’m glad you like the plugin, and it’s good to know that you guys are also into granular effects!
Now, to get started, I had a quick look through your biography and it seems like you actually started out with music production, if I’m correct?
Henry: Yes, I’ve had a weird life because as a kid I was trained very, very strictly and classically and then between, I don’t know, the age of 17 and 30, then I was doing a lot of drum and bass. I kind of rebelled against classical music and then spent a lot of time in the record industry. Now I’m doing film music which is sort of a fusion of everything.
SampleSumo: You also worked with people like Trevor Horn from the Art of Noise. I bet that was quite an experimental time at that moment, wasn’t it, starting with electronic music and then coming from a classical background?
Henry: It was, yes. But it’s not dissimilar. If you look at Trevor’s team, in the Art of Noise, you’ve got him being the first guy to have a Fairlight that worked and being right ahead of the curve technologically. But another really important member of the Art of Noise team was Anne Dudley. Anne Dudley’s background is, well, she did a lot of great string arrangements. She knows her classical music inside out, so... I’ve always been in an environment where somewhere along the line it’s both sides of the coin.
SampleSumo: Yes, okay. I noticed then that of course now you’re moving more into the movie industry, so film scoring. Do you do the sound effect design as well, or do you have a team for that?
Henry: No, I do the score. I think I’m on my 14th or 15th Hollywood score now.
SampleSumo: And how did you actually end up there, because coming from the, let’s say the music creation / production side and then moving into movie scoring, how did that happen?
Henry: Well, in terms of my set of musical skills, in a funny way, it was always there because, like I say, from the age of 6 to 18 I had an incredibly strict classical upbringing. When I was 8 I went to St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School, which meant for five years I was singing in the second biggest cathedral in Western Europe, singing 15th, 16th and 17th century Church music and playing classical music. I was writing classical music when I was about 7 or 8 years old.
So, you know, I had all that in the system, it’s just that I was trying to be too cool for school so I was ignoring all of that. By the time between the age of 18 and 30 I’d put all that on hold, when I was working in the record industry. But you don’t completely put it on hold. It’s just, making records is not the same as making movies.
And then I was lucky enough to bump into Hans Zimmer who recognised I had all this background. He was like, “You really ought to do film music, because if you’ve got 15 years worth of experience in the record industry and working for people like Trevor Horn, plus you’ve got all this classical background and doing music at Oxford and St. Paul’s Cathedral and knowing all this classical music, that sounds like the perfect set of ingredients to be doing film scoring. What the hell are you doing making records? You should be doing movies”. And it’s one thing for a friend of yours to say that, when Hans Zimmer says that it actually means something.
SampleSumo: Yes, sure! I might be incorrect on this, but wasn’t he also the one who got Lisa Gerrard into film scoring? She also had something to do Hans Zimmer right?
Henry: Yes, exactly, on Gladiator. Hans is not dissimilar. Hans in some ways reminds me of Trevor Horn. Well actually, they’re good friends but, I mean at one point, Hans and Trevor were in The Buggles together, believe it or not, in the late ‘70s. Hans is not dissimilar, meaning Hans has a full command of symphonic music.
But actually if you rewind the clock back to the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, he was the synth guy in pop music. That explains why he’s done a lot of interesting scores that aren’t just a symphony orchestra because of course he has this whole background in electronic keyboards and Moogs and plugins. He’s always pushing the envelope with other elements that aren’t orchestral.
So I think when I started hanging out with him, it was very helpful maybe because of his own background, that was so mixed, being half orchestral, half pop and electronic and everything. That’s probably why he was on to me saying, “You really should do film music. You’ve got both of these ingredients”. Meaning I’m as happy orchestrating a string quartet as I am fiddling around all day long with filter envelopes and your plugin, which we actually used on The Winter Soldier, for Captain America 2.
SampleSumo: Okay, great! Good to know!
Now, this is more like, the live action movies, but then there’s also the side of the animated movies. I saw you did a lot of that as well. Would you mind explaining perhaps if you see there is a difference in working between these types of movies? Is there a difference for you as a film composer?
Henry: Yes, there are two big differences.
The first major structural difference between a live action film and animation is, in general, the speed at which the story is moving is much quicker in animation.
If you’re doing a live action film, you could have a scene where the music required for the scene is three or four minutes. And if you look at that piece in a live action film, maybe that three or four minutes is a piece of music that’s kind of similar throughout, maybe there’s one major shift in it, maybe two major shifts over four minutes.
Now when you go to animation, if you’ve got a four piece of music in an animated film, it’s going to be moving all over the place. It’s happy, it’s sad, it’s a disaster, there’s tension, someone else shows up, it cuts to a different scene. The speed that things move at, in other words, the rate of storytelling, is way quicker. So you have to be a lot more adept, usually with your use of an orchestra. You have to be very adept at being able to, without drawing attention to anything, being able to just musically and compositionally slide out of different ideas into other ideas and make it all feel like one piece of music.
The second difference is, generally speaking, it’s not always true but, generally speaking, if you’re going to do something really experimental... Like I did something for The Winter Soldier and Capitan America that was very untraditional. It was very, very heavily production based that involved me spending a whole week just mangling vocals, which is -in other words- not something that involves compositional depth.
For example, the character I was trying to get across for The Winter Soldier was in fact just two notes that were sung in a very broken, disturbing, fragile way. And then I spent another six days excavating the sound in as many different approaches using plugins. Now that isn’t composition in the same sense that writing a string quartet is composition, that’s more diving into the mechanics of sound to get what you need.
And that type of approach is much more likely to happen on a live action film than an animated film because in animated films, it’s not always true, it’s not a hard rule, but, generally speaking, animation movies are the last oasis and havens for kind of more traditional orchestral music. Meaning if you’re a really creative guy, who came through DJing, and you’re great with textures and you have a really interesting way of messing up sounds, that may not be enough to get you through an animated film because an animated film is going to be thematic and orchestral. You really have to know what you’re doing with harmony and orchestration. It’s going to help if you have a very sound rooting in the history of western symphonic, classical music.
Whereas, if you take a film like Argo or Syriana or, I don’t know, like World War Z, that isn’t going to sound like John Williams, or it’s not going to sound like Back to the Future. When you see a bunch of zombies running around munching half of the inhabitants of planet Earth then it’s going to be less about the oboes and the bassoons and less about some highly developed historical symphonic kind of writing. You’re probably going to get a lot more production.
And what I love about Captain America is it was straight down the middle because it had 50% bold thematic material. Because in a superhero movie you can’t just only have production and texture because you’re going to be missing – if you have a superhero that needs gravity and history like Captain America does, of course you are going to be calling on the symphony orchestra because there’s things a symphony orchestra can do that no production can do.
There are things that a strong thematic declaration on horns, trumpets and trombones that cannot be – it’s not something that you can expect production to do. So there’s that side of it. On the other hand, it’s a much more contemporary interpretation of Captain America. A lot of it is almost like a political thriller and the character, The Winter Soldier, is a profoundly disturbed creature who’s almost a bit like Robocop in that underneath the machine there’s actually like a mangled human being that’s stuck inside a mechanised system.
Then there’s also loads of production. It’s like I was saying, I didn’t want to use traditional orchestra for that. So Captain America is a really good example where you can actually use all of these. Since I’m lucky enough to have had the background I’ve had, I know how to use the symphony orchestra and the production, and it’s one of those rare films where I get to do all of it at once.
So, that’s the other main difference. I’d say that animation tends to be a little less experimental with production because it has more of a history of using theme and melody as the most important orchestration.
SampleSumo: You mentioned two minutes ago that you were trying to find the right sound there for these two notes and then carving it out more and more. Earlier, you also mentioned something to me about running a lab, that does sound design experiments, is that where it fits in? I mean, you really have your people or yourself sitting there for a week trying to find the good sounds?
Henry: Yes, definitely. Well I left myself a good amount of time for this film. I’ll be experimenting and then one of my technical assistants also has great skills with using plugins. I mean there was a bunch of different things.
We had a whole lot of acoustical field recording. There were all kinds of weird things, like Russian recordings that were just on the metro, the underground, general ambient recordings. You listen to them on their own and you think, “Well what are you going to do with that? That just sounds like an acoustic recording of something from real life,” but that’s because you haven’t attacked it with plugins.
Once you start looking at source audio and start imagining where it could go, then some of the complexity – I mean what’s often interesting is about field recordings is it has a lot of random middle extra parts to the sound because it’s not a controlled sound. If you record someone playing a note on a violin or an oboe, of course there are overtones but it’s a disciplined thing, they’re playing a single note.
If you get a recording of the Russian underground, you hear the huge sound as the train comes in and the train goes out, so you’ve got a pitch that’s going up, you’ve got amplitude that’s swelling, like a crescendo. But of course you’ve got people talking, you’ve got the rustling of newspapers, all of that sounds too realistic when you start. But by the time you completely re-imagine the sounds through plugins, some of these more, like aleatoric artefacts within the sound start having a really interesting textual effect, partly because the original source sound was complex to start with. So there’s a lot of that going on.
The other really important thing was I got a vocalist to come and sing. And I literally just wanted two notes. The performance to start with was already non-traditional. I mean this person was a good singer, but I wasn’t interested in him singing with a good technique. I explained to him that The Winter Soldier was one of Captain America’s closest ally but a bit like Darth Vader or Robocop. He had become corrupted. He was like medically still alive but not really because he was plugged into a machine.
I said, “I know it’s simple, but I need you to make a noise. When you sing it’s got to be croaky and without technique and I don’t mind if the pitch is unstable”. He sang for an hour before we started to get it. I was like, “No, it’s still too...”, “Sounds too...” or “I can hear that you’re a trained singer”. Eventually it becomes like acting, you’ve just got to get into the part. And eventually he started getting these notes coming out of him like, “Wow, that sounds sick. That sounds like something has gone really badly wrong with your neurological system”.
SampleSumo: It must have been quite an experience for the singer as well then, I guess, to do it that way?
Henry: Yes, he was great. Dominic Lewis is his name. He was fantastic. He was right up to the challenge. Anyway, having got these recordings, we’re still at the stage where they’re just regular acoustic recordings. I think I spent at least a week processing them and had other people processing them as well. Sometimes we would melge together the different results. And some of them were massively time-stretched and had a lot of granulation, just targeting individual frequencies.
It’s amazing what you can get out of – I mean I ended up with so many textures coming out of his voice, the first week was just sorting through, listening to almost hours and hours, going, “Wait a minute, I now have so much material I’ve got to hold on to what is the idea for this thing”. I’m not kidding, it probably took me 10 days to get a vocal sound which, for me, was The Winter Soldier. And yes, it’s great.
Often it’s interesting to generate frequencies which you think are not inherent in the source signal at all. Like for instance, there is an extremely disturbing symphony sound for the historical Nazis in Captain America. Now, a timpani as of itself has connotations of gravity, classicalness and history because the timpani is part of the symphony orchestra. But just a regular recording of a timpani is going to be boring and just sound like every other timpani, but let’s start with that as a source sound.
Then there were all sorts of time stretching and pitching it down and all this so you end up with a deeply threatening, booming sound. But you can still hear, somewhere in the DNA of this sound you can feel like once upon a time there was a beater hitting the skin of a timpani but now it’s become something a lot more disturbing and with a lot more low frequencies.
At a certain point I also wanted it to have a really unpleasant edge to it. I remember bussing off, you know doing a send - when I got my disturbing timpani sound I sent it off to a bus and started using your plugin to get like a granulated reverb. And it ended up producing a wash of damaged, 1-2k frequency that was a long, long, long way away from the original signal.
But what was so organic about it was, because it was being sent from the original timpani to a bus, every time the dynamics of the timpani moved you could hear that this accompanying shash haze of slightly digi, unpleasant disturbing 2k frequency was sort of moving along with it, that they were one thing. Even though frequency wise they were miles apart from each other, you could hear that it was like one noise is doing this crazy thing and then there’s some sort of bit crushed pad over the top of it. But they’re unrelated because one was being derived from the other in the performance. It felt like a disturbing uncle and his accompanying nephew.
SampleSumo: :-) That sounds a bit like painting with sounds. It’s like taking some ingredients, pulling them apart and creating new stuff with it. Interesting!
Henry: Yes, definitely. And I found your plugin particularly – I was surprised at how I ended up with a lot of textures that frequency wise, were a hell of a long way from the original sound because they’re so radical that you can end up frequency – I mean not just the frequency, the style of what you’re doing. Like I say, with the example I just gave, the extra layer of sound was a really damaged, almost kind of bit crushed type sound that you don’t associate with timpani. But guess what, that’s where it came from, it was being driven by the timpani.
SampleSumo: Okay, great. Maybe something quite different actually, I mean you’re also a composer and so you’re also creating on the more macro level side, not only on the sound design.
Actually with SampleSumo my company, we’re also doing stuff with technology that tries to, let’s say, understand what’s happening in the music. Like we have a system where you can automatically make the score of a piece follow along with the pianist playing. We work on stuff where we let live bands be in control of the tempo because now, if you want to play with machines you have to listen to a click track. These kinds of things where we try to understand the music and let the software understand what’s happening in the music.
You’re a person that has been using music and technology on a daily basis for years now. Could you tell me perhaps what are the most exciting advances that you’ve witnessed in the past and maybe what you think will be coming in the future?
Henry: That’s an interesting one. I’m trying to think of the - when I think of a really complex piece of music like Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”, I can only imagine how difficult it would be to try and come up with a piece of software that can scan in real time what’s going on and make a score out of it. But I’m glad that’s your problem and not my problem :-)
SampleSumo: Yes, well, that kind of polyphonic transcription is really a hard problem :-)
Henry: That’s a really unfair example, because if you take “The Rite of Spring” that’s going to be a lot more difficult than if you take a Hollywood trailer.
But I guess one of the things – I think if I really take a broad perspective, I mean when I was 16 and I used to make coffee and tidy up the cables as a meaningless assistant in 19-whatever it was, people were still on digital tape machines and moaning a bit that they didn’t sound as good as the old analogue tape machines.
And then Digidesign came along and I think Trevor did the first Seal album, or maybe the second Seal album, with what was then the 882 and then it was the 888. To be honest, for the first five years, because I’ve been lucky enough to be witnessing and working with some of the world’s top recording engineers, there was just no way that these 882s and 888s with their ProTools EQs were ever going to get anywhere near the outboard gear that you had, analogue outboard gear in those kind of studios. I mean because they were just embarrassing by comparison. If you wanted to compare a real Pultec to whatever the 1993 ProTools EQ was, it was just no contest.
And because it stayed like that for a while, there was a temptation to think, “I don’t know if this digital stuff is going to ever rival outboard,” but of course that’s just ridiculous. I mean if you look at it now, I mean the only reason to keep some outboard now is for like a final recording of music and maybe for a final mastering chain where someone is so in love with that Fairchild or so in love with their manly analogue EQ that there’s just like a basic 5.1 mastering chain that’s still analogue.
One of the things that I thought was interesting and impressive was of course at first all the digital replicas of outboard gear were pretty basic, reverbs, delays, EQs, only they weren’t as good. Of course we still have things that are deliberately very accurate replicas. Like UAD are very good at replicating vintage gear, so is Waves and all the SSL stuff. I know that’s still going on and it’s very valuable.
But at a certain point, what was great about digital technology is people started to make plugins and like, “Wait a minute, I don’t really care what this historical outboard used to do. Why don’t we just make things that can do new things to sound that isn’t a compressor, that isn’t a reverb, that isn’t a mock-up of a Roland Space Echo or a Roland SDD3000? Why don’t we just make something that completely deconstructs the sound into small portions and time stretches different parts of it and just produce completely new effects that would have been entirely impossible in the analogue world?”
As soon as that started happening, that had a profound effect on every – I mean I’m in film music. At the very front end of that you’ve got radical electronica which most exploit the limits of how to mess around with sound, not necessarily with composition but more with sonic texture. And as soon as you got those sorts of ideas going on the design end, on the software end where people felt more liberated from, “I’m not pretending to mock-up an SSL console. I’m not pretending to mock-up an Eventide piece of gear. I’m just going to make something that will sound ridiculous”.
I mean I remember getting a plugin really early I was on to – it was about in 2000, there was this tiny company, they’re much bigger now, called Ohm Force. They do a lot of radical delays and whatnot. The original skin for one of their delays just had like a big picture of a cat. I don’t know, “I guess I’m just going to twist the cat’s face to see what happens”. And all sorts of good things did happen. You never would have got that. If you go to analogue studios and you’re sitting there with a Pulltec, you’re not going to have a picture of a cat and just push it and hope for the best.
SampleSumo: Actually, these guys you mentioned, Ohm Force, they’re doing new stuff again because I think they are one of the first companies that have an online DAW, so you can really collaborate over the internet directly in your DAW. That’s also a very nice thing! It was tried before by others about 10 or 15 years ago but that was too early and now they have their new system called Ohm Studio. Very interesting!
Henry: Yes, I’ll check it out. I’ll definitely check it out.
The other thing that was of course a huge advantage to the creativity of software and plugin design passing over to the digital and software world is, instead of needing a big company with a lot of backing and a lot of money, because you need to build a factory if you’ve got to manufacture these expensive boxes, it suddenly opened the door to two guys in an apartment with three Macintosh computers is a big enough company to start designing really cool plugins. You’re not trying to build a Tube-Tech, you’re not trying to build a Fairchild, you’re not trying to buy valves from god knows where you’d buy them.
If anything, that’s more of a cultural point, meaning you have a bit more counterculture, a bit more guerrilla warfare because you can have a software company who’s not trying to be traditional and respectable. It’s just like two dudes who are probably smoking weed, knocking out really crazy sounding plugins because why not? It’s only costing them the price of a couple of Macs and some development money.
And that comes through in the creativity, meaning you get a different kind of way of looking at sound because you’ve got different kinds of people who aren’t making traditional equipment. All of that filters through. Like I say, it starts off at the front end of electronica, but I mean the kind of stuff I was doing on The Winter Soldier would be completely impossible. There was Paul’s Sound stretching going on, there was your plugin we were using as well, all the Native Instruments stuff, ...
You just wouldn’t even be able – even if you went back like, I don’t know, 8 years, 10 years, it would have stayed as an idea and I would be like, “I wish I could somehow take the sound,” and blah, blah, blah... But if we try and stretch it that much it’s just going to sound so ridiculous we can’t do that”. But now you can, or now you can mangle and focus on just particular frequency areas and just play around with them in a way that you just couldn’t do before.
I mean I can’t speak for everyone, and some film scorers still are very traditional and very orchestral. But in the kind of stuff I’m working on, especially in the live action stuff, and when you get a creative director who’s more accustomed to hearing modern sounds and is not freaked out by it, then I would say in my particular field, obviously there’s the convenience of digital audio and it’s great that we can just shove audio files in and out and blah, blah, blah but that’s logistical convenience.
I would say from a creative point of view, the biggest and most useful revolution basically is the sheer quantity of creative and sonically diverse plugins which, if you rewind long enough ago, they were less radical. Plugins weren’t quite as capable of doing so many unimaginable things to a source sound because originally they were more rooted in the sorts of things that used to exist in the analogue world.
SampleSumo: Okay. That leads me to my next question. I mean do you think there is still something missing regarding tools to assist you with your composing work or production, something that you would really like to have?
Henry: Let me think about that for a sec. That’s one of those great questions. Like before Steve Jobs arrived on this planet - there were so many things that Steve Jobs introduced where you’re thinking everything is fine and then whatever, like Steve Jobs introduces the iPod, and you’re thinking, “How on earth would anything work before we had that?” I guess you’d have like a mini disc player or whatever. And then he brings out the iPhone. Each time there was – like the iPad, I was thinking, “You don’t really need an iPad if you’ve got a laptop”. The world is full of situations where you think you don’t need something and then as soon as it happens, very quickly you couldn’t do without it. But I guess the genius is to be the person who can spot what the thing is that everyone can’t do without but they don’t know what it is yet.
Let me just think about if there’s anything really obvious. I feel like we’re doing pretty good in the orchestral mock-up world where you can use MIDI and you have great sounding samples. Digital manipulation of audio is pretty slick...
I’ll tell you what would really – this sounds really futuristic. And it’s not really so much to do with the software designers or really specifically companies who deal with plugins or sound, I do feel like by the time I’m nearing the grave, my grandchildren will be dealing with computer technology that can much more quickly understand what it is you’re trying to do.
Because it’s not just a computer, it will have enough artificial – I find myself many times with a computer wishing I could go, “You can see what I’m doing, right? Take it from here”. Meaning suppose you were batch processing a whole bunch of stuff, first you were stretching and then blah, blah, blah... and then you were listening to the result. The one whose frequencies most sounded like they’re going to work in The Winter Soldier piece of music, are the ones I’m going to focus on.
But right now, I’m the only one making all those decisions. Because of course, the computer does a lot of this rendering but it can’t join in the collaboration and go, “I know what you mean. Do you know what? I’m not even going to render these ones because it’s not really what – I can see what you’re trying to do and it’s not going to help. Maybe I could make a few suggestions”. Do you know what I mean? It’s still a cold machine that renders.
One day I think you’ll get computers that can speed up lots of creative process by being more of a partner and going, “I get where this is going, I’m on board and I can help out”.
SampleSumo: Yes, like systems that propose you five alternatives, you choose one of the five alternatives which sounds really in the direction that you want it to go and then it goes on from there. That would be great, yes.
SampleSumo: It’s interesting, there are ways to do that somehow but I mean there’s always going to be a human involved to make the decision somehow, it’s just speeding up the process.
Henry: Exactly. To be honest some really important creative decisions have to be with the artist. But, I guess one of the reasons I have that thought is when you’re working with a technical assistant, you’re really in the nitty gritty of production.
Often times you reach this point with a human being where you hardly need to talk because you’re so on board and you’re processing, you’re listening back to the result and you just both know, “That one’s great. Okay, colour that one purple. Okay, no that one sounds like crap,” blah, blah, blah. You get to a point where you’re not really talking because you can feel that whatever this creative mission that you’re on, you don’t need to say, “It’s self-evident that something is rubbish. It’s a no brainer, let’s take the purple one and put it through the so and so chamber”.
And if the computer could also join in that, knowing, just like a human can get on a team and get to grips with what the mission is and have an aesthetic – what’s the word? Like an aesthetic coalescence of what’s going on. Now that’s really tricky because that’s basically up there. That’s like saying: can a computer have the rendering speed of a computer but have the aesthetic awareness of a human being. Good luck with that one!
SampleSumo: I think there are let’s say basic things that could be done probably. There are algorithms nowadays that can extract some kind of emotional sense when you feed it music so perhaps some base lines could be done but we’ll see...
Henry: I’ll leave that to you.
SampleSumo: There’s plenty of work to do there that’s for sure :-)
Okay, well in any case let me move on to my final question perhaps. I heard that you are now working on Captain America. Was the last thing you did?
Henry: Yes, I’m just finishing Captain America now.
Then it was Captain Phillips before that and now I’m moving on – yes, I’m not going to do a third captain, I think two is enough.
I’m now moving on to a very different thing which is a Seth Rogen film which will be hilarious. I’m not quite sure what the sound is going to be for that yet so I’ll be thinking of that in the next few weeks.
SampleSumo: Okay. Well I’m looking forward to seeing (and hearing) Captain America in any case. So, thanks for the interview. And I would also say: enjoy SaltyGrain, as I hear you’ve already used it a lot, so that’s good to know.
Henry: Yes, it stayed on my basic selection of bus strips for the entire film!