Every Little Thing recording session
(Photos: Bridget Webber)
Composer Karl Steven stands behind the raised desk in the control room like Captain Kirk in the Starship Enterprise. Spread out on the desk, dozens of sheets of music. A few metres in front of him is his ‘Scotty’ – recording engineer Simon Gooding. Karl presses the intercom button: “That was almost perfect” he says chirpily.
Through the big window Karl has a clear view of the studio. In there, three musicians wearing headphones smile back at him: Rachel Wells (cello), Cynthia Hsu (harp) and Finn Scholes (vibraphone). Beyond, in another soundproofed room, percussionists Chris O’Connor and Tim Stewart sit among their collection of tin cans, maracas and drums. And through a narrow window to the left we glimpse violinist Siobhanne Thompson in her own booth, tinkering with a glockenspiel. Bongo player Miguel Fuentes recorded his parts yesterday.
“That was very nearly fantastic,” says Captain Karl – tall, thin, dressed stylishly in his trademark black and grey. “Let’s try it once more.”
We’re in the famous Roundhead Studios, owned by Neil Finn, recording the music for the short film Every Little Thing. The studio is equipped with a Neve mixing desk once owned by rock gods The Who – “nothing quite like it in the country,” says Simon.
Simon (pictured) has flown up from Wellington for this gig. Karl rates him highly: Simon has worked with rock bands and the NZ Symphony Orchestra, and on The Hobbit sound tracks. “You’re too good for Wellington, Simon,” Karl jokes. There’s a deadline looming – they have to be out by 8.0pm – but Karl manages to keep the atmosphere light and breezy.
Captain Karl is calm and encouraging. He hunches over the long strip of music sheets cellotaped together, following the musicians from note to note, bar to bar- keeping an eye on the big picture but spotting even the tiniest imperfection. Now he’s in the percussionists’ room, arms waving expressively as he discusses a specific phrase. He emerges – “cool, excellent” – and returns to the control room. There’s no need to go back to the start: “Let’s play from bar 40, and drop in at 46.”
Karl’s percussion-heavy music score is complex and demanding. It’s just as well the musicians are some of the best in NZ: most of them play several instruments, and they’re in various bands and combinations. Chris plays drums with Don McGlashan.
Karl: “We need to allow the instruments to resonate a bit to provide a harmonic bed for the percussive stuff to sit on.” During warmup, he moves from musician to musician describing the type of sound he’s after. He urges them to use their instruments inventively. (Pictured below from left: Karl, Finn, Rachel and Cynthia)
Siobhanne points at her music sheet: “Those squiggly signs mean I improvise, and try to get non-violin sounds out of my violin.” Rachel is required to put aside her bow and pluck her cello strings during many of the tracks. (Correct name for this: pizzacato or pizz for short.) Karl tells the percussion duo: “Feel free to put in percussion if you see an insect on the screen.” Cynthia, taking part in her first-ever recording session, is using the extremes of her harp – the upper and lower notes – together.
AND A BIT OF ABBA
Karl is almost hopping with joy at the strange sounds that drift through into the control room. Because the film has scenes with insects, a thunder storm, and even an angel, Karl’s score is an exciting mix of percussive sounds and beautiful melody. One minute he’s throwing around words like “curioso” and “pizzicato”. Next minute he’s chuckling: “A bit of Abba never hurt anybody.”
Roundhead owner Neil Finn pops in to say hi. Great excitement! But today he’s not a world-famous recording star, just a friendly muso. He leans at the door and listens a while. Has a peek at Karl’s three metre long music score. A few friendly words and he’s gone. His encouragement is a good omen for John, a Crowded House fan from way back.
We’re ready for another take. But this one falls to pieces after a few bars. The musicians keep time by listening to ‘click tracks’ in their headphones. But it’s easier than it sounds. Karl is diplomatic: “I think your interpretation of the rhythm differs slightly …”
The musicians are an honest bunch. A stream of apologies come through the intercom: “Sorry I was getting a bit lost.” “I came in too early.” “I screwed that up.” A round of laughter, then they begin again. Karl: “May the Force be with you, everybody.”
A SQUEAK IS DETECTED
It’s going well, but Karl is missing something. “Unleash the saw!” Simon calls up the pre-recorded sounds of Karl playing the musical saw. The notes sweep from high to low like the title sequence from Doctor Who.
Plaintive violin. Angelic harp. Husky cello. Mellow vibraphone. They pause for an assessment. Cynthia the harpist: “Can we see the video please for my beetle cue?”
A mini-crisis looms. Simon: “I think I heard a chair squeak!” He and Karl listen carefully to the playback. Sure enough, there is a tiny squeak in among the sounds of cello and harp. In the studio everyone checks their chairs. But the culprit turns out to be the foot pedal on the vibraphone. “The foot of doom,” says Karl, keeping it light. Assistant engineer Ben Malone runs in with a can of CRC and the session resumes.
Percussionists Chris and Tim sit amongst their collection of musical instruments – drums, cymbals, maracas (for the rattles), guiros (for the scraping sounds) – supplemented by ‘found’ items: a tin can, and a dried pohutukawa branch Chris picked up on his way to the studio. It’ll produce a nice rustling sound for the insect shots. Life as a percussionist is never boring.
The next challenge is a sequence in the film where the hero thinks he sees an angel. “This is the track I was worried about most,” Karl grins. From next door he cues a thunderous wall of sound – cello, harp, vibraphone and violin soar above a booming bed of drums. They’re joined by the pre-recorded voice of an operatic diva. The music builds. Reaches a crescendo. Then abruptly halts. “You told me to go for broke,” Karl grins in the direction of writer-director John Harris.
Come 8.0pm, a shared pizza, and the team disperses. Cynthia waits for a large taxi to take her and her cello home. This same group of musicians may never work as a team again, but today they have left a unique legacy – a vibrant and beautiful rendition of Captain Karl’s vision for Every Little Thing.