David Bell’s Music Scoring For Star Trek

Since 1994, I’ve composed the musical underscore (dramatic background music) for over 60 episodes of the television series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and now, Enterprise. Jeremy Silman dropped by a music recording session for Enterprise last year and, finding the scoring process fascinating, invited me to write this article describing music scoring from A to Z.

The first thing I need to say is that, for me, very little in life can compare to the thrill of standing on the podium of a large Hollywood recording stage and conducting a full orchestra of some of the best musicians in the world who are playing music I’ve written. It’s an incredible rush.

I also need to say that Star Trek is a great “gig” because of the production team with whom I work. They are all creative and intelligent people who set the standard for professionalism. I thank my lucky stars every day that I’ve enjoyed such a long and supremely pleasant relationship with them.

People often ask me how I can “hear” music in my head. The fact is, virtually all of us hear music with our “mind’s ear” just as we can imagine images with our “mind’s eye”. Try sitting quietly and, without humming, think a simple tune such as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or “Baa-Baa Black Sheep” or the “ABC” song (notice any similarity between these?). Through training and a bit of a gift, I’m able to hear more complex music than most people. These, combined with a sense of dramatic content in film, are some of the talents I use to create musical underscore.

But enough preliminaries. On to the scoring process! After the episode I’ve been assigned has been shot and the film is being edited, the Enterprise post-production office sends me a script. I give the script a quick read to get a general flavor of the story. I say “quick read” because I try to keep my distance from the script. It’s important I not get married to preconceived notions about what music I might compose because the finished film is sometimes different than what I imagined it would be as I read the script.

Reading the script also lets me see if there will be any unusual musical issues that need to be addressed. For instance, Star Trek: Voyager episode #231 (“Fairhaven”) took place in a holosuite program of a quaint Irish village (named Fairhaven). While the film was being edited – and before I began actual composing work on the episode – I was able to do research into Irish music and talk to the musicians with whom I work to find out particulars of Irish instruments (such as the best key in which to compose for an Irish penny whistle).

As the film nears it’s final editing stages, I receive a videotape to view. At this point I begin to zero in on musical concepts and begin sketching themes. A couple of days later I receive a videotape of the film’s final cut. As I view it, I make a list of choices where I believe each piece of musical underscore should begin and end (each musical piece is termed a “music cue” or “cue”). The producers and music editor do the same, then a day or later we meet in a screening room to view the film together, compare our choices and make the final determination of where music cues will begin and end. This meeting is termed a “music spotting session”. The choices we make when we “spot” music are important ones, for the use of music (or the choice not to use music) can have a great impact on the film. Sometimes we choose to compose and record two different cues for a scene to see which works better.

The music editor makes detailed notes about our choices of music beginnings and endings. Over the next few days he goes through the film cut by cut and types up the “timing notes” which describe the scenes to be underscored in detail and relay timings of each event in the scene in relation to the digital time code. These are sent to me by e-mail (plus a backup hard copy sent by courier). I use these timing notes to ensure the music I write synchronizes with events on the film within one-tenth of a second. The timing notes look like this:

Now is probably a good time to mention that, on occasional episodes, there are on-screen musical events (such as actors singing or playing instruments on camera) that need to be recorded ahead of the shooting dates so the music can be played back on the sound stage as filming takes place. This enables the actors to synchronize their acting to the music. This is called “prerecorded source music” because it is recorded prior to filming and is made to seem as though it originates from a visual “source” in the scene. “Prerecords” can get tricky sometimes because so many pieces of recording and playback equipment on various sound stages and editing rooms need to be perfectly in synch. Fortunately, digital technology has made this process much easier than it used to be. What can get really tricky is when actors appear on camera miming the playing of musical instruments, but no music has been prerecorded for them to mime to. In this case, the composer must write music that fits the motions of actors. This can become a supreme challenge of synchronization (i.e., a nightmare). The person who coordinates the synchronization of the all music in a film is the music editor and the importance of having a good one on a film project cannot be overstated. Thankfully, Star Trek has always been blessed with great music editors.

But let’s get back to the more straight-ahead underscore process (i.e., without prerecords). As Steve Rowe, Enterprise’s music editor, is preparing the timing notes, I’m at my computer recording pieces of video onto my computer hard drive, entering time code information, etc. I use a turbocharged Mac G3 with a video card and Mark of the Unicorn’s Digital Performer software. As Steve finishes a batch of cues, he e-mails the timing notes to me in a midi file which I’m able to paste into the digital performer file. When I want to work on a cue, video and timing notes are locked together and can be altered in many ways so that tempos chosen can fit each important dramatic event in each scene exactly.

Earlier, I stated that I’m working with a final cut of the picture, but this is only partially true. The computer-generated visual effects are still being created during the same weeks I’m composing, so when there is, say, a 5.5 second exterior shot of Enterprise firing at an alien vessel, I only see a 5.5 second black piece of film with white text that says “Enterprise fires at alien vessel.” After doing so many Star Trek episodes, I have a pretty good idea of what the scene is going to look like when the visual effects are completed, but the final scene may end up being a few tenths of seconds (or sometimes several seconds – yikes!) different in length. This means I sometimes have to make last minute adjustments to certain music cues a day or two ahead of the recording session. Too many of these last-minute changes can become problematic as the music copyists have completed copying the orchestra parts by this point in the process and having the parts recopied can get expensive. Therefore, I often make minor adjustments in my orchestral score, then, on the day of the recording session, verbally dictate the changes with the musicians who pencil them into their individual parts.

Star Trek music is of high quality because the composers are given a reasonable amount of time to write (usually three weeks) and because there is a budget to hire an orchestra of forty to forty-five musicians per episode. On many other television shows, composers are given only three to five days to write the score, the budget is low and the scores are done electronically with synthesizers and samplers.

So when the music spotting session is completed, I’ve got film footage and timing notes – but I also have reams of blank music paper staring me in the face and an orchestra booked for three weeks hence. I work at an electronic piano (for volume control in those late night hours) over which I built a large 3’x4’ writing board. I use a pencil and 14”x17” music paper that I had custom-made for my work on Star Trek. I can spread four sheets of this paper over the quadrants of the board to easily view large portions of the cue. This gives me a better sense of where I’ve been and where I’m going as I write.

While computer monitors and music software programs allow full orchestral scores to be created, only small portions of the score can be viewed at one time and that doesn’t suit my method of working on Enterprise.

I view the scene several times on my computer monitor and begin to lock in to a certain “tempo” which has been created by the writers, actors, director, cinematographer, visual effects creators and film editors. At this same time I begin to make choices about harmonic, melodic and counterpoint vocabulary, orchestration, etc. Like the drawstrings on a purse, it all slowly comes together and the blank music paper begins to fill up with musical notes.

I’m able to compose and orchestrate about two minutes of music per day (I orchestrate my own music unless time pressures require I hire an orchestrater). Star Trek averages about twenty to twenty five minutes of music per episode. Composing and orchestrating this amount of music, plus administrative duties and whatnot, ads up to a pretty full three weeks.

The Star Trek “sound” has its roots in Gustav Holst’s famous symphonic work, The Planets. Although Star Trek probably has one of largest music budgets of any series on television, we still can’t afford a 90-piece orchestra that would be used for a performance of The Planets. However, we’re able to get quite a rich sound with only forty-plus musicians by using certain orchestration techniques and great musicians, mixers and recording studios.

The Star Trek orchestra I use is generally comprised of a core group of twelve violins, six violas, four violoncelli, two basses, six French horns, one trumpet, three trombones, a tuba, a synthesist and one percussionist (primarily playing timpani). Added to this will be several other musicians: usually three woodwinds (flute, oboe and clarinet), second and third trumpets, a second percussionist, perhaps a second synthesist.

Even though I’ve composed the music for over two hundred hours of television and film, I still get the same nervous excitement when I begin a project. Like everything, there are good days and bad days, brilliant creative moments and not-so-brilliant creative moments. But I still must put about two minutes of notes on the paper each day no matter what. There is no wiggle room on the recording deadline, for the episodes often begin dubbing the next day and often air the following week (the dubbing session or “dub” is where dialogue, music and sound effects are mixed together).

When I finish composing and orchestrating a few minutes of the score, I call the music copyists who send a courier to deliver the scores to them. The copying room is large with oversize desks to accommodate nearly a dozen copyists. It also houses an enormous number of shelves and file cabinets where the scores and parts to some of the most famous films and television series of the last few decades are stored. Up until just a few years ago, when one walked into a copying room, each instrumental part was copied by hand with ink and calligraphic pen – the copyists looked like monks of centuries ago hunched over their desks copying manuscripts with ink and quill. Now the parts are entered into computers with music software and printed out. Transpositions to different keys are now easily made with the touch of a button rather than needing to recopy the entire part. An aside: when I was in college, I remember one of my professors being envious of our ability to use a photocopier to make nine copies of one violin part we’d done by hand; when he was a student, he’d had to copy all ten violin parts by hand.

I make it a point to finish writing at least 24 hours before the recording session because the copyists need time to complete their work, the music editor must line up the midi tempo files in his computer, and I need to leave myself time to make alterations to the scores if the film is reedited slightly after visual effects are completed.

The day of the recording session finally arrives. I usually enter the studio half an hour early to settle in, review my scores and chat with the recording crew and the musicians. Despite the fact that these pros do this every day, there is still an excitement in the air, for each recording session means something new and unique is about to be created. The musicians also arrive early and begin to warm up (over the years, I’ve noticed that, perhaps by force of habit, studio musicians are also usually early to lunch dates, weddings, etc.).

I’ve always been amazed by the fact that the musicians are sight-reading at each recording session; they’ve never seen the music until they sit down to play that day. We rehearse each cue once before recording and, usually on the second or third take, it’s a keeper.

Being a studio musician requires a great deal of patience and concentration. There can be quite a lot of sitting around between takes, then they must play two or three minutes of music perfectly. Any mistake means a retake – and retakes eat up the clock very quickly.

The musicians work for fifty minutes each hour (followed by a ten-minute break) and we average about four minutes of finished music in that time. So a twenty-five minute score will take six to six-and-a-half hours to record. This is a very fast pace, for in a high-budget feature film, recording twenty-five minutes of finished music might take two or three days.

We usually record on Stage M at Paramount studios, but sometimes elsewhere if there are scheduling conflicts. Stage M is 90 feet long, 50 feet wide, 35 feet high and is a terrific room. The room is big enough so the brass and percussion can run full throttle without the sound waves bumping into each other, yet not so cavernous that the sound gets swallowed up.

During the first fifteen minutes of the session we run through the first cue a few times so the recording mixer can fine-tune the microphone placement and recording levels. We generally go in chronological order of music cues through the show. We record the rehearsals so that, when necessary, I can leave the podium, go into the recording booth and listen to playback with the producer, Dawn Valezquez, the music editor, Steve Rowe, and Murray McFadden, the recording mixer. During these playbacks we discuss any changes to be made in the music. Usually changes are minor and only require that I add or delete a few instruments from certain measures to change the tone of a section of a cue. In these cases, I verbally dictate the changes to the musicians (“Trombones and trumpets, don’t play bars 9 through 21”), they pencil those changes into their parts and we record another take. Sometimes changes can be as simple as asking sections of the orchestra to play a bit softer in certain passages.

However, sometimes the changes required are major ones and we must take a ten-minute break so I can literally rewrite sections of the score. On these occasions, the adrenaline gets pumping pretty furiously: the pressure is on! A copyist stands by while I figure out the revision and write it onto score paper. The copyist then races around the room copying the changes into the musicians’ individual parts or, in extreme cases, gathers up all the parts and dashes down the hall to the copying room so multiple copyists can work on it. When we complete these changes successfully and the recording session doesn’t go disastrously into overtime, I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous quip which goes something like: “There’s nothing more exhilarating than having been shot at and missed.”

There’s a psychology to working with an orchestra, to help keep their energy and focus at a peak level for six or seven hours. By about the fourth or fifth hours, we’re all sagging, but we “reach deep down” for the concentration. It’s much like an exhausted football team’s determination in getting through the fourth quarter of a game. Most episodes of Star Trek have a happy ending, so we usually finish the day with a rich, soaring cue that sends our heroes off to continue their journey through space. We get a final thumbs-up from the producer, Dawn. I thank the orchestra, we applaud each other, and there is much smiling and excited chatter as they pack up their instruments and leave. Most of them will get into their cars and drive to a rehearsal for one of the world-class orchestras or operas in Los Angeles or to another recording session across town.

I leave a recording session on an emotional “high.” Each recording session has glorious moments of music that I enjoy replaying in my head as I walk to the parking lot. To keep one’s full concentration going for that period of time is exhausting, but it’s the satisfying kind of exhaustion that only comes from working hard and accomplishing something worthwhile. I get to “play ball” with the best in the world and it’s an honor every time I set foot into the recording studio.