TV and film composer Chris Egan talks techniques and using Spectrasonics

TV and film composer Chris Egan talks techniques and using Spectrasonics

Composer, Arranger, Orchestrator and Musical Director. Chris Egan is a man with many musical hats with numerous credits that span a whole spectrum of projects. His theatre work includes Crazy for You, Grease, Footloose, and End of the Rainbow, he´s worked on concerts with Elaine Paige (he´s her Musical Director), Dame Shirley Bassey and Lionel Richie, and his TV credits include BBC Proms in the Park, Upstairs, Downstairs and most recently, the BBC´s Queen´s Diamond Jubilee coverage.

When we first spoke to Chris he was on his way to the Chichester Festival Theatre for the Kiss Me Kate press night in his role as the orchestrator for the show which stars Adam Garcia. We had a fascinating chat about his studio setup, forthcoming projects and a very interesting theatre project that he is planning with Spectrasonics Omnisphere virtual instrument. He very kindly agreed to do an interview for us and this is what he had to say...

Hi Chris, so lets start right at the beginning, when did you realise music was going to play such a big part of your life?
I started playing the piano when I was 4 and I could read music before I could read words!  When I left school at 18, I started off as a session musician in London playing with various session orchestras and in West End shows.  I always had a passion for writing (both composing and arranging / orchestrating) and by my mid-twenties, I had stopped playing and become a composer / arranger full time.  I currently rent 4 rooms at Abbey Road studios and love it here – it’s such a creative and vibey place to come to work everyday. 

What was your first big job, or the job you were most excited about?
I’m very lucky that I have a very diverse career jobwise. I’ve never really had a ‘big break’ as such. I’ve just worked hard and slowly moved up from job to job. One of the most exciting phone calls I ever had was from ITV asking if I could arrange 14 songs for Shirley Bassey for a TV special – that was being filmed in 10 days time! You don’t sleep for a week and drink far too much red bull but when your music gets played by the orchestra, Dame Shirley is singing and everyone is happy, it’s a fantastic feeling!

What would you say was the most important lesson you learned about composing from those early days?
‘If your name’s at the top of the page, then every note has your name on it’. I heard the great Sammy Nestico say that once and it has stuck with me ever since. It doesn’t matter how tight the deadline is, or that you’ve had no sleep for 4 days, never be lazy and cut corners.  Tiredness is temporary but your music will last forever.

You primarily record with a live orchestra, could you walk us through how you get to this point in the project from the time at which you receive the initial brief?
Although I’m sitting in my studio surrounded by technology, I still compose with a pencil and score paper; I find it faster than any computer program, it just works for me. I’ll sketch a music cue on paper first, making sure everything is working musically, while working out the timing in ProTools, click tracks etc. at the same time. Once I’m happy the cue works musically on piano, I’ll then do everything else on the computers. I program/mockup in ProTools (I used to use Logic for MIDI work but 2 years ago moved entirely over to ProTools) and orchestrate/score in Finale. If the music cue is mostly electronically lead, then I’ll work in ProTools first then write the parts to be played live in Finale afterwards, but when I’m writing for a symphony orchestra, I’ll always orchestrate it fully in Finale first, then use ProTools to add any electronic elements (if any) and make a mockup for the director/producer.

What about the final stages, do you use any particular software for mastering or is it all done through hardware?
My mix room is based around an Avid Icon control surface running 2 ProTools rigs (multi-track rig & print/picture rig). Pretty much everything is mixed in the box using Waves, Sonnox & EMI plugins.  Reverbs mostly come from our hardware Bricasti M7s & Lexicon 960L but we also use Altiverb & VSL Hybrid Reverb.  At the end of the chain is the beautiful Maselec MEA-2 EQ and Manley Compressor adding a little extra sparkle & warmth to the final mix.

Talking of hardware, can you walk us through the key gear in your studio right now?
Sure, I have 4 rooms here at Abbey Road: My writing room, a mix room, an assistant’s programming room and an office.  We do pretty much everything in ProTools now and have ATC monitoring in all rooms.  All the computers are in a central machine room so it’s really easy to cross patch equipment from room to room when required.  In my writing studio, I have 2 protools rigs (1 for writing, 1 for picture playback using satellite link), a separate Mac running Finale scoring software and a rack of PCs to run my VSL sample libraries using VE PRO.  I still have lots of old synth modules but they very rarely get used now – I tend to get all my sounds from plugins.

One of your most recent projects was the theme music for the BBC´s Jubilee programmes and you mentioned there was quite a gap between being asked to do it and actually receiving the brief and visuals. Did you have any idea of what you wanted it to sound like prior to receiving the brief and if so, how similar were the final pieces?
Not really.  When the BBC commissioned me to compose the theme, all they told me was it was going to be recorded by the BBC Concert Orchestra on a specific date!  I was working on 3 other projects at the time so didn’t think of any ideas until I received the picture to write to.  The picture took a while to finish off so I received it 3 weeks later than promised. 3 hours later, I received an email asking if they could have a demo by the following morning! I sent them 2 demos, and they called back 10 minutes later and told me they loved the first one!  Sadly, it’s not normally that simple.

Presumably, you followed the process you describe above in creating the music, which virtual instruments did you use for the mock-up in this instance?
As the Jubilee theme was purely orchestral, I did the mock up using only my VSL sample library. I have a template setup which gives me the full orchestra straight away without having to find individual samples / setups etc.

You first got to experience VSL instruments in the Time+Space HQ Studio several years ago and since then they´ve become an essential part of your software. What is it about the instruments that, in your opinion, make them incomparable to other ´real instrument´ VSTs?
I started using VSL when it first came out in Gigastudio. It’s the only orchestral VI that really feels like a ‘complete’ library. Some of the other libraries sound fantastic but when I’ve used them, I’ve always needed an instrument or articulation that the library hasn’t got – VSL is a complete orchestra. It is so easy to run it on a rack of PCs using their amazing VE PRO software, so it doesn’t take up any DSP on your main computer. This means I can have a monster orchestral template that is always loaded and accessible straight away without having to spend time finding patches. Also, the fact that Vienna has been recorded completely dry, without any long reverbs etc., makes it so much more usable in different situations. I use the VSL Hybrid Reverb to put the samples into a scoring stage and it sounds wonderful!

You´re a big fan of Spectrasonics Trilian, Stylus RMX and Omnisphere with the latter two particularly playing a prominent part in your projects. Lets start with Stylus RMX Realtime Groove Module, why is this so integral to your set-up and which features and types of sounds do you find yourself using most frequently?
The first time I used the original Stylus, I was completely blown away, and since then, it’s constantly been one of my most used VIs and has never let me down. It’s so fast and easy to use when working with tight deadlines. As well as its fantastic core library, I also host many 3rd party libraries (in REX format) inside the instrument. I really love the sound menus, especially the percussion. I also have to admit, my team & I use the ‘Big Boomers’ quite a bit…!

Moving on to Omnisphere, what are the features and capabilities of this epic ´Power Synth´ that appeal to you the most?
Omnisphere is quite simply Awesome! As a writer, I prefer to use pencil and paper to get my ideas down; I don’t like it when technology gets in the way. Omnisphere embodies this simplicity by stripping away many of the unnecessary menus and features which bog a lot of other plugins down and make them cumbersome to use. Fantastic sounds are instantly at my fingertips and I don’t have to work hard to find them. However, under the bonnet, every option is completely customisable which means that once I have found a sound which is in the ballpark, I can hand it over to my engineer/programmer, Trystan Francis, who can take that sound and manipulate it to make it fit precisely into any project.

Are there any particular Omnisphere sounds that crop up more frequently than others in your projects?
This is actually a very difficult question to answer as I am asked to write in so many different styles on so many different projects. Maybe it is better to say that for every project I have been asked to write for, where synthetic sounds are required, Omnisphere has always delivered a wide array of beautiful and easily customisable sounds, which make it the perfect go-to synth engine.

If Spectrasonics´ Eric Persing invited you to submit a wish list of the features, sounds or capabilities you would like to see in future updates to Stylus RMX and Omnisphere what would be on that list?
To be completely honest, I think Eric Persing has really nailed Omnisphere from a media composer’s point of view. 

You recently disclosed to us that you´re putting plans in place for using Omnisphere in a rather unique way. Could you tell our readers more about that?
In the Autumn, I’m arranging / orchestrating all the music for ‘The Bodyguard’ musical in the West End alongside composing its original underscore. Immediately afterwards, I’m doing the same job for a big new musical in Europe called ‘The Last Horseman’. I want to use Omnisphere live within the orchestra for both of these shows.  It will be played from both keyboards and electronic wind instruments (EWI).  Unlike other synths/samplers, Omnisphere’s wide range of expression controls can be exploited by musicians in realtime, matching the live action on stage.

So other than The Bodyguard and The Last Horseman projects, is there anything else in the pipeline for the rest of the year?

Ah, that familiar contractually imposed silence... We´ll be catching up again with Chris later in the year to dig deeper into how he´s using Omnisphere live within the orchestra for The BodyGuard and The Last Horseman productions - we can´t wait to hear it in action! In the meantime, why not follow Chris on Twitter?