How to record the music for a TV musical
By Simon Nathan, LMTO Principal Orchestrator
Over the last decade or so, it’s become increasingly rare for large orchestras to record the soundtracks to TV programmes. But earlier this year, LMTO was asked to record the music for Channel 4’s Prince Andrew: The Musical. A satirical look at Prince Andrew’s life with a focus on his famous interview with Emily Maitlis, the programme features just over 35 minutes of original music, penned by Kieran Hodgson (who also takes on the title role in the episode) and LMTO CEO & Artistic Director, Freddie Tapner.
Time in the studio is incredibly precious, so an enormous amount of preparation must be done in advance. Seven songs (six by Kieran and Freddie, and a seventh by comedian Munya Chawawa and composer Pippa Cleary) were written earlier in 2022, and were handed to me as piano/vocal demos. My job was to flesh them out into full orchestral scores. Once these first drafts had been completed, the vocals were recorded and then the whole show was shot.
When the filming was over, the orchestrations were sent back to me for a process I call “Mickey Mousing”: matching movements on screen with musical gestures (as Disney did in all their musical films until recently). A real example of this was adding woodwind runs while one of the characters is spinning the other around. Once the visual edits were complete, there were a few musical corners to tidy up, and then there were just five days to create, print and bind over 1000 pages of sheet music.
There are very few places in London able to fit 32 players in one room, especially when you consider that certain loud instruments (like drums) need to be sonically isolated from the rest of the players, in order to avoid something called “mic bleed”, in which louder instruments dominate the sound picked up by all microphones. We opted to record at the beautiful and recently reopened Angel Studios – one of the most famous and acoustically stunning studios in the world, which had both plenty of room and plenty of booths to isolate the louder instruments. Freddie, spearheading the whole project as Music Producer, took up the baton to conduct the sessions.
We recorded over two days. The first day featured drums, guitar (electric, acoustic, 12-string and banjo), bass (upright and electric), piano, harp and strings (8 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos). We recorded these instruments first because they provide the backbone of the arrangements, making it easier to fit the other instruments on top of them later.
On the second day we recorded six woodwind players, playing an esoteric selection of instruments as only musical theatre pit players can. We completed the lineup with two french horns, three trumpets and three trombones.
Prince Andrew: The Musical was conceived as a “love letter to musicals” and each song has a very different flavour, meaning that all the instruments were very differently busy in each one. The strings had to shift from playing Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque accompaniments in A Different Kind of Duty, to lush Phantom-of-the-Opera countermelodies in Ex-Wife, to soaring pop strings in My Profiterole. The winds and brass were playing classic Broadway swing in I Nailed It one minute and whirling filmic passages in England Expects in another. The drums, bass, guitar and piano were creating oom-pah grooves for You’re Always Gonna Need An Andrew before tackling Pippa Cleary’s unmistakable pop style in Obey.
The recording engineer, Mat Batram, had to work closely with Freddie conducting in the live room and with myself and an assistant, Declan Corr, in the booth. Between us, we needed to try and faithfully recreate the notes on the page in as short a time as possible. We only had around 9 minutes to record each individual minute of music, so it was important to note any errors quickly and efficiently before moving on. Luckily the players from the London Musical Theatre Orchestra are the best in the business and there were more than a few moments in which the first take (which was essentially sight-read) made it into the final product.
While we were busy in Angel, others were beavering away in home studios to create extra tracks. Tristan Butler spent a day adding in all the percussion, while Andy Philip played in some additional guitar parts. Finally, I added the odd twinkle and sparkle with sampled instruments like celeste, organ, and even the odd choir here and there!
Following LMTO’s two days in the studio, Freddie and I attended “comp” day – the day in which the music producers sit around and choose which takes to use for every moment in the score. It can take a long time, but fortunately we managed to get everything finished in “only” 10 hours. We then sent our final version to our recording engineer, Adam Miller, who was left to do his magic. The music editor, Dan Brown, then took the files and ensured that each moment of music perfectly matched the picture onscreen, ready for dialogue and sound effects to be added on top. Within one week of setting foot in Angel Studios, we had a finished product ready to have dialogue and sound effects added in.
Freddie attended the dub (the session where all the audio elements of the show are pulled together) to make the final adjustments, in particular some fractional re-balancing of orchestra and vocals to make the jokes land as well as possible and to make sure that there was as seamless as possible transition between dialogue and song.
All of us at LMTO are delighted to have been involved in a project of this scale and ambition, and can’t wait for the broadcast at 9pm on 29th December 2022 on Channel 4. You’ll be able to listen to the album on all streaming platforms that same week.
The London Musical Theatre Orchestra line-up
Violins: Nicole Wilson, Jeremy Isaac, Patrick Savage, Helena Wood, Sonya Fairbairn, Ed Bale, Non Peters & Dave Larkin
Violas: Nick Barr & Polly Wiltshire
Cellos: Bozidar Vukotic & Nick Squires
Flute & Piccolo: Nina Robertson
Flute, Clarinet & Tenor Sax: Hannah Lawrance
Oboe & Cor Anglais: Ilid Jones
Clarinet, E-flat Clarinet & Alto Sax: Paul Saunders
Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Bb Contrabass Clarinet & Alto Sax: Jay Craig
Bassoon & Baritone Sax: Colin Skinner
Woodwinds for I Nailed It: Mikey Davis
Horns: Dave Oxley & Carys Evans
Trumpets: Pablo Mendelssohn, Luke Davies & Andrew Gathercole
Tenor Trombones: Phil Judge, Ryan Hume
Bass Trombone: Simon Minshell
Trombones for I Nailed It: Chris Traves
Guitars: Andy Philip
Guitars and Bass for I Nailed It: Phil Donnelly
Piano: Liam Waddle
Harp: Catrin Meek
Bass: Harrison Wood
Drums: Scott Chapman
Drums for I Nailed It: Matt Whittington
Percussion: Tristan Butler