PARDNER’ING UP WITH THE COEN BROTHERS

Published On February 14, 2019 | Features

Tracking composer Carter Burwell and engineer Michael Farrow as they hitch their wagon to the latest Coen brothers film, a Western saga called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Story & Photos: Ben Tolliday

 The characters jump off the screen as the Coen brothers leaf through the waxed protective sheets and monochromatic lithographs of their Western saga The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The collection of short frontier-life vignettes manages to draw plenty out of classic Western tropes in no time flat. Most end in tragedy; whether its the titular upbeat, serenading gunslinger or the Southern belle finding love and prospects on a wagon train. One of the more unsettling shorts amongst these motion picture tableaus centres around a pair of quietly observant bounty hunters unnerving passengers on a midnight coach ride.

In present day New York City, my companions are similarly quiet as they ride the subway car away from Sear Sound in Midtown Manhattan. Having just spent all afternoon crafting the most sinister accompaniment to a man with his neck in a noose, I’m thankful these two gentleman — film composer Carter Burwell and his longtime engineer, Michael Farrow — are in the business of making music, not sounding death knells. 

Burwell and Farrow have been ‘pardners’ for over 30 years. Together, they have produced Academy Award-nominated scores for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and Carol, plus most of the Coen brothers’ oeuvre. Unlike other well-established film score composers of the modern era, Burwell doesn’t outsource any part to other composers — he writes every note himself.

DOBRO DOES IT

Earlier in the day, the two had been working on a scene from chapter two, titled Near Algodones. In it, cowboy James Franco is perched on a horse with a noose around his neck, the other end secured to a tree branch. As the day progresses, the horse inches forward searching for the next tuft of grass, tightening the noose. The tension is perfectly matched by David Torn’s toothy, atmospheric dobro guitar, which Burwell scored to rattle and slide more vigorously as the noose slowly chokes Franco’s neck. Burwell and director Ethan Coen gave quite detailed feedback to Torn throughout the session, striving to improve on Burwell’s sample mock-up for the cue. Coen and Burwell even debated whether to blend the sample with real dobro in the mix, but ultimately decided to only use Torn’s dobro. 

Torn crafted the part with a hybrid of his acoustic and electric sounds. The acoustic dobro was captured by a pair of Sennheiser MKH40 cardioid mics, about 40cm from the guitar, chest height, and pointed down towards the guitar at a 20-degree angle. For the electric side, Torn’s pickup ran through his blend of stereo effects, into two Fender Twin guitar amplifiers, set either side of him in the live room, with gobos for isolation. Farrow used a Coles 4038 mic on each of the guitar amps, placed about 30cm from each amp, 10cm off-axis from the centre of each speaker cone. Farrow went straight into Neve 1081 preamps without any EQ or compression.

ABBEY ROAD ENSEMBLES

The dobro was the last instrument to be recorded for the short-story saga. The rest had been captured at Abbey Road Studio 2 over five days with five different ensembles; from 34 and 38-piece ensembles featuring strings, woodwinds, French horn, piano, harp, acoustic guitar and timpani; to a 10-piece brass section; a choir of 12 singers; solo piano; and timpani and percussion. The rolling timpani became the accompaniment to Torn’s dobro, adding to the sinister, simmering tension of the scene. 

Farrow’s main microphone array in Abbey Road comprised three Neumann M50s in a Decca tree formation, a pair of B&K 4011 TLX cardioid outriggers, a pair of Schoeps CMC5 MK2 omnis for surrounds, and a pair of Neumann KM84 cardioids over the brass. For added detail, he used the following spot mics: Neumann TLM170s (violins and timpani), Schoeps CMC6 MK4s (celli, double basses, harp, and acoustic guitar), Neumann KM86 (woodwinds), a pair of B&K 4011 TLX and Coles 4050 (piano), Neumann KM184 (French horns), and Coles 4038 (trum­pets, trombones and tuba). 

The Neumann M50 Decca tree microphones were recorded via Avalon AD2022 preamps, while the other microphones were recorded through the AMS Neve 88RS console preamps, without any EQ or compression, into Pro Tools at 24-bit/48k. Interestingly, Farrow always records at the sample rate of the final delivery. He believes the worst three words in digital audio are ‘sample rate conversion’.

Engineer Michael Farrow at Sear Sound placing a pair of Sennheiser MKH40 cardioid mics to capture David Torn’s dobro guitar.

MIXING FOR SIZE

Back onboard the subway, as the two journeyed to Burwell’s studio in Tribeca, they quietly focused on the next phase — mixing — set to commence the following day. Burwell had spent the better part of five months composing this score — his 16th for the Coens — fatigue was setting in, but he had an eye firmly fixed on the finish line.

Farrow began the mix at Burwell’s downtown loft studio, where his mixing toolkit included: Pro Tools HD, Euphonix System 5 digital console, TC Electronic 6000 surround reverb, and 5.1-channel Genelec studio monitoring system. 

Starting with the orchestra, Farrow used 17 microphones in the mix, with very little processing oth­er than subtle, broad Q low cut and high shelf boost EQ, as well as reverb. During the first playback of a raw, unmixed orchestra cue from Abbey Road, the ensemble’s size felt, to the ear, far larger than the 34 players in the session. On recordings with dense instrumentation and a high track-count, it can be a challenge to make things sound big, yet sparser recordings with a lower track count can sound effortlessly full and rich.

After a couple of hours working on a key cue, The Gal Who Got Rattled, Farrow invited Burwell into the control room for a playback. Burwell’s first reaction was very positive, but somewhat unexpected. He said, ‘I think this cue sounds great, but it’s too full for the scene.’ Indirectly, this was quite the compliment for Farrow. Creating size in a mix without heavy effects processing can be a challenge. Yet Farrow had done it with judicious microphone selection and placement, a great balance and just a touch of reverb. Subsequently, the revisions on this cue were simple: lower the orchestra by 3-4dB, import a synth part that doubled the guitar and harp melody, bring the guitar melody forward, and lower some other harmonic elements to create space for the melody. In context, with the picture, these tweaks created the space Burwell was seeking for this pastoral cue.


Ben Tolliday is an Australian sound engineer living in Los Angeles, who is also a 30-year veteran string player. He’s engineered RIAA platinum-certified singles, and recently received a Churchill Fellowship to work alongside industry veterans like Mark Mothersbaugh, Henry Jackman, and Alan Meyerson. This is an excerpt from his trip.

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