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Emulating Vintage Film Score Sound with Modern Gear

Q: “I’ve been asked to do some music that sounds like old movie music recorded in the 1930s and ’40s. What sort of tricks do you think are useful to recreate that sound?”

A: You can take several steps to achieve an “authentic” 1930s film score sound. The first point to consider is the instrumentation. Although studio ensembles in those days had string sections they were nowhere near the size of the 100-plus players employed on orchestrated scores in recent years. So scale your orchestra to more of a “chamber ensemble” size – perhaps 6 to 8 violins, 2 violas, perhaps 2 or 3 cellos and no more than 3 basses. If you use brass instruments, note that in many movies of the era they often played staccato parts (possibly because long sustained brass tone would overload the recording gear). Woodwinds were used sparingly and tended to be clarinet-heavy.

Next, consider your recording space. There was no individual tracking in that era – all the instruments were recorded at once, led by a conductor who watched the film projected on a screen as he/she simultaneously read the score. So you need a room that will comfortably accommodate all your players, both physically and acoustically.

Third, your microphone choice should reflect the style of the era. All those movie soundtracks were monaural and were more often than not captured by a single mic. A ribbon microphone, positioned on a boom above (and perhaps just a bit behind) the conductor’s head will give you the blended ensemble sound that’s essential to creating the retro feel.

Finally, in the mixing/mastering stage – understanding that your “mix” is really set during the performance by controlling the dynamics of each player – you need to observe the prevailing EQ standards of the era. Follow the Academy Curve – which has a distinct rolloff below 100Hz and above 7kHz – to create the sort of “midrange-y” characteristic of old soundtracks. You might add some crackle with a noise plug-in if you have one, just to add to the effect.

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