The “Hollywood sound” is a term frequently tossed around with the assumption that everyone actually means the same thing when they say it. The words “big” “huge” and “lush” have been used as prefixes to the term. For any composer new to the game of audio landscape or anyone simply looking to take their sound a step closer to that lofty standard, it would be time well spent to take a deeper look into the “Hollywood sound” and perhaps discover something more meaningful than big, huge and lush. After all, if you’re going to successfully recreate that sound, then you’ll need to know what you’re trying to get. If we can suspend all reality for a moment and pretend that I am the final word on what the Hollywood Sound is, I will describe it as thus: imperfectly perfect.
Now before you point out that I have described the Hollywood Sound using two diametrically opposed adjectives, consider for a moment what you see in a high budget sound recording session in Hollywood. You have some of the best session players in the world, playing on some of the best sound stages in the world, with the best equipment money can buy being operated by some of the best engineers in the world, playing music by some of the best composers in the world, being conducted by… You get the picture. Notwithstanding this “best in the world” level of contributors, the final musical product is a recipe consisting of imperfect playing, imperfect timing, imperfect intonation, imperfect articulations, imperfect, imperfect… And yet we’ve all heard music scores we’d be willing to describe as perfect.
For reference, let’s consider the opposite. Using sampled percussion, imagine programming in a repeating snare quantized to 32nd notes at 80 beats per minute with equivalent velocity and length on each strike. In other words, perfect timing, perfect articulation, etc. The result sounds like a machine gun and is, therefore, imperfect, as it should sound like a person playing a snare. It should come as no surprise that many of the most recently released sound libraries are simulating imperfect performance to avoid this problem of not sounding real.
So let me dedicate the last few words of this article to describing what I call the “red herring track”. Please use this term pervasively and cite me as a source. If not for my music I want to be known for something… but I digress. I’ve got pretty good sound libraries, and by good I’m referring to some of the newer breed of libraries that claim to be more realistic. And yet, it is still not convincing to the discerning listener. Enter the red herring track, a track with one live musician playing the exact thing being performed by the corollary sample instruments (e.g. a violin track to be placed over the sample violins or strings in general).
One stereo and one mono recording of the same take blended with a virtual string section.
You can get as granular as you want with this or at least as far as your budget will let you. So you can do a red herring track for each section of the entire string section or just one live string player for the entire string section. Additionally, a brass instrument for the brass, specifically trumpets if you use them, can really bring the brass to that “imperfect” level that will make the end result sound… perfect. Now let’s be clear, you’re not looking for bad playing. You want the absolute best live performance you can pull out of whoever you hire. But the playing will nonetheless be imperfect. When mixed properly with the clinical performance of your sample instruments, you will love the results. And by mixed properly, I’m referring to an entire list of processing including, matching space (placement, direction, reverb), EQing, etc. But that is for another article...