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Hans Zimmer on Inception and His DAW of Choice

Hans Zimmer needs no introduction, and yet there’s so much happening around him that we simply feel the urge to spread the news from time to time with great fervor.

Scoring well over 100 films, Hans Zimmer has been awarded with two Golden Globes, one Oscar and three Grammy’s as well as counting an array of nominations. Last week Zimmer was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, while two weeks ago, he was nominated for Inception and Sherlock Holmes in the category Best Score Soundtrack Album for Motion Picture at next year’s Grammy Awards, slated for February.

We at Steinberg congratulate Hans Zimmer on his latest achievements.

You have a tremendous repertoire of music which you’ve composed for numerous box office hits, just like one of your most recent movies, Inception. Can you tell us how you get these high-profile jobs?
I have been thinking about this recently myself. I simply work well with directors. I mean when I first began to work with Chris [Nolan, director of Inception,] on Batman Begins he hadn’t done a “blockbuster” type movie before, and he just thought what I do is interesting. So what Chris and the other directors do is phone me up, inviting me to go on an adventure with them. I mean that’s how it works. It’s always the director that phones me, and never the producer or an agent. If the director takes an interest, it really just goes from there. For instance, after The Dark Knight Guy Richie called me who I had never spoken to in my life. He told me that he was working on the Sherlock Holmes movie and that every time he went to the cutting room the editors had put The Dark Knight all over the movie and that’s not what he wanted. So I thought that was pretty cool for him to call me up personally to tell me that that’s not what he wanted and asking me to come up with something else.

All of these movies have a rather dark atmosphere to them...
Of course all of the mentioned films have a particularly dark side to them but during that same period of time I also made music for some really happy movies: Kung Fu Panda — very happy movie — and Madagascar — now you can’t get any happier than that. So, you see I’m not only doing these gloomy things. What happens is that whenever I work on a comedy or something similar, all I want to do is something dark and as soon as I’m working on a dark movie, I’m simply praying to work on a comedy. And, after working on Inception, I was working on a comedy but it kills me — it’s really always the same, I sit there, big panic starts and at the end of the day it takes a long time just giving the whole thing some thinking.

So, how did the music to Inception come about exactly?
Chris gave me the script just after we finished The Dark Knight, now that’s quite a while back, and we would just see each other, we would phone each other, just talk about things and spend a long time figuring out, not the notes or even the style of music and so on, but what do we want to do, what is this movie about, what’s the subtext, how big a part does the music play in the movie. A lot of these conversations took place on the beach, with our kids playing around us and both of us being dads. We would talk about the feel of the movie. Chris is really good at putting something in front of me and then letting me come back with my ideas. You see a film composer’s job isn’t to do what the film director tells you to do, but to do something that the director doesn’t really expect — you’re supposed to come up with your own ideas. And Chris is particularly good at just listening to ideas — well, sometimes he steers me a little bit — plus I’m really good at analyzing movies, the scripts and the story telling, pointing out where viewers might have problems understanding a bit and where the music can help making it clearer. Inception was a complicated movie, but funny enough, on the paper it’s a very simple movie because Chris wrote the story as well, and he simply writes beautifully so it was actually very manageable for me to read but I could also tell that as soon as you would put it up on a screen people would get confused and so the main job the music had was to somehow give you an emotional anchor that went all the way through the film and if you just trust in the music, it’d get you through the movie — even if you’re a little confused here or there. You could say with Inception Chris made a movie about time and for me that was the more interesting aspect, it was more about time than about dreams and among it all, this profound yet tragic love story with many existential questions.

You are a veteran in film score composing. Do you still encounter situations that take you aback?
All films come with difficult situations. It’s not like a job that you learn to get good at because repetitive motion is involved. Honestly, the whole point is everyone forever asking me to do something new and unexpected. The bottom line is that I always start with a blank page and that’s the job: looking to reinvent yourself time and again plus you’re supposed to be slightly ahead of the zeitgeist. The problems of being a film composer are vast [laughs] — every day is a dilemma somehow.

And that’s why you have to be able to rely 100% on your DAW. How does Cubase support you during the composing process?
By not crashing — but seriously, I was amazed by how much I was throwing at Cubase and it never winced, never seized up, never faltered. It’s always an extreme thing, and although I honestly can’t recall how many audio tracks were being used, remember that everything we do is in 5.1 so that quickly adds tracks, plus there are 300–400 MIDI tracks going at the same time. We also tried to keep everything virtual on this movie up until the very end. Other than the orchestra and soloist Johnny Ma, even most of the synths were kept virtual all the way through the mix.

Another thing is that Cubase sounds really good. And what I mean by that is that what you put into Cubase is what you get out. It’s not colored like other systems. I can tell straight away when somebody brings in a Logic track — I know exactly what it was recorded on. Part of why I like Cubase is that I don’t sound like everybody else. I mean we never use library sounds. You don’t really want to hear a sound you have in your 160-million-dollar movie in somebody else’s movie in the theater next door so everything we use is made from scratch. And so it’s very important to me that the quality of the software ensures that what ever work I put into it, it isn’t going to get colored. We already had this with the early digital recording where you can listen to a recording and you literally can put a time stamp onto it. And I think this will also happen with other DAWs. So you don’t really want to be able to identify the sound and that’s why the DAW has to be as transparent as possible so that it becomes timeless.

Are there any features you enjoy particularly in Cubase?
For doing orchestral stuff, VST Expression is absolutely brilliant. It makes perfect sense. It seems crazy that we’ve been writing down instructions on paper in a simple way for hundreds of years but this wonderful sequencer just couldn’t do it. Sometimes it’s good to embrace some of the old things that simply work. But I think I get the most fun out of the things you can now do with soft-synths and the incredible things you can do with plug-ins.

You already mentioned orchestra and soloists. Were there any other people involved in scoring the music for Inception?
Obviously making a film score isn’t just one guy sitting there — there are other people that work on the score as well. There was a lot of sound design going on from Mel Wesson, a lot of arranging, programming and so on from people like Lorne Balfe. We have a way here of networking things together. We can just share files since we all have the same setup. It’s really efficient — you can pull up somebody else’s sequence via the network and do some work on it.

Are there any virtual instruments you use?
I use very few now. The main thing I use is Zebra by Urs Heckman for synthesizers but also some hardware, such as a few old Moog modulars via MIDI interfaces. There’s also my sampler which we had to build from scratch. Mark Wherry has been building it and it’s slightly over the top as far as the technology is concerned. And we’ve been creating our own library and that project just goes on forever because we keep on adding to it. The problem with samples is that you get bored. Unfortunately, every time you press the same note, the same sound comes back at you. I’ve never understood why people don’t make their own sample library because it’s really not that hard, it just takes a bit of time and having a few friends who can play instruments extraordinarily well plus a hall for recording. And it’s so much better because it’s custom-made.

You’ve composed the music for a video game before. Have you ever thought of focusing entirely on a different genre other than film music?
I love writing music for movies because it gives me such incredible freedom. You see, I don’t have to do verse, chorus, verse, chorus. I don’t have to conform to all the pop-song tyranny that exists out there, for example. I can change style — I can do a Kung Fu Panda and The Dark Knight in the same year. I mean I come from rock’n’roll, and I know what to look for. I need a hook, I need a good chorus, I need a good tune, I need a good production value. Inception is the self-most produced score I’ve ever done. It’s very much like doing a record, except that I do it in 5.1. I find it very difficult to listen to my own soundtracks because I can’t stand being in stereo — once you take all those nice surround speakers away from me, it feels very bare as if half the world has been taken away from me. Another reason why I like doing films is because of the visual information. “Das Auge hoert mit.” [ed. The eyes listen too.] If you watch a performance it’s quite a different thing than just listening to it, and the great thing for me with movies is that there’s a visual all the time attached to the music — it completes the music.

Do you have any final words before we close up this interview?
If you come to think of it, these movies which cost zillions of dollars, at the end of the day, they put their trust in a piece of software like Cubase. It works flawlessly, we meet the deadline and we get to do everything we imagined to do. That’s quite a testament on how reliable Cubase is these days. It’s an incredibly advanced program and although it’s difficult for me to say since I’ve been working with it for so long, it does seem like anybody can just pick it up and make music with it very, very quickly. And isn’t that the point, that whatever’s in your head, you’re supposed to be able to get it out and into your sequencer as quickly as you can.

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