Australian Digital Magazine
Sight and Sound, Issue 5
by Lesley Sly
Bridie and Phillips
When not recording and touring with two successful bands, David Bridie and John Phillips take time off to write film soundtracks. Well, it’s not exactly a holiday, but a studio tan is probably the safest kind to cultivate these days. The Pig Pen is a hole in the wall of a quiet alley in St Kilda, Melbourne. Even with comprehensive instructions, it’s not easy to find. This obscure address is home to David Bridie and John Phillips, when they’re not on the road with Not Drowning, Waving or My Friend the Chocolate Cake.
Welcome to the flipside of intense musical life. Composing music for film, TV and theatre is the perfect tonic when you’re road weary, they say. Well, it’s relaxing in its way, apparently, bring locked up in a dimly lit room playing with samples and complex arrangements of Gregorian chants, string ensembles, choirs and weird and wonderful noises.
It’s only 11 years since Bridie and Phillips recorded their first album, Another Pond, at home on an eight-track for $900. In those pre-pig Pen days, they made studios out of acoustically rich ‘found’ locations; church halls, stately mansions and, of course, bedrooms. They went searching for aural exotica on frequent trips to Papua New Guinea and recorded albums there. They are arguably the most prolific composers in Australia. They release albums the way pop stars release singles. In the last year, both bands have released new albums and there was a compilation ‘Follow the Geography’, plus some soundtrack albums ‘Projects 1983-1993’ (White) and ‘Hammers’ (Rogues Gallery). This pace hasn’t affected the content adversely, and they continue to develop the innate character of their work while simultaneously branching out in new directions. More expansive more focused and busier. How do they do it?
"From the beginning with NDW, anything was possible," says Bridie. "The difference, these days, is that we don’t take it all so seriously. We’re still serious about getting good sounds, but we don’t talk about it so much. We just do it and shut up! We’ve just been recording a whole bunch of music up in PNG. We’re doing all this Gregorian chant stuff and string quartet music for another project. We’ve always been pushing in these directions, but these days we get paid for it."
They started writing soundtracks in the early 80’s with young film-makers who, like them, had big ideas and small budgets.
"So we’ve been working with some of these people for a long time, only now they're quite successful and the budgets are better."
The relationship between Phillips and Bridie has developed, too.
"It’s important to have feedback we get from each other," says Phillips. "I came back from PNG early and was working on some of this by myself, and I noticed how much more difficult it was not having a second opinion."
Bridie: "It’s developed gradually, in quite an organic way. We’ve developed chord voicings that have become a distinctive sound for us. We use seconds as much as we can and thirds as little as possible, because they make the chords sound a bit wet."
Phillips: "David is more acoustically oriented and I’m more of the boffin in the team. So we don’t step on each other’s toes."
Film work is a relief from the relentless hype machine of commercial music, they say.
"In a band, you spend ten percent of the time playing and 90 percent of the time talking about it," says Phillips.
Bridie: "And the music probably gets to as many people as an album, but there will be less crap about it. You won’t have to do a film clip, interviews, or photos. And by the time the film comes out, we’ll already be involved in something else."
They’ve developed a healthy relationship with White Records (Mushroom) and are making names for themselves as producers, too. Archie Roach and Chritine Anu are recent clients.
Clearly, they don’t fuss with technology - the room is furnished with a fairly modest array of equipment.
"Hugh Jones (producer of NDW’s ‘Circus’) has a great quote," offers Bridie. "The larger the microscope the further up your arse you get. I think that applies to technology. I’m sure there are correct ways to use this gear, but I guess we’ve found a system that works for us, and that’s based on time and money, too. There’s only so much money and sometimes we would rather take a holiday than buy more equipment."
The essential equipment is:
Cubase Audio, an eight-track hard disk recorder,
Akai S1000 sampler,
Emu Vintage Keys (for bass),
a few effects,
and a DAT machine.
"The rest," says Phillips, "is almost superfluous - some of it is just used to prop up other bits of equipment! It’s good to keep things simple. We’ve tried various sequencers. Notator is a good program with lots of features, but it’s fiddly - lots of little boxes and shit everywhere and it’s not linear. Cubase is much easier to use."
They use the Kurzweil in all but solo piano situations when they record an acoustic piano on DAT and put it into Cubase. Another crucial factor in their successful equation is the pool of musicians they’ve gathered over the years, who they use as hired hands and co-writers on some projects. Their work is intensely atmospheric and they rely mostly on acoustic instruments. This hasn’t always made life easy in the soundtrack domain. Film directors are notorious for changing the length of scenes (usually the most musically complex ones) at the 11th hour. For composers using acoustic instruments recorded on tape this is Hell. Well, it was before things like Cubase Audio were invented (this sequencer allows audio to be recorded and manipulated in the same way as Midi data).
Phillips: "Cubase Audio has made a big difference, it has actually encouraged us to use more acoustic instruments because it’s so quick and simple. It used to be fiddly and slow recording guitar, piano and other acoustic instruments."
Bridie: "I’d have to get the whip out to get him to play guitar. Even now he fills up a DAT tape every six months with guitar stuff, and that’s what we use."
That guitar sound is achieved through a few "crappy and outdated effects" in this order: modulation or delay first, reverb next, into a valve amp.
"The SPX90 is great for guitar," says Phillips. "It’s so boxy, and I can get these long singing notes which I can’t get with a better reverb."
Bridie: "We’re finding that by mixing real strings and samples we’re getting some huge sounds that we wouldn’t be able to get in an either/or situation. Very few Australian films have a budget for a real orchestra, and samples on their own are too limiting. So I think we’re getting around these problems."
Phillips: "Before we got Cubase Audio, we’d record real instruments on tape and then sample them in big hunks and chop them up in the sampler, which was a fiddly way of doing it."
Bridie and Phillips usually write the score to picture on VHF tape with Cubase locked to SMPTE, then record the soundtrack onto DAT. The client is given a list of cues with matching DAT and SMPTE times.
Bridie: "It’s different for features when you’re dealing with Dolby Stereo. We can’t mix a feature soundtrack here, because you can’t approximate anything when you don’t know what those machines are going to do. You have to be careful with pseudo-stereo effects because the Dolby will just suck them into the center and they’ll cancel each other out. So you have to put the reverb to left and right channels. A lot of it is trial and error."
On The Job
Phillips: "We usually try to get as much out of the director’s head as possible, because if they say, ‘Oh, do what you want’, you can bet that later they’ll be saying ‘Oh no, that’s not what I want’."
Bridie: "Usually they’ve heard our stuff and have an idea of the range we do, but we usually encourage them to come into the studio, so we explain what’s possible and how we can change things. Some directors know what they want but can’t explain it well."
Phillips: "By bringing them into the studio we can show them things which might seem obvious to a musician, but not to other people. Like, what happens to the feel if we remove the drums and bass from a track. A lot of people don’t know that you can do that, they just see something as a total piece."
NDW, particularly in the early days, made music which was visually suggestive and evoked strong images of urban and outback scenes.
"Some people want us to do what might be called typically NDW stuff," says Phillips, "but others want something quite different, which is great for us, because we don’t want to get stuck doing one sort of music. At the moment we’re working on a choral soundtrack, and next year we’ll do one with music constructed from samples of TV shows. During discussions with the director, a style will be decided on and certain instruments selected. Then they’ll watch the film a couple of times, perhaps improvise some melodic ideas to picture, and map a piece out with samples. It that gets the go-ahead from the director, they start recording with musicians. The musicians get a tape and a printout of the score from Cubase. They’re pretty rough but they’re OK as starting points," says Phillips.
Bridie: "But the people we work with are very good at embellishing those scores. The key in making music is finding musicians to work with who aren’t anally retentive."
Bridie and Phillips usually refuse to do demos, although they made an exception in the case of author Tim Winton’s ‘That Eye, The Sky’ (by director John Rouan, ‘Death in Brunswick’).
"This is a feature which had a reasonable budget," says Bridie, "and they’d hired a composer who didn’t give them what they wanted for their money. So they were being cautious. Various composers were given the opening scene and we had to come up with music for it. We were very pleased to get the job, because we were up against some composers we respect a lot."
Different projects demand different stating points and techniques. Sometimes they write a theme for each main character.
"We might not keep them all, but that’s a good place to start," says Bridie. "From there we sculpt things. It really is a molding process."
Phillips: "The big part of it is arrangement, moving things around, pulling instruments in and out, creating layers."
Bridie: "The writing is only 20 percent of it. The meetings and juggling of sounds take time. The music is the last link in the chain, and sometimes you have to rescue a scene which the director might think is weak. But there’s only so much you can do. If a scene is too dramatic, you can’t use very light music to lessen the dramatic feel of it, though you might not use drones and big drums."
They often record piano pieces without a click track.
"You can get more feel if it’s just piano and cello," says Phillips. "But this can get tricky. Once we had a non-click piano part which got chopped up because the scene was changed. Then I had to slot an acoustic guitar from the front of the piece into a piano piece from the end. That gets a little tricky time-wise."
They love surprises, though. Like the great drum sound they got while recording Michael Barker playing on a demo in Bridie’s bedroom.
"We were using a stereo condenser mic and recording to cassette, just ideas," says Phillips, "but it ended up on the album (Christine Anu’s debut) because it was such a good sound."
And on the title track of Archie Roach’s ‘Jamu Dreaming’...
"He just sang along to a track through this shitty mic on the desk, and it sounded great... that’s the vocal on the album."
What next? Some time this year they’re planning to release an album under their own names, which will be an amalgam of everything they do.
Screen Credits Films: That Eye, The Sky, Hammers Over the Anvil, Proof, Hungry Heart, The Sleep of Reason, Greenkeeping
Documentaries: Boystown, Glued to the Telly, Licensed, Rainbows In the Desert, Living Rooms, Labor In Power, God's Girls, Fences