Monday, May 13, 2013

An interview with Mel Wesson

by Matteo Milani - U.S.O. Project, 2013

Mel Wesson received a multi platinum award for his contributions to The Verve's 'Urban Hymns' album and the anthemic single 'Bitter Sweet Symphony'. It was this album Hans Zimmer was listening to in the New Year of 2000 when he spotted Mel's credit and invited him to work on the score for Mission Impossible 2.
Since that time Mel has created his own niche within the movie score genre as 'Ambient Music Designer'. This area of atmospheric sound has weaved its way through many of Hans' scores including Ridley Scott's 'Hannibal' and 'Black Hawk Down', Christopher Nolan's 'Batman' trilogy and most recently Ron Howard's 'Rush', amongst the others.

[photo courtesy of Mel Wesson]

Matteo Milani: Mel, how you got involved in working on motion pictures?

Mel Wesson: Aside from a few piano lessons as a child I had no real formal music training, I learnt most about my approach to music at Art College...  I learn't about keeping an open mind, freedom of expression, things that have stayed with me all my life. I spent my  youth playing with bands, touring and recording. I started getting offers of session work, one thing led to another... I'd known Hans Zimmer since my late teens and he got me involved in a few projects with his mentor Stanley Myers, as well as some of his own early musical projects. Hans and I drifted apart for a few years when he moved to LA and I got more involved in working with recording artists but eventually Hans called out of the blue and asked me to get involved in the score of 'Mission Impossible 2'. That was the start of a new chapter for me.

MM: Would you like to describe your collaboration between composers James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer?

MW: They're both very different, Hans prefers everything to be in a constant state of flux, whereas James has a more structured approach. I seem to have an approach that works with them both, I'm pretty flexible but I do like make progress through a picture so often I'll leap ahead of wherever  they are in the in movie and  then feed ideas back at them. James often likes to arrive at a cue and find something in place, it might be a soundscape consisting of many cues, or perhaps a rhythmic idea, maybe even a map. Hans tends to assimilate my ideas in his own way, a lot of time things come together at the mix as opposed to the more traditional point of composition, that works for him as he never considers a cue finished until it's in the theatre!

MM: Please explain your role as 'Ambient Music Designer' when working with the composer and other members of the sound editorial.

MW: Well, I really should know the answer to that one but I'm still working on it! The AMD role came about through a few conversations with Hans on 'Hannibal'. People read things into that title, but it's really just a phrase we cooked up to give me a credit on that movie and it stuck! The important thing is I just didn't want to go down the orchestral route (despite what people may think I DO write conventional music occasionally! ) and Hans gave me the opportunity to experiment with sound in a way that crosses the boundaries of music and sound design. A lot of my work is to do with atmospheres, creating a presence, emotions, sometimes through rhythm too. I create bespoke sounds but that's only a part of what I do. I use those sounds to work with picture, that's the real challenge here. The word 'Ambient' can cover a lot of ground in the same way the word 'Orchestral' covers an amount of options... Back to the question, occasionally a composer will have something specific in mind, but a lot of the time I'm left to my own devices and we see what occurs... I enjoy the freedom, it would be rather pointless for everybody if I didn't play  a creative role.

MM: How do you deal with the everlasting collision between sound effect and music?

MW: It's all noise... some noises work together, some don't. I try not to distinguish too much between violins and helicopters, everything has it's place... On Ron Howard's 'Rush' for example there's the most amazing sounding race cars... they're the sound of the movie, the heart and soul the story, yet they'll carve through any music... which is fine by me, I'd far sooner listen to them then an orchestra! Most recently I've been playing with the band 'Node', with producers Flood and Ed Buller, plus electronic artist Dave Bessell. What we do is all about sound, it's all live too, no overdubs, no mix process. The music we're creating crosses a lot of boundaries, there really is no conflict between sound and music in that environment and no one would draw a line between what we do and music. For me it's the ideal band to play with, I'm very excited about our album. 

[photo courtesy of Mel Wesson]

MM: The sounds you've done for 'Inception: the App' are these totally synthesised or is there any usage of reprocessed actual sounds?

Nearly all of my work on Inception, the score and therefore the App was based of reprocessed sounds, mostly from one sample session, but you'd struggle to recognise the source of the sounds in about 90% of the case. It was a session of natural instruments resonating through a piano soundboard, so we had an amazing amount of harmonics to work with plus the room itself. Then I took my ideas back to Air Lyndhurst and replayed them into the hall and re-recorded them again... we got some amazing material of out that session. There was some live recording in the app too.... like rain on my studio window that became part of the environment. There's been a Dark Knight App since that one too, the same team, but based more around a more interactive way of playing with the score in the real world.

MM: For 'Inception: the Soundscape', you’re credited as composer. It’s your first art installation work. Do you have any additional anecdotes to share?

That was played on the walk between Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, (the US Inception Premiere) and the after show venue where we played a live concert. It was a walkway constructed a few hundred metres long and a really interesting project. I used a lot of ambience from the film, plus some sounds I got from sound designer Richard King, things like the train coming down the centre of the road, waves on the beach etc. It was a lot of fun, I'd love to do more... but really more long term exhibition based... and yes, I'm open to offers! Venice Biennale anyone?

MM: Tell us about the software and hardware production tools in your arsenal...

MW: My studio's based around Logic Pro, for now at least.... I love working in Logic but it's way overdue an update so I'm looking at alternatives. So... within the computer world I have a few favourite toys, MetaSynth has served me well in the past, Reaktor is probably still my favourite plugin, it's just so forward thinking, flexible, origional and most importantly it sounds good... that's  everything you want from a plugin. I use a lot of sounds manipulation devices, things from Izotope, Audio Damage, etc. I like the Waldorf plugins too, the Wave 3 is very good, but the most exciting thing I've seen in a long time is the PPG Wave Generator, it's an iPad app, again it's sounds great and it's innovative. I sometimes process sounds through my modular or the Synthi but I don't use a lot of outboard FX, although I've started using a Kemper Profiling Amp. Obviously that's designed with guitars in mind but there's no rules. I use a lot of vintage synths too, partly because nothing sounds as good and partly because the interface makes you think differently. I'm fortunate to have a large analog modular system that's part Moog 3C, part PPG300, other 'Go to' synths include a  Synthi A, PPG Wave 2. It's not just about the sound though, it's how these devices make you think. I just bought a guitar too, I don't really play, but again I come up with things I'd never think of on a keyboard or computer. 

[photo courtesy of Mel Wesson]

MM: What are your preferred titles you worked on and what kind of sounds you designed?

MW: Well all my sounds are organised within folders so there's the 'BatFlaps', for Batman Trilogy,  there was 'Rage' for the Joker, 'Ice Brass' for Inception. 'Gotham Metal', "BanePane'... it's a long list.  Of course we had  'MetaPiggies' on Hannibal!

MM: Can you reveal us a 'making of' of a very special sound effect(s) or a sound sequence
for 'Green Lantern'?

MW: Ah Green Lantern... we had a vast library of sounds, unusually for me all of my work was created with synthesisers,  We had there's the Green Energy sounds for the good guys and the sound of Yellow Light which was the sound of fear... We did record the extraordinary voice of Grant Gershon and I processed his voice to create various sounds and textures. We had so much fun on that movie, although it was pretty much universally slated which was a shame as the team was great as was the experience. 

MM: How do you deliver your sound elements to the mixing stage?

MW: I master everything in quad, but really all I do is give options, the real work in surround takes place on the dubstage. They have far more to deal with in terms of effects and dialog beyond the music and that team are experts in bringing it all together. My work is all part of the score, it's a common misunderstanding that I deliver stand alone sounds but for me the sounds are only a part of the process. Once I have my pallette I start to use those sounds to compose with, so the work is delivered as mixes and stems, the same as any other cue would be. That said Chris Nolan is very keen to have my material as wide as possible as what we called 'Melements', he likes to swap things around on the dub and experiment. For me it's always an exciting time and I love the way the process is constantly evolving.

MM: What projects are you currently working on?

MW: Well.... I'm a rarity in this industry in that I actively dislike have more than one project ongoing  at the same time... in an ideal world at least!  This year got off to a crazy start. I've been working a couple of old friends, Trevor Morris on 'Olympus Has Fallen' and Ramin Djwadi on 'Pacific Rim', these have been more electronic arrangements and ideas as opposed to ambient work. I've also worked on 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' with Teddy Shapiro, plus a few bits for Henry Jackman on 'Captain Phillips' and Chris Bacon's score for 'Bates Motel'. The important thing is at times like that everybody respects everyone else's projects and space... it's not like I have a team around me, I can't and won't delegate which makes things diffiicult at times. A nice Margaux helps though...

[Mel Wesson - IMDb]

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