Mar 23, 2017
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Dishing Out Great Sound
by Doniphan Blair
Tom Disher (rt) and Paul Zahnley, at Disher Music and Sound. photo: D. Blair
Composer/pianist Tom Disher seems like a mild-mannered forty-something until you get to know him—he's 57—or broach the subject of music, film scoring or sound design. Suddenly, he's bursting with energy, unable to sit still, spilling over with ideas.
Over the last decade, Disher Music and Sound, his full service studio out on Townsend, the part of The City I call "Europe" (due to its trolleys and boulevards), has done every sound service imaginable—compose, clean, mix—for every type of film or video imaginable.
These range from commercials to over 160 films of an hour or longer, including "Green Fire" (2011), "Irena Sendler: In the Name of their Mothers" (2011) and "Firefall: The Road to Burning Man" (2004). Indeed, he garnered a Northern California Emmies for his score for "John Wooden: Values, Victory and Peace of Mind" (2002) and his associate Paul Zahnley got one for his mix of "Death of a Shaman" (2004).
In keeping with his 'hood, Disher keeps on hand a couple of $6000 Mi49s but also 40 other mics, an assortment of hand drums, some "kelp horns" (hollow seaweed fitted with trumpet mouthpieces) and various guitars and keyboards, not to mention thousands of instrument samples, although he highly recommends flesh and blood musicians. Players know how to put notes together, he told me.
Out of Maryland, Disher started as a rock-n-roller and hit the road with a soul band. "We got on the radio but our record didn't sell. We were a regional success: 30 days a year up in Killington [a Vermont ski area], the biggest band to show in Scranton, Pennsylvania, playing out on the beach in the summer at Block Island."
Indeed, Disher was gigging up to a dozen times a week around San Francisco until starting the studio. His own keyboard styling encompasses from classical to rollicking jazz, as he demonstrated by sitting down at his trusted Yamaha while the piano tuner stood by, on one of his quarterly visits, undoubtedly accelerated by Disher's impassioned ivory tickling.
Disher blows down on a conch, on of his many esoteric instruments. photo: D. Blair
Just as he was about to go big time, Disher told me, by joining an incarnation of a band which went on to become John Belushi's Blues Brothers, the piano player decided to stay on.
"It was a blessing in disguise because I went back to graduate school," earning a classical music Masters from The Hartt School, in Hartford, Connecticut, quite the romantic address.
"But it was also a bummer because my friend Jeff Pevar was playing in the band and he ended up playing with Crosby, Stills and Nash."
It was also a blessing for San Francisco. Although Disher was very busy this month, I caught up with him and associate Paul Zahnley recently at the studio to discuss the local film business, making the most of a limited composing budget and more.
How are you feeling about the current climate? You are obviously busy.
We have been finding when one sector slows the other speeds up. We do commercials and industrials—they are not called that any more—(laughs)
What do they call them: webdocs?
Yeah or 'B to B' communication, although that has gone by the wayside, too. One of the things we really love is independent film. Then there are televisions shows, documentaries and specials.
Has that been holding steady over the past year or two?
Last year was surprisingly busy. The end of the summer—
Was the busiest month I have seen in five years!
Amazing. So the downturn affected post-houses because of Final Cut Pro but not you because the average filmmaker is not a composer?
That is true to a good extend. When people are serious about making films that need to go to broadcast and sound great in a theater, and they have spent a year or three and various kinds of money, [they realize] their secret weapon is to make the sound right. Look at the 'Blair Witch Project'  and its shakycam.
A versatile pianist, Disher still loves to play and jam as well as compose. photo: D. Blair
My brother ran out of the theater and threw up.
But that started the whole shakycam-is-cool thing. It means [the film] is real but you still have to make the sound great. That is the secret weapon.
You know that story about Lucas showing the same film twice, only the second time the sound was better. Everyone thought the second picture was better. Not one report said 'Better sound.'
Wise filmmakers know that you have to have a beautiful sound track whether or not you go through the trouble of putting your camera on a tripod or not.
That includes—no matter how good your location sound is—some sort of cleanup?
Paul: We get films where you cringe at the quality but you can still polish it to sound acceptable. We get the whole gamut, from multi-camera shoots with multi-audio tracks to single cam, cinema verité documentaries. They both have to come out sounding great.
Tom: It really makes a difference. It is like having a nicely cut shirt made out of good fabric VERSUS a nicely cut shirt made out of cheap fabric, it hangs differently. When you have a really well manicured and mixed track, people can really feel who they are listening to. You don't just get the words, you get the emotion.
Would you put that ahead of adding emotive music?
Every picture is different and I wouldn't diminish the power of having a good score but, ultimately, yeah. 70% of the meaning of a film comes from the dialogue, maybe more.
A good script is the first thing but the second is if you have a good actor. But to get them emoting, you have to get their sibilance and sound, right?
Absolutely. It takes a great singer to sing 'I love you,' to get those words to feel like they mean something. Getting a mix that really delivers the emotion behind the voices is the [same] thing.
Rerecorder and mixer Paul Zahnley at his axe, a mixing console. photo: D. Blair
Of course, all the other sound and getting music in the right place, so that it is strong enough but doesn't interfere with the dialogue, is also important. There are lot of tricks to make that come through in different situations, so people can watch it on their phone or go to an iMax theater and see it in its full dimension.
Paul: One of the first questions we ask when a producer or director comes in is 'where is this headed?' What kind of mix are we doing? For television, there are very specific loudness specifications we have to hit. On these corporate videos or Flash online pieces, it is wide open. We have been mixing it like for radio: dynamic range down and a little louder all around.
For our indie features, where are we going to listen to that? In a theater? Then we can we go for a really large dynamic range. Sometimes I will do two different files, a broadcast/DVD mix and a web mix.
Do you ever get the opportunity to help your client do it right, right from the beginning?
Yes, one great example was 'Green Fire' [2011, Steve and Ann Dunsky, Dave Steinke]. That was a spectacular project all the way through. They did a great job of collecting sound [but] not everything was pristine. [We] had a chance to redirect them on getting some [voice-overs] rerecorded. That was a classic case where one of the secondary narrators came through thin and nasal and it was ruining his personae.
Can you get away from the nasal tone by moving the mic?
By getting a better mic and location, it was surprising how much more effective his narration was once it was rerecorded. The other thing is Anne and Steve Dunsky are great clients of ours for many years. In the end, every business is about having a great rapport with your clients.
Disher, a functional multi-instrumentalist, beating out a tattoo on a hand drum. photo: D. Blair
They also got me involved early with making the music. They sent me things they loved; I sent them things I thought might fit; then I started composing for their 12-minute trailer. That raised them some serious money and got people excited about—I like to call him the most famous environmentalist that no one has ever heard of. Have you ever heard of Aldo Leopold?
There you go—but you will! He is a great, amazing man, extremely intelligent and well -spoken, who wasn't afraid to learn from his mistakes. What does that have to do with writing the music? Well, everything really. Understanding who he was helped my composing.
You need trailers nowadays to raise money but it is also a good way to test a [musical] theme.
Yeah. It was a great way to do it.
Paul: It went from trailer to festival showings and now a PBS version.
Tom: Over the last year and a half they have had an average of two screenings a day. For Earth Day next spring, it has a national PBS feed.
We were really excited about their story and that made it easy for me to make a good track and Paul to make a good mix. The more that we are vested in their story and see little things, the more Paul could see that that character was important and that they had to go back and rerecord—that really makes a difference. Because in the end that is what we are trying to do: help them tell their story.
Jumping back to composing the trailer, before a lot is shot, are you able to compose off a few scenes or a generalized script?
They had some key shots and interviews and a well-conceived outline. Looking at the opening of their trailer, it just made sense [to me] what music would fit. And that remained the opening for the film, the original theme became the title piece. Of course, I had to make it longer and the ending shorter and hire a lot of musicians.
Do you prefer real musicians over samples?
Yes I do, although there are certain things you can do with keyboards. When something is based on detailed articulation, I will go to great lengths.
Back to the ['Green Fire'] score, take the French horn. I've got thousands French horn samples and they sound good in some situations. [In fact] Anne and Steve said, 'You really don't have to rerecord because this sounds great.' But I said, 'Yes, but wait till you hear my horn player play this.'
Glen Swartz, a great horn player, he knows what he is doing, he just connects the notes together in a way that makes sense. You feel it. They were like, 'Oh yeah, that is better.'
A throaty sounding wooder flute was used by Disher in a recent project, 'The Cherokee Word for Water'. photo: D. Blair
I have a $12,000 pair of microphones on him—it is about capturing his sound. Glenn is not just an anonymous person who reads my dumb notes. He humors me, hears what I have to say, sees the dynamics, looks at the film and then plays with real emotion.
When you sketch out a composition you play all the instruments and then you bring in the real musicians?
I am not a guitar player but I will play the first sketch of the melody on the guitar. Sometimes I sketch it out on the keyboards. One time, I sang [the director] one of the melodies. For the classical musicians, I just plain write it out. Usually, these days, it involves some sort of recording for the sketch, sometimes it is on my phone—I probably have some suitably embarrassing sketches, let's see—[he plays a recording of him humming for 'The Cherokee Word for Water' theme.]
Done in the car or something?
I might have been driving or on a bike ride.
You ever hear tunes in dreams?
Sometimes I wake up at 5 am with a tune.
You recommend keeping a recording device next to the bed?
100%. Worse scenario, you don't have to listen to it. But sometimes when you are trying to write something simple and pure, there is just one little twist, of a note or melody, that you added later but it was better when it was simpler. It is always nice to have a record of your first thought—they don't sound great but I know what they mean and can edit from there.
What do you do when the pressure is on do you find you are blocked?
One method is to walk around the block. Or I go for a bike ride and bring this [raises his iPhone] with me. Or I put the image on loop on the screen above the piano.
For the indie film, is there a range of budgets you can get away with while still bringing in a talented fellow like yourself? Could you get by with $10,000 for a good sound design and score?
That is an interesting question. I would have to say, I always love to see what someone is doing and what they want to accomplish. We love to talk to people about their projects, whether we are the right people to do their work or whether we can add value to their project. There's been many different ways we have been able to collaborate, finding where we fit in and if we don't maybe there is someone who does. Maybe they can solve certain problems themselves and we can solve the others. In the end, we are just here to be part of their team.
It is really tough to put a number on it. I imagine there are people who are better at drawing the line [but] we try to look at what people are doing and find a way to participate without breaking their bank. We have been very capable of adding a lot of value to someone project within their budget.
If you only have a couple of themes, that would save money?
What happens if someone comes in with a finalized piece and no sound and shows it to you: Do you immediately start hearing a soundtrack in your head? Or does it take a while to gestate?
I would have to say both ways. There was a film I did a number of years ago called 'Grace' with a filmmaker in Los Angeles. They sent us a Quicktime and I put it on the computer. I was talking with her about what she wanted, connected by phone into the studio on headphones, and I played something on the piano—and there was the theme for her movie!
[laughs] So that was pretty easy.
That was the major theme that you got right there in real time?
It wasn't the opening, it was the denouement. [In the end,] we removed some of the complication from the left hand—that made it better.
Mostly we are not dealing with super complex machinations of musical intricacy. We are dealing with heartfelt textures and feelings that will work with what you have in your mind. Other times,You are methodically building things up within a rhythm. That might be more of that classic situation of musical architecture after you have got a theme to work with.
Or you want to consciously avoid a theme. A Phillip Glass-type of approach something that is rhythmic or atmospheric and you are going to be building things kind of with that end in mind. You have to know that this piece is going to fit in there: add this one, leave some space for the other things to make it work. Chiseling a little of this away so you can hear more of that, putting something right in the hole so that you have glimpses into the structure, so that it is not just a big opaque mass of everything all at once, so that every part has its visibility its own spectrum or own space in the rhythm or unique tone.
I would think the opposite of that system would be composing for a television commercial.
It's really fun. I love working on commercials. The biggest challenge about that is understanding what your client wants and what your client's client wants and what your client's client's boss wants. Everyone is unique with a subjective opinion and so that it is an interesting process. Your immediate client is usually a creative director. These are people who have brilliant ideas.
Sometimes they have specific [needs]. Sometimes they want you to be the source of inspiration and then they can say 'I like that, I don't like that.' But then we have to take that to their client and they are going to have a whole different opinion and the client's boss might have a different opinion altogether.
The idea though is how do you make that commercial really strong. The idea of making it to the punch line exactly right is an interesting problem: how many beats, this feel, sort of setting it up you need a little bit of space then you need to start your melody, need to leave a space and hit them with the joke in the way that is going to work for the creative director. Whatever the rhythm structure is, the texture, the style, these are all things that are doable and they all fall into place when you have a clear picture of what is going to sell that commercial.
There are other times when you are trying to parse the meaning of a film: How serious are you? How much do we want to let the audience in on the joke? How understated is understated?
When something isn't obvious then it is a matter of really understanding what the filmmaker wants. It is not about me writing a great piece of music, it is about me helping a filmmaker make a great film. As much as I am an expert at music, that is not my job: my job is to understand what the film needs.
Sometimes the film speaks directly to me [but] sometimes the director needs to speak directly to me. There are so many different ways you can score something. If they have a particular tightrope they are trying to walk then I need to understand what that is. For a Horror film, some directors want to hear 'Rrrrrrrrnhhhh!' [makes a low pitched sound] while the person is walking down the hall. Other people want it to be totally quiet and then 'Bam!' Which is the way Blair Erikson wanted for his mix for the film 'The Banshee Chapter' that [Paul] just mixed .
Paul: Yes, it was full of bams.
Do you ever find the tone didn't work in the final edit and you need a new tone?
Paul: Or no tone. Often they compose 60% of the film [but] by they time they are done, there is only 30 or 40% of the score left.
Tom: I didn't score this film because I wouldn't have written it if it didn't need to be there—just kidding! Everyone takes stuff out, that is just the way it is.
On 'The Banshee Chapter', the composer, Andreas Weidinger, did a great job. But there is an entity in this film—it is a horror film—and we were in charge of doing the sound design for that entity. Some people want the music to tell you, 'Oh you are in deep shit now pal,' but Blair wanted to make it different.
Paul: So we started taking it out.
Tom: The score still sounds great, you just don't hear some of the other great stuff that was in there. It is really back to the idea of it's Blair's film and he had a specific vision.
That is a tough thing, for everyone in the process to communicate effectively and often enough. It is harder and harder to pick up the phone or make the trip. Having Blair in here was great.
We also do a lot of work remotely. That works well, too, but if you want it by next Tuesday hopefully you will have a chance to review the stuff as soon as you get it. It is a matter of understanding what people want and be ready to finetune it. When you are in the same room the process goes more organically.
And when you are sending it, it is low rez.
Yeah and it becomes hard to tell certain things. They say, 'Can we hear some more bass?' 'Sure, just don't play it from your computer speakers.' [laughs] The bass is there but if that is where they are going to listen to it, we need to know. If you want to hear bass, we have to do certain things so it sounds bass-ey on a computer without sounding tubby on a full rez system.
Is there a way to have a skeleton of a full bass that works on a little viewer?
That's interesting. If you have an electric bass [guitar], it has some overtones and you can mute them down or bring them up. If you have a string bass, it has tons of high overtones. When it comes to electronic basses, you have the ability to produce a purely low tone that it can disappear on small speakers. To some extent you have to pick your sounds for your delivery venue. When it comes to bass sounds, you need a huge speaker to deliver a [full] bass tone.
What would you say are the three central venues for viewing platforms?
The old standard is television, a high definition TV with a reasonable set of speakers. The laptop is the low end but if you put your headphones on, it can sound great. Theater is the third one.
For the filmmaker, having something that has enough dynamic range to be inspiring is critical. It is possible to hit all those platforms with a generalized mix but it depends on the nature of the film. If you have a film where you want to get really quiet and really loud, then it is [best] to make that second mix.
Paul: I would recommend that second mix. If the movie is compressed for a smaller device like a laptop, it will sound awful in the theater. I have heard mixes like that at a festival and it is like, 'This is drilling a hole in my ear drum.' Dialogue that would sound nice and loud and cut through on a lap top, in a big theater is terrible.
The high definition, 5.1, television mix will sound pretty good in a theater, although it might be a little on the loud side. Most shows are remastered even for a DVD. If you are watching a DVD and have to constantly ride the volume, that is a film that has not been remastered.
What have you done of interest lately?
Tom: 'The Cherokee Word for Water' was a lot of fun for me to score. I got to use my friend Jeff Pevar [a guitarist who has played with David Crosby, Ray Charles and Joe Cocker among others]. I hired him to do the score—they were going to get Ry Cooder but he backed out. Jeff plays a great slide guitar.
Working long distance with him—he lives in Oregon—was so easy because he is so talented. I would just send him stuff and the next morning the cookies were baked, it was just awesome. I just saw him recently when he was in town with Rickie Lee Jones, and he is just such a great guy as well as a great player.
In the end, making a great score, making a great movie, is about collaboration. You can do it all yourself but what do you end up with? In the end, all the greatest films have involved a lot of collaboration.
Look at Robbie Rodriguez ['Mariachi' 1992, 'Spy Kids', 2001]. He says he does it all himself; he does his own score, he shoots and he edits. But he doesn't do all his music, there are people who help him do that, and the editing and the lighting. He still has 30 people helping him.
The real thing is: How do you help [the filmmaker] tell their story. If you can answer that questions all the details will fall into place.
Posted on Sep 20, 2012 - 03:22 AM