Sounds from the Loft

Excerpts from the article by David Weiss

October 2000

Inside the music, studio and home of film composer Carter Burwell.

Bass players and film composers must feel a kind of kinship.  While the musician that works the four-string serves as the critical conduit between the harmony and the beat, their craft is rarely the center of their audience’s attention.  Film composers, charged with creating an even trickier link between onscreen action and viewers’ psyches, often operate in the same musical netherworld, where the mark of a job well done may be that it goes unnoticed.

But, just like the low-enders have their occasional Stanley Clarke, Les Claypool or Edgar Meyer, film composers have the potential to break away and become a Carter Burwell.  More important than the fact that he has done more than 50 scores since beginning his career in 1984 (with the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple, is that so many of the films his work accompanies are unforgettable.  Movies that would merely be brilliant sans score, like Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, Gods and Monsters and Being John Malkovich, move to an insightful upper level with the psychological straight arrows that Burwell seems uniquely capable of shooting.

Now a new challenge has fallen across his Roland A80 keyboard: Blair Witch 2.  Sitting down with him in the comfortable new personal studio that he has built into his tenth-floor Tribeca residence, complete with a new-console aroma of a Euphonix System 5, gives the distinct feeling that he is actually starting an entirely different phase – a fact that must appeal strongly to him as he makes a fresh attempt to reconcile the composer, engineer, and psychoacoustician within.

Flooded with natural light, his exceedingly pleasant new music lab designed by the Walters-Storyk Design Group with input from Desai/Chia Studio, can be expected to make that process much easier than it was before.  After a career of being held to somewhat rigid schedule and space constraints (the side effects of film post-production whims and working primarily out of a makeshift composing station in his bedroom), Burwell is going to be able to mix things up.

Studio in House

Designed from the ground up for working in 5.1 surround, the 800 sq. ft. studio and 3000 sq. ft. residential loft it’s integrated with have been thoughtfully connected to allow the two spaces to feed off each other.  “A novel part of the design was there would be tielines around the residence as well as the studio,” Burwell points out.  “In the iso booth you can tie into analog and digital audio, video, MIDI, Ethernet – you name it.  But it’s also through the whole rest of the space.  There are panels with connections and, if you want to set up mics in the kitchen, you can do it.  I wanted no real separation of these spaces in terms of information flow.” TR Technologies designed and integrated this tieline system.

“I don’t even know necessarily what I’m going to use this for, but I’m not comfortable living in a place where you cannot access information wherever you happen to be sitting.  You can really connect anything anywhere.  Nothing is master and nothing is slave – the information can flow in any direction.”

No matter which way it’s going, all the musical information can eventually be expected to flow through the Euphonix System 5 console.  “Once I committed to this board, I also committed to being all-digital,” says Burwell.  “Before this board arrived on the scene, it was going to be an analog room with some digital information flowing in it.  From now on, it’s going to be a digital room with some analog information flowing.  There will always be some analog audio in here, but I don’t know that I’m really ever going to buy any more analog equipment other than microphones.”

With 24-bit performance and a choice of 96, 48, or 44.1kHz, highly flexible bus configurations, multi-format monitoring from mono to 7.1, and a long list of other forward-thinking attributes, the System 5 made more and more sense to the film composer.  “I thought that an analog console, even the CS3000, which is a digitally-controlled analog console, would inevitably begin to feel a little long in the tooth five years from now,” he explains.  “It’s obvious that recording media are getting digital, our processing devices are getting digital, and that for the cleanest possible path my console should be digital.”


As a man who makes his bread and butter in a surround environment, the System 5’s surround capabilities were also a critical factor.  “We just mixed our first project, a film called Before Night Falls, and it was such a pleasure to be working in a room that was designed for 5.1, with a board that was designed for 5.1, and with music that was written for 5.1.”

Listening from the front comes via the monitors that Burwell’s ears have grown accustomed to, namely a pair of three-way Genelec 1037s.  “I know these monitors well,” he says, “and we went with the three-way instead of the two-way just for the feeling of extra headroom, so they’re not being taxed.  And it’s easier to listen to these speakers for days on end.”

Where monitoring gets interesting in the new studio is fir the rears that fill out the surround picture.  Burwell and John Storyk took great pains to create a true 5.1 environment, with monitors custom made by Ted Rothstein of TR Technologies built into vertical arrays in compartments in the studio’s rear wall.  “Really no studio I’ve been in has solved the 5.1 surround issue very well in terms of where to put your surround speakers,” observes Burwell.  “I’ve been in a lot of studios where they treat you the same way a movie theater does.  They put them along the side.  But that’s actually only fair for film mixing, because it makes it very hard to localize sound.”

“But then in this room, if you put separate speakers on stands or something, it was going to take up space and get in the way.  Or, if we drop them from the ceiling, someone’s going to hit their head on them.  The solution that John and Ted came up with was to build them into these equipment closets, which we knew we were going to have anyway.  Ted’s monitors have Dynaudio drivers, and there’s probably even more headroom in them than there is on the Genelecs.  They take up no room, and they sort of disappear into the space.”

The Right Stuff

A techie with a special gift for mating movies with music, Carter Burwell’s new tools should serve as a powerful aid in his quest to convert math into art.  “The thing that makes music so fascinating to me, endlessly, is that in music there is a connection between numbers and emotions.  You play a chord that’s based on these Pythagorean ratios and people feel something.  There’s this totally unfounded prejudice in the world that numbers are cold and unfeeling – it’s just not true.  Music is the proof.”

Ted, Carter, & John

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