Here you have an interview with Basque sound engineer Mikel F Krutzaga, collaborator of multiple composers in the process of creating a soundtrack, who will bring another point of view to the world of film / game / TV music.
This is the first in a series of interviews that will be coming to SoundTrackFest, and that will have as protagonists all that team that is behind a soundtrack side by side with the composer: orchestra directors, musicians, sound engineers or even record producers.
The interview was conducted in collaboration between the webs BSOSpirit (Asier G. Senarriaga) and SoundTrackFest (Gorka Oteiza).
Good afternoon Mikel, “arratsalde on” (in Basque language), thank you very much for giving us this interview to BSOSpirit and SoundTrackFest.
Arratsalde on, thank you very much, whatever you need.
Tell us about yourself Mikel, about your origins, for the neophytes we will indicate that you are a Sound Engineer / Mixer / Producer … How do you get to that point? Was it the profession you dreamed about, or did you get there gradually?
From a very early age I have always had a great love for music. In my house, except my grandfather, who was an “atabalero” (player of a small drum or tambourine used at public parties), there was not much love for music, but I always had that love for music, I was very attracted to the instruments. As a teenager, my toys were a small Casio organ that I asked for, and a harmonica that I bought with my first savings. When I was a kid I liked to play with a lot of instruments, for example a guitar I bought, after stealing first her guitar from my cousin.
So, little by little, I entered the world of music to this day. I remember when I was already in high school, a cousin of mine who was in a small local radio station in Gernika, invited me to the place to see how it was done, and once there I found everything very beautiful, with all the devices and micros.
Another time I visited Radio Gernika with a friend, the boss of the station, Itxaso, who is the name of a woman, but it was the motto that this man had, seeing how I liked it all, said: “Hey, if you want to learn, come in the afternoon“. I was about 14 years old, and after telling me that if my parents gave me permission I could go there, I started to be in the radio every afternoon. There I learned what was a mixing station (at that time of five channels), how the microphones worked and how they were connected, and when I finished school, I decided to look for something that was related to that world. I looked here in Gipuzkoa and saw that in Andoain I could study image and sound, and I told myself, let’s try this!
That’s how all began, and in fact, when I was studying there, I composed the music for a short film they were preparing.
So, you also compose?
Yes, I studied music first and guitar later, and that was the beginning of everything. Shortly after, I started working in a sound company, and from that moment, things have been coming one after another. I was dedicated to live concerts at that time, and in a conversation, someone told me, “Hey, I have a recording studio, come in and see it” and there I had my first meeting with Pascal Gaigne, who was making the music for an album (not a movie), and I was invited to attend the recording session at the studio. I was twenty-one years old at the time, and you see, one after another, things have been going on.
So I was doing live sound for many years, even now sometimes I do that kind of works, I do live concerts for Kepa Junkera for example. At that time I started with a company called Serrano Producciones, and I was working for music groups and working on tours. I was doing concerts with people like Gwendal, Flaco Jiménez, Oskorri, with whom I have worked for many years as well, and that’s when I met music from different styles, not just pop-rock, but other musical styles that made me know different nuances and that have enriched me professionally.
I was fortunate that these musicians worked on what was called “small-format tours” in which great musicians and performers gave a concert alone or accompanied by another musician, both of whom were professionals with international name. There I could see the raw talent. And since they played so well, without the support or great equipment, only with the humility of the true talent, at that moment began my interest in the purity of sound. I wanted to seek that personal sound in each one of the musicians, and it was then when I began to investigate the world of sound. Because even if it doesn’t look like, this profession requires a lot of self-studying.
Speaking of studying, the other day you told us that you were studying and researching the 7.1 sound system on your own, seeing the possibilities and discovering how to apply best each new element to future projects.
Yes, this is a world in which there is a lot of base information, but it is on a minimal basis, so you have to expand it with knowledge and a lot of study. In the early days if you wanted to know things, there was a reference book, but now there are infinite places to get information and continue learning. So everyone should investigate and create their own path.
What is the work of a Sound Engineer? How is the process of mixing for the film in the first place and for the CD afterwards? Explain us a little bit more your work.
The process usually begins first with some questions when the composer contacts me, which usually consist on identifying what kind of musical language are we talking about, and what kind of musical context we want to endow the work; for example, to define if we are talking about an orchestral composition, a creation for folk instruments, or perhaps something more electronic.
All this is determined by the musical style that defines the world of the film, so my job is to first situate myself in that musical context, and then, together with the composer, mark the line in the recording process. Let’s say that it is a symphony orchestra: we must know the instrumentation and sections, if it has strings, if it has woodwind, brass, if in the composition will predominate the brass section, or if it will have a very lyrical feeling and violins have to highlight over the rest, or the piano has to lead the singing voice … let’s say that we have to study all this to make the musical composition of the place.
So you have to look for that balance, that structure that has the work, to know later how to adjust everything for the whole piece to shine.
Yes, you have to know how it will sound, and depending on it, mark the line to follow in the recording process: If it is going to be recorded with all the interpreters at the same time, if it is going to be done by sections, or if it will be recorded in layers, and if it is done this way, what order will be the best one to record. Once the final process is known, you have to delimit or mark how we are going to record it technically.
I usually start the work by listening to some technical reference. I listen to previous mockups that the composer has, to imagine the sonority that will have the final work, and depending on it, I choose which microphones to use, the position of the microphones, the position of the orchestra, and all those concepts that will help to shape the initial idea. It’s like when you’re painting, you have to choose the canvas, the brushes and the color tones, but you in your head, you really know how the final work will be.
Then I prepare the sound design of the project, the recording design, and then comes the time to adjust the schedules to be able to record, to supervise the recording, and to get everything I had designed fulfilled (according to what I had in mind for the project).
Once the recording concludes, the work of mixing begins, where I have to prepare what’s in my head, and through that recorded material, reflect the sound as I want and as I think. That mix, is monitored next to the composer, to match what I think with what he/she thinks. It’s not valid if we have two different ideas.
For example, it may happen that I have thought of something big, and the composer tells me that he/she wants it small, or vice versa, that I have imagined it small and the sound he/she is looking for is great. In short, I have to capture that essence, according to the composer’s idea.
That’s a more or less the work: first production, then sound engineer, and finally mixing engineer.
Regarding recording by sections or by layers, we have sometimes seen how with a theme or a piece, several shots are recorded, and then with the score in hand, you decide which sections are the best to make the mixes. What can you tell us about this way of working, Mikel?
The truth is that it is a purely logical. Let’s say that musicians play a four-minute piece “at first sight” (at first sight means that the musicians see the score at that time, for the first time, read it for the first time, and directly interpret it without previous rehearsal), and let’s say there are sixty musicians. Having all the musicians interpret it perfectly in the first take, knowing it is their first contact with that score, is very difficult. Sometimes it happens, because they are great professionals, but it is complicated, and that is why several shots are recorded.
And what happens when you take several shots, let’s say one minute each? The first fifteen seconds in the second shot were very good, the next thirty seconds in the third shot were very good, and the last ten seconds of the first shot were spectacular. Therefore, with the score in hand, we stablish what to choose from each shot, and what are the good and usable parts of each. Then they are edited, taking sections until the full piece is formed, using the best of each shot, and making it finally sound as if all had been a single recording.
And those transitions that exist between different segments, and making them go unnoticed, has to be complicated to get, right? You have to be very precise!
The truth is that today is easier with technology, since you can use computer tools that help you make those transitions go very softly, or to be noticed as little as possible. What is important is that they match correctly, I mean, if in the previous shot when they have played it sounds rather out of tune, when you are going to join with the next piece, you have to be careful. So the selection of the shots is done looking all of this.
So they have to be homogeneous, or at least as homogeneous as possible.
Exactly, and you have to contemplate that transition points are good as well, even if in the mixing, everything is adjusted so nothing strange is perceived. The truth is that there are many things to keep in mind; the tuning, the rhythm, the character… It can happen that tuning and character is very good, but rhythm is a little below the desired. But if it happens that those shots are the best we have, and the next shot goes very well with rhythm and tuning, but a bit neutral in character … well, then, there’s where us technicians make things finally work, by putting pieces together and polishing them.
I understand that with this we would already have the music for the movie, and then… what is the process for the CD? Because for the disc you have to reduce to stereo as you’re not able to publish CDs in 5.1, right?
Yes, today the mix of music for films is usually made in 5.1, 7.1, or in some cases, 9.1, and always with Dolby ATMOS system. They’re multichannel systems, what everyone understands as Home Cinema; front speakers, back speakers, all this. And of course, from multichannel, which can be six, eight, or more tracks, you have to find a way to pass it to a two-track stereo. So a reduction is usually made in the mix, for example, the rear channels have to be passed to the front, because we hear everything in the front, left or right. In that case, you have to make a reinterpretation of that multichannel sonority to the stereo, but without losing what has been tried to achieve with the soundtrack for the film in the transposition to the CD.
There are different scenarios and ways of doing this, and it also depends on each movie. If there is more budget, you can remix again, maintaining the character of the original sound. Another option is to use computer systems to add some channels to others. Depending on the possibilities of time and budget, you take one option or another.
So far we have talked a lot about soundtracks, but you have also collaborated with a many musicians on albums, such as Kepa Junkera, with whom you have worked on several occasions. Is there much difference when working on a score for a movie, or for a musical album, from your specific point of view?
Essentially, technically, there is no difference, except in the final mix, which is where it has to be considered to be multichannel or not, but the recording process is similar. Let’s say that a traditional music recording and an orchestral recording for a soundtrack are very similar, but what does vary is that the music for a movie is very dependent on the image itself, the dialogues, the composition and how you want the whole mix to work.
Resources for mixing music are a little more limited in this case compared to a disc itself, where you have “everything for you”, from absolute silence to maximum volume, and you have it available to your desire to work with it.
In movies you are more dependent on the dialogues, sound effects and sound montage, and you have to share space, so sometimes the final result makes that the music, which on a disc would reach 100% volume for example, has less presence.
So let’s say that in that aspect, the process may have elements that vary, but regarding the recording process, the work is very similar, because in both cases we are talking about music.
And a music album is also recorded like that, by parts/sections, or one song in an album is recorded in one take?
We also do sections, and many more things in some cases. Technology gives many possibilities. There are celebrities that if you see them performing live, they do not sing half of what you can hear on the disc. There is a lot of production behind, a lot of engineering. Today technology opens a world of possibilities. And this is the part that encourages me most, which I like and which interests me the most, the fact that the mixing, the production process, the technological process, is an artistic process.
From something that we have, that is already recorded and is correctly interpreted and is finished, through the manipulation and through what the sound engineer does, we can get something special! That is the artistic part of the musical production and of the final mix, and that is the part I like most and that excites me about my work.
So the use of technological tools does not make the process colder, but the other way around, it gives you more options, and if you use them well, you can generate more depth and polish the work to become pure art.
Normally, people in general think that sound technicians are almost from the branch of “bare-metal”, from mechanical engineering, when in fact we are a branch of music, musicians. We are a part of the musical family.
A mixer, an equalizer, a compressor, a reverberation, are in short musical instruments, since according to their use, as they are manipulated, they transform the sound one way or another. For example, who invented the electric guitar was a musician looking for a different sound, as it could have been centuries ago the person that varied from the lute to the classical guitar. He was not a carpenter who made doors, he was a musician looking for a different sonority.
Let’s go back to Kepa Junkera and the work that won the Grammy, which I imagine was something very special, and a milestone in your career, a magical memory. What anecdotes you can share with us about that process, from the nomination till the moment you got the award? How did you live it?
Well the truth is that this production is a job that I have in my heart, because it was a very beautiful and very long process (very hard too, but it was very beautiful). It was a live album, at Arriaga Theater (Bilbao), in which a huge number of musicians participated: there was Kepa Junkera’s formation, there were drums, bass players, guitars, txalaparta (Basque traditional musical instrument), Kepa with trikitixa (Basque accordion), plus a string quartet, a quartet of Bulgarian voices, a brass section from Quebec, Ibon Koteron’s alboka (Basque cow horn musical instrument), an Italian mandolinist, a percussionist, and … I’m sure I’m forgetting someone haha! Lots of musicians on the stage!
And to put so many musicians together, with the sound to be perfect and everything looking good under the pressure of a live concert…
It was complex. For that occasion we rented a mobile unit that came from Paris, which was being used by Phil Collins at that time. It was parked next to the Arriaga, passing all the cables through a window from the stage to the van. And there were we, five or six days (I cannot remember), in which three concerts were recorded, the rest being rehearsals and sound tests. Out of the three concerts a selection was made and the best shots were chosen, and although it might seem that 30% of each concert was taken, it wasn’t. What happened was a curious thing. In the first concert, everyone knew that it was being recorded, both musicians and public, and there was a strange feeling, like pressure in the air…
A bit of stage fright, maybe?
Yes, and then we decided that the recording of the first day was of no use. The next day Kepa and I decided that we had to do more takes, just in case, and we went to the theater (I think it was a Saturday morning), and we did a whole recording of the show, without audience, just in case!, for backup.
Well, later in the afternoon we had the second concert, and of course, as the previous day we had already recorded the first concert and had a complete take, and as the second concert was in the middle of the three, it allowed people to be with another energy, more relaxed but eager to enjoy. And it turned out fantastic! Practically 90% of the album is from that performance.
But the next day, I made the mistake of telling the musicians: “Hey, yesterday everything went very well“, and of course, with the previous nerves already passed and the feeling of duty fulfilled, they relaxed and overacted (laughs).
So in the third concert there was an excess of emotion, and the recording was not good either. Very good performance, but too energetic. We had the recording of the second day, and that’s where practically the whole album comes from.
Then this work was edited by the record label EMI, and regarding the Grammy, I was already in other projects and I did not know I was nominated, until one day they call me from the office and say “Hey, Mikel, we’ve won a Grammy ” And I said: “Hey, look, let me alone, no kidding, I have work to do” and they said, “No, we’ve won a Grammy! For the record -K- !!!“
I could not believe it!! I thought it was a joke, but actually, a few days later, the Grammy, appeared in my house. For me it’s one of the most beautiful memories I have, not only for the award itself, but for the whole project, the recording, the mixing of the whole album, and then, of course, with a Grammy, it’s incredible.
Let’s go back to the world of film music, and let’s talk about the last score you’ve worked for, or the last one we’ve seen / heard, Pascal Gaigne’s Lighthouse of the Whales. Tell us the process, and how you get to the final result that we find on the CD, what aspects would you like to stand out from all that work?
Initially, only with what I could feel from the title, The Lighthouse of the Whales, I already thought: this has to be precious. And then I met Pascal, who told me where the story was going. The first thing I did was to go to his studio and listen to what he had created up to that moment, and the pieces he was finishing musically. And I loved it of course. I thought it was an exquisite music, an authentic beauty.
These things are the ones that charge my batteries in an incredible way, and since then, I could not even sleep thinking about the music and wondering, ”I’ll do this, I’ll look how to get that, how to prepare the rest, etc”. Pascal did some mockups, which are usually very clear, since he has very clear musical ideas of what he wants and what he likes, and they’re a perfect script for me.
From Pascal’s mockups, we marked the order of what we wanted to do and how to carry it out. I already had in mind how I wanted the piano to sound, how I wanted the harp to play, how I wanted the orchestra to sound, what dimensions needed to be, and for that scenario, what I did was a microphone design (what kind of microphones to use, what to record and where to place them), to pick up and capture that sound as we wanted.
And then comes the work of mixing, which in a score like that, is very beautiful, because it is grateful. It gives you a chance to play with colors, sizes and distances. The mixture was made in Dolby ATMOS, and after finishing the mixing for the film, I performed the remixing and reduction to stereo for the CD.
And in that remix, you followed the steps you told us before, didn’t you? That is, you did the whole remix again, not only a stereo reduction, but a remix following the style and the meaning of the movie, right?
Yes. In this case it was done that way. I did it with the same elements and using part of the previous mix, but keeping that feeling in my mind, and reinterpreting it for the stereo.
Let’s keep talking about film music. In the 2017th edition of the Goya Awards ceremony, two of your works for Pascal, such as The Lighthouse of the Whales and The Olive Tree, were nominated. How do you live this process, when your work is recognized with nominations or even with awards? Does it suppose an increase of work in the following months, like “hey, this man is very good in what he does, I also want to work with him“?
Well, nominations and awards are lived with enthusiasm. Whenever you are nominated or given an award, it is an excitement, because all this work we have been talking about, that you are looking for, where you try to achieve something special; well, you feel that you have transmitted something to people, and that the work of the composer and your own work has been liked. So, it is very satisfying to receive some recognition.
Professionally speaking, sometimes you can have awards for your work, even if the film itself is not well-known and hasn’t had repercussion. What we do is closely linked to the repercussion of the film.
There are films for example, with very little music, where the film is very good, even with awards for the script, directing or actors… but with a very simple score and without anything remarkable, a score that would go unnoticed in any other case. But if the film has had much impact, when looking for new work, is easier with the name of that the film behind you.
That credit weighs much more than maybe a soundtrack that is excellent, with an immense work, and that in fact would have deserved some award but finally did not have it. There are other times that a film and a score have a very high quality, but its premiere coincides with the premiere of another movie that raids at the box office, and goes completely unnoticed.
And in that aspect, cinema is quite cruel, because the film is only known while it is in the cinemas, and that implies that if for example your film coincides with Star Wars, then you are lost. Because they are not going to program you, or they will put you in very small theatres, since those who own the cinemas also want to sell tickets, and Star Wars is an incredible promotion machinery.
However if your film comes out two months later where there is a hole of a couple of weekends without any blockbuster or any big Hollywood premiere, and it makes a dent and can find its audience, can have twice as much repercussion as when it premiered originally.
So, let’s say that our work is a bit tied to the fate of the film itself, and when I say ours, I mean the work of the filmmakers, the editors, actors, and the whole team that goes with the film.
Finishing this interview, and returning for an instant to what you have told us about formats, many fans would like to be able to enjoy the soundtracks of their favorite movies in 5.1 or higher, but for now they have to get along with “stereo reductions”. Why is there a lack of interest in expanding this market? There have been formats like the Super Audio CD, or editing soundtracks on DVD with 5.1, but this has not been extended. Why do you think that we do not have a better format to listen to music “like it is played in the film”? Is there no alternative that studies could address, now that the digital format is almost everything today?
Definitely yes. In fact, more work has to be done to make it appear in stereo, because the initial mix is already multi-channel. Editing it in multi-channel would be even easier, because the mix already has that format. I think that here are two problems here: one, the crisis of the physical format, the CD, which is slowly disappearing, because if the sale of CDs before was falling, now I think it is already bottoming out, and two, the interest of that additional quality by the listener. The truth is that it would be great to know how many people are really interested in music of a certain technical quality (when listening to it in their homes), and listen to it as it is in the film.
What I would do would be to encourage people who edit soundtracks to publish this 5.1 music, not in CD format, because that would be very complicated, but through some kind of digital download. For example, some type of file that you can play in a Home-Cinema, just like you play a DVD or Bluray. I do not know if there exists in the market some “plug-in” that you can install, but in reality it would be quite simple. Technically, once the mix is done, you could directly prepare the file for immediate playback.
In fact, something similar is already happening, in classical music especially, the possibility of the 96KHz or higher resolution downloads, so, just as you can do that, you can do the multichannel.
Taking as a reference The Lighthouse of the Whales, maybe you have to tell Jose María Benítez (Quartet Records) to address a multichannel digital download in 5.1. If the option is feasible, maybe we can discover a new market, right?
It is possible. For people who have a 5.1 audio system, we should look for the ideal reading device, then stream it, or download it, whatever is more feasible.
I would certainly listen to some soundtracks in 5.1, very glad, and in fact, as I said, it would be simple at the time of publication because the work is already done. More complicated would be to switch from the stereo to the multichannel. You would have to do a complete work of mixing, but to have the mix for the film transferred to multichannel audio format, I do not see it very complicated, as long as there’s a way to get it to the potential interested listener.
Well Mikel, to finish, a compulsory question: what you can tell us you about you current projects? What are you working on at these moments and what are we going to be able to enjoy soon?
Now I am in the process of recording an album dedicated to bouzouki, which is an instrument that is known in many cases by Mediterranean music, but which has a lot of application in Irish music, and I’m producing a disc based on the Bouzouki, with traditional themes from Euskadi (Basque Country).
And then I’m with a couple of projects, which are still in the initial larval stage, and that I cannot share, but I’ll tell you that they are films, and that there’re some things already in progress.
Great, because we wish we can soon enjoy more projects with your signature, such as the fantastic The Lighthouse of Whales. Mikel, we’re delighted to talk to you, and “ezkerrik asko” (“thanks” in Basque) for your kindness and for your time. We’ll keep in touch for future occasions. A hug from BsoSpirit and SoundTrackFest. See you soon!
A pleasure, really, Gorka and Asier, and we will continue talking.