by Michael S. Palmer
I love original motion picture soundtracks. My first one was John William's 'Jurassic Park' and now -- holy crap, twenty years later -- I have more movie scores than any other musical genre in my collection. One of my all time favorite composers is Hans Zimmer, whose 'Crimson Tide' music was used in dozens of mid-to-late 90s movie trailers (including 'Rules of Engagement', 'The Saint', 'Hoodlum', 'G.I. Jane', 'Armageddon', 'The Rock', 'White Squall', 'Mulholland Falls', 'The Devil's Own', 'ID4', 'Hard Rain', and 'Dragonheart'). I used to cue up Roll Tide in my car before performing in various school plays.
But that was a long time ago I still do it to psych myself up for important pitch meetings and bar room brawls.
So color me surprised when DTS calls to say they're debuting their new Headphone:X technology on Hans Zimmer's 'Man of Steel' soundtrack and HDD is invited to demo the new technology and meet Mr. Zimmer in person along with his producer, Peter Asher.
After a brief geek meltdown, I wander onto the Warner Bros. studio lot and over to the Clint Eastwood scoring stage just in time to begin the demo with four other journalists. Five pairs of standard headphones sit before us on a mixing console, and a discrete 11.1 speaker array surrounds us. That's a standard 7.1 setup plus four height channels. Before donning the headphones, DTS plays a "speaker call out", which you've probably heard on some calibration discs. Essentially, Hans Zimmer identifies each of the eleven channels (Left Front, Center, Right Front, Right Side Surround, Left Rear Height, etc.).
Placing the stereo headphones on our noggins, DTS replays what appears to be the exact same call out. For a moment, we're all wondering if this is a trick -- ha ha, just kidding, the headphones weren't on; we just replayed the callout through the speakers. So we run it again, taking the headphones off every second or two. The room's speakers are silent. Everything we're hearing is from stereo headphones playing the call out encoded in DTS's new Headphone:X.
And -- no joke, not an ounce of exaggeration -- Headphone:X not only sounds identical to the discrete 11.1, but DTS says Headphone:X-encoded music will work with any pair of headphones you already own.
Next, we listen to a few tracks from Mr. Zimmer's 'Man of Steel' score mixed in 11.1 and run through Headphone:X. If you want to hear a sample (of the score, not the surround mix), the most recent trailer uses Zimmer's work and highlights the unique blend of a "drum orchestra", eight-pedal steel guitars, one Stradivarius violin, and even a small out of tune piano. Listening to Headphone:X is akin to standing in the middle of an orchestra, or sitting in Hans' mixing stage, with thundering drums and other instruments all around you. If you're at all familiar with Mr. Zimmer's previous orchestrations, you might be aware he used razor blades on guitars to create the Joker's theme in 'The Dark Knight', or a football stadium of chanting people for Bane's theme in 'The Dark Knight Rises'. These experiments help create a sonic language for each project (or character). For 'Man of Steel', Hans is most inspired by the imagery of wind rushing through endless telephone wires on the American plains.
As fan, the 'Man of Steel' soundtrack is a stunner. Just like when he followed Danny Elfman's iconic 'Batman' theme and made the 'The Dark Knight Trilogy' his own, Zimmer (very humbly) steps into John William's shoes not to replace him or what Zimmer called "some of [Williams'] best work", but to try something new. Oddly, I would argue Zimmer's music -- along with Producer Chris Nolan and Writer David S. Goyer -- makes 'Man of Steel' feel part of the Nolan/DC movie universe. Obviously, Mr. Nolan has said his Batman series is a standalone and not part of any possible 'Justice League' project, but all the same, Zimmer's score makes the current generation DC universe feel connected which, as a fan, is pretty cool.
Descriptions are all fine and dandy, I suppose, but the real question is what do you need to hear the 'Man of Steel' soundtrack Headphone:X for yourself?
- an iOS device or Android device
- the Z+ Music app
- the music files themselves, specifically mixed in Headphone:X
But wait, how do you get said music files?
Starting today, June 11, you can purchase the 'Man of Steel' Limited Deluxe Edition Soundtrack. Inside the steelbook case, you'll find 2 CDs with over two hours of music (including six bonus tracks not found on the other version of the soundtrack), 32-page booklet, and a redemption code to download the Z+ Music app along with the entire soundtrack in DTS Headphone:X. The Z+ Music app is tuned to make each track emulate Hans Zimmer's own mixing stage, so you're hearing his musical score "exactly" as he heard it during mixing.
Since I'm writing this a week in advance, I haven't been able to test the download / redemption process just yet. I'm also looking forward to comparing and contrasting what DTS Headphone:X sounds like next to my 7.1 home theatre setup running the stereo CD album through DTS NEO:6 Music and/or Dolby Pro Logic IIx Music.
Interestingly, an earlier version of The Dark Knight Rises Z+ is on iTunes right now related to, of course 'The Dark Knight Rises'. The app itself is free, along with some demo materials, but individual tracks and content cost money.
My guess is this same app will update on the 10th or 11th to a 'Man of Steel' theme. [6/11/2013 UPDATE: The Dark Knight Rises Z+ remains available as separate app via the above link.] As I said before, if you buy the Limited Edition soundtrack, the Headphone:X music track downloads are included; if you do not, the Z+ Music app should be free and you will most likely be able to, as with 'Rises', purchase content which may or may not include the 'Man of Steel' sound track elements. (I'll check back next week and update you when I can.)
Also, DTS is apparently still working on the A/V Receiver version of Headphone:X so you can listen to these files without the need for a smartphone / app. This may arrive in the form of a firmware update for certain receivers, but the specifics remain unavailable.
Now that you know all about Headphone:X, I want to share a transcript of a Hans Zimmer roundtable interview discussion where he talks 'Man of Steel', 'The Dark Knight' Trilogy, working with Zack Synder and Chris Nolan, and why -- before Headphone:X -- he never listens to any of his music soundtrack albums. Highlights include confirmation that 'Man of Steel' will feature a 7.1 Blu-ray mix (the entire mix -- not necessarily the music score) and Zimmer's repeat attempts to turn down this project because he feared messing with two American icons: Superman and John Williams' score. Enjoy.
HANS ZIMMER (as he enters the room and sits at the table): Good day, Gentlemen and Lady. So what did you all think? I don't have to write a letter of apology to John Williams, do I? It's different, yeah, but appropriate for Superman?
[THE JOURNALISTS ARE VERY COMPLIMENTARY. THEN WE SEGUE INTO QUESTIONS]
HOW WAS THE EXPERIENCE MIXING IN DTS HEADPHONE:X?
HZ: Okay, here's something I probably shouldn't be saying, but I never listen to my soundtrack albums because I can't stand it. It's just stereo. When I write, I write in surround. My life is in surround. Why would I settle for less?
And we were playing around with a few systems, and [my producer] Peter Asher kept saying, "there's this really great system, you have to hear what these guys [at DTS] are up to." And it was as simple as that. I heard [Headphone:X] and I went, "yes, this will work. This is the future. The future is now." And my [issue] then was, "guys, you only get to do a Superman movie once in your life."
I'M NOT SO SURE. THEY SEEM TO MAKE THESE A LOT.
HZ: Well, I shared this exact conversation with Zack [Synder] where I was trying to look at my life and the future and he's going "we'll want to go and do this, and go do this", and I'm thinking to myself, "oh my God, here we go again."
Because while you work on something, you never have any idea if it's going to be any good. I'm starting to get a sense. When we released the third trailer, which has music from the movie on it, I started to get a sense that we are relevant and people are going to understand that we will be different. That this is different from any Superman movie that's ever happened.
This is the thing I always try to do. [I say] let's come up with something new, let's push the technology, let's use these movies to introduce people to new technology. There are many bad things you can say about Hollywood, and they've probably already been said, but one of the things people always forget is that it does push technology. And, another thing which I love, it's the last place on Earth that commissions musicians to play every day. It's the last place that commissions orchestral music every day. Except in our case, the orchestra was maybe a little different. But that was part of the mission; to make it different.
WHY WAS 'MAN OF STEEL' THE RIGHT TIMING FOR DTS HEADPHONE:X?
HZ: It's a funny old world how movies get made. There are all these little teams working in their own departments, etc. And you deliver your music to the dub stage and there's a whole other team that's never had any involvement in it. I walked into my writing room one day and Chris Jenkins, our main dubbing engineer, was there. I asked what he was doing and he said, "I want to look at the whole movie the way you hear it." And I thoughT, "you know, that's pretty good."
The whole team, including Chris Nolan, they're just into this. They respect, not just the few notes I write, but the sonic quality of things. Chris and I spent nine years together with Batman, and part of those conversations were always about sound and how could we make the sound better. I've been waiting for this moment where I could actually go and listen to one of my soundtracks without going, "oh dear... it's only stereo."
DOES WRITING MUSIC FOR A 3D MOVIE CHANGE YOUR APPROACHING TO COMPOSING?
HZ: Not really, because in a funny way, we sound guys have been ahead of that in the cinema because we've had 5.1 and now we have 7.1 and way beyond. That's the normal process because we take less bandwidth, in a way, than visual effects, etc. We've always been able to be a little ahead. I don't know how much this movie costs -- a LOT -- but ultimately the score's recorded on an off-the-shelf PC on a software that costs five hundred bucks. That's what that whole infrastructure, at the end of the day, rests on, but I think what happened was, the movies and the home systems were starting to give you this fabulous experience and I felt just the straight stereo [for soundtrack albums] didn't. It's just nice that we can now have [a multi-channel experience] on a daily basis.
HOW'S THIS SOUNDTRACK GOING TO TRANSLATE ON THE BLU-RAY DISC?
HZ: I have no idea. You're talking about something that's down the road. Interestingly enough, I can't remember if it was 'The Dark Knight' or 'Inception' [Editor's note: it's 'Inception'], but because there's a lot of space on the Blu-ray, we actually put the score in 5.1 onto the Blu-ray disc. There hasn't be a single person in this great big world full of people that has said to me, "wow I listened to your score in 5.1 on the Blu-ray disc." [Editor's note: I have and it's great! But Hans kept talking and I didn't want to interrupt.] And to me, that's the disconnect. You have to make it easy, effortless. Make it possible with the tools everybody has already.
WAIT, YOU PUT THE 5.1 MIX ON THE BLU-RAY?
HZ: As a special feature, with out the picture and without the pesky dialog!
IS 'MAN OF STEEL' IN 7.1 FOR THE BLU-RAY?
HZ: Yes, definitely in 7.1. That bit I know. [Editor's note: I believe this is the entire sound mix, not about the score]
WHEN YOU SIT DOWN TO READ A SCRIPT, DO YOU FIND A SCORE COMING TO YOUR HEAD?
HZ: Are you crazy?[LAUGHTER] No, I was the reluctant bride on this one. I kept saying no. Nolan kept saying, "come on Hans, you can do Superman." So I said to him, "you walked in here and you had an idea for Superman and that puts you at an unfair advantage saying this to me." Because, quite honestly, I thought [Superman] is an American icon. The John Williams score is iconic in and of itself, and I think it's some of John's best work. And do I really want to follow in those footsteps? So I said to both Zack and Chris, "tell you what, let me finish 'The Dark Knight Rises'. I'm not going to look at anything, don't tell me anything." And fifteen minutes, I kid you not, after I finished 'Dark Knight Rises', I had Zack on the phone: "so are you coming in?"
I sat down with him and said I was completely overwhelmed and intimidated by this task, but tell me the story. So rather than reading the story, it was just two guys sitting around, and he was just telling me a story which was really compelling. It's about a lot things that concern me, a lot of things I know about. An outsider. A stranger in a strange land. Humility. Let's not make this Superman just bombastic. Let's make this a score that deals with and celebrates the people in the heartland of America. Let's make this, somehow, about those endless plains. You know, I kept hearing the sound of telephone wires and the wind rushing through them. And during this conversation [with Zack Synder], a framework started to happen. And once you have a framework, there is this inevitable thing where you want to go on an adventure.
In a funny way, Zack's most brilliant move was, as I kept saying "I don't know how to do this, this is really daunting," he went, "You know, Hans, it's just another movie." It just put a sort of reality about the whole thing and it suddenly opened. And of course, Chris and Zack and everybody, they were really open to ideas. Like, when you say, "I want to do this thing with eight pedal steel guitars," you usually get people to start laughing at you. Or like the idea of the drum circle was very specific. It's not just to show off. When you read the list of names in the drum circle, it's a jaw-dropping list, but if you think about what a string section is, a string section is individuals that are extraordinary players. By bringing that group together you get a very different sound that if you have a solo violin. I did [have a solo violin] on 'Sherlock Holmes' and it's a very different sound, a single violin versus an orchestra. So I tried to create these orchestras that were unusual. At the same time, you can hear the energy and the competition between all the players just to give it their best. It was fun just looking at everyone's different style and seeing how each different style survived the experience.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST PIECE OF MUSIC COMPOSED FOR 'MAN OF STEEL'? WAS IT FOR A SCENE? WHILE READING THE SCRIPT?
HZ: No, no, no, they were shooting the movie while were finishing 'The Dark Knight Rises' and I just refused to look at anything. You know, I always thought The Dark Knight and Superman have nothing in common. One is Zimmer at his darkest, you know. But if you think about the journey the character takes, it's about the first responder. It's about the guy who doesn't look away and is there to help. So that's what these characters ultimately have in common. The subtext of 'Dark Knight Rises', which was maybe just my subtext, but in that story Alfred if forever telling Bruce Wayne to grow up, stop beating people up. What the world needs is your brains and your ingenuity. Stop acting like a teenager. "Use your words." [LAUGHTER]
Oddly, this story is very similar. You have this extraordinary outsider whose first punch in the movie is to protect his mother. All he wants to do, all he has learned in this dichotomy of having two fathers, is you gotta be there for people and try make the world a better place. I think that's what both movies, in a funny way, do. Except this movie I was very much trying to use a different language.
To answer the question, I was doing my normal procrastination and insanity, thinking I wasn't worthy, etc. Then Zack phoned me and asked if I had anything yet. I said have some Post Its you could probably put on a fridge -- a few piano tunes. Zack said he loved Piano tunes and flew down on Tuesday. So he came down and said "that's great, I'll see you later." It was oddly important to just make it as casual as possible when we sat. The big action stuff and the bombastic stuff, that's really easy to write. It's finding the small phrase that illuminates the heart of the characters is the one that kills you.
HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHEN IT'S APPROPRIATE TO HAVE LITTLE OR NO MUSIC?
HZ: When Krypton explodes, originally that was the biggest explosions with the biggest music. Then our friend, Ann Marie Calhoun showed up one day, having just been lent this amazing Stradivarius Violin [specifically, the Artot-Alard Stradivarius] and I said, "ooh, that's unique." Because here's what I was not getting. We have a movie that we have to get from there to the rest of the story. This is a mother and a father giving up their child at this moment. So it shouldn't be big and bombastic. If it becomes one singular instrument, I think it might actually be quite poignant. So in a funny way the process decided where we were gonna go against type all the time.
One of the first comic book movies I ever did was 'Batman Begins' and one of the things Chris and I were talking about we need to build an autonomous sonic landscape to the world. And I think we did that. Forget the notes, even if you just hear the ambiances, you know this is the Dark Knight. And we tried to do the same with Superman. That's why that mental image of telephone wires and the fields, the little out of tune piano, was really important for me. Each movie I get to, I virtually start from scratch, swearing out all the sounds and going through a sort of craziness trying to come up with a new vocabulary.
HAVE YOU EVER TURNED DOWN A SCORE, FOR WHATEVER REASON, AND SEEN THE MOVIE LATER AND WISHED YOU HAD DONE IT?
HZ: Yeah, but I can't remember what it was. I turned this one down about three times out of all the right reasons. I just didn't feel I was ready. And weirdly, even though I kept saying to Chris, don't talk to me about Superman while we're doing 'Dark Knight Rises', there was this subtext going all the time.
WHEN YOU WATCH A MOVIE, DO YOU ENJOY IT AS A MOVIE OR IS YOUR EXPERIENCE MORE ABOUT THE MOVIE?
HZ: Totally, if it's a good movie, I'm totally in the movie. It's weird, it's when there's a misstep in the music, that's when I notice it and say to myself, "why did you do that? It should have been G-major there!" [LAUGHTER]
Many thanks to everyone at DTS and Warner Bros. for a chance to demo Headphone:X and meet one of my industry heroes! Pick up the 'Man of Steel' soundtrack in Headphone:X on June 11th. 'Man of Steel' hits US cinemas on Friday, June 14 in 2D, 3D, IMAX 3D / 5.1, 7.1, and Atmos.