Signal Path Podcast: Paul Leonard-Morgan
Listen to the latest SIGNAL PATH podcast with PAUL LEONARD-MORGAN, an Emmy-nominated, BAFTA-winning composer for film and television.
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Episode 41 – Paul Leonard-Morgan
For the latest episode of Signal Path, Andrew Anderson spoke with the Scottish film and TV composer Paul Leonard-Morgan. After working with bands like Simple Minds and Belle and Sebastian, he went on to write the soundtracks for Limitless, Dredd and the TV series Spooks (MI-5). More recently, he's collaborated on projects with two of the biggest names in the business: documentarian Errol Morris and composer Philip Glass. In the podcast, he discusses embracing mistakes, getting over imposter syndrome and the creative opportunities of being on lockdown.
Andrew Anderson: So, Paul, the first thing I want to ask about actually was recording itself, how are you actually managing to work during the lockdown?
Paul Leonard-Morgan: We've always done remote recording when you have to. So, for example, when I was in the UK and then you decide that, hey, we're going to go and use Czech players or whatever, and then, well, you know what? It's not worth going over for three hours. If it's for a day that was always quite fun: pop over for a night, do the session the next day and then fly back the following one.
But for three hours, it's not worth it. So you'd always do remote recordings anyway. Then you come over to the States and then whether it's union, non-union, I mean, it's kind of the same as the UK is, buyouts, not buyouts players. And also availability – sometimes in places just so slammed.
And so the first remote session I've done over here in LA was actually in Nashville. There's a studio, actually recording studios, and beautiful old church. And that was that's kind of the main studio in Nashville. And so, again, it was like a three hour session. It's not worth hopping on a plane over there. And so we've done it like that. So I was kind of used to the process.
But I think what's changed with lockdown, quarantine, call it what you want, is that you're doing a lot more of it with individual players or individual players trying to make up a quartet, for example, which is what I did in the soundtrack for The Nest for the BBC.
And that takes a little getting used to because recording one player is fine. You know, send off the parts, they'll go and record it. Off you go. You mix it in when you're trying to record four players separately. And in the end, you're trying to blend them in to make it sound like they were recorded in the same room suddenly and not using overhead mic, for example, using close-ups.
And they're like, well, I can make it up this way and I can make it up that way. And there's really no point, because if you've got a viola player who's in an old Edwardian house in London and she's got 14 foot ceilings and then you've got the next one who's a cello player who's playing in a tiny little box somewhere in New York or whatever, there's absolutely no point having four overheads coming back at you because it just sounds like crap. So you then just using the fall kind of close mic and try to kind of work that out with the kind of reverb and the placement is doing a soundtrack.
Last year, Tales from the Loop with Philip Glass and the players, and that became integral to the sound, which sounds a weird thing to say, but the specific players, because you're then doing kind of like, okay, well, here is now some harmonics or some vibrato or something, and then they know exactly what you want to do. And then comes the next episode, you don't have to then spend half an hour going, let's try this, let's try that. They know instinctively what it is that you're trying to achieve. So it's a lot easier in the room just going, hey, can you try a harmony like this or can you try a harmonic like this or can we try it like this as opposed to giving feedback over Facebook or even worse, writing on email and then waiting for another three hours until they get that and stuff. So, yeah, it's just it's just not as instantaneous.
But what I'm talking specifically is these things where you've got four or five players, there's a plus point to this, which is when I was doing the next soundtrack, which this book series, whatever it was last month, month four. And I've been doing the recordings literally the night the lockdown happened over here in LA and we had a quartet session set up for the studio and for systems like to I think it was 10:30 pm and he's just going over to go and have some dinner at the house. Came back and Matt just goes, Yeah, I've just got a text saying from one of the players saying that no one's allowed to leave their houses. You've got the whole room set up for click tracks, mics and everything else. And so they'll go, “What are we going to do?” So that was the first time we set up all night trying to find players easy. So we have one in Berlin, one in LA, New York, London, Glasgow. It was something like, I can't remember now, but we have four players in different parts of the world just because they happen to be around. We literally just tweeted and it was mental, but also brilliant how this community suddenly comes together because suddenly people are getting back saying, oh, hang on, I know such and such.
So I found these players, they played and it was out of necessity. So then I tweeted something going like, hey, does anyone know such and such a player? Or I could actually do with coming up with some more contacts. And I thought that I would just get a load of string players answering back. What I ended up with was a complete mishmash of instrumentalists, dulcimer players, cimbalom players, trombone players, tuba players, I mean, you name it.
And whilst I haven't used most of them yet, it suddenly got me thinking instead of thinking about. This from point of view of, oh, I'm using this to replace the quartet, why don't I use it for to try out some soloists is only going to cost me a three hour session or whatever it is. It's not like you've got to get them up to the studio. Me being thick, I think I just never really thought about that aspect of it. So suddenly it's like, oh, hey, you know, you're based in Romania and you play this, say, hammer dulcimer, whatever it is. Hey, I'm going to fire you over some stuff. Let's try experimenting.
Okay, we've covered a few career highlights already, like the Philip Glass soundtrack you mentioned. But I want to go back to the very beginning and ask how you got started out with soundtracks in the first place.
I went to the Royal Academy of Music and Drama called the Conservatoire. Now, they got a lot posher. I think I applied for the Guildhall in London and applied to the academy. And I've been at school down in Berkshire, Wellington. And yeah. And I was like, wow, this has been quite cool to go somewhere different, you know, got so much family up in Glasgow because I say mum's from there.
So were you studying there as a composer or was it a bit more broad than that?
Well, again, good question. I don't I didn't know. All I knew was I like writing music. I loved music in general. And I didn't know what you like when you kind of it was just like, oh, let's go do film music or it's going to do this. Yeah, you've got no idea what film music is. It's just like, again, I still don't really have any idea what film music is, but it's just I like the idea of going in the right and some tunes. It sounded very sexy and they were just starting up, of course, at the academy.
So I studied orchestration. I mean, I studied composition horns, worked with strings, or what did Bernstein use or what did such and such use. I studied modern composition, which was great. But again, you know, it was more a case of going to college, but not really knowing what you want to do. But I just knew that I wanted to do music. I'd always written music.
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