Interview: Downton Abbey composer John Lunn

Now one of the UK’s top TV composers after decades spent honing his craft on shows such as ‘Going Postal’ and ‘Hotel Babylon’, two-time Emmy winner John Lunn is best known for his work on ‘Downton Abbey’, which had its grand finale recently. Adam Savage asks him to look back on what made the show so successful and reveal his 2016 plans…

So Downton Abbey has finally come to an end. It must feel strange that it’s all over now?

It is a bit, but it’s still on in America so there’s quite a lot of publicity at the moment. I’ve also done a new Downton Abbey album, there’s talk of a live tour and a movie and Japan’s only on series two so even though it feels like the end, it’s still ongoing.

Have you been surprised by the show’s popularity, as well as the amount of interest in the soundtrack?

I think because it became so popular and the theme tune got played more and more people got to know it. Is it because it’s a brilliant tune or is it just that sense of familiarity? It’s probably a bit of both actually. I think it works really well because it does kind of sum up what you’re about to see and give you a certain level of expectation, but I didn’t know the whole series was going to be so popular, particularly in America.

Has your approach changed much since the first series?

Not really, the size of the orchestra has stayed pretty familiar for example. Before it was so popular, the budget was a bit of a struggle in series one but it was the kind of score that couldn’t be done with sample libraries; it had to be real musicians. I ended up initially cutting corners, so we’d only book a studio to record the orchestra in, then we’d take the Pro Tools session back to my studio and I’d record the piano on top of it. There are no samples in it at all; obviously I used samples to write it, but they all got replaced by real musicians.

You once said you were “unconvinced by digital emulations”. Are you still a die-hard analogue fan?

Things have possibly changed a bit now but about ten years ago I moved my studio into a slightly smaller room and did go down that route of trying to do everything in the box. It was a bit unfortunate because I was doing a job that had a lot of electric guitars in it but I just couldn’t get it to sound good mixing within Logic.

Things have certainly got better and I have been surprised with some things I’ve heard that were mixed in the box but I think I can tell the difference. I use Pro Tools, which is a fantastic piece of software, but most of the compression and EQ we use is all analogue.

I’m sure it has developed and I can see the reasons for doing it [going digital]. Last summer I was working on three jobs at once and moving between jobs on an analogue desk was pretty complex actually. I’ve just gone out and bought a new SSL AWS 948 desk to cover for this so I’ve got some sort of recall and automation.

What other equipment have you been using for your recent projects? Have you been trying anything new?

For The Last Kingdom, which is about Vikings, I used a lot of electronics. I’ve really got into modular synthesisers. There’s this thing called Eurorack and it’s just exploded that whole side of things. Again, recall ability is a bit of a problem but what’s great about it is that it’s almost impossible to sound like anything else and I think that’s what I’ve been constantly trying to avoid – so many composers have gone down the route of using the same sample libraries, everybody’s using Omnisphere, and we all end up sounding the same!

Did you find yourself working across several studios for Downtown, or was it all done at Abbey Road?

It started off quite a lot at Abbey Road with Downton Abbey and then for series three I think we had difficulty getting in because they were doing a lot of recording for The Olympics so we went to AIR Studios and Angel Studios, where we probably ended up doing more recording than anywhere else.

Abbey Road was where you did the live streaming of the music for the last episode of Downton too, of course. How did that go?

Pretty well I think, although I didn’t really have a chance to see it because I was so busy. I think some people are really surprised by certain things to do with music and film, like how we record to picture. It’s very picture-specific and on Downton we never used the same cue twice; it was re-recorded every single time.

People do try to cut corners by reusing cues but in Downton it just didn’t work because there was so much dialogue in it and the music had to fit underneath it. We used the same tunes but they just had to be arranged differently.

What have you got coming up now then? Any more big projects in the pipeline?

I’m just finishing off a second series of Grantchester and there’s a second series of The Last Kingdom, another project called Jamestown – about the pilgrim fathers and set in America – and that will keep me busy for the year.

Now that Downton’s finished I wouldn’t mind finding something else orchestral but I’m also into all the electronic stuff so I wouldn’t mind doing a bit more experimenting as Downton’s taken me away from that side.
What was good about doing The Last Kingdom was that it was so different – that’s why I took it on – but if I’m known for Downton Abbey for the rest of my life then I’ll be quite happy!