Sculpting the score for ‘Alien: Covenant’

Pete Cobbin, Kirsty Whalley and Tony Lewis talk to Adam Savage about teaming up once again with Ridley Scott to piece together a pulsating score for the new sci-fi horror film Alien: Covenant.

For fans of the original and the 2012 prequel Prometheus, Alien: Covenant is surely one of their most eagerly anticipated films of 2017. Promising another dose of heart-thumping deep-space terror that made Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece a sci-fi classic, the latest entry in the series not only saw Scott hook up once more with some of his most trusted crew members in the music and audio department, but also bring some new faces on board too.

With the movie already out in UK cinemas and due to hit US screens on the day this issue is due to land, we reached out to music editor Tony Lewis and score mixing/production duo Peter Cobbin (former chief engineer at Abbey Road Studios) and Kirsty Whalley – all longtime affiliates of Scott’s who were tasked with sculpting a score that would offer both subtle nods to the legendary Jerry Goldsmith’s work from nearly 40 years ago, and something totally new for the modern cinemagoer, which also led to the appointment of experimental composer Jed Kurzel (Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed).

As is often the case in the early stages of these projects, coming up with a direction for the score became a bit of an experiment itself when sharing ideas early on with Scott and film editor Pietro Scalia. A temp score from Lewis was required, and although it was his job to come up with suggestions of what might suit the picture, there were a couple of interesting requests from the director that set the wheels in motion.

“We had a phone call from Pietro saying Ridley would really like to try some of the original 1979 score and I initially raised my eyebrows and thought ‘OK we can try that,’” Lewis recalls. “I reached for it in my library and it is a great score, but it sounded very 1979! I thought how is this going to work? We started to put a bit of that on the film and it kind of did.

“The more we put on the film the more it was really soaking up this Jerry Goldsmith thematic vibe and the brief evolved into how can we make these themes work with what audiences today consider to be a modern film score with exciting action music?”

Cobbin adds: “Ridley also wanted something different and latched on to a few things that Jed Kurzel had done. I think Tony threw some of his music up as temp music as well; Ridley loved it and said ‘that’s what I want.’ You could see how both of those elements could work. I think the responsibility of making that blend and make it seamless fell more into our camp with our experience working with all sorts of composers and scores. We could potentially see a way in the manner in which it could be orchestrated.”

For those not familiar with Kurzel’s work, his musical style couldn’t be more different to the traditional orchestral approach that Goldsmith favoured, and he arguably doesn’t follow the film scoring rulebook as closely as others, which has led to a portfolio of work that has seen him become a real rising star in his field in recent years.

Tony Lewis

“Jed works with soundscapes and – I don’t think he’d mind me saying – grooves and riffs. It’s a really interesting hybrid score,” Lewis says. “I think it’s unique for Jed, this one, and he had to do some unique writing that he’d never really attempted before, and there’s some pretty sweeping stuff in there.”

“Jed’s approach to writing would be very different to Goldsmith. A lot of his music comes from performing – he plays guitar and all sorts of other instruments – and nearly all of his sounds come from an acoustic source, but he does a lot of processing and interesting things with pedals,” Whalley explains.

“It didn’t take us long to realise that some of this was going to play into Jed’s strengths as a composer with his lovely indie, eclectic sound world and I think that was largely driving a lot of the scenes to do with tension, atmosphere and terror,” Cobbin adds.

Kurzel’s preference for playing some material live into Pro Tools and then experimenting with the results – rather than writing a tune and orchestrating it in the usual way – is a bit of an unconventional one, and also meant that Cobbin and Whalley would have to expand their roles somewhat, offer more support to the composer and organise a small team of orchestrators themselves due to Kurzel initially having his hands full with temp demos. Kurzel was also a latecomer to the team – he only started seeing the film in November and the first scoring sessions were planned for mid-late January.

“Jed and Matt [Lovell, engineer/programmer] would come up with ideas and in the early days they would go directly to Pietro and Ridley via Tony, but as the schedule was looming for the scoring they sent some of their ideas to us and we would line it up with picture and sometimes embellish their ideas because by then we had a pretty good respect for what they wanted to do,” Cobbin explains. “We were very keen not to make their music at all sound like anyone else’s, so it challenged us to ensure that what we were doing was still working within their sound world.”

Big band theory

The score was performed by two orchestras: the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO) at AIR Studios and another large ensemble organised by contractor Isobel Griffiths for a further batch of recording sessions at Abbey Road. Both were of around 92-piece sizes.

“A lot of the textural, experimental sounds that Jed is used to making we did with the LCO and for the parts that were more in the Jerry Goldsmith style, we used Isobel’s orchestra,” says Whalley.

One of the recording sessions at AIR Studios

The beginning of the film is where fans will notice most of the Goldsmith-style cues, which are ideal for the more scene-setting moments before – and this is hardly a spoiler if you’ve ever seen an Alien film – the tension really racks up with the more grisly sequences later on.

The much quieter opening could almost have one thinking why it was necessary to have such a large orchestra for this particular cue, but there are good reasons. “It was a really big orchestra but we had a lot of them playing very quietly at the beginning so you can feel this sense of growing and swelling into the Jerry Goldsmith section. There’s always this power behind it even if it’s very minimal,” notes Whalley.

Cobbin agrees: “There’s something about when a piece of music is placed softly, but with a large orchestra. It really gives us the opportunity to create this large, widescreen sound.”

Fingers on the pulse

Although Kurzel was able to show off his talent for pushing the boundaries of film music throughout, there is one standout scene (which the main image at the beginning of this article was taken from) that really cranks up the fear factor with a pulsating visual and aural build-up that’s based around a thumping underlying musical ‘pulse’ that gradually swells towards a brutally bloody climax.

“This part barely has any orchestra and is more Jed’s sound world. That kind of was the ear candy for Ridley – he heard something similar to this and thought ‘this is going to be good scary music’ without us needing to have [for example] ten double basses and 16 bass trombones,” says Cobbin.

“Once that pulse starts it’s not going to waiver; it’s relentless. Jed Kurzel chose his moments when to highlight the picture with a new sound or element coming in so it feels like it’s not trying to overplay the picture. It’s a pretty horrific scene and it’s brilliant the way it’s put together.”

A different approach

There may have been a lot of experimenting during the temp phase, but trying out new ideas didn’t stop once the recording sessions started.

“For other scores we’d use a lot of percussion but Jed didn’t really want to steer the score in that direction, which we thought was a good opportunity but we weren’t sure how we were going to build it up,” Cobbin reveals.

And that’s when the experimentation started, as Whalley explains: “They did a whole rhythmic section where they were using Oyster cards to strike their strings. So you get this really unusual sound and you also get quite a complicated rhythm, so the cellos might start off and then someone else might come in and add a layer of complexity. We also got some other effects like getting them to put their bows on their tailpieces instead of on the strings.”

“Give good guidance to good musicians and they’re really quite responsive to doing new things,” Cobbin adds.

Kirsty Whalley and Pete Cobbin

Fight against time

Having the freedom to try out new things during a session is all well and good when you’re given a generous deadline, but as is so often the case on mega-budget films such as these, the Alien: Covenant team were not so lucky.

“We didn’t have a lot of recording time and we had to make sure that when the music went on the stands, even down to the way it was copied, if we lost two minutes because of too many errors, that was possibly going to undermine our schedule,” Cobbin says.

“That was trickier than you’d imagine as well because Jed doesn’t use a click or a tempo reference,” Whalley adds. “So before an orchestrator could orchestrate it we had a whole process where Cecile [Tournesac, score editor] would take things and impose a click and musical structure to all of the pieces, which everybody could stick to, so by the time it hit all of the music stands, there was no confusion.

“There was a real balance between allowing time for all of that experimenting and trying things but also getting through the amount of music we had to record.”

The score also needed to be recorded with a Dolby Atmos mix in mind, as Lewis reveals: “I was able to come to the party with elements that we recorded at AIR and Abbey Road that we could use to pan above us. Pete recorded with mics up in the gods in both rooms, and we were able to translate that in the Dolby Atmos mixing room to put this beautiful lid on the music.”

Finally, Tony Lewis feels it’s only right that we also mention the “incredibly detailed” sound work that he has seen go into this and every other Ridley Scott movie he has worked on, overseen in this case by supervising sound editor Oliver Tarney.

“Ollie and his team have done a terrific job. We always find ourselves in several different scenarios, be it an enormous plague of locusts and the sea parting in Exodus: Gods and Kings, and in The Martian there was a massive gravel storm in the first reel. All of these sequences have big driving music going through them and sound-wise it’s incredibly detailed and loud. We always get faced with this ‘how are we going to mix this?’ scenario and indeed ‘how are we going to write the music correctly so that it fits?’ This was no different.”

Cobbin and Whalley’s Bowers & Wilkins 800D3 monitoring system

Sonic Weaponry

Cobbin and Whalley used a lot of period mics to reference the 1979 Alien sound, such as the Neumann M50 for the Decca Tree, as well as vintage AKG C12’s, Neumann u47’s and Coles 4038’s.

String spot mics included the new Chandler/Abbey Road REDD mic, which Cobbin was involved in developing. Cobbin and Whalley have gone on to purchase a matched trio – now in regular use. Other new mics of theirs included the Sontronics Apollo, Brauner VM1’s and a selection of other Neumann and Schoeps mics.

During mixing they used Bricasti, Lexicon and Sony hardware reverbs with their own convolutions. For analogue outboard there was a Manley Variable Mu limiter/compressor, Thermionic Culture Vulture, Chandler Curve Bender and GML 8200 EQ’s.

There was also a variety of plugins in use – highlights of which are the Waves/Abbey Road REDD and Reverb Plates, Massenburg MDW EQ, The Cargo Cult Spanner, along with various FabFilter and Universal Audio tools.

Everything was mixed on a 7.1 Bowers & Wilkins 800D3 monitoring system at their new Henry Light studio in Islington, London.