Music is the final ingredient required to complete an episode of Downton Abbey. By the time my work commences, I will have the read the script and possibly seen rough cuts of the episode to give me an idea of what to expect, but usually I have to wait until everyone is satisfied with the final edit before my work begins in earnest. At this point I will sit down with the producer and the executive producer of the series and we will discuss where we think we need music, why we need it and what its function should be. Is it to chart an emotional journey, enhance a comic moment, establish a change of mood or pace, or is it simply to help us get from one scene to another?
I should add that whilst the editor has been cutting and shaping the episode, he will have used extracts of my music from a previous series to help him establish the tone and pace of his edits, so by the time we commence work on the composition we will already have an idea whether music is necessary in a scene and whether it achieves the right purpose. However it is very rare in Downton Abbey that exactly the same cue will work perfectly in two different places. The musical material might be right but I will almost certainly rewrite it to choreograph the scene and fit with the dialogue. The dialogue is obviously extremely important in Downton Abbey and I never switch it off when I am writing nor even when we are recording the orchestra as the music is designed very carefully to complement it.
These days computers are an absolute necessity for music in media and Downton Abbey is no exception. I have several Apple Mac computers all synchronized together where I use a range of computerized sounds to emulate the sound of a real orchestra, Violins, Violas, Cellos, Double basses, a Piano, a French Horn, Cor Anglais, Vibraphone and in Series 3 we have started to use a Soprano Saxophone. Working in this way means that I can give the producers a pretty good impression of what the final score will sound like. However all these computerized samples will eventually be replaced by real musicians playing real instruments. In my view there really is no comparison: the samples sound stodgy and sterile while the real musicians sound fuller, more emotional, complex - and very much alive! There is also a real danger when using computers to overcomplicate the music and I have to keep reminding myself that the final outcome will sound much better. At the end of this blog I have included examples of ‘synthesized’ and ‘real’ recordings.
Once I have dealt with any notes and feedback from the producers, I send the computer files to my conductor and orchestrator, the wonderful and essential Alastair King who will produce the full score and parts for the musicians. A recording session will be booked either at Abbey Road, Air, or Angel studios, most of Series 3 this year was recorded at Angel, as Abbey Road and Air were unusually booked out during the summer due to all the music that had to be recorded for the Olympics!
Each episode has its own recording session. Most of the musicians we use for Downton Abbey will be from the major London Orchestras and many of them will have continued from Series 1, so not only do we have an incredible quality of musicianship we also have a real consistency to the sound. I use the same recording engineer, Paul Golding, who also supervises the final mixes. These take place at my own home studio in south east London where we also record the piano. I’m not a phenomenal pianist but I do know the style I am looking to achieve, and so I do it, mainly to save time!
We probably turn around an episode of Downton Abbey every 2-3 weeks from first meeting with the producers to final mix down, so there is very little room for error. Thankfully that very rarely happens.
John Lunn is the Emmy Award winning composer of the theme and soundtrack music for Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey - The Essential Collection is available here: http://bit.ly/QfS0nE