Audio Grunt to Sound Wizard – Q&A with Larry Hopkins
Larry is an award-winning Sound Supervisor, Composer, Foley Artist and owner of A Sharp Media Recording Studios in Los Angeles. Hailing from a strong musical background, he has worked alongside artists such as The Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, John Williams, Harry Connick Jr., Stevie Wonder, Kenny Rogers and Cirque Du Soleil, to name just a few.
With over 30 years of experience in the TV, film and video game industries, Larry also became known as a top arranger for many composers at Universal and Warner Bros. working on many television and film scores. He also worked as an audio engineer at Technicolor and his movie projects include 2012, Angels & Demons, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ratatouille, Cars, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 & 3, Quantum of Solace, The Simpsons Movie, Godfather III and TV shows such as ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, Lost, Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty and more.
Currently he works at The Formosa Group and has been involved with TV projects such as Perry Mason (HBO), and Power Book II: Ghost (Starz).
Larry is also a Music Technology Consultant with the LA Philharmonic Orchestra, working with Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Adams, Phillip Glass, Louis Andriessen and many other composers doing sound design and MIDI/Synth.
Can you share your earliest influences that led to you pursuing a career in music composition and sound design?
My father, my brother and I were all string players as I was growing up in San Diego County. Dad conducted the local orchestra. I listened to classic, jazz, rock, gospel and any form of music that peeked my interest including the early beginning of electronic music. I sure wore out the vinyl grooves of Switched On Bach. As far as audio post and sound design, right after graduating from Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory, I worked for the state-of-the-art keyboard company of the time Kurzweil Music Systems where I developed many Kurzweil instrument sounds and libraries. I also studied orchestration for years with Ron Jones (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Family Guy, Duck Tales). He taught me how to write in the style of Ravel, Stravinsky, Copland, Gershwin and many others. I ended up playing keyboards in his LA Big Band (which is composed of all the best studio players).
You’ve worked with so many famous musical artists – what did your job entail and can you share any particularly memorable experiences with us?
I did everything from sound design to arranging to playing tours. I worked with so many different artists and musical genres that I am very blessed to have learned so much in the process. Imagine sitting at the piano in Ocean Way Studios and having Rolling Stones guitarist Kieth Richards say, “We need a sound check and you’re piano tonight – E Blues”. Chuck Levell was the real keyboardist (and I helped Chuck with designing his keyboard rig for both the Bridges to Babylon album and subsequent tour). I also helped Don Was and the recording engineers sync an ADAT recorder to Pro Tools.
My job with the LA Philharmonic is mainly sound design for major modern composers, creating the playback keyboard rigs for the concerts, setting up at rehearsals and concerts and babysitting the gear during performances. I play well, but the staff keyboardists at the philharmonic are phenomenal. It’s an honour to be a part of the process. In 2016, I created the sound design and keyboard sounds for a performance at the Hollywood Bowl of Puccini’s Tosca.
Perhaps the most cherished memory is working with Ray Charles in his own studio. I helped him learn how to use Kurzweil Keyboards and well as sound design for many albums and concerts. He was a perfectionist and always expected his team to be at their best. One special memory is that Ray was having trouble triggering the right sounds onstage (which he wanted to be in control of). Occasionally, he would press a sound select button on his Kurzweil PC-88 and select a different sound than he intended (such as Harpsichord instead of Rhodes Electric Piano). So, using a MIDI module (K2000R), I recorded samples of my voice saying “Piano, Rhodes, Harpsichord, Strings, Vibes” and so on. I then assigned MIDI note numbers outside the 88-note range of the PC-88 keys. I programmed the sounds elect buttons to trigger those samples so only Ray could hear in his in-ear monitors the names of the sounds and therefore always have the right sound before he played. Ray would also teach me rock and gospel licks after rehearsals at the studio, just me and him. Occasionally I’d play a lick he didn’t know and show him a jazz line of a chord voicing (especially voicing in the style of Bill Evans).
What led to your career in the film & TV industries?
I happened to do a sound design demonstration for the sound team at Universal Studios and met one of my dearest friends today Robb Navrides (a leading sound supervisor in the post industry). He played guitar and I played keys and we really hit it off. He got me a job at Technicolor Sound Services as an audio grunt (i.e. doing all kinds of audio chores including audio restoration, mixing, conforming, sample rate conversion, Sound Effects and Foley! Recently Technicolor Sound Services was purchased by the Formosa Group where I now work. Robb also got me plenty of composing jobs including composing for Sony video games (Jak & Daxter 2, Jak III and Jak X), Desperate Housewives (ABC) and he even helped me to get the gig playing piano on Glee for CBS.
Please describe a typical day or project at work.
If it’s composition to picture, I open the quick time movie file inside of Logic Pro X and the import one of my templates depending on the genre of picture and music. If it’s audio post (let’s say Foley Sound Effects) I’ll open Pro Tools and import the quick time movie, import the guide track production audio (includes the dialogue) and guide tracks of temp sound effects (done by the film editor). Then I have a cloth pass to record live, footsteps followed by props and hand pats and hand motion including any fight sequences sounds (body falls, grabs, punches, etc.)
Tell us more about your mixing studios.
I use Genelec monitors in my 5.1/7.1 dream studio, but the edit bays at the studios I work at vary from JBL to Yamaha to Mackie to Genelec. I also do quite a bit of Dolby encoding and use Pro Tools plug-in to accomplish this. I do everything from surround mixes to ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) to foreign language mixes on top of M&E (Music and Effects) tracks. Sometimes I’m just mixing music stems for a well-known composer before the re-recording session.
You’ve worked on such a variety of projects and genres – which have been your favourite and which have been the most challenging and why? How did the pandemic affect your work?
Well, the schedules for TV series are just gruelling and it’s not uncommon for a new version of the picture to come into the edit bay at the last second where we have to conform to the previous version to the latest cut and then ad to source music and sound effects to the inserts. Those are my least favourite in terms of pressure. I can’t tell you exactly why, but I was assigned at Technicolor Sound to do the sound design and Foley on 4 vampire shows in a row – True Blood (HBO), Vampire Diaries, The Originals and now Legacies (CBS/Warner Bros) so I got pretty good at doing some real gore and magical sounds. These shows also had witches, werewolves, and really weird stuff life making a statue come to life including the statue footsteps on multiple surfaces!
I can’t tell you how fortunate I was to build my own 5.1 recording studio with 5 specialized rooms in 2018 because, during the pandemic, I am able to work at home without interruption at the same quality that I was doing at any major film/TV studio. My studio is a separate building on my property built to equal the 3 favourite studios in the southern California area (Ocean Way, Capitol and A&M). I’m still working at home since the pandemic is still with us. The best recording facility I’ve ever been to is hands down Skywalker Sound at the Lucas Ranch.
Of course, sound design for major composers is one thing I love to do. Working for composers like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and many others especially Sci-Fi or Fantasy are lots of fun. Also working sound design with the LA Phil is also rewarding. In both cases being around top composers and top musicians is such an honour and I learn so much from each session. Especially working with composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (he’s with the London Phil now).
Football fans recently enjoyed the Euros and are getting excited for the World Cup in Qatar in 2022. The Goal movies faithfully captured the spirit and emotion of the game – can you share your aims and methods of achieving this?
One thing I like to do with action and sports film makes any slow-motion picture sequences sound slo-mo in both the music and sound effects or sometimes I let a reverb trail or sound trail just start right at slow-mo. Also, don’t step on (be too busy) the dialogue sequences that are not action sequences. If it’s a clip montage, then try to make the music build and look for the apex of the excitement and let the music follow. Don’t give away the candy store in the first 8 bars, let it start simple, develop the melody and orchestration with motific development and give yourself room to add thickness.
Lost is, without doubt, one of the most engaging and intriguing boxsets and has certainly influenced many drams following. Can you tell us more about your work on the show?
On Lost, I developed M&E (Music and Effects) tracks in preparation for foreign language broadcasts and then mixed the foreign language dialogue to the M&E. Those went to foreign market TV and then to DVD and Blu-Ray. Typically, the DVD allowed for 2-3 foreign languages whereas the Blu-Rays can have 10-12 foreign languages. I also did the (AC3) Dolby DVD audio encoding and (EC3) Dolby Blu-Ray audio encoding for the Lost series. Remember I’m an audio grunt (whatever the job calls for).
You’ve worked on numerous action blockbusters including 2012, Minority Report, Quantum of Solace and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. What are the magical ingredients for achieving great sound production?
I had a sound recording and sound design mentor who taught me about how to get the cleanest recording to start with. He used to say “You can’t paint a turd”. Never fix it later is what he meant. When I was building my dream studio, I spent 9 months designing each of the five rooms to get an immaculate recording from the get go. He would say, “there should be no weakness in the signal chain from the mic all the way through to the speaker.”
So my studio is based around a Mac Pro 2019 tower with audio over Universal Audio Apollo X 8P using Thunderbolt 3. The mic cabinet has Neumann, Sennheiser, Townsend (made for the Apollo) and Telefunken mics. Even the cabling is shielded and extra thick. All the ceilings are curved, the floors are floating, the walls are angled in minute degrees, there are major sound diffusors everywhere, the rooms are tuned, the absorption materials dampen just enough reflection and the speakers are mounted and positioned to be as accurate as possible. Add to that I spent years studying acoustics, music and audio production with mentors that were working in the business and I attribute any success I have to them because they were hard on me and expected me to tow the line. Your knowledge of the entire recording process and every piece of gear should be extensive. If you’re not willing to learn and take the time necessary to put in to practice what you have learned, then working in audio and music is probably not for you.
Having worked for many of the biggest production studios as Disney/Pixar, Lucasfilm and Sony, can you share your experiences in their approach to achieving the best sound production and your favorite clients?
Preparation and familiarity with the room and its technology is key to walking in relaxed and getting to business with confidence. Although you can’t know everything about music and audio, take the opportunity to constantly be learning and finding people who are willing to mentor you. I’m still working on keeping up with the latest technology and new ways to accomplish the task. While working, keep your concentration even on the easy tasks. Anything creative demands a level of continued concentration that helps you keep your focus on the vision of of the finished product. If all is going south, get help from a colleague who you trust. Don’t be afraid to let someone guide you when it’s getting tough.
I once had a batch of mixes to do for Spielberg’s remake of The War of the Worlds. The word was to use absolutely no audio level compression, make dialogue legible and keep all audio cleaned and undistorted. Sounds like a good plan except for the fact that the Martian-ship feet were recorded with huge plosive metal materials and the dialogue was whispered. So how do you keep the dialogue from being stepped on (bad pun!). I turned in the the mix and it was rejected by quality control. I expected it to be. So the powers that be let me side chain a compressor to the dialogue just enough to allow the dialogue to be understood yet still keep the metal robot ship leg menacing. The side chain also included enough low end roll off to keep the separation let you heat the consonants from the dialogue. Give them what they ask for first, but use common sense.
With any audio that includes dialogue, remember that dialogue is KING because it tells the story. When I hear a mix that is interfering with the dialogue telling the story, I just have a hard time listening to it. I’ve had the good fortune to work in studios and engineers that are at the top of their game. When I needed to listen and watch, I tried to absorb the process.
What are your tips for how the audience at home can best enjoy your work?
If it’s a music score of mine, I let the music provide the emotion necessary to enjoy the story. If I’ve done my job correctly, it should be a natural process and all emotions should be in play. With sound design or sound effects, it should sound as if the audience assumes the recordist on the set got everything and you almost don’t pay attention to it because it sounds like it belongs to the environment. The audience should be unaware that the music and sound are tugging at their senses and heartstrings.
Can you share any news with us on forthcoming projects?
Sure, I’m sound supervising and composing the music score of a new comedy feature called Coming Together and I am also releasing my new originals album on the SONY Orchard label later this year. I’ll be continuing my audio post work at the Formosa Group where I am currently on the Foley team working on Maid, Legacies and Bosch. There is a new Indiana Jones film being shot in 2022 and I’m hoping they will use the same audio post team I was on for this one too. The LA Phil is recently back at the Hollywood Bowl and the Disney concert hall, so hopefully I will continue to be their music technology director for some time.
Finally – please share some of your favourite music tracks, TV shows and movie titles.
Maurice Ravel – Daphins et Chloe
Igor Stravinsky – All 3 ballets Petroushka, Firebird and Rite of Spring
All film and radio scores by Bernard Herrman
All film scores by Henry Mancini
Favourite John Williams score – Close Encounters of The Third Kind
Favourite Jerry Goldsmith score Chinatown
Favourite Elmer Berstein score The Ten Commandments
Favourite Johnny Mandel score The Sandpiper
Favourite TV shows
St Elsewhere (with the great theme by Dave Grusin)
Star Trek – all series (with great scores by my mentor Ron Jones)
Elementary (Sherlock Holmes remake)
Stevie Wonder – Overjoyed
Steely Dan – Josie
Toto – I Won’t Hold You Back
Beatles – You Never Give Me Your Money & Lucy in The Sky with Diamonds
Paul McCartney – Live and Let Die & Let ‘Em In
Billy Joel – Honesty
All tracks by the Yellowjackets
All tracks by Chick Corea
All tracks by Bill Evans
All tracks by Oscar Peterson
Lawrence of Arabia
Night at the Opera
The Days of Wine and Roses
The Pink Panther Strikes Again
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