Academy Award-winning film composer Hans Zimmer
Academy Award-winning film composer Hans Zimmer
Photo by David Goggin

Hans Zimmer is one of the most prolific and compelling film composers in Hollywood. With more than 100 films and eight Academy Awards to his name, a short list of Zimmer's scores include the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Gladiator, The Lion King, The Da Vinci Code, Sherlock Holmes, The Last Samurai, Kung Fu Panda and The Dark Knight. Zimmer’s expertise in sound design and his pioneering work in combining electronics with orchestral instruments is part of what attracts dynamic directors such as Chris Nolan, Guy Ritchie, and Ron Howard to his scores. So who better to integrate Universal Audio's UAD-2 Powered Plug-Ins into his workflow? Zimmer’s state-of-the-art facility near the beach in Santa Monica, Remote Control, is where it all happens. He recently invited Universal Audio in to see how his multiple UAD systems play a starring role in crafting his trademark sound.

Let’s start with a little of your background.

I began as a synth programmer and recording engineer in London, and although I was a very bad recording engineer, I did learn from a lot of people in the studios I worked. At that time, I hadn't really decided what I was going to be–musician, engineer, or composer–I just loved all aspects of music. I had this idea back then that if you wanted to be musician in this modern age, then you'd better learn about the technical aspect.

When I began working as an assistant for the film composer Stanley Myers, he showed me how to write film cues. Stanley threw me into the deep end, working for directors like Stephen Frears and Nick Roeg. The first movie I did in America was Rain Man, which wasn't a bad start in Hollywood.

But before the film career, I worked with Trevor Horn for a long time, and we would usually work in a studio called Nova, which doesn't exist anymore. They had a glorious Neve console that we did a lot of stuff on. I also worked at Trident Studios all the time on their Trident A, and eventually I went off and worked on a Harrison 3232 as well. So at one point recently, I actually thought Universal Audio was reading my mind about what the next thing was that I really wanted! All the mixing desks learned on, Universal Audio would model. And it's actually helpful because, in a funny way, I missed those old beasts I grew up with.

I always loved electronic music. I thought an electronic instrument, or even a whole studio, was as legitimate an instrument as a guitar or violin, or anything like that. Just like people really practiced their scales on the piano, I suppose I really practiced how to get a sound out of a synth, mixing console, or anything that was lying around the studio.

"I can honestly say — and I do very few of these interviews — what the Universal Audio guys are doing is so beyond anybody else right now. So incredibly useful to us. It's really extraordinary."

You were an early adopter of a lot of digital technology and sampling technology, like the Fairlight.

Well, my best friend Stephen Paine was the distributor of Fairlight in those days. He and Peter Gabriel had a company called Syco Systems, and they’d let me play around with the Fairlight CMI. Stanley and I eventually I bought one. But even before that, actually way before that, I was making music with computers. I had a Roland MicroComposer and I thought it was fabulous. But in retrospect, it was a hideous device because you had to enter all your notes as numbers, which took forever, of course. In a way, working with these early sequencers was my musical education, transcribing scores into numbers and making them work on synthesizers.

Hans Zimmer at one of his several UAD-equipped workstations
Hans Zimmer at one of his several UAD-equipped workstations
Photo by David Goggin
These days, are you still a Cubase/Nuendo user?

I am. Right now I'm working on Inception, Chris Nolan's new movie, and a few years ago I would have said, "Wow, isn't it amazing how far we're pushing this technology?" But what I think is really amazing now is how we're doing unbelievable things on this movie, and the technology isn't even breaking into a sweat. It's just running so smoothly. There's so much power in computers and software these days.

It’s a very electronic score. There is orchestra, but the electronics share an equal spotlight, and I also have Johnny Marr playing guitar. Besides Johnny and the orchestra, everything else stays virtual throughout the mix. Even the dub is very wide and they can get at all the plug-ins on the dub stage.

Do you use a console, or a mixing surface?

It's all going through a Euphonix System 5. But, at the same time, everything in Cubase is really going through your stuff, the UAD plug-ins. I've actually become very particular about what I use these days. There are so many plug-ins around, especially soft synths, that you’ll never get any music written with all the tinkering. So I've really limited myself now to just a few that I think sound really good at their core.

I still have all the old real analog stuff around, but it takes us so much longer to make a decent patch on a physical module than it does on a virtual one – and there's no recall! The only thing I've found, though, is that the sound on some of the virtual stuff is never quite as satisfying. There's that core quality of the sound, that indescribable element, that last 0.01 percent which just isn't in a lot of plug-ins. So I've limited myself to only the plug-ins that do have that little bit extra. The only virtual synth I'm really using is a thing called Zebra, by a German designer named Urs Heckman. It really has ‘that sound’ with so much flexibility and sonic quality.

Are you doing everything in 5.1, or 7.1?

Everything is in 5.1. My world is 5.1, and I love that world. I never listen to my soundtrack albums because I can't stand having to go back to stereo. It's so disappointing!

When you're working with a real orchestral, where do you record?

Mostly either here in town at Sony or Fox, which are my two favorite stages in LA, or at AIR Studios in London. AIR is sort of my home away from home.

Are you involved in any of that recording and engineering, or are you just focused on the players and the musicians?

I'm really more focused on the players and musicians. Although, before we start recording, I do talk a lot with the engineer about what the sonic concept of the score is. We keep swapping mics around and how we have the orchestra set up, depending on what sort of movie it is. Also, the size of the orchestra changes all the time. Every project is an experiment.

I like AIR because it has an upstairs gallery, I like to put my French horns up there while keeping the mics in the same place. You get this sense of height from the brass section, which I really like.

"Then there’s the Roland RE-201 Space Echo, all the Roland stuff. That used to be my bread and butter. Fling it through the Space Echo, it would instantly sound fantastic. And the Trident A-Range EQ plug, if I need to have things really colored. It's great on snare drums and things like that."

I love tips like that! I just saw Sherlock Holmes recently, and I loved the intro music at the beginning.

It's pretty wacky stuff.

Even as I was watching it, I thought, "Wow, who did the soundtrack?"

I worked quite hard at grabbing that bit of real estate at the very beginning, over the logos, and basically trying to establish something where instantly you knew it wasn't going to be your daddy's Sherlock Holmes. Just setting the tone. I think we do that even more in this movie.

When I write or start a new movie, I think as much about the notes as I think about the sonic world it's going to be in. How are we going to record this? Who are the musicians? How are we going to mic this? It all gets conceived at the same time as I write the notes, which I think is really the way we work these days. It's not about writing on paper anymore, and then getting the orchestra in. You define the sound at a very, very early stage, and it's all part of the composing process. And if anybody thinks technology makes it quicker, they're completely wrong. By having all these toys, all these possibilities, everything takes ten times as long! On Black Hawk Down we kept saying, "Are we in a hurry or should we use the computer?"

The movie you're working on now is Inception?

Yes – and we don't tell anyone a thing about it! We like working in great privacy. You can see the trailer, but I promise you still won’t quite know what it's about.

You have the most incredible career.

I know. It's surprises me on a daily basis.

So, how many UAD cards are you running?

I believe, right now, I personally only have the one big UAD-2, the QUAD card, in my computer. It's holding up great and covers all my needs… So far. However, the way we work here is that we have three studios on the go. We have my room, we have the other programmers' rooms, and everybody has sort of the same outfit. So I have no idea how many we actually have amongst all the different composers and arrangers here, but it's a lot!

What are some of your favorite plug-ins? You had mentioned the Trident A-Range.

It's not only that. I have a friendly rivalry with my engineer, Alan Meyerson, and he sort of scorns at my approach. But for years I’ve been getting my drum sounds by using an old dbx 160 compressor. So when you guys came out with the dbx 160 Compressor plug-in, I was very, very happy. Plus, I'm just so used to the Neves, so the Neve plug-ins are across everything. We have a real set as well that we bought from Neve, 24 channels of hardware 1081s. But we're using the plug-ins and there really isn't that much difference.

I also use the Roland RE-201 Space Echo and all the Roland stuff. That used to be my bread and butter. Fling something through the Space Echo, and it would instantly sound fantastic. And if I need to have things really colored, there's the Trident A-Range EQ plug-in, which is great on snare drums and things like that. The same goes for the Harrison 32C EQ. You can just get a really nice ‘ping’ into things with it, a lovely top end. The EMT plates are on everything, and, of course, I'm cheating because I use two so that I can create surround as well. It's great, that feeling of not having to run out of plates.

And then there’s the new Manley Massive Passive EQ plug-in, of course. We’ve got six hardware Manley Massive Passives just standing there, looking a little forlorn right now.

Do you have much experience using the vintage Universal Audio hardware?

Yes, sure. The LA-2As and 1176LNs existed in every studio and were used on a daily basis. I still use them today, but now I’m preferring the sort of slightly crunchier stuff, like, as I said, your dbx 160 compressor plug-in. I'm just very fond of things like that.

Have you tried the FATSO plug-in?

Oh, yes. The FATSO is being used a lot. It's really, really great. Only yesterday, I did a whole experiment with some electronic drums in this movie. I just needed to make them sound a little less shiny, and the FATSO on its tape-emulation setting was great for that.

"I feel they have the same sort of ethic [as me] over there at UA. They really know how to listen beyond the surface of something. And that's why their stuff sounds so good.">

How about the Neve plug-ins?

Use them all the time, for everything. The compressors, the EQs. The 1081 and the 1073 sound so different from each other, and it's really nice to be able to have both those vintages in one console. Sometimes I just put them up without even dialing in a lot of EQ. It just colors the sound and pulls it back together in a nice way. I'm never sure if it's just me being nostalgic, but I know what that sound is, so it's very easy for me to embrace it and go from there.

I can honestly say — and I do very few of these interviews — that what the Universal Audio guys are doing is so beyond anybody else right now. It's so incredibly useful to us and really quite extraordinary.

That's really nice to hear.

But the thing is, I have a suspicion that everybody who works there has ears.

Oh yeah, there are some amazing sets of ears here at UA. Focused listening is so important in our business.

It is. You know, that's really how I got to music. I don't have a formal musical education. But being a synth programmer, and being asked a million times in those days to go and emulate a string sound, or make an oboe sound, made my hearing so acute. I really had to listen into the sound, and I feel they have the same sort of ethic over there at UA. They really know how to listen beyond the surface of something, and that's why their stuff sounds so good.