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Hidden Kingdoms: matching the music to the pictures

Jake Jackson

For the new BBC One series Hidden Kingdoms, made by the BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol, the team turned to composer Ben Foster and BBC National Orchestra of Wales to provide the soundtrack for this innovative new series. Here, Jake Jackson, recording and mix engineer, explains the process of getting the music on screen.

An important part of any documentary is the soundtrack – the music in the background that matches the excitement and emotions of the action on screen. For the new BBC One series Hidden Kingdoms, composer Ben Foster wrote an original score to accompany the series.

The process for getting Ben’s work from initial ideas to a fully recorded soundtrack takes around 4-6 weeks, and part of my job is to make sure that the orchestra sound their very best.  

Once Ben sees a rough copy of the programme, he meets with the production team to decide which parts of the episode need music – these are broken down into around 20-30 sections, or ‘cues’. These will be the moments where the soundtrack can help to heighten the emotion, to add excitement, or provide a sense of mystery.

The soundtrack enhances the drama in this clip from Hidden Kingdoms.

Then, once Ben has those ideas, they are ‘orchestrated’, meaning that the different tunes in the music are given to different members of the orchestra. This is an important part of the process, as you might want to give a soft, sorrowful tune to a woodwind instrument like a flute or an oboe; whereas a loud, triumphant fanfare might go to a trumpet or horn.

Those individual parts then have to be written out for each member of the orchestra by a copyist. The conductor will have a copy of the full score, setting out all of the music, but each member of the orchestra will only be given their individual part – it’s the copyist’s job to set this out.

When recording day itself comes round, the first job is to set up all of the microphones and headphones in the recording studio. We use lots of microphones positioned close to each of the different instruments, so that we can highlight certain members of the orchestra when they are playing the tune.

My job is to capture the orchestra’s performance as close to how they would sound in the concert hall, but with some additional emphasis on instruments to feature them, if they’re playing the tune or melody.

It’s important that the music matches up with the images on the screen, and so all of the orchestra members have headphones with a ‘click track’, meaning that they hear the tempo as well as see the conductor’s beat. There are points in the score called 'hit points', where there will be a flourish of music, or a sudden loud passage, that matches with the action on the screen, and so it’s crucial that these moments match up so that they have maximum impact.

Jake Jackson at the mixing desk.

It takes a little while to get used to having one ear covered up with the headphones. Part of my job on the day is to change the volume of the click track throughout the session, to make sure that the orchestra can hear the click track all the way through – but make sure it’s not so loud that it’s uncomfortable for the musicians’ ears, or that the click track leaks and you can hear it through the microphones!

The great thing about the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is that we can record music quite a bit quicker than with some other orchestras, as they are very used to the process of a recording session.

It can be a very intense day, and everyone makes sure they are on top form when the red recording light is on, so that no time is wasted. With BBC NOW, we can get up to 40 minutes of finished music in a three-hour session. It tends to be a very busy day, but it can be a lot of fun – and the finished product is definitely worth it!

Then, once the recording session is over, I’m busy mixing the music to make sure that the instruments are at the right volume, and highlighting any interesting tunes and melodies. Once that’s done, it’s handed to the dubbing team, who add it to the finished images, add sound effects, and the voiceover. It’s then ready to be broadcast, ready for you to watch (and listen) at home.

Hidden Kingdoms starts Thursday 16 January at 8pm on BBC One.

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