Dru Masters | Interview
Dru Masters is a successful UK based TV/Film composer who has written for various Dramas such as BBC's Silk and SKY's A Touch Of Cloth. He has also written for and produced classical pop artists Mediaeval Babes and Bond, but probably is most familiar for his work on the BBC series The Apprentice which he has been composing for since it first hit our screens. Based out of his unique top floor Studio in North London, I caught up with him for a chat...
KMR : Do you remember when you decided music was what you wanted to do - did you start off always wanting to be a composer, or did you have a previous musical direction?
I used to ‘play' my aunt and uncle’s piano when I was 3 - I knew then that I wanted to compose and my parents told me they would get me a piano when I was 7, if I still felt the same. I did and I inherited my aunt and uncle's piano. I also used to listen to my parents jazz records and wanted to be an impoverished saxophonist, living in a freezing attic in Hamburg. I grew out of that very quickly!
But I wanted to be a jazz saxophonist and a film composer, I got distracted along the way - programming, songwriting, producing, playing in a band, remixing and writing for adverts, but eventually I found my way back to my first love.
KMR : Has being in a dedication Studio complex (The Tileyard) assisted your communication and collaborations? - I guess that sense of community in the studio world has gone a little with many larger Studios closing, do you think this is the new way forward..Lots of smaller rooms under one umbrella ?
Tileyard is an incredible incubator of collaborations. I’ve worked with and also simply hung out with an incredible cross-section of people I never would have normally met and feel privileged to be a part of the community there.
It reminds me of the vibe at the original Matrix in Bloomsbury, where you’d all meet in the communal recreation room and someone from one band would end up playing on a track by another band, except at Tileyard, in addition to some huge established acts, you also have a load of young up-and-coming talent, record companies, producers, managers, lawyers, fashion designers, an analog mastering room, photographers, all of whom meet in the cafe downstairs.
KMR : I know when we first met, you were in another location but I remember you were one of the first in here a few years ago, what made you move here ?
I was introduced to Tileyard by fellow composer Sam Sim, who had a room at their previous, much smaller complex in west London.It required a lot of vision and faith that the area was going to regenerate in the way that it has and full credit has to go to Nick Keynes for bringing the right mix of people in to make it work.
I think there’s a tendency to assume that if you build a load of rooms and rent them out to the first takers you’ll end up with a great community. Nothing could be further from the truth and there’s an enormous amount of consideration that goes into deciding who gets which room and who should be across the corridor.
KMR : You have ProTools HDX2 here - is that something you require for mixing mainly, do you use other software alongside or are you composing all in one DAW - how do you work?
I use Pro Tools HD 11 running on an iMac with a Mac Pro slave, linked via Vienna Ensemble Pro. That way I can run a large number of Virtual Instruments without the DAW being overloaded.
Protools works fantastically well for me - specifically the way it handles video, the ease of creating stems as, I work in surround and have 5 stems in my template plus stereo mix downs and the rock-solid handling of audio and clean, intuitive GUI.
When I have the luxury of going to Air to record strings in the Hall, which often happens on my drama work, I can simply print the stems and take the session in for the recording, then bring it back to mine with the real strings, ready for mixing.
I’m using a UA Apollo 16 as well as HDX, as I love the UAD-2 plug-ins and the Console software offers some clever routing features and works with Core Audio. I own most of the other DAWs and sometimes do a project in one of them just to make life more interesting - but I generally regret it and go back to Pro Tools!
KMR : Given the massive sessions that you work with, is it easier to work In The Box with more software plug-ins than hardware, or do you try and integrate as much hardware into your workflow ?
My sessions are actually quite a lot smaller than they used to be. A few years ago I was running two PC slaves giving me about 500 midi instruments - every orchestral sound had its own track, so I could mock up a full orchestration in a really short time. Only the synth sounds would be specific to each track. It worked really well, but I got bored of having the same sounds all the time and it discouraged me from adding new ones, despite buying almost everything that comes out!
I have a fairly modest template now - almost all Spitfire Audio sounds - and then I try new things to augment that. It means I can still work pretty fast, but I can also be more creative. That said, I do tend to work entirely ITB, as I’m always required to re-visit things and make changes or re-mix and it would be such a pain if I had to do hardware recalls.
The other problem for me is that in order to use hardware on 5.1 stems, I’d actually need to buy 30 of everything! So I have things like a beautiful Manley Massive Passive sitting in my rack, looking awesome, but never used...
KMR : Is there any software or hardware you can’t do without?
All my acoustic instruments are miked up, ready to be recorded in the template, so all the mics and pre’s would be sorely missed. My favourite mic is my AEA KU4. I struggle to describe in words what’s so amazing about it, but an example would be that when I record my clarinet through it, it’s as if you can hear the grain of the wood....That doesn’t really do it justice!
KMR : You have quite a variety of microphones here...
I love the Coles 4038 on my Vox AC15 and I’m a big fan of Neumann KM184's for just about anything instrumental. I also have a nice collection of Sontronics mics, including a DM-1B on my bass amp, a Delta and a pair of Orpheus’s, which are all awesome.
The AEA is routed through a Neve 88LB mic pre, which is the same as the desk I use at Air. I also have a pair of Neve 1073LB's in my Lunchbox, which take the feed from a pair of Brauner VM1's on my piano and a slightly embarrassing number of API 3124+ pre’s for the drum kit and guitar amps, which make everything sound amazing!
The Waves MV2 is one of my secret weapons, and their SSL channel is great for the eq. I love the UAD2 Neve 33609 compressor and Altiverb is my go-to reverb for orchestral sounds. I also love my Lexicon PCM96S,
although I tend to use the plug-in these days and the Valhalla reverbs are completely fantastic - I tend to use them for more effected reverbs on synths and piano.
KMR : Whats your favourite EQ - Compressor - FX ?
I love the Manley Massive Passive EQ, I use an old Valley People Dyna-Mite on the drum overheads and I have a lovely Roland RE-201 Space Echo. I also finally found a Songbird FS1 on eBay, which I used to use in my remixing days in the early 90s, for its crazy pseudo-surround panning effect that went around your head. Of course I don’t actually use it these days haha - but it’s nice to have in the rack!
I should also mention a couple of my guitar pedals, as they play quite an important role. The Wampler compressor is incredible and I also have a rather noisy, but very lovely early-eighties Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man.
KMR : As you have many acoustic instruments in this room, piano, drums, lots of percussion , saxophone etc - is this key to getting your sound, or do you layer with samples / software instruments depending on the project?
I tend to vary the way I work, so one project might be 90% acoustic instruments played live and another might be 100% Virtual Instruments. There’s no real plan, it just goes one way or the other, depending on my mood.
KMR : When you need to record in a large space, where do you go?
For orchestral music my first choice is always the Hall at Air Studios. There’s something about the way it makes the players blend with each other that creates something magical.
KMR : I know you used to mix 5.1 at AIR but now you you have 5.1 Barefoot’s here, has that been essential to do your own mixing mainly in here these days ? - Do other mix engineers come here as well ?
The Barefoots MM27's are phenomenal and have given me the confidence to trust my ears, along with the fantastic room acoustics, courtesy of Chris Walls at Level Acoustic design (Munro Associates at the time of construction).
That said, for drama productions I tend to get someone in - usually either Jake Jackson or Rupert Coulson from Air. They will have also recorded the live sessions at Air, so it makes even more sense to have them mix and they’re incredibly good at it. The Barefoots were my first purchase from KMR and the start of our long relationship. I remember I went into the Whetstone store to buy some headphones and heard someone auditioning the Barefoots - you brought a pair over for me to hear in my studio and that was it. I never did buy the headphones!
KMR : How much freedom do you get these days when writing a score for a Film/TV are you given a general brief and then you have to interpret - or is it much more specific these days - i.e. make it sound like “ so-and-so “ etc ?
A bit of both. There’s usually a temp score, which you can use as a reference or not. I’m usually given the chance to come up with something original before I hear the temp and then I’ll modify my ideas to fit. In factual TV there’s less scope to be original, as you don’t want the music to feature too much, but no one ever says ‘copy the temp’.
KMR : Tell me about The Apprentice, how do you keep coming up with music that is ‘familiar’ to the series but yet I’ve noticed it definitely deviates over the years? Your music, I'm sure most people would agree, is very key to the programme...
The Apprentice has been a strange journey for me. On the first series the brief was David Holmes meets DJ Shadow - not something I think would spring to mind if you listened to it now!
It was the first show I’d worked on where a lot of the music wasn’t mine, there’s lots of tracks from movies and commercial music as well as my score. Initially I found it very frustrating that I wasn’t able to create or control the musical arc across each episode, but what actually happened was that I had to make my cues fit comfortably either side of some of the best film soundtracks, which meant I had to really up my game!
It was the start of my return to orchestral, filmic music and a fantastic learning experience. The key to keeping it familiar is that I now base it all on one, admittedly quite long, theme! So everything I’ve written in the last few years has the same rising minor scale bass line and harks back to the solo cello that’s played when someone’s fired. Of course the thematic material is played in different ways, so hopefully it doesn’t all sound like the same track, but the motifs are there, grounding you in the programme’s tune.
I’m a really big fan of having as few themes as possible and just doing lots of variations. For me it’s the best way of giving a show its ‘branding’ - just as you wouldn’t expect a movie score to have a hundred different tracks in it - ok, I’ve already thought of some exceptions! - but you know what I mean. Hans Zimmer is the master at this - he'll give you a 4 chord sequence and play it over and over, yet you’ll never get bored and it won’t sound repetitive, but by the end of the movie it will have insinuated its way into your brain forever. Interstellar is a great example of this and it’s the complete antithesis of what happens in most factual TV.
KMR : Did you have a feeling it would be as successful a series when you first started working on it ?
I’d watched the first series of the US version, before it came out over here, so I’d seen what a huge show it was in the US. I think we all thought it was going to be big, but it would have been impossible to imagine how well it would do - and how long it would run.
KMR : Is there anybody or anything you’d really like to work with / work on - what’s the next challenge for you and how do you keep ontop of your workflow, do you have an assistant?
There are so many people I’d love to work with, I don’t know where to begin. Just about anybody you can think of, from Pharell to Bon Iver, Hans Zimmer to Thomas Newman. A year or so back I started working on some tracks for George the Poet, whom I think is a genius, but sadly we never finished them…
Then there are the film and drama directors, writers and producers… I’d love to work on an adaptation of the life of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Do a search for him, if you don’t know who he is, it’s an incredible story!
I had an assistant until recently. Initially I found it quite time-consuming making sure he had things to do and showing him how I wanted everything done. Then we slipped into a routine that worked really well for me, but I think ultimately proved slightly unchallenging for him!
We parted on very good terms and are about to launch a range of sample libraries aimed at TV composers, for which he did an enormous amount of work. I currently feel reluctant to go through the pain of having to teach someone how I do everything all over again though. Going back to my original point about using Pro Tools, a lot of a TV composer's assistant’s job is to take sessions from, say, Logic and export all the audio, import it into Pro Tools for the recording sessions and print stems etc... but because I have that all set up in my template, I actually cut all of those extra tasks out of the process.
KMR : What music inspires you and what do you listen to ? Do you find inspiration in other places ?
I’m constantly inspired by anything and everything! I’m a massive fan of film soundtracks, especially Bernard Hermann, John Williams, Thomas Newman, Danny Elfman, John Powell, Alexandre Desplat and, of course, Hans Zimmer.
There’s about a hundred people I left off that list. Then there's The Weekend, Nick Mulvey, The Hics, Joey Bada$$ and Pvris - a completely eclectic mix. I think one of the things that might be surprising is that I don’t watch much TV. So my influences tend to be from film and ‘pop’.
When I did the first series of The Apprentice, I actually hadn’t had a TV for about 4 years, which I definitely think was a benefit!
KMR : Ok, your studio is burning down..what three things will you grab and why ?
- The Synology server with 16TB of everything I’ve done since 1998.
- My tenor sax, because it would be a sign that I should go and live in that freezing attic in Hamburg!
KMR : Thanks so much for your time Dru, please share links and any future / current projects :
- A fire extinguisher so I could save everything else...!
I’ve just finished a three part drama for BBC1 called Capital, based on the book by John Lanchester. Not sure when it’s transmitting, but probably November. I managed to get twenty strings for two sessions at Air and I’m really proud of the result.