You won’t see many interviews with Chris Fogel, which is somewhat surprising, given that he has mixed the scores to over 300 movies and counting. Oppenheimer, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Blue Beetle, Trolls 3 and 65 have already been added to his credits in 2023. His studio, ELBO Studios, is responsible for 5 Emmy Awards in the last 3 years, for The Mandalorian and Severance. Given this prolific output, one would expect to see his name everywhere. So how does he manage to fly under the radar?
His busy schedule is part of the answer, but also his desire to avoid the spotlight and just do the work… humility, a greatly underrated character trait in our modern world. It’s refreshing to sit down with someone who has talent and experience coupled with such a self effacing attitude, and to talk about music, movies and gear including his work on some of the biggest films of 2023.
His early years imprinted a classical musical DNA;
“My grandmother made all of her kids play instruments at least through high school. It stuck with a couple of ’em. My mom in particular, before she became a lawyer, was a professional clarinet player playing mostly in operas and and in regional symphonies. She couldn’t afford babysitting, so she would take me to her opera rehearsals with her and I would crawl around the hall, hearing all these operas as I was growing up.
And it was funny when I was a lot older, I would wonder how I knew all these operas. And then I was reminded, it was because at six and seven and eight years old, I was hearing all of them in their entirety from rehearsal through performance. So I eventually became a trumpet player and did so through my first couple of years of college. My intention, at least for a little while, was to become a professional trumpet player.”
His trumpet journey was derailed when in a bookstore;
“I was browsing the magazine section at a Barnes and Noble in Reno and saw my first edition of Mix Magazine on the rack. I think it was the edition that had the new Focusrite at Ocean Way on the cover. And I looked at it and said, what the hell is this? You mean you can make a living doing this? By this time, I had started DJing and had achieved some success, so I had developed a love for the marriage music of gear. My interest in studio work was piqued.
That same weekend, I went to a party at Lake Tahoe. While using the bathroom at the party, I saw a brochure for Full Sail recording school on the back of the toilet. What are the chances of that? I’m not overly spiritual, but I took it as a sign. By January of 1990, I was enrolled at Full Sail and graduated from their recording arts program at the end of 1990 as co-valedictorian, so that told me that I had a bit of a thing for it. I got a job straight away at Westlake Audio in Hollywood, and before I knew it I was assisting sessions for everything from national jingles to top named artists like Michael Jackson and Tony Bennett.”
After a few years of working at Westlake Audio, Fogel met Glen Ballard and within time moved from Westlake to his studio. This is where they worked together on Alanis Morissette’s massive hit album ‘Jagged Little Pill.’ Ballard subsequently created a label, an imprint of Capitol Records. Ballard’s Label Manager, who just happened to be the son of composer Randy Newman, asked Fogel if he was interested in getting into film scoring. Over 300 movies later and the rest, as they say, is history.
Mixing And Recording Scores
Fogel is convinced that his early childhood exposure to classical and opera music, along with his later years as a club DJ, has helped inform his approach to recording and mixing movie scores.
“No question. Of course, all of those things after the age of five or six inform you in some way, right? It certainly helped my comfort around an orchestra, knowing the sections, even as basic as knowing what the instruments are. You’d be surprised at some of the engineers I come across who don’t know the difference between a French and English Horn, or even more basic things than that so I think that gave me a big advantage. It also helped that I have another cousin who’s a multiple Grammy winner with the Emerson String Quartet. When I was younger, I would go hang out with them when they were doing their recordings in New York City, before I even really became an engineer. There was never a time in my mind that I wasn’t gonna be involved in music, at least in some way throughout my life.”
We talk for a few moments about his decision to work on the console side of the glass, his appreciation of hardware, an interest that has earned him the moniker ‘Lord of the Knobs’ around his industry friends (he’s fully in on the joke in the UK). However, his workflow is largely in the box these days.
“The industry is Pro Tools, so we record into Pro Tools, maybe using different front ends, maybe DAD front ends, maybe something else that’s not an Avid front end, but it’s ending up in Pro Tools. Maybe five years ago, I would go outside the box with my orchestras, like sending them through my three Manley Massive Passive EQs. Now they just don’t get turned on anymore. We’re at the point now, and have been for several years, where there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being in the box. Of course, we record through big battleship consoles, so there are still lots of knobs to ‘lord’ over there.”
His reasons for working in the box are both a sonic and workflow;
“If you look at a case of say, ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’, we’ve got two and a half hours of music, and we’ve got to mix it in six weeks, all while chasing the dub. Working outside the box, you’re not gonna get it done in that amount of time. You’re constantly going back in for pickup sessions, back into previously mixed material and adding new stuff, reconforming. I just think there’s just no other way to work other than in the box. I’m happy enough with the processing. I’m happy enough with the reverbs. I don’t need the hardware anymore. I often work at 96K, and the plugins sound fine. I’ve also got a workflow that works for me and my clients, so why fix it if it ain’t broke?”
Mixing is only half of what Fogel brings to a movie score, by his own estimation he is recording around 75% of the scores he mixes too. One has to wonder how it’s possible to stay fresh given the relentless pace of the work.
“You’re forced to do that because the material is always so different from project to project. The Lalo Schifrin Mission Impossible theme is gonna be quite a bit different than say, the Trinity Test piece from Oppenheimer, or the trippy music throughout Severance, or the synth-driven themes in Blue Beetle.”
Fogel says he likes the mix of working on both content he has recorded himself and also recorded by others, his recent work on Mission Impossible was recorded at Air Studios.
“I like having a mixture of both, and I like the balance of where it is right now, where I do get to do a lot of my own recording, but I also get to sit back and listen to Nick (Wollage), Jake (Jackson) and Geoff’s (Foster) recordings, which are always just stellar.”
Recent Movie Work: Oppenheimer, Mission Impossible, Trolls 3
The conversation shifts to Oppenheimer, and Christopher Nolan’s role in the mixing process. Much has been said about Nolan’s role in the audio part of his movies, it’s almost become the stuff of legends. Fogel has his own feelings about Nolan’s involvement in the process;
“He’s there for every minute of recording. He’s in the room and he’s listening to every performance. He’s keeping a mental note of takes, and even keeping a mental note of bar numbers when he hears something he likes. I was told before I got into mixing with him, before Tenet, that he can be very demanding, and he is, but I see it was an absolute positive. He’s a perfectionist, and he expects the same of the people who work with him. He’ll be making music or mix comments, and more often than not I think to myself, “God damn, that’s a great idea.”
“There are two people who I’ve worked with where I’ve had this feeling that this person is doing what he was placed on this earth to do. Chris is one, and Trent Reznor in his Nine Inch Nails days was the other.”
Another added pressure for Fogel was the time given to record;
“For Oppenheimer, we had to record almost three hours of extremely complicated music in a little over five days. That’s not normal. Adding to the pressure was the way we had to go about it, recording it antiphonally, instead of recording it in the usual orchestra layout, with soloists and smaller ensembles set up at the same time as the full orchestra. It was an extremely taxing project, but an extremely rewarding project as well.”
However, one could mistake the caricature some have created about Nolan as someone who just wants perfection, Fogel says that’s not the case;
“Chris and (composer) Ludwig (Göransson) embrace the character that mistakes often bring. They like things that add to the realism, which in turn often adds to the intimacy. They don’t like it so much when we make things super clean. If the performance is just absolutely what Chris wants but there’s noise, you’ve gotta resist the urge to take anything out that he might be responding to. When he likes something, he’s not just liking the performance and the sonics, he’s liking everything about it, warts and all. This didn’t happen, but if it did, he’s liking that helicopter that flew over the studio in the middle of the take, or he’s liking that someone might have dropped a bow on the floor. So in that sense, it makes your job easier, but it also makes your job more difficult, because you have to constantly remind yourself that he is listening on another level. When mixing, we tend to not see the forest for the trees, but he’s seeing the whole picture and how it applies to his film.”
When recording and mixing the score for Oppenheimer, Fogel was working side by side with Nolan and Göransson;
“A lot of the times when you’re recording and things are coming together, you get what they’re going for in the moment. You get what Chris and Ludwig are responding to, and that ultimately makes the mix phase fairly easy.
But sometimes, you don’t really know what they are responding to. You might focus or lean on something that is the opposite of what they’ve been focusing or leaning on.
When we record, Ludwig usually sits immediately to my right, and then it’s Chris immediately to his right. So it’s the three of us at the console. I am making a note of everything that Chris is saying to Ludwig, and obviously whatever he and Ludwig say directly to me. Every once in a while I’ll misinterpret something, then they’ll make a comment, and I’ll be like, oh, okay, they liked this, so I’m gonna focus on this.”
The results bring a mix of both huge scale and almost uncomfortable intimacy; Fogel explains;
“It’s definitely as intimate as you can get, like uncomfortably close, intentionally. It goes from one delicate solo violin, which has extremely close mic placement, closer than you would naturally mic a solo violin because you want all that noise and all of that scratchy stuff, to massive orchestras and everywhere in between.”
The One About The Reverbs
We move to the role of reverbs in the score mixing;
“We often record at the Warner Brothers scoring stage, which is the smallest of the five major London and LA stages. It’s a very dry room but has a character, which I think is good. My typical verb chain starts with the Cinematic Rooms. I’ve got a modified version of the default hall that I then modify further for the material it’s being applied to. I’ll then augment that, usually with a little bit of Symphony, but it’s mostly Cinematic Rooms doing the heavy lifting. I’ll also use Seventh Heaven Pro quite a lot.”
We return to the subject of plugins versus hardware and his use of Seventh Heaven Professional;
“With hardware I could only use it on strings or I could only use it on brass. Having the ability to have multiple instances is the thing. I’m perfectly happy with Seventh Heaven compared to the Bricasti hardware. You have the same patch names, they react a little bit differently to the hardware to me, but that’s easy enough to fix.”
We talk about how additional processing plays a part in the reverb sound.
“Most of the time I end up filtering out low frequency stuff from the reverbs. What we do, they’re almost always hybrid scores. So we’ve also got to contend with all sorts of electronics and it’s gotta fit in that space wherever the orchestra is meant to fit.
I do quite a lot of post-processing to my reverbs, not so much on orchestra, although there are occasions like Oppenheimer and Blue Beetle where I’m really doing a lot of processing to the orchestra – not just to the dry signal, but to the input and output of the reverbs as well. I’ll add some distortion or I’ll add some sort of brick wall limiting or whatever. Just something to really give the reverb its own kind of sound. Sometimes I’ll print the verbs and chop, or send them out to my guitar amps for some grease. I’ll do all sorts of stuff like that to the reverb.”
He moves specifically to EQ on the reverb;
“I’m always using EQ on the reverb out of habit, although I don’t have to with Cinematic Rooms because they’ve got the great filters already built in and they’re right there on the front page. You don’t have to dig for it. For the Cinematic Rooms orchestral reverb that I use, I think my user preset has the high pass filter at 60Hz, and I think the low pass filter is at 17kHz, and then I’ll augment that based on whatever the material is.”
Are the inbuilt dynamics in Cinematic Rooms Professional useful?
“Yes, but I’m also sometimes keying. So I’ll key into a various set of compressors that I’m using across a lot of stuff. I will also use the dynamics inside of Cinematic Rooms too. It’s a great tool.”
Fogel is also a fan of the other LiquidSonics reverbs;
“What I love about HD Cart is the chorus. One of my favourite patches is the Large Chorus Hall. That, to me, has become a replacement for a lot of things. It’s really super useful because it works on so much stuff in HD.
And I gotta say too, I love Lustrous Plates that I just got. That thing is all over Trolls 3. You can really hear the whoosh on some of those plates that are in there, but without being sizzly or too sibilant. So often plates become thin at about half a second out. They’re not like that. They’re super, super usable. When I say I’ve used them all over Trolls 3, I’m using them on guitars, I’m using them on drums. I’m using them on choir, sometimes on strings. Like a kid with a new toy.”
Not one to sit around, not only has Fogel mixed Oppenheimer, and Trolls 3, but also Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One which was recorded in numerous studios around the world. Does reverb help with gluing all those elements together in a mix?
“For sure. It was super well recorded. Geoff didn’t record everything, but even the stuff that he didn’t record was pretty well recorded. I found HD Cart to be really useful, particularly some of the gated room and gated plate stuff on the drum corps.
I think my primary verbs on the orchestral stuff for Mission Impossible would’ve been Cinematic Rooms again, but pretty tight because Air Studios is large. I found that there was a noticeable delay between the Decca tree and the brass because the brass was in the gallery. When you’re recording at Air, you don’t really need reverb for anything more than glue, you don’t really need to add tail because you’ve got to just push up the gallery mics or push up your room mics and there it is. Particularly a score like Mission Impossible that’s so dense, it would just be a wash.”
Fogel confirms that the stories one may have heard about the new Mission Impossible score are indeed true;
“Geoff really had his hands full on Mission Impossible, as you can imagine. The 555 musicians thing is real. The 20+ bongos that you’ve heard about in the press were also real. And man, it was so great to have that stuff recorded by such pros. I don’t know that I could have done as good a job as Geoff and Nick did so I also get to learn from them, I get to see the things that they’re doing and maybe apply them to my workflow. It’s good to embrace other people’s work to make yourself better.”
Reverbs were also used for a number of cues as an effects element in Mission Impossible;
“There’s a scene on a bridge in Venice, without giving away the scene, that was the only space where I thought we needed some long, additive reverb – not just for glue, but for the illusion of more space. That was the only cue that I got a comment back from Tom Cruise via the music editor saying he wanted something a little bit more emotional in that section. So I did this sort of edited fade in, fade out thing that tags the longer reverb on the way out. That reverb is Cinematic Rooms.”
A Man In Demand
In the space of about thirty minutes we’ve talked about not one, but several of the biggest movies of the year. During our conversation he is deferential, he sees his role as serving the artist and their art, making sure he stays out of the way so that the vision is fully seen.
He underplays his role in the success of the projects, repeatedly giving credit to Directors, Composers, Musicians and Engineers.
No wonder Chris Fogel is in such demand, his experience is unrivaled, he has a deep knowledge of the craft, and he remains a great person to be around. What’s not to like?
Huge thanks to Chris for making the time for this interview.
Main photo by Dan Goldwasser from ScoringSessions.com