Studio Tour: How and Where Composer Mark Isham Scores 'Once Upon A Time'

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Mark Isham’s five-acre estate is spread over rolling countryside in the horse-centric West Valley community of Hidden Hills, Calif. The renowned film composer’s daily commute involves nothing more than a short walk across the lawn that separates his home from his well appointed studio, which houses two large composing spaces and a pair of writing stations.

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Mark Isham in his studio.

Along with his extensive film work, Isham has a regular gig scoring the ABC series Once Upon A Time, the rare live-action show that uses an orchestra. Each week during production, he composes new music to picture, which is then recorded with a full orchestra at The Bridge in Glendale. Aside from those weekly trips down the Ventura Freeway, he rarely has to leave his complex.

He does the bulk of his writing in Studio A, working in Apple Logic and then Avid Pro Tools, in front of a pair of Mac Pros and a Sony TV hooked up to an M-Audio Oxygen 88 piano/controller, with Dan Wallin custom speakers and a Vienna Ensemble Pro 5 serving as the mixing host. The setup contains every conceivable plug-in and virtual instrument software package. And if the need arises, he’s just a swivel of his Aeron chair away from the Euphonix CS3000 console that dominates the back half of the space.

Two years ago Isham added a screening room to his house, and it now serves double duty as a 5.1 mixing environment. “For mixing,” he says, “everything is done in the box, with a big, powerful computer [Mac Pro 2010 2.4 GHz] controlled by a series of Euphonix fader modules; we pull out as many as we need, depending on the size of the project. There’s a connection under the couch. And if we want to watch a movie, we just unplug, move the gear out, and the 8 year old can run around and not break anything. It’s a great room—all Tannoy monitors with two big 18-inch subs.”

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Once Upon A Time

On the landing that leads into the screening room, the double entry doors are flanked by stacks of gear. “The front end’s powered by the old Cello Class-A amplifiers, and all the video goes through a big pro scaling unit, so it looks and sounds really good,” Isham says. “The computer, clocking and interfaces are all here.”

For the final music mix of an episode of Once Upon A Time, files of the orchestral cues are dropped onto a hard drive at The Bridge and returned to Isham’s home studio. When the mix is completed, it goes into a dropbox for pickup by the show. An individual piece might start at the Steinway, move into Studio A for mocking up, go to The Bridge for the orchestration and finally to the screening room for the mix.

“That’s the simple route,” Isham clarifies. “It can make a trip to Studio B or to the music editor; on the paperwork side of it, it makes a trip to the orchestrator and meets us at The Bridge.”



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