Tech Talk From The Co-Producer…
Back to the Future Part II
is a wild ride that shows how much (and sometimes how little) can change over the span of 60 years. Assembling the complete release of Alan Silvestri’s score for the movie illuminated that a lot can change in just four years. While consumers were transitioning from the analog world of vinyl and cassette to the compact disc in the latter half of the 1980s, the digital revolution within the music business was also happening. A variety of new formats were developed throughout the decade, many of which are now, amazingly, obsolete. While the original Back to the Future
score from 1985 survives only on various analog elements, the music for its sequels is preserved on a format designed by Mitsubishi called ProDigi. The company developed a series of digital recorders beginning with ¼′′2-track stereo format (the X-86 series) and then moving on to ½′′ 16-track (X-400) and finally to ½′′ 32-track (X-800). The X-850, created in collaboration with Otari, became widely used in the country music genre, but it was also employed at the Burbank Studios scoring stage and sound departments. The magnetic digital tape used was “spliceable,” as the recorder employed error correction technology to maintain sync during playback.
For the Back to the Future
sequels, recording engineer Dennis Sands used the 32 tracks to preserve individual stage microphones and synthesizers, with final 4-track mixes (left, center, right and suround) placed on tracks 27–30.
Scoring for Part II began on September 14, 1989, but Zemeckis, Gale and co-producer Neil Canton were not in attendance —they were on the northern California location for Back to the Future Part III. “We trusted Al and his team to get it right, and they did,” recalls Gale, referring to Silvestri’s group of regular collaborators: Sands, orchestrator James Campbell and music editors Ken Karman and Jacqueline Trager. In between blocks of scoring sessions the producers and director returned to Los Angeles to hear the Part II score against picture. A number of cues underwent revision, partly based on a developing sense of how Part III was coming together, resulting in two session dates in October devoted to rescoring certain segments. An additional date on October 23 included scoring for the first assembled version of footage for Part III. This version was screened at a San Jose sneak preview on October 29. When additional footage became available, a final date was booked to score it. The Burbank stage was unavailable, so that sequence was recorded at Lorimar (the MGM scoring stage) on November 2, less than three weeks before the picture was scheduled to open in theaters.
The film mixes were finalized and the original soundtrack CD was created at Group IV Recording Studios in Hollywood on November 3. The separate digital “safety” ½′′ rolls containing the final mixes were the primary source for the assembly of the complete score twenty-six years later. Many of the earlier versions of cues (found on CD2) were also on those tapes, but some selections were derived from the original Burbank Studios rolls.
Universal’s policy is generally to transfer archival elements “in-house,” but the scarcity of Mitsubishi ProDigi machines meant either renting one or authorizing the tapes to be taken off-lot. When this producer learned that the ProDigi machine maintained by Warner Sound Transfer was the exact one on which the score was recorded, I campaigned for the latter option. I was issued a “material movement authorization” for the elements and then personally shuttled the tapes across the Universal lot, past the Amblin Entertainment offices and out through Gate 4. From there the neighboring Warner lot is just a half-mile away. The tapes were transferred across from the building where they were recorded (now the Eastwood Scoring Stage, a point of irony that ardent fans of the Back to the Future trilogy will no doubt get).
The sample rate for the ProDigi format is 48k, with a bit rate of 16, and while digital audio has advanced to higher resolution, the transfers into Pro Tools were done in “native” format rather than needlessly adding extra “zeros” during the tape-to-data process. (It is advisable to always implement such “number crunching” later if it’s needed at all!) The front left-center-right channels were used to assemble the score, matching the approach taken in 1989 and carefully comparing material and performances to the original album and to the movie. After some digital cleanup, assembly and mixing into 2-track stereo, the files were delivered to Patricia Sullivan at Bernie Grundman Mastering in Hollywood. The final masters were then reviewed and approved by Alan Silvestri, Dennis Sands and Bob Gale.
So here we are in the future, 2015, with no flying cars yet (otherwise the trip between Universal and Warner might have been different), but with as complete a release of Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future Part II as anyone could have ever foreseen!