Lillian Berlin of Living Things: Scoring Music for 'The Runaways' Film
Stefan Hedengren, February 2011

Lillian Berlin has had a busy past year. The lead singer and guitarist for St. Louis rock band Living Things (www.livingthingsmusic.com) has been recording a new album and scored music for the movie "The Runways". Here he talks about scoring music for film and his gear.

Who are you and what's your background?
I grew up in St Louis and lived there until five years ago when I moved to Los Angeles. I formed my band called Living Things with my two brothers.

I've always been anti-plugins and guitar simulator plugins especially but I just couldn't deny that they sounded great and sometimes sound better than the real thing.

Our first recorded was recorded with Steve Albini (Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Mogwai) at his studio but we did some overdubs at our parents basement. We fell in love with the basement and decided to buy the tape machines from Steve and start our on studio in our parents house. So our first additions was an MCI tape machine and a Neve sidecar, from there we just kept adding more stuff. When our parents house got overflowed by all the gear we moved to Los Angeles and now we got a studio in my house. Besides working with the band I've been doing some film scoring the last few years.

You said you worked with Steve Albini, what was your experience with him?
It was great. If we could have it our way we would do all our records with him. We did one album with him and two EP's. Those were some of my best studio experiences. He really gets a fierce live feel out of the bands.

I love the room mic and how you can move it around.

Did you learn a lot about mixing and engineering from him?
Yeah. Before that I hadn't have any recording experience. During those three sessions that we did I got a good 8-week crash course into recording. After that I mimicked his setup for a long time.

Slowly I got a hand on it on my own. I learned a lot about what different mic's were good for what situation. I much rather get a great sound directly into the mic than to reach for the EQ.

So what's your favorite mic?
I would say it's a triple tie. I love the Altec Coke bottle mic for room ambience on drums and vocals. I like to put them on the floor and just create this thunderous sound. The 88 stereo ribbon mic has made my drum recordings go to a whole new level. I like to put it behind the drummers shoulder, it just gets a different sound than any other mic. Then I got an RCA 44 that was re-ribboned by Wes Dooley that just sounds incredible on everything from guitars to horns to voice.

And what's the rest of your setup like?
I got two Neve sidecars chained together. I got a Quad 8 Ventura console that was owned by The Band. Typically when I mix my band or for others I get it all out on the console but I do it within Pro Tools. But for film it's much easier to keep it all in the box because there's a lot of change that may have to be done to the picture. If the director cuts out a scene your whole mix could be messed up.

Whats the difference between making an album and scoring a movie?
It's quite a difference. What I liked about doing the score for The Runaways movie (www.runawaysmovie.com) that I did a while ago was that the director gave me a cut of the movie, which was basically the finished movie and I set up a projector in my studio so I felt like I was kind of in a movie theatre.

I got my guitar up and running and had just got the Softube Amp Room Bundle plugins and Tube Delay and used those just to get some ideas going and the director and the producer fell so in love with these scratch ideas that 80% of it got kept.

I just plugged straight into my Pro Tools setup and split the signal so it went into my Fender Deluxe guitar amp and then also going to the Softube plugins. I really quite like them and the realism of them.

Are they on the upcoming album as well?
Yeah. I've always been anti-plugins and guitar simulator plugins especially but I just couldn't deny that they sounded great and sometimes sound better than the real thing. I love the room mic and how you can move it around. I like really roomy guitar sounds so that makes it really useable for me.

We worked with Michael Ilbert on our last record. We did half of it in Berlin and half of it in our own studio. He mixed a few of the tracks and we did the rest. We kind of burned out and needed a change of atmosphere and called him up and he invited us to Berlin and cut three or four songs with him that he ended up mixing.

Going back to scoring a movie. I hear stories about a lot of changes. Are you worried about losing control?
A little bit but mostly I try to get myself involved with composing music with people that have the same aesthetic, so if they want a change nine out of ten ties it's for the better. I wouldn't work with someone I can't relate to. The changes I've had to do has always improved the score and not taken away from it.

Did you mix the music for the movie as well?
For my score I recorded, played all the instruments and mixed it myself. I like to use a lot of reverb and delays so the mix is as sonically important to the music as the composition itself.

Do you have any specific mix tips to share?
I come from the analog world and have done a lot of mixing on big mixing consoles. But with film scoring it's much easier to do it all in the box and have developed my own way to be satisfied with mixing in the box. What I do is set up a Neve-style EQ on every track and an SSL styled compressor.

I like mild degrees of distortion and use things like Decapitator and even the Softube Amp Room Bundle as a channelstrip or EQ. I also use delay plugins as EQ. I'll take the delay down to a minimum just to get that tape or tube sound. It can give the bass sound a little more grit. On film scores I've used horn and strings but to get them a little more Mellotron like I'll run them through a tape simulator and induce a mild degree of distortion.

Freelance Writer