Interview: Mark Wherry, Man Behind Hollywood’s Digital Musical Instruments, Hans Zimmer Collaborator
Mark Wherry is a music technology director, sound designer, and composer who has worked with some of the most renowned film composers in Hollywood, such as Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, and Harry Gregson-Williams. He is also the creator of digital musical instruments that have been used in blockbuster movies like Inception, Dune, Blade Runner 2049, and The Lion King.
In this interview, we will learn more about Mark Wherry’s background, his role at Remote Control Productions, his collaboration with Hans Zimmer, and his approach to designing and playing digital musical instruments.
How did you get started in music technology?
Mark Wherry: I was always interested in music and technology since I was a kid. I started playing the piano when I was six years old, and I also had a Commodore 64 computer that I used to program and make music with. I was fascinated by how you could use technology to create sounds and music that you couldn’t make with traditional instruments.
When I was a teenager, I got into synthesizers and samplers, and I started making my own music using MIDI sequencers and software like Cubase and Logic. I also got into sound design and editing, and I learned how to use tools like Pro Tools and Sound Forge. I was always experimenting with different sounds and techniques, and trying to create something original and unique.
How did you join Remote Control Productions?
Mark Wherry: Remote Control Productions is a music production company founded by Hans Zimmer in Santa Monica, California. It’s home to many talented composers and musicians who work on film, TV, and video game scores. I joined Remote Control in 2003, after working as a freelance sound designer and composer for several years.
I met Hans Zimmer through a mutual friend who introduced me to him at a party. He invited me to his studio and asked me to show him some of my work. He liked what he heard and offered me a job as his music technology director. He said he needed someone who could help him with his technical setup and also create new sounds and instruments for his projects.
I was thrilled to work with Hans Zimmer, who is one of my musical heroes and inspirations. He is a visionary composer who always pushes the boundaries of music and technology. He is also very generous and supportive of his team, and he encourages us to explore our creativity and express ourselves through music.
What are some of the projects that you have worked on with Hans Zimmer?
Mark Wherry: I have worked on many projects with Hans Zimmer over the years, both as his music technology director and as a sound designer and composer. Some of the most notable ones are:
- Inception (2010): This is one of my favorite projects that I worked on with Hans Zimmer. We created a lot of custom sounds and instruments for this film, using techniques like granular synthesis, convolution reverb, spectral processing, and time stretching. We also used a lot of organic sounds like brass instruments, piano strings, guitar feedback, clocks, etc., to create a rich sonic palette that matched the dreamlike nature of the film.
- Dune (2021): This is another project that I’m very proud of. We wanted to create a musical score that reflected the epic scale and diversity of the Dune universe, which is based on the classic sci-fi novel by Frank Herbert. We used a lot of ethnic instruments from different cultures and regions of the world, such as ouds, duduks, neys, erhus, etc., to create a sense of exoticism and mystery. We also used a lot of modular synthesizers and digital processing to create futuristic sounds that contrasted with the organic sounds.
- Blade Runner 2049 (2017): This was a challenging project because we had to pay homage to the original Blade Runner score by Vangelis, which is one of the most iconic film scores of all time. We wanted to capture the essence of Vangelis’ style without copying it exactly. We used a lot of analog synthesizers like CS-80s, Prophet-5s, OB-Xas, etc., to create warm and lush sounds that evoked nostalgia and emotion. We also used some digital synthesizers like Omnisphere and Zebra to create modern sounds that added tension and drama.
- The Lion King (2019): This was a very special project because it was a remake of one of the most beloved animated films of all time. We wanted to respect the original score by Hans Zimmer and Elton John
How do you create digital musical instruments?
Mark Wherry: A digital musical instrument is basically a combination of software and hardware that allows you to play and manipulate sounds in a musical way. There are many ways to create digital musical instruments, but the way I do it is by using a custom sampler that I developed with Hans Zimmer, called Zebra.
Zebra is a software sampler that runs on Windows PCs and uses touch screens as the main interface. It allows us to load and play any kind of sound, from orchestral samples to synthesizer patches to field recordings, and manipulate them in real time using various parameters and effects. We can also layer and mix different sounds together, and create complex soundscapes and textures.
The touch screens are very important for us, because they give us a direct and intuitive way to interact with the sounds. We can use gestures like tapping, swiping, pinching, etc., to control different aspects of the sound, such as pitch, volume, filter, envelope, etc. We can also customize the layout and appearance of the touch screens to suit our needs and preferences.
We use different kinds of touch screens for different purposes. For example, we use large touch screens (up to 65 inches) for playing sounds like keyboards or drum pads, and smaller touch screens (around 10 inches) for controlling parameters and effects. We also use touch screens that have physical knobs and faders on them, for more tactile feedback.
What are some of the advantages and challenges of using digital musical instruments?
Mark Wherry: One of the main advantages of using digital musical instruments is that they give us a lot of flexibility and creativity. We can create any kind of sound we want, and play it in any way we want. We can also change and adapt the sounds quickly and easily, depending on the needs of the project or our own inspiration.
Another advantage is that they allow us to collaborate more effectively with other composers and musicians. We can share and exchange sounds and presets with each other, and also sync our systems together using networked audio and MIDI. We can also perform live together using our digital musical instruments, which is something we do quite often.
One of the main challenges of using digital musical instruments is that they require a lot of technical knowledge and skills. We have to deal with issues like software bugs, hardware failures, compatibility problems, latency issues, etc., which can be very frustrating and time-consuming. We also have to constantly update and maintain our systems, which can be very expensive.
Another challenge is that they can sometimes lack the expressiveness and nuance of acoustic instruments. We have to work hard to make our digital musical instruments sound realistic and organic, and not too synthetic or artificial. We also have to find ways to make them more responsive and dynamic, and not too static or predictable.
How do you collaborate with Hans Zimmer on his scores?
Mark Wherry: Hans Zimmer is a very collaborative composer who likes to work with a team of people who can contribute their own ideas and talents to his projects. He is also very open-minded and willing to try new things and experiment with different sounds and styles.
My role in collaborating with Hans Zimmer is mainly to provide him with the tools and sounds that he needs to realize his musical vision. I also sometimes help him with arranging and orchestrating his music, and occasionally write some additional music or cues for him.
One of the things that I enjoy most about working with Hans Zimmer is that he always challenges me to create something new and different for each project. He never settles for the same old sounds or formulas, and he always pushes me to explore new possibilities and boundaries. He also inspires me with his passion and enthusiasm for music, and his respect and appreciation for other composers and musicians.
What are some of the current trends and innovations in film music technology?
Mark Wherry: Film music technology is constantly evolving and improving, thanks to the advances in software and hardware development, as well as the creativity and ingenuity of composers and musicians. Some of the current trends and innovations that I see in film music technology are:
- Spatial audio: This is a technology that allows you to create immersive and realistic soundscapes that surround the listener in three-dimensional space. It can be used for both headphones and speakers, and it can enhance the emotional impact and storytelling of film music. Some of the formats that support spatial audio are Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, Sony 360 Reality Audio, Apple Spatial Audio, etc.
- Artificial intelligence: This is a technology that uses machine learning and algorithms to generate or assist in creating music. It can be used for various purposes, such as composing, arranging, orchestrating, mixing, mastering, etc. Some of the tools that use artificial intelligence for music are Amper Music, AIVA, Orb Composer, LANDR, etc.
- Modular synthesis: This is a technology that allows you to create your own synthesizers by connecting different modules that perform different functions, such as oscillators, filters, envelopes, effects, etc. It can be used to create complex and unique sounds that are not possible with conventional synthesizers. Some of the platforms that support modular synthesis are Eurorack, VCV Rack, Reaktor Blocks, Softube Modular, etc.