According to Newsweek Magazine, Disney's made-for-TV movie "High School Musical" has "proved itself a tween phenomenon and marketing juggernaut, racking up record sales on its CD soundtrack and DVD release, and spawning everything from T shirts to sheet music." Industry analysts estimate the fledging Disney franchise already totals $100 million in CD and DVD sales with growth that has no end in sight. Packing almost 80 minutes of music into the 98 minute movie, composer David Lawrence experienced major turning points in his career, both in terms of rocketing success and his decision to go with a 100% native Digital Performer desktop studio workflow for the very first time on a modest Disney production that turned into an overnight success exceeding everyone's expectations.
As the title of the movie implies, the music for the movie has played a major role in its success. As of the 18th week of its release, the High School Musical (HSM) soundtrack album has been the #1 year-to-date album based on sales, charting as a Top 5 album on the Billboard Top 200 album chart for 9 consecutive weeks (11 total) and a Top 10 album for 14 consecutive weeks (15 total). On the Billboard soundtrack chart, it held the #1 position for 15 out of 16 weeks. It was the #1 album on iTunes for 3 weeks, and it has spawned five gold singles, including the featured number 'Stick to the Status Quo', written by David Lawrence and partner Faye Greenberg.
With a degree in music composition, a background in LA's R&B pop scene and most recently an accomplished career as a Hollywood TV and film composer (American Pie 1 & 2, National Lampoon's Van & Wilder, Beverly Hills 90210), David Lawrence got the call from Disney to write a feature song as well as the underscore for HSM. David raised the stakes even higher by making the decision, just before production started, to make the transition to a 100% native Digital Performer desktop studio workflow, completely removing his digital mixer and other outboard gear. Was Digital Performer up to the task? In this extended interview, David shares the experience of what has become a highlight of his career.
MOTU: What is High School Musical (HSM)?
David: HSM is a made-for-TV movie done by the Disney Channel.
MOTU: And what was your role in the project?
David: I did all of the original score, and I also composed (wrote, produced and arranged) an original production number with my partner, Faye Greenberg, in the middle of the show called "Stick to the Status Quo", which is on the soundtrack album as well.
MOTU: And how was the movie released?
David: It was shown in 87 million households in the United States, first airing in January of 2006. That's the Disney Channel subscription list in the US. 50 million people have seen it for the first time (new, first-time viewers). And since then there have been twelve rebroadcasts. In fact, the first broadcast was 36 million viewers, and then for the next eleven rebroadcasts over the next two and a half months, another 14-15 million people have seen it. So to date, almost 60 million people have seen it.
MOTU: That's a phenomenal success for a made-for-TV movie.
David: It was the most successful television movie of the year. In its original time slot, when it first aired, it was the 4th most-watched television program in all of television. And it was the highest rated cable TV movie for the year.
"By the time we got to HSM, 'Status Quo' was the first time I said: OK, let's give this a shot completely mixerless, completely automated, completely bypassing everything and staying entirely in DP the entire time."
MOTU: What was the demographic for the movie?
David: Originally, it was for the "tweens", who are 8-14 years old. And no one was really sure how it was going to do because it was a real gamble to make a live musical in this format. You know, most TV movies have a lot of music in them, but they are not an actual musical. So no one really had any idea if this thing was going take off.
MOTU: What made it so successful?
David: For starters, it is really good. It's a clean, simple message. It's
a love story. It's about kids basically sticking to their guns with what they
ultimately believe is true in their heart and following their dreams. If you
do, good things will happen. And because the message is such a good one, and
it is delivered so well, parents were very happy that their kids could watch
something that was clean and fun and good. And then the parents started sitting
down and watching with them. And then the grandparents started sitting down
and watching with them. And so it became a family event. So it started as something
geared for 8-14 year olds, and then it became 8- to 80-year olds! Because everyone
would sit down and watch a good, clean, fun, rockin' movie with really good
songs and great, young, talented, good-looking actors on television with a clean
message. And it became this generation's Grease. Which is sort of how it's being
dubbed now. The only difference is that in this project, there are real high
school actors as opposed to the original Grease, where John Travola and Oliva
Newton John were playing high school students but they were in their 30's. These
are real teenagers singing and dancing and I think it really connected on a
very basic level with people.
MOTU: How did you get involved in the project?
"On average we were running 90-100 tracks of audio, 24 stereo compressors and EQs, plus four or five instances of Altiverb and we were at 30% drain on the CPU."
David: I had been very fortunate to work for Disney a couple of times before this. I did a movie with them called "Pop Rocks" a couple of years ago. And then they asked me to do their Christmas movie called "Snow" about three months after that. And then 4-5 months after that I got a call from Steve Vincent who is the Director of Music at the Disney Channel, who said, "We're doing this thing called High School Musical and we want you to do the score." And it became apparent they needed some songs. I hit it off with the director, and I told him I'm a songwriter, too. That's how my partner and I started, before I even got into TV and film scoring.
MOTU: So that was a crucial background to have for a project of this kind.
David: Absolutely. We started out as R&B songwriters. We used to write for Earth, Wind and fire, Stephanie Mills, Diane Schorr and a lot of "precurser Boyz-to-Men" groups - a lot of R&B pop in the late 80's. And a lot of theater writing, too. My partner has a big theater background. So in addition to the score writing, we submitted material for songs. And they really liked our stuff. So they said, "we want you to write this big production number in the middle of the show." It's a big high school cafeteria number called 'Stick to the Status Quo', a story-driven theater pop tune with a million voices on it and a pretty straight-ahead rhythmic track. It came out really well, and we were fortunate to have it on the soundtrack album as well. And then we were really fortunate to find out a couple months later the song by itself went gold. I think it went to number 43 on the Billboard hot 100. And then the soundtrack album itself is - I think it's triple platinum now and they think it will be quadruple platinum by the Fall. it's just amazing...
MOTU: In the 18th week of its release, three and a half million copies have shipped.
"It was just an amazing amount of information that we were recording and mixing in DP on Firewire drives and not a single glitch. Not a single crash. Not a single nothing. It was just a fabulous experience. So that's how I'm working from now on."
David: I spoke with Steve Vincent the other day - I'm actually in the middle of doing another movie with Disney, the Cheetah Girls, which is another big franchise for them (also all done entirely and exclusively in Digital Performer) - and he said that sales of the HSM soundtrack album are not simply holding but actually still going up each week, which is so antithetical to how these things typically go. Usually, you have a big opening and then it kind of gets less and less each week. But it seems to be increasing every week. And two weeks ago it just went to Australia, and it's going to India, and then it's going to 100 countries worldwide in the next couple of months, so I think it's just the beginning of the success of this thing.
MOTU: And the DVD release?
David: It was released on DVD on May 23rd, and it was the single highest DVD release of any TV movie in history. They sold about a half a million units on its first day. It's just crazy. Amazing. I think the most amazing thing is that my daughter gets to show off her mommy and daddy.
MOTU: [Laughs] How old is she?
David: Nine and a half. Every sleep-over party is now a HSM party. But she's almost had her fill of it at this point.
MOTU: My daughter and all of her friends would have liked to have performed in HSM.
David: Yes, of course!
MOTU: They all have the Playstation 2 kareoke game...
David: Yes, the Kareoke version from the Special Edition CD that came out. And they are right now doing a book musical version for about 2,000 high schools around the country, and there's also talk of doing a New York theatrical production of it. So it really has become this overnight, unbelievably successful franchise that none of us saw coming. And I'm obviously incredibly thrilled to be a part of it. And there's going to be a 'High School Musical II' now, with production probably starting in late Fall, and I'll be getting into it all over again, which will be nice.
MOTU: Can you give us a thumbnail overview of your overall involvement in the project? Did you start out by meeting with the director, or did you first submit song ideas?
David: We were one of six song writer (or song-writing teams) that are on the soundtrack. Each songwriting team sat down with the executives, the producers and the director to go over the story line and what the song needed to achieve. Most of the songs were sort of like "drop in" or "plug in" songs for the moment, without advancing the plot line or the story line, which is what you have in a real musical. Instead they were meant to be really good pop tunes that were placed in the moment to express the moment and then the story moves on afterwards. They came to us and said, "Look, we've got this pivotal point in this movie." It's about kids trying to take chances by following their heart, going against the odds (just like the two leads in the story), and they needed a story-driven, theatrical, yet pop-oriented song. And they came to us to write that. And it was a very hard number to write because it had to satisfy a lot of story points. It had to drive the story forward. It had to be driving in and of itself, but it also had to be theatrical and infectious as well. And it involved many characters in the movie, who would each stand up and sort of sing/speak their piece and basically drive the plot forward. And so it became this big dance number staged in the high school cafeteria. By the end of the number, the story was moved along successfully, and there was a big dance break in the middle, and it became this big complicated number that ended up taking about four months to write.
MOTU: Four months?
David: Only because they kept changing how they wanted to do it, once they were shooting it. You know: can we do it this way instead? And they kept revising it every two days. And my partner had to do many lyric rewrites because the stories kept changing. Then I had to do several dance arrangements, a couple of dance breaks, and then a couple of changes in the break-down section. We were still rewriting even after they finished shooting! And then opening up space in the middle of the number and inserting 16 or 18 bars to sort of make things work from a dance perspective and then closing it back up again with the material we originally recorded.
"This was the first project for me where everything I had wanted to achieve was surpassed by DP and its mixing environment."
MOTU: Interesting. So there was a lot of back and forth with the choreography and so on.
David: Yes. The other songs - luckily for the other composers - were pretty much good to go once they were written. But ours was a really complicated number. We started it in April, and we weren't finished with it until about September. It kinda just kept going and going and going. But I'm glad it took the time that it did and ultimately gave the director and studio exactly what they wanted.
MOTU: And then you also did the underscore?
David: Yes, I did the underscore for the entire rest of the movie. And it was the first project... I've been sort of chomping at the bit for the last year to feel very comfortable being in a completely mixerless environment. Up until about a year and a half ago, I was still very frustrated with the lack progress with the speed of computers to handle the kind of loads the we all expected them to be able to handle. And it wasn't until the second-generation dual-G5's - I've got two dual 2.5 GHz G5's with four and a half gigs of RAM in each, one is the host and one is the satellite computer - and it wasn't until Version 5 of Altiverb and DP 4.61, as well as a host of other plug-ins, most of which were DP's, in terms of EQ, compression, etc. that I really felt that technology was at a point where you could really run enormous amounts of audio, with pristine quality plug-in processing, and be in a completely mixerless environment, and have unbelievably fantastic sound and depth and real trails of reverb without artifacts, and without having your stereo field get narrow the more you mix. This was the first project for me where everything I had wanted to achieve was surpassed by DP and its mixing environment.
MOTU: And this was the system that you used for both the movie underscore and the big theatrical number?
David: Everything was transferred to audio. All the samples were recorded as audio. And then we also had an orchestra session - one day with an orchestra. So we had live orchestra, plus samples, plus synths, and we combined everything to sound like a very large orchestra. And then there were also a lot of contemporary moments where there wasn't a lot of orchestra, but there was an enormous amount of audio. And I think on average we were running 90-100 tracks of audio, 24 stereo compressors and EQs, plus four or five instances of Altiverb and we were at 30% drain on the CPU.
MOTU: Sounds like a monstrous project.
David: It is a monstrous project. So is the project we are doing right now - the next movie we are doing for Disney called 'Cheetah Girls II' coming out in August - we have written and produced two songs for them. And the songs alone are, again, around 100 tracks of audio, 24 to 30 stereo compressors with EQ and Altiverb. And I'm running DP 5.01 and the screen redraws are blazingly faster than they were with DP 4.61, as promised, and the computer is much more efficient - if that's even possible. Noticeably.
MOTU: There was a lot of optimization in the code for Version 5.
David: And it is incredibly noticeable. My favorite new feature in 5.01 is the pre-rendered effects processing.
MOTU: Yes, that's where the plug-in processes audio in real-time when you have the plug-in window open, so that when you change a setting, the result can be heard immediately, in real time. But when you then close the plug-in window, it pre-renders the audio for playback, saving enormous amounts of CPU overhead.
David: Exactly. We felt that immediately on these two songs. We closed all the windows with everything compressed and EQ'd like crazy and all this CPU power came right back, as if we weren't using any plug-ins at all. That feature wasn't available in 4.61 with the HSM project, but nonetheless, that was the first project that convinced me that I now can get rid of everything else in my studio, which I've been waiting to do, including all my consoles, all my outboard gear and my five remaining samplers. I sold about 75% of what was my studio about a year and a half ago. And I'm down to two Giga-studios, two dual 2.5 GHz G5's and a dedicated G4 running DP 4.61 that's just running video as a satellite. Everything is running off the host computer, except what needs to be seriously crunched. So the satellite runs Atmosphere, MachFive and - when it ships this coming Fall - the Mac-compatible Audio Unit version of Sonic Implants.
MOTU: So you've done quite a bit of consolidation.
David: Yes, and my fantasy is to get rid of anything with a P and a C in front of it, including my GigaStudios, and have it all transferred into MachFive and Mac-compatible formats. The ultimate dream is to wait for the second-generation Intel Core Duo, after the dust settles with the first generation, and then that will become my host and have the two dual 2.5 G5's as my satellite computers. At which point I think you guys will have the last remaining piece of the puzzle in place, which will allow satellite computers to function as extra distributed processing nodes for the host computer.
"I'm running DP 5.01 and the screen redraws are blazingly faster than they were with DP 4.61, as promised, and the computer is much more efficient."
MOTU: So you see an even brighter future for your MOTU system then?
David: Yes, that future - I mean, a year from now, I imagine all I will have is four computers in here and that's it. That's my dream. All my wires will go away, I'll just have four computers in my machine room, and I'll have a very clean working space. And I will be a very happy composer!
MOTU: So was all the material for HSM recorded in 16-bit at 44.1 kHz?
David: Yes. With a lot of mastering plug-ins - a lot of them DP's. We also used Nomad Bluetubes, which we just fell in love with. It gave us a sense of stereo imaging that we didn't dream we could get at that bit rate, and it sounded just so dynamic and so huge, we were incredibly pleased.
MOTU: Were the executives at Disney pleased with the results?
David: Beyond pleased. It was more than anyone ever expected. My mixing engineer, Carey Butler and myself really kind of sat down and designed the signal path we wanted to carve and ultimately determine what we wanted this thing to sound like, because Disney had never done anything like this before. It was a massive project, and I don't think anyone realized just how massive it was until we actually got started. Like I said, one song took four and half to five months to finish producing. And the score was just as complicated because it was all over the place. There were five or six completely different styles of music from rage and techno and trip-hop to marching band to completely orchestral. It was all over the place. So it had to be treated like a major full-length widescreen feature film.
MOTU: How long was the movie?
David: I think it ended up at 98 minutes.
MOTU: And how much underscore music was required?
David: About 40 minutes. With 33 minutes of songs. It's almost 80 minutes of music in a 98 minute movie.
MOTU: So it was all about the music.
David: All of it. Everything had to be seamlessly integrated from song to score, back to song, back to score and so on. That's what made it not only a challenge but extremely fun. You know, as if it were one piece of thread that kind of held everything together. It was a real blast to work on.
MOTU: So it sounds like it wasn't like pulling teeth. It sounds like there was some flow going on there creatively.
David: Oh, hugely. Steve Vincent is a fine musician himself. So he had a great ability as an executive to take the "studio train" and "collaborative musical train" and prevent them from colliding into each other. Instead, he put them all on the same track heading off in the same direction. He really funneled everybody's concerns from both sides and fused them perfectly to where everybody at the studio got what they wanted and everybody on the music side got what they wanted, and I think that's why it ended up so good.
MOTU: It sounds like you were testing the waters on a project of this scope to see if your Digital Performer rig, on its own, was going to meet the demands of the project.
David: Before this project, I had done two projects in a sort of half mixerless, half console-oriented fashion, slowly integrating into a mixerless direction by still using some outboard gear and going through my consoles. On the second project I used a little bit less of the consoles, more monitor playback and less and less outboard gear. By the time we got to HSM, 'Status Quo' was the first time I said: OK, let's give this a shot completely mixerless, completely automated, completely bypassing everything and staying entirely in DP the entire time. That was roughly 100 tracks of audio, pulling all those plug-ins, before we even had a spotting session for the score. Once we got through the first two months of director's cuts and finished the original instrument tracks and some of the basic vocals, I knew that we were going to be able to do this very well and very efficiently, not only for the rest of 'Status Quo' but also the rest of the movie - and for the rest of my composing career!
MOTU: When you were doing the on-going reworking of 'Status Quo', did you have to make wholesale timeline edits - things like insert entire sections, or rearrange entire sections?
David: It wasn't even so much about rearranging - my biggest concern was...when you are working with a film editor, and not a music editor, and they are giving you 16 or 17 extra bars, and they are adding a middle section to your existing song, you are never really quite sure they are on the beat. And that was a problem. We ran into that many times with the picture editor. Thankfully, the director of 'Status Quo', Kenny Ortega, is a choreographer who lives in beats, and he made it much easier for me to stay fixed and focused and musical.
"HSM was the first project that convinced me that I now can get rid of everything else in my studio, which I've been waiting to do, including all my consoles, all my outboard gear and my five remaining samplers."
MOTU: How did they pull off making picture edits according to the rhythm and tempo of the music?
David: Honestly, it was trial and error. I gave them perfectly working music and they ultimately had to cut the picture around what I gave them, again.
MOTU: So were they doing this editing in Final Cut Pro then?
David: I think HSM was cut on an Avid. We had problems, and once we were done, it took them an additional two weeks to edit it back into correct form. If you're off by a frame and a half...
MOTU: ...it's not on the beat anymore.
David: It's not even a drift issue. It's just that certain parts would get completely out of sync, due to the picture edits. So once we figured out where the sync issues were, then they were able to lock up to my original time code with the new time code for the new sections. And ultimately they used their ears. And brought me in, actually. I ended up on the dub for the entire process, which is something composers normally don't do.
MOTU: That sounds really unique - cutting picture to the music.
David: Well, it was only for that song because, as I said,
we had to write new stuff even after they shot the picture. On the dub stage,
I felt very useful, as opposed to twiddling my fingers. They asked me to come,
and I remember showing up at the first session and Director Kenny Ortega, Producer
Bill Borden, Steve Vincent (Head of Music at Disney Channel) and I all looked
at each other and said: we are going to have to rethink how we are going to
dub this movie because it's just not where it needs to be. And Disney realized
how good the movie was and how important it was going to be at that point and
they extended the dub another four days. And we were on the dub stage the entire
time remixing the movie and making it as good as we could make it. And that
was really fun. And not a normal job for the composer, who is basically not
asked to be on the dub stage.
David: But it was great because everybody really trusted me because I had worked literally from inception on this thing and was very familiar with it beyond the scope of a regular composer's job, since there was so much to integrate. I made good new friends.
"A year from now, I imagine all I will have is four computers in here and that's it. That's my dream. All my wires will go away, I'll just have four computers in my machine room, and I'll have a very clean working space. And I will be a very happy composer!"
MOTU: So are you glad you made the change to an all-DP, "in the box" workflow?
David: As far as MOTU is concerned, this was a real turning point for me using DP, and has solidly convinced me that DP is the software of choice. Like I said, up until about a year and a half ago, I still was so unhappy with where computer speeds were. Now we are finally at a point where the technical base is so flexible and creative that I have found in DP a software a tool that will constantly change the way I approach doing music now and allow me to be even more creative than I thought I was a year ago. It makes my musicians happier. It makes my engineers happier. And ultimately it makes the studio happier because we are just able to function so much more quickly now and so much more efficiently. And to have everything automated, at your fingertips, for the first time in a real application, functioning at a level that just wasn't possible 18 months ago, is just such a huge technological breakthrough for all of us. I couldn't be happier. I think it's absolutely amazing now. And I really look forward to seeing the MOTU system running on the multicore Intel Macs coming in the near future. It's really really exciting.
"As far as MOTU is concerned, this was a real turning point for me using DP, and has solidly convinced me that DP is the software of choice."
MOTU: Yes, our systems will continue to get significantly faster and more capable.
David: I've been feeling for years that the computers couldn't quite handle the magnitude of the projects that I produce. I would have conversations with fellow composers, and we would say to each other: you can't really do this yet. But now, you can! Now, you really can. HSM is living proof. We had the equivalent of twelve semi's worth of audio pulling at once. It was just an amazing amount of information that we were recording and mixing in DP on Firewire drives and not a single glitch. Not a single crash. Not a single nothing. It was just a fabulous experience. So that's how I'm working from now on. If you know anybody who wants some old gear, give me a call and I'll sell it to them for cheap.
MOTU: Thanks for your time.
David: It has been my pleasure.