Decades on from a time when you couldn’t simply produce a film soundtrack on a laptop, sound design supervisor Michael Fremer reflects on what it was like to work with composer Wendy Carlos for Disney’s 1982 sci-fi action-adventure, ‘Tron

Wendy Carlos has just come from her utility cupboard brandishing an electric wood router and is headed for the kitchen. Properly narked because guest chef Michael Fremer has scorched her butcher block with a sizzling wok, she’s left the Chinese meal he’s cooked to go cold, while she scrapes away at the damage.

“I felt terrible, but at the same time I was laughing my head off at the absurdity of what was going on,” says Fremer.

Fremer and Carlos had been up against it ever since he’d hired her to come up with the music for Disney’s 1982 sci-fi epic ‘Tron’. Based on the story of an arcade owner who is sucked into the alternate reality of a corporate computer, it was one of the first films to flirt with computer-generated imagery (CGI). In his role as sound design supervisor, Fremer felt the veteran electronic music composer was a perfect choice to bring onto the project.

“I wanted to have a dramatic symphonic score that would be kind of the opposite of what the picture was going to look like,” remembers Fremer. “So Wendy was going to do the score mostly on synthesiser, like she did with Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, and then we were gonna add symphonic overdubs on top.
That was the original idea.”

But not long after Fremer arrived at Carlos’ Manhattan studio from LA with the first reel of film, tight production schedules and tighter budgets meant that his plan would have to be scrapped.

“When they locked down the first reel, a lot of it was in black and white,” he recalls. “They hadn’t yet colourised it. So I flew to New York with it, and we watched it and blocked out what the music was gonna be like. But it didn’t take long before the whole first reel changed, so all that work was useless.”

The solution was to reverse course. Orchestrator Jorge Calandrelli was brought in to put Carlos’ music in front of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Just four months before the film’s release, the basis of the soundtrack was recorded onto tape with the help of a BBC remote truck that rolled up to the Royal Albert Hall in March 1982.

“Wendy scored it for the Royal Albert Hall organ and a 104-piece orchestra, but we had to do it in such a way as to leave room for the synthesiser parts,” says Fremer. She also wrote pieces for a chorus that were recorded at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus, so all these parts had to be put together. It was a huge undertaking, made more difficult because the picture couldn’t be locked until very late in the process. In the meantime, we had to invent synthesiser parts and sound effects for all these things that were on the screen.”

Many of those sounds had to be generated on the fly back in California with a team headed up by Oscar-winning sound effects guru Frank Serafine, as fresh images were still coming out of the studio.

“The animators were adding all these visual effects that we weren’t seeing,” says Fremer. “So we’d finish a reel, and they’d say, ‘Oh, we have some new stuff to show you!’, and there’d be all these things that you couldn’t avoid adding sound effects for.”

Fremer even wound up taping his Saab Sonett’s Ford V4 engine with a Stellavox portable reel-to-reel recorder, while he “drove way too fast on Mulholland Drive, down and up-shifting” so that it could be processed into the sound for the film’s famous light cycles.

Apart from the mammoth artistic effort it took to get everything written and recorded in time, there were also the technical issues Carlos faced in synchronising the 16-track recordings to a video playback system in her home studio. So as not to be undone by the challenge, she used her HP 9825 computer to write her own music-cue locator program in her “spare” time – which is sort of akin to piloting an Airbus A320 with a slide rule.

“There were also some recording issues in London,” recollects Fremer. “She got into an argument with the guy that was supervising the production about where the microphone should be placed on certain instruments. The desire was to leave enough room for her to overdub synthesisers, and she really struggled to fill in the gaps that were left from the trumpets being too far away.”

The resulting soundtrack dead-centres the bullseye – combining sweeping and majestic orchestrations with unsettling electronic stabs and flourishes. Listening to tracks like ‘A New Tron And The MCP’ and ‘Water Music And Tronaction’ alongside the completed film – directed by Steven Lisberger and starring a pre-“Dude” Jeff Bridges – is a reminder of how potent Carlos was at fashioning beautifully layered arrangements. And the main theme for the film still stands up as one of her most delightful and memorable compositions.

“I loved the main theme that she created, which was very dramatic,” says Fremer. “She was totally professional and great to work with despite all the trouble with the movie getting changed every week. Ultimately, it came out really good. Only somebody that smart could have processed all of this and ended up producing the final track on deadline. Only somebody who combined the technical chops to compose, record and produce could have done this as it turned out. A regular composer could not have done it. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

The 2022 reissue of ‘Tron: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack’ is out on Walt Disney

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