Geoff Foster: Recording James Bond’s No Time To Die

The name’s Foster. Geoff Foster. You’ll know the three-time Grammy award-winning recording and mix engineer’s work from film scores ranging from Romeo and Juliet, Love Actually, The Dark Knight, Inception, Black Swan, The Pirates of the Caribbean series, Moulin Rouge, Dunkirk, and many, many more.

Just before the lockdown took hold of the world, Foster finished work on the much anticipated (and delayed) new James Bond film, No Time To Die as the score engineer for long time collaborator, Hans Zimmer’s music, and also recorded the orchestra for Billie Eilish’s Bond theme at AIR Studios in London...

You’re no stranger to working on Bond films; how did you get involved with working on the No Time To Die score, and where did you start?

Bond is about the songs, the theme, and it's BIG. You're not required to reinvent the wheel here, you're required to take the wheel to new highs. Yes, you can write things and use new themes and all that kind of stuff, but when Bond is doing Bond stuff, Bond is what it has to be.

And the previous composer didn't do that, and in the end he found himself being shown the door. Hans called me up and said, “It’s a big secret, but it looks like this is coming my way; are you available?” And I said, “of course I'm available”. He said to me, “you've done more of these than anybody else, so I really have to have you here because you know what's expected”.

People are in love with the Bond theme, it's the fifth character.

Bond soundtracks are such an integral part of every 007 film: how do you capture that quintessential ‘Bond’ sound?

Interestingly, there were a few debates about whether or not the theme should be swing, and I said, “it's got to be this way. It's got to be swing because that's the theme.” People are in love with the Bond theme, it's the fifth character.

It's not just Bond, a bad guy and a few girls, there's the music, and everybody wants to hear the music. Everybody wants that little adrenaline rush you get when Bond pulls something magical out of a hat to get himself out of a tight spot.

You hear the theme and it's like, “yeah, this is us. This is what we want. This is entertainment”. It's everything that you go to a Bond film for.

There have been some Bond films where they've not done that and they've ended up hiring somebody to put the Bond theme in afterwards. You go to see a Bond film, you want to hear the Bond theme, just like if you go to see Star Wars, you want to have the Star Wars theme – it's part of the beast.

Where did you start with recording the score at AIR?

Hans you said to me, “do what you need to do to get it to sound like a Bond film”, so I did my preferred setup in the hall. The trick is to get the sound in the room, so make sure you get the right notes on the page and then you put the best players in the world in the room.

When we did Casino Royale, at the end section there's a line where a guy on the floor who's just been shot says, “Who are you?” Bond says, “The name’s Bond. James Bond'' and then we go into the Bond theme. It was actually in the script that we should never hear the Bond theme until this moment, and then you do and it is an amazing moment.

Interestingly, when we did that cue we rehearsed the first 39 bars or so up to this moment, and then the conductor just said, “you guys know the rest, so we won't bother to rehearse that”. So that performance was actually the only take; it was all done live and it was a great arrangement by John Barry played by London's finest.

We had around a 70 piece orchestra for No Time To Die because we want the flexibility to change the balances in the mix and to get sounds that just don't work together. We recorded it in stem, so we did the strings and the woods in one one set of recordings and then moved to the brass afterwards which allowed us to make a bigger brass sound and then control the balance between the brass and the strings in the mix afterwards.

When we did the main song we actually had a whole band in the room for the entire time because we ran it as a full performance and then stemmed a few bits out so that they could be played within the mix, but the score was more calculated – we wanted control over lots of this stuff.

We did just strings and winds and then we did the brass separately; Hans’ style and creative process requires a degree of separation, not just for the mix but also creatively so that he can try ideas, so there is an ongoing creative flexibility created by the way we record stuff.

Image via AIR Studios IG

Image via AIR Studios IG

Billie turned around and said: Where's the big band? Why am I not hearing the big band?

The theme song was written and recorded by Eilish and Finneas in three days while on a tour bus in Texas, which was then recorded with Zimmer at AIR with the 70 piece orchestra; what was the approach or agreed vibe of how the song should sound?

There were a couple of arrangements that were on the cards. Billie had done a very soft and delicate vocal, and Hans had done an arrangement that mirrored this and kept the band out of the way for most of the song.

Matt Dunkley, who has arranged and done lots of stuff for Hans before, was sort of overseeing this, and he added an arrangement of a bigger version which we ran down. We got the quiet, softer version, and then we ran the big one down.

Billie turned around and said, “Where's the big band? Why am I not hearing the big band?” She had clocked the big band and said, “that's what I want”. The issue was, her vocal was soft and delicate. She said, “Yeah, I'll just re-sing it”, and she did!

She demonstrated that she's got a fantastic big voice, which she doesn't spray all over her normal records. Normally it's always quite controlled, but she turned up and delivered on that because that's what we all want – that huge, big band big orchestral sound is the Bond sound.

So the larger bits got added in and she then sang to them, and in my humble opinion she did a brilliant job. She showed us a whole new side and why she is such a superstar.

I'm really proud to have been a part of it and the Grammy the song won was deserved. It's a really tough gig; my heart always bleeds for anybody who actually takes it on because you're looking to do something that's going to get an airing.

If you mess it up you're going to get absolutely pounded for it by the Bond fans because they know what they want, and if you don't deliver something that ticks those boxes then they are the first to scream and shout. I think she did it brilliantly.

Given that Eilish and Finneas are known for recording everything in their bedroom, how did that translate to working in the huge space at AIR with an orchestra?

Like all music, it’s a journey. Billie was a prime example of this. I don't know if they'd worked with an orchestra before, but there was a real sense that there was stuff going on that they were like, “Oh, I didn't know you could do that; that's interesting”.

They first had to become huge stars before someone handed them a budget and said, “go away and make a record with an orchestra”.

If you listen to that record, it has a quality to it that you can't get out of a box – you need to stick 70 people in a room and say, “play these notes and do it this way” to get that kind of energy.

Image credit: Spitfire Audio

Image credit: Spitfire Audio

Hans you said to me: do what you need to do to get it to sound like a Bond film

AIR is known for its unique Neve consoles; tell me about how you used the 88R to record the Bond score and Eilish’s song, No Time To Die...

Neve desks have always got this feel for warmth and energy and give you a velvety smooth quality, and yet at the same time, it's as hard as steel. AIR has a 96-channel desk, so there are a host of opportunities to put up lots of mics.

Again, we were talking about Hans' desire to have close mics, distant mics and mid-distance mics and all that kind of stuff.

So it's a workhorse that, from an engineering perspective, allows you to put out a lot more mics than you’ll use in the end, but they're all just there in case you want them and you haven't got to bring in racks of outboard to achieve that flexibility.

It’s also great for sorting out multiple headphone feeds. If you've got 70 musicians in a room, some of them want to hear click only, some want to hear what's happening on the other side of the room, and some just want to hear the bass and drums on tape, and maybe whoever's in the booth.

So it's a very, very flexible console and you can turn it into so many things – it’s three or four consoles wrapped up in one, basically.

If you mess it up you're going to get absolutely pounded for it by the Bond fans because they know what they want.

How did the Neve 88R console preamps and the remote 1081R and AIR preamps help on the Eilish and Hanz Zimmer sessions?

AIR has 48 channels worth of the Montserrat pres and I always love those because they add a little bit of grit and they are modelled on the mic pres for the console in Studio One, so they have this really rough, tough quality that gives you breadth and depth.

I know a lot of classical engineers that go, “I don't want those because they colour the sound too much”, but I love the way they colour the sound! They give you that punch.

With that Casino Royale scene I mentioned, that ‘BA-DA!’ energy that you get is pure, but it's also got this real clout too; you feel like you've been hit by the sound and that's something that those mic pres do.

I do get a bit geeky; I always put them across the room microphones first because those are the elements that I use the most – that's where the bulk of the sound for an orchestral recording comes from.

Then I know I'm going to push the faders up on some on the mids on the basses and things like that so that you've got that weight and clarity, and I always put those things through the Montserrat.

Then the rest of the console is built in Neve pres, which are still brilliant, but are a little purer and a little more straight-classical, if you like.