TREVOR RABIN ACHIEVED FAME IN SOUTH AFRICA during the mid ’70s as the leader of the country’s biggest rock band, Rabbitt—but he made his mark on the European and American music scenes as guitarist and songwriter for the early-’80s incarnation of progressive rockers Yes. The group had all but faded when several members hooked up with Rabin and decided to record an album’s worth of his tunes, including “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which became the band’s one and only #1 hit. Rabin continued to record and perform with Yes for more than a decade before abandoning rock stardom to pursue a career in film music—a choice that allowed him to more readily employ his formal musical training and satisfy his passion for orchestration.
Rabin had been steeped in classical and other music from the time of his birth in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1954. His father was a first chair violinist, his mother a concert pianist, his brother a violinist, and his sister a pianist and ballet dancer. He began studying piano at age six, embraced guitar at 12, and joined his first band a year later. By 17, he was a first-call session player, working with major engineers and producers, including the legendary Mutt Lange.
To date, Rabin has scored more than 30 major motion pictures, including Hot Rod, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, and Get Smart in the past two years. Barack Obama used Rabin’s theme from Remember the Titans at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and during his Grant Park victory speech. Rabin is also currently recording material for an upcoming instrumental solo album. The new music—which he describes as, “jazzier than rock, with a bluegrass Dobro kind of feel”— features him playing nearly every instrument.
Walk us through the process of scoring a film.
I’ll read a script and, if I’m interested, I’ll meet with the director. We’ll work something out and, once I’ve got some rough footage, I’ll begin getting ideas together. After that, we’ll have what is called a spotting session, where we determine exactly where the music is going to be, and a music editor will chart out all the agreed upon cues using SMPTE time code locations. Cues can be 30 seconds to 7:40 in length, and there are usually between 40 and 60 of them. Next, I’ll compose at least skeletal versions of the themes for various aspects of the movie— the lead actor’s theme, the love theme, the tension theme, and so on—and, once the themes have been established, I’ll work out variations on them. One might be a big, bombastic variation for when the hero prevails, and another might be a tense variation for where the hero is in danger. Then, I just fill in all the remaining spaces.
To what extent do you use guitar in your compositions?
Less than I would in a band, but certainly a lot more than most composers, as not many are guitar players.
Do you use the guitar more as an additional sonic color, or as a compositional tool?
Every now and then there will be a nylonstring melody that comes in, but the guitar is mostly used for textures and as an additional color for the orchestra. I spend a lot of time coming up with guitar sounds which are different, and don’t necessarily have to be the flagship of the cue. That gives me a lot of freedom to have fun with it, and very often the director will say, “What’s that? I haven’t heard that synth sound before,” and that’s really very rewarding. As far as writing with guitar, I do that very seldom. Mostly I’m going straight to paper or writing on keyboards.
What format do you record to?
I record to Pro Tools and Digital Performer. I have used DP for more than 15 years.
Do you use DP as a front-end to Pro Tools?
Yes. DP is better for working with film and for its MIDI sequencing capabilities.
Do you have particular guitar-miking techniques that you use regularly or does your approach vary?
It really varies. One thing I’ve found is that if you put a microphone in the middle of the speaker, right close up, it doesn’t allow the sound to flow or breathe, which is detrimental. So, for example, when I’m miking a 4x12 cabinet, I will aim the mic at the center of one of the speakers, but from four or five feet back—and if I need some room ambience, I’ll put a stereo pair of mics left and right on the room quite high up. I also used to use basic dynamic mics for the guitar, and now I use a Neumann U87 [large-diaphragm condenser].
Give an example of an unusual miking technique you’ve used for recording guitar?
The most colorful one was probably for the solo on “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” There were two amps facing each other about a foot apart, with basic dynamic mics placed right up against the speakers on each amp. One amp had the regular guitar signal going into it, and the other had just the fifth harmony from an MXR Pitch Transposer. We added reverb and compression at the board, but otherwise, that’s how we got the sound.
Was the volume cranked up?
I couldn’t stand in there!
Do you have a lot of guitars, and which are your favorites?
I have about 70. My favorite is the Alvarez Trevor Rabin signature model that Tom Presley built for me many years ago. I’ve also got a ’56 Gibson Les Paul goldtop that I put humbuckings on, which I really like, and a ’60s Barney Kessel that I love. It’s one of the unsung heroes of the Gibson lot. I also have a number of Fender Strats, including a ’56 that I’ve had restored to its original form, and my favorite Strat that I’ve been playing all my life.
What’s the story behind that guitar?
It is completely bastardized. The neck snapped off in 1976, and I had it repaired. I looked for a replacement, but it is the best Strat neck I’ve ever seen, so it is still on there. The pickups are all stacked humbuckers— one Bill Lawrence, one DiMarzio, and I can’t recall the third. The machine heads have been replaced with Schallers, and the spring action has been shut down so there’s no tremolo.
How does your approach to writing film music differ from your approach to writing other music?
Writing for film is always an exploration, hopefully, because you’re going to a new style and a new genre from one film to the other—and that’s not something you generally do with a band. Another aspect is that, even when writing songs for Yes, which was less of a formulaic pop-song band than most, there were still lyrics to consider— with verse, chorus, etc. With the film stuff you approach it with more of a classical attitude. You’re looking for themes that can endure and lend themselves to variations and different kinds of applications. And, ironically, I find it a much freer environment in a lot of ways, even though the deadlines are real I have to come up with stuff every day, rather than being able to procrastinate as I can, and frequently do, when writing songs.
So, you seek out scores that will challenge you to expand your musical horizons?
Absolutely. My agents are looking for the film that’s most lucrative and I’m looking for the one that is most creatively interesting. Hopefully there’s a good balance there.