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Masters Of Score: An Interview With Horror Composer Charlie Clouser

Fans of the horror genre will certainly be familiar with the far-reaching discography of Charlie Clouser. The former Nine Inch Nails member moved onto the world of scoring film/television and has been responsible for an incredible number of projects including the Saw series, American Horror Story, Dead Silence and Wayward Pines.

In keeping with the spooky Halloween season, we reached out to Charlie to talk about his studio set-up, his sonic inspirations and some different ways to get ghoulish and unsettling sounds out of your gear. Continue below to read our conversation with Charlie and to hear a few pieces of his fantastic work.

What are some of your favorite horror movie scores and how did they shape the way you work?
The first three horror movies that I remember liking as a kid were The Exorcist, Halloween and The Shining, which is still my gold standard for how a horror movie should sound and make you feel. The Shining's atonal, dissonant, clattering score is the one that spurred me to learn about composers like Penderecki and Ligeti, and the hypnotic patterns in Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" that was used as the theme for The Exorcist, and in many of John Carpenter's scores made me want just about any synth that had an arpeggiator!

You've worked on many different types of movies and tv shows, how's the process different for you when you are walking into the studio to do a horror score?
When I'm preparing to do a horror score I generally spend a bit more time creating custom sounds, before actually writing any music, than I would for less extreme types of projects. I'll spend a week or two recording weird processed guitar drones, bowed metal sounds and circuit-bent toy synths, and then build a toolbox from those sounds that I can access as I build the main body of the score. A more "normal" film score might work just fine with a less extreme set of sounds, but it seems that whenever I'm doing a horror score, too much is never enough. 

Talk a little about your studio set-up. What's your workflow like?
I do all my main composition, recording, and mixing inside Logic X on a Mac Pro cylinder, and output the results to as many as eight 5.1 stems which are routed via MADI over to a second Mac Pro running Pro Tools HD-Native, which is acting as a basic layback recorder.  A third computer, a Mac Mini, is slaved to Logic via MTC and is running Video Slave software that I helped to develop. This takes the video playback load off of the main Logic machine and simplifies things a bit. I use MOTU 112d and 1248 AVB interfaces, along with a UAD Octo, on the Logic machine, and Avid MADI and SyncHD interfaces on the Pro Tools stem recorder. I repurposed a couple of older Mac Pro towers as orchestral slaves running Vienna Ensemble Pro, although I use these pretty rarely, and I do a fair bit of sound design and rhythm programming in Ableton Live and Reason which run as ReWire slaves behind Logic. Tons of plugins, as you'd expect, ranging from the amazing UAD stuff to more out-there stuff like Sinevibes and Audio Damage.

What are some essential pieces of gear that you need when scoring a horror movie/television show?
For me, the essential gear is anything that can really put the hurt on a signal, like my UBK Fatso and lots of guitar pedals, especially the Electro-Harmonix stuff. Their SuperEgo, Freeze, POG2 and Pitch Fork are recent favorites, and I still get a lot of use out of my Zvex pedals, MXR/Dunlop Hendrix fuzz, and of course the green Line6 delays, both pedal and rack.

You’ve been a part of the Saw movies since the first film in 2004. What’s it been like shaping the sounds of one of the highest-grossing horror series of all time and how do you approach each new film? 
Being involved with the Saw franchise since the start has been a wild ride, and my approach to the score has changed slightly with each installment to accommodate the various visual styles of the directors. For instance, Darren Bousman's visual style had an almost gothic aspect to it, so I used more distant choir sounds and slow, plodding, dirge-like pieces. For this latest chapter, Jigsaw, the Spierig brothers' style is brighter and more precise than some earlier directors, so I shifted my sound a little more in that direction by using more "broad daylight" sounds and in-your-face synths as opposed to the "permanent darkness" soundscape of some of the earlier films.

I think the American Horror Story theme is one of the most unique and unsettling pieces of music that has been on television in a long time. Can you talk about the creation of that track and what exactly we are hearing?
The theme for American Horror Story is primarily built upon a piece of music done by César Davila-Irizarry many years ago, which had been used as a temp track while the visuals were being put together. The original files and stems were long gone, and so I sampled those time-stretched noise blasts and a couple of other molecules of sound from his original stereo mix, isolating them as best I could. 

I then rebuilt and expanded his original track, replacing some elements and adding others, like the acoustic bass part, hoping to capture the grotesque charm of his original demo while updating the sonics and giving us the flexibility to mix individual elements and deliver stems. César told me that those noise blasts are actually based on a recording of throwing a handful of wire coat hangers into a tiled bathroom, with the resulting recordings then time-stretched by absurd amounts using early and crude-sounding algorithms in Cool Edit Pro. I tried to replicate that grungy, chainsaw-like tone using modern technology but could never get it to sound as "awesomely awful" as the original, so in the end I just grabbed those sounds from his original mixes and tried to clean them up as best I could.  

Can we get some tips or tricks on getting scary/out there/unrelenting sounds in the studio?
I'm a huge fan of bowed metal sounds, so a $40 cello bow, some rosin, and a trip to the thrift store or scrap yard is a good first step. Whether it's a lovely Zildjian gong or a $15 serving tray from Ikea, any flat sheet of metal that you can attack with a bow is fair game. While I do have some beautiful (and expensive!) metal instruments like Waterphones and some custom made pieces by Chas Smith, I still use a lot of sounds I made using cheap mixing bowls, cracked cymbals, and random off-cuts from Industrial Metal Supply out in Sunland. That's a whole universe of sound, but another world I like to explore involves lap steel guitars, an E-Bow, pitch shifters and lots of delay. Throw an EHX SuperEgo pedal on that mess and you're guaranteed to have some ominous drones in no time.

There's been a trend of using vintage synthesizers to recreate some of that Carpenter, Frizzi, Goblin-esque feel. Has that seeped into your work at all and do you find yourself using more vintage gear or sounds? 
I actually haven't gotten too far into that style really. I still have most of the tools of the trade, from lots of modular synths to old favorites like the Prophet-VS and Jupiter-8 synths, except when I bought them they weren't considered vintage because they were brand new and had just come out! For a long time, it seemed like using that stuff to get the John Carpenter sound would have been sort of a tongue-in-cheek, retro-styled in-joke, and I stayed well clear of doing so for that reason. Plus, I spent so many years doing heavily synth-based records that when I got back into scoring I wanted to explore the kinds of sounds that I was never able to use in an album or remix context, like atonal and dissonant orchestral effects, organic-sounding drones, and all the bowed metal stuff I mentioned earlier. Lately, it seems like the retro-synth-wave style is well and truly back, so if the right project comes along my synth collection is well-stocked.

Where do you see the sounds of horror movies going next?   
I hope we'll start to hear heavy digital sound processing coming to the foreground in horror (and other) scoring genres. With amazing granular and time-stretching tools like Alchemy, Reaktor, Granite, and even hardware like my trusty V-Synths and some of the amazing new sample-based EuroRack modules, that segment of sound design tools is really mature and flexible, and can produce some truly terrifying and evocative textures. That's the next frontier that I want to explore more deeply, and I hope that those sounds will find a receptive audience in this generation of horror fans.

What's your favorite horror movie of all time and why?
I'd have to say that Kubrick's The Shining is my all-time, number one, absolutely-cannot-be-topped horror film AND score. The clattering, moaning, dissonant orchestral effects, combined with Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind's ominous drones and reverberant synth textures, all combine to produce the audio equivalent of what I think it must have sounded like inside Jack Torrance's head as he gradually loses his mind. For me, that will always be the standard by which I measure other horror films.

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