To celebrate the spirit of Halloween, we spoke with synth lord and certified super-villain Protovolt to find out what makes a classic horror score. Known for his sick retro scores and insane synthesizer collection, Protovolt is easily one of the raddest dudes on the internet, and an aficionado of all things 80s.
Read on to learn about Protovolt’s favorite tools for writing retro-inspired scores, his custom arcade cab modular synth, and what his death scene would be like if he was in a horror movie.
What are some of your favorite film scores?
There’s a lot of the obvious ones: Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Hellraiser, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Thing, The Shining, Tron.
One of my favorites actually is Big Trouble in Little China. That movie’s got everything in it; horror, magic, comedy, everything. It’s been my favorite movie my whole life. I watched it every day as a kid. I went to see it in the theater with my parents and when it came out on video I watched it as much as possible. I love everything about it. It’s creepy and funny. It’s got great practical and digital effects. I loved the acting and story. The whole thing is just great. It’s still my favorite movie to this day.
I even love the old Trick or Treat movie from 1986. The whole soundtrack was made by a hair metal band called Fastway. It was really great.
What makes a classic horror movie score?
I think the music has to kind of scar you… By that, I mean it has to leave an emotional impression. It’s not something that you want to notice that you’re listening to. You want it to be seamless with the film. You want to feel the emotion rather than feel like you’re listening to music while watching a movie. With horror, it has to be something that, even years or decades later, when you hear it, you feel all of those emotions again. Whether it’s creepy or exciting or whatever.
Back then, people would have been using the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, Prophet-10 and VS. Maybe the ARP Quadra, Emulators and probably some of the Oberheims. The OB-Xa is one of my favorites. Probably some Mellotrons. Those things are crazy. They’re tape driven so they sound really weird and creepy.
What synths would you emulate the sounds of classic horror composers like John Carpenter, Fabio Frizzi, or Goblin?
With synths, it’s kind of up to whoever is using them. It’s kind of like giving someone a paintbrush. But even though synths can make many different sounds, I like to find synths that make unique sounds. I might use one synth to do a specific bass sound and another for a certain string sound, so I try to use as many as I can.
I would use my ARP Quadra synth, which has some cool horror sounds. It’s got four sections for poly, strings, bass and leads, which you can blend together. It also has this really cool phaser that gives things a really creepy sound. I think the Quadra was used on a few film scores from that era too.
Also, the E-mu Emulator II is probably one of the best sampling keyboards ever. I have a box of hundreds of five-inch floppy discs filled with crazy sounds.
I might also use my Polivoks synth from the Soviet Union in the 80s. That thing is the meanest sounding mono synth I’ve ever heard. At the time, they made it to compete with the Mini Moog Model D, and to me, the Polivoks just shreds it. It’s really dark and it sounds scary.
What equipment are people using to write film scores now?
I think it depends on what inspires you to write. There’s this crazy argument that digital synths don’t sound as good as analog synths, but the fact is that digital stuff has been able to recreate the analog sound for a long time. So it’s not the sound. I’ve done plenty of blind tests with people who love analog and they fail every time.
It’s a matter of inspiration and what makes you want to write. I grew up in the 1980s, so everything from that time period is really nostalgic for me. Younger people don’t have that nostalgia. They might see it as a neat piece of music history, but there’s no way that they’ll ever get the same feeling as someone who grew up around it.
For them, some drum pads and samples may be all they need to get inspired. But for me, I get no inspiration from loading a sample onto a bunch of pads and writing. I’m never going to get inspired by a pad playing chords or running arps for me. I like having my hands on pieces of music history.
I’ve never really been a modular synth person, but I do a lot of Q&As on my page and people always ask why I don’t have one in my studio. It just doesn’t inspire me. I don’t like not being able to save my work. I don’t want to have to repatch stuff every time I sit down. It’s a workflow thing. I want to be able to bring up sounds that I know and love and just start writing. I don’t want to have to experiment and patch a bunch of stuff to get back to something I did last week. A lot of people love it but it’s just not my thing.
But, people were asking me constantly, so I decided to build a small modular setup. I wanted to make a contained synth that I could control with a sequencer or a small keyboard. I also wanted it to look cool, but I didn’t really like any of the cases I found online. I looked at the rack and thought it was about the same size as an arcade screen and figured it would look really cool inside an arcade cab. I was like; ‘How has no one thought of this before?’
So, I started planning and building an arcade cabinet shelf. Then I got the custom marquee that says WAVE MASTER on it. I set it up so you can pull the center section with all of the modules right out of the cab to get behind it. I have MIDI cables coming out where the front button controls normally would be so I can plug in my MIDI keyboard or a sequencer or whatever.
The main voice in there is a big Polyvox module but there’s a bunch of other chiptune stuff for video game music and sounds. I have this really cool module that you can plug an old NES controller into and every button on the controller has its own trigger output so you can use the controller to trigger sounds from different modules.
What are some of your favorite synths from your personal collection?
Well, I already mentioned the Polivoks, which is one of my favorite synths. The Yamaha CS-50 is definitely a favorite of mine. They’re kind of hard to find because people would mine the voice card out of the CS-50 to repair their CS-80s. The CS-50 is the most expressive synth I have. It’s definitely a writing synth. You sit down and you just start scoring Blade Runner like, "How did this happen?"
I love the way the controls are set up, they make me feel really connected to the synth while playing it. Kind of like the difference between driving a manual car and an automatic. A lot of synths have sliders and knobs, but they’re very "set it and forget it." But the controls that the CS line has make it unlike any other synth when you play it. You really have to play one and you’ll get what I’m talking about.
Another one of my favorites is the DK Synergy, which is extremely rare. I think they only made like 700 of them or something. Wendy Carlos, who’s famous for The Shining and Tron was heavily involved in the development of the DK Synergy. The sounds are stored on cartridges that look like Atari cartridges. It’s just a monster.
Tell me about some of the other instruments and controllers you use to make music.
I play drums, guitar, and keys, but I learned to play guitar first. Over the years I’ve had tons of different guitars, but I finally have three that I’m happy with now. One is a Fender Elite Strat that has the HSS Shawbucker noiseless pickups for the classic Fender sound. I also have a seafoam blue Gibson Les Paul Classic. And I have a white ESP James Hetfield Signature Snakebyte for like heavier stuff. I figure I’ve got most of my grounds covered with the Fender, the Les Paul, and the ESP.
I also have two digital drum kits. I have the Alesis Strike Pro Kit, and an old Simmons SDS kit from the 80s with the crazy-looking pads. I run those pads into a really rare Simmons module called the Trixer. If you want huge 80s drum sounds, the Simmons Trixer has the best sounds I’ve ever heard. It has a bunch of amazing built-in reverbs.
I have a ton of drum machines too. I’ve got a LinnDrum. I have a Roland TR-808 and a TR-909. I have a Kawai R50e, which is pretty hard to find. When you think about old industrial music like Wax Trax! and stuff—it’s that kind of drum machine. It’s got sounds for any industrial drums you can think of. Even hard industrial sounds, it’s like old Ministry in a box.
I have a Commodore 64 computer that’s been modified to play like a synth. I installed knobs in front so you can control the filter. The SID chip inside those things are awesome.
All of my gear runs into an old analog 24-channel Mackie mixer. I do initial staging on the console, then that runs into a Universal Audio Apollo interface, which goes into my computer.
At one point, I’ve used every DAW except Pro Tools. I’ve never used Pro Tools. I’m a creative person and I need a pleasing interface. I just don’t like the Pro Tools interface. I know it seems like a trivial thing, but it all matters to me. I want my DAW to be easy to use, have great features, and look pleasing so I don’t want to pull my eyes out when I’m recording.
I have Ableton, Cubase, Logic, Studio One, and Bitwig. The two main DAWs I use are Cubase 10 Pro and Bitwig. I like Cubase for scoring and more complex projects. But Bitwig is just so fast to use and clean. It’s really nice to look at. I never have any problems with it. I’ve literally never crashed it. Bitwig has plug-in protection so the plug-in might crash but it doesn’t crash your session. You just refresh the plug-in, it’s great.
Which do you prefer, writing music for film, or video games?
The video game stuff I do is mostly for fun and nostalgia. I like to cover old video game tracks. If someone was doing a retro-style game and they wanted me to do a retro soundtrack, I would totally be down for that. But as far as new games go, I would prefer doing a movie, just because I like movies more than I like modern games. I like old games that I grew up with. Not just for nostalgia reasons, I just have fun playing them. New games feel more like interactive movies now and at that point, I would just rather watch a movie.
What are some of your favorite video games?
Oh man… what system? I also have all my old consoles hooked up to an old CRT TV in my studio.
The NES was the first system that I ever got. The first game I had, of course, was Mario Bros. But the game that really made me a gamer back then was The Legend of Zelda. When that came out, it changed everything. It was the first of its kind. It was odd and strange, people didn’t even know how to play it. You would go into the cemetery and get lost. People couldn’t figure out how to get out, they thought the game was broken.
Luckily, back then Nintendo Power magazine had a hotline you could call, like a 900 number. My friends and I spent a weekend playing Zelda and called the hotline for help. My parents didn’t know, but we were on there for hours. They got a bill for hundreds of dollars, it was ridiculous. They were not happy, but it was worth it.
Who are some of your biggest influences?
I would say definitely John Carpenter for the cool 1980s music. Trent Reznor for modern production and synths. And James Hetfield for my guitar playing. Metallica basically taught me to play guitar. When I got a guitar, I didn’t take lessons. I just bought the music for all of Metallica’s songs. After I learned them all, I could play guitar. It was better than going to any lesson because the guitar riffs covered so much.
Your aesthetic is very retro. What about the 1980s inspires you?
The decade itself was a massive experimental creativity dump. People were just throwing ideas out. There weren’t any rules back then. People were like, "Let’s make the craziest kind of movie or TV show or toys we can think of." A lot of stuff came out back then that you would never see today.
Cartoons in the 80s were amazing, especially the intro music. Even the commercials. Some commercials from the 80s were better than TV series now. I would rather just watch a bunch of 80s commercials.
I was heavily into ninja movies in the 1980s too, which all had great soundtracks. When I was growing up, my friends and I would rent ninja movies and horror movies and video games all summer long.
Stuff now is too predictable. People are afraid to take risks. They find what people like and keep remaking the same thing until it’s dead. But the 1980s wasn’t like that. There was just so much cool, different stuff that came out back then. It was totally unlike any other decade.
Who is your favorite 1980s horror movie villain and why?
Lo Pan was the main villain in Big Trouble in Little China and he’s always been my favorite because he’s really creepy, but he’s hilarious at the same time. He’s just so serious about what he’s doing. He took the form of a creepy old man, but his other form was this really decadent, lush-looking emperor. James Hong played him and he’s just amazing in everything he does. He’s been in so many movies. No one else could have played that character like him.
A lot of horror movie villains are actually pretty similar, they just have different looks. But if I had to pick a classic horror movie villain I would probably say Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street. I liked Freddy a lot because he was evil but he had a sense of humor. He messed with people a lot, which I like.
If you were starring in a horror movie, what would your death scene be like?
I actually had a dream about this, which is really strange…
I dreamt that I was a mad scientist who was obsessed with synths and I was trying to achieve the ultimate integration with all of my synths. It was kind of like The Matrix. I had implanted these audio jacks up my back and into my neck and plugged all of my synths into myself. I had like 500 oscillators going all at once, just cranked. The goal was to get them to play in unison together into my head.
I actually woke up at this point in the dream, but for my death scene, I imagine slowing cranking up the filter on all of those oscillators running into my head until I just explode.