Interview with Charlie Clouser

Interview with Charlie Clouser

Answers by Charlie Clouser / Questions by Troels Folmann. October 2011.

Tell us a little bit about your musical background- and influences?

As a kid I took music lessons in school and played a bunch of instruments for a year or two each before moving on to the next; piano, clarinet, guitar, and finally drums, which I stuck with.  Drums led to drum machines, which led to sequencers, which led to computers, and here we are.  I grew up playing the drums to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, but by the time I graduated from high school in 1981 bands like Devo, Kraftwerk, Talking Heads, and The Cars were what I was listening to.  In college between 1981-85 I discovered a lot of darker and more “indie” bands like Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, Fad Gadget, etc., and these presented a more achievable sound to a flailing musician like me armed with crude gear.  My college had an ancient electronic music studio that was equipped with a big Arp 2500 system and three Scully 4-track machines, and I wound up actually getting a degree in electronic music, which at the time did not involve computers at all; it was all tape loops wrapped around mic stands back then.  In my third year of college I did a field study year and attended The Institute of Audio Research in NYC, which was one of only a couple of audio schools that existed back then, and it was while in NYC that I would rent time on a Fairlight CMI at a small uptown studio, and after that my fate was sealed!

After college I moved back to NYC, and after bike messengering for a while I joined a downtown art-rock band that made an expensive album, sold eleven copies, did a miserable van tour, and then broke up.  In that band I was playing live drums and MPC-60 and doing the programming in the studio, but it only lasted a year or so.  After that band died, it was time for a real job, so I became the “computer guy” at Sam Ash on 48th street for a couple of years just as computers really came onto the scene, until an Australian composer named Cameron Allan, who was a good customer of mine, hired me to do programming on the score for a CBS series called “The Equalizer”.  This was my first introduction to scoring, and I worked for him for four years, during which he relocated to Los Angeles, bringing me along for the ride.  After a couple of years in LA I set up my own rigs and got into drum programming for songwriter demos and on album sessions, as well as dabbling in remixes, which eventually led me to connecting with nine inch nails.

Your wiki profile says you play the theremin. I hear its really hard to play it well – cause of pitch sensitivity and all that?

Well, let this serve as a lesson on believing what you read on Wikipedia!

The theremin is very hard to play well, and I certainly can’t play the thing in any meaningful sense; but I did use it for solos on a couple of songs with nine inch nails.  In that context I ran the raw output of the theremin through an Antares ATR-1 rackmount AutoTune unit before feeding distortion and echo.  By setting the ATR-1 to have a slow pitch-correct time, and to only allow three or four notes out of the octave, I was able to do solos that had wild theremin swoops but would land on pitches that were in key with the song.

In the context of NIN the theremin was more a visual thing than a musical one, and I certainly wouldn’t try to play one without AutoTune as the results would be an unpitched mess.

How did you end up in Nine Inch Nails (NiN)?

I had been doing remixes and programming for bands like Prong and White Zombie in the early 1990′s in LA, and an old college friend was producing a NIN video on which they needed some sound design work to overlay on top of the music track.  Instead of doing the work at a post house, my friend suggested bringing me in to do the sound design at Trent’s studio, and that session went well and led to my being asked to do the drum programming on Marilyn Manson’s first record, and eventually to going on the road with NIN as the portable studio guy.  Eventually the previous keyboard player, James Wooley, left the band and I stepped into his gig, despite never having played keyboards in a band before.  My first gig as a keyboard player was in front of 20,000 people on New Year’s Eve, so I didn’t have much warm-up time.  On our tour with David Bowie I got to be the secondary drummer on a few songs, and we added the theremin on the tours for “The Fragile” album.

How did you get into scoring in the first place?

When I left NIN in 2001 I returned to LA, set up a studio, produced a couple of indie bands, and eventually reunited with my Australian composer friend to collaborate on the score for a Fox TV series called “Fastlane”, which only lasted one season. The following year I was in the middle of producing an album by Helmet when I got a call from my lawyer. He was representing the writer/director of an indie horror film that had a lot of my very obscure import-only industrial remixes in the temp score, and he wisely suggested that the director meet with me. By the end of that day I had been hired to do the score for the first “Saw” movie, and five weeks later the score was somehow finished. The following autumn I was hired to score the NBC series “Las Vegas”, and the season after that I got hired to score the CBS series “Numb3rs”. Both of those shows went on for five seasons, and every summer I did another “Saw” sequel (for a total of seven), and I’ve managed to squeeze in another half-dozen films during that time.

One of the first soundtracks I heard you on was Natural Born Killers with Trent Reznor. What was that process like?
That was in the year when I was on tour with NIN as the portable studio guy, before I actually joined the band.  I would set up a ProTools system in hotel rooms whenever we had a couple of days off and we assembled the soundtrack using songs from the movie interspersed with bits of dialog, trying to mirror the flow and timeline of the film.  We worked on it in two-day blocks over the course of a month or so while on tour in Europe; most of the album was compiled in London and Berlin.  Trent also wrote and recorded the song “Burn” in Miami and that was an exclusive track on that album and one of my favorite NIN tracks.

How do you feel your previous band experience benefits the process of scoring for features and TV?

Having a background in album and remix programming lets me get fairly crazy with programmed beats, sequencing, and sound design without bringing in any outside help, although I used to spend as much time doing a single track as I now spend on a whole score… so adjusting to the “work faster” schedule of film and TV has been a challenge. It has been fun to bring the circuit-bent toys, modular synths, and gronky industrial beats into the mix on the scoring stuff, and I sure like big drums in cavernous reverb spaces, so I have a blast playing war drums on my scores without worrying about top+bottom tom mics, gating each channel, and all that stuff from the album days. Now I can just set up a couple of stereo pairs in a big room and let ‘er rip.

You are credited on so many soundtracks from Matrix, Lost High Way to Dead Silence and Resident Evil etc? Any crazy stories from the early days?

Well, compared to doing the first “Saw” score in five weeks while Helmet vocals were being tracked in the next room at my house in Hollywood, the rest of it was fairly mundane… except for getting chased off of the Henry Moore sculpture by campus security at SUNY Purchase while recording samples with contact mics, but at least I got some good samples out of it.

You have scored a bunch of horror movies, including all the Saw movies. How do you initially approach a horror score?

I usually spend a bit of time at the start recording some new performances (against picture) on prepared piano and guitar, using ebow, violin bows, dulcimer hammers, etc., and then chop that stuff up and make some EXS24 sampler instruments and audio loops from that material so that I can quickly access those sounds while working on the score.  Then I build a template using these sounds alongside any orchestral stuff and drums I want to use and start tempo mapping.  I seem to spend a lot of time listening to clicks against picture while I work out the tempo maps for everything, because I like to have the music fit very precisely with the action on the screen, to the point that every cut, every actor’s movement, every twitch of a character’s eyebrow feels rhythmically in-time with the clicks.  Even the squishy ambient cues have an underlying tempo and meter map that is worked out in great detail.  While I’m doing this I’m recording very rough bits of music to serve as placeholders, but once all the tempo and meter maps are worked out it becomes much easier to fill in the music, and that’s when I start working out the themes, usually working backwards from the climax of the movie toward the beginning.  When I do it this way it’s a bit easier to have earlier cues hint at the later themes and have the whole score build towards the more complete themes at the end.

Did you experiment a lot in the beginning or what was the process like in terms of establishing a sound?

All of the rough recording that I do at the beginning of the process is where most of the sound design that’s unique to each project happens, since whenever I try to record prepared piano or something into a particular cue, I wind up recording ten times as much as I need for that cue… I’ll be in loop record mode and I just don’t want to stop!  So now I do a bunch of that recording right at the start of the project, before the cues are even worked out, but I still do it against picture in a set of rough template cues that often get thrown away once the recordings have been edited.  Then I can populate the real cues with those sounds and not have to go back and try to reproduce strange sounds that may have been one-offs… you know how it is when you’re recording a modular synth or some wacky effects chain; you’d better be recording the audio output at all times because you’ll never find your way back to the sweet spot if you miss it while just fiddling around.

You are doing really dark and creative things with the orchestra. What is the process like? How would you like to work with the orchestra?

I’ve only done one proper orchestral recording in my life; on the score for the original “Saw” movie we wanted most of the score to be dark and murky until the very end, when the tone would abruptly change to a bright and strident string sound for the final montage theme.  I knew that with the limited budget and limited time (and my limited experience) I wouldn’t be able to have a real orchestra score the whole thing, but I did successfully arrange and record the strings on that final theme that’s appeared in all of the sequels as well.  The piece of music was very simple, but it was easier than I expected, and I look forward to doing a more complete orchestral score in the future.  What really excites me about working with orchestral sounds is when they get into pyrotechnic chaos mode, and so my sampled orchestra library is very heavy on the effects, harmonics, and sul pont sounds, and completely lacking in woodwinds, for example.  I often use orchestral sample maps with the pitch shifted down an octave but the mapping remaining as normal, to give a girthy, slightly unreal sound that still originates from an acoustic footprint.  Some of my favorite and most-used sounds are actually ancient string samples from the Ensoniq Mirage library or from Kirk Hunter’s original banks for the Kurzweil K2000.  Often I will use a single sample across the entire keyboard which lets me have an acoustic orchestral tone that’s rendered in a style similar to the old Fairlight, and I like to hear lots of artifacts resulting from the down-pitching of these sounds.  I’m not conservatory-trained, so I really don’t know what the rules are and I’m just doing everything by ear and by feel, so all I’m doing is applying my normal sound selection process to the tones of the orchestra – if it sounds bad-ass, evil, mondo, or girthy, I’ll use it.  If it sounds lame or wimpy, I won’t.

The Saw soundtracks use a gorgeous mix of orchestral and electronic elements. What is your process for integrating electronica/synths with the orchestra?

I have to admit that, despite my background, I use almost no synths anymore.  I think I’ve used analog-style sounds on three film cues and a few more TV cues, but I really don’t think that the bleep-bloop stuff does anything for me in that context.  I do use some analog kick drum samples for their clean sub-bass capability, but in general my synth collection sits unloved; I prefer processing my ebowed guitars and scraped piano stuff through time-stretch and pitch manipulations.  When I was just getting back into scoring after years in NIN, working on the show “Fastlane”, the first couple of episodes had a bunch of synth stuff, but I did a few cues that were mostly piano, rhodes, organ, and vibraphones, and the showrunner commented that these sounds worked much better than the bleep-bloop stuff because they were sounds that were already familiar to a wide range of people.  To a certain extent, I think this is why the biggest movies seem to have orchestral scores with a limited amount of synth stuff; because the orchestral sounds are not alien noises from outer space, and don’t call too much attention to themselves like synthy stuff does.  This is why I’ve focused more on processing guitars and pianos as well as orchestral manipulation… you can get evil tones without calling attention to the gadgetry too much.  Besides, after so many years in synth-heaven in NIN and remix-land, I can only get so excited about a lowpass filter these days.

You have worked on six Saw movies I believe. I am curious how you view the evolution of the soundtracks. Do you retain themes, sounds? How have you evolved the score over time?

There have been seven of them, actually (I know, it’s ridiculous…). The first movie and its score were very different from all the rest, and are by far my favorite. In subsequent movies there was a succession of directors, each with a different take on how the score should sound, so I kind of followed their lead a bit. For a couple of them things got pretty gothic sounding, with ominous choirs and so forth, and then it morphed into more thematic “fakestra” as we neared the end of the series. There were many themes that ran throughout, however – for instance, whenever a character had to listen to the “Jigsaw tape” (where the puppet would start with, “Hello, Alan” or something), I always used the same droning sounds and distorted pulse that I used in the first movie. These were created with ebow on an old Gibson lap steel guitar with lots of pitch shifting, like four octaves down I think, and of course the end reveal montage for all the movies had ever-longer versions of the final cue from the first movie. In a way that was like doing an annual remix of the original cue, where I’d boot up the original sequence and extend it, adding new sections and false endings to extend it to a more ridiculous length with each sequel. There were simple melodic themes from the first movie that I used for every episode’s “secret villian” and for flashbacks, and I’d reinterpret these for each sequel as the series went along.

All artists occasionally face “the wall”. What is your process of overcoming the wall and staying creative?

I keep my head clear and uncluttered because I don’t really consume much music.  I’ve never downloaded a song, and I don’t buy many records, or listen to the radio (except for “rock hits of the ’70′s on K-Earth 101″), or pore over other people’s scores.  The only music I really listen to are the ancients like The Beach Boys (my all-time favorite), Devo, Talking Heads, Brian Eno and David Byrne’s “My Life In the Bush of Ghosts”, classic Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, that kind of stuff…. and Kraftwerk, of course.  Once I’ve finished a piece of music, the fun is over, and I don’t go back and analyze past work.  My favorite thing in the world is when a piece of music is two-thirds finished, in that golden zone where you know it could still be good but you haven’t yet ruined it by finishing it…. so I relish being in that zone and I guess I still know the path to getting there.  Was it DaVinci who said, “Art is never finished, it is only abandoned”?  Whoever it was, I’m a firm believer in that theory.  The only music I listen to is that which has no bearing on my work and is completely unrelated to what I’m doing, like Beach Boys; I can’t reverse-engineer it and can’t play along to any of their songs to save my life.  If someone is doing good music that would make me say, “I wish I’d done that, I could maybe do something like that”… I don’t want to hear it, I don’t want to know about it, it will only make me depressed!  I think I work better in a vacuum, or surrounded by completely unrelated music.  When I don’t have a project going, I don’t screw around and make film music “for fun” – for fun I play drums or bass along to Zeppelin or Earth Wind and Fire classics or something… now THAT’s fun.  This way, when I have to work on score music, it seems fresh and inviting, because I’m not just immersing myself in that stuff in my off-hours.

What is the most memorable thing you have done in terms of getting source material for your compositions?

I try to seek out strange metal sculptures and exotic bits of metal scrap to use as sound sources, and have crawled around on Henry Moore or Richard Serra sculptures wherever I can find them, armed with a bag of sticks, balls, and bows, my C-Ducer contact mics and my portable DAT or CF recorders, capturing booms and superball-scrapes from them.  Any time I find a big honking hunk of metal in a public space I try to pay it a visit to collect sounds, and I’ve been chased off of the SUNY campus in Purchase NY by campus security… they have a massive Henry Moore piece there that has given me some big boomy sounds.  My house is a strange concrete and glass monstrosity with exposed 14-inch steel I-beams, and those beams have been on the percussion tracks of most of the “Saw” movies, and I always record my drums in the cavernous living room as the asymmetrical shape, walls of glass, and 26-foot ceilings provide a massive natural reverb – much to the distress of my neighbors!  I’d love to string bridge cables between some of the I-beams in my living room, but I’m not qualified as a structural welder…. yet.

All your soundtracks have a gorgeous sound. Do you ever do your own mastering or do you have any mastering tips in general?

Why thank you!  I mix as I go, usually using nothing but Logic’s built-in stock eq and compressor, but I do use TC MasterX5 as my “finalizer” compressor, and it’s in my template and always engaged.  Whether I’m auditioning sounds, editing, writing… it’s always on.  That way I’m always in context and there’s never any “mastering” phase; plus I’m always slamming that thing; seeing 12-20 db of gain reduction on the low frequencies is normal for me, and I like the way sounds get pushed around by so much compression.  One trick I employ to help speed the mix is  that I only use one or two different kickdrum and “sub boom” sounds, these are samples I made years ago and I’ve used them on every project since then.  They are on instrument number one in the stack, and I calibrate my mix around them.  If the cue has kicks or booms, I enter MIDI notes with velocity of 127 for these samples, set the channel fader to zero, and balance everything else around them.  This helps me achieve a consistent level across many cues and insures that I’ll be hitting the finalizer at a known and repeatable level.  In essence, I don’t actually have a “mix” phase to my workflow as I’m mixing as I compose.  I’m usually fiddling with MIDI events right up until I abandon all hopes of greatness and just print the darn thing.
How did you integrate 8DIO samples into the work?

I love the fact that the 8DIO drums sound massive and natural, which is just how I like them. I usually have a bunch of drum performances that I’ve recorded in a large concrete space forming the basis for aggressive cues, and the 8DIO drums that I use for accents and overdubs blend very well with those; their natural reverb is very close to the sound of my room. Alongside my known and repeatable sub booms and kicks, I can quickly establish the footprint of the “big stuff” and then fit all the other junk around these. In terms of tone, eq, thrust, reverb… 8DIO sounds are the closest I’ve found to the way I try to get my own instruments to sound. The more intimate instruments like Propanium and Hang Drum fit right in as well, and since I’m usually playing parts that are melodically very simple but rely on playing dynamics and accent patterns to make them work, the deep sampling and large number of round-robin layers really helps them to sound natural.
What are your most used 8DIO instruments and why?

All of the “epic” percussion get used a lot, as well as Propanium, Alien Drum, and all of their cousins… and Ambient Guitar and Bowed Piano turn up a lot too.  Some of my favorite sounds are the “bonus ambiences” that are lurking in some of the banks; these infinite reverb / time-stretchy things are some of my favorite sounds ever.  I can’t wait to integrate the new Taiko stuff into my templates; I’m sure these will see a lot of daylight around here.

I know you are fascinated with Moog and Led Zeppelin. Care to enlighten what these two things mean to you?

For some reason Led Zeppelin just spoke to me, even in childhood, with the right combination of girthy tones… I generally dislike “blues rock” and never felt any real connection to Clapton, Cream, Hendrix, etc. as I felt that the tones were kind of thin and weak-sounding, but listening to a track like “Achilles’ Last Stand” feels like nuclear-powered freight trains moving at supersonic speeds… pure sonic bliss!  While Talking Heads, Eno, and Kraftwerk were fantastic, they’re like “here’s a sound you’ve never heard before”, whereas Zeppelin was more like, “here’s a sound you’ve heard before but it’s maxed out in a way you never thought possible”.  It’s the same train of though behind why I like to use familiar tones like guitar, piano, and orchestra, but somehow get them torqued up as much as I can.  I like tones that sound like they fought a battle to the death on the way to the speakers, and that’s what I get from Zeppelin and what I try to incorporate into my own sounds.  As for my infatuation with Moog, it stems from meeting the guy and seeing what a philosophical and out-there way of thinking he had.  At one point, Bob described the most creative people as “having bigger antennae” than others.  He really believed that artistic inspiration stemmed from being able to pick up those signals emanating from the ether and channel them into one’s own work.  He described his own antennae as being tuned to a strange wavelength that allowed him to be the toolmaker for other creative music types… He was quite a philosopher, Bob was.

How do you interpret the word: “talent”?

Talent is the ability to answer a question that hasn’t been asked.  Profound, right?  I just made that up right now.

So what is next for you?

My studio is torn up for a remodel, rethink, and reboot, and I’m in no hurry to stare at a computer screen right now; I’m secretly waiting for the next version of Logic and maybe the next Mac Pros before I re-invent my rig and workflow.  After seven years of triple-stacking gigs I finally came to a quiet place and I’ve just been doing some traveling and not worrying about music or gear or anything like that – actually having a life is nice for a change!  Hopefully I’ll get to do some music for another interesting movie some day.  That might be fun.

Any last words of wisdom you would like to share with upcoming composers- and musicians?

Well, what’s worked for me is to try to stay as far away as I can from what other people are doing.  If I hear music that I like, rather than try to emulate it I try to avoid doing anything similar.  If I hear music I don’t like, obviously I avoid doing that as well.  This way, the only fair ground that’s left is that which I like, but which I haven’t heard yet – which paints me into a nice tight corner.  This way of thinking charts a very narrow path for me to follow, and that’s what has guided me through all these years.

Contact Charlie Clouser here : Charlie Clouser

Charlie Clouser uses the following 8Dio products:
Alien Drum, Anbient Guitar, Bowed Piano, Epic Taiko Ensemble, Hybrid Tools Vol.1, Propanium, Rhythmic Aura Vol.1