Digital Score: The Effects of Digital Synthesizer and Samplers on Film Music. - Cormac Staunton M.A.
The soundtrack is the final element in constructing a film’s image, and as such soundtracks should be considered ‘sound’ images, constructed and chosen in similar manner to the way a visual image is created (Nelmes 109). Unlike other technologies such as colour and widescreen which took over 30 years to implement fully, sound was adapted by the film industry within a few short years (Cook, 28). Over the years new technologies have been developed to enhance the audio experience of the film spectator; stereo, Dolby and more recently digital recording and projection systems have all been implemented (Hickman 333). Since the 1950s the use of electronic and digital instruments and audio recording and mixing systems have been used and adapted by film studios, producers and directors. Over the next few pages we will demonstrate some of the musical devices used by directors and composers to create a sonic image. We take a look at how these new electronic instruments and digital audio systems have radically impacted the filmmakers and possibly even changed the way we ‘hear’ a film. We will also make the case that the digital synthesizer was in fact the first digital tool to impact filmmaking; long before the debate over digital video (DV) was even conceived by film critics.
A film soundtrack consists of the distinct parts; dialogue, music and sound effects. These sounds can be diegetic (sounds coming from within the mise-en-scene) or non-diegetic, sounds added from outside the scene which are often to inform the viewer in some way. Adding of songs of a particular era for instance can set the timeframe as in the case of ‘Street Fighting Man’ by the Rolling Stones in Apocalypse Now (Coppola 1979). The opening track can often be used to set the mood or tone of the piece. M*A*S*H (Altman 1970) uses the song ‘Suicide is Painless’ with its opening credit to set a tone of an anti-war message within it comedy setting. Where-as the black-humour of Catch-22 (Nichols 1970) uses no music during the credits to help underline the seriousness of its anti-war message (Hickman 15).
Director has a number of musical devices to help create and alter the mood during a film. By using differing chords a film director can add a sweet peaceful feeling to the piece or, consequently by adding a dissonant sound (26) the tone can be made to appear dangerous, stressful or violent. Use of minor keys (27) or microtone can suggest exotic or non western locations. Hickman also notes that non-diegetic music can take away from realism of a scene; diegetic music can serve to impose it (35). Diegetic music is powerful force in a scene: it can serve the identifier of a disturbed psychological balance, as with Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954)(37) or it can place the characters socially as in the television series The Wire: The rap/hip hop used in scenes in the ghetto signifies violence, gangs and drugs, however the sweet soul music emanating from Detective McNulty’s car identifies him as being on the side of law and order.
Hip Hop relies heavily on sampling, which according to Demers “is a digital process in which pre-recorded sounds are incorporated into the sonic fabric of a new song.” (41) In other word allowing DJs and record producers to mix different parts of two or more existing songs together over a new beat to create an entirely new tune. Almost all U.S. black music since the 1970s has incorporated some sort of sampling into the mix, and as such has had subsequently featured in many films. One such example is Boyz n the hood (Singleton 1991). This is a story of three young black men growing up together in the South Central ghetto in Los Angeles. In this movie the use of diegetic music helps to define some of the character. Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne) the straight talking single father of one of the main protagonist listens to jazz, the less intellectual Mrs. Barker, one of the neighbours, listens to the Motown music of her youth, while the younger characters all listen to rap, again signifying the proximity of violence, gun-culture and gangs (Hickman 383).
Electronic instruments are often used to produce eerie or unreal sounds indicating an unearthly or disturbed tone. The theremin and ondes martenot of musiqué concrete were some of the earliest electronic instruments used. Composer Miklós Rozsá uses the theremin in both The Lost Weekend (Wilder 1945) and Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) to help portray characters with psychological problems. In the 1950s elaborate electronic music labs were now able to create or synthesise an astounding variety of new sounds and in 1956 Forbidden Planet (Wilcox 1956) was the first movie to use an entirely electronic score. The composer Bebe Barron had used one of the labs to create the score (31). But mostly these advances were too expensive and unwieldy to implement and it was not until the invention of the synthesizer in 1964 by Robert Moog that electronic instruments became a force within the film industry. The synthesizer or synth as it is commonly known is an electronic instrument capable of creating new sounds as well as being able to imitate the sound of other more traditional instruments. By 1970 Moog had invented a portable version and it was soon in use in the rock world as musicians began to incorporate it into their live shows (359).
Wendy (né Walter) Carlos was also know for her groundbreaking work with electronic sounds. She became fascinated with the Moog synthesiser and in 1967 she won three Grammys for her album Switched-On Bach, which established the popular appeal of the instrument. Kubrick then approached her to score A Clockwork Orange (1971) in which she uses the Moog almost exclusively. Carlos was backing scoring films again in the 1980s with Tron (Lisberger 1982). Along with the soundtrack supervisor, Michael Fremer, they discovered that by synching the snyths with the video controller using the SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) time, tight synchronization can be achieved by comparing the time codes of the two signals, thus allowing music and the on screen action to be tightly coupled (Moog 54). In this movie she introduces digital synthesizers to the film world for the first time with the use of the Crumar GDS to create a lot of the sound effects in the film’s computer world. (Wiki) Originally the idea was to have a symphony orchestra for the real world scenes and electronic music for the computer world. However, due to pressures elsewhere, Carlos could not supervise the orchestra recordings. In an interview with Robert Moog for Keyboard magazine Wendy Carlos discusses how the Crumar actually saves the day when the orchestral recordings were found to be lacking due to bad microphone settings, sessions be only recorded in mono when stereo was required, and some playing errors by the musicians, meant that a lot of the orchestra recording were found to be seriously lacking. With the help of the Crumar GDS to was able to synthesize additional parts for the orchestra and mixed them down with what she was able to salvage from the original tapes to complete the award winning score for the film (Moog 56).
Analogue synths tended to be expensive and unreliable, and thus did not have the impact digital synths did (Pierce 8). The use of digital synthesizers in film music really took off after 1978 (Palm 63) with the arrival of the digital synth and samplers. Many of the reliability and tuning problems inherent in the analogue synthesizer were resolved and many new possibilities opened up (Burt 243). Not least of which was the arrival in 1983 of the Yamaha DX-7 with its multi-voice patch system and the MIDI communications system that allowed digital synthesizers to be linked together or with other MIDI compliant synthesizers, drum machines, samplers and computers (Hickman 359). These advances opened up a whole new world for film music composers and movie directors effectively allowing them to replace large studio orchestras with a few relatively inexpensive synthesizers. Other sounds could also be recorded and played though the synthesizer, a gun shot or noise of a train, and the noise then changed by the instrument adding or subtracting pitch, tone or timbre of the sound creating a whole palette of audio from which the director or sound engineer could choose from (Johnson 16).
In 1982 Vangelis becomes the first composer to win Oscar for a virtuoso achievement in film scoring with a completely digital synthesized score in Chariots of Fire (Hudson 1981). In this score he uses the synthesizer to replicate the sounds of traditional instruments, but with Blade Runner (Scott 1982) he uses the synthesizer to create new sounds that feature in the futuristic world (31) adding a sense of reality to this most unreal of worlds.
Because of rock musicians knowledge of the digital synth a significant number of film composers have come from the rock world. According to Hickman (382) synths feature heavily in 1984 with two of the top grossing films of the year Beverly Hills Cop (Breast) and Ghostbusters (Reitman). German keyboardist/record producer Harold Faltermeyer capturing the synth-pop sound of the 1980s with his soundtrack for the movie, including the theme song Axel F which went on to top the pop charts. Composer Elmer Bernstein wins the Oscar for best music with Ghostbusters. The movie’s theme and title track performed by Ray Parker Jr. (IMDb) also wins an Oscar for best original song. Digital synthesizers were also impacting the slightly more avant garde with acclaimed Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense (Demme 1984) being the first movie to use all digital audio techniques in the recording and editing of the film’s soundtrack (Doherty 15). Japanese techno-pop musician Ryuichi Sakamoto of the Yellow Magic Orchestra composed the score for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Oshima 1983) and later for The Last Emperor (Bertolluci 1987). Peter Gabriel has been very prolific in this area with at least five film scores to his credit. Many other rockers have been called on to score mainstream films, Nile Rogers, Eric Clapton, Joe Strummer, Ry Cooder, David Bowie all having successfully tried their hands (Reay 76-7). However, Hickman also notes (387) that one of the downside of the involvement of rock music and musicians in film scores and soundtracks is that often due to commercial pressure a song is chosen for its ability to sell soundtrack albums (OST) that for its suitability within the scene.
In more recent years the trend to use synthesizers has continued. The Matrix’s (Wachowski 1999) synth driven techno score sets the futuristic and dark mood and supports the action scene very effectively (Hickman 435). Techno also features heavily in Run Lola Run (Tkywer 1999) in which the director created his own score using mainly synthesizers. Yet another trend that has been brought about by the introduction of digital synthesizers is that more and more directors are composing music for their films.
Another impact of the advance of digital technologies on film music has been the rise of the disc jockey. If postmodern culture has been defined as the culture of intertextuality, (Reay 115), then surely the DJ and DJ culture is the height of said culture. Mixing musical genres, styles and samples, beats and rhythms to create brand new musical experiences, the disc jockey and DJ inspired and dance driven bands have started to make their mark on film scoring. Using digital CD turntables and mixers, like the top of the line Pioneers CDJ-1000 CD player and the Pioneer DJM-800 mixer, a reasonable skilled DJ can create sounds, beats and moods to match the pace of the action in a film. Belfast DJ David Holmes scored Resurrection Man (Evans 1998) and then was asked by director Steven Soderbergh to score Out of Sight (1998) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001). DJ Paul Oakenfold served as film composer for Swordfish (Sena 2001) and has contributed to several of the Shrek movies (Spinner).
The research shows that digital advances in music have had a profound impact on film making. From a purely economical point of view it is cheaper to score films digitally, however this has lead to the human cost of live orchestra musicians being forced to leave Los Angeles altogether in order to find work elsewhere (Burt 241) the need to hire rehearsal space. Artistically it has allowed directors to employ a much wider palette of sound to score a scene; composers have enjoyed a greater opportunity for expression and experimentation with a larger world of available sounds at their fingertips. The relative ease and inexpense of digital music technology has allowed filmmakers to compose their own scores and incidental music, as well as inspiring musicians to ‘compose’ and produce films.
However, the socio-political impact of digital music in movies is a lot more difficult to quantify as it is true that there is: “nothing to indicate that significant developments in technology have not been accommodated by pre-existing social formations” (Willis 21). The message is in the film itself and not in the technology that goes it produce it, the average movie going public is interested in the product and wants the ‘song’ to fit the scene and possibly enjoy it for its artistic merit because: “At the end of the day people don’t care about technology, just the services they provide” (Watkinson 1).
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A Clockwork Orange. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Bros., 1971.
Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola. Doetraope Studios,1979.
Beverly Hills Cop. Martin Breast. Paramount, 1984.
Blade Runner. Ridely Scott. The Ladd Company, 1982.
Boyz n the hood. John Singleton. Columbia Pictures, 1991.
Catch-22. Mike Nichols. Filmway Productions, 1970.
Chariots of Fire. Hugh Hudson. Enigma, 1981.
Forbidden Planet. Fred M. Wilcox. MGM, 1956.
Ghostbusters. Ivan Reitman. Black Rhino Productions, 1984.
M*A*S*H. Robert Altman. Aspen Productions, 1970.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Nagisa Oshima. Ashai National Broadcast Comapany, 1983.
Rear Window. Alfred Hitchcock. Revolution Films. Paramount Pictures, 1954.
Resurrection Man. Marc Evans. Revolution Films, 1998.
Run Lola Run. Tom Tkywer. X-Filme Creative Pool, 1999.
Shrek. Andrew Adamson. DreamWorks Animation, 2001.
Spellbound. Alfred Hitchcock. Vanguard Films, 1945.
Stop Making Sense. Jonathan Demme. MTV, 1984.
Swordfish. Dominic Sena. Jonathan Krane Group, 2001.
The Last Emperor. Bernardo Bertolluci. Yanco Films, 1987
The Lost Weekend. Billy Wilder. Paramount Pictures, 1945.
The Matrix. Wachowski Brothers. Groucho II Films, 1999.
The Wire. David Simon. Blow Deadline Productions, 2002.
Tron Stephen Lisberger. Lisberger/Kushner, 1982