By J. Louise Makary
Ryan M. Todd (aka Darklord Disco) records his Il Suono Scuro mixes using snippets of synthesizer-based soundtracks from as wide a range of films as Halloween, Suspiria, A Clockwork Orange, and Crocodile Dundee. On October 29, 2014, he’ll lead a live podcast as part of Universal Cave’s ongoing “Cave Cast” series, seasonally sited at the Hamilton Mansion at Woodlands Cemetery. This Cave Cast will cover the rapid evolution of electronic music in film of the late 20th century, with a focus on horror soundtracks.
J. Louise Makary: What time period are you most interested in?
Ryan M. Todd: I’m most interested in what I’d consider to be the “golden age” of synth-y soundtracks, which is loosely defined as the mid-’70s to the early ’80s, a sweet spot in cult film and music production history. As synthesizers became smaller and more affordable, music became cheaper, faster, and easier to produce, which was attractive for films with shoestring budgets. There was a sort of perfect storm in the late ’70s, when the electronic soundtrack rose from cult obscurity to something massive, and Giorgio Moroder won an Academy Award for his score for Midnight Express (1978).
JLM: At a certain point, did synthesized music in films lose something, making you less interested in it, or did filmmakers just stop using these instruments?
RMT: Somewhere in the mid-’80s, there was a major shift towards FM and digital synthesizers and MIDI-controlled programming. There were also greater possibilities for multi-tracking than ever before. Instead of being forced to do more with less, producers could now do more with more—or in many cases, less with more. The industry around the films also began to fall apart due to rising costs and shrinking audiences. A movie like Halloween cost $300,000 to make in 1978 and soared past cult classic status into international blockbuster status. By 1988, Halloween 4 cost approximately $5,000,000 to produce, and was immeasurably worse. The thrill had vanished and the entire genre just crumbled.
JLM: In terms of tone and mood, what are the sonic advantages of using synthesizer music? In your opinion, do these instruments offer something unique (or even better) than traditional soundtrack instrumentation for horror and suspense films?
RMT: The biggest advantage is that composers were able to write, perform, and record the music themselves. Instead of having to conduct hired musicians, the composers could just plop in front of an ARP Omni or a Roland RS-09 and do it on their own. John Carpenter, who directed Halloween (1978) and Christine (1983), among other films, also composed many of his soundtracks. He and engineer and programmer Alan Howarth could crank out exactly what kind of music he had in mind for a particular scene. The score for Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) was completed in just three days this way. In terms of tone or mood, the synthesizers’ limitations were both their biggest advantage and their biggest drawback.
JLM: What are some of their limitations?
RMT: The synthesizers of that era could not accurately replicate real-life acoustic instruments. The sounds were a cold, harsh, and distant simulacrum. So there was a quality to the music, a certain rawness that made it stand out in stark contrast against traditional film scores that featured philharmonic orchestras.
JLM: In your opinion, what differentiates something like a Giorgio Moroder or Wendy Carlos score from the soundtrack of a B movie or camp film?
RMT: Composers like Wendy Carlos were able to do so much with so little. But even composers with less technical skill were able to pull off great soundtracks. All you had to do was hold down a dissonant chord on a Prophet 5, run it through a phaser effect, and boom – instant tension-builder. I’m half-joking, but it’s true.
There’s no denying Moroder’s absurd level of meticulousness and technical genius in the studio, but sometimes it feels like there’s not a huge gulf of difference between the Academy Award−winning soundtracks and the B-movie bedroom recordings.
JLM: How did you start compiling horror mixes? These days where do you find most of your material?
RMT: During high school and college, my friends and I would rent films on VHS from the local video store, which had a pretty comprehensive cult/sci-fi/horror selection. We would rent whatever had the coolest-looking cover, two or three movies at a time. The movies were almost always terrible, but sometimes the music was stellar.
After watching George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), I knew I had to have more. It wasn’t until eBay came into the picture that I was able to start collecting. The Dawn of the Dead LP was one of the first things I ever bought online, followed by Suspiria (1977). These days I mostly buy from Discogs.com, due to the scarcity of what I’m after.
JLM: How do you devise the arc of the mix?
RMT: Friend and Universal Cave label-mate Shawn Ryan and I pour over the selections and try to create a mini-narrative. It has to have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and it has to ebb and flow. I specifically search for tracks that provide moments of tension, calm, or even levity. I never stay in the same tempo range for longer than two or three songs, which helps to keep the flow interesting. I think that’s what makes the Il Suono Scuro series re-listenable.
JLM: What does this sourcing and repurposing do for you as a creative/maker/artist?
RMT: I look at it almost like sampling in music production: using bits and pieces of another artist’s work to create a larger composition that can be enjoyed on its own. Instead of taking an 8-second drum break to make a 6-minute song, I’m taking full songs from an original score, and making a 45-minute soundtrack of my own.
JLM: What are some of the best discoveries you’ve made in this genre? Who are the names everyone should know?
RMT: My best find might be an original copy of Shogun Assassin (1980), which came out of a dollar bin in Virginia. I’ll touch on some more obscure, but important, composers during my Cave Cast, but here’s a short list that everybody should check out: Wendy Carlos, John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, Goblin, Ennio Morricone, Lalo Schifrin, and Tangerine Dream.
JLM: What’s happening now with electronic music in films?
RMT: There are a lot of exciting things happening, currently. Trent Reznor’s unsettling score for Gone Girl (2014) was excellent, as was Steve Moore’s work on The Guest (2014). The trick is to not rehash the past, but pay homage while moving forward.
J. Louise Makary is an artist and writer based in Philadelphia.