Charlie Clouser - EMusician

Charlie Clouser

From Nine Inch Nails to the 'Saw' series: mastering the darker side of sound design
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High above the Hollywood Hills, I drove to visit award-winning composer, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and remixer Charlie Clouser. Clouser is best known as the keyboard player in Nine Inch Nails and some may know him as remixer for Rob Zombie, but increasingly people are getting to know him as the composer for soundtracks to such notable television programs and films as Wayward Pines, American Horror Story, and the Saw franchise.

As I came to find out, Clouser is a very visual composer—an “aural painter” of sorts.

I sat down with Clouser at his home studio—an impressive musical mad scientist’s laboratory outfitted with racks of recording gear, a Haken Continuum, and a wall of Eurorack modules—where we spent the afternoon talking about everything from contemporary minimalist composers to the one kick drum sample he’s been using for more than 20 years.

Many people know you from your time with Nine Inch Nails. How did that prepare you for a career as a composer?

Now, that’s where I really increased my skills for sound design, programming, and elaborate sound abuse! Clearly, the Nine Inch Nails camp is very forward thinking in terms of manipulating sounds, working with samples, distorting things, and so forth. So that definitely increased my vocabulary from the sound design and programming standpoint. But compositionally, it’s very different. Scoring to picture, where the roadmap of what’s going to happen and how long things are is often completely arbitrary compared to a pop song where you might have an intro, a middle section, and a chorus, and so forth, so the Nine Inch Nails era for me was more about growing my skills designing sounds and working with the technology.

“The Nine Inch Nails era for me was more about growing my skills, designing sounds and working with the technology.”You’ve been in the business for more than 20 years. How has technology changed the way you compose, not just technically but artistically?

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When I was studying electronic music in college, it was before even MIDI existed. So in those days, electronic music meant a giant ARP modular synth, some reel-to-reel tape machines, maybe a spring reverb unit. I’m glad I started on that kind of crude technology because it was obviously much more difficult to get the desired results and you weren’t lured into a false sense of security by fantastic-sounding sample libraries. I do find myself using many techniques and sounds that go way back in my history. I still have a kick drum sample I use on just about every scoring cue: It’s just a little piece of data I use, like a comfy old ragged T-shirt I like to roll out. I know how it’s going to behave, what it sounds like in big theaters or on small TV speakers.

Do you see an image in your head when you’re composing your own music that may not necessarily be part of a film or TV project? And when you’re scoring, if you don’t have the full brief or any sort of visual, do you feel having a vivid imagination helps or hinders the composition process?

I’ve been fortunate that there have only been a few projects for scoring that I’ve had to start work on before there was some visual to go on. I’ve had better luck in those situations working on melodies, chords, and the actual musical data that’s going to be there instead of focusing on the orchestration. But in terms of what instruments to use and how to orchestrate things and how thick vertically a piece of music needs to be, I have to see the picture. So many times whenever I’ve written sketches based on reading a script, I kind of can get started, but I know that once I see what the pictures look like, I’m going to have to undo much what I did—all the way down to the point to where all I’m keeping is the notes—the printed sheet music, basically. I think of sounds, melodic patterns, and phrases in terms of how they look to me as much as how they sound.

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What’s your favorite film or TV theme or soundtrack of all time?

For classic film scores, my favorites are 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining. Even though a lot of the music in those is from preexisting pieces by composers like Penderecki and Ligeti, they work so well, were just so striking, and have become absolutely iconic to me. As for TV, it would have to be the original Mission: Impossible theme—everything about that theme screams cool, sleek, espionage. The instrument choices, the riffs… you know exactly what the show is going to be about after hearing two bars of that theme.

Can you name a film or show you watched, and thought of the soundtrack, “I would have done that differently”?

I generally have those kinds of thoughts when I’m watching Marvel movies or action films with big, epic orchestral scores. I tend to think they miss a few opportunities for interesting sonics that would pull you into the characters’ heads a little more. Movies these days often seem to have massive-sounding orchestral scores, and sometimes it just feels too forced, like they’re trying a little too hard to have the score be as gigantic as the visual effects. I feel like the biggest movies could benefit from a bit more contrast between big and small, a bit more time spent on musical sound design in the small scenes. One composer who I don’t feel this way about is Harry Greg-son-Williams. His scores always have a tasty mix of slick electronic sound design and orchestration. I’ve never heard one of Harry’s scores and thought, “He really missed the mark on that cue.”

You are best known for your work on darker-themed projects, so I can’t help but wonder what would it sound like if you scored a children’s cartoon.

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I don’t know if I’d have it in me to do a children’s cartoon, but I have done some less dark music. I scored the music to Las Vegas that was on NBC for five or six years.

It was a fun show. In every episode there would be one aspect of it that was a deadly serious suspense/drama/heist kind of thing. But it would also have some lighthearted kind of caper element to it; the guys working in the casino are tracking card counters on the floor, but in order to do it, they have to dress up in a chicken costume and a hot dog costume. There was some wacky music in there—high-speed jazz with goofy bongo solos...so much fun.

Have you ever gotten to a place with the visuals for something you’re scoring and you look up only to see something so frightening is happening that you literally scare yourself and say, “Okay, I have to stop for a second. I’ve got to take a walk”?

More than once. The most memorable one was in the second Saw movie when the girl falls into a pit of used hypodermic syringes and she’s got them stuck all in her arms, thrashing around in this pit, trying to get out. I don’t know how they did the special effects because it wasn’t digital. I don’t know if they were glued to her or stabbed or what, but it was definitely tough to watch.

In what format does a picture arrive for you to score?

These days the picture usually comes to me as a QuickTime movie, usually in h.264 format, and goes into the video slave machine, which is slaved to MIDI Time Code coming from the Logic machine. This video slave computer is running software from Non Lethal Applications, which I helped to design and test.

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To what degree do you record acoustic musicians, as opposed to generating all the sounds yourself?

It’s about eighty/twenty in my favor. I generally play almost everything on my scores, unless there are orchestral instruments involved. Drums were my first instrument, and I also play guitar just well enough to get into trouble, so I can cover a lot of ground right here at my place. Besides the keyboards, synths, and wacky electronics, I use the Haken Continuum to give me a more organic control over samples and software instruments, so I can take a fairly simple sample-based instrument and give it real-time inflection and some semblance of humanity.

Do you have specific types of sounds you reach for in modeled instruments versus sampled ones? Do you have any go-to ones, and any stories that illustrate why you choose those?

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Despite my history with analog synthesizers and synths in general, these days it seems like those instruments are playing a smaller part in work I’m doing for film and TV. It’s 30 years now I’ve been moving the filter cutoff knob, and after a while, I’m not going to say the thrill is gone, but my thirst for new sounds has led me in other directions. I use a lot of bowed metal instruments, like waterphones. And bits of strap metal that can be played with a bow or stroked with a rubber ball to be ethereal but still organic. It’s not R2D2. It’s not bleeps and bloops.

There’s one amazing musician, who I was fortunate to work with: Chas Smith, a pedal steel expert, metal sculptor, and fabricator. He builds the most amazing sculptures, which are musical instruments, using exotic metals like titanium and other aerospace materials that he plays with bows and with mallets. I was able to hook up with him before I did the first Saw movie and was able to record some of his instruments in those movies. Obviously I process them a lot once they’ve been recorded. But having the original DNA of the sound come from an acoustic place is less distracting in the context of a movie score than having some sawtooth waveform that might pull the viewer out of the picture. In terms of modeling type of instruments, I’ve got to give a shout out to these instruments made by Line 6—Line 6 Variax guitars, which I just love. By manipulating them in the editing software and playing the instrument either with a violin bow or an Ebow, you can create sounds that sure don’t sound like a guitar anymore!

In listening to your work, I drew a comparison between the space you leave in your compositions and contemporary classical minimalist composers such as Arvo Part and John Adams. Have they had any influence on your compositions or your process?

I’m not schooled in some of those composers’ work; I didn’t study them in college. But that’s the kind of thing that I prefer and those are the simplistic forms that have some space in between them and room for the story. Obviously if you’re scoring for picture there’s dialog, there’s action. To me, I don’t want to clutter up the listener with too much musical data to interpret. I prefer maximum minimalism. I just want to see the form. I think that definitely is a part of how I approach compositionally too.

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I’d like to speak with you about your work on Wayward Pines, American Horror Story, for which you wrote the theme, and the Saw series. What were the general thematic differences in how you approached Wayward Pines versus for instance, a Saw film?

I tend to categorize sounds and musical phrases as either “indoors,” “outdoors,” or “inside your head”—so big, epic drums and large string sections sound “outdoors” to me, while more processed, murky tones sound “indoors,” and things like dry guitar feedback and glitchy electronics sound like they’re happening “inside your head.” With a Saw film, most of the stuff was “indoors” because the action was all taking place inside claustrophobic spaces like dungeons, trap rooms, that destroyed bathroom in the first movie, etc. For Wayward Pines, some of the score wanted to sound like it was happening inside the main character’s head, as he’s recovering from a traumatic brain injury, so in those scenes there was lots of dry guitar feedback, little glitchy electronics, processed orchestral atonal stuff. Then in the outdoor sections, I unleashed the larger string sections, war drums, and other sounds. Oftentimes, I’ll take my lead from the character’s journey and if they’re in an unhealthy state then I’ll add more “wrong” notes, clashing harmonies, and do things like modulate the root notes... it just feels right to follow the character’s state of mind down and down and down.

Is there one synthesizer or virtual instrument that you would take with you if you were stranded on a desert island?

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Besides obvious samples like EXS24 and Kontakt, I’d have to give it to Omnisphere 2, which is ridiculously full featured. I’m still just scratching the surface, but it’s huge and I love it; it’s so deep and sounds so good that I doubt that I’ll ever get to the bottom of that one, it’s really, really good.

I’d like to talk about your relationship with Moog—specifically, that you appeared in the Bob Moog documentary and composed a piece for the film.

I had always been a huge fan of Bob Moog, having owned a variety of his instruments over the years. I remember going to NAMM and seeing Bob at his booth—the tiny little booth at the time. This was before Moog exploded into the level that they’re at now. It was just three or four people and there’s Bob Moog standing there giving demonstrations of his Moogerfooger pedals and stuff. It was so out of character with the rest of the stuff you see at a NAMM trade show, which is, you know, big giant booths from Roland and Korg etc., and just sort of industry functionaries. I remember thinking, “Here’s the village toymaker and he’s still manning his little toy shop.” When I got to know the man, because I had some involvement with him in my years in Nine Inch Nails getting synths and Theremins from them, I realized he really was a unique character. He thought creative people were like antennas and their receivers were tuned into the frequency of creativity and they were just receiving ideas that were beamed in from the galaxy. He had a very cosmic and abstract view of art and creativity and I remember thinking, “Somebody needs to make a movie about this guy. But I’m not a filmmaker.” I soon found out that such a movie was taking place. I can’t remember how I first got in touch with Ryan Page and Hans Fjellestad, who did the movie, but I offered my involvement and help. We filmed some of the documentary at my old house up in Hollywood. I composed a song that’s used in the movie. I was just happy to contribute in any way I could because he was such a unique and fantastic force in the industry. It’s very gratifying to see the success Moog are having. Between their products, the Bob Moog Foundation, and MoogFest, it’s a hugely warm feeling to know that he wasn’t just an oddball who drifted off into obscurity, but his legacy is growing even after his death.

Any words of wisdom for up-and-coming composers and songwriters who want to get into film and television scoring—in terms of creative process and also the sorts of pieces of gear they should look to as staple tools?

These days, with a copy of Logic and just the included instruments and plug-ins, that’s 90 percent. You’re 90 percent of the way there. In fact, all of the Saw movies and all the TV series that I’ve done were done just using Logic and the included instruments and plug-ins. I used Omnisphere maybe 10 times out of 100, just for one little sound here and there. Ninety nine percent of all the sounds that I’ve ever put into a movie or a TV show have come from EXS24, which comes included for free with Logic. For $200, you can’t go wrong using that as a starting point. Then as you discover limitations, you can expand.

What’s next for you?

I’m looking at a couple of TV series for this season, and possibly a movie. I won’t know about those for a couple more weeks. But, more of the same. I like doing scary movies. I like doing anything where characters are under stress and in trouble. Those seem to be the kind of movies that my musical style and my sound design style work best with, so I’m quite happy to have found a niche in that world, and I think it’s a good place to be.