SURVIVE and the Music for 'Stranger Things'

How two synthesists from Austin ended up scoring one of TV's hottest shows
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In what could only be described as a composing musician’s dream scenario, synthesists Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon went from playing in a local experimental synth band in Austin, Texas, to scoring what would become one of the most notable new TV shows of 2016: Stranger Things. Even sweeter, the notoriety the composers have gotten from their work on the show has heightened the anticipation for RR7349, the new album by their band, SURVIVE, which just dropped at the end of September.

That Stein and Dixon got the Stranger Things gig, and thrived at scoring a TV show when they had virtually no experience doing so, is pretty remarkable. But it shows that with hard work, talent, and a little luck, great things do sometimes happen for musicians.

ONLINE AND ONSCREEN

The guys in SURVIVE—which also includes synthesists Adam Jones and Mark Donica—were all from Dallas originally, and all moved to Austin after college. Stein and Dixon have known each other since they were 14. “We kind of grew up listening to the same music,” Dixon says, “sharing stuff like a lot of 2000s electronic stuff, late-’90s records, Re-Flex, Warp, things like that.”

“Basically, the band formed after Kyle and I started talking again after college,” Stein recalls. “When he was in college, we’d always listen to music together, but I’d been getting into synths and modular stuff quite a bit by that time. Like building a 5U modular.”

Prior to Stranger Things, SURVIVE was well known on the Austin synth scene, but wasn’t a household word elsewhere. In 2012, one music website referred to them as “The most spectacular synth band you’ve never heard.”

Stein, Dixon, Jones, and Donica were all plugging away, composing and releasing music and playing shows, and working day jobs to make ends meet. One of their tunes had been licensed for a 2014 film called The Guest, when the director had discovered it on iTunes. Although that was a nice credit, it didn’t materially alter their situation.

But July 4th of 2015, everything changed for Stein and Dixon. Out of the blue, they received an email from Matt and Ross Duffer (aka “The Duffer Brothers) who were directing a new Netflix sci-fi/horror series. Would they like an opportunity to compete for the scoring gig?

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“Immediately, we were like, ‘Christmas in July!’” says Stein.

“We saw the words Netflix and Winona Ryder and we were like, ‘Yeah, I think so,’” Dixon recalls with a laugh. “We spent the evening rounding up Dropbox links to unreleased stuff, and sent over like 50 tracks on the Fourth of July to the Duffers.”

Although they never found out for certain, Stein and Dixon suspect that it was their song in The Guest that attracted the attention of the Duffers. “They said they think they heard us on Spotify,” recalls Stein, “but it was probably word of mouth from The Guest. That was the most exposure. I’m sure they saw that movie and maybe got the soundtrack, and maybe word of mouth. Nobody really knows.”

GETTING THERE

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But while this unexpected opportunity was incredibly exciting, they had to hold back on their celebrating, because there were other composers in the running for the composing gig. “It was this weird month-and-half period of being really excited, but trying not to get too excited because we’d be let down, if we didn’t get it,” recalls Dixon. “But then we did, and it was awesome. I was like, ‘F*ck it, I’m quitting my job and I’m going to do this. I’m going to try it. I have enough savings to get me through this project, until it starts paying, and this is always what I’ve wanted to do.’”

When Stein and Dixon got involved in the project, no episodes had yet been shot. “We got a couple of scripts—they’d only written three-and-a-half episodes when they first brought us in, so we read scripts,” says Stein. “We read character descriptions. They gave us ideas about climactic moments that would happen. We kind of brainstormed and just started writing concepts.”

“At some point in the season,” Dixon says, “somebody’s going to get sad, or they’re going to get scared, or they’re going to be running away from something, or they’re going to be happy, whatever. So we would just write some general stuff for those kinds of moods, and/or some characters. Like try to come up with themes for the characters. So there was that, combined with some preexisting recordings from our library. The Duffer Brothers had quite a bit of our music to start with, going into shooting.”

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WORKFLOWS

Both Dixon and Stein have their own studios, and work together by sending files back and forth. Working in a collaborative composing situation is a real plus, according to Stein. “In the early stage, we could send each other a video with a score: ‘Okay, what do you think of that?’”

Once the tracks are laid down, Stein handles the mixing. “Kyle trusts me,” he says, “I’m a lot pickier about mixes and stuff. If it’s good with me, it’s probably good.”

Both composers use Akai MPCs to sequence. The MPCs drive their collections of analog synths, which then get recorded into Logic. “We both tend to sketch on the MPC,” says Stein, “because it interconnects with our hardware easier.”

When asked whether they find themselves limited by the MPC’s sequencing capabilities, when compared to those of a DAW, they both said no. “I don’t really see that as an issue,” Dixon says. “I like committing,” Stein says. “It’s rewarding, too. It kind of forces you to make decisions.”

HITTING IT OFF

Of the two composers, only Stein had done any scoring before Stranger Things, and it wasn’t much. “I did score a one-off shot in school,” he says, “to a movie that was not good. And I was like, ‘That’s not fun.’”

They had to adapt quickly to working with picture, under constant deadline pressure. “There was definitely a lot of, ‘We need to it build up here and we need it to calm down here,’” Dixon says. “There were a lot of marks to hit. Even if they were using something from the library, like something that’s was already done, a lot of times we’d have to do things to hit those marks. Even if was as simple as filtering something down, or putting delay on it or whatever.”

As is typical in a film scoring situation, the picture was constantly changing. Even after they’d already written music for a particular scene, they often had to revise it to fit the changed video. “Lots of revisions and cuts and things that you wouldn’t typically find musical,” is how Stein describes what they had to deal with. “You find ways to make it work,” he says, “Do little tricks, figure it out.”

What kind of tricks? “There’s this faux drop in the opening scene,” Stein explains. “So you break the beat and you don’t know where the downbeat is anymore, and you can extend things, or come in on an upbeat or in the middle of a bar. There are ways you can kind of trick it. You don’t really notice. You can do little things like that. And since it wasn’t really heavily beat-driven, it was nice. A lot of scores, you’ll hear really polyrhythmic patterns and things, too, in the percussion section. Or like strange timings on top of each other. When you do it that loose, or don’t have a driving beat, you can kind of get away from some of the predictable down beats.”

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SYNTH HEAVEN

The electronic textures that Stein and Dixon created for the Stranger Things score required many different synths.

“I used the [Dave Smith Instruments] Prophet 6 a lot,” Dixon says, “Michael ended up getting one, too, I don’t know if it was halfway through or when it was. But after he saw mine and played with it, he said, ‘Shit, I need to get one of those.’ [Laughs] We used a lot of [Dave Smith Instruments] Prophet 6, but we also used a lot of ARP. Michael got an ARP 2600 that did a lot of cue stuff. I got an ARP Avatar, an Odyssey, and a Solus. We did use a decent amount of modular synths, like Eurorack stuff or 5Us on it as well. That was helpful for a lot of the weirder parts, towards the end [of the season].”

Stein says Stranger Things required quite a bit of sound design. “For a lot of the sound design, I go straight to the ARP,” he says, “so I can do something really complex and modular sounding, really quick. And I’ll make a patch note on how to recall it. I use the Prophet VS for pads and a lot of vocally weird tones and pretty stuff. It’s got really smooth filters; it just sounds very melodic. Another goto: the Prophet 5 and Prophet 6. If I listed all the synths that we used on the main theme, you’d be like ‘What?’ There’s anything from Jupiter-8 and Mellotron, and just crazy sh*t on there.”

One of the more memorable scenes in Stranger Things is one in which Winona Ryder’s character has setup a huge array of Christmas lights in her house hoping that her missing son will be able to communicate from wherever he disappeared to, by blinking them. “There was music there. It was kind of angelic, mysterious, melodic,” Stein recalls. “I think it’s mostly Prophet 6 and plug-ins. We embrace a lot of modern stuff, as well.”

“When we do use soft synths,” says Dixon, “it’s to get sounds that we can’t get from the analog stuff. So we’re never going to make something with the soft synth that’s supposed to sound like an old Moog bass or whatever.”

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There was one soft synth that both Stein and Dixon brought up immediately: “PPG came out with this crazy synth called Phonem,” Dixon says. “It’s a completely different type of synthesis. It’s based off what are called ‘phonemes,’ which are like syllables—like an ‘ah’ or an ‘ooh.” Just different sounds that a mouth can make. And you can basically tie that in and you can make sounds with it. It’s really weird.”

Stein says they often use plug-in processors, for example the plug-ins in the Sound Toys collection, to change the character of sounds. “They have the Crystallizer plug-in that’s really effective to get the crystal echoes,” Stein says.

SURVIVING AND THRIVING

The high profile achieved by Stein and Dixon from scoring season one of Stranger Things, has helped bring a lot more focus to SURVIVE’s music, and its new album. In the band, there are four members all contributing material and ideas, so the dynamic and music is somewhat different, although the emphasis on analog synthesis is just as strong.

Stein says the SURVIVE music is, “a lot more direct, with things being driven by drums, and kind of more standard arrangements,” compared to the score for Stranger Things.

“It’s generally darker,” adds Dixon, when asked about SURVIVE’s new album. “A lot of the kids-related things in Stranger Things, we wouldn’t have done something that happy in SURVIVE. But I think it’s similar enough that people that like the Stranger Things score will also like the album.”

As for the future, it doesn’t sound as if Stein and Dixon plan to rest on their laurels. They’re talking to the Duffers about season two. “We’re also hoping to do a feature,” says Stein, “and get into that world. Get the band doing projects. Really engulf ourselves in TV, film, and another album.”

Mike Levine is a composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist from the New York area.