If you have seen Finding Dory, Bridge of Spies, The Help, The Adjustment Bureau, Revolutionary Road, The Salton Sea, The Legend of the Mummy (1998 version) or any of a dozen other movies, you have heard the work of guitarist Rick Cox. Though his guitar might be prominently featured you might not recognize it as such because, more often than not, Cox employs the instrument solely as a sound generator, to be sliced, diced, and reverbed beyond all recognition.
Early on, Cox had the sole composer credit on a few films, including Corrina, Corrina, starring Whoopie Goldberg, but soon realized he hated dealing with contracts and deadlines. Since then, he has largely added his distinctive textures to soundtracks created by others, including the highly successful Thomas Newman.
“These days, we work at Thomas’ home studio, in a house next to the one where he lives,” Cox explains. “He has a studio room with a big monitor and all the gear he needs to compose. Down a flight of stairs, there is a ‘live’ room where I have a rig set up.”
This rig includes a laptop with an Arturia Audio Fuse interface, an Electro-Harmonix Superego, a Red Panda Particle pedal, and a volume pedal. “I am also into slow-attack pedals,” he says “I use a really cheap Mooer version with one dial, the Slow Engine. It is the best one I found so far.”
Often, Cox will hold a chord with the Superego and then process it with plug-ins. Crucial to controlling his sounds is the inexpensive Korg Nanokontrol. He uses the eight sliders to regulate the first eight audio or MIDI tracks, two of the knobs for two more tracks and the remaining six for effects returns. “It’s really fast,” he says. “You don’t hear the original signal; I have effects that I bring in and out with the knobs. That’s where the playing comes in, more so than strumming the guitar.”
These effects are largely plug-ins such as the Zynaptiq reverbs Adaptiverb and Wormhole (“I hesitate to even call Adaptiverb a reverb because it colors the sound so much it is almost like an instrument”); and granular effects such as New Sonic Arts’ Granite and SampleSumo’s SaltyGrain. Another current fave plug-in is Sugar Bytes Turnado, in which eight different effects can be run simultaneously (see Fig. 1).
“Sometimes, I will record guitar chords using my voicings, convert them to MIDI using either Ableton or Melodyne, then play them with a keyboard,” Cox says. He eschews sample libraries in favor of making his own samples. “I will use Ableton as a scratch pad to record dozens of unrelated ideas, then go to one of these Ableton sessions and open the file of recorded samples and audition them. For each movie we discuss the ‘sound palette’ for that particular film.
“I worked with Ry Cooder in the late ’90s. He had a completely different approach from Thom,” Cox recalls. “Ry would stripe an entire 2” reel of tape and improvise to the film. What made it easier was that director Walter Hill was there the whole time. That eliminated the issue of a composer writing something and the director not liking it. We would be at Ocean Way studios six days a week for three months. I played a lot of ‘sponge’ guitar, where you finger standard chords but instead of using a pick, you rub the strings with a really fine-grained sponge, or foam. It produces a beautiful wash, especially if you run it through some reverb and delay.”
Cox’s latest project with Newman’s is a new series for Hulu called Castle Rock based on Stephen King stories. “Thomas is composing music for the main title and a couple of episodes,” he says. “I have started going through old samples. I am just trying to put evocative sounds together. As a composer and performer of experimental music, I never expected to make any money from it.”