A Day in the Life of Mark Snow
Some of the most other-worldly sounds on network TV come straight from Mark Snow’s home studio. Join us behind the scenes as we probe the hardware, working methods, and musical goals of the production team responsible for the latest science fiction classic.
Comic books. Conventions. T-shirts. Trading cards. More than a hit TV show, The X-Files has become a way of life for its rabid, loyal followers. X-Philes, we’ll call them, are fast becoming the new Trekkies. And like tribbles, they keep multiplying.
Easy to see why. The X-Files is a well-written, well-produced, well-acted knockout. FBI agents Fox Mulder (portrayed by actor David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) forge weekly into the unexplained, unknown, and unexpected, and their spooky adventures are made all the more scintillating by surreal, ambient musical soundtracks and dynamic sound effects.
While many shows employ full orchestras for the musical soundtrack (see our Jan. ’93 cover story on The Simpsons), The X-Files do it all with one man: Mark Snow. His home studio, tucked away in a tidy Santa Monica, California neighborhood, is a peaceful, inconspicuous contrast to the Hollywood soundstage. It is there where he spins his weekly magic for one of TV’s hottest properties.
KEYBOARD spent an action-packed day onsite with the X-Files crew, watching episode #10 of the ’95/’96 season being whipped into shape. Now it’s your turn to take a peek backstage. First, sit in on a high-level meeting as Mark Snow plays his new score for the show’s producers. Then go one-on-one with each of our six interviewees as they describe the process of writing, recording, and mixing the music and sound effects. Sprinkled throughout are bits of insider information that relate to visual effects, logistics, network guidelines, creative processes, and the like. Buckle up, take a deep breath…here we go.
Act 1: The Meeting
Five of the X-Files’ top brass have joined Mark Snow at his home studio to evaluate this week’s score. Along with Snow, we’re rubbing elbows with creator/executive producer Chris Carter, co-executive producer Howard Gordon, co-producer Paul Rabwin, writer Frank Spotnitz, and sound supervisor Thierry J. Couturier. Today’s meeting is called the Music Playback Session, but for Snow it might as well be the Nail-Biting Session. He’s been cranking away for the past three days on what amounts to 35-plus minutes of music – a major load for a 43-minute show, not counting commercials. If the producers don’t like what they hear, Snow must write, record, and mix new material for that day. Gulp. Here’s how it went…
Monday, 8:30 A.M. Before business, the crew congregates in the kitchen for coffee and conversation. Chris Carter has just flown from an X-Files book signing session in New York. He brings good news: Last week’s show held up surprisingly well against the rival network’s much-publicized Princess Diana interview. High fives are exchanged, and the conversation quickly turns to aliens, lepers, the end of the world, and the like. Major TV executives discussing alien abductions – gotta love it.
9.00. The scene shifts to the backyard studio. Chitchat subsides as Snow, seated in his Synclavier and Macintosh, fires up the first cue. It’s a powerful scene – a mass humanoid execution – and the music is equally powerful: schizophrenic strings meet roof-rattling orchestral hits. All watch, bug-eyed.
9:04. Cue ends. The consensus is “spectacular,” but Carter has reservations about the overall mood. “It’s a bit too triumphant,” he says. “I think it needs something a little darker, more disturbing.” “More minor sustained chords,” adds Gordon, jokingly. Snow takes notes. Meanwhile, Carter and Rabwin discuss darkening the color of a close-up shot. “The leper’s makeup looks a little obvious in that light,” observes Carter. Rabwin grabs his notepad, and agrees to have the scene darkened later that day.
9:08. There’s a minor Synclavier hiccup, but Snow pounces on it and quickly the system is back in sync. As the raw video plays, unaccompanied, Carter speaks out: “I’m assuming there’s some music here. This feels very cue-y to me.” Mark whispers to us, “Whenever there’s a problem with missing music, I’m off the hook.” True, since Snow is uninvolved in the spotting process. (F.Y.I. Spotting is when the show’s music editor views raw footage and decides where music should be placed.) Jeff Charbonneau spots The X-Files; we’ll be hearing from him later.
9:13. The next cue plays. This time the setting is a rundown research lab that’s become a hideout for lepers. Unlike typical TV music that stops and starts from scene to scene, Snow’s music often flows through scene changes, and this cue is no exception. At the end, Carter nods to Snow. Snow nods back. Translation: Two nods equal job well done. Next.
9:20. This cue is particularly long and dramatic. Scully visits the mass grave site with one of the lepers, but when a helicopter suddenly appears overhead, the two scramble into the woods. Tension mounts as a small army of grounds and air commandos bears down. All seems well with Snow’s music until the helicopter buzzes back into the picture, prompting Carter to say, “Whoa. Stop. I like the strings up until the point where the helicopter comes down. Maybe you can let the music go out, let the helicopter take over, then bring it back in.” Snow takes notes. Someone’s beeper goes off, and there’s a brief break in the action. “Did anyone hear the new Beatles song?…”
9:25. The studio phone rings. It’s one of the show’s executives on the line. There’s been a last-minute timing change in the first cue. A discussion breaks out. Snow doesn’t seem too concerned about the pow-pow. “They picked the right cue to change,” he says. It is, after all, the same one that needs a musical makeover anyway.
9:28. The next cue is a barn-burner: Crash! Boom! Bang! Snow’s percussive hits are rattling the walls. In general, there’s not much melodic material to be found in X-Files soundtracks, and purposely so (as you’ll read later in the Chris Carter segment). Says Snow: “Melodic cues happen only once in maybe 30 or so.”
9:32. The music continues, but evolves. During one suspenseful moment, a rattling sound fades in, then out. Snow uses this sample on several occasions during the episode, along with slow, ambient string lines and hollow, icy synth textures. These stark, wet sounds complement the deep black and blue images onscreen.
9:37. Cue ends. “Excellent,” says Carter, nodding. Snow nods back. Phone rings.
9:45. The next cue starts, and it’s another dandy. A train barrels down the tracks with a bomb onboard, and it’s ticking down to blastville. Big, psychotic string crescendos and loud, percussive bangs ring out. Eventually we see a fireball, and Snow’s music takes a sudden left turn from adrenaline to sadness.
9:52. When the cue ends, chatter erupts. Carter gives Snow a nod. Rabwin and Couturier discuss the timing of a certain metallic sound-effect.
9:57. Before departing, Carter makes a proposal to the group. The current tagline that accompanies the main title is: “The Truth is Out There.” Carter suggests it be changed to: “Apology is Policy.” The group seem to like it, and the change is made.
With the meeting over, it’s time to go one-on-one with the team members. Since Chris Carter has a pressing engagement, he’s our first victim.
Act 2: Creator/producer Chris Carter
What led to the hiring of Mark Snow?
When we started, all anyone had seen was the temp score Jeff Charbonneau had put together for the pilot so I, of course, had to go out and get a composer. I ended up interviewing a lot of people, and listening to piles of tapes. Bob Goodwin, who was a friend of Mark’s from way back, suggested I talk to Mark. So I came over here and I liked him very much. I liked his music. I liked his attitude. I liked the fact that he lived so close to me. And so I decided to just push the button with Mark. I think he’ll tell you that I’m very, very hands-on. I get very involved. Even though my music vocabulary is not from a musician’s tongue, I understand how music goes to picture, and how to play emotions. After we did the Pilot, I’d heard the temp score so many times…We’d won with that score, and I think I was afraid to vary too far from it. What Mark did was give me the flavor of the temp, but he gave it his own signature, as well.
Mark told us he had to write and rewrite the theme song several times before you signed off on it.
(Grins.) Yeah, he’d send me things, and I’d say, “No, not like that. More like this.” And he’d send me something, and I’d say, “No, not like that. More like this.” We went through this long process, and he’d send me all kinds of stuff. And then one day – whether or not this had a direct effect – I sent him a Smiths song that had a sort of mournful guitar in it. I think that might have reflected back in our theme. I thought, “This is a great theme,” because first of all, it wasn’t really a melodic, hummable little tune, yet I could image every Boy Scout troop on their camp-out, sitting around the campfire whistling it.
It has a sort of Twilight Zone-type effect.
It does, although it doesn’t have the obvious hook of [sings Twilight Zone hook line] “du-du-dudu, du-du-dudu.” But it had something a little more moody and dark and meandering, and I liked that.
Did you know that was one the minute you heard it?
He sent me three versions of it. When I heard the first one, I thought, “That’s pretty cool.” Then I listened to the next version and thought, “That’s also cool.” Then the third version, “Don’t like that one much.” So I picked up one of those. He remixed it a little bit and we had our theme. Since then, though, it’s been magically easy with Mark because he gets the show. First out, I wanted the music to be real Phillip Glass – minimal, textural, but with those repeating phrases – and Mark steered me a little bit away from that. But he really settled into it.
There certainly is a musical signature from show to show.
Yeah, and I think the stories dictate the way the music should be. You don’t want melodic things. It’s percussive. It’s surreal. Those little phrases he does really make it. There’s a pizzicato thing he does that comes back again and again, and that’s become a sort of signature. And some of the sustains. I think it’s real art to use sustains and make them interesting, because if you sustain it through a long period and it doesn’t have dynamics or whatever, it’s boring. Sometimes you’re not even aware of the music, which I think is really good; it puts you right in the picture. You never say, “Oh, I like that cue,” because it’s driving the story, which is what good music should do.
From a producer’s perspective, what advice do you give readers who aspire to do what Mark Snow is doing?
One thing I like about Mark is: Mark listens. He listens to me, he reads the scripts, he understands that he is in service to an idea, a show, and many other factors. And he does not try to overwhelm that. He knows he can’t shout louder than the other voices. So what he’s become is a wonderful collaborator. If I had to hire someone else, I’d hire someone who, like Mark, has talent to spare, but it’s really about the work. It’s not about the ego. It’s about the music and the picture. What we do is we put pictures on screen with music, and he understands that. Once the two become separated, you’re sunk. It all has to be a wonderful blend.
Looking into your crystal ball, do you foresee a day when the musical direction of this show might take a radical turn?
Maybe. It’ll become dictated by the show. I know there’s an upcoming episode where I want to use Jhachaturian’s “Saber Dance,” – very un-X-Files. And so if we drop that in there, Mark’s going to have to figure out how to tailor what he does so this piece of music doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb. We had an episode this year called “DPO,” now known as “Lightning Boy,” where we used rock songs. We used a Filter song, a Vandals song, and we used a James song, which actually was the inspiration for the whole show. And so, I think Mark had to find things in those songs to carry through the episode.
Are you surprised by the show’s success?
Yes. But at the same time, I’m not blown away by it. Basically, all I want to do – and the other guys will tell you – is to make sure there’s a great show on each week. (Carter is summoned to the car waiting outside.)
Final thoughts before you go?
Whenever I go to the conventions, and whenever I go on-line, people always have questions, comments, or huge compliments paid to Mark about the music. People realize that the music is a major part of this show’s success, equal to many other parts: the writing, the producing, the acting, the photography, the art direction. All these things add up to make The X-Files. The music holds its own. It is of equal weight. God bless him. I’m going to do another project pretty soon, and I’ve already asked Mark to work on that with me because we’ve developed such a rapport.
Can you tell us about it?
Act 3: Composer Mark Snow
Before we dive into The X-Files, tell us what TV work you’ve done leading up to this show.
The longest running one I did before this, and its an odd contrast to The X-Files, was Hart to Hart. That was with an orchestra, live players the whole way. Very traditional, very old-fashioned. I didn’t know anything about Synclaviers or samplers back then.
And here you are today in the thick of technology, doing what might be the coolest, most cutting edge show on the tube.
I’m so lucky. I’ve always wanted to have my own self-contained environment, with all my gear and all of my stuff. To have the ultimate control has always been a dream of mine. My accountant, of all people, is responsible for me getting the Syncalvier. These things are expensive, but at the time, I knew I had to get some type of studio situation going. It was a real stretch financially, but it’s paid off big time. It’s such an elegant piece of gear. Such a simplistic and clean-sounding system. It’s fantastic. And quick, too. Instead of having keyboards all over the place, and patching and pulling and doing, it’s instant. In fact, in this episode that you saw, there are a couple of fixes I have to make. And you can see it with me while I do it, and you can see how it works. (And that’s just what we did. You’ll read about it later.)
We noticed a few other noise-making items in your studio as well.
I just got into the Roland S-760, and that’s a really cool adjunct to all the other MIDI gear I’ve got. It has a fabulous library, and I like the fact that it has a video screen.
When you first started doing The X-Files, was there ever any discussion about using an orchestra?
No. I think Chris Carter was looking for an out-there approach to the music, and luckily for me, Bob Goodwin recommended me to Chris. Chris came here, and auditioned me in a very calm, cool way. In fact, he came back twice.
Did he give you any test cues to write?
No. He just came in, and I showed him some stuff from a project I was working on. It was enough for him to get a sense of the room, and a sense of my ideas, and so forth. Luckily it worked out. A big part of it, too, was the fact that he lived in the Pacific Palisades, and he didn’t want anybody who lived in the Valley.
When the green light was given, what conceptual overview did Chris give to you?
The main thing he wanted was he didn’t want much, if any emotional, melodic music. He basically wanted atmospheric, sustained, moody flavors. Since music is such an abstract, you say that kind of thing to one guy and he’ll do his version of it, and so forth Chris was very concerned that my concept of what he wanted was in line with his. So for the pilot, they took a bunch of music from all kinds of scores, and laid it in – a temp track.
What was your impression of the temp?
I was surprised by two things: There was a ton of music, and there were a lot of short cues with breaks. I thought one of those things would have to go. Either it would be fewer cues, but longer, or less total music. So what evolved from that was the first option: a lot of music – more than would normally be used in a TV show. It has set the tone for this show in a unique way. I mean, there’s sometimes upwards of 40 minutes of music, and the show is only 45 minutes long.
Chris seems to be a very tough customer. He said he was very, very hands-on with you.
Early on, he was really giving on me, giving me all kinds of verbal instructions. My reaction to that, partly, was to be a little inhibited. You know, when somebody’s on your case a lot – and it was very respectful, very constructive – it tends to make you a little gun-shy. “Yikes, I’d better just get it right.” So I was a little inhibited during the first few shows, but then the thing started to grow. We found that we needed more accents. We needed bigger things. Just a constant drone wasn’t going to be good enough. As the show evolved, and I started stretching it and moving around, I got into some melodic stuff. But it was dark. It was gothic. It was moody. I was still keeping with the show, but I stretched it more than the original idea. The original was sort of two-dimensional, and now it’s more three-dimensional.
Once you got a few episodes under your belt, did you consider making any instrumental templates, or stock motifs?
Well, we quickly found a group of sounds and instruments that were pleasing to everyone, and we just kept augmenting those. As I would get new gear or new sounds, I’d throw those in. I think nine times out of ten, he thought that was great. I mean, I’ve done every minute of music for every show so far – and hope I’ll be doing it till the end – but each show has its own sort of theme. Sometimes it’s more cerebral and more thoughtful and introspective, and other times, like the show you just saw, it’s this very big, physical epic with trains and planes and bombs, and the director is all over the place. It’s outdoors. It’s indoors. It’s like a big feature. So all that has to be taken into account. And when is the music sound design, and when is it music?
Backing up a second, you said you found a group of sounds that were pleasing to everyone. What were those?
I think in the beginning there was one thing that he just flipped for, and then we overused that a little bit. There was a sample I have of a huge string orchestra doing this random pizzicato sound. It starts out all quiet and low, and gets louder and faster and higher in pitch. It’s crazy and random, and it seems to work for many, many X-Files scenes. Then there’s another version of that. It’s a live brass group that does the same thing. So you put that with a sustained thing, and it’s very evocative.
Are those types of samples part of your Synclavier library?
Exactly. Also, there are special types of sustained sounds that have become staples of the show. There’s a violin section sound that I’ve used in every show, in one way or another – either dissonant sustained or high, single-line simple melodies. Another big musical staple of the show, if you will, is this pitch-bending sound that slides up or down. Sometimes that’s either a single-note, or a whole cluster of notes.
Is the bend the part of the sample, or do you play those?
I play ’em with the…what do you call it, the mod wheel…the pitch wheel? (Laughs.) A little diversion here. My background is completely acoustic. I was an oboe player. I went to Juilliard. I was going to be a classical musician. This technical stuff, I know as much as I have to know. I can’t compete with most of these guys who know the stuff. It’s not that interesting to me. I just want something that will work really great, really quickly, and sound fantastic. I’ll learn as much as I have to learn, but after that, it’s more about the music.
Walk us through a typical X-Files week in the life of Mark Snow.
The first thing that’ll happen is they’ll send me a VHS rough-cut of the show, and I’ll get to view it and get a sense of what it’s about. No note taking, no nothing. Just watching. Then next the locked 3/4″ [videotape] is sent to me along with spotting notes from our musical editor, Jeff Charbonneau. Jeff is fantastic. He’s done many, many features. He’s a very classy guy, and he’s been on the show from day one. He’s managed to get inside Chris’s head in terms of knowing where music should go. So he spots the show completely by himself. In the beginning, we would spot it together, and it was kind of tedious because we were there with the sound effects guys, and it took forever and you really couldn’t concentrate on one thing or the other. Now he does it by himself. He lives in the neighborhood, which is wonderful, and he sends me the notes. It’s great. The joke about The X-Files spotting is: “Let’s just spot where there isn’t music,” because it’s practically wall-to-wall music.
What happens next?
I get the notes, and what I usually like to do is start with the biggest cue first: either the longest or most involved, which is usually in the last act.
What day of the week is this?
It changes. But let’s just say, for example, over the weekend I’ve watched the rough cut. On Monday I get the 3/4″ tape and the spotting notes, and I can start. I’ll do the writing Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and maybe a little bit on Thursday. On Friday, they’ll come over like they did today, and we mix it, send it out, and get ready for the next one.
During those three composing days, are you usually up all night, cranking away at the cues?
No, no. Absolutely not. I like the early hours. Businessman’s hours. If I’m really pressed for time, I’ll start early, like at around 7:00 or so in the morning, and go until late afternoon or early evening. I like my nights to be free.
Let’s zero in on a cue. You’re watching the video, and I assume your music is entirely inspired by the visuals, as opposed through pre-made motifs and plugging them in.
Exactly. I’ll go for that big fat cue first, and what that accomplishes is, if there’s any kind or musical sound theme, it can be established in that cue. And I know what’s going to be a full gamut of the instruments and sounds. So after that’s done, I’ll have established my palette for the rest of the show. So it’s that first cue that takes the longest, and is the hardest.
How precise do you try to get in terms of accenting visual actions with your music?
I’d say a majority of the music is supportive, sustaining-type sounds. One of the things Chris was very adamant about in the beginning was that there shouldn’t be this Mickey Mouse approach: Somebody does something, somebody says a word, and “Bang!” That’s an old-fashioned, very traditional approach, but I prefer to stay low and choose certain moments for crashing or bashing. That constant sustain and textural sound really got monotonous, so it was important that there were some really great crescendos and accents and percussion things to break up the din of that sustain. There are a lot of false starts in The X-Files. Scully and Mulder are sneaking around rooms, and they quickly make a turn, and there’s nothing there. There’s a lot of that. And the big accents always seem to work well there.
Are punchers or streamers added to your video cut?
No. The Synclavier is synced to the video, but beyond that, no. I choose a tempo for the click, and I play along with it. Sometimes I don’t use the click. Sometimes if I feel it needs something where the tempo isn’t marked (he sings, rigidly, “da-da-dadada”) but more expressive, I’ll just play along with it. I’ll improvise. Lets say I’m dealing with a five minute cue that has three main sections: The first section is all talk, the next section is walking around with no dialogue, the third section is a chase, capture, and smooth out. I’ll approach each section separately at first, then connect them. I’ll fill in the transitions so it will sound smooth – like one piece. What’s happened is, I’ve turned into a first-rate improviser of film music.
(Indeed he has. We watched Snow improvising a cue, and in two one-take passes, he had created a monster. On the first track he’d recorded various swells, accents, and crescendos, on the next he laid down a frantic, Tarkus-like left-hand piano motif.)
Sometimes when I’m improvising, I’ll fall upon something that is so great, I could never repeat it. Never. And hopefully, that red (record) button is on.
Do you sequence with the Macintosh?
Actually, no. The Synclavier is my sequencer. It’s not this major high-powered sequencer, but it’s just great for what I do.
Do you do much touch-up editing to your sequenced tracks?
Not too much. Occasionally I’ll have a note that sounds wrong, and all I’ll have to do is raise it a half-step, or lower it, but otherwise, not much.
If you’re accenting an action with an orchestra hit or whatever, will you nudge the note around in the sequencer until it lines up just right?
No. I’ll keep going back and forth live, real time, until it’s right.
Alf Clausen, composer of The Simpsons, talked about writing cross bar lines. In other words, in film music, the time signature might be changed radically, but to the listener, the music just naturally flows. Do you find yourself thinking mathematically when you’re composing for The X-Files?
God, no. Never. There’s no sense of key, first of all. And there’s definitely no sense of meter. Sometimes there will be a repetitive phrase that will have a sense of 3/4 or 4/4, but in general it’s this nebulous, free-flowing murk.
Your use of rhythm motifs under action sequences is very effective. Do you typically build those patterns yourself, or lay in sampled loops?
They’re usually played note for note. Once in a while I’ll use a loop of African drumming or ethnic third-world stuff, and they’re nice. You can fade them in and out, and even though they’re rhythmic, they become sort of a sustained texture. If there’s one really important thing about the music to this show, it’s contrast. There are many long cues…ten-minute, eleven-minute, nine-minute, eight-minute cues. A lot of the time it’s just people talking, and you have to sustain under it and support it. But you have to do something so it doesn’t sound like wallpaper, like a din of noise. That’s why the things have to be added and subtracted, and percussion has to come in. That’s what separates the good from the great when writing long cues. I mean, there are times when I add crescendos and accents that don’t necessarily appear to be needed, but it heightens a line or a moment – even if there isn’t some big, flailing, bashing fight or chase or something.
When you’re watching a scene, and you’ve identified the feeling that you want to go for, do you think analytically at all? For example, “It’s brooding, so minor chords would go nicely here.” Do you play these types of mental games?
I do, but in big, broad strokes. I never get down to, “Hmm, a major second or a suspended ninth….” Nothing like that. Let’s say mystery or sneaking around or brooding or darkness – that certainly evolves “pathy” music. Very connected. Very gooey. Lugubrious-type sustained things. And I’ll definitely focus into that group. But then I’m always looking for that place where you can perk it with some other color. The worst thing about electronic music or home studio music is the color and the dynamics come out sounding so limited.
Shifting gears for a moment, what happens if you get sick? Do you have a sub who can come in and do the gig for you in a pinch?
Well, luckily, that hasn’t happened. I’ve been sick, but I could always drag myself out to the studio and do it. But failing that, there are hours of continuous music I’ve written [for past episodes] that could be pieced together.
Who would be responsible for selecting the material and laying it in?
The musical editor, Jeff Charbonneau. He’d probably sit with Chris and go through it. There’s so much material to draw from, they could probably get the job done without too much trouble.
Sickness aside, have you ever been stumped – writer’s block?
No, but the hardest part is the beginning, coming up with the right combinations of sounds for a particular piece. Sometimes it’s abstract, and if you ask me why I chose that sound or that instrument, it would be difficult to explain. It just felt right.
What’s the story of writing the theme song?
It’s a fun story. Chris Carter, at the beginning, was inundating me with all kinds of music, from the Smiths and Portishead to Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Third world stuff, you name it. And I did, I’d say, five different passes based on our conversations. Chris was very patient and very encouraging, but every time he’d say, “That’s great, but what if we….” And again, and again.
What did those earlier versions sound like?
They were a lot more conventional, perhaps. Not really melodic.
Did any have a drum groove under them?
Some, yes, but never a drum set. There were percussion things, but there was never any sense of pop or rock. But finally I felt comfortable enough with him to say “We’re getting close, but let’s try something. Let me just go off on my own and completely clear my head of everything we’ve talked about, and everything I’ve done, and see what I can come up with.” Chris respected me enough, thank goodness, to go for it. So, what happened was, I accidentally had one of these delay echo units on, and I played this triplet figure: ****
And the thing kept repeating. And I thought, “That’s pretty good. That’s not a real heavy rhythm, but it’s an evocative sound. Okay, if I put a sustain combination over that, what’s that like? Interesting. Okay, now it needs one final element.” Which was the melody. So I tried it on various instruments: violins, flutes, woodwinds, brass, voices, and combinations of all those things. But they were too damn ordinary. So I tried some ethnic instruments. Too much. Too busy. Not distinctive enough. So, on my [E-mu] Proteus/2, there was this whistle. I thought, “Nah, that’s too silly. But, okay, try it.” I started fiddling around with it, and it started to happen. *****
My wife was walking around, she heard it, and she jumped in and said, “You know, that is cool. It’s different. It’s unique.” And then Chris heard it.
What did he say?
Much to his credit – because it’s kind of a stretch on this show – he liked it. And the more he heard it, the more he liked it. I’ll never forget, though, there was a meeting of executives, producers, and writers, and I played it for them.
They all sat there, staring at each other. And it was, at best, a very cool reception to it. But the same thing happened. The more they heard it…it just started to develop a life of its own. Now it’s been nominated for an Emmy, and the response has been overwhelming.
Act 4: Sound supervisor Thierry J. Couturier
Define your role on The X-Files.
As the sound supervisor, I’m involved in the overall sound design and the sound quality of the show. I get the show after it’s been edited and the picture is locked. At that point I sit with the producers and we go through and talk about production sound problems, ADR, and what kind of sounds, backgrounds and effects we want to hear. The typical sounds of guns and backgrounds and stuff are pretty obvious, but there are so many odd things, aliens or strange people or…So after we discuss the obvious elements, I’ll hand the show off to the dialog editors who work on cleaning up the dialog. I’ll break the show down, program the ADR, and send cue sheets up to the actors in Vancouver and the rest to the actors in L.A.
ADR, Automated Dialog Replacement, is when we replace lines of dialog that need to be redone because the production sound quality was noisy or bad, and when there are added script lines.
Does that type of replacement have to be done often?
Not as much as in the beginning. This is a very hard show to do, technically, because they’re on location a lot or they’re using big wind machines or have production effects happening. Our production sound mixer, Michael Williamson, has been getting better and better at trying to get the dialog as clean as possible under these circumstances.
Who else do you interact with?
There are effects editors who cut the background and effects, and there’s a Foley team: two Foley walkers and a Foley mixer. We completely Foley the whole show.
Do you primarily use the live acoustic Foley, or do you use samples?
Well, a lot of the backgrounds come from material that’s shot live or from libraries. The company I work for is West Productions, and Dave West has accumulated a library of tens of thousands of effects that he’s recorded or created over the years. The editors also bring in materials that they’ve acquired or created. So we draw from existing libraried material, and when we need to, we create or shoot new things.
What format are the effects stored in?
A lot of material is on DATs, 1/4″ tape, and CDs. Some effects were originally shot onto Beta hi-fi, but that’s been transferred to other formats. We haven’t brought in any CD-ROM libraries yet, but we will.
Once you pick up a sound to use, how do you drop it into the soundtrack?
We use a 24-track and the (Tascam) DA-88s to get our effects to the stage. To edit the hard effects we use a WaveFrame sisten, which is, in effect, our sampler. When sound effects are cut on a frame, you don’t usually trigger it from a keyboard, you actually find the place where it starts, you can see it on the screen, and you cut it right there, play it back, manipulate it, and so forth. Then that material is either dumped to DA-88 or onto a 24-track. The dialog is cut on one of the WaveFrame systems, and that stays in the digital domain. The ADR is also shot directly into and edited in the WaveFrame. The ADR and dialog then get put on WaveFrame hard drives on the dubbing stage.
What’s the wackiest or most challenging thing you’ve done to get a sound?
The Gimlet was a sound we were trying to get where an alien knife-like device slides out of a little metal tube and gets stuck in the back of these duplicate aliens who then deflate and turn to mush. So, “What is that sound?” and everyone had a different concept. It came down to, “Make it sound like a silencer.” So we got a couple of silencers, but it still wasn’t right. So finally Paul (Rabwin) said, “Does it sound like this?” (Vocalizes a white-noise sound burst: “pfffft.”) “Yeah, that’s it.” So we shot that in the mic, sucking it and out, and that was it. And that was, literally, six hours of time over a three-day period to get that effect. Another complex one were these wingless mites that would fly and swarm and attack and kill people. We went through bunches of tracks to get each to sound right. It had to be bee-like, and fly-like, it had to have movement, it was electronic, it was humming, it was this, it was that. We kept coming up with different groups of sounds – some played backward, some pitched, mixed with some locusts and wasps and flies buzzing in a jar – and finally we had enough to cut through Mark’s goddamn score. (Laughs.)
How much time do you typically have to prepare an episode?
Usually, we have between four and eight days. The normal turnaround if we get a show on Monday is to dub (mix) it the following Tuesday.
Describe the dubbing process.
After everything is assembled and Mark sends over the music, we go to the stage with separate music tracks, Foley tracks, background tracks, effects tracks, ADR tracks, and dialog tracks. Dave West, Nello Torri, and Doug Turner mix the show. I can’t tell you how much of the wonderful and original nature of our dub was and is created by our mixers. We used to have two days to dub the show, but we went into overtime so much, we decided this year to go to three days. It’s given us the luxury of having the time to see how all the sounds and backgrounds and effects are going to marry with the music, because this show has so much music in it. A typical show has an average of 12 minutes of music for a one-hour show, or 24 minutes for a two-hour movie. The X-Files averages 38 minutes for a one-hour show! And the nature of the music eats up so much of the midrange, it fills up so much sound, that we often have to work sound effects around it. The battle becomes: what do we really want to hear? How much of this? How much of that? What’s not important?” Chris Carter is usually the happiest when the sound effects feel like they’re part of the music. From time to time we hear viewers complain about how loud the music is, but what we’ve tried to do is push the TV sound envelope as far as it will go.
How many tracks do you usually deal with?
On average, anywhere from 65 to 90 tracks. Generally we keep the dialogue down to maybe seven tracks; we try to keep the ADR down to eight tracks, but it can go as high as 14 or 16 when we need it; the effects take between 24 and 32 tracks, more, again, if we need it; and the music will usually come in four to six stereo pairs.
Do you use Surround Sound?
This year we’ve gone to Dolby four-track Surround Sound, which has given us more room in the mix. It’s allowed us to separate things more: left, right, center, surround. Then, when it collapses to two-track stereo, it actually holds up a bit better. In other words, loud, but clear.
Mark Snow’s music is very dynamic. Do you ever worry about sending out signals that might fry the average TV speaker?
Sometimes we play on Auratones to see what the average TV speaker reception will sound like, but what happens on the air, in any case, is when the network sends the signal to the satellite, they chop off everything below 200Hz and everything above 12.5kHz. So the dynamics Mark creates are often diminished by the nature of the broadcast signal. They literally lop off the bottom and top end, which takes out some of the nuances in his music and the dynamics of our dub. But if you hear it here in the studio, it’s, “God, there’s so much range.” If you have your TV connected to your stereo, you can hear a tremendous amount of dynamics that you don’t hear off a 3″ television speaker. But the overall level of balance still translates relatively well to regular TVs.
Act 5: Music editor Jeff Charbonneau
How did you get involved in doing the temp score for The X-Files?
The studio called me and told me to come over and meet Chris Carter, who needed a temporary score for his pilot. So I met with him and we found a style of music he was comfortable with, which was fairly electronic and non-melodic. He wanted to create a soundscape that was sort of based on minimalist music. So I helped him with that, and we ended up with a lot of electronic sounds. He liked electronic music, but he didn’t like “standard” synthesizer sounds, so we found some interesting textures and put together a temporary score.
In other words, the temp was a collage of pre-existing music.
Exactly. It was just an example to sell the idea to the network, and most network people can’t sit through most pilots without hearing the music and sort of effects track, and for good reason. I’ve been doing this on feature films for some time; I come in before the composers and put together temporary scores.
That, of course, evolved into a full-time gig on this show. What are your responsibilities as music editor during a typical production cycle?
What we’ve established is a little different from traditional shows in that I spot the show alone, after which I confer with Mark, and then we present our notes to the producers. If they have any changes, they call up and say, “we think there should be music in this scene and that scene, but not here,” and so on. And, “We want you to specifically accent this action.” We don’t have a lot of time for each episode, and Mark’s an amazingly fast writer. He can sit down and sketch out a ten-minute piece in a day, which is pretty prolific for most composers. From that point, if there’s any other music that needs to be put in – say, a song or source music – I’ll then start working on that. We had an episode earlier this season called “DPO” in which we used a lot of [pre-produced] songs, and they needed to be edited to match the action. So I edit those, and put ’em on video and I’ll give them to the producers. They might say, “We need something here a snare roll, maybe,” and I’ll add those things. From that point, Mark writes the score, and he auditions it for the producers, which I try to stay away from, and that seems to have worked out really well. Generally there are minimal changes at that session. Then he and Larold (Rebhun, mix-meister) put it on DA-88 tape. I get the tape, load it into my editing system, a Fostex Foundation, go through and quality check it, and that goes onto an MO [magneto-optical] drive. I also back it up to DAT, so we have multiple versions of it. From there it goes to the dubbing stage.
Do you ever have to make any last-second changes or additions at the dubbing stage?
Sometimes they’ll ask me to fill in holes, or punctuate something. I have a semi-compatible library with Mark’s, and I use an [E-mu] EIV and a [Yamaha] VL1 to program similar types of effects, and add those. Sometimes I’ll take some of Mark’s existing music and stretch it or compress it, and make it work in scenes where there is no music – things like that. They might ask for an ambient-type drone or some other type of musical effect at the last minute. Most of the time it works out pretty well.
It must be nice to not have to deal with the reams of manuscript paper on this gig. In fact, you guys don’t deal with any notation.
Pretty much, yeah, that’s true. We’ve notated only one thing, and that was the main title – and that was for the Emmys. They needed it for the band, which is funny to me: How do you interpret a digital delay sound for the left hand?
Act 6: Mixer Larold Rebhun
You’ve been slaving away at the mixing desk all afternoon. What are your official job duties?
I’m the scoring mixer. The only main music I don’t mix if there’s a source…like a band who has a record, they just send it in and Jeff Charbonneau takes it. I’ve known Mark for about five years, and I mix most of the stuff he does. He writes to the picture, and puts all the dynamics into the Synclavier, so my job is just getting a balance, and making sure it gets on tape okay. And making sure it sounds good.
Then once you’ve signed off, the dubbing engineers get their hands on it, right?
Yeah. At the dubbing sessions there are three guys. One does the dialog, one does the sound effects, and one guy does the music, and they all make sure everything can be heard. They know what they’re doing, and they now what it takes, but sometimes it’s a drag when you hear this beautiful music and there’s all these helicopters and stuff on top of it. You can’t really hear it on the air, and that’s why a lot of folks have been asking about Mark’s CD.
Although the Synclavier seems to be Mark’s main instrument, he has a bunch of MIDI modules as well. What percentage of sounds usually come from the Synclav versus the MIDI rack?
Mark gets into these modes that change over the course of a couple of months. He just got a new Roland sampler [S-760], so now he’s got three stereo pairs coming out of that. But from my point of view, all of those ix sounds come up on one stereo pair of faders. Today we probably had 14 to 16 Synclavier tracks working, the piano is from an outboard module [Kurzweil MicroPiano], that’s a stereo pair, there’s a low-end thing which his a Proteus/2, and the Roland. That’s pretty much it today. So it was probably ten tracks out of outboard stuff and 14 to 16 tracks of Synclavier.
Listening to the X-Files music, a lot of it seems to be very ambient. On the right is Mark’s effects rack. Do you handle a lot of the effects work?
Yeah, but Mark does a lot of tweaking internally in the Synclavier. So I don’t really add many effects except the reverb. I usually use four effects. I have a really short room which works well on some individual synthy-sounding things; it sounds like a room about 30×30 feet. Then I have a longer reverb, and then a really long reverb for super-effecty stuff. Like, today he had those marcato strings going (sings: “dodo-DO-dododo”), and a long reverb wouldn’t work on that, so I had to dial that back. And then I have a really quick stereo delay for violins, which are mono Synclavier samples. I just turn that up a little bit and it spreads ’em out in stereo – makes it a little wider. Otherwise you’ve got these stereo sounds, and a single mono violin. It doesn’t really blend like a real orchestra should. Those are the only effects I really use.
Were you involved in Mark’s happy delay accident when he was writing the theme song?
No (laughs). In fact, when I was mixing the main title for the first time, I just didn’t get it. It was just weird to me; it took several months before I went, “Oh yeah, that’s pretty cool.” It was an odd thing. I remixed it for the third season, and sonically it’s better, but it’s different because the show’s now in Surround Sound. I put some stereo delays on there, as opposed to the old mono delay, and I think Dolby Surround plays with the level of the delays.
Is Mark’s studio equipped to deal with Surround Sound settings?
They take this stereo mix that we do on the DA-88, and they just pipe it through their matrix. Here, I just didn’t have the cables or the speakers to stick it up the back. But the guys at the dubbing stage really wanted me to monitor through it. I’m trying to be real careful as far as what’s out of phase, and things like that. Occasionally Mark comes up with sound that I know is a little out of phase, but if he’s got a couple of other sounds that are similar, I’ll just stick that in there so there will be something that kind of goes around the room. Sometimes I get complaints from the dubbing guys: “Too much stuff in the Surrounds.” But for people who have the Surround Sound systems, it’s a little something extra for them.
How different is it to mix a TV cue compared to mixing a pop/rock tune?
Well, speed, for one thing. I mean, I can mix this show in three or four hours. Doing rock and roll records, you mix a song a day, or whatever. I have friends who just can’t believe how fast this thing goes. A lot of it has to do with the equipment, and a lot of it has to do with Mark and I knowing each other by now. When we first started working together, I had to put new tape down and re-label the board for every cue. I had to get different EQ….It just took forever. Now he writes in groups, so he’ll tell me, “These four cues use similar sounds,” so I’ll do those. Then I’ll switch over to another set. Other than that, I’m mixing this as if it’s going to be on a CD eventually, which hopefully it will be soon.