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Synth soundtracks – the OFFICIAL SampleNerd  lowdown: part III

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Welcome Synth soundtracks – the OFFICIAL SampleNerd  lowdown: part III!  We are half way through this catalogue of the greatest synth soundtracks as cited by; and Red

Let’s go!

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Image shows the film cover for the 1986 motion picture Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  From the article: Synth soundtracks - the OFFICIAL SampleNerd lowdown: part III by

Year: 1986

Score: Ira Newborn

Verdict: The only film in this comprehensive series to feature an in picture sampler.  The big blue love machine, that is the Emulator II! 

And for those Sampler fans reading this, the big ol’ 5.25 floppy disk that Ferris uses is the Optical Media International library Vol. 2 FX, Human Vocal: Sick day.  

Speaking of samples, the Yello track Oh Yeah which was made famous by this film, reappears in another 1980’s classic: The Secret of my Success. Which respected reviewer Roger Ebert called “a movie made with expediency about expedient people,” whether you agree or not, it follows in Part IV of this series.

Multi-instrumentalist Ira Newson isn’t necessarily a name that first comes to mind when talking of film composers. Usually picking the ‘big guns’ such as Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer.   But perhaps we should.  A stalwart of the comic genre – in particular John Hughes’ films, he composed the scores to planes, trains and automobiles; Ace Ventura – pet detective, Weird Science and The Breakfast Club.

Newborn, aside from films has also worked on commercials; Broadway and contributed to albums by Diana Ross; Ray Charles and Billy Joel.

Not exactly synth-laden, which led me to wonder why it was included in the list, and although not officially released at the objection of John Hughes, it did all the same see an independent release by La La Land Records in 2016 at a limited run of 5,000 units.

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The Social Network

Image shows the film cover for the 2010 motion picture The Social Network. From the article: Synth soundtracks - the OFFICIAL SampleNerd lowdown: part III by

Year: 2010

Score: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

Verdict: Moderately paced and fairly gentle, the score to David Fincher’s story about revenge turned into enterprise is like other films in this catalogue a distinct departure from the music the composer is usually most famous for. 

The elective use of a simple three note melody at the beginning gently submerges us into the film narrative.  With muted electronic drums, pads and the occasional modular vibes, I entertained the idea of Clint Mansell and Reznor / Ross swopping films to see what would come out!

Grieg’s incidental piece, In the Hall of the Mountain King marks a surprising but welcome diversion. And Pieces From The Whole reminded me of the CASIO or Yamaha ‘home keyboards’ we’d get as kids for Christmas. But a simple sound used for a simple but quality melody can be just, if not more effective.

Generally harder tonally in the second half, we find a more openly expressive second half; and perhaps a confessedly happier one as we appoach the conclusion of the film.  

Although the score is fairly minimalist throughout, there are a couple of hidden features to it.  Like the Morse Code that the composers Easter-egged into the score which reads “Parker and Mark” for In Motion. And the eerie sound you hear in Every Night (?) is actually a dropped piano, sampled. I hope the piano is now alright 🙏. 

Winning at the 83rd Academy Awards for best original score Reznor said “the entire process has been challenging and truly enjoyable”.

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The Fog

Image shows the film cover for the 1980 motion picture The Fog.  From the article: Synth soundtracks - the OFFICIAL SampleNerd lowdown: part III by

Year: 1980

Score: John Carpenter

Verdict: Carpenter’s third entry on this comprehensive list, The Fog, an original story of a town on the 100th anniversary of its founding learns that it is cursed!  The movie has a wide sonic canvas.   From easy listening (courtesy of the radio host),  synthesisers and Carpenter uses many of the locations natural elements to good effect.

Carpenter goes for much more ambient single key melodies in The Fog, less than the big soundtrack work of Big Trouble in Little China or Escape from New York. And for this supernatural movie it works very well. 

I sometimes got the impression that John Carpenter just stood in front of a synthesiser and hit record.  There’s something very unfussy about it. Which is a good thing.

Ramping up for the closing 20 minutes, we see the towns inhabitants try and avoid the killer fog at the direction of the brave radio host all alone in the solitary light house!

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Image shows the film cover for the 1982 motion picture Bladerunner.  From the article: Synth soundtracks - the OFFICIAL SampleNerd lowdown: part III by

Year: 1982

Score: Vangelis

Verdict: This final Cut version that I watched sees Deckard once again enter the treeless dystopia, but with reincluded violence and more unicorn.

The strains of the now legendary CS-80 feature early on. But – as you probably know, the score is not all reverberated strings to the nth degree. Harp, piano and sax also feature during more reflective scenes as well as a vocal appearance by Denis Roussos.

Other instruments from Vangelis’s Nemo studios to make an appearance, are the Prophet 10; Emulator I; Jupiter 4 and the super rare Yamaha GS-1 FM synth.

The film evokes a noir quality with its frequent jazz like overtones and dark hidden recesses befitting a man on a professional made personal quest. It is culturally cacophonous, presenting a dystopian melting pot of rain- soaked markets pervaded over by god-like technology, where lighting seems to be at an all time premium!

For example the bar scene music struck me as a cross between the otherworldliness of Banco de Gaia and a Turkish bazaar.

For all its groundbreaking production. Which indeed it was way back in 82; the film portrays at its core fairly standard cinematic themes, of love, ambition, betrayal and hope.

Ridley Scott inspired in a similar way to how Judas Priest were when formulating their sound, said of the films atmospheric direction:

There were steelworks adjacent to West Hartlepool, so everyday I’d be going through them, and thinking they’re kind of magnificent, beautiful, winter or summer, and the darker and more ominous it got, the more interesting it got.

The Daily Telegraph

Technological trappings aside, I think the film would make an excellent play. The BBC did actually produce a radio play adaptation from Dick’s original book starring James Purefoy in 2014.

The ending theme a dramatic conclusion to the film, with sweeping strings, Timp and brass hits over a snared arpeggiated melody.

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Midnight Express

Image shows the film cover for the 1978 motion picture Midnight Express.  From the article: Synth soundtracks - the OFFICIAL SampleNerd lowdown: part III by

Year: 1978

Score: Giorgio Moroder

Verdict: After watching The Fog for this series, I fancied some light entertainment so with that Midnight Express came next!  The early hide and seek sequence offered an immediately recognizable tune by the name of Chase.  I hadn’t realized that it was from this movie.  Incidentally, Moroder won the Academy Award for this film and Chase was released as a single.

A cautionary tale if ever there was one, our synth pioneer builds a reflective singular melody whilst our protagonist marks his first year in conditions that would make your worst holiday nightmare look welcoming.

The phaser accompanied piano marks Loves Theme which I remember liking as a kid.  An interlude of more traditional movie scoring.

The second half of the film sees our young protagonist endure his most challenging experiences yet, overlayed sporadically with low held notes and upper solitary accompaniment.

The close of the film brings us a theme that rather signalling any kind of victory, says quite simply: “it’s over.” There is no joy in it. Just closure. 

In conclusion, there was a tendency I thought to let melodies sit in the film narrative, rather than the attempt to re-engage the listener every 10 minutes like so many films seem to want to do today.  It allows the audience to experience what they are watching and personally, I prefer this approach.

Image credit: Sony pictures

Big Trouble in Little China

Year: 1986

Score: John Carpenter

Recorded at Electric Melody Studios in Glendale California with Alan Howarth the score complements the action, fantasy and comedic elements of the story.

Verdict: A soundtrack to so many childhoods, so I’d better be careful! But I don’t really have to be.  I love this score.  It is unabashedly catchy in places, and is as fantastical as the movie itself.

With the scores comparably (by today’s standards) unpolished production, which in my opinion makes it all the better, John Carpenter shows once again that a ‘just go for it’ attitude if done well, is a reliable winning formula.

Carpenter said he wanted to avoid the “rinky tink chop suey” music that was so prevalent in American movies featuring Chinese characters. Opting for synthesizers with a slab of rock and roll thrown in instead.

To my mind, the most accomplished of Carpenters scores. He created solid mythical melodies for this thoroughly escapist yarn through San Francisco’s Chinatown. With wizards; martial arts; yearning that spans the centuries and the bravado of an all American trucker, this movie is surely one of the greatest childhood movies of all time. 

Recorded at Electric Melody Studios in Glendale California with Alan Howarth, the score complements the action, fantasy and comedic elements of the story.

Perhaps one of the reasons it is so good is because there is nothing fussy about Carpenters soundtracks.  And nothing that comes across over-produced.  Whether it’s in the OST production or it is just Carpenters style there is a certain immediacy to his work.

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