Synthesizers In The Movies


Synthesizers in the Movies, embedded below, is an hour-long documentary that looks at the history of synthesizers and electronic instruments being used on film soundtracks. 

The video comes from a three-part BBC documentary series, Sound of Cinema: The Music That Changed The Movies. Composer Neil Brand hosts the series.

The documentary features some great examples of electronic and synthesized film scores. The highlights, though, are the composer interviews and the historic footage of them at work.

Video summary:

Synthesizers In The Movies

Neil tells the story of how the 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet ended up with a groundbreaking electronic score that blurred the line between music and sound effects, and explains why Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds has one of the most effective soundtracks of any of his films – despite having no music. He shows how electronic music crossed over from pop into cinema with Midnight Express and Chariots of Fire, while films like Apocalypse Now pioneered the concept of sound design – that sound effects could be used for storytelling and emotional impact.

Neil tracks down some of the key composers behind these innovations to talk about their work, such as Vangelis (Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner), Carter Burwell (Twilight, No Country for Old Men) and Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream, Moon).

23 thoughts on “Synthesizers In The Movies

    1. Totally nothing to do with an iPad. That’s you projecting your own beliefs and insecurities onto someone else’s content.

    2. “Electronics works at it’s best, when a composer takes it and creates something completely new that we haven’t heard before”

      I appreciate his point, but it’s also laughable. He comments on there being an M1 patch named “film score”, which clearly points out that by this era film scores had a sort of style/content expectation and that it could be boiled down by a crafty programmer into a one-button press expression. YET… to this day I keep hearing the same film score content over and over and over and over. Where are the decades of “something completely new”? Some of the more traditional composers even dig in, to this day, and declare that only symphonies can make good film scores. Yet the majority of them are producing this same, one button press stuff that they were making decades ago. The only original stuff has come from those who embraced advancing technology and consumer tastes, and either blended it with symphonic content, or used it exclusively.

      In other words… this guy was completely right in his comment, but at the same time was pointing out that the pot was calling the kettle black. The joke was made way back then as that M1 patch, and many people still aren’t getting it.

  1. While i agree with you on the M1 preset burn (!), i think that same sentiment of single-press creativity is a battle we’ll always have to fight with technology intertwined in art. Its the same to me as somebody making an S/H patch on a modular and going “see! Amazing art!”. We’ve got to push past and be creative no matter where the tech is, and not just be users from Omnisphere to modular. Vangelis’ Blade Runner OST takes more than a CS-80 sound and a Lex verb.

  2. Nice to see a documentary like this where the host actually knows his stuff!

    I would have liked to see a lot more on the 80s synth soundtracks, because that was the heyday for them (so far). But this had lots of stuff I’d never seen, especially the old Walter Carlos footage, which is fascinating, but also the Vangelis footage.

  3. This documentary is what makes me think Vangelis isn’t the man for Blade Runner 2. His choice of sounds when he plays in the studio is really uninspiring and I wonder was his amazing use of synths in the original soundtrack really just the closest he could get to re-creating real sounds. Now that he has access to endless samples, is that what he’s more likely to do? Unless he digs out the old CS80, 800DV etc etc, he’s likely to create something closer to what you hear in this documentary. Which is pretty poor, despite the beautiful playing.

    1. Sorry mate, but there’s something so wrong about doing “Blade Runner 2” that even discussing if Vangelis should or should not make the soundtrack seems futile.

      1. Big fan of Vangelis, Ridley Scott & Blade Runner here, but not a fan of them doing a sequel.

        You can hear Vangelis use his more traditional orchestral sound on Alexander and other relatively recent works.

        It’s still Vangelis, and impressive in many ways. But his greatest music is from the 75-85 timeframe, where he created full synth orchestrations, instead of virtual orchestra performances.

        1. If anyone reading this is in favor of a Blade Runner sequel, imagine an original cast Wizard of Oz sequel made in 1973. If you still think it’s a good idea, watch Crystal Skull and realize that movie was made eight years ago.

      2. I agree something wrong with making Blade Runner 2, and I say that with Blade Runner clearly being my favorite film. Blade Runner 2 is a very hard sell, but if we are going to make it that world has a textured sound, and that sound is Vangelis. So Vangelis does the sound or you get someone to make that Vangelis sound, which is disrespectful and cheap. But this is problematic as synths were the sound of the future in 1982, and they aren’t that today. But the biggest issue is Blade Runner was made in 1982 about a dystopian future, the date being 37 years in the future – 2019. The fact that we live in a world that doesn’t employ the technology of that dystopian future, we don’t travel to far off worlds and LA hasn’t had that heavy Asian fusion, we are but only 4 years from that date. So you can only make a sequel if you do one of three things. Firstly, we disregard the date of the original classic and set it at another future date, so it isn’t really a sequel and is hard to get your head around after watching the first one – which would take much of the intelligence away from a deeply intelligent film. Or, we could pretend it is some parallel universe or alternative world, which then makes it fantasy rather than Sc-fi, and it is then as purposeful as some kids film, throw a frigging Jedi in the mix while you are at it.. Or worst still, reboot the original some 50 years in the future and then make a sequel, but only an ego driven fool, like Michael Bay, would remake a classic in the realm of Blade Runner – how bad could that be? All of this is bad, so maybe just let it be, and let someone come up with an original story that isn’t Blade Runner, and make a good film from afresh.

        1. Presumably, as Harrison Ford is in it, its set around 35 years after the first one, so that would be approx 2055, which is quite a leap ahead. Although Ford may not be playing Dekkard in the sequel but the human that the replication Dekkard was based on, therefore it could be set just a few years after.

          Either way, it doesnt matter. I’ve only ever heard one person say Blade Runner was dumb because they got the year wrong setting it in 2019, and that guy should have been castrated for being so thick. Who gives a f**k?

          Finally, I don’t get all this whining about BR2. If its shit. Who cares? The original won’t suddenly metamorphasise into a shitty movie, it will remain intact. If its awesome, then we get another 2 hours in the world of Blade Runner. And I say this as someone who holds BR as my favourite film of all time.

          1. I am not criticizing the date of 2019, it does seem a little naive, but he learnt his lesson with that for Alien.

            And it is a ridiculous prostitution to suggest casting a frail 72 year old man as the lead, may make a nice back story, as he is already subtexted as being a replicate, maybe he has a degenerative aging process, making him rapidly old – thus resolving further issues with the Nexus 6 range.

            I don’t think it is worth setting it 35 years on, look at our own understanding of tech as we move towards the singularity, you need to fuse that with Blade Runner style tech and then advance it 35 years on – define that? An unwatchable mess that goes beyond logic. Have you given this any thought?

            I don’t think it will happen, I hope it doesn’t. And then again, maybe Scott set the date so near in the future to stop such nonsense from happening, and he isn’t as naive as I credit him.

  4. Exaggerating the complexity of sound synthesis. You as the Artist must manifest your Essence as the Sound. Technology and your machine tool is like a Jedi with his Light Sabre. Use the Force.

  5. Looking forward to watching the rest of this.

    Not a comment on Chariots of Fire as a whole but to call it electronic music somewhat mis-characterizes it or rather under represents it. Yes, there are synthesizers but the lead instrument, the main emotion conveyer, is the piano—an instrument people had been emotionally connecting to in film since before there was dialog. And added to that, the secondary instrument is synth strings.

  6. The M1 segue made me chuckle. Most wigglers could have told him that Vangelis leaned heavily on CS-80 presets in composing the Blade Runner soundtrack.

    Still it felt like we all got promoted when they suggested that knowledge of synthesis, signal flow and muff wiggling is tantamount to being a scientist.

    “Bleep Bloop – Wooo I just did a science!”

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