'Stranger Things' composers talk about their synthesizer score

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'Stranger Things' poster artwork Netflix

Ever since Cliff Martinez injected Tangerine-Dream-inspired synthesizer washes into our ears during the film Drive, the aesthetic has been on the rise among film composers, representing an idea of the 1980s.

This summer Netflix hopped the trend for its homerun monster mystery Stranger Things, enlisting composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, two members of the synth band Survive, to score it. Due to popular demand their work, is being released digitally in a two-volume set this month — in keeping with recent releases for other shows like Hannibal and Mr. Robot as TV score composition grows in ambition in what's being called this "new golden age of TV."

Set in the '80s and drenched in meta-nostalgia, reconnecting millennials and gen-Xers to the things that so defined their upbringings (including lead actress Winona Ryder, now in the role of a worried mother rather than rebellious teen daughter), Stranger Things has gained high praise from masters of the genre like Guillermo del Toro and Stephen King. Using touchstone ideas from Stand By Me, E.T., The Goonies, and many others of that ilk, the show manages to build its narrative around recognizably nostalgic references without requiring viewers to know the references to appreciate it — succeeding as a representation of our collective memory rather than a representation of reality.

Dixon and Stein were brought on to score the show after the Duffer Brothers used music by Survive in their pitch. New to scoring long-form narrative, their talents come at a particular crossroads for electronic composers. "We use quite a bit of vintage gear," the composers said in an e-mail, "but fortunately manufacturers have come to recognize how critical it is to make the new products work with older gear. It's nice to be able to use the classic sounds in combination with newer products that are informed by more recent ideas of what music can be and see the older designers embracing new processing power to expand their original ideas & maintaining their aesthetic / sound quality."

Like the show, the music is a distillation of a memory of the 1980s' musical aesthetic. It's not the '80s, so much as a version of the '80s that highlights electronic experimentation from composers like John Carpenter, Ennio Morricone, and Jerry Goldsmith.

In reality, scores for the '80s movies and TV shows that were most similar to Stranger Things were often scored by composers influenced by John Williams's retro orchestral scores for movies by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas: composers like Alan Silvestri, Basil Poledouris, and James Horner.

If our ears associate synth scores with the '80s, that has more to do with the era's pop music than with its film music — though synths were more widely heard on TV shows (where hiring orchestras was less practical) and in horror films.

The score for Stranger Things uses synthesizers as integral to a complex composition, not just for musical color. As Dixon said in a press release, "We discussed having a classic tone and feel to the music for the show but being reserved enough that it wasn't '80s cheese, offering a refreshing quality that felt modern."

Throughout the course of the show the composers used, they wrote via e-mail, "Prophet 6 for practicality and just a great sounding instrument all around for the tone of the show. Arp 2600 for a lot of sfx and heavy effects like urgent booms and whamps. Was easy to recreate complex modular like patches involving complex pitch envelops and lots of FM. Prophet vs for very mysterious X-Files like sounds because of the wavetable nature of it, but it also retains a very musical quality due to its wonderfully smooth analog filters. In the second half of the season we also used a lot of new Moog gear, particularly the Mother 32."

The only non-synth sounds in the entire score "are the crashing of spring reverbs and some mechanical noise from a creaky leslie speaker cabinet which actually ended up adding a cool complimentary ambience."

Dixon and Stein blend technology because a classic synthesizer is like a Stradivarius: you can try to copy its sound, but it's never quite the same. They are not driven by nostalgia, and that distinction — a blending of compositional techniques informing their palette — is important to their score's success.

This modulation and flexibility is what the show was about from the beginning; refusing to shy away from ideas inauthentic to the time for an authentic show moment. Look no further than the end of episode three, where Peter Gabriel's orchestral version of Bowie's song "Heroes" is used in place of the original, which would have been more time specific. The version serves the scene much better — and, of course, though his take on "Heroes" was recorded only recently, Gabriel's voice was a familiar presence on '80s airwaves.

Over the last decade, the synthesizer has been reborn — and with that has come a new type of composer who can work out of makeshift studios, creating otherworldly compositions that sound larger than life.

This has been no truer than the horror genre — long associated with synths — where films like It Follows have achieved cult status as a result of the sound. While the score for Stranger Things may not be a direct replication of 1983, neither is the show.

This being their first dive into narrative composition, Dixon said, "There are many similarities in the writing process, but when dealing with a storyline that covers the entirety of human emotions we are able to find an outlet for compositions that wouldn't usually make it on a Survive record. We have a fairly strict aesthetic that we try to stick to on the albums, and regardless of how much we like a mood or a song, there are a ton of ideas that wouldn't be available publicly if we were only releasing albums as Survive."

Volume 1 of the Stranger Things score was released digitally this past Friday, and Volume 2 is set for release digitally this coming Friday, Aug. 19. Both albums will also have physical releases in September.

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker, and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.