Charlie Clouser Takes Composing a TV & Film Score By the Throat & Pulls Us Inside the Mind of a Genre Master

As a kid growing up in Ohio, I was surrounded by just about every genre of music. No, I’m serious. My house was filled with everything from The Beatles, Hall & Oates, Motown, country and Latin music to Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, Tears For Fears, New Edition, Guns N’ Roses and even various soundtracks and a tv and film score here and there. My childhood memories are catalogued like a music playlist and when a particular image makes its way to the front of my mind, it’s always attached to a song.

I’m sure musician Charlie Clouser “sees” music the same way I always have, but he took his love for music several major steps further than I did.  His film score and keyboard/programmer talents with Nine Inch Nails clearly shows his gift for capturing the raw energy and beautiful chaos from both stage and screen into emotional notes that swirl in your psyche with a tornado-like force.

Charlie mastered his technique when he started playing electronic music in college and when he graduated; he snagged a job at Sam Ash, a very popular music store in Manhattan. Charlie made a name for himself while working there and quickly became known as the go-to guy for syncing up your synthesizer with your computer.

Everyone came to Charlie for help and they would line up (like people do now in the Apple Store) from high school kids and weekend DJs to Wall Street types and celebrities. Charlie met some of the biggest names in the industry, including Stevie Wonder and famed TV composer Mike Post. But, it was a chance meeting with an Australian composer, who was visiting Sam Ash for music-related purchases, that would change Charlie’s life forever and start him on a path to television scoring.

Ultimately, his musical acumen behind-the-scenes would find him front-and-center, joining the highly successful rock band Nine Inch Nails from 1994-2000. Charlie is credited with shaping the band’s signature musical style and sound as well as co-writing two of their more high-profile songs: The Perfect Drug from the gold soundtrack to David Lynch’s film Lost Highway; as well as The Way Out is Through from “The Fragile”, Spin Magazine’s 1999 “Album of the Year”.

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NIN “The Fragile” – 1999

Accomplished composer, musician, producer, programmer, and remix artist, Charlie Clouser’s systematic and methodical keen sense of synth work can be heard on remixes for Prong, Marilyn Manson, and White Zombie. This notoriety led him to remixing albums for the legendary rock god David Bowie as well as hip hop icon Snoop Dogg. Other well known artists he’s worked with include: Rammstein, Jamiroquai, Deftones, Killing Joke, Esthero and Meat Beat Manifesto.

Charlie’s first film score effort was on the blockbuster horror classic movie Saw (and the film’s many sequels) and his deft scoring prowess will be on full display in the upcoming horror film, The Neighbor. He also scored Resident Evil: Extinction, The Stepfather, and The Collection. For television, he co-wrote the bone-chilling main title theme for FX’s award-winning anthology series, American Horror Story, as well as Wayward Pinesand Childhood’s End.

In this exclusive interview, Charlie Clouser gives an in-depth road map to anyone with hopes of breaking into the film scoring industry. With lyrical precision, Charlie breaks down the intricacies of composing a film score; the power of a score to elevate story; his signature techniques; and shares the the secrets in his composer’s toolbox that will help you slice and dice your own kick-ass, sonic marvel.

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NR: What’s on your iPod right now?

CC: Public Image Ltd, the second and third album, the “Metal Box” album and “Flowers of Romance”…a bunch of Killing Joke, mostly because I love the sound of Jaz Coleman’s voice and that is terrifying to me [laughs]. There’s a bunch of film score stuff, Cliff Martinez and Clint Mansell. Clint was a contemporary of mine in Nine Inch Nails when his band Pop Will Eat Itself was signed to Trent’s label and we toured together quite a bit. And, also a couple records by an artist I worked with a few times named Chas Smith, who is a pedal-steel guitarist and metal sculptor. A lot of the sounds of his sculptures are used in the Saw movies. Also, Hans Zimmer used him on the Man of Steel soundtrack. He had Chas assemble an army of eight pedal-steel guitar players to all play at once and also used the sound of his sculptures in the film as well.

NR: Having been a member of Nine Inch Nails, you were living this viscerally charged world for six years as a performer. How did this perspective as a performer/observer per se translate into your composing a TV & film score?

CC: One of the interesting aspects about being involved with Nine Inch Nails through those years that maybe people don’t think about, is the process of adapting the elaborate studio recordings for live performance. And although to the casual listener – the show – they might think, “Wow, that sounded exactly like the record,” the reality is there were so many changes made to simplify the quantity of sounds and to strip things away so that in the mayhem of a live performance, the right things became audible. You can’t just go and replicate the recording from the album in a concert and have it translate in the same way it does when you’re sitting in your bedroom wearing headphones. And a lot of that fell to me, because I was the guy in the band who was assembling and creating backing tapes to play things that obviously weren’t being played on stage, like sequencing bass and those sorts of things.

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Clouser (far left) with NIN

But then another part of that process of creating that stripped back click tape [AKA click track] is sampling sounds from the original studio recordings and putting those in our keyboards and twiddling down – from the vast array that Trent had done in the original recordings – to a subset. That whole process gave me an interesting perspective on what sounds matter, what sounds come to the front of your attention span. And there’s a similar thing that happens when you’re working on a score for a film or TV show, and you create this wonderful, beautiful collage of sounds and then, you go to the theater and you see the movie, and only the loudest three things are audible [laughs].  And all these lovely, little background noises are lost in the murk of gunshots and people screaming and tires screeching. Going through that process of developing the Nine Inch Nails live sound palette, I’m often reminded of that process when I’m arranging and composing for movies and TV – in terms of what are the important sounds and which ones the listeners’ attention going to be drawn to. There’s a balance with scoring: You don’t want to distract from the story or the action, you want to reinforce it.

NR: Was it part of your own creative journey to transition into scoring or was it a natural progression since you had forged a relationship early on with the Australian composer?

CC: Even before getting involved with Nine Inch Nails, I spent five to six years with an Australian composer, Cameron Allan, doing a bunch of TV series. He was scoring the original series The Equalizer on CBS back in the 1980s, which was originally scored by Stewart Copeland from The Police.

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I would program drums and do all the sound design [for Equalizer]. There was another keyboardist who did the string and piano parts. But for years – before getting involved with the record industry at all – I was one of the ghostwriters/right-hand-man types doing tons of TV and made-for-TV stuff. Then I took ten or fifteen years to make records, and do remixes, and be in Nine Inch Nails, but when I left Nine Inch Nails in 2001, I wasn’t just a refugee from the record industry. I already had five years or so of experience. So I know the workflow, the terminology, what kind of sounds worked well, and how to do it. I hadn’t been in the driver’s seat on a TV or movie score before but I had been the co-pilot.

NR: You made your feature film score debut with Saw and the the score elevated the movie’s twist ending to an entire new level with its cold, dingy, orchestral soundscape and gothic swells. Can you tell us about the creation and inspiration of the track?

CC: My overall roadmap for the score for the first movie was that it would start off with almost an innocent and inquisitive feel, so that in the very beginning when they wake up in the bathroom, they’re trying to figure out: how did we get here, and what’s this tape recorder, and is there a key in the bathtub.  I call those type of cues, “What’s in the box cues.” It’s not like heavy and dark. It’s little synthesizer sounds and non-harsh, non-evil melodies as they try to figure out what’s going on.

Then through the middle of the score, things gets darker and darker.  I start to introduce some orchestral sounds, but very far away and distant and murky. As the score went on, it just got darker and darker and more and more indistinct until you really couldn’t tell what chords were being played and so on. As it devolves into mayhem in the third act – and they’re frantically reaching that moment when Dr. Gordon is like whether or not he’s going to take the saw to his ankle – the score just literally devolved to banging on pots and pans. It’s sort of just disassembled; the wheels fell off and it just turns into frenzy and mayhem, but not a recognizable drumbeat and chord progression.

I wanted the score to get darker and darker so the whole movie, is like you’re watching a fight happening across a parking lot at night. All you can see is their back. And you can’t really tell what’s going on, but you know it’s bad. But that moment when the ending montage begins, I wanted it to feel as though, all those guys who were beating somebody up, they suddenly turn around, and now…they’re facing you.  All the sounds in that ending montage cue [Hello Zepp] had not been used elsewhere in the movie. And also, it was in a different key. It took a half-a-step down, as if it steps off the curb and into the street. I discussed this with James Wan [the director] and he said, “Yes, it’s almost like the lights get turned on in the room and now you’re forced to face the reality of what the story’s about.”

NR: When you’re first starting a tv or film score session, what is your process? Do you visit the set, read the script, select your instrument palette first?

CC: A little bit of both. I generally read the script and then I’m very surprised when I see the picture at how different the timing of things is. You may read a page of script and think that is thirty seconds of the movie, but it turns out it’s four minutes. Then you might read five pages of script and think that’s a half-hour, and it ends up being one minute.  The timings are determined by whatever the final edit is. A lot of times, I’ll get rough edits before they begin locking it down, and I can work against that. Between any work that I might do reading the script and seeing rough edits of the movie – that generally falls into the category of “sketch books”. With that, I’m writing a bunch of sketches and the order in which they appear in the movie. And the length may change, and so forth. But just trying to capture the emotional state, and then assembling those once they’ve locked down and finalized their edit. And another thing that I’ve done on a few of James Wan’s movies, especially “Dead Silence” – and this was at his request – was to write the last and biggest piece of music in the movie, first. And then the rest of the score would use some elements of that and just hint at that and gradually include more and more. That’s almost the opposite of what we did in the Saw movie.

NR: You mentioned writing sketches during the rough edit phase: do editors cut to any of your specific cues or use temp scores when starting the initial rough cut and composing phase?

CC: At the start of any project, I generally deliver the entire library of the TV and film music that I’ve written to the picture editors so they can put together some rough music without using Raiders of the Lost Ark. Of course, when I first see their edit, there is generally music in place. In a perfect world, it comes from music I used previously so the sounds and moods are familiar to me. But there’s always a temp score.  In many cases, once or twice per episode, there will be a very elaborate scene, usually an action scene that the edits in the scene follow the drum. All the cuts occur in sync to the drumbeats and with the action. And then when I go to do the real piece of music, I might have to use the same exact tempo, so that my new music matches that rhythm they’ve extracted from some old piece of music.

NR: Do you see the film score as contributing to a character’s backstory? I feel as though music can help shape character traits and give certain key information that dialogue cannot.

CC: Exactly. And that’s something that’s more prevalent a lot of times in TV stuff, where schedules are so compressed. For instance in Wayward Pines – for one reason or another because of time constraints or in the process of editing – some aspect of the backstory was no longer evident in the dialogue that remained on the screen.

So there would be a lot of situations where directors and producers would say, “Here in this scene, we had to cut it down and shape it to fit, and what wound up getting cut out was when Character A looks over at Character B with that certain look on their face. We need to know that they’ve met before.” So if you can find a way to reinforce that moment – and it might just be three or four seconds – but there might be a lot of little items like that. There were a lot of cases on Wayward Pines where I would have to reinforce story elements, which might have been apparent in their original drafts of the script.  Those become points where the score can hinge and evolve and you know that you need to reinforce a certain expression on a character’s face and add some other deeper level to what they’re thinking.

NR: How often do you communicate with the director/producer on a film so that you know you’re going in the right direction?

CC: Usually, I don’t get a lot of time. I usually have six-to-eight weeks to do the score from beginning to end. Generally the first couple of weeks are writing very sketchy bits of music just to ID the tempo, key, and the generic feel of each of the cues.  I’ll generally try to get through the entire movie and get all the cues to where they’re no longer a big flashing question mark before playing anything for the directors, and that lets me zoom out a little bit and look at the whole collection of music as one big thing and try to identity what can flow better or make certain music connect to each other, so it sounds like one long cue across three scenes. Then about in the third week is when I start to play stuff to the directors.

I will a lot of times give them alternative versions of a cue. The best situation for a scene where we don’t really know what the solution is going to be: I’ll do three different pieces of music for it. The first one is right from scratch like, “This is the way to do it,” but then I might have had doubts. So then I might adapt another piece of music that occurs in another place in the TV show to make it work in that scene. Then, the third version might be a completely different approach. It’s an ideal situation when you can give the director three choices; it seems to make it easier for three-to-four people. They might say, “Do you think this is right?”  “I don’t know how to put into words what’s wrong about it, but I know what’s right.” But when they can compare two or three pieces of music on the same scene, then it comes much easier for everyone in the room to say, “What do think?” “Version 2, definitely not.” “Now, Number 1 we liked the beginning of it because it was quiet and creepy, but the second half of version 3 might work.” It often makes it easier for people who are not musicians – directors or producers – to pick elements they like and to compare those things to elements that they don’t like in the music.

You have to be completely divorced from the sense that this is your precious child and you have to be ready to cut it in half and throw it in the bin. If they think you’re attached to music, that make the producers and directors reluctant to say, “I think that sucks bro, take another swing at it.” And that’s what’s supposed to happen. You don’t want them to be reluctant about how they really feel. Cultivating that sense of detachment helps the process move along smoothly.

NR: At what point should a filmmaker bring the composer on board? Does the composer play any influence in pre-production?

CC: Just establishing that DNA early as possible makes it that much easier to establish the common vocabulary, as you get deeper in to the project.   Some directors like David Fincher get music from the composer, which he can play through loud speakers on set while they’re shooting to get actors in the mood. We’ve done that a little bit on some of the Saw movies, because we could take music from previous Saw movies and make sure the directors had that while they were shooting to play that creepy, ambient pieces to get the actors in the appropriate mood.

NR: When scoring do you use a counter-point method/direction to better “reinforce” the scene and to throw off the audiences?

CC: A lot of times I’m trying to think of whether I want the score to lead or follow what’s happening on the screen. In some cases, you might want to induce a sense of dread like in the Saw movies, when the victims are listening to the tape recording saying, “I want to play a game.” In a lot of those situations, the score may almost want to lead the bad things that are to come. In those cases, even though the bad things aren’t happening yet, I can feel okay to use some of the chords and dark sounds that will come in the next scene when things do really get bad. In cases like that, it’s certainly fine to be out in front of the story and be a minute or two ahead of it.

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And then there are other cases where you want to do the opposite and retain some element of surprise. Your first instinct might be to have some sound that’s swelling up or an orchestral riser that’s leading you up to when the gun goes off or whatever that sharp event is about to happen. Whenever you successfully resist that urge and instead of getting bigger and bigger with some crescendo, you go the opposite direction and pretend “Oh, yeah, it’s going to be fine,” and the music tapers off, and gets less and less dangerous and almost becomes complete silence before that shocking minute. You’re pretending some big thing is NOT going to happen. That’s the horizontal aspect, the left and right on the timeline.  Do I want to be in front of or behind?

The other dimension is the vertical: Do I want things to sound big and tall and thick with lots of tracks and lots of density, or do I wanna have things small and thin, as if they’re only two or three instruments or sounds happening. That process is more often dictated by how much sound design is occurring. Are we in the middle of a car chase, where there are gunshots and explosives. Your first instinct might be to compete with the level of insanity that’s happening, but that often will result in big, loud, crashing music. And there’s only so much room in the air, and the sound effects are usually going to come first. It can be a trick to train yourself to create a sense of action and danger without using a zillion instruments that are going to step on each other. And that’s one of the most challenging things. For instance, John Powell’s music for the Bourne series… you’re like, “Wow, that was adrenaline, and exhilarating and exciting!” But when you listen to the score by itself, you realize it wasn’t big pounding war drums and other, heavy dense elements. It’ll be thinner, smaller sounds playing more frantic and frenzied parts. John Powell has become a master of that.

NR: What is your main workstation set up for composing?

CC: I generally do most of the recording and arranging inside Logic on a Mac. I’ve used Logic for more than twenty years now. I also have another Mac that runs Pro Tools that functions as a mix down deck. And I use lots of virtual instruments and sample libraries inside Logic. But I do have a good collection of synthesizers and acoustic instruments and guitars and gazillion guitar effect pedals, which I use to generate the stuff ‘outside the box’. At the beginning of project, I’ll generally spend a week or two just recording new sounds using the guitars, synths, and bowing a piece of scrap metal to generate a new miniature library of sounds for that project before I even start writing the music for it.

NR: How much of your time is spent on the actual composing versus the programming and mixing?

CC: For me it’s about 40% composition and 60% refinement, mixing and programming. For some composers who work exclusively with just normal orchestral instruments, they may spend more time writing and less time programming, because they’re not searching through folder after folder for weird sounds. In my world, I do tend to spend a lot of time designing the sounds and recording at the beginning and then searching for and manipulating those bits and pieces that I hope are unique to each score. Also for me, the sound itself often dictates what the music will be. There may only be a few notes on the keyboard that sound “right” and that sound can only play a few things… and maybe I have to change the key or the tempo that I’m writing to so I can include this sound.

NR: Are there any particular DAWs or plugins that you recommend to someone starting out?

CC: It’s unbelievable the amount of stuff and the quality that comes included with the Logic package. I use their built-in sampler plug-in called EXS24 for the vast majority of my sounds – most of which are sounds I created myself – then mapped out and played from the keyboard in EXS.

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Logic Pro’s EXS24 Sampler

There’s another synthesizer plug-in included with the Logic package called Alchemy. Alchemy can manipulate, modify and mangle those sampled sounds in ways that EXS simply cannot.   It’s hugely powerful and can be a little daunting at first, but I rely on those two heavily. For more conventional orchestral sounds, the de facto standard is libraries that come with Native Instruments KONTAKT sampler, which has become the engine of choice for the playback of expensive and elaborate orchestral simulation.  [Click here to try the free demo.]

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Native Instrument’s KONTAKT Player/Sampler

Other plug-ins I like by stretching time and manipulating pitch are the Omnisphere, which is fantastic. You can do an entire film score just with that. And there’s a cool, lesser known instrument called Granite, which is a time stretching and sample manipulating tool. It’s very simple and basic but can just mangle and destroy sounds. You can record tapping a chopstick on the side of water glass and turn that into a 75-minute long, evolving soundscape.  Instead of having fifty different instruments and fifty different plugins, find one that sparks your creativity for one project and say, “I’m gonna do as much as I can on this project using just this one instrument and poke my head into how it can manipulate sound.” You’ll achieve some level of expertise by concentrating on just one instrument. Eventually, you’ll have eight or ten pieces of software that you know inside and out, and now you scan start mixing and matching and picking the best tool for the job. Eventually you’ll have the whole toolbox figured out.

NR: What advice do you have for those seeking to break into the TV & film scoring industry?

CC: There are so many avenues now that didn’t exist in the years when I was trying to find my path. At this point, I don’t have a web site, YouTube channel; I don’t do any off that stuff. I rely on past relationships, my reputation and my agent. There was a series of YouTube videos that Tom Holkenborg did, otherwise known as Junkie XL, describing his process and career arc and in many cases his technology. He worked as an apprentice for Hans Zimmer, editing drum samples in the basement for years, while he watched over Hans shoulder and learned how it is that this guy is running Hollywood.

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Junkie XL (left) with Hans Zimmer (right)

That’s often an overlooked aspect that’s really important but not exactly taught in books and can only be learned from watching other people do it.

NR: Lastly, you had the honor of working alongside the great David Bowie. Can you tell us about that?

CC: Well, there’s really never been many artists like Bowie who are such chameleons and who experimented in so many different styles. We did the tour together with Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie and I did a few remixes of his and collaborated on Trent with.

That process helped me relax and operate and feel more open to operating in musical styles that I may not be an expert at, and I guess that falls into the category of taking risks musically and to do music that you don’t already know how to do. And even if your first thought is, “Well, I can’t do that…” Remember when Bowie did the Blue Eyed soul phase with “Young Americans” and “TCV15”. I guess he called it plastic soul. They were all the influences from a completely different musical sphere that he was able to integrate into his style. It still was very much him, but he was able to pick and choose elements from the outside world and mold them to fit his outlook.

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David Bowie

That process of being able to spot influence that may exist outside your world and to allow yourself to be influenced by them and borrow elements but still sound like you, is a skill I’m sure I’ll be working on ‘til I keel over [laughter]. That’s something that Bowie and Reznor are the masters of.