From 80s film scores by Vangelis and John Carpenter through to synth-heavy soundtracks in films such as Drive, The Social Network and blockbusters like The Inception, The Dark Knight, synthesis and sound design have taken more and more of a starring role on the big screen over the past few decades, with electronic sounds creating immersive sonic backdrops to the on-screen action.
Thankfully though, modern tools make it possible to create Zimmer-style cinematic atmosphere at home, without needing access to the London Philharmonic Orchestra or a Hollywood production budget.
Throughout this article, we’re going to delve into the world of cinematic synth design. Of course, even if you wouldn’t call your production ‘cinematic’, you can be sure they’d benefit from a sprinkling of movie-style atmosphere to lure the listener in. Genres such as EDM, Future Bass, House and Techno all incorporate drones, rousing horns, evolving pads and lustrous atmospheres to maximum effect.
In this article, I’ll share tips and techniques on cinematic sound design also we discuss the vital music theory concepts behind the sounds, so you have a better understanding of how to evoke the sonic emotion of cinema.
So, time to grab your popcorn… it’s lights, camera, action!
If you’ve ever done any cinematic work, you’ll know why soundscapes and any moving picture (visuals) go together. Cinematics are meant to accompany and reinforce visuals, not outperform them.
Substractive synthesis is perhaps the simplest method for designing sounds, but despite its simplicity, it can be immensely powerful. What’s most important is that the patch you create sounds deep, expansive and interesting to the listener.
Movement is a crucial component of soundscape creation. Our brains easily pick up on repetition – as soon as we spot it, we tend to lose interest and the sound loses its magic. However, we have a powerful weapon we can use to keep things changing: modulation! LFOs and envelopes change the sound over time, of course, and they’re absolutely vital for fooling your ears into thinking the sound is forever moving.
For multilayered thickness, layering oscillators is a great way to create huge-sounding textures, particularly by tuning them across several octaves. When crafting a patch, think about stacking your oscillators from low to high pitch rather than using the same octave range, so the sound thickens up.
Finally, let’s not overlook a key component: processing! Effects aren’t just the icing on the cake, but an intrinsic part of the sound itself. Reverb and delay are used generously to create a spacious, dreamy atmosphere. Ensure the effects blend into the soundscape, though – the aim is to enhance the sound, not draw attention to the processing.
Cinematic Music Theory
Although the tonal quality of your patches is important, it counts for nothing if you don’t play the right notes in the right order. The roots of cinematic music are found in orchestral music, and as complex as that can be, there are a few simple ideas which run throught it all.
The primary goal of modern cinematic music is to be effective – reinforce the drama and lead the audience’s emotions.
Each composer leans towards certain patterns, for example Hans Zimmer tends to write in D minor, and uses only only a few different chord patterns to great effect. A classic Zimmer-style pattern would go Dmin-Bb-F-C for more dramatic work, you can a simpler pattern would be Dmin-Bb-C. Other composers, such as John Carpenter and Cliff Martinez, tend to use ‘pedal tones’ and arpeggios to lock the audience in.
Whatever the pattern, an essential skill is being able to set an atmosphere or mood. There are of course, broad generalisations, such as using major keys for happy scenes and minor keys for sad, but cinematic music requires a much more complex look at mood and emotion. The onscreen action may call for a sense of ‘wonder’.
So, the sound we use should reflect the mood. Try using softer tones for gentle moods, and bolder sounds for the more dramatic. It’s no accident that the orchestra brings out the big brass section when the bad guy appears on screen, so reflect this in your sound design.
There’s a scale which might be considered the composer’s secret weapon – the Lydian mode. It’s used all over cinematic music and is regularly employed by composer giants such as John Williams and Thomas Newman. The Lydian mode takes the fourth note of the major scale and moves it up by one semitone.
This simple change can produce some wonderful cinematic melodies. A similar voicing can be heard in a very common cinematic chord pattern. Try playing Cmaj then a Dmaj over a constant C bass note. This ‘rising’ pattern is often heard at the climatic point of a movie – at the end of ET, for example.
Adding some surprise value is one key to great and memorable music. A common trick is to play around a popular chord sequence so the audience is comfortable, recognising the pattern and predicting what will come. Once you have them relaxed, though, change things up a bit by inserting a chord to make them by surprise.
EQ to Leave Space
The bigger the sound, the more room it takes up in your mix! While expansive pads sound great on their own, they can chew up a lot of mix real estate. Excessive low end can be removed with a high-pass filter.
Add clarity and character by layering foley with your synth. Fire up sampler and add a clean-sounding sample – perhaps the sound of a glass being struck. Or, if atmosphere is your goal, add in a field recording, then tuck this under your main synth.
It’s possible to have a deep pad and a bright lead sound in a single patch. To achieve this, map velocity so it shortens the envelope attack time and raises the filter’s cutoff. By doing so, you can play soft chords with the left hand, but really dig into the important melodic notes on the right!
Granular synthesis is a great shortcut to complex textures. Try out Max for Live’s Granulator II or any other you like. Drop in a sample and have a play around with the Grain, FilePos and Spray controls. You’ll be surprised how easy it can be to create a unique and highly complex sound.
Modulate the Modulation
An excellent way of making things less repetitive is to map several parameters to modulate the same thing. Try using Dune Modulation Matrix to map several parameters and LFOs to the same item. They’ll all conflict and interact, constantly changing the sound so that no two notes sound the same!
Set up your effects on a return channel and send your synth patch into it. Drop in an Auto Filter and turn up the LFO Amount and Depth controls to taste – Slow movement often provides the best results. By processing the effects separately, you can create another layer of movement in your patch.
Low End Power
Composers tend to use low-end drones to add tension to their music. Adding another sine wave oscillator one octave below can introduce more power in your sound design. To really get the listener tense, hold a low note and play your melody over the top.
Use the Modwheel
A great way of getting some extra control over your patch is to map parameters to your controller’s mod wheel. This can be done on most synths and is superb for creating expressive lead sounds. In orchestra sample libraries, the modwheel controls the dynamics – mimic this in your patches for ultimate control over the tension.
Inject a Pulse
A trademark sound of John Carpenter is a pulsing bassline – it gives the listener a rhythm to latch onto and pushes the track forwards. Try underpinning your soundscape with an 8th note arpeggio on a single bass note. You can add to the rhythm by mapping LFO to the filter and setting the rate to match your sequencer’s tempo.
Add Some Shimmer
A ‘shimmer’ is a fantastic way to bring a heavenly sound. These sounds are typically a combination of complex pitch-shifting, delay and reverb. For those ethereal tones you can try Valhalla Shimmer, Crystallizer by Soundtoys or even Altiverb.
Keep it Simple
A lot of cinematic music is quite simple… but for good reason! You could say that cinematic music tends to lead the audience, rather than challenge them. So always remember, setting the mood and leading the emotion of the listener is the primary goal!