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The Science of Scoring the Soundtrack for Howl-O-Scream

Michelle Jones

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Published: August 18, 2015 at 9:53 PM [UTC]

It appears there simply are not enough words to express my sincerest gratitude to Robin Cowie. For those that don’t know the name, Robin is best known as the producer of The Blair Witch Project, but he is in international news again for his creation of this year’s Howl-O-Scream themed event, “Unearthed” at three Busch Gardens and Sea World Parks nationwide. He is a filmmaking genius (I can call him that, even though he’s quite down-to-earth and would never say that himself). He knows how to create and tell a story from start to finish, and still leave the audience wondering and wanting more. And he’s very selective with whom he works. Perhaps knowing all these terrific things about him is one of many reasons why I was surprised and completely honored that he asked me to be a part of this project. Thank you, Robin, for trusting me to create the mood and soundtrack for your vision.

Here’s how this happened (it is a long story, like everything in life):

Do you know how some people love Christmas so much that they want it year-round? It’s a happy time with children, lights, decorations, and oh, the music! No other season has more music dedicated to this one particular time of year.

For many others, people love Halloween in this same way, and for similar reasons. I definitely fall into this category. The costumes, the decorations, the candy, and the frights that delight! The music, though, has been mostly limited to loud, rumbling and intense sounds. Screams of horror and shrieks of high-pitched instruments pepper every haunted house, with no actual theme. We all hear the subwoofers rumble and the digital piercing tones. Only a handful of actual musical themes have become famous, and most are from horror movies and television.

One of my all-time favorite themes is from “The X-Files.” My husband, Jerry, created the AOL X-Files fan club the very night it aired on FOX in 1993. Through these first online connections, we were able to interact and later meet the creators, writers, producers, and actors from the show over the next 7 years. Those connections then led to opportunities of meeting and working with Shirley Walker (one of the very few female composers in the film and television industry), Mark Snow (X-Files composer), and other musicians/composers and their encouragement of me to be a studio musician. As fans of Science Fiction and scary movies, Jerry and I also were involved in costuming and the 501st Legion of Stormtroopers and Rebel Legion. At some point in the early 2000s, we were invited to a party of fellow 501st costumers and met the creators and producers from The Blair Witch Project. It was a casual meeting, but one that would create a connection many years later.

On April 15, 2014, I had the privilege of providing live entertainment for a private donor event for the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. This night changed my life in many ways, but that will have to be explained in another blog post. It was at this event where we were also reacquainted with Robin Cowie. As we chatted over the next few months, we recalled our first meeting so many years prior, and how all three of us enjoyed similar interests. We often discussed music and sounds, and their significant roles in film and television. But it was just in social discussions and fun times.

Perhaps this is why Robin contacted me in early February with this fabulous, but insane idea: Let’s create a soundtrack for a series of short films, ads and in-park and in-house music for Howl-O-Scream. Have I ever done anything like this before? Not to this level. Would I be interested? Absolutely, positively YES! I love Halloween, horror, good stories, and everything to do with the macabre. We share that passion, and how our eyes light up when discussing disgusting things and ideas. I get giddy with the anticipation and element of surprise, and perhaps that’s why I enjoy haunted houses and other “scary” things. I suppose Robin saw this excitement, and thought I would be a good fit for this project.

After signing all the proper non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), he sent me the entire story guide from start to finish. I devoured it immediately and read every page (all 166MB of the file). I instantly fell in love with the concept and with the lead character, Scarlett. That night, I fell asleep with visions of her in my head. The next morning, I awakened with a mathematical equation circling in my mind. I immediately wrote it down and realized I created it from the “casting cards” from the storyline. The numbers became the music. Frequencies, intervals, tri-tones, chords – all played a part. I even consulted with a psychic to confirm numbers associated with evil, death and the afterlife. I knew I wanted the piece in “A” minor (partially because of the cards: aces), and I wanted the perfect 440Hz tuning. Why so specific? That’s where my love of music history and the science of sound came to play.

In 2000, I was actually working with NASA’s education director to create an experiment for the shuttle and space station for their “teacher in space” program involving frequencies and pitches. Since learning of them in college, I was intently studying harmonographs and the images created by sound waves and combination of pitches. I knew which intervals created the most abstract and wildly intense images, and which intervals gave the most pleasing images. They match perfectly with what our minds interpret based on the mood of the music. I also was fascinated with the effect of such frequencies and intervals on living tissue. I researched and read most anything written on the subject, including the discussion about the Baroque “A” (432Hz) vs. today’s modern “A” (440Hz) and even the more pleasing “A” of today’s electronic instruments (442Hz). I chose the 440Hz “A” mainly because of the numbers and the proven studies of its harmful effects on living tissue. I chose the intervals based on previous research relating to their effects, too. There is science behind the reasoning of why we “feel” music on a deeper level.

Once the key, intervals, chords and pitches were established, it now came down to rhythm, phrasing and placement, as well as instrument choices. I took short video recordings of options and sent them to Robin. He said he liked it and thought I was on the right track. We discussed how it would be months before I had the actual films to view in order to sync the music, and so the ideas were shelved.

A few months went by, and I thought we were long forgotten. Then a call came out of the blue from Robin in April. Am I ready to write some creepy music? Yes! He sent me a rough-cut video. We discussed styles and options for the music, and talked about perhaps a carnival theme. I collaborated with our arranger, Paul Cuevas, and we created a fairly simple soundtrack for that video. Robin gave feedback that it wasn’t exactly what he wanted, and said that he would wait until the films were finished before sending again. He didn’t want to waste time any more than we did. In late May, he was true to his word and sent me four short films for scoring. We discussed a crazy “Planet of the Apes” feel, so Paul and I spent a few days creating a soundtrack and even recording with the band. The following Monday, I received the call. “How do I say this? I think you missed the mark. It just doesn’t fit what I expected.”

As hard as that was to hear, my mind immediately went into “what can I do to fix this” mode. We talked about how I cannot read minds, and how this is the first time we have worked together. We knew we had a deadline of 7 days to finish the project score completely, and I alone immediately went to work creating multiple options and bouncing them to him. Digital recordings of my compositions were flying via links to clouds. Emails and calls were going back and forth for the next several hours. Then came the words I so desperately needed to hear: “You’re on the right track!”

Whew! Okay. Now to finish the other options for the films. More links, emails, and calls. I called in the band for the next night to record it at our studio. Only the bassist and percussionist were available, so I recorded the string parts (except the cello), some percussion, and the piano/synthesizer parts. One thing I knew from the very beginning was that I wanted as many REAL instruments playing as possible with little to no digital sounds. I used the synth sounds as an added effect, not as a featured instrument. This is very different than most TV and films of today, unless they have sizable budgets for huge symphonic soundtracks. But I knew it was what I wanted, and Robin agreed. I created the scores to include all of the scientific and subliminal things discussed earlier in the process, and I even included the rhythms for Morse code for “SOS.” My thoughts were to engage the mind on the deeper level. I want the music to manipulate the listener’s emotions, even if they don’t know exactly why they feel that way.

Robin attended that recording session and we were able to make instant composition changes on the spot. As an experienced studio musician, I have been the hired person to follow the composer as he (it has usually been a guy) led the musicians while the film/video was playing on a giant screen in the studio. I have been the violinist who screeches on cue in a spot to create an effect on a soundtrack. I have been part of the overall violin section in lyrical sections on a score. But this was the first time I was the composer/leader. I was the one creating the cues and the music played. As I learned what Robin wanted, I did my best to create it for him through music and sound. Changes and revisions were constant until we gave him what he wanted. As a performer, my ego must be completely set aside as I try to bring the creator’s vision to life. It’s not my vision; it is his. It is my job to simply underscore his creation in the manner he wants.

Once the music was written to fit perfectly, we recorded all of the parts that night, except the cello. Yamilet came in the very next night to record her cello tracks. Then the pre-mix started with more links and emails and calls. We scheduled the mixing and mastering session two days later, and Robin again came to the studio. The videos had changed slightly, and we were able to adapt the recordings to match. We inlaid percussion effects we had recorded individually (gong hits, bowed cymbals, reverse cymbals, and other interesting sounds) to fit the action on the screen.

While preparing the recorded music and viewing the fourth and final short film, I started humming the theme while sitting on the floor. Robin said, “Can we record THAT?” I said, “What?” He said, “You singing that part.” Surprised, I said, “Okay. We can try it.” Jerry set up the vocal mics and I immediately recorded the theme in the harmonies on six tracks (different sounds and pitches) to create a layering effect without any digital manipulation, melodyne or autotune. When we played them all together for the first time, Robin physically shuddered and said “Creepy!” with a huge grin on his face. I said, “Are you saying my voice is creepy?” He said, “Yes!” I smiled, nodded, did the rock-on hand gestures and said, “Yeah!!!! Thank you!” And that’s how vocals were added to the fourth film.

Robin left that night with a final mix-down of all of the tracks for the films, commercials, and in-park and in-house music that he requested. While the huge files were transferred, we chatted about how much we both enjoyed the process and the music. He explained that he has never worked with a composer who actually wrote for real instruments as everything on his previous projects had been done digitally or was pre-recorded music from a library. He said how much he really enjoyed working with Jerry and me, and that he wanted to work with us again on future projects. Wow! I don’t think you could have given me a greater compliment. It was perhaps one of the nicest things I have ever heard or even hoped to hear.

The next two days, we learned a video had changed again slightly, so we were happy to adjust the music and sounds as needed and sent more files flying through the clouds. I even asked Robin if I could record one more song, not for a film, but an actual full-length version of the theme I wrote for the fourth film, “Scarlett’s Theme.” Since the client now owns that theme as part of the overall soundtrack, he said he would ask the client before I took the time to write it out and record it. I agreed.

Finally, the day of delivery. I received the call that night around 6pm that everything had been accepted; everything was wonderful. Robin even told me that the client said, “And the music was PERFECT!” Again, music to my ears. I breathed a sigh of relief and satisfaction. Then more good news: I have the green light to do the full-length “Scarlett’s Theme” with Violectric and they will offer it as a digital download to their guests, as well as the entire soundtrack for all the films and in-park music. There will even be a ringtone of the tag ending. What?!?! This is fantastic! Yes!

Fortunately, the deadline for that item was a few weeks later. So I had time to write it out, have everyone in the band record their respective parts, and mix/master it for delivery.

Now, we were still under NDAs and could not tell anyone of the involvement until Busch Gardens and Sea World Parks went public with the announcement. It was difficult to keep this fabulous project under wraps for so long, especially when the first videos were live and we could hear our contributions. I wanted to shout: “I wrote that!” But I couldn’t. Until August 12. When Busch Gardens and Sea World Parks broke the news of everyone’s involvement at 10am, my phone and emails started blowing up at 10:02am. I guess I can talk about it now. After all, it’s already in the LA Times and on WorldNews.com.

I admit it – I cried. When one has been involved in so many projects that have ended up on the cutting room floor, full of empty promises, or never even made it to the finish line, this was a milestone. It became real and the whole world already knew it. It’s the sense of humility tied with the sense of accomplishment. Viewing the path of how it all came about reminds me that every day is a gift and an opportunity. Every person you meet is placed in your life for a reason. But you should never make that meeting as “how can I use them later?” Instead, take time to get to know them on a personal level. Make connections and share ideas. I never dreamed that a chance meeting at a costume party would one day turn into a shared experience of creating music to go along with someone’s ideas. I was simply enjoying that moment so many years ago, and enjoying the many recent moments, too.

Thank you, again, Robin Cowie and everyone involved, for inviting me to be on this journey with you. I loved every part of it, including the opportunity to challenge myself to create something and put it out there. That’s frightening in itself. Yet you and your team made it so worthwhile, and I am incredibly happy that I had the opportunity to work with such acclaimed industry professionals. Kudos to all, and I hope to have the opportunity to work with you again!

Video links are here:
Video links
Additional event information here:
HowlOScream

Press Releases:
LA Times LA Times
World News World News.com

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