w

0

Top 5 Horror Soundtracks and How to Recreate Them

20/10/2022

Horror soundtracks often require a lot of the most unique and creative techniques to create the bone-chilling sounds we know and love. So, how do we go about making these kinds of tracks, and what do the real composers use to do it? Let’s break down the sounds behind some of our favourite horror media.

Suspiria (1977)

A screenshot of a scene in Suspiria (1977)

Creative Commons License by Picryl

For Suspiria, Italian rock band Goblin took advantage of a broad range of folk instruments and melded them with synthesizers, blending this with their established prog-rock stylings.

The opening theme starts slow and atmospheric, driven by the new folk instruments they’ve added to their style before erupting into a galloping, chaotic piece of cinematic rock.

The bouzouki, tabla, and music box are as central to this soundtrack as guitars, drums, and keyboards. Entire bands are rarely employed to score films, but Goblin show that a collective approach to creating unsettling music can work just as well.

Suspiria’s soundtrack feels like a full album in its own right, but it also makes for the perfect accompaniment to Dario Argento’s beautiful, otherworldly film.

As the film gradually descends into supernatural chaos, we start to hear more keyboards: organs, Mellotron, and Moog synthesizers (both the Minimoog and the System 55).


Software

A studio with Native Instruments’ Komplete Standard bundleA wide range of sampling is needed to recreate Goblin’s work for Suspiria, and a few sample packs would be up to the task.

Having said this, Native Instruments’ Komplete Standard bundle is ideal for getting you started.

There are some folk instrument libraries within Native Instruments’ Spotlight Collection that include the tabla.

Plus, you can find some Turkish instruments such as the Oud, Saz, Tanbur, and Kemençe which share enough in common with the bouzouki that they can take up similar sonic timbres despite their differing origins.

Combine this with some music box sample libraries to run in Kontakt, and you’re ready to get into the strange, organic soundscapes of Goblin.

Of course, without software emulations of the various keyboards, this soundtrack wouldn’t be achievable. The band relied on the Mellotron, Elka organ, Celesta, Rhodes electric piano, grand piano, Minimoog, and System 55 for key sounds.

Fortunately, Celesta, Rhodes and grand piano sounds are included within Native Instruments Komplete Standard, so this should already be covered.

And the best option to cover the rest – if you’re into keyboard sounds – might just be Arturia’s V-Collection 9. A full software collection of famous keyboards throughout history, it includes the Mellotron, a range of organs, Rhodes, Minimoog, and Moog modular emulations.

It also recreates many of the synthesizers we’ll see throughout this list, as well as plenty of other synth emulations that might help you achieve your own unique sonic palette.


Hardware

For the rest of the instruments, the band use exactly what you’d expect: drums, electric and acoustic guitars, and bass. There isn’t any specific information on most of these instruments, and whatever you have to hand should be more than enough to get the job done.

So, what about the less common instruments? Fortunately, bouzoukis and tablas are commonly used throughout music production and are readily available. The Ozark 2222 Flat Back Bouzouki is the perfect entry-level version of this instrument to learn on. Combine this with our Tabla Set by Gear4music, and use whatever microphones you have to hand to capture the proggy, atmospheric chaos!

Stranger Things (2016 – present)

A snapshot of three characters in Stranger Things

Creative Commons License by Budiey

We all love the retro, ’80s-tinged experimentation and texture of Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon’s work in the Stranger Things soundtrack. The duo from the synthwave band S U R V I V E have drawn from ’80s synthpop, experimental electronic music, and classic horror soundtracks of the ’70s and ’80s to create the sonic palette of the show.

The main theme for the show was played by hand on an Oberheim Two-Voice, with keys from a Sequential Prophet 5, bass from the Roland SH-2, and a heartbeat sound effect from the Sequential Pro One.

There are other synths in their arsenal throughout their scoring.

Primarily, the composers say they’ve used a lot of the Sequential Prophet 6 – the main synth behind the bouncy, upbeat track “Kids”, the ARP 2600 for bass and sound effects, and Moog’s modular System 55. The latter comprised many unique sound effects, as well as the theme for the Upside Down – which couldn’t be made with a keyboard synth as its unique notes are microtonal.

There are just a few problems: Dixon and Stein’s extensive synth collection is both extremely expensive and consists of a lot of rare vintage units that are very difficult to pin down. So, let’s get creative and see how we can get close to a fraction of their stacked studio.


Software

Firstly, for the main theme arpeggio, we have the GForce Oberheim SEM.

This is a recreation of the Oberheim SEM module, the monophonic synth voice on which the Two-Voice was based. There are other excellent software recreations available, but this is the only one approved by Tom Oberheim himself.

For the keys and heartbeat effect, u-he’s Repro is perfect. A spiritual software successor to the Sequential Prophet 5 and Pro One simultaneously, this gives you the exact sonic palette used by Stein and Dixon in an instant – as both of these instruments are used all over the soundtrack.

The other approach to software is an all-in-one solution. Something like u-he’s Diva, a virtual analog software synth that recreates oscillators and filters from the most famous vintage hardware.

With some creative thinking and programming, you can accurately recreate all these sounds from scratch.

The u-he Diva Virtual Analog Synthesizer


Hardware

For anyone interested in hands-on synthesis, keeping with the workflow of Stein and Dixon, there’s a range of hardware synths out there. You could blend these with software or a few other units whilst retaining the spirit of the soundtrack.

First up is the Behringer 2600. The original vintage unit this semi-modular behemoth was based on is used all over the duo’s work. It could easily fill in for the Roland SH-2 for dark, growling bass, and it creates the same sound effects, leads, and basses as the Pro One. Plus, the 2600 gives you access to a range of modular capabilities and unique sound design options. All of this in a single unit is a great value place to start!

Next, I recommend Moog’s semi-modular offerings. Going back to their roots and original designs, the Mother-32, Grandmother, and Matriarch all pull their heritage from Moog’s old modular systems. The oscillators taken from these systems, their beautifully saturating mixer, and the classic ladder filter, again, give you the palette of vintage modular in a modern package.

Finally, the Sequential Prophet 6 is probably the go-to choice for emulating that Stranger Things sound. Dixon and Stein leaned heavily on a lot of Sequential synths, and the Prophet 6 is foundational to the classic-yet-modern sound of Stranger Things. Whilst offering many of the same modulation routings as its vintage sibling, the Prophet 6 adds modern features like stereo panning, sequencing, arpeggiation, built-in effects, and a gnarly distortion that’ll easily drive you into those horror-tinged sounds.

The Sequential Prophet 6 6-Voice Analog Synthesizer


 

Saw (2004 – present)

An enduring classic of modern horror, the sounds of the Saw franchise are metallic, creepy, and atmospheric. Composer Charlie Clouser is known for injecting fast-paced percussion, synthesizers, and pedal steel guitar into his work, matching the frantic, urgent atmosphere of the movies. Charlie’s work as a keyboard player with Nine Inch Nails has definitely influenced the industrial textures heard in Saw.

The sounds of Saw are less focused on synthesizers and more on organic sounds and unique drones. In the first film, for example, Charlie’s main goal was to structure noise, drones, metallic percussion, and mangled samples throughout the soundtrack. He tried to avoid traditional musical structure as much as possible until the now-iconic twist reveal and the introduction of “Hello Zepp”.

To achieve these sounds, Charlie would take field recordings or samples from libraries he’d purchased and manipulate them through guitar pedals and plug-ins afterwards, or use lap steel guitars, guitar synths, or hardware synthesizers as otherworldly drones. Clouser even describes taking recordings of trains and throwing wire coat hangers and tiled floors and then time-stretching them.

Pushing every sound to its limit is the only real rule here.


Software

For software, Charlie mainly relies on the ES2 software synthesizer and EXS24 sampler built into Logic Pro X, his DAW of choice. If you aren’t a Logic user or are already settled on the DAW you want, however, there are still plenty of viable options.

Generally, I’d advise using whatever’s built into your DAW and investing in some sample libraries. Audiomodern’s Shift series of found sounds and percussive loops keeps with Charlie’s style. Anything metallic, percussive, and atmospheric would work well.

With a focus on sampling and a mention of Native Instruments’ Reaktor in some interviews, a Native Instruments Komplete bundle is a great place to start. It’s full of sample libraries, sampling tools, audio effects, software synthesizers, and plenty of effects to create your own unique sounds from scratch.

The Native Instruments Komplete bundle


Other hardware

The Lap Steel Guitar, Slide and Stand by Gear4music in a living room, standing in front of a sofaAs mentioned, Charlie relies a lot on samples and field recordings. A handheld field recorder to record your own material is essential to this process.

Zoom’s H4n Pro is an ideal starting point to get out into the world or around your studio and record some strange, textured sounds to manipulate in your DAW.

Another major aspect of Saw’s sound comes from guitars. Charlie uses lap steel guitars in conjunction with guitar synth pedals, octave pedals, distortion, reverbs, and delays to create warped, semi-organic drones.

A good entry point into this style would be Gear4music’s own Lap Steel Guitar, which comes with its own slide and stand to get you started right off the bat.

In terms of guitar pedals to process this lap steel with, the Electro Harmonix Superego Plus guitar synth is one of Charlie’s go-to choices.

He also uses pitch-shifting devices like the Pitch Fork and POG 2, as well as their Freeze sound retainer. In case you couldn’t tell, he’s a fan of Electro Harmonix pedals!


Synthesizers

For synthesizers, Charlie uses a lot of early digital synths and a lot of modular synths, as well as an old ARP Solus, a Moog Minimoog, and a Korg MS-20. A lot of the old rack-based units Charlie uses for his strange and unique digital drones aren’t available anymore, but the Waldorf Microwave is a personal favourite of his.

To achieve the sounds of the ARP Solus, the Korg reissue of the ARP Odyssey comes extremely close. Pairing this with a Behringer Model D for that distinctive Mini sound will let you access the analog keyboard side of Charlie’s synthesis.

Meanwhile, the more digital sounds can be achieved through the Microwave’s successor, the Waldorf M. However, the Waldorf Blofeld is also a good budget-friendly option that features many wavetables from the Microwave as well.

The Waldorf M Wavetable Synthesizer in blue, against a grey background

Halloween (1978)

A modular synth with a black background

The soundtrack work of John Carpenter’s bone-chilling, synth-driven music is very much synthesizer-focused.

Using a dark atmosphere that would go on to inspire countless composers, Carpenter’s work has set the standard for horror soundtracks to this day. Not only that, but Carpenter also wrote the film alongside Debra Hill, and directed it himself!

Carpenter’s talent is undeniable, and his approach is primarily focused on setting up musical themes through improvisation while rarely referencing or synchronizing to what’s on-screen.

Drawing from the work of Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone, and Goblin’s work on Suspiria, Carpenter’s approach is minimal, tense, and driven by piano, with just a few synthesizer layers as accompaniment.

In fact, when meeting Goblin for the first time, Carpenter told them “I know you, I stole all your music”.

The soundtrack for Halloween was made using whatever equipment the studio had – namely, a Moog IIIC modular system and a piano. Built between 1967 and 1973, this system pre-dates the popular System 55.

Moog’s modular reissues and vintage units cost close to £50,000 – and it’s safe to assume that this is probably out of reach for most of us. However, there are plenty of alternatives – both software and hardware.


Software

The best way to recreate this minimal setup would be to directly cover piano sounds and modular.

For piano, Addictive Keys: Modern Upright is a great way of getting upright piano sounds that can fit the unnerving, sharp key strikes that feel way too close.

Combine this with Cherry Audio’s ever-expandable Voltage Modular Ignite 2 system, and you can explore modular synthesis in a VST easily, with plenty of bolt-on packages to expand and explore your own sounds as you go.


Hardware

Behringer SYSTEM modular synthesizerAs far as hardware is concerned, a digital piano or hammer-weighted MIDI keyboard is a good place to start.

Korg’s C1 Digital Piano has a fantastic keybed and MIDI connectivity if you can fit the wooden frame into your space.

If you’re tighter on space though, a weighted MIDI keyboard like the Arturia Keylab 88 would work well as it features DAW integration, CV connectivity for working with modular synths, and integration with Arturia’s software synthesizers.

For synths, Behringer offer a range of systems at different price points, such as their SYSTEM 15, SYSTEM 35, and SYSTEM 55 modular.

These are great places to get some of the modular sound explorations that the original System III would have encouraged.

While the original experience is difficult to fully mimic, these options are as close as it gets.

It Follows (2014)

The synth-driven work of composer Richard Vreeland, known as Disasterpeace, in It Follows is probably one of the most unique horror soundtracks to be released in the modern era.

Richard Vreeland’s sound palette is a cacophony of noisy, degraded synth sounds and softer digital noises that build tension with the slow-burning dread of the movie. It feels vaguely reminiscent of old video game chiptune music but modernised, warped, and distorted.

Vreeland cited John Carpenter, John Cage, Penderecki, Vangelis, and Goblin as influences on his work for the film. Director David Robert Mitchell heavily utilised Vreeland’s work on the video game FEZ, and it was placed as a temporary score, which made him reach out to the composer and offer him a copy of the script.

Showing the value of making the best of what you have, Disasterpeace used a minimal approach, composing pieces on his upright piano before taking them into his DAW, using only Native Instruments’ Massive software synthesizer and a range of effects plugins to shape the soundtrack.


Software

a screenshot of the Soundtoys Effect Rack 5Disasterpeace only used software and his piano to compose the soundtrack for It Follows. Native Instruments Komplete 14 Select includes Massive, as well as a good range of other tools that you could use for your own compositions at a reasonable price. But you’ll need some good sound design tools and effects plugins to go with it.

We haven’t discussed sound processing too much as everyone’s tastes are different. However, for Vreeland’s sound palette, he mentions relying heavily on extremely aggressive tape saturation – to the point that they were worried an initial mix of the score for the opening scene would blow people’s subwoofers at home!

We can also hear a lot of bitcrushing being used, and large, cavernous reverbs and delays for atmosphere and space.

My go-to would be suites of creative tools that let you shape effects chains. Soundtoys Effect Rack 5 is a good option here as it should creatively cover a lot of the territory you need, from naturalistic tape saturation to grainy preamp distortion in Decapitator, delays from EchoBoy, and a whole range of other modules that you can feed into each other.

Pair with D16 Group’s Decimort Bit Crusher and Eventide’s MangledVerb for bitcrushing and booming, modulated reverbs, and you can cover the warped, blown-out sounds of Vreeland’s work.

Create your own spine-tingling horror soundtrack

There’s a wide range of instruments that are commonly used on horror soundtracks – most typically synths and guitars. But scoring horror is more about a mindset and approach that may seem unintuitive to many traditional musicians.

Focusing on texture and manipulation of sounds to create emotion, horror soundtracking is about experimentation and mangling whatever you have to create sounds that nobody’s ever really heard before.

However, looking at a lot of the most commonly used equipment, we definitely see some trends that might help you figure out sound palettes that fit your style or let you emulate your favourites.

Pianos and Moog and Sequential synthesizers are extremely popular. Moog are relied on for their distinctive ladder filters and modular gear that promotes exploration and experimentation. Meanwhile, Sequential’s Prophet series provides classic analog flavour and sonic flexibility thanks to the stranger, noisier side that its PolyMod routing section allows you to access.

As far as software goes, a Native Instruments Komplete package includes a range of samples, synths, and effects to explore. Arturia’s V-Collection 9 or u-he’s Diva are likely the best value for money.

A wide range of modular and semi-modular synths are also used for horror scoring due to their unique ability to create sounds in more experimental ways, using patching to open up whole new worlds of sound. Whether you want to build a Eurorack system that’s unique to you or purchase a pre-built modular system, we have plenty to offer in this range.

A man in the studio with synths and modular systems

Final tips

If the products we’ve discussed seem past your budget – look for synthesizers with flexible modulation options or cheaper alternatives from the same manufacturers. Anything that you can get deep with and explore is perfect for horror scoring. And so are semi-modular synths, if the steep initial cost of Eurorack is too much for you!

For sound design, oscillator and filter FM and modulating parameters with a synth’s internal noise generator are perfect ways of creating warped or noisy textures. Simple waveforms like sine and triangle shapes tend to take distortion better, so if you want to grunge up a basic sound, keep that in mind. Try to build a fairly basic patch and let the distortion shape your sound afterwards.

Pitch modulation is a good way of making things sound subtly warbly, worn-down, or like a broken instrument as well!

Feedback is also great for achieving those cinematic horror sounds, but it can be difficult to experiment with without risking your ears. When trying this, work at low volumes and place a limiter on any feedback channels to avoid damaging your hearing and clipping in your DAW.

You can create feedback with just plugins too! Use buses or creative channel routing in your DAW to feed sounds into one another and create harsh or subtle yet foreboding noises.

Finally, effects are everything to horror sounds. Really try to explore mangling sounds and putting effects plugins or pedals in orders that you usually wouldn’t – time-stretch a drum hit, send it into a reverb, then that reverb into distortion, then the distortion into more reverb, or a warbly chorus. Experiment until you find what you think works best with whatever emotion’s on-screen or in the script.

Save the sounds you enjoy most to use as recurring themes or sonic motifs. And above all, there are no set rules with this kind of scoring, so remember to enjoy it!

 

Content Writer - Live Sound

Callum is a former audio and music technology student who has a love of punk, rock, metal, and electronic music. In his spare time, he produces music, and DJs occasionally. He's also a freelance engineer when possible, helping local bands make their noise even noisier.

RELATED ARTICLES

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share This