All In Your Head

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
People who make horror movies know that if you want to scare someone, use scary music, and when we want to explore the design of music, we call Hrishikesh Hirway from the podcast ‘Song Exploder’.

Hrishikesh Hirway:
So here are two fundamental ways to make something sound scary according to evolutionary biologist Dan Blumstein. The first way is to use lots of screechy, irregular tones.

Dan Blumstein:
Well, animals, when they’re scared, are blowing a lot of air across their vocal cords or across their syrinx, if they’re a bird, and the sounds of screams are something that is arousing and makes people feel negative.

Roman Mars:
It’s biological. Your lizard brain hears Bernard Herrmann’s knife-stabbing music in Psycho and says, “Something terrible is happening right now.”

Hrishikesh Hirway:
The second way sounds can make you feel uneasy is to go the other way -make really low, grumbling sounds with lots of bass.

Dan Blumstein:
Another biological cue that might lead to fear and anxiety is hearing low frequencies. The lowest frequency a species can produce is a function of its body size, so low frequency probably should scare you. It might mean that something big is around.

Roman Mars:
Mix those both together and you’re on your way to creating classic scary music for scary movies. But horror movies aren’t just meant to be horrifying. They’re also meant to exciting and fun, so it’s sometimes nice to have a driving beat. The music from the movie ‘Halloween’ by composer John Carpenter will always creep me out and also get me kind of excited.

David Slade:
In terms of horror movies, I certainly know that I respond to sound in horror movies in ways that are complex. John Carpenter’s soundtracks are a good example. That’s a very specific thing. It evokes dread.

Roman Mars:
David Slade is very good at evoking dread himself.

David Slade:
My name’s David Slade. I directed the pilot for the first episode of ‘Hannibal’, and I’m an executive producer on the show, and I pretty much sound mix every episode.

Roman Mars:
I’ve been binging on the TV show ‘Hannibal’ for the past couple weeks, and it really gets under your skin. It’s the story of a serial killer named Hannibal Lecter, who you may know from ‘Silence of the Lambs’ and ‘Manhunter’. This is a prequel to those stories. Hannibal is a nasty character who commits grisly and unspeakable crimes. The other main character is Will Graham, an FBI profiler who has a knack for getting inside the heads of serial killers to try to catch them. Trust me, there is nothing fun going on inside Will Graham’s head, and inside Will Graham’s head is exactly where the sound design of Hannibal is trying to place the viewer.

David Slade:
Will Graham visualizes things, and he recognizes patterns. This is what he does. He reconstructs things in his head. It’s a mental activity. Synapses firing. These are things that we wanted to make an audio analog of, so there’s a lot of clicking sounds.

Roman Mars:
This is from the first episode of ‘Hannibal’. (background music plays)

Hrishikesh Hirway:
All the classic horror movie music we mentioned before exists outside of the world of the story. In other words, it’s not being heard by the characters being depicted. It’s just being heard by the audience, but composer Brian Reitzell’s score for Hannibal feels different. You get a sense that it’s even being heard by Will Graham inside his own imagination.

Brian Reitzell:
Our whole goal with horror really is to transport people into this other reality, and it’s a scary reality. It’s a tense reality, but it’s a beautiful place, too. But to do that, I find the most effective way to scare people is to throw sounds at them that are unfamiliar to them.

Hrishikesh Hirway:
So Brian constructs new sounds that the audience can’t place to create unease.

Brian Reitzell:
“That’s not a guitar. What is that? Ahh!” A lot of what we do is create all of the sounds, so we turn all the sound effects off, and the ones we think are important we try to make something that resembles that sound or feels like that sound. I don’t differentiate, really, between ambient sounds, like a motor, and a bass. So in this case, he’s on a motorcycle. I thought it’d be really interesting to make the feeling of what it would be like being on that motorcycle. The rush of adrenaline and the wind and the sound of the engine, which is underneath you. All this is very powerful stuff, so the first idea I had was to do it with an upright bass just glissing up and down the neck, kind of revving.

Brian Reitzell:
The cue starts with the motorcycle starting up, so we do lots of little things in there to mimic or hint at those sounds. Onscreen, we’re seeing the key turn, castanets, then we see the flames from the engine. The sound of heat is me bowing a woodblock. Put some reverb on it and it sounds like smoke. The more I work with the different instruments, the more I understand what you can get out of them.

Roman Mars:
Almost all the sounds in ‘Hannibal’ start out as an acoustic element from Brian Reitzell’s workshop. Then, the effort is made to strip it of identifying characteristics that would ground the sound in the real world.

Brian Reitzell:
I’m constantly trying to ‘de-guitar’ a guitar or ‘de-drum’ a drum.

Roman Mars:
That’s Brian placing a wooden chopstick on a snare drum and pulling a violin bow across the chopstick. You could never tell by listening that a chopstick, bow, or a drum made this sound.

Hrishikesh Hirway:
Brian doesn’t just take regular instruments and make them weird. He also takes weird instruments and makes them weirder. I went around Brian’s studio as he pulled out examples of the instruments he uses. For example, the sound of synapses firing inside Will Graham’s head started out as a Newton’s cradle.

Roman Mars:
If you don’t know a Newton’s cradle by name, you definitely know the sound.

Brian Reitzell:
Right, everybody knows this. This sits on your desk.

Roman Mars:
You know, it’s that pendulum toy with the stainless steel balls all hanging from strings.

Brian Reitzell:
But what I did is I used it to create these rhythms, kind of synapse in your brain stuff, and did some different treatments of those and used those as a percussion instrument. You can see I actually broke it in the process. There were originally five balls that were a perfect unison.

Hrishikesh Hirway:
Even the most innocuous instruments turn sinister in the hands of Brian Reitzell.

Brian Reitzell:
And these sleigh bells I just used in this first episode of ‘Hannibal’ because I had snails, and I had these macro shots of snails. But really, it’s these sleigh bells, and I can go on and on.

Hrishikesh Hirway:
David Slade calls the sound design of ‘Hannibal’ free-associative. They look at the footage and talk about the characters and the feelings they’re trying to evoke from each scene and design from there.

Roman Mars:
The big bad guy in ‘Hannibal’ is, of course, Hannibal Lecter, but Will Graham also is wrestling with his own demons. He has dreamlike visions of a demon they call the Wendigo that represents both the evil of Hannibal and the evil growing inside Will Graham.

David Slade:
One of the characters that developed over time was the Wendigo character, which is the basest of horrors, and we wanted a sound that indicated the coming of that character. That sound, I knew it was circular. We didn’t know why, but we knew that was right, and-

Brian Reitzell:
I took what David said literally, and I got a bullroarer. Basically, it’s a piece of wood on a string.

David Slade:
It’s one of the oldest instruments.

Brian Reitzell:
But it sounds incredible.

David Slade:
You spin it in a circular manner-

Brian Reitzell:
And in doing so, it slices through the air creating this sound. (roaring vibrato sound)

David Slade:
Once we put it against the picture, we knew it was the right sound.

Brian Reitzell:
It’s very physical-sounding, sort of cutting through the air, spinning around your head, making it surreal yet also very physical. I also did things to that sound. I pitched it down, I pitched it up to make it scarier.

Roman Mars:
Well, mission accomplished, guys, because I’m creeped the (beep) out. Hrishikesh Hirway is the creator of ‘Song Exploder’, which I am very proud to say is now a member of the Radiotopia collective. I’m so excited. Song Exploder is one of my favorite podcasts, and the premise is just perfect. Musicians take apart their songs piece-by-piece to tell the story of how they were made. If you’ve never heard ‘Song Exploder’ before, I want to present what I think is my favorite episode so far featuring John Roderick of ‘The Long Winters’, but I have a hard time picking a favorite. I really think that you should just download them all and pick your own favorite. Now, from Radiotopia, this is ‘Song Exploder’.

George W. Bush:
“My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country. At 9′ o clock this morning, Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our space shuttle Columbia. A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas. The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.”

Hrishikesh Hirway:
That was President George W. Bush addressing the nation on February 1st, 2003. A couple years later, John Roderick, singer and songwriter of ‘The Long Winters’, recorded a song about the space shuttle Columbia on that day as it broke apart while reentering the earth’s atmosphere. It’s called ‘The Commander Thinks Aloud’. This episode is made from an interview I did with John Roderick in front of a live audience in Seattle about how and why he made this song.

[The Commander Thinks Aloud]
“Put your jackets on
I feel we’re being born
The Tropic of Capricorn is below”

John Roderick:
I am John Roderick. I had my pilot’s license when I was 17. My dad was a small plane pilot, and that was one of the ways that we bonded was in a small plane trying to make it over a mountain range. So I had a lot of experience in planes. I always loved to fly, and when the nose comes off the ground, I always feel a charge. I didn’t want to be a person that was anxious about flying.

John Roderick:
Well, at that point in 2005, we were still pretty close to 9/11, and the space shuttle disaster followed pretty close on the heels of it. But also, there were all those smaller disaster crashes. The Alaska Airlines crash that happened off the coast of California where they lost their vertical stabilizer, the jackscrew one. The pilots were aware there was a problem. Everyone was aware there was a problem. It just flew around and then flipped upside down and plummeted into the ocean. And then there was the one-off of Long Island where maybe the gas tank exploded, and then there was that Learjet that lost compression and everybody it in it, gone, until it ran out of gas. And all of these disasters stuck with me, particularly the ones where there was a sense that the people on board knew that they were lost, but they were still alive.

John Roderick:
The unfolding, dawning realization, like, we’re not getting out of this, and what’s your reaction in that situation? Do you scream? You probably don’t. Probably everybody is really calm in that situation, and so I pictured the astronauts on re-entry. They knew there was something wrong with their ship. They were worried about it, but everybody had convinced them it was going to be fine, and they’re performing their duties. They are having the peak experience of their lives, and maybe one of the peak human experiences. Like, we are coming back to Earth, having just looked down at Earth and feeling how beautiful that dumb little stuff is. The beauty of the mundane. Boys and girls in cars and dogs and birds on lawns. Seeing it like maybe no one else would ever see it.

[The Commander Thinks Aloud]
“Boys and girls in cars
Dogs and birds on lawns
From here I can touch the sun”

Hrishikesh Hirway:
Did you sit down with the idea that you were going to write a song about the space shuttle disaster?

John Roderick:
Yeah, but I didn’t know how it was going to work. Every once in awhile, you get one as a songwriter where you sit down at your instrument, you have an idea, you have a first line, you sing it and compose the entire song in an hour, and then you go, “I don’t know where that came from.”

John Roderick:
I resisted piano lessons as a kid, but sometime in high school, I started to sit at the piano voluntarily when no one was home and try and figure it out, and I got as far as you could go if you were just practicing for 11 minutes at a time. And I didn’t really learn the piano until I was in my 30s, learned the piano as much as I know it now. In the early ’90s, in Seattle especially, there was a mentality that you didn’t want to overlearn your instrument because that was going to affect the authenticity of your feelings, and I embraced that hook, line, and sinker. So the producer of this track was Tucker Martine. Tucker had just a standup parlor piano in his living room, and that was recorded in his living room. Now, we would probably just record one measure and loop it, but at the time, I had to sit and play it for five minutes, and then I would get to the end, and he’d be like, “Hmmm, let’s hit it again.”

John Roderick:
Eric Corson, Long Winters’ bass player and my chief musical partner, he sat down at the microKORG, which is not an instrument he knew, but he worked with it for a little bit and figured it out. There are five or six moments in the song that without Eric’s part, it would be so much less of a complete work. His part is very cinematic. As the song unfolds, it just starts to go sideways, and every successive verse, stuff is starting to break. Most of The Long Winters’ songs are about relationships, and they are intentionally difficult to parse because they’re meant to communicate in an emotional language rather than in a literal language. And so as I was writing this song, as I made my way through the emotional story I was trying to tell, I did arrive at a place where I was like, “I need to give a clue here somewhere.”

[The Commander Thinks Aloud]
“The crew compartment’s breaking up”

John Roderick:
I was embarrassed to say, “The crew compartment’s breaking up,” because I felt like it was too literal, and so to say, “The crew compartment’s breaking up,” the first time I went through it I was just like, “Ugh.” But it needed it.

[The Commander Thinks Aloud]
“The crew compartment’s breaking up”

John Roderick:
And the thing was, you sing it once. The second time, everybody gets it. The third time, they’ve heard it now. The fourth time, they’re like, “Okay, all right.” The fifth, sixth time, it starts to get annoying, and then a new kind of gravity enters in the seventh time. You start to feel the emotion.

[The Commander Thinks Aloud]
“The crew compartment’s breaking up
The crew compartment’s breaking up
The crew compartment’s breaking up
The crew compartment’s breaking up”

John Roderick:
And when I perform it live, if I’m not careful, I will start to cry during that part. Those are real violins, and we tried to get a little string quartet to come, and we ran several passes at it. We took that and played it double speed, and they did their own version of this swarm of bees. So we didn’t have a drummer, and it was like, “Who should we get? Should we call that one guy?” He was like, “Or I could get the best drummer in the country.” Any producer would make that choice if he had Matt Chamberlain’s number, and Tucker did. And he managed to not just introduce swing into it, but make this piano part, which on its own is very square and on top of the beat, and he played to it and introduced swing to it. Played a little bit behind and a little bit with this tremendous breath and energy, and watching it all happen was a revelation to me as a musician. I understood how much I had to learn.

John Roderick:
So what Matt did, he came in, he set up his drums, and he had one microphone that he pulled out of a bag and set up himself. And we all just were watching him like you would watch a black panther that came into your kitchen. Just like, “What’s it going to do?” And he put the microphone in front of his drums, and he was like, “Okay, record me.” And so he plays for about a minute, and he’s like, “Play that back for me,” and he listens to the track for a minute. And then he stands up, he walks around, and he moves the microphone imperceptibly. Sits back down and says, “Roll it.” And he plays all the way through the track, and I was listening to it, and I’m the songwriter and the main guy here, and I was like, “Yeah, that was pretty good. I’ve got some comments.” And we got to the end, and he was like, “Okay, roll it again,” and he didn’t wait to hear any comments from the songwriter, which is like, “All right.”

John Roderick:
He played through it again, and I was like, “That was an interesting variation,” and he was like, “Give it to me again.” He did that five times, and then he’s like, “All right, I’m coming into the control room.” And he comes in, he sits down, and he’s like, “Okay, pan those five tracks – hard left, middle left, center, middle right, hard right in the order that I recorded them.” Five mono drum parts, and he had the foresight that there are drum fills that start on track and continue through all five tracks. So you hear about guys and you’re like, “Oh, that guy’s amazing,” but this was something truly amazing. As part of his drum kit, I forgot to mention, he has a piece of rusty sheet metal just attached to a clamp, and he starts to go up to this sheet metal. And all of that sheet metal noise that he was creating, the whole end of the tune where the spaceship is coming apart, he was making that sound on the rusty metal.

John Roderick:
He had a vision of the song that I didn’t even have. The title of the song wasn’t clear until right about this point in the recording, and so then if the commander’s thinking aloud, why is he telling this story?

[The Commander Thinks Aloud]
“This is all I wanted to bring home
This is all I wanted to bring home to you”

John Roderick:
That’s his last word, I guess.

Hrishikesh Hirway:
Did you have a sense of who he was addressing when he says that?

John Roderick:
I don’t publicly out myself as a utopian and a people-lover because it’s not my brand, but I’m an idealist, and I love humanity and I imagine us as all on a ship together and all with a common cause. And space exploration seems like the ultimate expression of human beings doing their best work. So I imagine he’s bringing that back to us, all of us. Something that if we could only share that, the simple feeling of just, “Why the hell did we go up into space?” We go up into space to bring back that little tantalizing vision of the earth being a borderless place full of birds and boys and girls.

Hrishikesh Hirway:
And now, here’s ‘The Commander Thinks Aloud’ by The Long Winters in its entirety.

[The Commander Thinks Aloud plays]

  1. Jen

    Great interview, the sound on this show is amazing! One of the many things people don’t think about when watching TV is the sound/soundtrack.

  2. VinylMurdersuit

    The Hannibal soundtrack is an additional character in the show, it supports the acting and drives the mood. The ticking clock that ran through Mizumono built the tension, even if you weren’t always consciously aware that you were hearing it. Ever since I noticed the strength of the soundtrack, I often listen to Hannibal through headphones to fully immerse myself in the detail. Congrats and thanks to Brian and David for their amazing work!

  3. theslyon

    I’ve loved 99pi for a while now, but they may have lost a listener now that they got me hooked on Song Exploder.

  4. Chris

    That segment from Song Exploder is likely the best thing I’ve ever heard in six years of listening to podcasts every day. I can never say what nerve it touched, but it was palpable.

  5. Andrea

    Driving in early,not many cars on the road, listening to this episode on my way to work. A car passed me unexpectedly on my right, and it scared the s**t outa me! All because of that creepy music you made me listen to! It worked. :) Great episode!

  6. Jessica

    When John Roderick is talking about the crew compartment breaking up, I got gooesbumps and nearly cried. At work. Thank you for that. It sounds snarky, but I’m serious. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

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

All Categories

Playlist