The Synth Wizards Behind The Stranger Things Score
No show in recent memory has done more to revive the nostalgic retro-futurism of 1970s and ‘80s synth music than Stranger Things. Inspired by the classic horror and sci-fi scores and albums of John Carpenter, Giorgio Moroder, Tangerine Dream, and Vangelis, the music of the Austin, Texas-based production duo of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein has played a crucial role in the show’s success and helped propel the concept of soundtrack music into the consciousness of indie musicians.
The pair has returned to score the fourth season of Stranger Things, the first volume of which was released late May to global fanfare. While no original soundtrack has been scheduled for release, the Stranger Things score builds on the themes and aesthetics of the three previous seasons and of course includes the iconic opening synthesiser sequence.
THE STRANGER THINGS MUSIC COMPOSERS
Dixon and Stein originally met when they were teenagers. The unassuming pair bonded over shared musical interests, but did not initially collaborate creatively. Over time, their interests developed, and the pair began to make music together – eventually leading to the formation of their four-piece project S U R V I V E in 2009.
Since its inception, S U R V I V E has released a handful of excellent recordings, drawing influence from a wide range of sources, all filtered through an extensive collection of analog and modular synthesisers and drum machines.
FINDING THE DUFFER BROTHERS
Sometimes the strangest things happen by chance. The Duffer Brothers, the show’s creators and main writers, coincidentally used a S U R V I V E track as the temp music for the show’s original trailer pitch to networks. Rightfully so, the Duffers thought the music’s appealing use of retro-futuristic nostalgia perfectly captured the vibe and aesthetic of the trailer.
When the show was finally picked up by Netflix in 2015, the Duffers reached out to Stein and Dixon, convincing them to quit their normal jobs and join the production team. At this point, no actors had been cast and the characters and plot lines were still essentially concepts – leaving Dixon and Stein enormous space to create and mould music that would directly influence the course of the story.
THE OPENING SEQUENCE
While the general aesthetic of the music is highly effective, the primary cue that seems to stick the strongest is the opening sequence, “Stranger Things”. Built around a modulating, sequencer arpeggio motif, the cue is subliminal and subtle, with soft chordal stabs and a gently pulsing undercurrent that propels the music perfectly.
The opening cue was conceived during the initial burst of creativity that occurred shortly after Dixon and Stein joined the production team. After joining up, the pair began to compose and record sketches of music for the series, eventually producing over 14 hours of material for the Stranger Things soundtrack. The music that became the opening cue was among these hours of material and originally titled “Prophecy.” On suggestions from the show’s staff, the pair took this sketch and revised it, adding bold lines from classic synthesisers like the Prophet V, Roland SH-2, and Mellotron.
THE PROCESS BEHIND THE STRANGER THINGS SOUNDTRACK
Dixon and Stein have an interesting compositional approach for the sonic world of Stranger Things. Since they come from a world of creative music-making and not from a strict compositional world, their music making experience has primarily been built around exploring sounds and creating textures, atmosphere, and moods, eventually coalescing into albums.
For the Stranger Things soundtrack, Dixon and Stein have applied this type of approach: viewing their score as more of a cohesive album than a specifically applied score. That being said, there are of course long-from elements that need to be preserved across a four-season television series to give the cohesion to the storyline.
When discussing their score for the third season of Stranger Things, Stein and Dixon remarked in a Pitchfork interview that:
“With the Season 3 soundtrack, we’ve made an album that doesn’t feel like a ‘score’ necessarily, but one that feels more like a stand-alone record than a collection of brief cues…We’ve incorporated the main narrative elements of the series and stayed true to the original sound while at the same time expanding on our musical palette – we often pushed it to the limit. We’ve really made an effort to curate this album to showcase the moments we think are really special.”
Of course, a huge part of the sound world that Stein and Dixon create with Stranger Things is due to their use of classic analog synthesisers and drum machines. It’s no coincidence that the wave of synth-heavy, experimental electronic music coming from the Austin scene has evolved at a rapid pace since the opening of the synthesiser shop, Switched On. Dixon credits the store as playing a pivotal role in the electronic music scene in Austin in a Rolling Stone interview, saying “I think that’s largely due to just Switched On being a resource for people to go buy stuff.”
Stein and Dixon make use of a wide palette of gear for the Stranger Things soundtrack, including the iconic Prophet V, Arp 2600, Roland SH-2, Oberheim Two-Voice synthesisers, as well as a large collection of modular components and filters. They also employ some digital components, like the Spectrasonics Omnisphere synth VST.
Stein and Dixon have certainly made a strong impact on the world of electronic music in the last five years. What they’ve achieved with their Stranger Things soundtrack has come amongst a wave of experimental electronic artists, drawing influence from similar sources, materials, and instruments. Likewise, their work has seemingly thrust the synthesiser-based film score back into the popular consciousness in a beautiful way – we can’t wait for their next projects as the phenomenal Stranger Things starts to wrap up in July.
For more articles on Film Scores, read:
- A History of Sci-Fi Film Scores
- Film Scores That Made The Movie
- Film Scores to Listen to in 2022
- Sci-Fi Film Music
- Michael Giacchino and the Batman Soundtrack
- Movie Soundtracks
Cover Credit: Netflix
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Writer | Edward Bond
Edward Bond is a multi-instrumentalist composer, performer, and writer currently bouncing between Trondheim and Berlin. He apparently has the eyes of the devil, enjoys leopard prints, and will read your tarot, but not your future.