Behind the horror: Exclusive report about switch.’s “Dark Matter” by Adam Gubman
Trailer Music is made to let people act as if they were controlled by a higher power. This power can force them either to listen to a track, an album again and again or the power can control them letting them want to watch a movie. Every powerful force can either work on the bright side or the dark one. Switch.‘s latest album “Dark Matter” is now more part of the latter one. It creates an atmosphere which would let you kill people if they stop you from watching this specific movie after watching the trailer with Adam Gubman’s music in it.
We are very excited about this album. Adam did an incredible job writing this music and each cue has such a unique flavor to it. We haven’t heard anything like this in the trailer world before, and hope that you all hear some of these cues pop up on trailers in the near future!
Let’s get ready…
Bad news first: Dark Matter won’t be released to the public soon. For now it’s only available to trailer companies. I was lucky to get access to the entire album though and will try to give you an impression of it as good as I can. This is probably the longest post I’ve ever written for this site (also thanks to the amazing replies especially by Adam himself) and I hope you’ll understand why. I’ll keep the introduction about the guy who lets you act like every murderer in a Stephen King horror movie pretty short because every quote should describe him best. You’ll read a lot about the entire process behind Dark Matter before I’ll finish this post with a description of what every tracks brings to my imagination, ending everything with personal questions about horror movies answered by the one great guy behind Dark Matter:
One of the most versatile composers, songwriters, and arrangers in the industry, Adam Gubman’s work has been featured on dozens of television shows and commercials.
That’s what his Booking Agent Adam Levenson once wrote about composer Adam Gubman. Whenever I read something like that about people I get really suspicious. So I listened to “Dark Matter” even more carefully. And again. And again. And again… I couldn’t stop listening and suddenly I felt that I never had a bigger desire to watch a horror movie. The thing is: I’ve never been a fan of horror movies and I never had a real interest in their Trailer Music or scores. This changed a bit with the introduction of composer Juan Iglesias but when Adam Gubman told me the following I really felt extremely guilty about having horror scores underrated for so long:
Horror is the MOST underrated genre in film music. It’s often written off as being gratuitous or silly, or taken for granted because of the nature of the films themselves. I think that what composers are doing in horror music now is still highly thematic and constantly pushing the boundaries in both production and orchestration. Hopefully Dark Matter is a good example of how varied the approach can be, as some pretty broad strokes were taken between cues to represent certain niches and styles.
Asking about advises for composers new to the business he added the following:
I think in the horror genre three main things to think about are melody vs. dissonance/atonality, beauty vs. disgusting/sad/scary, and orchestral/synth effects. These things seem to be common in a lot of horror music.
High Quality Horror…
So why is “Dark Matter” so special when you’re listening to it? I think one of the most important things is that everything has been recorded live at Bastyr in 5.1 as Adam Gubman and Nick Murray, executive producer of switch. told us extensively:
Adam: This was a milestone work in my career as this was the first large-scope trailer project I’ve worked on. Most of the trailer-esque library stuff I’ve written in the past has been modularly orchestral, with some spot players, or live strings only, or live brass only, but this is really my first big body of ANY work done entirely with live orchestra (all brass, winds, and strings) with some synth elements added in for flavor. I feel like it shows in the emotion and feel, that certain ‘can’t put your finger on it’ feeling when you hear real musicians rather than a keyboard playing your work. It just…FEELS good to hear them play it; and many of us spend a ton of time trying to get our DAW’s to do what these guys did in minutes. Anytime you can hear an orchestra playing something real there is an instant connection between the players and the audience, and the emotion is more intricately shaded and intimate; I think this is important not just as a marketing tool, but for composers to consider. Even having ONE live instrument on a recording completely changes everything. A full ensemble is absolutely magical.
We recorded all of the orchestral effects live. We didn’t want to use library-based effects considering there are only a few good orchestral effect libraries on the market and everybody uses them. For the same reason, We stayed away from the old standard percussion effect and drum libraries, and created all of our own synth sounds. We did a lot of tweaking on drama and impact effects to get the sounds we wanted… I think we probably put just as much time into the back and production as I did into the writing and orchestration. During the recording sessions, we did a few special recording passes of string effects on the fly, and it was very fun and collaborative to see how these effects could become so dynamic and alive on each pass!
Nick: We wanted to create somewhat of a retro sound with this, so we recorded a full 57 piece orchestra together. This is the first time I’ve actually done this. Normally we record strings all by themselves, then the string players leave, and all the brass players come in and we record them separately, etc. Each section is usually recorded on it’s own for mixing purposes. But this isn’t how it used to be done, so we went old school, and recorded them together to really capture the continuity and overall sound of the orchestra. We did, however, record the choir separately, so that we can have no-choir versions. It came together quite amazingly and was mixed in 5.1 surround sound by Jake Jackson (who did our album Vanguard as well).
The album was mastered by the award-winning engineer Pat Sullivan, who after 20 or so years mastering scores and trailer music said “This is the first trailer music album I’ve mastered in 5.1 surround.”
The retro sound Nick Murray speaks about it another part of the album which will never leave you after listening to Dark Matter. For almost 30 minutes it feels as if you visit a place that has been important for you being a child: Everything feels so well known, so familiar and yet a lot has changed. A lot of bad things happened to you which you haven’t thought about before returning to this place. You would like to be as free as you felt back then but you can’t return. You want to live through the beautiful emotions you felt back then but reality strikes you again and again with the strong force only truth is capable of.
Only horror would be too easy…
But this is only the darkest part of Dark Matter. Adam speaks about Dark Matter as a Trailer Music album for “‘jump scare” horror films. PG-13 films that are not slasher horror.” And also Nick Murray mentioned that they wanted to focus on PG-13 horror movies [Parents Strongly Cautioned] meaning that you can visit the cinematic playground no matter how old you are but only with your parents when you under 13.
At switch. we try to take extra time to make sure we’re doing something that is extra-creative and outside-the-box. Dark Matter is no different. All 12 of these cues are orchestral horror in nature, meant for films that are more of your PG-13 horror movies. You know, the kind that has a creepy little kid ghost, a haunted house, etc. Each of these cues tell somewhat of a story and create the perfect backdrop for these types of trailers. Many of the cues could be used in other types of trailers as well. They are quite versatile.
If Dark Matter was a brain…
Speaking about versatility again: I’d say that if Dark Matter was a brain it would probably drive as person insane due to tons of brilliant ideas it combines. Every single tone transfers the enthusiasm Adam Gubamn brought to the project. As Nick Murray told me this is also why it all went a bit different than it was planned:
I approached Adam about co-writing a horror album and asked him to do a couple demo orchestral horror ideas. I was going to do half the album and make them more modern glitchy horror cues. After Adam sent me his first couple ideas, I knew we had something special. I told him that we needed to do a full album of this and that my modern sound-design album would be a separate thing.
Nick Murray’s seperate sound-design album Synthetica will be released late June and it will be “all modern glitchy horror”.
The freedom Nick Murray guaranteed for composing Dark Matter should be another important part of why it came out so great. Additionally the importance of a high quality production was the base of any creative effort. Here’s what Adam Gubman told us about their cooperation:
Not only did Nick grant me the license to write in any emotional direction I felt appropriate, but the quality of the production in scope and approach was more detailed than anything I’ve ever worked on because Nick has the attitude that to compete with the best products and work in the industry, you have to invest in a great team. We had an amazing orchestra, orchestrator [Note: Nick and Adam were not aloud to tell us his name but that he has worked on "a lot of big and familiar (and beloved) horror movies"], engineer [Jake Jackson], and mastering engineer [Pat Sullivan] that really helped to bring this work to life.
Working with a great orchestrator who understands horror music was essential for us on this project. It was crucial to have someone help with the proper notation of the orchestral effects… In college I experimented a lot with graphic notation and alternative playing techniques in different instrument groups, but there is a big difference between academic notation and practical studio notation that I learned a lot about working with the orchestrator. It is also nice to have someone double check your voicings and instruments ranges… I am so glad to have had him on board.
A special project…
Maybe this is one reason why this record was so special to Adam Gubman:
I feel like there is a lot of ‘me’ in this work. Much of my body of professional work has been in video games and television news (NBC, Today Show), so I’m often times asked to channel other composers work and to compose off of very strict temp music, and mostly with keyboards. On Dark Matter, I wrote what I wanted to write; I tried to keep things fresh and progressing, and pull away from standard trailer music rhythms and melodies. I wanted to write something that stood alone as listenable work, and also fit the time and cut format of trailers. I’m thrilled with the way this came out and I really hope people enjoy and make use of it!
Not to mention I absolutely LOVE conducting and directing and I haven’t been able to conduct a group this size since college. It was a pure pleasure and joy to work with the seasoned players at Bastyr, Seattle, and I really hope that joy comes across in the recordings. One of the coolest things about the group was having an opportunity to work with their concert master, Simon James and contractor David Sabee, who were essential in helping to keep things moving right along. We had twelve cues and multiple overdubs to track in one day, and if it wasn’t for the professionalism and artistry of the players, that would have been utterly impossible.
I was so nervous before [conducting] the first cue that I was shaking a little bit, but after the downbeat the adrenaline kicked in and I was fine. It was amazing to hear how loud and powerful the brass section was, and how magical everything sounded live considering we had been living with these cues for months before all in midi format!
I guess you asked yourself already who created the disturbing cover art of Dark Matter. Here’s the interesting fact Nick Murray told us about it:
Besides the child on the cover there’s also the usage of a music box and a children’s choir which directly create the typical creepy atmosphere we know from horror scores. This is why I wanted to know how it felt for Adam Gubman, head of a family, to use children in such a horrifying way. Everything came out a bit different than I expected:
It was the first time I’ve experimented with it [a music box]. I did a lot of pitching and editing to get it to sound appropriate; some glitchy stuff, reverse entrances etc. Music box is a classic creepy horror approach, and over the correct visuals can be really scary!
The two younger singers were both piano students of mine at one point. Adrienne Dunworth [to be heard in "Apparitions"], and Alyssa Emerick [t. b. h. in "Tiny Caskets"] both did an amazing job. The alternative take we did on Apparitions was with the women in the choir at Bastyr, and Nick had directed them to sound as child-like as possible. It was such a fun and collaborative session that we got some really interesting material from the musicians!
Imaginations and Apparitions created by 12 1/2 Dark Matter pieces…
Before you’ll read some personal questions about Adam Gubman’s relationship to horror movies, I got to say again that the versatility is what makes Dark Matter so special. I expected just a shocking album which scares me from the first to the last second. But that’s not what Dark Matter is about. As Nick mentioned before Dark Matter is not only a horror album. Cirque du la Mort for example (one of Adam’s favorite tracks from the album) could also be used in trailers for comedy. I’ve had an excellent time listening to the cues. One might say that I really had fun listening to a horror Trailer Music album. But let me tell you know shortly how I still experienced every piece of Dark Matter after listening to them about 10 million times.
Wither takes you deeper and deeper into a dark forest or another dark place and you can not tell wether it’s only part of your desperate imagination, only a neccesary behaviour to hold back the scary reality getting stronger and stronger. In the end you gotta let go and find yourself lying on the floor staring stunned on what somebody else (or maybe it was you?) has done.
Tiny Caskets, one of the two “children’s choir” pieces starts with the beautiful but somehow sad voice of a child and then the orchestra slowly takes you away to a place where nothing can be changed anymore. You somehow feel melancholic but deep within there is something telling you that everything was worth it and everything happened for a reason. This chapter of your life can finally be closed (either because anybody is dead but probably because everyone or at least most of the people survived something rather well).
My Coffin, Your Closet starts as if you were in the dark, tiptoing carefully before suddenly the choir exposes you. Maybe you did something terrible, maybe you find something inexpressible. You’ll hear the choir in the preview but the entire piece feels totally different ending with a backwards played sound leaving you again alone.
Antiseptic, Rubber, Scalpel: Beginning in a time long ago and getting more and more intense. You know that something will be behind the corner. Than: Nothing. You don’t know what’s going on, look around, wanting to find a hint about what’s going on and then suddenly get closer and closer to something menacing until…. the protagonist sees something you cannot see. Not yet.
March of the Undead starting with a choral Staccato, taking you then to a wonderful szene but then leaving you with thousands of crazy voices. Then beautiful voices start before the march of the undead really begins. But you feel more fascinated by it than scared. In the end everything is fine as if you woke up from a dream. Than you wake up from the ticking of a music box. Playing nicely. Strings enter. Everything gets louder and louder. Drums and choir start. Everything rises up melodically until the big Trailer Music typical ‘all together – pause – all together – pause moment’ kicks in and the music box finishes everything.
Now a Apparitions enters the room. Beautifully. Suddenly a childish voice starts rather creepy. Strings tell you that everything’s alright. Though not everything feels safe.
Apparitions (Alternate) multiples the voice to a group of angel-like creatures who are there to protect you. But maybe your already dead.
Cirque du la Mort doesn’t sound like a Circus of Death. Maybe that’s a trick and everybody only appears to be happy and joyful. Anyways this is by far the happiest track on Dark Matter and simply catches you and throughs you directly into the manège.
They Will Claw Out Your Eyes leaves you unsteady, anxious. Everything feels unreal. Weird sounds everywhere. You can’t do anything about it. Everything evil has taken over the place. No, there’s no dark forces, everything’s fine. It ends. Or maybe not. You can’t be sure.
Then Congregate (which I could maybe call my favorite track) rises up. The choir so oddly distorted that you can’t understand a thing but you know exactly that it’s already too late to run away. It’s only getting worse and worse. It’s so distorted that you can’t take the voices seriously. Yet they are to powerful and dangerous to simply laugh about them.
In Dream of Her (another of Adam’s favorites) you can imagine a family sitting peacefully on a sunny day picnicing under a tree and then only several seconds later you find yourself in the middle of cruel confession or even a murder.
Grandma’s Attic which rather sounds as if your grandma has revived now from the dead and is ready to kill everyone. Or it’s about a angst-inducing discovery you make after opening a secretly hidden box full of diaries and long forgotten letters.
Maybe you can imagine a bit now how it feels to have Dark Matter in your ears and mind. Let’s hope that we all can buy it in the future. The next horror trailer you like will probably shackle you not due to it’s blank terror but through its playful and light approach which will scare you even more.
Let’s see how real these horror fans are…
Nick Murray interviewed Adam Gubman a while ago for his show trailersound about Dark Matter and everything around it. So here you’ll have both not only as letters on a page but as living people who are responsible for everything you read so far. Below you’ll find a personal Q&A with Adam about horror movies.
Are you a big fan of horror movies yourself?
I’m a HUGE horror movie fan, and have a substantial collection!!! The first horror movie I ever saw that scared me half to death was when I stumbled across my parents watching ‘The Haunting of Julia’ or ‘Full Circle’ (1977). This was probably in 1986, so I was in first grade. There is a horrific scene right in the beginning where a girl chokes on an apple in the kitchen and her mom slits her throat to try and get her to stop. I’ll never forget the shock and disgust I felt as a small boy seeing something like that for the first time. Here‘s the disturbing main theme by Colin Towns: The piano that comes in after the first minute or so is absolutely lovely.
Do you have any favorite(s)?
Too too many to name. I love the original Amityville Horror (and subsequently it’s main theme), all the Book of the Dead films, almost anything with a Zombie in it, anything Hitchcock, most movies by Tim Burton, of course things like the Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby…list goes on and on.
What was the last horror movie you watched and how did you like it?
Just last night I saw ‘Dark Skies’, with a disturbing score by Joseph Bishara (who’s work always surprises me!). It was definitely the scariest ‘alien abduction’ genre film I’ve seen, but I’m a huge fan of Keri Russell too, so it wasn’t hard to watch!
Do you remember a specially haunting score from a movie or even a Trailer Music track for a horror movie? What makes it so haunting? Did you use likewise methods in Dark Matter?
This is such a hard question because there are so many amazing horror soundtracks I adore!! Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Jeff Grace (Inkeepers, I Sell The Dead). I find his work to be quirky and intricate, and I think he’s a rising star in the genre. It’s not hard to mention composers like Christopher Young (the amazing Sinister and Exorcism of Emily Rose are my favorites!), Nathan Barr, (Hostel) previously mentioned Joseph Bishara (for his musique concrete approach and aggressive electronic editing check out Insidious; and some amazing choral stuff on 11-11-11) and then some of my other favorites include Lalo Schifrin (Amityville Horror), Bernard Herrmann and Jeff Alexander (Hitchcock series especially), things like Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield (The Exorcist) Jerry Goldsmith’s Gremlins, and of course a lot of work by Danny Elfman.
To me what really makes something horrifying is when there is a stark juxtaposition of something beautiful set against something horrible. I set out to create melodies that were innocent and child like, sometimes soaring and disturbing, that could be used in contrast to scary or disturbing imagery. I think it’s too much of a tell to always write something aggressive and angry and call it ‘Horror’, because it often times just comes across as action or epic. I played around a lot with dissonances and thick colors, lines that moved opposite or crossed over one another, angular melodies, and of course tonal clusters and bends. I think there is also a bit of musical language that has to be included in the genre, atonality and surprises, orchestral effects and the like, but I tried to use these things tastefully to support the orchestration and melodic writing, which was my main focus. The production came after, not as a catalyst for the compositions. To me it’s always music first.
How many times have you been involved in the making of horror cues so far and how did it influence you?
I’ve written a ton of horror music for video games over the years, so I kind of have a general approach: I usually take in that I always write melodies and harmonies before I do any sort of ‘horror production’. This was a wholly special project considering we used all live strings, brass, winds, and choir, so I got to do some really new things with the orchestrations and writing I’ve never really tried before.