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The Impossible Horror Score: 8 Months of Music Mayhem!

An image of a computer and a midi controller with ableton digital audio workstation on the screen - a composition for the indie Canadian film Impossible Horror is loaded up.

I’ve just finished the Impossible Horror Score. That was a seriously bumpy ride. I’m not even sure how I got to this point, but I’m actually, doing the final touches on my mixes and getting everything ready to be mastered.

If you asked me six months ago, whether I thought I’d ever make it to this stage, I probably would have laughed, then cried, then curled up in the corner whispering to myself about the principles of compression and why I can’t figure it out to save my life. But eight months ago, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth in and get started.

I started compiling reference tracks in my head and on my various devices that I’d listen to constantly. I sat in cafes trying to break down structural elements from my favourite pieces, trying to figure out why I loved them so much. On my daily drive to work I played the Stranger Things OST so many times I got sick of listening to it.

Eventually I settled on a tone that would be the roadmap of my aural journey. It was a mix of Mark Korven’s “The Witch”, Tangerine Dream’s “Risky Business” and Disasterpiece’s “It Follows”. Other influences like John Carpenter, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, and Cliff Martinez fleshed out the rest of the tonal beats.

And then I sat down to write the Impossible Horror Score.

Let me paint a picture for you. I was working a very demanding full-time job at the time, and I also wanted to do the sound mix which seemed like it would be easy (HA! Oh dear… past Emily, you silly goose), and since I had written the score for Teddy Bomb previously I was totally convinced that I’d spend a month, tops, writing the score for Impossible Horror. I also thought that all the sound would be done by summertime and we’d absolutely make the deadline to get into festivals like Fantasia, Fantastic Fest, you name it.

What actually happened was we had to submit the film with half original score, half temp music.

But I digress.

After a few failed attempts at writing a title track I eventually landed on something that felt visceral and powerful. I could see myself sitting in a theatre with an audience, hearing that track, feeling the intensity it would bring to the start of the film. WHAT A GREAT MOMENT. Obviously it freaked me out so much that everything I wrote after the title track basically paled in comparison and nothing felt right.

So I kept researching while I tried to write/mix/work full-time/do everything else that humans do, and it stumped me hard. Whether this was just something I had to go through or a job well done by my ADHD brain, I don’t know. I have at least three versions of 32 different cues sitting on my computer now, because literally nothing was sticking. Either it felt too rushed or too slow, too bass heavy or to flimsy and useless.

Every couple of weeks I’d manage to crank out a track that did sound good though, and we’d hastily rush to put whatever new music was available on the next export to send out to festivals. The movie suffered for it, I think.

I wanted to quit almost every single day.

About four months in I hit my threshold of work and frustration and stress with the film. No music would come out anymore and I had to force myself to sit in front of the computer and make horrible noises with endless freeware synths I’d download to make myself feel like I had some sort of advantage over the creative block beast.

I listened to Love on a Real Train on repeat trying to figure out why it was so good. I read interviews with screen composers to understand their work process, knowing full well that theirs would never work for me. I also cursed Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein for being so flippant about the silver platter that Stranger Things was handed to them on. I was mad I didn’t have a hardware synth to keep me focused, that I made my options too broad and that I couldn’t find the right sounds.

I wish I could tell you that there was an aha moment where things just clicked and I finally figured out my secret sauce that led me to finishing the Impossible Horror score. If I had, I would have shared it with you so that everyone could write awesome horror film scores. But that moment never came. The moment that did finally come where I felt relief, was realizing I had 16 solid tracks I could press on vinyl, that sounded like a complete album. Everything finally flowed and was cohesive.

And I learned a hard lesson about creativity. No matter how hard you try to push ideas and notes through the synapses of your creatively constipated brain, nothing will happen unless you sit down and force yourself to do it.

Here’s a list of reference tracks for the Impossible Horror score:

Or you can just listen to the playlist on Spotify. I’ll probably add to it as I remember more tracks.

Here’s a list of freeware synths/VSTs I used to create the music for Impossible Horror:

Aalto – Mardona Labs

A semi-modular VST that can create killer soundscapes and SFX. You can get a souped up freeware version if you buy Computer Music Magazine issue 191.

OBXD

An emulation of OB-X, OB-Xa and OB-X8 synths, sounds like an 80s action movie and has a lot of punch.

PG8X – Martin Lüders

A Roland JX-8P emulator with really great vintage sounds, excellent soft bells and versatility.

Blocks Wired – Native Instruments

A free version of the Reaktor Blocks, comes with a cool, programmable sequencer and a lot of really bizarre presets.

Mikro Prism – Native Instruments

The “kid sister” of Reaktor’s “Prism” with about 70 rad presets, makes for some really excellent warped sounds.

The not-so-free VSTs/Programs I used to create the music for Impossible Horror:

Ableton Live 9 – Suite

You can do a lot with the Intro version, but Suite comes with Operator and Tension which I used a lot. This version also lets you work with a video track in your session which is instrumental (ha!) in composing for film in my opinion.

Hybrid – Air

This actually came with my MPK Mini mkII, but since that’s a very decent starter midi controller you may want to check it out and get the two VSTs that come with it.

Hardware

Bonus fact: I used a couple of pencils and my desk to do a lot of the percussive work. I am a terrible drummer so I quantized the rhythms that were most in time with the beat, then I layered on thick reverb and delay.

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