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The Sound of Fear

Film composer Alan Howarth on the Sci-Fi and horror soundtracks that defined a genre.


Illustration by Jiro Bevis

Synth maestro Alan Howarth, 64, was John Carpenter’s partner in sound in the 1980s, composing for cult films such as Escape From New York, Halloween II, Big Trouble in Little China and Christine and designing sound effects for blockbusters including the Star Trek motion pictures, Poltergeist, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins and Total Recall. A versatile and curious composer, over the years he’s built surround sound systems for theme parks and computer game companies, recorded for nature documentaries and developed techniques for perfecting new-age music.

His murky electronic scores, rich in mood and texture, have influenced countless contemporary acts like Emeralds, Legowelt and Zombie Zombie, with whom Alan recently performed. With remastered pressings of his Halloween II and Halloween III: Season of the Witch OSTs due to hit shops and spook a new generation – plus a brand new Howarth-scored horror film, Brutal, opening next month – we Skyped Alan in his Glendale home in Los Angeles to talk about his collaborations with Carpenter and their fully wired quest for the sound of fear “The house I’m in is on a hillside and the view looks over Universal Studios, Disney and Warners,” he says. “It’s LA, what can I say? LA is the place for this stuff.”

VICE: Hello Alan. Your Skype avatar is a photo of you in front of the Great Pyramid in Giza. What were you doing there?
Alan Howarth:
Oh, I have another project that I call RA Music and it’s all about using the specific frequencies of the resonance of the Great Pyramid to make music with. These frequencies coordinate to brain waves and it turns out it’s been used not only in the pyramids but also in Mayan culture and in Baroque music. So my postulate is that the tuning for the music today – A tuned to 440 [Hz] – is incorrect and there are better frequencies to make music on than what we hear on the radio.

How did you come across this?
A colleague of mine who passed away, a fellow named Wes Bateman, analysed the Great Pyramid mathematically with the concept that the architect must have had some higher knowledge that he wanted to communicate in his building. That’s what he wrote in his book, but in order to confirm his research, which was all armchair archaeology, I actually went there and rented the pyramid and measured it.

How much does it cost to rent the Great Pyramid?
Eight-thousand dollars’ll do it. That was for two hours. I mean, I’m sure it consists of a series of cash envelopes to various guards. We had an Egyptian guide and he passed out the money. But we were able to lock it out and get it quiet in there and get the measurements and I did a whole impulse response on the King’s Chamber using the same techniques you’d use when you’re tuning a studio. I brought all that back and analysed the resonances and the peaks and the standing waves and confirmed—and this was the amazing part—that this was precisely what was predicted by Wes Bateman and his mathematics was the actual physical resonances of the King’s Chamber. So that was the cornerstone of the research. And since then I’ve actually patented the concept of retuning music from 440 to this other reference in which, in our musical terms, the A goes from 440 to 424. And it turns out the first tuning fork that was created in the year 1711 by John Shore was 423 and a half, so even the Baroque guys—Mozart and Handel and all these guys—created music tuned to these frequencies. And it has a much stronger effect on the person listening. One of the analogies is, you remember old AM radio where you could dial up the channel and if you weren’t precise enough it was a little fuzzy? So 440 is fuzzy but 424 is absolute clear communication, right into the body and mind.

Are you using this in your work?
I am actually. The funny part is I took it from a very spiritual perspective, healing and so on, but it turns out it’s a tool that enhances the intent of music. So the first time I did a horror movie score tuned to this frequency, I actually got an award for best horror movie score.

Which one was that?
For a movie called Basement Jack. And so think of it as a tool. If your intention is love and healing, it does that. If your intention is to scare people, it’s more scary. So it’s pretty much a global adjustment to the way we make music, and it has the artist’s intent amplified.

Would you recompose the Halloween soundtracks tuned to this frequency?
Yeah, I’ll probably do this. I don’t advertise the horror side of it because I’m trying to keep with the spiritual community with this stuff, but in fact it does work across the board. So if you had a heavy metal band and you wanted to make this monster metal music, the chances are that your band tuned to these frequencies would be heavier.

You started out playing in rock bands in Ohio in the late 60s, then became the keyboard roadie for jazz-fusion cats Weather Report in the 70s. How did you end up meeting and working with John Carpenter?
A buddy of mine from Cleveland was working at Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles and he overheard two guys having a conversation about how they needed somebody who knew about synthesisers. So he turns to them and says: “You’ve got to talk to my buddy Alan, he works for Weather Report.” They didn’t know who Weather Report were so they said: “Is that the Weather Report at 7 o’clock or the one at 11?” Nevertheless, he gave them my name and I went down and made a little audition tape. My audition was to make the sound of the Starship Enterprise going from warp 1 to warp 7, so I went back home to my Prophet 5 [synthesiser] and TEAC 4-track and dialled up stuff and that audition tape actually became the sound of the Enterprise and I did six Star Trek movies based on that original audition tape. As fate would have it, the Star Trek editor’s next assignment was Escape From New York and he introduced me to John Carpenter and that started the whole string of scoring events.


Alan Howarth at work on his ARP in 1980.

And Halloween II came after Escape From New York?
Well, my first scoring experience with John Carpenter was on Escape From New York in 1979-80. Then the owners of the Halloween franchise were approached about making HalloweenII, but concurrently to Halloween II John Carpenter set off to make The Thing and in a very casual way said to me: “Alan, they want to make Halloween II but I’m busy so you’re going to do it.” So I got the assignment. Obviously they wanted to reuse John Carpenter’s music because the Halloween theme is part of the movie. So I took his recordings from Halloween which were on an analogue 16-track and transferred them to a new 24-track which gave me more tracks so I could overdub a bunch of tracks onto it. And then I sat down with all the Prophet 5s and the Prophet 10s and the ARPs [more synthesisers] and performed on John Carpenter’s original performance and gave that gothic texture which I think sonically is much richer and darker than the original Halloween. When people point to the more popular Halloween recordings, II comes up as one of their favourites. For the score to Halloween III, [screenwriter] Debra Hill and John Carpenter thought: “Well, if we’re going to keep doing sequels, let’s have a platform where we can have any Halloween situation”, and so that was the Season of the Witch movie, and actually the soundtrack has outlasted the movie—it’s a fine movie if it wasn’t supposed to be a Halloween and was just called Season of the Witch. But the Halloween community wanted Michael Myers back after that. So that’s why we came back in Halloween 4 with the guy with the mask and the knife and created scenarios around that.

What are the key ingredients for suspense?
Silence. It’s pretty simple. The thing that makes these scores work the best is silence. You stop and do little tiny things and don’t fire off your whole flotilla of instruments until the exact moment when the audience is supposed to jump. The alternation of sound and silence is a key factor in suspense movies—keep things quiet and small and when it’s time to get scared, go big. The other thing, being from the school of John Carpenter, is the minimalist approach—simple themes that repeat. It’s OK to keep something going and be repetitive, whereas on a record that would not be acceptable. But in a movie the audience then starts to take cues from the music they’ve heard early on—you know the character or situation, the music underscores action or dialogue—so you build up a tool kit of themes that you use over and over again.

On the Halloween 2 soundtrack there’s a piece called “Still He Kills” that has this nasty shrill sound at the start. What is that?
Well, there’s a whole family of sounds we call stingers, and the stinger is the shocking sound that happens when the knife goes in, or as soon as you cut to the bad guy and he’s there as a surprise. Usually you would make the musical composition and then go back and hang these stingers in the right moments for the surprises. Now when I do a horror movie I actually put the stingers in first as placeholders even if the sound changes, because those are the milestones in a composition that are building to the moments.

How did you two work together—did you complement each other?
Well, John Carpenter doesn’t want to know anything about the technology. He’s a trained musician, he learned violin and piano, but he wanted to be a film director so that was his direction. And because he so much enjoyed making the music for his own movies, it was perfect for me to arrive and I already had all the technology and equipment and studio and he would literally come over and hang out at my place in Glendale and we would do the scoring. So I was the engineer and the other composer. But he’s John Carpenter—what can I say? He did his thing first.

Had you seen Assault on Precinct 13 before working with him?
No, I was not familiar with Assault or Halloween. I took him at face value. He walked in the door and we started. He liked the fact that I was just another guy and wasn’t in awe. We were just guys.

Did you go out for drinks?
Yeah, we’d go out for lunches. He’d come over, get started, we’d go out for lunch, then spend the rest of the day into the evening in the studio. And for him, scoring his own movies was like taking a vacation. He was already responsible for the editing of the movie and now he could just kick back, turn the phone off, and just be a musician-composer for his own movies.

Did you find that you learnt from him, and vice versa? In terms of composition, less is more for Carpenter, presumably.
I remember when we did Escape From New York, he started overdubbing and brought a rock influence to it besides the synth work. But when it came to do the actual soundtrack album to Escape From New York, he turned to me and said: “They want to make a record out of this? You think anyone will want to listen to it?” He thought it was so simple, why would anyone want to buy it. But surprisingly, when we put the record together and put it out on Varèse Sarabande, we sold 80,000 vinyl copies—it was the biggest selling record on Varèse Sarabande in 1981.

At the time were you aware of bands such as Goblin who were scoring the Dario Argento horror films in Italy?
Actually, I was fairly isolated in that I was in the world of John Carpenter and our feedback loop was internal. I remember when we sat down to do the Halloween III soundtrack he brought in the latest Tangerine Dream album, so that was an influence—those guys were good at sequencing and nice textures—and when we did Escape From New York he brought in a Police record, from Sting, so every now and then he’d say: “Hey, listen to this” and we’d try to integrate that into our stuff, but not try to copy it. For the most part, when we got to Halloween III, I remember his quote, he said: “Hey Alan, this is going to be really easy. We’re just going to rip ourselves off.” And as technology in the 80s kept expanding, I would bring the latest toys to the party, be it Emulators or more digital stuff. You could get these big MIDI set-ups which would give you a greater sound palette, so the score for Big Trouble in Little China [1986] that we did was really the apex of the technology of the day, where we could really make big electronic performances. That became the state of the art. The big, dominant soundtrack guys like Hans Zimmer and John Williams have orchestras and armies of guys in cubies, they’ve really got a factory. I’m just one guy who took a different route. But the fun thing is, I do get hired to be me. A younger fellow trying to enter into the business gets asked to be John Williams and Hans Zimmer, and these new guys are good at it, they can do it, and that’s how they cut their teeth. But I just get asked to do what I’ve already done, and that’s fine.

Have you composed for pop or rock bands since you started film scoring?
Not really. I did all these pop things in the 70s, then I went into what I call artistic mode where I wasn’t concerned with what would ever be a number one hit—it was music that entertained me, that I liked. I was more a guy looking for the next film project and luckily had a few directors who liked me and actually throughout the 80s my two pillars were John Carpenter and Star Trek, they kept me busy for a decade through their shows and sequels. In the 90s I ventured into 3-D soundsystems, designing surround sound systems for theme parks. I had a project called Dimension Audio and did installations and custom projects at theme parks and one-offs for Las Vegas and Universal Studios and private clients. And then in 2003 I took my one and only corporate job. I was the chief audio officer at Electronic Arts—I jumped into computer games. I was an executive, but I really missed being an artist. So I went back to being an artist and the one thing I can do as a solo guy is film scoring.


Composing with John Carpenter in 1981.

What sounds did you design for Total Recall and RoboCop 2?
For Total Recall, if you remember down in Mars there was this big ventilation fan that ventilated the whole underground, and so I recorded a series of antique ceiling fans. They had this nice little hum and squeak and they became the Martian fans. And also there were these huge digger devices that would cut tunnels, so for that one I actually used an old-fashioned lawnmower that you push along, with no motor, which had the right kind of blade effect. You put them in the machines and slow them down and speed them up and turn them upside down and play with the EQ—that was the source material where these things were created. RoboCop 2 was mostly about the evil robot, so there was a whole lot of stuff with the footsteps and the mechanics of the machine that I got involved in. We were using a whole lot of servo motors from automobiles—a lot of times on a hatchback car there’s a nice little pneumatic thing that keeps the back window up. I fooled around with the pssshhwww sound until it became part of the footsteps of the evil robot.

Did you experience the glamour of Hollywood in the 80s and 90s?
It was fun to go to parties and screenings but I was never on the paparazzi list where I’d be making a scene with all the actors. I’m more of a musician, behind the scenes. All the stars have come and gone before I even get close to a project. As far as famous people, probably Star Trek because Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner were directors and they would come over to the studio with me to work on sound effects.

I imagine Halloween is your busiest time of year.
I always make the joke that I love Halloween because I’m making money when I’m sleeping. People who wrote Christmas music like Christmas, and I’m the same with Halloween. Halloween ringtones are very popular. So it’s permeated the culture completely and, again, you can’t plan for that—it’s just stuff that happens.