How might one score a film primarily using floppy disc drives and an electric violin? This was the question at the core of my experience scoring Revolt, a new science fiction film starring Lee Pace.
In the film, Pace plays Bo, a soldier who awakens in an African jail cell, suffering from long-term memory loss, only to discover that humanity is in the final stages of a violent alien invasion. He teams up with a doctor named Nadia, and together they trek across the post-apocalyptic African wilderness, avoiding the robotic unmanned ‘drones,’ machines intent on killing or rounding up the last surviving members of the human species.
I wanted to use electronic colors to score the majority of the film, because the familiar warmth of an orchestra would be at odds with the jarringly visceral design of the various robotic creatures in the film. Their jagged metallic limbs seem to be held together by magnetism, and they display wild personality, despite their creepy lack of facial features. Something about the design of the drones made me think about the outdated technology of my youth, evoking the sounds of fax machines, modems, and disk drives.
I then recalled seeing videos on YouTube of people who had managed to somehow program floppy disc drives to perform music, sometimes even my own music! I was thrilled by the notion of scoring a science fiction film with musical floppy drives, and pitched the idea to the film’s director, Joe Miale. I knew Joe and I would get along superbly when he leapt at the idea.
I worked on this film in two stages, spanning about eighteen months. Nearly half that time was spent on R&D for new sounds. I reached out to my longtime collaborator, the brilliant musician and sound designer Jonathan Snipes. He and I have been friends since we were about twelve, but he has found his own acclaim in the world of theater sound and electronic music, most recently as a founding member of the beloved experimental hip hop trio Clipping, alongside Daveed Diggs. Snipes has designed incredible sounds for me in the past, including custom synths for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Step Up 3. If anyone knew how to make musical floppy drives, he would.
I think the video we produced (linked here, or check out the embed above) does an outstanding job of illustrating the theory behind the sounds, but in short, Jonathan scrounged up the hardware necessary to send electric signals to various floppy drives, allowing him to instruct them to operate their motors at certain speeds. The speeds create a clicking oscillation that our ears interpret as musical pitch. (My favorite quote of his from our video shoot was “Pitch is an illusion,” but it had to hit the cutting room floor.)
Once I knew it was possible to create on-command pitches from the floppy drives, I sent my team around town to scrounge up as many as possible. This turned out to be easier said than done. PCs haven’t typically come with floppy disc drives for many years, and we found that relatively new ones didn’t make the clicking sound we desired. We needed to track down old ones to make this work.
We ended up with about a dozen working drives and treated them like an orchestra, or perhaps a choir is a better analogy. In a choir, each individual singer has a unique voice, but the sum total of the group takes on a character distinct from the individuals. This was how we approached the floppy drives. Like human voices, each drive has its own bizarre little quirks, and behaves differently on certain pitches. We arranged them in such a way that they spread across the stereo field of our recording, and sampled them in different combinations. We recorded them individually, we recorded them in groups, and created a sample library, giving me access to all the sounds at my fingertips.
While this was happening, I also had my team explore other possible sound sources. They sampled all manner of electric sounds, even some fairly dangerous items, including Tesla coils, and tasers. This process took months, and when it was done, I had a bank of instruments at my disposal that sounded like nothing I’d ever worked with in the past.
I experimented with putting effects on the floppy drive sounds, distorting and delaying them to varying degrees. To my surprise, the more effects I put on the sounds, the less I liked them. Once I blurred or eliminated the awkward clicking noises, motor groans and other rough edges, all that remained was an unattractive pitch generator. A similar effect resulted from putting a large amount of instrumentation around them in my writing. Drums, strings, and brass seemed to drown out all the garbled noise that made the floppy drive choir beautiful. There really was no way to use these sounds subtly. I knew I had to feature them prominently, if I was to use them at all. So, the soul of the Revolt score had been discovered.
The mechanical characteristics of the drives made them ideal musical representations for the alien drones, but I realized I needed one other voice in the score to serve as a counterpoint. If the drives represented the aliens, then something else needed to represent the humans and their drama. That’s where the electric violin came in.
I have worked closely with Paul Cartwright for over a decade, our first collaboration dating back to the very first episode of “Battlestar Galactica.” I thought of him immediately. The violin is a piercing solo instrument in an acoustic environment, able to cut through an entire orchestra when necessary. In addition, Paul’s collection of effect pedals provides a variety of colors beyond what the acoustic violin can offer. I sketched out a few conceptual cues, with Paul playing a simple melody over a pulsing backdrop of amplified floppy drives, and the result worked beyond my wildest dreams. That simple melody would eventually become the primary theme of the film, or the Bo Theme:
I showed these sketches to Joe Miale, who was on board immediately. He and I worked very closely for the rest of the summer, planning carefully where each musical element would be featured.
Despite being a science fiction action thriller, Revolt actually features many introspective sequences, relatively quiet scenes with no dialog, allowing the score to take center stage and help guide the audience’s experience. This was a blessing, because it allowed me to write a score that really says something emotional about what’s happening on screen, but also a curse in that I always had to think about how these musically driven scenes added up in the bigger picture. Joe was incredibly helpful with this process, and we spoke at length about where to feature the main theme, the floppy drives, the violin, and other specific musical building blocks.
My work sessions with Joe frequently included a photo to prove how much effort was going into this score!
This film score, like all, was a community effort and I couldn’t have done it without the help of many people. I want to thank Joe Miale for his tireless vision and for being an insanely wonderful guy to work with. I also want to thank producer Zev Foreman, as well as Nicolas Chartier and everyone at Voltage. I also want to thank Richard Kraft, Joe Augustine, Brian McNelis, and everyone on my support team at Sparks & Shadows, especially Jason Akers, Omer Ben-Zvi and Sam Ewing for contributing additional music, and Steve Kaplan for providing an epic mix.
My year and a half developing and writing the score to Revolt actually concluded nearly a year and a half ago. This film has been a part of my life for the last three years, and so I’m thrilled it is finally out there for fans to experience. The film had a limited theatrical run last month, and hits DVD/Bluray and digital very soon. I’m also very excited that Sparks & Shadows and Lakeshore Records have partnered to make my soundtrack available digitally, on iTunes, Amazon, and at your favorite retailer or streaming platform.
Revolt is arguably the most sonically distinct score I have ever composed, because its core instrumental components are all custom-designed for this film. This experience allowed me to work with a few of my favorite people, make new sounds, and write a score that shreds. I hope you guys check it out, and crank it up nice and loud.