The Music and Sound Design of Breaking Bad - Dave Porter interview
22nd February 2012
Breaking Bad is one of the most acclaimed TV drama of recent years - Dan (a massive BB geek) spotted our Balinese Gamelan instruments in the soundtrack, and caught up with composer Dave Porter for a chat ..
Congratulations on being a part of what is probably one of the best TV dramas we've ever seen. It must be wonderful to be part of such a strong team. Can you take us through a typical episode's production process? How long does it take?
Thank you very much – I’m glad that you’re enjoying it. I am fortunate to get to work with such an amazingly talented group of people. In terms of our production process, we usually mix a show every week. I get the episode roughly two weeks before that, so I’m working on two at a time. The cycle starts with a spotting meeting in the editing room, which generally includes Vince Gilligan (creator and executive producer), the writer(s) of the episode, the picture editor, our sound and dialogue team, our post-production supervisor, our music supervisor, our music editor, and me. We painstakingly go through the entire episode, which is usually complete at that point, and talk about the sound and music for every scene. We discuss where music should be, and equally importantly, where it should not. And if there is going to be music, what it should achieve and whether it should be score or source. To me, this meeting is the most important step in the process.
After that, I spend a few days writing cues in my studio. I deliver them to Vince as QuickTime movies, and he gives me feedback. I spend a day or so polishing things up and then it’s time to repeat the cycle with the next spotting session. While writing for the next episode, I’ll also be mixing each of my cues from the previous one again from the ground up to prepare them for the mix stage. In addition, I always attend the final mix playback for each episode.
You obviously use a lot of unusual sounds in Breaking Bad. Are you making a deliberate effort to avoid scoring for traditional instruments?
Yes. Although I am classically trained, I knew from my first viewing of the pilot episode that a traditional score would be the wrong choice for Breaking Bad. Nothing about the show is expected, and I felt that the score needed to reflect that. There have been only a handful of times that I’ve incorporated a traditional western orchestral instrument, and when I have, it’s been processed into something quite different.
We noticed the Soniccouture Balinese Gamelan in Breaking Bad season 4. Are there any other Soniccouture instruments you've used?
Yes, since the beginning I’ve employed a lot of Asian instruments as a backdrop for Walt, because it seems so unexpected and out of place in Albuquerque. (And Walt, of course, is usually way out of his comfort zone.) I’ve also used the Soniccouture Omnichord samples and DDR Toy Piano. And since I’m always looking for new and interesting ways of performing the show’s theme for the end credits each week, I’ve been eyeing the Ondes Martenot instrument... maybe in season 5!
There's a certain vagueness to the Breaking Bad scores that seems to blur the line between music and sound design. We assume this is intentional. What kind of sounds are you drawn to?
It is definitely intentional. The score grows organically out of the natural sound, and vice versa, to create a seamless audio backdrop. To this end I often request snippets from the production sound (such as clocks, locusts, and lab equipment noises) to use as fodder for sound design that I include in my scores. I also create my own samples using audio I capture with a small field recorder.
The only music that seems to stay the same each episode is that short Dobro sting under the title. Did you play that yourself?
I write a new score for the end credits each week, so yes, the show’s opening theme is the only constant. While I sketched out the original resonator guitar part using samples, the final version was performed by a professional guitarist because I’m a pretty poor player. It’s something I’m working on though!
While you obviously use a lot of samplers and technology to create sounds; is there some amount of the soundtrack that is acoustic? If so, about how often do you go acoustic? What kind of instruments? And do you process the acoustic instruments as well?
A lot of the score for Breaking Bad begins its life as “acoustic” in the sense that it was recorded with a microphone, but absolutely everything that gets recorded for the show is later processed. And when I do use something from a sample library, it usually gets treated, too. I try to record as many live performances as our budget and timeframe allow, which includes recording sessions that I do during the off-season to build up my arsenal of ideas. For example, prior to last season I recorded an expert on early winds and reeds that I knew would come in handy, as well as an amazing Quena (Andean flute) player that I felt would be useful for Gus. I also record myself a lot—whether I’m simply banging on kitchen or garden tools or playing one of the instruments that I own. For example, the instrument that always accompanies Walt when he dons his “Heisenberg” hat is a Japanese koto, which I play, record, and then process. I also have large libraries of recordings of my vintage synthesizers... I spend‘spare’ time tweaking and programming them while the DAW records everything, and then I extract the best bits for later use. By the time I am mixing a cue I’ve printed everything— even software synths— because I’m likely to end up processing it anyhow and I never want to get caught going back to a session from a few years back and realizing that some softsynth that is now in version 7 doesn’t remember a patch from version 2.
Do you have a musical education, or are you self taught?
I started classical piano at age 5, and I studied composition and orchestration at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. My knowledge of synthesizers and recording techniques is largely self-taught, although I was fortunate to study under composers who were forward thinking and open to incorporating those kinds of tools.
Can you give us a geeky list of some of your favourite bits of technology (hardware or software) ?
I use a mix of old and new hardware and software. While I sometimes use software synthesizers, the vast majority is still hardware because I find they sound better and they’re more inspiring creatively. On the flip side, I use software extensively for samples and all manner of digital processing, because nothing can match it for power and creative options. On the software side I spend a lot of time with Kontakt, and have a small army of plug-ins for distortion, bit-crushing, and compression. In terms of hardware outboard I still use a Lexicon PCM-42 delay— mine has been modified with a reverse switch and extra delay time—and I’ve got a great old Korg gated spring reverb. My synthesizer collection has gotten quite large. Some favorites that have seen action recently on Breaking Bad include my ARP 2600, Oberheim Matrix-12 and Ob-Mx, Roland MKS-80, Sequential Prophet VS, and a Voyetra-8.
Is Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad's creator, writer, director) heavily involved in the soundtrack production process? Does he have strong opinions about what kind of music is used ?
Vince is involved in every aspect of the show, including the music. While he isn’t likely to make specific musical recommendations, he is keenly aware of what works and what doesn’t, and always has his eyes on the big picture. He listens to and incorporates everyone’s ideas, and when it comes time to make the tough decisions, he is decisive. Honestly, some of the toughest music related decisions on Breaking Bad come down to a great piece of score or source versus no music at all... because the scripts and performances in the show are already so strong.
In season 2, there's a Spanish song that refers to "Heisenberg". Were you involved in the writing and/or production of that song ? (It's a brilliant band, btw, but we don't speak Spanish.)
That’s “Negro Y Azul: The Ballad of Heisenberg.” This was an instance where nothing would do but an authentic band that was devoted to the art of creating Narcocorrido, which are Mexican drug ballads. (These are real and controversial songs that are often commissioned by drug lords to celebrate their success.) Our music supervisor, Thomas Golubic, found the band (Los Cuates De Sinaloa) and oversaw them as they wrote the song based on lyrics written (in English) by Vince Gilligan. I got to sit back and enjoy that one from the back of the room!
I do, however, enjoy the occasional departure from my usual score duties. I got to write a humorous thrash-metal track for Jesse’s fictional band, I’ve scored a number of Saul’s hilarious tv commercials, written music for video games which appear in the show, and even created some of the cell phone rings, including the memorable one that is used as Hank’s ringtone for when Marie is calling in episode 306 “Sunset.” I love these challenges, because unlike the score—which has a macro focus—these moments are often plot devices written into the script that have an immediate effect.
Is it slightly confusing to work on a show where the characters are so complex? It seems there's no good guys or bad guys.
That is definitely the most challenging aspect of scoring the show. I work hard not to let the music lean too obviously toward either heroic or villainous, as there is no such thing on Breaking Bad.
There's an interesting aspect to Walt's character development through the 4 seasons we've seen so far. In the beginning we sympathize with Walt, but as the series progresses his character seems to turn (as the show's title suggests). Is this evolution of his character something you can portray with the music? Is Walt becoming the bad guy?
Walt’s journey and descent is the spine of the show. Over the course of several seasons he has gone places that seemed unimaginable at the outset. What is most fascinating to me, and I try to always remember as I’m writing the score, is that how far one is willing to sympathize with Walt reflects entirely back on the viewer. There are people who were horrified by his behavior in the very first season. There are others who will defend him no matter what he does. In this way, Breaking Bad demands that you notice your own reaction to the story you are witnessing. And to me, musically speaking, that means that I will never highlight one specific moment as a “Breaking Bad” moment... because it’s been a gradual evolution (or devolution) over the course of the series, and everyone’s perception of the tipping point is different. One example is the moment in season 4 when Walt is in the airport parking lot after the demise of Gus. On another show, that would have been a classic musical moment... but ultimately, we went entirely without music and just had him listening to the news on the radio... because any music that you put in that moment would tilt the audience’s reaction one way or another, and Vince very much wanted it to be ambiguous. After all, you could easily argue that the lesser man had just won.
On the other hand, Jesse's character remains slightly innocent, we always kind of feel for him. How does that influence the music used in his scenes?
I think it is fair to say that Jesse is the moral center of the show, or as close to one that Breaking Bad is going to have. To that end, yes, there is always a touch more warmth when I’m writing for Jesse, and musically his evolution has been a few steps behind Walt’s. Jesse certainly had made many poor decisions, but he is also the victim of some dreadful ones made by Walt. I’m excited to see where they will all end up at the show’s conclusion!