Behind the Theme: Mythic Hunters
This week's Behind the Theme will detail the creation of the title music for the excellent new podcast series Mythic Hunters. Sara Ghaleb kindly reached out to me to commission the theme, and after hearing her references I was more than happy to try my hand at crafting a memorable theme for the series. Here is the description of Mythic Hunters from the show's website:
Mythic Hunters is an original scripted comedy-horror podcast, framed as episodes of the local broadcast paranormal investigation radio show "Mythic Hunters." The show is hosted by washed-up former weatherman, Burke Ashley (Kirk Novak), and unnervingly cheerful field reporter, Sierra Peralta (Savanna Parra). Focusing on a new urban legend every week, each episode features Burke interviewing two guests in the studio, a witness and an expert, while Sierra hunts down the monster on her own.
And here is the theme in it's entirety:
I received the brief for this show in late 2021. I was given references of themes for X-Files and Ancient Aliens, both of which can be heard below:
Whenever I receive multiple reference files, I try to find similarities between them that might point me to what my collaborator gravitates towards. Both of these themes feature arpeggiated elements (a chord broken into single notes) and strong melodies (musical parts that can be sung and are likely to be memorable). My philosophy on podcast themes is that they must be catchy - the theme is one of the primary elements of the show's aesthetic and identity, and I gravitate towards the approach of John Williams on his Spielberg and Lucas themes, and cartoon themes such as Ducktails or Rugrats. These themes have very clear sonic identities, melodies that are memorable, and lots of variation to keep the music exciting. This doesn't mean that I try to emulate that sound, but I know that the musical approach to those kinds of themes is very effective at creating a musical world for a show.
All of this is to say, my primary initial focus was a strong melody, a fast arpeggiated element, and a selection of instruments that felt mysteriously quirky and esoteric (I gathered this element of the show from an MP3 that Sara sent me of the show's introductory narration). These elements equate to memory, excitement, and mystery.
I started with the arpeggiated part, which you can hear here:
The part was initially about 25% faster that it is currently. While I typically don't gravitate towards sample libraries, I wanted the quirkiness of the show to come through via a "plastic" kind of sound, exactly the type of sound I hear when I play through sample libraries in Kontakt or Logic's Sampler. This arpeggio is a mixture of sounds - Cinesamples strings, one of Sampler's brass instruments, Logic's Klopfgeist (the metronome in Logic which is actually my favorite Logic synth) and a Moog DFAM drum synth (which features two oscillators that can play monophonic pitches just as well as any mono synthesizer). The entire patch is staccato, and I played it uniquely for each instrument to create variations in velocity between the different instruments. I have these running into a bus with a little bit of EQ and delay uniting the various sounds together. This part is given two bars to shine before turning into a mono audio track containing all of these instruments running through a Moog MF103 phaser pedal. This is quite a bit softer than the previous section in order to support the melody which arrives at bar 3.
I created this melody using a technique I often use and that pretty much always yields an interesting idea. I think about the show's brief and turn on my iphone's voice note, and then I begin to sing whatever comes into my head. This method helps me to avoid gravitating towards musical ideas that I'm used to playing on the guitar or piano. This melody was the first thing that came out. I airdropped the voice note to my computer, and dropped it into Logic's sampler. I started to imagine the melodic voice effect that got popular a few years ago and I think was in a couple of Justin Bieber songs - sampling a single note of a vocal recording and using that to create a musical part. The quality of this effect is human but also robotic, and I thought it could add a contemporary otherworldly quality that might work well against the arpeggio.
2020 - 2021 ended up being my live drum era. I had never worked with drummers before, but I had been writing music for instrumentalists for a few years. I would often record parts with synth or guitar, and then notate these for string and wind players to replace my performances. I really love working this way, it pretty much always leads to surprises and new mixing challenges. I had been working on this personal album for a few years, and I had started collaborating with a session drummer. I would send him midi mockups of drum parts or even just a couple sentences detailing how I would like the drums to sound, and he would send me several options - typically one pass of brushes and one with sticks. The Mythic Hunter's theme was the first time I hired him to play on a score. I created a simple beat using one of Logic's acoustic drum kits, and he returned this:
When I dropped this into the Logic session, I initially didn't know if it was going to work. The timing is very loose and funky, and hearing this after being so used to the tightly quantized drum samples was jarring at first. After sitting with it for a day or so, I realized it was actually bringing a silliness and abandon that I recognized in the intro monologue, but hadn't injected into the music yet. I made a couple small edits, but overall the performance in the theme is exactly how it was played.
Once I have the concept and primary musical idea, the rest of the process is mostly leaning on craft and technique to fill everything out and keep it fun. I don't like the feeling of any element obviously looping, and if you listen closely you will notice that as soon as the melody comes in at 6-seconds, the arpeggio is smaller and orchestrated a bit differently. I often think of music as moving like a film - for four bars I might want you to focus on one idea, and then over the next four bars we might zoom out and see something else. This happens continuously throughout this piece - for instance the "response" to the vocal melody does this by switching to a different palette (bells and synth) while continuing the melody of the voice. And then at 23-seconds the focus becomes the live drums. This approach works particularly well in the context because the show is centered around mysteries. Each switch is like slipping deeper and deeper into that mystery while amassing more information.
What I Learned Creating This
I adamantly hate working with midi (basically a computer protocol for syncing instruments together, this is often most used in conjunction with software instruments). The only use cases I have for midi are mockup sketches to show session musicians. My dislike for midi is in conjunction with that of software instruments as well - they sound plastic to me, I don't like adjusting parameters with my mouse, and I feel like they are very difficult to mix. However, this project kind of made it more clear to me that that plastic sound is still a color that's available and maybe shouldn't be completely disregarded. Mythic Hunters is a mysterious comedy - a lighthearted riff on the mystery/horror/supernatural genre. This aesthetic did not call for live cellos or minimal analog synth patched into tape echo explorations. It called for something silly, playful, and a bit plastic. By letting the project parameters guide the palette, I actually came up with something I am very happy with and that suits the show pretty well.