Horror fans will be pleased and delighted to learn that it is indeed possible to create the synth sounds of John Carpenter’s now-iconic 1978 horror classic Halloween.
It’s a little-known fact that John Carpenter, in addition to his work behind the camera, also wrote the scores for many of the films he’s now known for. This happens to be the case with one of his most famous creations, and the film for which the sound design in itself is iconic, none other than Halloween.
Halloween features one of the most famous riffs in the history of horror as its main piano theme. Even though the film came out in 1978, the sounds are extremely recognisable as the definitive 1980s atmosphere — or at least of the influential ’80s synth scoring output.
First of all, the basic riff that everyone knows from Halloween starts out in a 5/4 time signature, unlike the standard 4/4 time signature that most music you listen to relies on. It’s a somewhat high-pitched minor-key that most people recognise from the film. On top of this, John Carpenter tends to do something called modulating, which just means taking the exact same riff down a half step. This creates a pattern with the same variation where you can slide it up and down, and it builds the song.
So, now that the melody is there, what about the rest? Well, one of the major components is adding a synth bass line that fills up the space with a big, swelling synth sound. It doesn’t step on the toes of the main melody and, instead, it simply creates the spooky atmosphere around it that lifts the overall creation to its full potential. These notes tend to be octaves down and held much longer, which is perhaps a bit obvious to say of bass notes.
A few other details to note is that there is a bit of overdrive to give it some grit, and there’s a curvature to the sustain of the bass notes so they drift out naturally. In terms of percussion, it’s all kept very simple, with a bit of light repetition, again, just to fill everything in.
In terms of the synthesisers, you might be surprised to learn that John Carpenter actually used a lot of standard acoustic piano on a lot of his scores. However, he was also a bit fan of the Prophet-5 and the rarer Prophet-10, as well as the Elka Synthesiser, which was often used on the bigger pad sounds and swelling notes.
While some of these sounds are on the complicated and nuanced side, it is interesting to see some of the great basic tricks that are accessible and applicable to learning how to make amazing sounds no matter who you are.
See the full explainer, below.