A love-letter to John Capenter, and the music of Assault on Precinct 13
Adapting to a new way of working
These are strange times to be alive. No matter what your profession, where you live or how old you are – the Covid 19 pandemic has made its presence felt across the world and could possibly change the way we work forever. Back in late March of this year, I made the usual journey to my studio in Brighton, UK with a slightly different agenda – to pick the essential pieces of gear that would be accompanying me on the 7-mile journey back to my home where I figured I could work for a week or two until things became clearer. I was quick and clinical – I chose a synth, some guitars and my Mac, and that was that.
In my mind, I never thought it would get to full lockdown (which feels silly now) but I was hopeful something would change and the virus would retreat. No such luck.
Instead, on March 24th I found myself at home mourning the pieces of gear I had left behind. How could I possibly work as normal without my 88 key controller? Yes, I had a polysynth – but I hadn’t taken my Minibrute or Moog Prodigy back with me. I had my Les Paul…but I really feel like I need the Tele as well.
I slowly began to set my studio up at home in the spare bedroom all the while worrying about not having access to my regular tools and how this would affect my work. As someone that makes my living writing music for other people, it felt especially important. I can’t afford to wait for inspiration to strike. I regularly have to engineer its arrival. Having a large collection of synths, guitars, pedals and noise machines means I never have to go very far before I stumble across a sound, a noise or a part that flicks the inspiration switch on – and hey presto, in a few hours I have a song. How would I find that inspiration now?
As I began to plug things in, these questions and worries got louder and louder in my head, so I decided to drown out these dissident voices out by putting some music on and cracking open a cold beer. I rummaged through my vinyl collection and couldn’t find anything I felt like listening to….no, no, no….no, no…and then…. the original score of Assault on Precinct 13 by John Carpenter. Yes, this is what I feel like listening to right now.
Economy vs Extravagance – Pushing yourself and your equipment
It’s hard to know exactly how the mind works in moments like this, but no sooner as I had put the record onto the turntable and sank into my chair, the unmistakable sound of that percussive white noise, those synthesised drums and THAT bassline told me everything I needed to hear right then.
You don’t need loads of gear. You need to be creative with what you have. The synth I have here, I rarely ask it to do what it’s capable of in the studio. I know it makes good pad sounds so that is what I use it for. But now….it’s going to have to do a lot more…and, I’m going to have to get to know it a lot better.
One big tip from me is to get to know your gear before you buy more. I have been guilty in the past of barely scratching the surface of what is possible with a synth or a plugin and there I go again – buying more. The result is you end up with a studio full of things you don’t know very well and all that lovely equipment is not being stretched to its full potential. Neither are you. A great example of this is the ambient techno wizard, Jon Hopkins, and his track Open Eye Signal. Jon set himself a task of getting to know his Korg MS-20 intimately and it is used extensively on his album, Immunity. All the synths on this track are the MS-20 and it is glorious example of how far one piece of gear can stretch.
Assault on Precinct 13 – Constraint gives birth to genius
Anyway…this is a challenge, right? Not only am I going to push this gear to its limits, but it looks like I’m going to have to push myself to be more creative with less. Not easy, when we are so used to having access to unlimited plugins, samples and processing power. With this in mind, I decided to delve a little deeper into the Assault on Precinct 13 score, to see if its indeed true – that setting limitations can be in and of itself a powerful tool for creativity.
The score for Assault was written in 3 days by Carpenter, and was recorded in one day in 1976, alongside his friend and long time collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace. It still stands up as a masterclass in electronic minimalism and has influenced composers the world over.
There isn’t a huge amount of information on the production or recording process online, but it seems that 80% of the score was made using just one instrument – a Moog Modular system (specifically an expanded Moog series III with 5 boxes and the 960 sequencer).
The other fascinating aspect of this story is that it didn’t belong to Carpenter either – it was borrowed from a friend of his, Dan Wyman, who taught Synthesizers at the University of California. The award for coolest job goes to….
What is inspiring about all of this, to me at least, is not only the resourcefulness of Carpenter to call favours in and make sure that there was some equipment to write and record some music, but also that he seems to write a near perfect film score under serious constraints. A talented composer like Carpenter undoubtedly had access to some musical equipment and probably knew other composers that could have helped out. However, he wants to do the score himself on a seriously complex machine that he has access to for only a limited amount of time. The narrow pool of options it seems, forced Carpenter to act quickly, be decisive and ultimately write and record the entire score in 4 days. The score never deviates from its intended path, and the simplicity and uncomplicatedness is what makes it so powerful.
Clint Mansell sums it up better than I can in the liner notes to the fabulous Death Waltz vinyl repressing “I love the economy. The score is essentially monothematic – a strong central theme is reworked throughout the film so that the different inversions bring counterpoint and perspective.” He goes on to say “Carpenter gets an idea and works it, then reworks it; almost DJ slice n’ dice style as he shapes new rhythms and progressions out of the four or five (now iconic) sounds from which he builds the score. The escalating arrangement, the sense of dread mixed with inevitability, and an aching melancholy. And the repetition, always the repetition”
Move out of your comfort zone
“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”
― David Bowie
When I am in the studio there has to be a certain amount of time set aside for not necessarily being creative, but for working things out and deciding what tool is best for the job in hand. What quite often prolongs that process is sifting through endless banks of presets, dialling up one soft synth after another, trying out 8 different distortions or reverbs on a specific sound. I am not saying there is no use to this, but it isn’t the only way, and it sometimes gets in the way of the most important thing – writing music.
Second Tip! Initialise your gear to its default patch! If you really want to know what your synths and plugins are capable of don’t always rely on presets. Trust yourself enough to know that as a creative person you may stumble across something interesting by playing around, even if you know nothing about synthesis. This is what I love about the Xfer Serum synth. It opens up with a simple Sawtooth wave as its default patch. It doesn’t try and seduce you with a huge complex sound that would take days to build. It encourages you to get creative straight away by giving you a blank canvas. ANYTHING you do to that sound will make it more interesting…and if you spend 15 minutes with it you will have something unique. Just to make it super clear, I am definitely not a preset hater! If I am in a really uncreative place…opening Omnisphere and delving into the huge patch library can be super fun and there are plenty of times where that can start an idea. All I am suggesting is to go against your usual way of working and try something new…
So this is the challenge….
Choose one reverb, one distortion, one drum machine, one synth and one guitar. Limit yourself to using just your voice and manipulate it in different ways. Pick 3 instruments and write using only those. Work only between the hours or 10am and 3pm. Write a song using just 3 chords. Choose your limitations and then work within them. If you can’t get the sound you want immediately – work at it. Sculpt it, shape it and get to know what your tools are really capable of. It’s difficult when we have restrictions placed on how we work – but only because we see it negatively. As Stravinsky once said “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit”.
A Final word
John Carpenter’s score to Assault on Precinct 13 goes to show that limitations, be they technical or practical, can be an important part in exploring our own creative potential. They may even lead us to greatness. What was initially a negative has turned into a positive for me – and whilst I am looking forward to getting back to my studio, I have been writing and recording constantly at home for the past 3 months. The facilities and equipment available to Carpenter in 1976 may not have been his dream setup but it certainly presented him with a working method that stood him in good stead for the years to come. Listen to the deeply unsettling main themes from Halloween or The Thing. Better still…I dare you to listen to them with the lights off. No more gear, synths or time could have made those pieces of music any more terrifying. An overused cliché, but one that always resonates with me is to treat composition like cooking. Using 100 ingredients in a recipe is no guarantee of making something delicious – in fact, it can often taste rather confusing. It is certainly more expensive and time consuming. If you are struggling to feel inspired in the studio (or the kitchen), choose 3 ingredients. Use them in different ways. Manipulate them. Use different amounts. Get to know them intimately. You will learn so much about yourself and the tools you use – and I guarantee you, the results will surprise you.