by Vivian Host

Clinton Shorter on scoring for film and TV with KONTAKT and LORES

The Canadian composer behind District 9 and The Expanse explains how his unusual sample treatments inspired LORES, our cinematic new instrument.

On April 19, we released our latest instrument LORES, a collaboration between Native Instruments, Evolution Series – who painstakingly develop extraordinary sample libraries – and Canadian composer Clinton Shorter, who is behind the scores to District 9, The Expanse, Colony, and Cop Shop. LORES starts with extraordinarily high-res recordings of unusual instruments from around the world like the horse fiddle, the nyckelharpa, and the kamanche, played in a number of different scales and tunings – via the interface, you can layer, stretch, and effect up to three sources together at one time, creating unusual and one-of-a-kind soundscapes that make a mystery of their original source material.

LORES was inspired by Clinton’s compositional process of sampling unusual instruments and tweaking them inside our high-powered sampler KONTAKT. We recently visited Clinton at his temporary studio, set up in the back house of his Westside Los Angeles rental to find out how this all goes down. Surrounded by guitars, modular synths, and unusual instruments like circle bells, a UFO happy drum, and an actual donkey’s jaw, we found out more about his creative process and how he’s designed music for District 9, The Expanse, Pompeii, and more.

Check out LORES here.

Watch the video, and read on for an interview and scoring tips with Clinton Shorter.

How long into scoring did you start to think “I have a specific style” or “I can start to recognize my own voice in this?”

I was experimenting as much as I could. The orchestra was always kind of a tool for me; it wasn’t the primary driver. It was mostly about my guitars and sampling and combining the two, which at that time was called “hybrid scoring.” I’d like to think my sound kind of came out of that. I just get bored really easy, so I’m always trying to do different things and trying different styles.

I did this film called Jappeloup, which is a French horse-jumping film, and I did almost all of my string arrangements through my guitar. That gave the orchestra a bit of a different sound because the voicings are just different on guitar, and you’re forced to come up with different ways to do progressions. It has a bit of a different sound from a voicing perspective.

None of my guitars are ever tuned to standard. If any of my friends pick up a guitar, they’re just like, “What the hell did you do with this guitar?” because I’m always just trying to do open chords, or bowing or tapping. Scoring is interesting, because the director needs you to understand where they want the viewer to be emotionally. It usually comes down to what do you want it to sound like? What’s the sound set? What’s the base for the show? Because the emotion is already there, it’s more a matter of how you get there and with what sounds.

I just like spending a lot of time when I have enough time to do that. Sometimes you don’t. And you have to go and grab something out of the box and run with it. And that’s what I’m hoping people will get out of this Lores instrument: knowing that all this pain and suffering has already been taken care of.

How do you go about choosing what are going to be the main sounds or themes for a film or a show?

Well, I try to get started as early as possible. If I get a gig, I hope that I have enough time to get started really early. The advice I got from other composers was never to start until you’ve got picture locked. And that’s a good approach, but if I have enough time I try to get involved as early as possible. I’ll score dailies sometimes if I can, just because it gives me enough time to fiddle and futz around and come up with a sound for the show.

I just did a film called Cop Shop and I had a fair amount of time to get the sound together. We really went for this 1970s cop kind of thing and it was really fun, but it was a lot of fiddling around and trying to find older instruments, so they sounded kind of degraded and “of the era”. I spent a lot of time trying to make something sound old while also adding fresh instruments on top.

How do you approach writing a score when there isn’t an established era or style?

I usually just really try to listen to the director or the showrunner about how they want the project to sound; most of them love the opportunity to talk about that and want to be involved. You don’t want to get into talking about minor and major things – you want to talk about emotions.

One of the things that [District 9 director] Neill Blomkamp said was “I want it to sound really dark and really rad.” Those were the two words he kept saying: dark and rad. He really wanted it to have this South African flavor. But with the instruments I had to choose from, it still wasn’t there for him. So I ventured further north and grabbed some instruments like the kamanche [from Iran], and some more aggressive percussion, like the tambor and bass. We ultimately decided to use the vocal as the real signature point for the film to give it the setting. It was a unique experience because it was the first time I’d ever scored, which is funny, because now everybody thinks I’m the “sci-fi guy” – but I’d only been scoring pensive Canadian dramas up to that point.

The interesting thing about the film was that the first third was shot like a documentary, and he wanted it scored as such. When I first started scoring it, I was dancing around dialogue, starting and stopping, hitting cuts and stuff. And he was just like, “Something’s wrong. I can’t pinpoint it. It’s just sounding like it’s too scored.” And I was like, “Let’s approach this exactly like we would a documentary.” Now, I know a lot of documentaries don’t do this (a  lot of them dance around dialogue), but I used what I call “blanket score”: I wrote a cue that just goes over the top of the whole thing, and then you  just ride the fader up and down to give it the documentary look and sound he wanted.

As the film got more cinematic, we started using orchestras and some themes. I didn’t have time to build the themes throughout so it was an interesting task to try to figure that out – to change scoring styles partway through so as to match what was happening on the film. That was something I’d never done before.

What were the main elements of the blanket score?

Mostly percussion with some instruments that I had sampled. The sounds were mostly pulses, just pacing points to keep the energy moving without being melodic, because again, he didn’t want me accenting emotions. He just wanted the score to push the story forward.

Can you tell me more about the kamanche and how you used it for the District 9 score?

The kamanche was an instrument that I’d heard before. There’s a really large Persian community in Vancouver and there’s a great player there named Reza Honari – an older gentleman, real sweetheart, and he’s really good at the instrument. I brought him in to go and play over the final sequence of the film. There was a lot of voiceover and I realized that the instrument was just drawing attention away from what was happening – so there was no way I was going to be able to use it in its current form. I was going to have to find a way to resample it and stretch it and do something else. It ended up being what I thought was a really beautiful droney pad in the background that gave it a unique sound I’d never heard before. And that was actually the jumping off point for LORES – building that sound with the kamanche.

The one thing I realized pretty quickly with this technique is that it really only works well with bowed and blown instruments – with plucked or struck instruments, the attack is too much, and then you’re really just dealing with a decaying sound without the attack. So to go and build a pad of a decaying sound, you’re just spending a lot of time trying to amp it up at the end to loop in.

What sort of sounds are you drawn to?

I really like instruments that have quirkiness and some oddities to them. There was a time where sample libraries were really going towards perfectly clean and pristine sounds, and I never liked it with the orchestral ones. It’s just too pure. I found that bowing these instruments gives this unique human quality that the audience can really connect with.

So I just started bowing everything I could: percussion instruments, all of my different guitars, cymbals. They’re a little trickier, but it’s possible to make them playable. The idea of the unique instrument being bowed and stretched, tweaked and morphed into something else, was the real jumping off point for LORES.

I’d met Anthony from Evolution Series years ago, and we always wanted to work together – but we were always too busy until the pandemic. How the build started is we just started listing off instruments that could kind of give us what I was able to get out of the kamanche, we threw them all together and thought about which ones could be bowed or blown in a way that would be expressive and interesting.So then we went through the process of hiring the musicians and Anthony recorded everybody over in Australia. I would have a listen to things each day and try them out and fiddle around with them. Then we reached out to Native Instruments and it all just kind of went from there.Some of the instruments we ended up trying didn’t work out. But with the ones that did – the nyckelharpa, viola de gamba, horse fiddle, we did some wind instruments too and voice – we asked the players to play them in ways most of them had never played them before, which they were all very excited to try. Some didn’t make the cut because they didn’t quite resonate properly or weren’t expressive enough.

I think we’ve created a really unique instrument, one that’s really going to be useful for composers in scenes where they want it to sound a little bit different without overtaking the scene. It’s really, really useful for that.

LORES was influenced by how you use KONTAKT with these unusual instruments. Tell us a little bit about your technique.

I would take the kamanche or one of my guitars, and I would make a recording of me bowing it with a cello bow, something quite simple. I would record a note that either wavers or has a bit of harmonics to it. Then I’d record two or three bars depending on what I’m doing, and once I’m happy with that, I’ll do it again with a slight variation.

So now I have two similar passes that are the same length, and I load those into KONTAKT and pan one hard left and one hard right, then stretch them over the entire keyboard. So that when you go down low, it turns into this pad that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to create with the instrument on its own. Add a splash of delay, a little bit of reverb, and you’ve got this unique organic kind of sound for a show that hasn’t existed before.

You can only get that through fiddling around with different types of instruments. I do a lot with key-switching and velocity layers. You can create multiple different variations set to different velocity levels and vary between the two, or you can set up a key switch. It just depends on how in-depth you want to get in KONTAKT.

Why has KONTAKT become a favorite of yours?

Over the years, I’ve used lots of different samplers from external to internal, and I eventually settled on Kontakt. It’s super efficient: the built-in time-stretching algorithms, the key switching,  and the familiarity of it all was instrumental in me being able to work on so many shows. At one point, I had four one-hour shows going at the same time, which I have no interest in doing again, but it was a good problem to have. And Kontakt really enabled me to do it. It allowed me to focus on writing and spend a lot of time on the scenes that really mattered. Time is so tight on the shows, and Kontakt is extremely powerful and efficient. It’s definitely saved my butt quite a few times.

How does having LORES help you do things in a much quicker and easier way?

I think the advantage of having this instrument is that it takes time and money to have players come in each time. This isn’t a replacement for musicians – you always hope you have the budget to hire real players because there’s nothing better; but for pads and ambience and soundscapes, it takes a lot of time and effort to get the right player and to have them do this properly on the record. Sometimes you have to get the score down in a few weeks and the time to experiment just isn’t there. So an instrument like LORES is great because you customize it and try these different instruments and layer them yourself. And within each instrument, you can have up to three different samples. So if you have the cello there, you can have three different versions of our sampling of the cello. And then three of the alto flute, so you can literally have nine different samples playing all at once, and you can choose if they’re in mono or stereo, which saves a lot of time for that stereo split technique I mentioned earlier.

Hopefully it opens a creative door for a lot of composers out there who are looking for something unique that they wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. And you can make it your own. I think it presents a lot of creative possibilities when it comes to extended use for composers.

Are there any particular textures that you naturally gravitate towards?

The sounds that really speak to me are the imperfect sounds. There’s a piano sample library I use that’s an old rickety standard or upright bass. I really like big wide analog synth pads. But I also like unique, single voiced instruments that will give me something that I can make as wide and big sounding as an analog pad. All types of synthesis, whether it’s subtractive, additive, granular – anything I can use, I go for. I fiddle around a lot with modulation. Inside of LORES, we were able to get some LFOs that provide composers with another layer of possibility and movement to create their own unique patches and find their own unique sound.

I was at the World Soundtrack Awards in 2010, and all the biggest composers were there performing. I’ll never forget when Gustavo Santaolalla went up there and played the triangle – the audience completely changed in that moment. They were so enthralled. I could see how much they connected more to the single player and the single instrument, even with this fantastic orchestra playing alongside him. It was a big moment for me when I realized you don’t have to get wrapped up in orchestra if it doesn’t really speak to you. It doesn’t have to be like this every single time and every single cue, and you don’t have to strive for it in every budget for every show you do.

Some shows absolutely require it. I did a big disaster film, Pompeii, where the brass was recorded in Lonson and the string ensembles were recorded in Germany, and I did a lot of my bowing stuff on there too. While that has its place, what speaks to me is just smaller ensembles and smaller instruments, with a bit of the bigger stuff on top.

There must be something special for people encountering these warped and twisted sounds that they don’t hear every day.

The cool thing about using this technique of sampling with world instruments is that if it’s an instrument people can easily identify, it might be a bit of a distraction. The next thing you know, they’re not watching the film. It really is great to take these instruments and sample them in a way that makes them sound like something people haven’t heard before. It helps people connect to a scene without making them feel like they’re being transported to a different country with different instruments .The beauty of it is that it sounds otherworldly, but because you can’t place it, you don’t spend too much figuring it out and don’t get distracted.

One of the issues I ran into with the kamanche is that it’s very raw and in your face, which can be beautiful; but it takes over a scene really quickly and can be a massive distraction. LORES allows you to take these other instruments, create sounds you couldn’t otherwise get, and use them in a way that doesn’t distract from what you’re trying to do – which is ultimately to serve the picture and transport the audience to wherever the director wants them to go.

You talked about using alternate tunings with these instruments. Are these features available within LORES?

If we dive under the hood here, and just take a look at some of these presets, you see all these different options: tremolo, bursts, sustain wave circular, bowing fast, harmonics. There’s lots and lots of options – we’ve given them subcategories of organic, designed, and mixed.

The “organic” is usually just kind of more traditional playing. The “design” is a little bit more intricate and thought out with the players; we asked them what they thought they could get out of their instruments that they wouldn’t normally be able to play on their own. In this instance I’ve got up, you’ve got three different sounds of the double bass, three of the cello and three of the violin – and within each of those three different samples, you could have different motion control, panning, volume attack, and release. So the combinations are limitless, really.

There are lots of ways to go well beyond the presets on this instrument. I hope everybody will be able to dive in and have a lot of fun and just build their own. We also have this cool feature where you can just roll the dice and you’ll get a random sound combination, which is a really good jumping off point for further exploration.

What are some of the features of LORES that you really wanted to include, and that you’re excited to use for yourself?

One is the simple but really effective stereo on/off button – that, to me, is a big part of taking something that sounds really lonely and small and making it sound wider and bigger. Motion control was a big one for me. I like to do a lot with panning and volume because there are times where you have a scene with a lot of tension and you don’t want to move the baseline. You’ve got to stay calm, because the scene is visually tense, and noodling around is the last thing the scene needs. Utilizing panning and volume is a really good way to just kind of undulate sound and keep it boiling without introducing additional notes. It’s really subtle, but it’s a really important aspect of being in the scene without being the scene.

I do a lot with modulation, and my instinct is always to go and do something musical because you’re sitting in one spot for too long – but quite often when there’s tension in the scene, you can’t have a groove going. You don’t want anybody bobbing their head, because then the audience is pulled out of the scene. The best fix is just a bit of modulation: whether it be re-panning, volume fading in and out, or a little bit of pitch deviation. Again, it’s subtle, but you can just feel it moving around more.

Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask you quickly about some of the unusual instruments you have in here. Let’s start with these circle bells.

I use these on the show The Expanse. We always have bells when these characters called Belters appear. Belters are the Forgotten Ones. They’re the people that grew up basically in space; they’re the minority – they’re the ones that are marginalized between the Martians and the Earthers and they’ve suffered a lot of abuse. Growing up in artificial gravity changed the Belters’ bodies they can’t go on to some planets. The whole struggle within The Expanse is that these people want to fight back and have a place. So anyway, I’ve bowed these circle bells and also played them with a rubber mallet. It’s like a theme for them and it’s really helped give this otherworldly sound. I put a lot of delays on it, kind of harkening back to my Pink Floyd-fan days.

What about some of this other stuff?

This is a happy drum. It’s the UFO and I use it on The Expanse for a lot of the Belters sequences once again as the Morph gets kind of bell like alright, let’s play it over faker. What is overcorrect by the way my shoot faster.

This is a quijada, which is an actual donkey’s jaw. I was a big fan of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Planet of the Apes when I was growing up. And I was doing this movie Cop Shop, and I met a percussion player who’s in Denver who told me his dad was the trombone player on all those Planet of the Apes sessions. He had the inside scoop and told me about a lot of the percussion they used back then (because we really wanted to go with more of that ‘70s percussive sound on Cop Shop) and the quijada played a big role.

This is a cuatro. I’ve done a few parts on episodic TV stuff where we have to get down to South America quickly – like, we’re in Chile today and there’s a big crime scene that needs music. I’ve utilized it for that, by playing it properly, but I’ve also used this a lot by bowing it just for pacing. I used actually this specific thing in the movie Pompeii a few times when they’re going into the Colosseum and it’s like rrregedgggdun rrrrggdigggdun. I beat up the bow quite a bit – I was cranking it out.

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