The Art of Scenic Atmosphere
by Markus Thiel
With the contribution of scores to highly acclaimed TV shows like "Boston Legal", "NYPD Blue", "The Good Wife", "Manifest", and "Grey's Anatomy", unarguably one of the worldwide most successful series of all time, Daniel Scott "Danny" Lux is among the few composers to have a knack for writing perfect soundtracks to support the atmosphere of a scene. With his company Sample Fuel, he is also active in the vast field of sound design by creating exclusive and specialized synthesizer instruments for Steinberg’s HALion platform. We talked with Danny about his extraordinary work and passion for overwhelming pads.
Can you tell us something about your background and the circumstances that led you into scoring?
My older brother was playing guitar in a band and they actually used to practice in our living room, that led me into playing drums when I was about ten. By the way: my later drum teacher happened to be my former babysitter. At the age of twelve I started to form my own band together with some other kids at school and we also ended up practicing in our living room. Since all the instruments remained at that spot, I began teaching myself bit by bit keyboards, guitar and everything else. At 14 or 15 I got my first Fostex 4-track cassette recorder and I started overdubbing my own stuff and since there was still no YouTube or anybody I could ask, instead I had to figure everything out by myself. By late high school the band had evolved as well as my skills recording with a Fostex E-16 16-track system and me taking care of all the songwriting, engineering and producing.
Call it fate, but about six weeks after leaving high school a lucky coincidence took place. A guy who worked for Mike Post, a famous television composer was looking for a music store in Burbank, California, and happened to run into the wrong building, ending up in my dad’s print shop. He asked for the music store and my father — who normally wasn’t all that supportive with the whole music thing — started talking about me being into music and managed to get his phone number when it turned out they were looking for people to hire. I called and they told me they needed somebody to cart and set up all the keyboards and electronic drums for the live sessions. And so I got in. I mean we’re talking about 1987, the time when Mike Post was working on music for all the great TV shows like "Magnum P.I.", and "L.A. Law". So I started taking care of the keyboards and electronic drums, setting everything up and assisting with technical stuff.
This again led to Mike hiring me as his personal assistant and after that becoming his engineer at his office studio at the age of 19 —all this started just about six months after graduating from high school. This was also the time when things were shifting from live recording to the producing style we know today and the turn that brought me into television scoring. Working for shows like "Law and Order" I soon realized that apart from the main theme and weekly score there also had to be someone taking care of source music (background music in bars, etc.). So I told the music editors that if they would need some of that stuff I would be happy to provide it. And before I knew it, I started getting royalties from writing source music. When Mike started to notice that I was really into writing, he gave me my first show to work on and then it became many more shows over the next nine years until I decided to start my own business in 1996. And I’m lucky to be busy ever since!
Listening to your works reveals a very special feel for scenes and situations. What is your general approach when it comes to a new series?
The beginning is always the most stressful part. You have this nervous feeling about finding something really cool and new. Inevitably when it comes to a new show, 99% of the people tell you the exact same thing: “We want something really fresh, new, unique and never heard before!” During the process about 90% of the producers start temping in some music that people are used to and have probably heard a million times. I’ve done approximately a hundred series by now and I would say that 15 to 20% of them had a really unique flavor to it. And the rest is serviceable in matter of speaking but not really big opportunity to spread your wings. In the beginning for me it’s always the nervous part like: “Oh, great! I get the gig!” and at the same time: “Oh crap! I got the gig!” Depending on who you’re working with, it can be a really great experience — and I can say that this has been the case most of the time.
How I actually write music to picture is a completely different kind of craft. From looking at a scene I already subconsciously get in the right mood and while writing I always try to weave around dialog. No matter what, dialog is the most important element of a film or series. Somehow I relate that dialog is comparable to a lead singer in a song. So to speak, I try to write the music to support the singer of the scene — nobody wants to hear your music over the dialog. When I look at a scene, the first thing I sense is tempo and mood. I then start writing in Cubase based on a tempo-map while the picture is always up and running. I never worry about what meter I’m in — especially in a melodic environment. I’m writing the chord changes and lines by feeling them around the dialog. Only if I’m going back to the parts for adding something like strings, for example, I start analyzing if it’s actually a 4/4, 5/4 or 7/4 bar I’m dealing with.
You’re also a lot into creating your own sounds, especially synths for and with HALion.
The three shows I’m working on right now are kind of hybrid in sound. For example, the music parts of Grey’s Anatomy — we’re doing this show now for unbelievably 17 years — consist of orchestral parts, alongside pulsing synth pads on the other side. A show like Manifest is a lot more edgy and dark and mysterious, allowing me to use some more specialized sounds. When it comes to creating sounds, I always liked HALion over any other solution on the market. Even in the early days of 32 bits and lacking RAM this software could manage large sample banks by loading sounds in an instant when you need them, what almost felt like using a hardware sampler. One of the biggest eye-openers for me was when granular synthesis was introduced together with HALion 4. Suddenly it was possible to create really incredible pad sounds that were not possible before. You can take any sample from any library or a mere wine glass sound to create one of the most beautiful pad sounds just by dropping it into the granular engine of HALion.
This became something like an obsession to me — it’s like the answer to all questions about coolness in my world. After producing several thousand sounds over a couple of years using mostly this granular engine, HALion 6 came out allowing users to create their own user interfaces. All of a sudden, my assistant Jared and I really got intrigued by the idea of building up an individual workflow by creating our very own custom synth engine to drop our samples in. After messing around for some time and realizing how powerful this whole thing could be, we began thinking about the possibility of turning it into a small company. We also liked the idea of raising the bar of our development process to a professional level that we could actually be able to sell it — if we ever decided to. That is basically how it started!
When I got hired on Manifest I knew that I wanted to use a lot of reverse sounds. So I came up with the idea of an engine that is able to produce a line of reversed sounds without forcing the producer into thinking or playing backwards. But I wanted the results to sound like somebody played it backwards, then reversed the sample and finalized it with some great effects. It took me some time to figure out the right way of realizing this from an engine point of view and it all resulted in the Revolution-CRE8 instrument you can now buy via Steinberg. When it comes to pads and extraordinary percussion sounds HALion is my go-to platform I rely on most of the time. It’s a major tool for me!
What other tools are you frequently using in your sessions?
To be honest, the majority of used plug-ins in my sessions are Cubase stock ones because they really sound great and are easy to use. They’re also very CPU efficient and that comes in handy if you’re dealing with large templates. It always feels weird to me that so many people routinely dismiss the plug-ins that come with their DAW — like there is an unwritten rule that things that come free with a product can’t be that great. A lot of customers are huge fans of the special-sounding reverbs I use on my productions but in fact I also get a lot of use out of REVelation — a stock reverb plug-in.