How the Blade Runner Soundtrack Altered Our Relationship With Synths

Written by Adam King

December 8, 2021
How the Blade Runner Soundtrack Altered Our Relationship With Synths

Written by Adam King

December 8, 2021

“All the acoustic instruments – I think they are perfect. But if you want to go beyond that, then you use a synthesizer” – Vangelis.

There are two kinds of people in this world – those who’s soul quivers, eyes bubble, and who have a surge of endorphins so surreally overreactive when Vangelis’s Yamaha CS-80 synthesizer hits the first lead line in the “Main Titles” sequence from Blade Runner that they wonder if it’s their own collection of experienced passion that could elicit a reaction so deep, or if they themselves could be merely a programmed response from some invisible hand of a DNA pre-constructor, growing them as nothing but a confirmation of pre-conceived chemical reactions… and then there’s people that talk at concerts.

But this is the essence of Vangelis’s creation. For a film that questions the nature of one’s creation and whether a synthetic being can experience the same sensations as an organic being, Vangelis created a synthesized soundtrack that manifests an ethereal universe just oozing of emotion. Like if somebody dropped an ice cube of raw noir down the back of your shirt, a contentedness with uncertainty, a laughing sadness, a crying joy – all the deepest edges of what it feels to be human. And thus, the question then becomes not whether it matters that synthesizers are used or not, but whether live instrumentation could even match up to what a perfectly synthesized score can evoke.  

HISTORY OF VANGELIS

By 1982, the notion of crafting a film score with synthesizers was not unheard of. Wendy Carlos had cast that first stone with 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, and composed the Tron soundtrack in ’82, but both of those used the synth sound in a quasi-novelty fashion – more akin to a sonic cartoon than drawing out the soul of a microchip. At this same time, Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou, thankfully known professionally as Vangelis, was in the midst of a string of successful electronic albums, and had just won the Oscar for Best Original Score for Chariots of Fire when he submitted his score for Blade Runner. Despite it being snubbed by the Academy that year and overshadowed by John Williams E.T. soundtrack, the residual influence was both profound and near instantaneous.

VANGELIS’S TOOLS

Old footage of Vangelis in his workstation shows him blissfully drowning in a vast array of synthesizers, but there’s three tools that define what we hear in Blade Runner.

Yamaha CS-80

Those tones that you can feel truly altering your physical form all come from the CS-80. Enabled with polyphonic aftertouch, the timbre of any note is able to be manipulated through both motion and pressure – akin to how a violinist could alter the sound of a string. This tactile capability really blurs the line between a synth and a more traditional analog instrument. In Vangelis’s own words: “the most important synthesizer in my career — and for me the best analogue synthesizer design there has ever been … It needs a lot of practice if you want to be able to play it properly, but that’s because it’s the only synthesizer I could describe as being a real instrument, mainly because of the keyboard — the way it’s built and what you can do with it.

Roland VP-330

Many of the strings in the score are done on the VP-330. While it may not be the most accurate recreation of a physical orchestra, the dynamic capabilities are incredibly rich and set the baseline nature for the score in a way that again questions whether an actual string section could have gone as deep on.  

Lexicon 224-X Reverb

The still-reigning champion of vintage reverb, the 224-X looked more like an early prototype for a Texas Instruments calculator than any reverb pedal on the market this century. As highly a sought-after piece of hardware as anything from the era, the occasional clunkiness of the Lexicon gave it a more human feel that was lost in its successors.

BLADE RUNNER SOUNDTRACK’S INFLUENCE IN FILM

Despite its perception now as a landmark moment in science fiction, Blade Runner initially was a bomb at the box-office. While this led to its score being overlooked by critics at the time, it had a far different and immediate effect on the inside of the cinematic world. The sound of dystopia had been created, and no dark vision of the future would ever feel right without it again.

As soon as 1984, the reaches of Vangelis’s influence were undeniable, and glaringly obvious in many films; most notably in Brad Fiedel’s score for The Terminator. Another vision of the blurred line between man and machine, it’s hard to imagine James Cameron’s first masterpiece working without Fiedel’s synth score. The new realm of ominous sonic atmosphere was irresistible for the horror world as well, and ’84 also found essential synth scores in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Firestarter.

You’d be hard-pressed to find any cinematic composer today who couldn’t directly link their use of synthesizers to Vangelis, nor would they want to deny it. Everything Cliff Martinez touches drips with Blade Runner influence, from 2002’s Solaris to 2011’s Drive. In 2014, Richard Vreeland, known as Disasterpeace, composed a synth score for It Follows that acts as a direct transport to the landscape of the early 1980’s. Even Daft Punk’s score for 2010’s Tron:Legacy has more echoes of Blade Runner than it does of the original Tron soundtrack.

BLADE RUNNER’S INFLUENCE IN POPULAR MUSIC

The idea of a sonic landscape wasn’t new in the 1980’s, but while someone like Brian Eno had been crafting pallets of ambience, it was Vangelis that spurred the idea of direct emotional manipulation. What’s ironic is the fact that the official film soundtrack wasn’t released until 1994, and even then, only partially. So much of the direct influence on the electronic music world came from nothing but repeated viewings of the film and an unauthorized bootleg which floated around some circles.

The true outreach of the score’s influence is immeasurable though. The explosion of a vast, respected synth-led music scene in the 80’s is an obvious line. One could also easily argue that the emergence of bands like My Bloody Valentine and the development of “shoegaze” in the latter half of the decade were direct next steps in terms of crafting an all-entrapping soundscape. Electronic legend Gary Numan will talk for hours about how the film affected his craft. It’s easier to imagine an artist like Bjork as living in the world of Blade Runner than our own reality. Run the Jewels’ El-P lauds the score constantly, and even used nothing but a CS-80 to compose a score for the trailer for Blade Runner 2049 that was ultimately rejected by the film’s producers.

FROM BLADE RUNNER TO BLADE RUNNER 2049

When 2017’s Blade Runner 2049 was first announced, everyone asked two questions: “Will Harrison Ford be returning?” and “Who will be doing the soundtrack?” Icelandic composer Jóhann Gunnar Jóhannsson was initially tapped to create the score but was taken off the film when the director wanted something closer to Vangelis’s initial work. Enter Hans Zimmer.

After his work on Inception, Interstellar, and The Dark Knight Trilogy, which could all be seen as influenced by the initial Blade Runner in their own regard, Zimmer was a natural choice. Teaming up with score composer, Benjamin Wallfisch, they immediately knew the CS-80 had to be the centerpiece of the score. The resulting creation is an incredibly worthy offspring of its’ predecessor, highlighted by the clarity they were able to get out of the CS-80’s low end. When I personally saw the film in the theaters, those deep tones sincerely took my breath away, and I turned to my friend and said, “Oh, I want to live in this.”

When a piece of art is birthed in initial perfection, its’ reach is timeless. The influence and alterations to our sonic landscape that the Blade Runner soundtrack catalyzed will make it an eternal touchstone for the development and existence of electronic music. Headphones at full volume highly recommended.

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