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MARK SNOW: Scoring The X-Files

Interview | Composer By Derek Johnson
Published February 1997

Mark Snow's quirky yet haunting X‑File theme tune was last year's surprise worldwide chart hit, and his atmospheric scoring plays an important part in setting the mood for this darkly compelling television phenomenon. Derek Johnson discovers that the music is out there...

When talking about the sound of the X‑Files, there's one very important element that deserves separate consideration: the music. Soundtrack composer Mark Snow's simple yet effective theme grabs the attention and sets the mood for the episode to come — and that episode is likely to contain more original music than the average TV show, with about 30‑35 minutes of music in each 45‑minute programme.

I first asked Mark about how he got the job of scoring The X‑Files: "Well, one of X‑Files' co‑executive producers, RW (Bob) Goodwin, is an old friend of mine, and he suggested me to the show's creator, Chris Carter, who I didn't know. Chris and I both live on the west side of Los Angeles, so he came over, saw my studio and listened to some of my music. But he played it very close to his chest, so I had no idea of what he was thinking. He visited twice, and it was the same both times: very nice, very respectful, but he left saying 'We'll be in touch' or 'I'll call you...' So I was thinking 'No problem, this will happen or not'. I didn't get a sense of his intentions one way or the other, and two weeks later, I got the job."

What kind of brief did Chris Carter give? "At first, he didn't want story‑telling in the music. He didn't want obvious melodic, traditional, over‑the‑top scoring. He wanted very supportive, very sustained atmospheric stuff that didn't get in the way."

Carter provided a temp reel — a copy of the pilot with a soundtrack made up of music from other sources. "It was sort of my direction to go in, and I did that at first. It worked out very well, and set a tone for the show. As the shows progressed, I definitely think the music has become more involved, more musical, more melodic, more emotional, but still in that honest, minimal approach, which I think is the key to it."

The X‑Files was almost an instant hit; was Mark aware of what was coming, or did he see it as just another job? "It felt a little bit better than just another job, working with a really intelligent group of people. I thought it could be successful, but I didn't think it would turn into this! Especially — selfishly — when the theme became a big hit. The music got to be so noticed; I never thought that would happen."

The Emmy‑nominated Snow has a long list of pre‑X‑Files credits, including TV shows such as Hart to Hart, Crazy Like a Fox, and some episodes of Cagney and Lacey. Mark's traditional, orchestral background is further exemplified by his time at New York's Julliard music school. He studied oboe there, and still professes a great respect for baroque and other pre‑classical music. His musical interests pass by the romantic era and get straight into the 20th century, with the likes of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Ravel, and Bartok: "Maybe I've become more mature about these things, because I certainly respect Brahms, Mahler and Bruckner and so on, but there's something inherently schmaltzy about their music, which at times doesn't quite feel honest — in today's sensibility, that is — whereas some early music is so potently beautiful in its simplicity." Mark's musical background isn't completely restricted to the classical: several years at the beginning of the '70s saw him touring and recording with the cult‑ish New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, which also featured fellow soundtrack composer Michael Kamen.

All Geared Up

Despite his extensive experience of working with real orchestras, Mark does all the X‑Files music at home, in his private studio. "First of all, there isn't the time to do a live orchestra score with this show. The copying, orchestrating, getting the musicians and so on, would be just impossible." Mark's equipment of choice is a Synclavier system: "About six or seven years ago, I got into the Synclavier (with Direct‑to‑Disk module). That's still my main piece of gear, and I find it the most elegant, fast, best‑sounding thing available. People think that it has a 'sound', and it doesn't! It's just a storage device, an architecture and a digital sampler that's so fast and immediate. The sound is what's in the library, what's on the disks. People talk about all of these samplers that cost nothing compared to the Synclavier; well, that's fine, but this is still by far the best. Actually, even if there were months to do each score live, working from here is still preferable, because the Synclavier provides a marvellous collection of regular acoustic instrument sounds, in combination with all the atmospheric, textural things."

But, of course, New England Digital, the company behind the Synclavier, is now no more: "It was unfortunate, but I've had very good luck with my machine: it hasn't broken down too much at all. And now there's a company called Demas, based near the original NED site in New Hampshire, that is offering Synclavier support and software updates. Demas even employs some ex‑Synclavier people."

Despite having a Mac in his studio, Mark actually also sequences with the Synclavier, in a linear fashion: "It's not a hugely powerful sequencer, but luckily I don't have to do a lot of dance arrangements or pop things, so it's just fine."

The Synclavier system may be at the heart of the studio, patched through a Soundcraft Sapphyre LC mixer, but that's not it for "MIDI boxes", as Mark refers to them: the studio also accommodates a Roland S760 sampler, Kurzweil MicroPiano module, an Emu Proteus 1, 2 (source of the famous X‑Files whistle, in combination, apparently, with a sample of Snow's wife whistling!) and 3, Emu Morpheus, Korg M1R and Wavestation SR. But these are adjuncts to the core sound produced by the Synclavier and its large library: "I have all these great samples on the Synclavier's magneto drives." Mark doesn't do much sampling of his own: "There are so many sample disks available that I have people transfer them onto Synclavier format." And is there anything else he'd like to add to the studio? "Well, the only thing that means anything to me is new sounds or new combinations of sounds. All I care about is if somebody has a great new sound library. That's what I'm looking for. Since my background is music, rather than electronics and technology, I just know as much as I have to. There are so many other composers who know about sampling rates and all that technical stuff, but none of that really interests me. So apart from new sounds, I could maybe upgrade the RAM and the number of voices on the Synclavier..."

The Final Score

I wondered if Mark's classical background helps him to create more convincing electronic simulations — anyone who has listened to an X‑Files soundtrack will vouch for its organic feel, even at its most impressionistic. "That's a really astute question, because in this day and age where these machines are so widely available, anybody can be a composer. But coming from an acoustic background, I tend to hear things in a very human, emotional, real way, and I strive for that in the samples and my electronic mock‑up of the orchestra. It's a very important thing for me: the music has to have a sense of life to it."

When it comes to the final music mix, analogue two‑track is definitely a thing of the past: "We use Tascam's DA88 8‑track digital recorder — I actually have Sony's PCM800 version. The music editor stripes a tape with timecode, and we mix down to that. We just drop the cassette into another machine at the mixing stage."

Given the extensive use of QSound 3D processing and Dolby Surround on the final mix, I wondered if any allowances had to be made at the music stage: "At first, we maybe had a little bit of trouble getting that right, but I think the two most important points are that things shouldn't be split to extreme left and right and that the lows and the highs — especially the lows — shouldn't be overdone. You can't think of it as a movie score where the lows can be just really packed in: you have to be a little discreet, because the low end tends to spread and wash everything out on television."

Towards The Millennium

Of course, Chris Carter has recently launched another series, Millennium [mentioned in Paul White's interview with David West, starting on page 154], which debuted on satellite in the UK at the end of December last year, and for which Mark is also providing the soundtrack: "It's doing pretty well. At the moment, I think it doesn't quite have the broadness of The X‑Files. It's sort of a one‑note piece, more of a murder mystery, but it's really expanding now, and the lead character, played by Lance Henrikson [of Aliens and Terminator fame] is really great: he plays it so quietly and deliberately, it's very, very cool... Musically, it's a whole different approach. The theme features a live violin playing a sort of sad Irish melody, with big Japanese drums in the background, a nice change of pace from The X‑Files. The music started off fairly one‑dimensional, just low, sustained synth with drum accents, but the show is broadening out, which is good."

Snow's obviously in demand: how does he handle the workload of two network TV shows? "It's not like two shows happening every week at the same time — there are breaks. Over Thanksgiving, it got pretty bad because there was a two‑part X‑Files that had a very short turn‑around and needed a lot of music, but that's as bad as it's been. The workload seems to be manageable!"

Single Files

The single version of the X‑Files theme last year proved to be a surprise hit, so I asked Mark what prompted the release. "I think it was the record company's idea. Someone called me up and said: 'We need a four‑minute version today!' I said 'I'm in the middle of doing the show music!' They said 'Put it aside, you gotta do it!' So I just elongated the track, added another section with the whistle sound, and made the strings do some oddball triads over the top — I must have done it in half an hour. I just wanted to appease these guys at the label and get back to work. The four‑minute version originally appeared as the first track on the Songs in the Key of X CD, and it was just luck that Warner Brothers thought it would be good to release it as a single. They were just amazed that it took off. To me, as a musician, it was hilarious: here's a hit record that has no singing, no bass, no drums, no guitars, and that stays in D minor for four minutes! It's unbelievable."

And the single version of the theme tune, along with several of the dance remixes, did rather well worldwide — so well that there has been talk of a follow‑up, not to mention bizarre requests for European tours. What did Mark make of the remixes? "I think 70% or 80% of those remixes are pretty good. But I've heard a couple that were just awful: they didn't even get the melody right, and you can't get much simpler than that! But I think most of them have been great." Mark specifically approves of the DJ Dado remix, and the Flexifinger mix that appears on the CD The Truth and the Light: Music from the X‑Files.

There are actually two CDs of X‑Files‑related material out now: Songs in the Key of X is a Don Was co‑production [SOS talked to Don Was back in December 1994] featuring a variety of bands performing series‑inspired music, while the recently released The Truth and the Light: Music From the X‑Files contains Mark Snow's music from the series, plus some new material, pieced together with moody snippets of original dialogue. "I had nothing to with the Songs CD; Chris Carter is a real fan of modern music, and all the people on the album are fans of the show, and they all wanted to be on it. A lot of the hardcore fans thought it was really bogus because none of the songs (save for a track by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) had been on the show. But it still sold pretty well. Now the thing that's disappointing to me is the CD with the show's music, which a lot of the fans have been waiting for, isn't getting much publicity. I mean, it's selling better in France than it is in America. I questioned the label about it, and they said 'Madonna's not on it, REM's not on it, so we can't really put much into it.' I said, 'But this is The X‑Files! This isn't just any ordinary TV show...' We're hoping that it'll just stay around long enough to still be selling in years to come. It feels like that'll be the case, as word of mouth spreads."

Wired For Weird: X‑Files On The Internet

Almost as soon as the first episode of The X‑Files aired, sites dedicated to the series sprung up on the internet, and now the choice is almost unlimited. If you must have a browse, try the official sites first — they provide credits and episode guides, plus data on upcoming programmes. Fox in the States has two sites (www.thex‑ and, and Sky TV runs a UK site at A small corner of the BBC's web site offers details of UK terrestrial broadcasts; start with It would be impossible to give even an abbreviated list of unofficial sites here; a good starting point is James Shum's Big List of X‑Files Links — and believe me, it's a big list (try, or

On a musical level, Warner Brothers' web site (at has several pages dedicated to Mark Snow and both X‑Files‑based CDs. Here you'll find biographical notes, plus details and track listings of both the CDs.