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Page 2: Dave Porter: Scoring Breaking Bad & Better Call Saul

Classical Or Electronic?

Dave’s love of synthesizers goes right back to the late ’80s, when as a teenager he mowed lawns around his neighbourhood to save up for a lightly used Roland Juno‑106 polysynth. “I still own it and still call on it surprisingly often,” he says. “I’m very good at collecting synthesizers and terrible about moving them on. Thankfully, I’m fortunate enough to have a career that enables me to really use them, and they’re a never‑ending source of inspiration for me.”

That initial taste of the Roland and its tantalising musical potential widened when the young Dave attended Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, to the north of New York City. He recalls a very open, liberal arts school, where students were encouraged to design much of their own creative and educational path. Which for Dave meant an enormous amount of music, and the presence of a mentor in the shape of his professor, John Yannelli, an early advocate for electronic music.

“John was — and continues to be — just wildly passionate about it,” Dave remembers. “His wife is a dancer, and he used to tour with dance companies and a Moog System 35 modular. But as much as he was inspired by the technology, he was more driven by the creative opportunities that it could offer. He was great about projecting towards each of his students in a different way, so they could take that skill or that interest and apply it to however they approached making music.”

Not that classical music was absent. Prior to college, he says, classical and electronic seemed like two separate worlds. There was the classical music he grew up playing and, as he puts it, regurgitating: Mozart, Chopin, and so on. All of which he still loves, but it seemed like a functional approach to art as opposed to something creative. What encouraged him into the world of making his own music was the electronics side of his studies. He knew how to play synthesizers instinctively — he was a piano player — but they opened up a whole new world for him that was entirely different to what he already knew.

It was during his time at Sarah Lawrence that Dave was encouraged and found satisfying ways to marry classical and electronics. “That combination of my understanding of classical music and theory, but with the excitement and the experimental aspects of the electronics — well, they merged together into something that opened a path forward for me. And, of course, some combination of the two is really the basis of all film and TV music these days.”

Big Break

A few more jobs came up in New York following the work with Philip Glass, but Dave moved to LA in 2002, following the events of September 11th 2001, and that’s where he’s been based ever since. It was tough at first: “I had a naive view that my experience in New York would open some doors for me in LA, but it doesn’t work that way, of course. It’s a whole other world. I really did have to start all over again. So I spent a few years on the couch, watching the savings disappear. When you’re young and you come to LA, for a while it feels like you just have to survive. You have to persevere until you’ve met enough people and you learn enough about how it all works to get in the door.”

HDave Porteris first notable LA opportunity came in 2005 through a friend, Bruno Roussel, who was the music editor for the TV show Six Feet Under. “It was in its final season, and Bruno had moved on to his next job and needed some coverage. I filled in for a bit and got an insider view on how high‑end TV was made. By the end of it I was confident enough to tell the folks there that I was hoping to be a composer, and I made some relationships that flourished into opportunities later.” And then came the big Breaking Bad break.

He joined the team right from the start, after his friend Thomas Golubić, a music supervisor, asked if Dave would help him prep for an interview for a job on the show, which naturally involved watching a rough‑cut of the pilot. “I was just absolutely floored when I saw it,” Dave recalls, still sounding a little shocked some 15 years or so later. “It looked and felt like a feature film.”

Anyway, Thomas was hired, and so Dave had an inside view into what was happening. “I was enormously persistent. I sent music over to put into the early cuts, to help them find their way musically with what they were trying to do. A few of those things stuck and hung around in early cuts of the pilot as they continued working on it. And when it came time to hire a composer, to the best of my knowledge they didn’t interview anyone else.”

It was a matter of right time, right place, for sure. It helped, too, that Breaking Bad was with AMC, a cable channel known mostly at the time for re‑runs and old movies, and therefore initially off the radar for many. And as ever at the start of a project, there was a lot of trial and error, with Dave throwing things at the wall to listen for what resonated.

“The one thing I knew for certain was that the show was unique,” he remembers, “that it had a very specific and interesting voice, and the music had to follow suit. It begins as a very intimate story about one man’s foibles, essentially.” But also he knew through conversations with Vince Gilligan that it was going to grow into a story of epic, even global consequences.

That led him to the conclusion that his compositions had to have a good deal of scope to them, but at the same time they had to find a way to be intimate. And his initial reaction was that traditional Western orchestral instruments were not the solution. Every time he tried that approach it felt, he says, too expected for such an unexpected show. That started him down the path that ultimately led to a specific sonic palette in Breaking Bad, a combination of found sounds, world instruments, and, of course, synthesizers. Once he established that, everything began to fall into place.

Dave was working in his small apartment in Hollywood at the time, up in an “insanely hot” loft, thankfully on a level with only one other neighbour, who turned out to be an accomplished percussionist. “He kept late hours, too, so in our corner of this little building there was all kinds of noise getting made at all hours of the night — and we were able to get away with it for years.”

Back when he worked as a composer in New York before the trek westwards, Dave favoured Synclavier systems. “I came up working under composers who had them, which is how I learned to use them, and then eventually I had my own. Around the time I moved to LA, though, I was starting to transition into writing in Pro Tools. I started with version 4, I would guess, when the MIDI implementation was still in its infancy. The Synclavier was starting to show its age, in terms of being able to keep up with RAM and libraries and the things composers needed at the time.”

In those early Breaking Bad years, Dave’s setup was what he describes as a kludged‑together hybrid system of Synclavier and Pro Tools. “A little of each, sync’ing the two sequencers together — there were ways in which one was preferable to the other. Then, eventually, as Pro Tools got better at the MIDI end of things, the composing end of things, I graduated to writing almost everything there. The Synclavier became a glorified rackmount sampler, there just to provide sounds. I had years and years invested in it, with my own stuff, so it was still important, but I wasn’t writing on it any more. And that’s the role the Synclavier still plays for me today, and it still sounds amazing.”

Prior to switching over to Pro Tools, Porter’s composing setup was based around a Synclavier (bottom right).Prior to switching over to Pro Tools, Porter’s composing setup was based around a Synclavier (bottom right).Photo: by @Redboy

Found, World, Synth

And so to Dave’s Breaking Bad sound palette: found sounds, world instruments, synthesizers. He had a little Roland field recorder that he took everywhere — he’d leave it running as he ran around town, took a trip on a plane, whatever — and it became the source for his library of found sounds.

“I’d come back home and dump it on to two tracks of Pro Tools, without even listening. Then I’d find a time to spot‑check through, listening for an interesting klunk, say, or a background sound in there, little snippets that I’d cut out and throw in a dated folder. Then when the time came to be creative, I had all that stuff available. All composers probably wish they were more organised, and I’m no exception, so to have that stuff when you’re in need of something inspiring can be great. One of the things that’s always so important to me in my composing process is the pre‑production, the getting ready, the having everything prepared and ready when it’s time to write. Hopefully then you’re not messing around too much with the technology or the early parts of sound creation.”

Dave Porter’s modular rack.Dave Porter’s modular rack.Photo: by @RedboyFor his use of world instruments, Dave says his goal in those early Breaking Bad years was to be as disconnected as possible. How so? He says he wanted to think, as much as he could, not in the way an ethnomusicologist would. So he’d be quite happy putting African drums, say, with Indonesian gamelan or Scottish bagpipes. It was a matter of whatever worked that was as off‑kilter as possible, because he knew that was the goal for the Breaking Bad score: to be unsettling, to be uncertain, to be a fusion of disparate things.

He recalls by way of example a small musical motif that he used a few times through the various series. Not that recurring motifs had much of a place in the shows — the characters had a habit of changing too much, for a start — but this one proved irresistible. “It was for when the main character, Walter, dons his iconic hat, which became symbolic of him turning to his alter ego, Heisenberg. I was looking for something that was delicate but that still projected power. Earlier, I had spent a year studying music in Japan and brought home a koto, the Japanese stringed instrument.”

He was playing around with the koto and found a little theme. “It’s such a delicate instrument, and I just fell upon it. I loved the notes and the is‑it‑Asian‑or‑is‑it‑Morricone vibe of it, but it wasn’t projecting the power. So then it was: How can technology help? I recorded myself playing the koto, and I played around with my plug‑ins, and I dragged it back out of Pro Tools and re‑amped it through a guitar amplifier, until it became this much, much bigger, bolder sound. But somehow, at the heart of it, at least to me — and maybe it was my imagination or maybe wishful thinking — but it felt like still at its heart it had this little bit of sweetness about it, this little bit of frailty.”

Dave remembers an example of his use of vintage synthesizers within the Breaking Bad palette for a now famous scene from series four known as the Crawl Space, where Walter/Heisenberg can’t find his stashed money. The tension is enhanced by a thumping ‘heartbeat’ in the soundtrack, for which he used and augmented his classic ARP 2600.

“It originated as a sort of two‑parter,” he recalls. “My first idea was a thump from the 2600 synthesizer. But the other part came when I had Pro Tools in record for something else — and I accidentally kicked a guitar amplifier. It had that spring reverb in it, and so it went thunk. And I just happened to be in record. I thought oh, there’s a happy accident. Then I actually tried to repeat it, to improve it, and couldn’t. It never came out quite as well as that first time I kicked it accidentally. And those two things together make that sound.” A lesson about always staying in record? “Absolutely true,” he says, laughing. “It’s become a mandate of mine, for sure. And these days, especially, there’s no excuse, right?”

Motion & Swells

Dave’s synthesizer collection grew as his career developed. As well as his headline work on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, he’s composed for many other TV series, including The Blacklist, Hightown and Preacher, and also for films such as The Disaster Artist and El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.

Tower of power: among Porter’s many synths is the Roland Juno-106 he bought in the late '80s.Tower of power: among Porter’s many synths is the Roland Juno-106 he bought in the late '80s.Photo: by @RedboyA classically trained pianist from the age of five, Dave naturally leans towards polyphonic synths. “There is a magic in a few notes of the same synthesizer patch playing simultaneously, but never doing exactly the same thing at the same time — that rub of the slight tuning discrepancies and oscillators beating at different rates — either subtly or in a purposefully pronounced way.”

For analogue sounds, he has for a long time gravitated toward Oberheim instruments, and not necessarily the most fancy or expensive models. “My rackmount Matrix 1000, say — it’s a very simple preset machine, and I use it all the time. I love motion in sounds, so I also love the very early digital synths, particularly the wavetable ones like my rackmount Prophet VS, from ’86 or ’87. It appears in almost everything I do, in one form or another, and I love the swells and that motion, that push, from one thing to another — the transitional sounds, the ones that drive you towards something. Which, of course, is such a big component of film and TV music.”

That love of all things Oberheim led him to preview Tom Oberheim’s recently announced OB‑X8. “I’m a lifelong fan of his. He’s an absolutely warm and wonderful gentleman, so I couldn’t have been more delighted for him when he got his name back under his own control. Kudos to everyone who made that possible. And his new synth is glorious. I just instantly connect with the sound of his instruments — there’s a level of depth and complexity to them, somehow, that I find unique, and always a little bit of darkness and grit that is so musical.”

Much as he loves and uses his vintage gear, Dave also likes to constantly experiment with new ways to get kickstarted creatively, whether it’s recording with an unusual ensemble of live musicians, working with his recording engineer and guitar guru James Saez on specific guitar tone, or employing the latest bit of kit.

Dave Porter: "I consider myself fortunate to have carved out a career doing what I love to do, and I’m so grateful to all the people who create the instruments and the technology that inspire me.”

“A newer synthesizer I’ve been using a lot on this final season of Better Call Saul is the C15 from Nonlinear Labs,” he says, “designed by Stephan Schmitt, a founder of Native Instruments. Stephan would cringe at my simplistic explanation of it, but it modulates sine waves and employs comb filters and feedback loops in innovative ways that make for very expressive and novel sounds.”

That excitement at hearing something for the first time, and then using that sound to achieve something musically satisfying, is at the core of what Dave does and what he loves. “It’s what got me hooked as a teenager, spending hours in the music store in awe of instruments I couldn’t possibly afford. I consider myself fortunate to have carved out a career doing what I love to do, and I’m so grateful to all the people who create the instruments and the technology that inspire me.”