Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein
Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein are the synthesizer masterminds behind the haunting score of Netflix's Stranger Things and half of Austin-based dark instrumental band, S U R V I V E. They have come a long way from their initial living room collaboration. Some have even said Kyle and Michael are carrying on the tradition of electronic pioneers like Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream. This year, they were nominated for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media at the GRAMMYs, performed at numerous festivals including Moogfest, Outside Lands, and FYF Fest, and have been hard at work on the score of Stranger Things' second season. Basking in the glow of their EMMY nomination for "Outstanding Main Title Theme Sequence", I spoke with them at length about their early musical beginnings, their deep knowledge and passion for analog synthesizers, and how the phenomenon of Stranger Things has altered their lives.
Congratulations on the Emmy nomination for “Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music” for your work on Stranger Things! Let’s start from the very beginning. When did you meet one another and how did your first collaboration occur?
Kyle: We've known each other since we were 13. We come from Dallas, that’s where we grew up. I went to college south of Austin at a place called San Marcos. We were still in touch a little bit after high school, but we didn't see each other as much as we used to. Michael came to visit me one time and we found out that we had both been working on music independently. When I came back home for the holidays, we tried collaborating. At that point, I was playing the banjo.
Michael: We should find that recording!
Kyle: I still have it.
How did you both become musicians? Where did this love for electronic music come from?
Kyle: In short, we just listened to a lot of music and then tried to figure out how to make it. A lot of the stuff that we grew up listening to was experimental electronic stuff, so we started recording things in different ways, trying to process sounds using unconventional methods. From there, we started realizing that playing around with synthesizers was easier than just throwing something at a wall and then pitching it down or using a computer. We started collecting them and that’s probably when our musical knowledge started growing.
Michael: We both had our bouts with school classes. At a young age, my dad had a guitar and an effects processor, which made a backward effect. I just hit it and messed around with effects. I joined a school band, then dropped out, then joined again in junior high, and dropped out again. I took some drum lessons and went to drum camp in the fifth grade. I never learned a single thing. I wish I would have taken piano classes. When I got into doing more engineering focused things, learning to process, and buying instruments, it started turning into music. After that, I used my knowledge of the computer to really put it all together for sequencing.
Kyle: I guess I did try to play music when I was young. In elementary school, the first thing I tried was coronet and then the violin. When I say tried, it's an overstatement. I signed up for the classes and got the instruments, it didn't go anywhere. I got kicked out of my music theory class in high school because I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no musical background. I know I was being a brat, so I didn’t belong in that class. We kind of knew we wanted to do music, but I really didn’t start trying until I was about 19 or 20.
Can you recall each of your first synthesizers? What were your first real synths?
Kyle: The first one I ever got was a Korg Univox K1. I think that's what it's called. It's a little monophonic thing that sounds good. I got it off of eBay by typing in analog synthesizer. I guess it's a real synth, it just doesn't have as many controls as most of the other synthesizers I have.
Michael: It’s called Mini-Korg, right?
Kyle: Mini-Korg? It has a bunch of names. 300 bucks for an analog synthesizer. For 300 bucks, I thought it looked cool.
Michael: Yeah, it’s surprisingly amazing sounding.
Kyle: Yeah, it just happens to sound great. It's from 1973 or something like that. I believe it was first commercially available synth made by Korg.
Michael: The end of high school I bought something at a pawn shop called Roland Synthesizer. It was the worst thing ever. It didn't even make the sounds I wanted. No modulating down sound. These are sounds I would never use now, but I'd hear on Devo or something. After that, I did some research and I bought a Roland SH-101 and I still have it and I use it. A lot. So, that's my first real synthesizer.
You are both members of the dark instrumental band, S U R V I V E. What events led to the creation of the band?
Kyle: Well, back in 2008, I was living in a house with Mark and Adam, the other two members of S U R V I V E. We had been making demos, just recording, but nothing was real yet. We didn't have a name. Michael was still in Dallas; this was already after we had reconnected and started messing around with the idea of doing music. Michael came down for the weekend and we had a set up in the living room. We started recording what became a song called Holographic Landscape. That was the first song that we ever made. Michael stayed over, finished it up on his laptop, added some effects, and mixed it a little bit. The next day, we added a couple more parts and we're like “This song is done. Let's put it on MySpace". We made a MySpace profile and decided to call it S U R V I V E.
Michael: It’s funny because some of the songs we wrote back in 2008 ended up on our 2012 record. Some of the experimental process during writing didn’t get captured very well. It had charm to it, where you couldn’t redo it. So, it took awhile for us to learn how to clean it up and get it to sound right. In other cases, we’d heard the songs so much, we couldn’t figure out how to finish them right away.
What have been some of the career highlights for S U R V I V E thus far?
Kyle: That's tough. The first time I really felt vindicated was when we met Malcolm Cecil at Moog Fest. He had a band called Tonto's Expanding Head Band, produced a bunch of Stevie Wonder records like Superstition and things like that. He told us that our band was carrying on the tradition, which was really cool. After that, we drove back to Texas and played a show with Goblin. They are Italian horror soundtrack guys. You know Suspiria and Profondo Rosso? Tenebrae? They were into our music too. These were the first times that people I looked up to in various ways had responded well to our music.
Michael: It was surreal. Malcolm Cecil came by our Airbnb and we were like ‘what!’. He shared his philosophy of the seven dimensions of the universe with us. It was sick. S U R V I V E has also taken us to Europe and a bunch of other places we'd never been, which was obviously cool.
Let’s talk about Stranger Things. What events led to your first meeting with The Duffer Brothers and how did you officially become composers for the show?
Kyle: Well, I had a dream one night and I was like, "I should just get on IMDb and look for any random work”. No, I'm kidding. They emailed us. [laughing] I was going to try to run with that, but they actually sent us a look-book and a trailer they had made, piecing together other footage from other movies. They used one of our songs from our first album as the background music. They asked if we were still a band and if we were interested in composing. We said yes, sent them a bunch of unreleased music to listen to, and then made demos for about six weeks or so based on the specs they asked for. They came to us saying, “we know you can do dark and epic music, but we also need lighthearted stuff because it's a story about kids, not just a straight up horror series.” We spent a lot of time writing within that theme to show the producers that we had enough range to pull off an actual score. It ended up working out.
What is your working dynamic like on Stranger Things versus S U R V I V E? Do you divide up the work or fully collaborate on each component?
Kyle: I’d say it’s about half and half on both.
Michael: I agree.
Kyle: When writing for S U R V I V E, sometimes, someone will come with a practically fully formed song. Sometimes, it will just be a basic idea and we'll get other people to collaborate. Sometimes, it will literally be two or three people playing together, just jamming.
Michael: All of our songs come about in many different ways. In the end, it's just about us sitting together, editing, calling the shots, and doing leads. To finish them off, we make sure everyone is satisfied with every part of every song.
When creating the music of Stranger Things, do you exclusively use hardware synthesizers or include soft synths as well?
Kyle: It's definitely mainly hardware. We do use some soft synths. There was this old company called PPG in the early 80’s. They used to make weird digital synthesizers and then they started making software. We used one of their new plug-ins for vocal sounds quite a bit last year, which was pretty unique.
What gear is essential in crafting the musical identity of Stranger Things?
Kyle: I mean, we'd be lying if we didn't say that Arp 2600 is a big part of the music. Odyssey, I have four of them here right now.
Michael: We have used lots of different things. At this point, we know what our setups are good for when we're aiming to make a certain thing. That's why we own so many synths. Say a guitar collector walks into a room of 100 guitars. They would say that they all sound completely different. That’s how I feel about synthesizers. It’s almost more practical to have this many options.
What we know about synthesizers makes it easy to get off to a good starting point and achieve what we’re trying to do. For example, some can’t really do percussive, fast, short sounds. Some just make melodic tones.
Kyle: Yes, like my first synth, the Univox. It sounds beautiful when you're playing melodies or bass, but it can't do anything weird.
What digital sequencers do you generally use?
Kyle: MPC 1000. Sometimes, we record into Logic. I mean, that’s where we do a lot of editing. I guess that’s a type of sequencing. We typically use the MPC or play the instruments ourselves.
Michael: If I plug in through USB, my studio can be set up so the computer can control about half the room. If I use the MPC, I can control the whole room. I keep having to rewire stuff. It's not very typical for us to write in Logic.
Because you mostly work with analog synthesizers, sometimes when you tweak a filter knob and due to routing, it creates a unique sound that’s hard to replicate. How often do happy accidents like this occur for you?
Michael: It’s not as crazy as people say unless something’s broken.
Kyle: There’s definitely that sweet spot you can find by accident. Sometimes, you’re just sitting there, tweaking for an hour or two. Once you get dialed in, it’s pretty versatile. Even if you change it up a bit, it still has that sound. Once you find that sound, you want to leave it there for as long as you can because it sucks to sit down to make music and then have the sound you want three hours later. I’m mainly referring to modular stuff, if you’re actually patching…
Michael: That’s the kind of thing you want to leave up for days, weeks, even months at times.
In your Emmy nominated main title theme sequence, your progression goes from C major 7 to E minor. Did you play the chord and then use an arpeggiator on the synth or did you play it note for note?
Michael: I don't know a lot about theory. The white notes are uncommon for a composition of ours. The funny thing is that the original demo was written by playing manually. It's actually not played on white notes. The synth was out of tune.
So, you played something like C# and it actually ended up being C?
Michael: It was definitely written in a different key. Something that shared a lot more white and black notes for muscle memory reasons. I guess I'm used to that. It was transposed and sequenced back onto the MPC so we could finish it.
Stranger Things takes place in a complex world of magic realism. What is the exact relationship between your score and the sound design? Are the musical and textural elements blurred with the effects?
Kyle: I'd say it's pretty blurred. There are definitely many instances when we're sitting there in a spotting session and we look to the sound design team and they look at us like "Who's taking this? Do you want it? Are we doing it?”.
Michael: You can always tell the difference of what we are doing versus him, but there's so much of it that we're often sharing that role.
Kyle: If it's on the OST, then it's definitely us. The only time anyone could get confused is when they’re watching the show. With the current state of soundtracks, whatever you use to make things sound creepy, you have to make music that’s weirder and not so melodic. You want to make something that’s less recognizable to be more effective.
Michael: All the textures and dissonance. We’re not really playing a lot of root-note fundamental stuff. We’re trying to be harmonically irritable. Agitating, but then you also have to make it sound like music. It can't just be annoying.
What are some of your favorite tricks for creating dramatic tension in the Stranger Things score?
Kyle: Well, dissonance is very effective. Sometimes, less is more and sometimes, the space in between the notes with an added bit of ambience works great. Sometimes, you need a wall of shrill, woozy sounding pads. That's a hard one to explain.
Michael: Each situation can be different depending on the dynamic of what the scene needs in the story. We try to use things that are unfamiliar as being music. That helps to a degree.
Kyle: Yeah! Like if something kind of sounds like a human voice. You know it’s not human, but if it sounds like a scream and you make it different in some way, that can be scary. Anytime I get a synthesizer to sound like a weird human, a spirit, a monster, or a crazy beast, that can be scary even on it’s own.
The Stranger Things score has a vintage and nostalgic feel. Do you employ any specific mixing techniques to give it that warmth?
Michael: We typically try to keep the high end under control and more musical. We like it to have a rounder overall tone like how classic records sounded.
Kyle: A lot of times if we do use something that's digital or new like a plug-in, it's common for us to run it out through a tape echo or something that's real, just to give it more of that analog warmth.
Michael: Warming up a little bit makes it sound less out of place.
How has the success of Stranger Things affected the trajectory of S U R V I V E?
Kyle: Well, we are definitely more visible now. More people know who we are because of the show. We did a national tour in the fall and we've performed at many, many festivals this year. The shows are paying better now, so there's that, but now we've got deadlines, which is kind of weird for us. Like Michael said, we had a song from 2008 that came out in 2012. Now, we have people asking us for an album. Last time around, we had an album sitting around for a year before we found anybody to release it.
Out of curiosity, what were your day jobs before your big break with Stranger Things?
Kyle: I worked in software, doing interaction design work for an agency. That's how I bought all the synths. [laughing]
Michael: I worked at a boutique synthesizer store. It is dedicated to old, vintage, and interesting electronic instruments. I was a repair technician and in sales.
So Michael, if one of your synths is malfunctioning, you can actually take it apart and mess with the transistors and the capacitors?
Michael: Yes, in most circumstances, I could.
What can we expect from season two of Stranger Things? Are there any new musical themes that we can look forward to?
Michael: Every song we’re composing is a cover of a Michael Jackson song.
Kyle: Yeah, it's all just Michael Jackson remixes. [laughing]
Michael: No, we’ll definitely be introducing new styles of music. That's subjective to some people though.
Kyle: We're trying to revisit old themes as often as possible, but it’s not always the right thing to do. I don't want to give any big spoilers away, but there's definitely a lot of those weird textural "is it sound design, is it music?” concepts to look forward to. There will be some melodies mixed in.
Last question! If you were both trapped on a desert island with operational electrical outlets and you could only bring one synth each, what would you pick?
Kyle: Of the things that I have? I would definitely want a polyphonic synth, so I could play more than one note at a time. I was going to say the Korg Poly ensemble. It sounds great and I could play songs on it.
Michael: One of the reasons we got all the new Dave Smith stuff, like the OB6 and the Prophet 6 is because they still sound really good. You can make any sound on them. They are very versatile. Dave Smith is the creator of Sequential Circuits, a company from '70's that made the first commercially available polyphonic synth basically. It's been all over soundtracks and things like Tangerine Dream records.
Kyle: It's weird to say that we would choose something new, but an OB6 can do arpeggios and it also has effects.
Michael: You can make drums, you can do anything with it.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research | Paul Goldowitz, Ruby Gartenberg
Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Kyle Dixon, Michael Stein, and White Bear PR.