Samplers, Synths, and the 'Halloween' Movie Scores

John Carpenter, Alan Howarth, and the evolution of their music making process.

After wrapping filming on the first Halloween movie, director John Carpenter wanted some initial feedback on what would become the defining movie and score of his career. He showed the rough cut to a young 20th Century Fox executive without the benefit of sound effects or a proper score to get a sense of how audiences might react. Her response was less than enthusiastic. “She wasn’t scared at all,” he wrote in an undated post on his website.

Realizing that a proper theme song and spine-tingling score could be the difference between a flop and a success, Carpenter set out to reverse the course of his inauspicious first screening. “I then became determined to ‘save it with the music,’” he wrote.

Inspired by famed movie scores like composer Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho, Carpenter went to work with an extremely limited timeline, hunkering down at Sound Arts Studios in central Los Angeles with a cast of collaborators to get the job done. Along with synth programmer Dan Wyman—who Carpenter later credited as a co-producer—stereo remix engineer Alan Howarth, and recording engineer Peter Bergren, Carpenter completed the score in mere two weeks.

Working at breakneck speed, Carpenter and Wyman created music in what Carpenter referred to as the “double-blind mode.” Due to lack of available technology, budget, and time, the two composers were forced to work, “in the studio, on the spot, without reference or synchronization to the actual picture.”

Despite the less than desirable setup, the score was a rousing success and it proved instrumental in the film’s monster commercial performance. Halloween ultimately grossed a staggering $70,000,000 at the worldwide box office on a total budget just shy of $350,000.

When it came time to score the 1981 sequel Halloween II, Carpenter and Howarth had an ever-strengthening creative partnership and an increased level of trust trust. With Carpenter busy wrapping up work on The Thing and unable to give his full attention to the highly-anticipated sequel, he decided to hand over much of the scoring responsibilities to Howarth.

In his new role at the helm of the scoring process, Howarth had access to improved sampling and synthesizer technology like Sequential Circuits’ Prophet-10 synthesizer, a later model of the game-changing Prophet-5 synth. His setup also included the original Prophet-5, which he and Carpenter and Howarth employed on Christine, Halloween II, and Escape From New York.

In fact, Howarth had a close relationship with Sequential Circuits and is responsible for some of the sounds Prophet-5 owners may be familiar with. “Many of the Prophet-5 presets were my sound designs, especially for brass, strings and stuff like that,” he told Paul Tingen in a 2016 Sound on Sound interview.

Beyond the Prophet synths, his arsenal of instruments also included E-mu’s early digital sampling keyboard the Emulator and the Linn LM-1 drum machine, a pioneering piece of equipment due to its unprecedented use of sampled acoustic drums.

In terms of creative process, the Halloween II score relied much more heavily on Howarth building on Carpenter’s original work rather than making his own compositions from scratch. “I inherited John’s original score from Halloween, which was already iconic, and some say one of the greatest horror scores of all time,” he told Todd Gilchrist in a 2018 Birth. Movies. Death. interview. “I got a transfer of that score on analog multi-track and transferred that to another tape, and I then overdubbed on top of John’s performance my textures and sweeteners.”

By doing so, Howarth’s intended to make the already bleak series of tracks from the original Halloween even darker. Part of the challenge of capturing just the right tone was the fact that music technology hadn’t quite evolved to where it would on later projects like Halloween III and Halloween 4. Without the aid of computers, Howarth had to nail his live takes while recording into a 24-track machine. “You really had to play everything,” Howarth told Birth. Movies. Death.. “You couldn’t just put it in a computer and quantize it and loop it and make it go - you had to play.” 

Carpenter and Howarth had a very limited time table to compose the score for the 1982 release Halloween III: Season of the Witch, a unique moment in the franchise due to its departure from the Michael Myers character and the original storyline. Though it was a failed experiment to make the Halloween series focused on October 31st instead of one specific villain, Carpenter and Howarth still cooked up a brilliant score that includes the now-famous opening sequence “Chariots of Pumpkins,” which was the first song recorded for the project.

According to Howarth’s Birth. Movies. Death. interview, he and Carpenter listened to famed German electronic band Tangerine Dream’s latest record as they prepared to work on Halloween III. Based on the available timelines, it seems that record may have been their White Eagle release, though Howarth doesn’t name it specifically. He also noted that both he and Carpenter looked at their work on Halloween III as a musical continuation of the Escape From New York score.

As Carpenter started to distance himself from the franchise after Halloween III, Howarth remained on board with Carpenter’s blessing to score Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers.

Of all the Halloween scores Howarth worked on, Halloween IV is Howarth’s favorite. Released in October of 1988, music technology had improved exponentially in the six years since Halloween III— giving the veteran composer access to an unprecedented level of sampling capabilities. He used these new tools to his advantage throughout the score, melding analog music of the original Halloween score with the emerging world of digital sampling. Taking machines like E-mu’s famed SP-12 drum machine/sampler and the exorbinatly expensive Synclavier digital synth and sampler, he channeled inspiration from Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, and Genesis.

In addition to being able to fuse analog and digital, Howarth credits MIDI technology for further aiding him in making his creative dreams a reality. “The technology grew, and that helped with the source, how nice you could make it,” he told Birth. Movies. Death.. “And then emerging under that was MIDI, so by the time we got to 4, I had the ability to play one physical keyboard and trigger nine synthesizers at the same time.”

The result is a more textured, modern score that packs an impressive punch. Tracks like “Halloween 4 Opening” are filled with a slow, crawling dread that perfectly matches the macabre visuals of the film. Though it doesn’t quite rank as high as the original score and Halloween III score, it remains a can’t-miss musical moment for fans of the franchise.

41 years after the release of the original Halloween, Howarth would see his life’s work come full circle when Hoax director Matt Allen asked him to score his film. Instructing Howarth to go with analog synths instead of modern tools of the trade, Howarth went out and bought a mint condition Prophet-5.

Once the project was done, both Allen and Howarth were in love with the sounds the vintage synth had provided. “There’s a subtle but listenable difference between the original analog instruments and the digital models,” Howarth told Birth. Movies. Death.. “It’s a little warmer, a little fatter, and more work, because you’re back to tape recording. But when I fire up the Prophet-5, I hear the sounds of HalloweenEscape From New York, and Christine coming out of that machine.”

Thanks for reading, see you on Monday!