The Synths of '70s Sci-Fi Soundtracks

Thinking about science-fiction soundtracks made with synthesizers will call to mind plenty of movies. And, chances are, the first several your brain conjures were released in the 1980s.

With the release of the big polyphonic synths like the Yamaha CS-80 and Oberheim OB-8 in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and, later, the arrival of MIDI and sampling, the ‘80s were a golden age for synthesizer soundtracks. This was as true for horror and action as it was for science fiction. Blade Runner, anyone?

While horror synthesizer soundtracks really took off in the late ‘70s, thanks to the pioneering work of director/composer John Carpenter and Goblin (the prog-rock band responsible for the soundtracks of many Italian gore-fests of the disco area, like 1977's Suspiria), synth-spiced sci-fi soundtracks are a little harder to come by.

But they do exist, and below, we’re taking a look at the synthesizers used in six 1970s sci-fi films.

Dark Star (1974) — John Carpenter

John Carpenter’s first film was 1974’s Dark Star, a spoof of 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey, co-written and starring Dan O’Bannon—who later went on to write another sci-fi film about an alien loose in the corridors of an interstellar freighter. Of course, John Carpenter would go on to make his own lasting waves in the film business, helping to popularize the use of synthesizers in soundtracks along the way.

1969 EMS VCS3. Photo by Olivier's Gear Depot

The son of a musician, Carpenter composed many of his own scores, Dark Star included. The score prominently featured an EMS VCS3—a portable modular synth first introduced in 1969 and used by Pink Floyd, Pete Townshend, Hawkwind, and many others.

Always budget-conscious, Carpenter borrowed a VCS3 and recorded the entire soundtrack in around four hours. “It was an ability for one person—me—who’s cheap, to sound bigger than he actually is,” Carpenter told Vice in 2014. “To double, triple, and quadruple track these sounds. So that’s why I did it.”

His use of a VCS3 also references classic 1950s sci-fi films like Forbidden Planet (1956)—which used primitive electronics in its soundtrack—and The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), which employed theremins and tape effects to evoke dread and a feeling of “the other.”

Carpenter was going for something more light-hearted with Dark Star, though he would go on to write and record one of the scariest film themes ever written just a few years later—1978's Halloween.

Logan's Run (1976) — Jerry Goldsmith
ARP 2500

Jerry Goldsmith was a prolific film and television soundtrack composer who was equally at home with synthesizers as with orchestras. His soundtrack for Logan’s Run was a perfect example of this. The 1976 film—about a dystopian, hedonistic culture where people are ritualistically killed when they turn 30—featured a score that alternated between synthesized and orchestral sections to contrast the artificiality of the enclosed city where everyone lived with the freedom of the natural world outside.

To achieve this tone, Goldsmith used an ARP 2500—which was first released in 1970, when the company was still called Tonus. A true beast of a modular system, it used a 10x10 pin matrix instead of patch cables (not unlike the VCS3) to connect its various modules.

The city parts of the film feature some incredible modular workouts. With its clangorous tones and cascading sequences, the 2500 here sounds almost Buchla-like and would not have been out of place on a Nonesuch release of the time. Goldsmith was also known to use an ARP 2600, the semi-modular follow-up to the 2500, and has stated that it was used on the Logan’s Run score as well.

From the application of percussion in The Planet Of The Apes to the use of the blaster beam in Star Trek: The Motion Picture to his blending of synthesizers with traditional orchestral passages in Damnation Alley, Goldsmith was never afraid of straying into avant-garde territory in his work.

A Clockwork Orange (1971) — Wendy Carlos

Released three years after 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 1971 dystopian sci-fi film, A Clockwork Orange, shocked viewers with its graphic depictions of teenage hooligans on the loose in a dilapidated near-future. Also shocking to audiences of the time was the synthesized soundtrack, realized by Wendy Carlos, who again used her Moog modular system to bring the classical world into the electronic.

While her new versions of Henry Purcell, Gioachina Rossini, and Ludwig Van Beethoven weren’t so far removed from her wildly successful first studio album, Switched-On Bach, it was the Vocoder used in “March From A Clockwork Orange" (an excerpt of the 4th movement from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony) that was really novel.

On her website, Carlos writes about making the piece, saying, "At that time it was all unexplored territory, we were the first audacious (or just plain silly) enough to attempt this. Many have followed, so it must have been a decent idea." Remember, this is likely the first time anyone had ever heard a Vocoder before.

Although Moog would eventually release its 16-band Vocoder in 1979 (and then re-release it in 2020), at this time, Carlos was using one that had been custom-made for her by Bob Moog himself. A 10-band version, it utilized her modular system to act as the carrier, with her and her musical partner Rachel Elkind providing the vocal modulator.

With only 10 bands, it produced a haunting, fairly artificial sound—one that must have been shocking to ears unaccustomed to the idea of a singing synthesizer. Indeed, Kubrick hired Carlos based on this piece and the more avant-garde “Timesteps,” which she made to take advantage of the novelty of the Vocoder.

While “March” may sound quaint today, in our modern world of autotune and extreme vocal processing, it was a monumental leap forward in technology and creative expression at the time of its release.

Solaris (1972) — Eduard Artemyev

A common thread that runs throughout most synth-heavy 1970s soundtracks is in how the synths were used. While the 1980s saw synthesizers spread into almost all genres of music, they were still very much brand-new in the 1970s.

Capable of producing a vast range of tones and timbres that had never been heard before, they sounded strange and alien to most every listener used to a palette of acoustic instruments. Composers exploited this quality, particularly in sci-fi soundtracks, where they were often used in contrast to more familiar and comforting symphonic sounds.

ANS synthesizer

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, shot in the Soviet Union in 1972, is the story of a man sent to investigate the breakdown of a space station orbiting a strange planet. While on home Earth, we hear the music of Bach. But in the alien world of Solaris, the music we hear is made by the ANS synthesizer.

Built by Evgeny Murzin over the course of 20 years, from 1937 to 1957, the ANS synthesizer is a "photoelectronic" synth that uses the technique of photo-optic sound to produce music with light. The operator draws on a glass plate covered with a kind of black resin. As the plate is tracked from left to right, sound is produced. Played by composer Eduard Artemiev on the Solaris soundtrack, it generated haunting and unique sounds, perfect to represent the enigma of the possibly conscious water planet.

Unfortunately, there is only one ANS synthesizer in existence in the world. It has been used famously by Coil (on their album ANS) and by TGAC. For those of us unable to travel to Russia for time with the original, you can give the ANS synthesizer virtual simulation a try.

Phase IV (1974) — Brian Gascoigne

Phase IV, a 1974 sci-fi film about ultra-intelligent ants, is perhaps the ultimate midnight film. The one and only direction credit for Saul Bass, the famous graphic designer and film title artist, it’s a heady film that is both fiercely psychedelic and vehemently intelligent, with an incredible soundtrack to boot.

Composed by Brain Gascoigne with help from David Vorhaus (of cult electronic group White Noise), BBC Radiophonic Workshop member Desmond Briscoe, and Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamash’ta, the soundtrack veers from Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd-style bombast to deep, menacing synthesizer drones.

While there’s precious little information available on what gear was used in the making of the soundtrack, the drones are very VCS3-like, and sound remarkably similar to the kinds of VCS3 soundscapes Vorhaus was exploring on his White Noise 2 album, which was released the same year as the film. The soundtrack also features what sounds like traditional orchestral strings run through a filter—much like Brian Eno did with Robert Fripp’s guitar on David Bowie’s "Heroes." The squealing, biting resonance peak in these orchestral passages sounds very EMS VCS3-like.

Gascoigne, who went on to score The Emerald Forest (1985) and play on The Dark Crystal, was a known ARP 2600 user, so there may also be some of ARP’s famous synthesizer floating around this soupy, psychedelic soundtrack as well.

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) — John Williams
ARP 2500

And so we come to 1977’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, featuring perhaps the most famous use of a synthesizer in a sci-fi film, or indeed any film. But unfortunately for synthesizer fanatics, there’s actually precious little synthesizer played in the movie.

The story goes that director Steven Spielberg bought an ARP 2500 to use in the film to communicate with the alien ships at Devil’s Tower. The film's production team asked someone to come along to help set it up, so ARP sent Phil Dodds, who was the company's vice president of engineering at the time.

Apparently, Spielberg thought Dodds looked the part and asked Dodds to appear in the film as the synthesizer operator. Dodds plays the famous five tones to “speak” with the alien ships and then looks on in awe as the aliens take over the synth from a distance for the famous conversation scene (called “Wild Signals” on the soundtrack).

A great synthesizer movie story for sure, but unfortunately, that’s not an ARP 2500 on the soundtrack. In fact, it’s not even a synthesizer. While we do hear some of the synth in the film, the soundtrack—as written by composer John Williams—features clarinet for the “synthesizer” part and tuba for the ship. Williams had apparently considered using a Moog originally, but found the sound too alien. Go figure!

For more on ARP and its connection to Close Encounters, we recommend reading our tribute to the ARP 2500 and watching Alex Ball’s great documentary on the company.

About the author: Adam Douglas is a musician and synthesizer fan based in Tokyo, Japan. He writes about synths on his blog, Boy Meets Synth.

comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

Oops, looks like you forgot something. Please check the fields highlighted in red.