John Carpenter Interview & Gear Guide

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John Carpenter is not just the master of modern horror cinema - he also wrote the iconic scores for his own films. PMT caught up with him for an exclusive chat, and we have a look at his gear.

John Carpenter synths, gear guide & interview

There's no underestimating John Carpenter's influence. He made some of the most memorable sci-fi and horror films from the past 40 years: The Fog, Halloween, Escape From New York, Big Trouble In Little China and They Live, to name but a few. But he's always been more than "just" a film director - he also composed the scores for his own films, many of which have become as iconic as the film themselves, thanks to their pioneering use of synthesizers. The synth-heavy main theme for 'Attack On Precinct 13', for instance, had a huge influence on many early electronic musicians and, in fact, on many new ones, too:

In the past few years, John Carpenter has enjoyed a revival - and precisely because of his music. After the successful re-release of some of his scores via cult record label Death Waltz, Carpenter has in fact released two solo albums, 'Lost Themes' (2015) and 'Lost Themes II' (2016) via Sacred Bones records. It seems a new generation of music fans are discovering his synth sounds, and 2016 will see him performing live for the first time ever, on sets that'll include not just his classic soundtracks, but new songs, too.

John Carpenter Interview

John Carpenter John Carpenter

After years of semi-retirement, the veteran film-maker will be kept very busy with an extensive world tour which will see him playing in the US, UK, Italy, Austria, France and Germany! He's currently very busy preparing for this tour, which starts this Friday (20th May) with a sold-out gig in Los Angeles, California.

Known for being a man of few words, Carpenter managed to spare a few minutes to answer some of our questions!

HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTO MUSIC?

"My father was a music teacher and he got me into music."

NOT MANY FILM DIRECTORS HAVE WRITTEN SCORES FOR THEIR OWN FILMS... 

"I believe Charlie Chaplin wrote scores for some of his movies."

HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTO SYNTHESIZERS?

"It was a way to sound big with just a keyboard."

WHAT SYNTHS & GEAR DO YOU USE NOW?

"I recorded on Logic Pro. There are several plug-ins I use, quite an extensive sound library."

WERE YOU SURPRISED BY THE RENEWED INTEREST IN YOUR MUSIC? JOHN CARPENTER THE MUSICIAN NOW SEEMS AS BIG AS JOHN CARPENTER THE DIRECTOR.

"I’m delighted."

YOU'LL MAKE YOUR LIVE DEBUT THIS YEAR. ARE YOU VERY EXCITED? WHAT DO YOU HAVE PLANNED FOR THE EVENT?

"Yes, I’m excited. We’re going to be playing some of my old scores, plus new music from LOST THEMES 1 & 2."

FINALLY... CAN WE EXPECT MORE NEW MUSIC FROM YOU IN THE NEAR FUTURE?

"Yes."

...And with this, our short interview was over. But it's great to know that Carpenter is still working on new material, and we look forward to checking him out when his tour finally hits England.

With the current popularity of synthesizers, John Carpenter's music is as relevant today as it ever was, if not more. Helped by younger musicians, Carpenter's old scores sound fresh and exciting, making sure the 68-year old film director will give acts half his age a run for their money!

For full tour dates and to buy tickets, please visit the official John Carpenter website.

What Synths Did John Carpenter Use In His Films? Check Our Synths Gear Guide:

John Carpenter and Alan Howarth in the studio John Carpenter and Alan Howarth in the studio, working on one of his soundtracks

Lots of people, today, seem as interested in John Carpenter synths as they are in their classic movies. But the funny fact is that John Carpenter became an influential synthesizer music pioneer almost by accident! As he told us, he used synths because it was a way to sound big with just a keyboard. Carpenter was primarily a film director, working on projects with a tight budget. On a previous interview, Carpenter said they didn't have any money to pay for a "proper" film score, so working with synthesizers was the way to go, then.

His first soundtrack was for Dark Star, recorded in early '74. According to the info available, Carpenter recorded the score at some friends house using an EMS VCS3:

EMS VCS3 synthesizer EMS VCS3 synthesizer

No one knows much about exactly which gear he used, because Carpenter himself has never talked much about it, or even cares that much about gear! He's all about creativity. For many years, he's worked with collaborator Alan Howarth, who was the "synths guy" who helped Carpenter to create his music.

"I had all the equipment and he had the ideas. Because it was his movie, he would sit down and make the first pass on what the themes were – he's a master of themes - but all that sequencer work would be mine using the ARP." - Alan Howarth on working with John Carpenter

Another important figure for Carpenter was Dan Wyman, a synth-programmer who also worked for Giorgio Moroder during the second half of the 1970's. Wyman set up all the patches and Carpenter would play most of the parts, as he explained on an interview:

"Wyman programmed the synthesizers, oversaw the recording of my frequently imperfect performances, and often joined me to perform a difficult line or speed-up the seemingly never ending process of overdubbing one instrument at a time. I have to credit Dan as Halloween’s musical co-producer. His fine taste and musicianship polished up the edges of an already minimalistic, rhythm-inspired score."

John Carpenter recording Lost Themes John Carpenter recording 'Lost Themes'

Over the years, the best source for Carpenter-related gear info has been Alan Howarth. Some of the synths and other gear used in John Carpenter scores include:

Prophet 10, Prophet 5, ARP Avatar, ARP Quadra, ARP Sequencer, Roland CSQ-600/Sequencer, Sequential Circuits 700 Programmer, Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, Stephens 821-A 24 track,Tascam 80-8 8-track, dbx 155 Noise Reduction, Otari 5050-B 2 trk, Tapco 7424 mixing consoles, Furman PQ-6 Parametric EQ ,Furman RV-1 Reverbs, MXR DDL delay, Mu-tron Phaser, Synclavier sampler, Oberheim SEM Module, ProphetVS, Oberheim Four Voice, Moog Vocoder, Prophet 2000, Ensoniq EPS, Ensoniq SQ-80, Kurzweil K250, E-mu Emulator II, E-mu Emulator, Fender Jazz Bass and Fender Stratocaster.

Fans seeking to reproduce Carpenters sound might enjoy experimenting with a vintage-style synth such as the Korg ARP Odyssey, or even something like an Arturia Keylab MIDI controller, which comes with some classic synths library.

Today, Carpenter himself seems to rely mostly on a MIDI Controller and a great sample library with virtual instruments. Carpenter explained:

"For years I used a Korg, the Triton, I believe. I loved that because it had so many good sounds in it. Easy to use. Now I’m on the computer using Logic Pro, which I love. Big library, it’s a lot of fun."

It's interesting to note that on a recent video, for the song 'Distant Dream', John Carpenter seems to be STILL using a Korg Triton:

However, at the start of his first ever world tour, Carpenter has started to use a M-Audio MIDI controller, which is now essential for his performances. On this recent M-Audio video, the legendary director talks about his gear - and why MIDI is so important to him:

John Carpenter Live Dates:

  • Oct. 27, 2016 Warwick Arts Centre Butterworth Hall, Coventry
  • Oct. 28, 2016 Olympia, Liverpool
  • Oct. 29, 2016 Victoria Warehouse, Manchester
  • Oct. 31, 2016 Troxy, London
  • Nov. 1, 2016 Troxy London

For more tour dates visit the official John Carpenter website

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