Robert Duncan has scored a wide range of TV shows including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tru Calling, Lie to Me, and The Unit. He’s known for his use of traditional and unusual instruments in scoring – including fire extinguishers, exhaust pipes and objects from junk yards – and even went and recorded in a submarine!
You’ve scored a huge range of TV shows over the span of your career so far – when did you get your first break that led to all of this?
If I had to pinpoint one big break, it would have to be ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ That was the first full network series I scored on my own and it established a relationship with 20th Century Fox. Although I didn’t know it at the time, another person that would be instrumental to my career was also in the Joss Whedon camp then. Shawn Ryan (Last Resort, The Unit, Terriers) was a writer on ‘Angel’, just before making a big splash with his first pilot, ‘The Shield.’
You went and recorded in a submarine for “Last Resort”. What exactly did you do, and what did you hope to achieve with it?
There’s that period of time between getting hired and having that first conversation with the producers where your brain starts wildly dreaming in all directions. I was thinking things like: what if I adapted Thomas Dolby’s ‘One of Our Submarines’ acoustically for the opening theme? What if I used the industrial metal inside a submarine as a percussion element? Often after I speak with the producers, or actually put some of these ideas to the test, I end up tossing them. The unplugged version of the Thomas Dolby song had such a fate…but the submarine percussion instrument was too good to not at least attempt. I planned that the loops and hits I recorded there would be the basis for the action music in the score. At our first meeting, I learned that the producers, Shawn and Karl wanted the story to have a very emotional basis. It became very much about the strings and orchestra at that point. I did, however use the hits and some loops in pieces like ‘Battling the Patrick Lawrence’.
I also used a hit we recorded to accompany the logo of the show for most episodes, it became a recurring signature for the series.
Talk us through your studio – it seems to be filled with all manner of whacky instruments. Also, tell us a bit about what hardware and software you use?
I was wrestling with the challenges of a home studio for a while….keeping all the gear happy in an environment that wasn’t designed as a studio is a very common challenge for all composers working at home. At that time, I had four gigastudio computers and two Macs and the isolation box they were in kept overheating. I wanted to move to another more suitable house but could only look during ‘downtime’ (May to July) and the right fit never seemed to show up at that time. An opportunity showed up to lease a old vacant rock studio in North Hollywood, and at the same time I had offers to work on more than one television series. I knew that if I was going to double my workload, I needed to up the professionalism of my environment, and add another control room. It was just luck of the draw that Devonshire had a great live room of about 1200 sq ft. At first it was just my piano, some African drums and guitars that were dwarfed by the space.
At the time I was working on ‘The Unit’ about the top secret Delta Force of the U.S. Army. Every week I had to establish a different geographical location with score, and my collection started growing. At first I was finding instruments on eBay and craigslist like a set of Kulintang or a Kora, but then noticing other instruments that piqued my curiosity like a pump organ or an old set of timpani. Because I had the space available and no one to argue with against filling it, the UPS guy kept showing up with more toys. Before long the room was full. As for hardware, most of the work is done in Logic, so I got the fastest possible computer available at that time, a 12 core with 64GB Ram, all SSDs, including a 960GB Mercury Accelsior for the heaviest virtual instruments and an 8TB SSD Raid system.
This feeds into a Pro Tools HD Accel 5 computer through two MADI cables so I can print 64 simultaneous stems in one shot and deliver to my engineer. Other things on my desk that I love are my JL Cooper control surfaces. I’ve tried most controllers out there and found them to be the most reliable professional tools to control Logic. Partly because the USB bus gets overloaded, especially with the distance to the machine room, but MIDI-based controllers seem perfectly happy going that distance. In the live room I lean heavily on a Millennia Media HV3C preamp, my Sennheiser MKH800s and the A/D happens right there through an Apogee Rosetta. When I moved in here, we utilized the existing mic tie lines to send AES-EBU into each of the control rooms and run the sequences from a laptop using remote screen sharing.
You’ve scored the last 5 seasons of “Castle” – how do you keep the music interesting while remaining true to its original “sound”?
The evolution seems to happen pretty naturally, perhaps unconsciously. Every now and then I’ll hear an instrument that has had perhaps more than its share in the sonic spotlight and thought about putting it into retirement. The writers, producers and editors are also in the same boat and reinventing the show bit by bit every time, so in some cases it’s a matter of following their lead.
When working on TV scores, how do you cope with intense time restraints? What’s the usual time frame your given to score an episode?
The schedule on a series is intense. On ‘Castle’, for example, ABC likes to air a lot of original episodes one after the other, so we are keeping that schedule in post-production, just slightly ahead of the air-date. We usually spot on a Wednesday or Thursday and start posting Quicktime previews on Monday for review. The mix starts Tuesday morning at 8am, and we’ll finish posting that day, in time to make any necessary changes before playback on Wednesday. Wednesday morning we also spot the next episode for three or four hours and the cycle continues. There is only so much that is humanly possible for one composer to do alone, so I have found that having a great support team on the ready makes it possible to address all notes, attend all meetings and actually get some sleep every now and then.
When you’re not scoring a project, what are you doing?
Any free time I have, I spend with my two kids who are 6 and 7.
What was your favorite project to have worked on so far?
It’s difficult to pick just one. Working at Abbey Road studios on ‘Shattered’ was definitely a highlight. ‘Castle’ is wonderful of course, and ‘Last Resort’ was fantastic. Possibly the best part about my job is that the challenges keep changing. I also am very much looking forward to working on ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ the pilot that will hopefully get picked up and be a huge hit!
How do you stay fresh as a composer?
You bring up a good point. Hygiene is very important for a composer locked away in a recording studio with no shower. ‘The Book of Eli’ had some good tips on maintaining personal hygiene under apocalyptic conditions, I found them useful. Actually, finding a ‘groove’ to my schedule has been one of the biggest challenges in TV scoring and avoiding all-nighters has been a real challenge that I have only now started to win. As for staying musically fresh, I would say it happens in part naturally with each new project, and half with some effort. The effort part involves sitting down and cooking up new sounds for the palette as well as making a decision to try new things and new ways.
What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to when you were originally starting off?
I would tell myself to take a few more risks and knock on more doors. In some ways I sailed only in the direction the wind was blowing. I would also say, “Know your goal clearly” because there will never be a direct route there, but if you know your exact objective, you can make all the little sidesteps you make add up to the right result. I want to say I would tell myself ‘Be careful what you’re getting into, this will consume your life’ but I’m afraid without that sacrifice I wouldn’t have landed the work. Balance is definitely the big challenge, but so worth pursuing.
Your studio is on fire and you only have time to grab one thing – what do you take?
The fire extinguisher! Holy cow….hmmm. Can I push my piano to safety? I would say the most important thing in my setup are my computer, my mics and pre-amps. I would take a great pair of mics over a great sample library any day. The sample library will wear out, but the microphones represent endless opportunities. There are a couple of instruments I’d just let burn…**cough-bass-hurdy-gurdy** in fact I’d try to record them burning and use it as a sample.