Dave Porter on composing music for Breaking Bad

Unless you’ve been stranded in the desert with a broken-down RV for five years, it’s impossible to be unaware of "Breaking Bad." Stephen Fortner talks to Dave Porter, the composer behind the music for the Emmy-winning drama.

Unless you’ve been stranded in the desert with a broken-down RV for five years, it’s impossible to be unaware of Breaking Bad. Created by veteran X-Files writer Vince Gilligan, AMC’s perennially Emmy-sweeping drama has become the most talked-about show on television. That buzz remains strong even though broadcast concluded last year, as large numbers new viewers discover the show on Netflix. Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who, when diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, applies his skills to making methamphetamine in order to secure his family’s financial future . . . at least, that’s his initial motive. Dave Porter’s soundtrack never ceases to be a perfect match for our emotions as we follow Walter’s transformation from, in Gilligan’s words, “protagonist to antagonist.” Porter cooks synths, samples, and acoustic instruments into a compound that rejects both big-orchestra and overtly electronic idioms. The result is a truly unique sound that the emotional impact of each episode clearly wouldn’t be as strong without. Like Walter’s blue stuff, it’s also almost certain to inspire a wave of imitators. Now, Porter shares his recipe with us.

How did your first moments of facing down a blank arrange window turn into the opening theme we know so well now?

The theme came about after many discussions with creator Vince Gilligan about the show, and I tweaked a number of different versions before arriving at the winner. The toughest part about writing a theme for a series is that you usually have to create something that encompasses the aesthetic of an entire show based on only having seen the pilot episode. At the time that I wrote the initial 20-second theme, only Vince really knew where Breaking Bad was headed. I hoped to create a signature piece that the show could grow into, and that if I was fortunate would come to embody the connection viewers had to the world of Breaking Bad. I knew the series would be strong enough to support having its own sonic universe, which led me to entirely exclude classical orchestral instruments, unless they were heavily processed into something else.

The show certainly has a diverse but very specific palette of instrument sounds. How did you go about selecting them?

With the typical orchestral palette off the table, I assembled three main alternatives that I combined to create the orchestration: synthesizers, world instruments, and found sounds [and] sound design. The idea was to mix these elements without regard to how they might typically be used, and create a hybrid palette that hopefully blended well and felt organic, but always felt somewhat unsettled. Even from the pilot episode, Walter White’s existence is never quite what it should be, and I wanted the score to reflect that.

The opening titles feature pitched percussion over a swampy resonator guitar bed. What was the inspiration for combining those two very different elements?

The resonator guitar melody against the pitched percussion’s counter-melody is a nod to the internal conflict of Walter White. While I didn’t know much about where the show was headed when I wrote the theme, what I did know was that the backbone of the story was the devolution of Walter from a milquetoast guy to a very deluded but determined criminal. Even though we’re a long way from that version of Walter when the series begins, I wanted to present a reminder of where the story is headed at the beginning of each episode. The resonator guitar is a big part of this, and it’s meant to be as brash, violent, and unpredictable as Walter would become. It had the added bonus of being a sound that pins the story geographically to the American Southwest. The pitched percussion, in contrast, is very quantized and has an element of “science” about it, and perhaps could be seen as the pulse of the levelheaded everyman version of Walter.

Towards the end of the cue, what one might expect the bass and guitar to do is hinted at rather than played aggressively, letting the pitched percussion carry the ear to the end. Was that intentional?

Yes. To take the analogy a step further, the dark and unpredictable journey that Walter embarks on in the pilot episode was never going to lead anywhere positive or constructive. For that reason, I felt it was best not to give the title theme a comforting resolution.

What was the sound source for that signature percussion?

Those are samples I created by recording automobile gas tanks filled with varying amounts of water that I struck with tympani mallets. It was an idea that I originally discovered in an old library of commercial samples I had. I loved the concept but could never manage to get the commercial samples to sound quite like I wanted them to. Thankfully, I have a good friend who’s a mechanic and I own an older sports car that was constantly needing work, so I was able to record my own. Ultimately it was a combination of the samples I created and the ones that I already had, with a good deal of digital pitch adjustments and lots of gated spring reverb, which created that sound in the final version.

Why is there a very short opening cue as opposed to the usual full theme song under opening credits?

Film and TV composers generally have very little input into this decision, which is often made by the producers or network before the composer is even hired. There are many considerations, but the trend on advertising-supported television has been to keep the main title sequences short. From a composer’s perspective this makes a tough task even harder, because it is difficult to say a lot musically in just a few seconds. For Breaking Bad, the original theme was the 20-second version that appears over the main titles at the beginning of each episode. I didn’t create the longer version until we put out our first soundtrack release during season 2.

I notice a few precursors to Breaking Bad in your earlier work. Scrapes and pitched percussion at the beginning of the theme to Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead; the interplay of layered pads on the “Portland Child” cue from Saved; and the cues from Smiley that would almost be right at home in BB. Is there a particular sort of sound or instrument group you’ve always been drawn to?

I’ve always been drawn to sounds and music that evolve patiently, that can be very emotive without having to try too hard, and to the creation and resolution of dissonance. I’ve always loved synthesizers, in particular polyphonic ones, and I enjoy the challenge of working with machines and computers to make music that’s very human and organic. Even when I’m writing purely orchestral music, I’m always looking at ways that I can involve technology. Offered the choice, I’ll always gravitate toward combining both the natural and the synthetic because to me it offers the best of both worlds.

Even though the series has concluded, everyone is still talking about Breaking Bad due binge-watching on Netflix. Is there any way in which that has affected the way you think about composing?

There’s no doubt that Netflix played a huge role in the popularity of Breaking Bad, but “binge” viewing wasn’t something that existed when the series began. As a result, it didn’t affect the way in which I thought about scoring it. If anything, I think the opposite was true—we were creating a show meant to be viewed with a to stew over what happened each time. Whenever someone mentions to me that they haven’t watched it but intend to, I try to dissuade them from watching it too quickly. Looking ahead, though, I think it’ll be interesting to see how TV producers and composers adapt to this change in viewing habits.

What was your relationship with the directors and music supervisor like when it came to determining whether underscore or a licensed song would best serve a scene?

As in most TV dramas, there are more underscore cues than songs. But most importantly, I think, was the spare approach that we took music as a whole. Music Supervisor Thomas Golubic and I are both ardent believers that less is more when it comes to using music, and were united in our determination to use it judiciously. Thomas and I met with Vince Gilligan and other producers before we started working on each episode and spent hours going through the episode scene by scene, talking about where music would have its greatest impact, whether it should be score or a song, and what the music should try to accomplish in service of the story.

Does any scene stand out as the most challenging for which you had to compose a cue?

The characters of Breaking Bad operate in many shades of grey, which made for many challenging cues, but I think the hardest to compose for was the pivotal scene when Walter allows Jesse’s girlfriend Jane to die. For many, myself included, Jane’s death was the moment where Walt forever passed the point of no return—where he loses any pretense that his actions are not self-serving. Bryan Cranston is phenomenal in that sequence, and crafting a piece of music to complement all the subtle shifts of thought and emotion on his face was one of the toughest but most rewarding creative challenges. The difficulty was that the most important action onscreen was Walt not actually doing anything at all—the sequence of devastating decisions occurs entirely within his mind.

For the ending credits, the underscore is different for nearly every episode. That's a good deal of extra work for any composer, so what drove that decision?

Yes, beginning with the second season I started creating a new piece for every end credit sequence—always some variation of the opening theme. Every Breaking Bad episode has always felt to me like its own film, and it felt wrong to jump right from the ending of the episode into the same cue each week without regard for where that episode had left us emotionally. Just as feature films have end credit music designed to continue the tone of the film you just watched, I wanted to do the same. It was definitely a labor of love for a special project, and not one I’m likely to repeat anytime soon.

When composing all the varying end credits music, did you do so an episode at a time or did you work in batches?

A little of both. Each episode’s end credits were written while I was working on that particular episode, and in fact were often the first thing I’d compose. The end credits were my 30 seconds each week to write free from the constraints of picture, and I tended to use them as the groundwork for the score I’d write within that episode. However, because I always included some unique iteration of the main title theme in the end credits, I stockpiled those. Whenever a musician came in to play for me on Breaking Bad, or an unusual instrument would cross my path, I’d make sure to record many different versions of the theme. This gave me dozens of options available each week as a starting point.

Could you elaborate on making key “character cues” such as for Heisenberg, Gus, and other main characters?

In the same way that I think score can easily be overused, I’m very wary of repeating overt musical themes in a film or TV show. Excluding the main title theme, which only makes one appearance, I can only think of one example where I made an obvious point of repeating a musical motif. That little melody made its first appearance in what became known on the soundtrack CD as “The Long Walk Alone (Heisenberg’s Theme),” a simple five-note phrase that we used on a number of occasions when Walter White would don his black hat and screw up the courage to become his alter ego. I performed that phrase on a Japanese koto, which I recorded into Pro Tools, heavily compressed, and then processed using a TC Electronic Fireworx and a Korg gated spring reverb.

Synthesizers are so present throughout the score that when it came to distinctive sounds for particular characters I usually opted for other instruments. In sensitive moments Jesse would often get chorused guitar or electric piano that spoke to his youth, while Walt would get processed Asian gamelan or African mbira samples that reflected he was a fish out of water. Tuco’s cousins—the cartel assassins—were accompanied by Aztec-inspired drums, percussion, and war whistles. For Gus I sometimes used a processed Andean flute.

Effects seem like an integral part of your sound design, whether the source sound was acoustic or synthetic. Can you tell us about some of your oft-used audio processing tricks and, perhaps, plug-ins?

The evolution of plug-ins and DAWs has definitely influenced how I write music, and in particular how I approach sound design. When crafting new sounds or even writing a new synth part I now spend much less time worrying about that sound being perfect when I record it, knowing that I have the power “in the box” to change it later. This keeps my focus on the creative kernel that sparked the performance. Plus, it’s through the process of later manipulating my initial performances that I often stumble upon new ideas.

In terms of audio processing tricks, I’m very Spartan with reverb unless it’s a special effect; instead, I often use a short delay to achieve more space. I’m not shy when it comes to compression, distortion, and radical pitch-shifting. I have a small collection of hardware effects from different eras that I still lean on, but there is no question that plug-ins get more powerful all the time. SoundToys makes some great ones. Rob Papen, best known for his synths, also has some terrific effects plug-ins I’ve been turning to a lot lately. For me, the big downside of plug-ins and software synths is their tenuous relationship with your host software. When I’ve found a tool that works really well for a specific task, I tend to want to use it for a long time, which becomes frustrating when it no longer works as you update your DAW. For example, I’ve gone through all kinds of hoops to make Native Instruments’ old Spektral Delay plug work in Pro Tools long after they stopped officially supporting it. And two plug-ins that I rely on a lot, Line 6’s Echo Farm and TC Electronic’s Master X3, are holding me back from upgrading to Pro Tools 11 because they haven’t been updated to AAX and may never be. In contrast, when I turn on the Roland Juno-106 I bought when I was 16 years old, it works exactly as it always has.

Speaking of synths, what classics made it into BB and where should we listen for them?

There are both classic and modern hardware synths throughout the Breaking Bad score. Much of the electronic percussion I created was originally derived from my ARP 2600. I used an Octave-Plateau Voyetra-8 in a prominent way on “Dissassemble,” a cue that appears in the aftermath of the train robbery when Walt and company must dispose of the body of the young boy. The pads in the “Jane’s Demise” cue are a mix of Oberheims—Matrix-12 and Matrix-1000. There’s a cue for Jesse in several forms in the final season called “Gas Can Rage,” which employs the rotors of a John Bowen Solaris synth cycling in a meter of five, and the grungy descending synth dive in that same cue began its life as a patch on a Cwejman S1.

Via our online forum, prog keyboardist Derek Sherinian asked what you used for the low analog sound often heard in “danger” sequences.

For those low pedal sounds, I usually combine a sloppy fat analog string sound with a digital one that adds punch with more definition. I’ve used a lot of different combinations, but recently for the analog side I’ve been using a low string patch from a Roland MKS80, and on the digital side a slightly modified version of the monstrous “4 Osc String Pad” from the John Bowen Solaris. I believe Derek is a fellow Solaris devotee, so he’ll know what I mean.

Your background includes very early piano training and a degree in composition from Sarah Lawrence College. How critical would you say that is to your compositional instincts today?

I’m first and foremost a pianist, and the relationship between my hands and the keyboard is the foundation of all of the music that I write. I was fortunate to have amazing teachers and mentors: most notably I studied piano with Faye Bonner from ages five through 18 in suburban DC, and then composition under professor John Yannelli at Sarah Lawrence. I notice their influence on musical decisions that I make all the time. The common denominator is that beyond the basic skills they encouraged me to think and be emotive in my own voice, whether it was performing a Scriabin étude or creating a tape loop on a two-track reel-to-reel machine.

Is there anything from your music education you had to unlearn for TV composing?

I don’t think it’s as much unlearning as it is suppressing, at least cognitively. I’ve never been capable of thinking about musical theory and at the same time expressing myself musically in an honest way. My creative spark comes from improvisation at the keyboard, and while my hands may sometimes be adhering to some musical rules without my thinking about it, what I’m really doing is searching for something that resonates emotionally.

You've also taken over composing for NBC's The Blacklist. What's the main way in which that poses different compositional challenges?

Working on The Blacklist is amazing, and in some ways, musically equates to the most frenetic moments of Breaking Bad nearly nonstop for the entire hour. It’s very visceral, and my score reflects that with lots of aggression and impact. I’m using plenty of dark synths and loops, but unlike Breaking Bad I’m also employing a backbone of orchestral instruments and percussion to add weight. The main challenge on a show like The Blacklist is to stay fresh. With many more episodes than a cable drama, and even less time to score them, the toughest part is to keep it from burning you out creatively.

A lot of readers want to know how to break in to scoring for film and TV. What was your trajectory into the business?

I can trace my entire career back to college internships at recording studios in New York City. One of those led me to my first job as an assistant in Philip Glass’s studio, and from there I eventually went out on my own. I started writing music for commercials, promos, sports, and TV documentaries in New York before relocating to Los Angeles to pursue more dramatic work. But every step forward has been hard-fought. There’s no school that teaches you how to be a score composer. It’s a very competitive and volatile business that requires a lot of perseverance and patience. I’ve been working on my career for over 20 years but it’s only been a few years since I stopped worrying about having a “plan B” in case composing didn’t work out.

On that note, what advice would you give your ten-years-ago self?

I’d tell myself to steer clear of the jobs that I took solely because I felt like I needed to be busy. In hindsight I’ve never regretted not getting or not taking a job, but I’ve definitely regretted not listening to my gut and getting drawn into gigs that I knew would be much more trouble than they were worth.

Here’s how Dave Porter created some of the signature sounds for Breaking Bad’s ever-changing end credits themes.

S2E2, “Grilled”What’s the bell-like sound that’s played, then reversed?

That’s the wheelchair bell that Tio Salamanca uses to communicate. I got the original recordings from our sound crew and built that pattern in Pro Tools using both forward and reversed versions of the file as well as various delay lines.

S2 E3 “I.F.T.”This radically departs from the recognizable theme, with its flute and delayed pinging. How did it evolve?

The body of this piece appears earlier in the episode, in a cue that I wanted to savor over the ending credits. The pinging sound is probably an Oberheim OB-Mx analog “piano” patch with plenty of delay added. The flute is a live performance to which I applied effects, including a pitch-altering plug-in to simulate the bends of the original guitar part, which a flute couldn’t play naturally.

S3 E8 “I See You.”How did you edit the hospital respirator sound to reflect the familiar theme rhythm? What was the Mellotron-like flute sound?

Similar to Tio’s bell, these sounds appeared in the episode, so I got them directly from our sound department and built a percussive loop. And yes, those are two sets of mellotron samples in different octaves that I processed in Kontakt.

S3 E11 “Abiquiu.”How was the industrial sounding drum loop created?

I created several copies of the same loop. I then processed each one differently, one with bit reduction, one with an envelope-controlled filter, and one through a preamp simulator. Then I mixed them back together with plenty of compression.

S4 E6 “Cornered.” Again, this is a cue where the usual theme rhythm is only hinted at via the interplay of pads, drones, and textures.

The basis of this cue also appears in the show and on the soundtrack CD as “Four Corners/Waiting for the End.” A number of different hardware synths are blended, including Prophet-VS, Oberheim Matrix-12, and Roland MKS70. All three are examples of synths that I love because when called upon they can sound frail and delicate, a quality that to me is more impressive than “fat.”

S4 E1 “Box Cutter.”The breathy drone sounds almost like a classic Fairlight patch. What was used?

That was a combination of two different ‘flute’ based pads playing similar but slightly different parts. In this case both were from soft synths, Native Instrument’s FM8 and Spectrasonics Omnisphere.

S5 E11 “Confessions.”How were the huge-sounding gated drums sourced and processed? The crunchy bass sound that comes in just afterwards?

Lots of heavy compression, followed by running the drum mix through Native Instruments Guitar Rig. The bass part was performed by my friend Adam Dorn (Mocean Worker) so all credit for the tone of the bass goes to him.

S5 E14 “Ozymandias.”This is one of the more obviously synthesized ones. Yet it's just two or three layers. What was used on each?

After this epic episode I decided to lay low, with just two different sine wave-based pads bathed in a large reverb. When the theme eventually comes in, it’s performed on a bowed psaltery.

What hardware synths do you rely on?
Here are some of my favorites: ARP2600, John Bowen Solaris, Cwejman S1, Oberheim Matrix-12, Sequential Prophet-VS, Octave-Plateau Voyetra-8, and Roland MKS70/80 and Juno 60/106.

Are there any software instruments you can't live without?
The only one that I truly couldn’t live without is Native Instruments Kontakt.

When mixing your cues, do you bounce in place or render in real time through some sort of summing bus device?
I’ve personally never been convinced of the sonic advantages of summing mixers, particularly under the time constraints of TV scoring. I bounce in place.

Do you deliver the final mixes or turn over sessions to a mixing engineer for further work once cues are complete?
When working on a synth or sound-design heavy score like Breaking Bad, I feel that mixing is an extension of the compositional process, so I mix my own cues. For a traditional orchestral score, I’d defer to a professional mixing engineer.