Serial killers are trendy again—that is, our fascination with them has rekindled—and none more so than the deranged yet charismatic Ted Bundy, the subject of the hugely popular four-part Netflix documentary Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. The chilling score, which adds so much to the already disturbing docuseries, was written by Justin Melland. Even without the visual accompaniment, Melland’s “95 percent analog” score and main titles are terrifying.
The four-and-a-half hours of music on Conversations With a Killer marked the first time Melland, an experienced film and television composer, was allowed to do exactly what he wanted with a score. “It’s what I’d always hoped people would ask me to do,” he says sitting at the center of his elaborate L.A.-based home studio, The Eleventh Laboratory, where analog and modular synths create a command center with him in the captain’s chair. His stringed instruments line his longest wall, giving the feeling of being in a music museum.
“Before the Bundy Tapes, I was always trying to press people to give more creative freedom to the composer,” Melland says. “With digital editing and being able to throw in any piece of music to picture, people have been designing their scores before they get the composer in the room, which is a really weird approach. You’re not picking the most interesting person that works with your vibe, you’re picking the best copycat.”
Melland wasn’t given musical direction or temp music to re-create for Conversations With a Killer. The only direction given by award-winning executive producer Joe Berlinger (also the producer of the Netflix Ted Bundy biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile) was to preserve the 1970s nature of the timeframe.
“For me, ’70s means Pink Floyd and experimental electronic music,” says Melland, who previously worked with Berlinger on Starz’s Wrong Man. “I didn’t really think about movies. I thought more about pop music. I like taking sounds from there and making them work for movies. I was able to dream up my own ideas, which is a much more liberating way to write, and you end up with better music.”
Melland’s affinity for analog instruments and the expressiveness that comes from physically playing them has a lot to do with the inspiration behind the sounds he creates. Not dissimilarly, his racks of modular synths and the choices he makes on a micro level with each piece activates his imagination.
“I have developed a way of working where my cues can be an evolution of one or two or three ideas,” he says. “I can spend a half-hour getting one sound together, then another half-hour figuring out how to evolve it over time. In a way, that is the cue. When I get it up on the modular, the sound I create is unique to the process that I’m using. After I’m done with a piece, I disconnect the cables. I don’t worry about keeping up a sound or going back to it. If I want to make, say, a bell tone, each time I do it, it’s different. I might use the same modules, but tuned a little bit differently so it comes out like a variation. It’s like forcing myself to do variations. The consistency is in the tools I use, and the variations come from using the tools differently each time.”
Melland’s master’s degree in music composition from UCLA, his accomplished piano playing and his background playing guitar as a teenager greatly inform his approach to composition. He creates a hybrid orchestra of played instruments and electronic sounds. This method works well with film, as it gives enough space for the music to be featured without getting in the way of the dialog. In the case of Conversations With a Killer, Melland took part of the dialog, specifically Bundy’s voice, to create portions of the score.
“If you had to pick an oscillator that operates like a split personality, it’s a complex oscillator,” Melland says. “I got the Buchla Music Easel specifically for this project. The frequency modulation sounds very ’70s but also really alien. It works on so many levels for someone like Bundy, who thought he was inhabited by another force and entity.
“There is a lot of ‘other’ happening in the Music Easel,” he continues. “It operates on the principle of modulating the primary oscillator with an unheard oscillator. It can have very violent effects on what you’re hearing, but you never actually hear the oscillator that’s doing the modulating. That gets into the psychology of Bundy’s split personality, having somebody inside of you controlling what you’re doing in violent ways. I would get this weird modulated sound up on the Easel and put it in some scenes with him, and it fit perfectly.”
The Music Easel and the Folktek Resonant Garden were two of the key pieces used on Conversations With a Killer. The latter was the source for ambiences and cavernous rhythms, and its long delay proved handy for making accents and rhythms, as well. Soft pads were made on the Prophet 6 and basslines on MacBeth Elements. Other synthesizers used were an ARP 2600, Roland Juno 6 and Oberheim Two Voice Pro. Folktek’s library of samples of its unusual instruments was one of the only sources of non-analog sounds that Melland drew from for the score.
“I make my backgrounds from all kinds of sources,” the composer says. “I like to do anything from taking a guitarviol and bow or tremolo really softly. Bowing it with crystallizer and some reverbs makes this interesting soundscape that behaves the way you would imagine an ambience behaving. Because I’m actually creating the sound, I can tailor the way it moves to the scene. It’s not just me finding a sound in the synth and holding a button while I let it phase for a minute. I’m actually playing the drone that evolves.”
All of this was done in two-and-a-half months, with the episodes coming to Melland in bits and pieces and not in sequence. He would write for 20 minutes of a rough cut or a string out, be stopped as the rest of the episode was being recut, do a completely different episode, and then go back to the one he was working on first. Says Melland, “They were plugging me into spots that were done because we were on a time crunch. It was like sprinting, and they’re just pointing you to where you should go.
“You have to let the project inform you,” he adds, “Who would think putting synth-wave monster rock underneath a serial killer’s voice would work so well?”
Bundy would probably love it.