By Jennifer Walden
In the YouTube Red comedy series Cobra Kai, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), the young hero of the Karate Kid movies, has grown up to be a prosperous car salesman, while his nemesis Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) just can’t seem to shake that loser label he earned long ago. Johnny can’t hold down his handy-man job. He lives alone in a dingy apartment, and his personality hasn’t benefited from maturity at all. He lives a very sad reality until one day he finds himself sticking up for a kid being bullied, and that redeeming bit of character makes you root for him. It’s an interesting dynamic that the series writers/showrunners have crafted, and it works.
Fans of the 1980’s film franchise will appreciate the soundtrack of the new Cobra Kai series. Los Angeles-based composers Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson were tasked with capturing the essence of both composer Bill Conti’s original film scores and the popular music tracks that also defined the sound of the films.
To find that Karate Kid essence, Birenberg and Robinson listened to the original films and identified what audiences were likely latching onto sonically. “We concluded that it was mostly a color palette connection that people have. They hear a certain type of orchestral music with a Japanese flute sound, and they hear ‘80s rock,” says Birenberg. “It’s that palette of sounds that people connect with more so than any particular melody or theme from the original movies.”
Even though Conti’s themes and melodies for Karate Kid don’t provide the strongest sonic link to the films, Birenberg and Robinson did incorporate a few of them into their tracks at appropriate moments to create a feeling of continuity between the films and the series. “For example, there were a couple of specific Japanese flute phrases that we redid. And we found a recurring motif of a simple pizzicato string melody,” explains Birenberg. “It’s so simple that it was easy to find moments to insert it into our cues. We thought that was a really cool way to tie everything together and make it feel like it is all part of the same universe.”
Birenberg and Robinson needed to write a wide range of music for the show, which can be heard en masse on the Cobra Kai OST. There are the ’80s rock tracks that take over for licensed songs by bands like Poison and The Alan Parsons Project. This direction, as heard on the tracks “Strike First” and “Quiver,” covered the score for Johnny’s character.
The composers also needed to write orchestral tracks that incorporated Eastern influences, like the Japanese flutes, to cover Daniel as a karate teacher and to comment on his memories of Miyagi. A great example of this style is called, fittingly, “Miyagi Memories.”
There’s a third direction that Birenberg and Robinson covered for the new Cobra Kai students. “Their sound is a mixture of modern EDM and dance music with the heavier ‘80s rock and metal aesthetics that we used for Johnny,” explains Robinson. “So it’s like Johnny is imbuing the new students with his musical values. This style is best represented in the track ‘Slither.’”
Birenberg and Robinson typically work as separate composers, but they’ve collaborated on several projects before Cobra Kai. What makes their collaborations so successful is that their workflows and musical aesthetics are intrinsically similar. Both use Steinberg’s Cubase as their main DAW, while running Ableton Live in ReWire mode. Both like to work with MIDI notes while composing, as opposed to recording and cutting audio tracks.
Says Birenberg, “We don’t like working with audio from the get-go because TV and film are such a notes-driven process. You’re not writing music as much as you are re-writing it to specification and creative input. You want to be able to easily change every aspect of a track without having to dial in the same guitar sound or re-record the toms that you recorded yesterday.”
For Cobra Kai, they first created demo songs using MIDI and virtual instruments. Drums and percussion sounds came from XLN Audio’s Addictive Drums. Spectrasonics Trilian was used for bass lines and Keyscape and Omnisphere 2 provided many soft-synth and keyboard sounds. Virtual guitar sounds came from MusicLab’s RealStrat and RealLPC, Orange Tree, and Ilya Efimov virtual instrument libraries. The orchestral sections were created using Native Instruments Kontakt, with samples coming from companies such as Spitfire, Cinesamples, Cinematic Strings, and Orchestral Tools.
“Both Zach and I put a high premium on virtual instruments that are very playable,” reports Birenberg. “When you’re in this line of work, you have to work superfast and you don’t want a virtual instrument that you have to spend forever tweaking. You want to be able to just play it in so that you can write quickly.”
For the final tracks, they recorded live guitar, bass and drums on every episode, as well as Japanese flute and small percussion parts. For the season finale, they recorded a live orchestra. “But,” says Birenberg, “all the orchestra and some Japanese percussion you hear earlier in the series, for the most part, are virtual instruments.”
For the live orchestra, Robinson says they wrote 35 minutes of music in six days and immediately sent that to get orchestrated and recorded across the world with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra. The composing team didn’t even have to leave Los Angeles. “They sent us a link to a private live stream so we could listen to the session as it was going on, and we typed notes to them as we were listening. It sounds crazy but it’s pretty common. We’ve done that on numerous projects and it always turns out great.”
When it comes to dividing up the episodes — deciding who should score what scenes — the composing team likes to “go with gut and enthusiasm,” explains Birenberg. “We would leave the spotting session with the showrunners, and usually each of us would have a few ideas for particular spots.”
Since they don’t work in the same studio, the composers would split up and start work on the sections they chose. Once they had an idea down, they’d record a quick video of the track playing back to picture and share that with the other composer. Then they would trade tracks so they each got an opportunity to add in parts. Birenberg says, “We did a lot of sending iPhone videos back and forth. If it sounds good over an iPhone video, then it probably sounds pretty good!”
Both composers have different and diverse musical backgrounds, so they both feel comfortable diving right in and scoring orchestral parts or writing bass lines, for instance. “For the scope of this show, we felt at home in every aspect of the score,” says Birenberg. “That’s how we knew this show was for both of us. This score covers a lot of ground musically, and that ground happened to fit things that we understand and are excited about.” Luckily, they’re both excited about ‘80s rock (particularly Robinson) because writing music in that style effectively isn’t easy. “You can’t fake it,” he says.
Recreating ‘80s Rock
A big part of capturing the magic of ‘80s rock happened in the mix. On the track “King Cobra,” mix engineer Sean O’Brien harnessed the ‘80s hair metal style by crafting a drum sound that evoked Motley Crew and Bon Jovi. “I wanted to make the drums as bombastic and ‘80s as possible, with a really snappy kick drum and big reverbs on the kick and snare,” says O’Brien.
Using Massey DRT — a drum sample replacement plug-in for Avid Pro Tools, he swapped out the live drum parts with drum samples. Then on the snare, he added a gated reverb using Valhalla VintageVerb. He also used Valhalla Room to add a short plate sound to thicken up the kick and snare drums.
To get the toms to match the cavernous punchiness of the kick and snare, O’Brien augmented the live toms with compression and EQ. “I chopped up the toms so there wasn’t any noise in between each hit and then I sent those to the nonlinear short reverbs in Valhalla Room,” he says. “Next, I did parallel compression using the Waves SSL E-Channel plug-in to really squash the tom hits so they’re big and in your face. With EQ, I added more top end then I normally would to help the toms compete with the other elements in the mix. You can make the close mics sound really crispy with those SSL EQs.”
Next, he bussed all the drum tracks to a group aux track, which had a Neve 33609 plug-in by UAD and a Waves C4 multi-band compressor “to control the whole drum kit after the reverbs were laid in to make sure those tracks fit in with the other instruments.”
On “Slither,” O’Brien also focused on the drums, but since this track is more ‘80s dance than ‘80s rock, O’Brien says he was careful to emphasize the composers’ ‘80s drum machine sounds (rather than the live drum kit), because that is where the character of the track was coming from. “My job on this track was to enhance the electric drum sounds; to give the drum machine focus. I used UAD’s Neve 1081 plug-in on the electronic drum elements to brighten them up.”
“Slither” also features Taiko drums, which make the track feel cinematic and big. O’Brien used Soundtoys Devil-Loc to make the taiko drums feel more aggressive, and added distortion using Decapitator from Soundtoys to help them cut through the other drums in the track. “I think the drums were the big thing that Zach [Robinson] and Leo [Birenberg] were looking to me for because the guitars and synths were already recorded the way the composers wanted them to sound.”
Mix engineer Phil McGowan, who was responsible for mixing “Strike First,” agrees. He says, “The ‘80s sound for me was really based on drum sounds, effects and tape saturation. Most of the synth and guitar sounds that came from Zach and Leo were already very stylized so there wasn’t a whole lot to do there. Although I did use a Helios 69 EQ and Fairchild compressor on the bass along with a little Neve 1081 and Kramer PIE compression on the guitars, which are all models of gear that would have been used back then. I used some Lexicon 224 and EMT 250 on the synths, but otherwise there really wasn’t a whole lot of processing from me on those elements.”
To get an ‘80s gated reverb sound for the snare and toms on “Strike First,” McGowan used an AMS RMX16 nonlinear reverb plug-in in Pro Tools. For bus processing, he mainly relied on a Pultec EQ, adding a bit of punch with the classic “Pultec Low End Trick” —which involves boosting and attenuating at the same frequency — plus adding a little bump at 8k for some extra snap. Next in line, he used an SSL G-Master buss compressor before going into UAD’s Studer A800 tape plug-in set to 456 tape at 30 ips and calibrated to +3 dB.
“I did end up using some parallel compression using a Distressor plug-in by Empirical Labs, which was not around back then, but it’s my go-to parallel compressor and it sounded fine, so I left it in my template. I also used a little channel EQ from FabFilter Pro-Q2 and the Neve 88RS Channel Strip,” concludes McGowan.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @audiojeney.com.