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Keeping score for ‘Better Call Saul’

Breaking Bad composer Dave Porter returns for this prequel

By Jennifer Walden

When AMC’s Breaking Bad ended, many went through withdrawal from the multi-Emmy Award-winning show. Thanks to its prequel, Better Call Saul, the world that Vince Gilligan created in the New Mexico desert lives on. But while the landscapes might seem familiar, don’t expect the show to look or sound the same as Breaking Bad.

Dave Porter

“For me, it all starts with the black and white keys,” says Los Angeles-based composer Dave Porter, whose score for AMC’s Better Call Saul is anything but black and white emotionally. At the piano he works out melodies and harmonies that communicate the complicated blend of emotions that move the show. “The characters are complex. The challenge is in trying to find the right balance between the different emotions that are at play in any given scene.”

While Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad feature some of the same characters, Better Call Saul show runners/creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould were adamant that this should be a very different show, says Porter, who won an ASCAP Award for Best Television Composer of 2013 for his work on Breaking Bad. “That meant everything from how they write it, to how they shoot it, to how it sounds. We went back to the drawing board to create a whole new musical vocabulary for Better Call Saul, particularly for Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) who, eventually, becomes Saul.”
Porter defines the show’s score with words like intimate, human and relatable. “Breaking Bad [feels] very worldly,” he says. “The scope is much larger, whereas in Better Call Saul, Jimmy’s fight is a smaller fight. Although it is no less important, it is the challenge of one man.”

Getting Real
In terms of instrumentation, Porter gravitated toward real instruments, relying less on the computer and synths he used on Breaking Bad. “I use instruments that I can actually sit down and play, like organs, electric piano, lots of bass and guitar, vibraphone and different mallet percussion, such as vibes and different little xylophones,” he explains.

BCS_210-20151026-UC_0371.JPGWhile Porter performed the piano/keyboards and percussion parts, he hired studio musicians to play the bass and guitar parts. He works with recording engineer James Saez, owner/president of Glendale, California’s The Audio Labs, when the session requires more than one musician. Otherwise, Porter handles recording, editing and mixing at his home studio using an Avid Pro Tools 12 rig and a collection of outboard effects.

For Better Call Saul, Porter likes the 1980’s-era Korg GR-1 Gated Spring Reverb and a TC Electronic guitar-oriented rackmount effects processor from the 1990s called Fireworx. “I usually play and record everything into Pro Tools first, as unprocessed as possible, and then I go back and process the sound. That gives me the flexibility to play around with the effects later.”

Turnaround time for Porter’s score is seven to 10 days per episode. After reviewing the episode, Porter meets with show runners Gilligan and Gould, the episode’s picture editor and supervising sound editor Nick Forshager for a spotting session. They determine where original music is needed and what it needs to express emotionally. “We try not to use music as a placeholder or filler. If it’s going to be in there than it needs to have a purpose,” says Porter, who notes that Better Call Saul, like Breaking Bad before it, is not edited with temp music tracks. “I have ingrained in all of those folks not to use temp music. This way, when I get the episode there is no preconceived notion about what the music should sound like. It’s a great and very rare thing, and I am blessed to have had that on these two shows.”

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Letting the Music Do the Talking
Porter’s favorite track on Season 2 was for the opening sequence of Episode 8 — a five-minute scene featuring a US-Mexico border crossing in which a previously unknown character goes through a customs inspection of his transport truck. “There is very little dialogue, so the music was front and center and required a kind of confidence and swagger, which is something I don’t always get to do on the show,” he explains. “The character plays his part so well, so calm and cool and collected, that I took my inspiration from him.” One fun feature to the track is a rock ‘n’ roll horn section, which is something Porter had never done for any of the Better Call Saul episodes before.

Knowing that the opening sequence was a long, fluid shot, Porter began thinking about how to make a track that rhythmically was able to sustain itself over a long period of time without getting boring. “I had to find ways to change it up and divide it into different sections,” he says. “I attacked it that way. Often, when you’re scoring to picture you are building up to a certain moment, but this piece was like a big arc that lasts five or six minutes. It was about keeping the music fresh and interesting and evolving for that length of time.”

Better Call Saul requires music that is emotionally complex, but it also offers another challenge. As the prequel of Breaking Bad, the two shows are related even though they’re very different. Better Call Saul’s score needs to gradually evolve as the timelines of the two shows converge. “The challenge,” says Porter, “is to be present and honest with where these characters are, but at the same time be able to look ahead and map out the path musically, to evolve the score as the characters evolve into the characters we know they will become eventually on Breaking Bad.”

Porter says he’s happy exploring this new world of Better Call Saul, especially Jimmy before he becomes Saul Goodman. “I am in no hurry to get to where the stories have to overlap. Personally, I hope that takes many years because I’m having a fantastic time watching these characters evolve.”

Jennifer Walden is an New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @audiojeney.