Alan Howarth"It sounded like Earth to Venus."
Interview by Asher Penn
Alan Howarth's contribution to a film is never seen; instead, it is heard through his work on scores, sound design and special effects. Coming of age at the advent of both tape art and rock 'n roll, Howarth's education in sound found a balance between pop and the avant-garde. This combination allows us to understand his iconic sound effects, which are found in Star Trek: The Movie, Poltergeist, The Mask, Total Recall and countless other Hollywood films. Despite this, Howarth is still better known for his music, particularly his longstanding collaboration with John Carpenter on soundtracks such as Escape To New York, his continued work on the Halloween franchise, and his sonically stunning live shows.
How did you get into music?
Music goes all the way back to being a little kid. My dad had an accordion that he bought for his own enjoyment. It had 12 bass notes and I was fascinated by that. I asked mom if I could have accordion lessons. She ended up setting me up with a local kind of cowboy accordion player. A local TV star guy.
What kind of stuff did he teach you?
It was polka-oompapa sausage stuff. Then, 4 or 5 lessons in, I’m finally getting into it, playing a bass line in my left hand and a melody on my right hand, Just before my next lesson was going to start, my mom comes in and says, “We’re leaving”. The lessons just stopped. Years later, I found out it was because the teacher made a pass at my mom. When they started doing band at school I showed “aptitude” and was invited to join the music program.
What instrument did you pick?
Well, I wanted to play the guitar or the piano but those instruments weren’t available in the school band. The coolest instrument I could pick was the saxophone. I learned alto sax and played various saxophones throughout middle school and high school.
Did you think you were going to be a musician ?
Actually, I was gonna be an artist. I was the painter-sculptor kid, headed for fine arts. Music was just a side thing until my junior year. One of the girls in the art club told me her boyfriend, Dave, had a band and wanted to know if I'd join up for a Sock Hop at this local girl’s Catholic school. I got to read charts and play dance music that night and then at the end Dave gave me $80 and my eyes popped out! This was 1965. I decided then and there, I’m going for music, forget this art thing.
So you started playing in bands?
My buddy Dave started a rock band and they needed a bass player, so I got my mom to loan me $100 and I bought a bass guitar. Not long after that, I joined a local band in my high school called The Monterey’s. That was followed by The Tree Stumps ...We won the Cleveland Plain Dealer battle of the bands of 1966, and played as an opener for Paul Revere and the Raiders - we thought we were cool. Then at some point the guys in the band wanted to go in different directions. I wanted to do a combination of British bands and a West Coast thing like The Doors and Jefferson Airplane.
How did you get into synthesizers?
In high school, I did an essay analyzing abstract music - Tape Art compositions with pinball machines or the sounds of industrial noises, all made into loops with tempos. Then there was the release of Switched-on-Bach, which really validated the sounds with the synthesizer. I worked in a music store, so there were synthesizers upstairs all the time that I could kind of go tool around with.
Almost like circuit bending?
I got into programming and opening them up to see what made them work, fix circuit boards, calibrate volts and stuff like that. At a certain point I was able to get a deal on an EML-101 synth through the store. I was mostly just using them to jam with my band called Braino making all kinds of sounds until I ended up hooking up with the famous jazz fusion group, Weather Report.
Wait, what did you play with them?
It was formed by two legendary jazz be-bop players, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul. I was the caretaker of Joe’s keyboard rig, which had several synths that had to be maintained while touring. For about three years, I traveled the whole world with these guys which was how I ended up in Los Angeles.
Was that how you got into movies?
The first time I did music and sound effects for a film was for my wife, Melody. She was a film student at UCLA. I was learning as I was doing it, writing music, putting sound effects in, making a mixed track.
How did you finally break into Hollywood?
It was the oddest set of circumstances you could imagine. An old Cleveland buddy , Pax Lemmon, was working at Paramount Studios in the transfer department making copies of tapes. He overheard two sound effects editors saying that they needed someone who worked with Synths. He goes “Oh man, you’ve gotta talk to my buddy Alan!"
What was the film?
Star Trek: The Motion Picture. They wanted somebody with synth chops to make sound effects and asked me to make an audition tape of the Starship Enterprise going from Warp one to Warp seven. So I went back to my little dining room studio in Glendale and dialed it up on my Prophet 5 synthesizer. The sound effect was made by using a feature on that keyboard called the poly mod. That audition tape became the core sound of the Starship Enterprise.
So you got the gig. Had you been a fan of Star Trek before that point?
I wasn’t a trekkie, but what a thrill to be a part of Star Trek and start making sounds for space hardware. I was really excited about being on the show. I ended remaining onboard and making sound effects for the next six Star Trek movies as a sound designer.
What does that entail, sound designer?
I created the sounds of everything to do with space hardware plus anything else unusual that came with the show, whether it was lasers or monsters or exploding planets.
How did you end up working with John Carpenter?
The picture editor for that first Star Trek movie, Todd Ramsey, his next film was Escape From New York. He invited me to make sound effects for 1997 from the viewpoint of 1981.
Did you get involved in the music soundtrack at all?
Everyone knows John Carpenter did his own music, but he usually worked with another engineer in the studio. There was a sort of falling out with the guy that had worked with on the score from Halloween and The Fog, so the door swung open and Todd referred me. The next day Carpenter comes over and I played him some sounds and effects and some music. At the end he said “ Let’s do it.”
What was it like working with him?
Carpenter’s style of music was improvisational, which was in my blood from all that jazz. He created the themes for the score, then we improvised the tracking of the music. The themes are Carpenter’s, but the production, sequencers, the stuff from the machines, that was my studio. It worked out really well. Escape From New York was the soundtrack label’s first hit. It sold 80 thousand copies, which was incredibly rare for a electronic soundtrack.
So you guys kept working together?
After Escape from New York, John’s next assignment was The Thing. He was really busy and they wanted to do a sequel to Halloween, so he asked me to make the soundtrack.
Halloween II is almost like a remix of the score.
I used the score from Halloween as the guide and built on top of that, overdubbing into the 24 track recorder and added that layers of synth sound to give it gothic effect. It worked out well enough that John and I worked together on Halloween 3, but after that he didn’t want to do it anymore Halloween films. So with his blessing, I went off and continued to do Halloween sequels without him on the rest of the franchise. I also worked with John on Big Trouble in Little China, Christine, Prince of Darkness and They Live.
You’ve also worked with Steven Spielberg how did that happen?
The first contact with Spielberg was really on Raiders of the Lost Ark, working again with same guys form that first Star Trek, I did a couple scenes… like the part where Indy gets thrown in the pit of snakes, with the mummies and stuff.
That’s pretty different from synthesizer sounds.
For the snake slithering, we recorded the sound of masking tape peeled off of glass. Then, when the statue falls, we took bricks and rocks and smashed them in the studio to create material to build upon. We were running the tapes at the highest speed during the recordings and then slowing the tape down to four-speed or eight-speed to create these big, slowed down huge sounds.
I had sort of the fun job of being innovative, but sometimes there was a lot of pressure. When it came to Poltergeist, I was working on the scene where the little girl Carol Anne is lost in another dimension and everyone is looking at the ceiling hearing her. When I asked Spielberg what he wanted for that scene he paused and finally said, “Earth to Venus”. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I couldn’t tell him that... this was Steven Spielberg!
How did you end up figuring it out?
For a week or so, nothing worked. I remember spending hours fooling with the tapes, slowing down the speed, but it was all too familiar. Then, one day, the radio was playing the Led Zeppelin tune, "A Whole Lot of Love". There’s this break in the middle where the music stops and it gets very abstract and there was an effect on Robert Plant voice that was a pre-echo that made it like it was incoming from a place far away. I heard it and knew it was Earth to Venus. That’s what Spielberg was talking about. He wanted to hear it from a distance dimension coming into the scene.
You’ve worked on a lot of projects with varying budgets. How do you approach them?
Well, it’s ultimately, it is time versus money equation. At no point do I downgrade my art because they don’t have big budget. But on a low budget, I may have to get it all done fairly quickly and turn over because I can’t invest that much time into the show. On a bigger budget, you get multiple weeks to kind of savor and be creative and do nuances and little subtleties to make it wonderful. But I don’t ever downgrade or cheapen the artistic choices because of budgets, I provide everyone with my best stuff.