by Mike Brennan
The music and the sound design for Nickolodeon's "Avatar: the Last Airbender" is done by The Track Team, which is comprised of Jeremy Zuckerman (music) and Benjamin Wynn (sound), two post-production tasks that are more connected than many fans realize.
I actually started watching the show when it first aired in 2005. One of the things that caught my attention was the score, which is a combination of strong themes and ethnic instruments, often featuring Japanese taiko drums. The show features a unique blend of epic action, drama, and comedy, making it popular for audiences of all ages. SoundtrackNet had a chance to talk with Jeremy and Ben about their work on the television series.
I love the main theme. It is introduced in full at the beginning of the first episode, so what early parts of the show inspired it?
JZ: Thanks! By the time we had to come up with the music for the main title we had already become pretty firmly rooted in the world of Avatar. We had done a pencil test about a year or two before and a pilot after that. But what was really special was how we got to witness the whole development of the process. I mean, I remember Bryan [Konietzko] sitting at a table illustrating the characters! So we really understood the aesthetic from the onset. We knew that the Avatar musical world had to sound ancient, epic and reference non-western musical styles without being specific to any one culture. Originally we weren't going to use any western instrumentation but we couldn't resist the orchestra. It's hard to say if there were any specific parts of the show that inspired the main title theme. I think it came more from the emotion of the overall story line combined with the setting. The mood had to be very comprehensive (like the show) – epic, a bit melancholy, foreboding, silly, whimsical…
The theme's alternating sets of three descending notes gives it versatility, and it can be heard both subtlety and in bold statements. What particular moments do you save it for?
JZ: That theme originated in the pilot. Ben and I were working in one room and Bryan called out from another room to say that we were on to something. (Ben and Bryan were roommates at that time.) Most people don't realize that there are really two Avatar themes in Avatar - the one you're asking about and the melody that enters after the four elements are introduced in the main title. The first one I see as attaching to Aang when he's harnessing his strength as an individual and accepting his role as the Avatar. I think the French horns serve that emotion well. I also use variations of this theme as a subtle underscore played by strings – usually when Aang is wrestling with his responsibilities as an Avatar and struggling to find that inner strength to fulfill his destiny. The other theme is less specific to Aang and attaches more to the old soul, which is embodied by all the Avatars. [Play "Aang Theme" MP3] [Play "Old Soul Theme" MP3]
There are so many characters and settings, can you talk briefly about some of the other themes in the show?
JZ: Oh man! There are so many characters and the story line is so complex. I can't even remember half the themes! Let's see. There's Katara's theme that comes up occasionally. It originated in the pilot and was originally composed with a sampled sarangi. Out of that melody came the Water tribe's theme. [Play "Water Tribe" MP3] There's Sokka's theme, which is mainly a percussion cue. [Play "Sokka's Theme" MP3] That cue originated in the first episode. There's the Fire nation theme, which also originated in the pilot. [Play "Fire Nation" MP3] There are tons of variations of that cue. Some are Zuko's theme (although as his character changed his music had to as well. It's been through many changes – like Zuko! As he was struggling with his inner demons, his theme became a fragmented, slightly fragile version of the Fire nation theme. Then a secondary theme grew out of the Blue Spirit theme, which featured duduk. [Play "Blue Spirit" MP3] I still use the duduk for Zuko quite often.), Azula's theme, etc. [Play "Azula" MP3]
Iroh has a couple themes to cover the character's wide range. There's the whimsical theme, which is usually played, on a flute but sometimes on a guzheng or pipa. There's also a slightly more serious and melancholy theme. This is his 'tsungi horn' theme. [Play "Tsungi Horn" MP3] (The 'tsungi horn' is a fictional instrument. Of course it had to sound real. We wound up combining the sound of a trombone and duduk to get that sound.) Toph has a theme, which comes from her days as the Blind Bandit. There's a romance theme for Aang and Katara, which originated in the 'Cave of Two Lovers' episode. You can hear the guzheng playing the melody. [Play "Kataang" MP3] Roku has a theme, which comes from the 'old soul Avatar' cue I was talking about earlier. Momo has a ridiculous theme that we have to be careful not to overdo but always puts a smile on our faces… [Play "Momo Theme" MP3] There are a couple resolution themes that come up as episodes wrap up. There are several action themes and many themes that were specific to individual episodes and characters that have come and gone. Tons of themes. It's hard to keep track of them all! Everyone once in a while I'll catch a episode and hear a theme I completely forgot about. I'll think to myself, 'I need to reuse that somewhere!'.
A lot of the taiko rhythms and other forms of ethnic instrumentation sound traditional and authentic. Did you research these for your orchestrations?
JZ: Yes. It's really important to us to try to understand these instruments as much as we can and to treat them with respect. In the beginning we were using sampled phrases but it quickly became clear that the show required more depth. I studied Guzheng and Pipa with a master Chinese musician and got a duduk and some other ethnic instruments. Bryan and Mike do an incredible amount of research on every aspect of the show. They set the bar very high.
BW: We also were lucky enough to be asked to produce a Taiko score for a TV commercial during the second season. That opportunity allowed us to study and record a Taiko ensemble in a proper big studio. We recorded single hits and phrases, which we used for the commercial but also came in handy with Avatar. This Taiko library has added greatly to the sound and realism of the drums in Avatar. It was quite serendipitous.
How much of the score is recorded live?
JZ: All the ethnic instruments are performed (guzheng, pipa, duduk, dizi, etc.). Most of the percussion is as well. As Ben mentioned, we were able to record a live taiko ensemble and create a really flexible sample instrument from that. Most of the orchestral instrumentation is Giga (sample library). However the last four episodes will have a live string ensemble! We're really excited about this because it'll enable us to do things that aren't possible with a sample library.
How much direction are you given for the score in general or for specific scenes?
JZ: For each episode, we have a spotting session with Mike and Bryan. During the spotting session we talk about what each scene needs with varying levels of detail. Sometimes the instructions are very specific down to instrumentation and sometimes they give us more of an emotional direction. Bryan actually makes music and has a couple records out so he really gets it. He's actually the one who came up with the idea of using a diverse ethnic instrumentation.
The show has a great range in tone, as does the music. It goes from serious, save-the-world fight ("The Drill") to more playful and humorous ("The Swamp"). How do you balance these tones musically and with sound design?
JZ: What I've found is that as long as we do what's right for the show and don't force ego into it, the music writes itself. It sounds new-agey but it's really pragmatic. In a sense there's already a score contained in the emotional narrative of the show. The process is in realizing it. I think if the writing and direction weren't so good it'd be a much more difficult process. On a more concrete level, the instrumentation often changes to reflect the mood. For instance, we used a pipa played as if it were a banjo in 'the Swamp'. For some reason that combined with the half naked swamp dwellers made for a pretty funny tone. [Play "Redneck Chase" MP3]
This wide range of tone has been one of the great challenges and great joys of Avatar. I remember Eric Coleman, the executive in charge of production on Avatar, saying something to the effect of ,'make the sad scenes heartbreaking, make the scary scenes terrifying, make the funny scenes hilarious…'. Basically, don't hold back - make Avatar as emotionally dynamic as possible.
Was the show originally intended as a multiple "book" series?
JZ: Early on in the development process Bryan and Mike wrote the Avatar 'bible' which was an overview of the story from beginning to end. I believe they decided around that time that it would take around three seasons to tell the entire story.
BW: Yes, as Jeremy said, it was always conceived as a three-season story arc.
How much of the story arc were you told at the beginning?
JZ: As I was saying earlier, we definitely got to witness a lot of the development process. We saw characters' names change, characters' looks change, costume design change… So we had a pretty intimate relationship with the project from the get go. However the story arc was never completely revealed to us. Bryan and Mike explained to us about the different nations and how they practiced separate forms of kung fu, which metaphorically represented their elements. They gave as a lot of insight into the main characters and what motivated them. But they didn't reveal everything to us. One of the great pleasures of this project has been watching it all unfold. We still don't know how's it's going to end but I can guarantee that I'll cry!
Some of the music touches on sound effects, with various percussion and chanting during action scenes. How much coordination is there between the two of you?
JZ: Interesting that you should say that. Ben and I both make music which utilizes elements that many people would call sound design. Even though in our own work we don't make the separation between sound design and music, film and television requires this distinction. It's inherent in the technical process. So because Ben and I are both sound designers and composers, we are very aware of each other's work. We worked together on both facets for the pilot but time constraints forced us to split up those duties. For the first season we would actually work in the same room – Ben doing sound design and I the music. It was a bit hectic but from that came a good sense of each other's work and how to fit those elements together. We even use many of the same tools whether composing music or sound design. The chanting, for example, is created the same way whether used as music or sound design. Also, as the show's progressed we've gotten a bit more abstract with both the music and the sound design so there will be times when that distinction becomes blurred. [Play "Aang's Nightmare" MP3]
BW: As Jeremy touched upon, we both “learned” sound design through making music, if that makes sense. We both studied synthesis and signal processing with the purpose of making music. It just so happens that the exact same tools apply to both mediums, and one of the things that got me into music in the beginning was shaping sound; so the mediums are very intertwined with us. At one point we even had a manifesto written up on the subject. We were thinking of company names like “The Music of Sound”, but alas, I'm glad we landed upon our current name.<#GOOGLEAD#>
One of my favorite episodes is "The Puppetmaster". Its had some pretty unique bending sequences and I noticed how the creepy tones swelled into more dramatic music and then taiko rhythms. This is one scene where the score and sound effects seemed to enhance one another. Any thoughts on that episode?
BW: This is one of my favorite episodes as well. I really enjoyed making the sounds for the blood-bending. I used lots of sounds to suggest muscles stressing. I ended up using recordings of food, which works great for this. I also loved creating the dark ambiences and effects that the tone of the episode suggested. I also want to give credit to the Oracle Post team (Aran Tanchum and Vincent Guisetti), who do a great job with the foley. [Play "Bloodbending" MP3] I've also included two examples of the Puppetmaster and Katara extracting water from plants and bending it. [Play "Puppetmaster 1" MP3] [Play "Puppetmaster 2" MP3]
Ben, have you ever asked Jeremy to make a sound on an instrument for any part of the show?
BW: Yes, certain cues are sometimes handled better with music than effects, particularly with the funny or silly sound design moments. But Jeremy and I are in contact everyday in some form or another, so we just make that decision together. Generally we both know when music or sound would work better.
For a half hour cartoon, Avatar covers a world and character set on an epic scale. What are challenges does this present for both the music and the sound.
JZ: A challenge that we've had to face in both the music and sound design has been to create a style that is in line with Avatar's ancient and fictional setting. Although Avatar takes place in an Earth-like world it isn't Earth. Musically, we've had to develop a style that sounds like it's been around for centuries but in actuality is specific to the world of Avatar. This means the instruments have to sound physical and acoustic. No electricity in the world of Avatar (unless you're Azula or Firelord Ozai!) so all computer processing and synthesis has to be very transparent (same with sound design which is probably an even bigger challenge to pull off). Additionally, the complexity of the story requires a huge number of music cues and themes all of which need to stay true to the musical style of Avatar. Since Bryan and Mike raised the quality bar so high from the onset, each episode of Avatar is an original score. This means that although melodies and themes recur, they have to be recomposed for each episode to properly attach to the narrative and on-screen action.
BW: Yes, it's a good challenge. Bryan and Mike always wanted the show to sound completely natural, as if the events were happening in reality. This ruled out synthesis and processing that was too obvious. So that steered me to try to find the best recordings of water, air, earth/rocks, and fire I could find. I then combined and processed these sounds to create the various different elements. We also came up with a varity of semi-transparent processes that I do to the sound design. Certain tricks to make it more impactful, deeper, more intense, etc. And lots of the natural sounds are augmented by highly designed ones.
Some character expressions and actions are intentionally overly cartoonish, in the style of the animation. Sounds accompanying these moments are out of place as well. How do you approach those scenes?
BW: The cartoonish sounds are always interesting because we've wanted to be true to the silliness of the moment but at the same time try to give them a unique sound. We didn't want to get fully Hanna-Barbara as that would sound too distant from the tone of the rest of the show. The approach that we developed somewhere in the middle of the second season was using my Cwejman analog synthesizer. There's something about the color of the analog that attaches itself really easily to the world, and at times it sounds almost organic, amazingly. This style is more a nod to FLCL than Hanna-Barbara. [Play "Silly Sounds" MP3]
I've always particularly liked the sounds of rock bending. What do you use for that?
BW: Earth bending is made up of a certain set of sounds that we've collected over the years. Some are library sounds of rocks being crushed and boulders falling. Some of those are processed to make them sound larger and more aggressive, and some sounds we've recorded. There's also a particular set of processed wooshes that are used for earth bending alone. One particular challenge with Earth bending is making the deep rumble/earthquake sounds come across on television. You have to be careful not to rely too heavily on low bass sounds, as most of these get lost. Therefore it's important to find sounds with higher frequencies that would go along with the rumbles – such as debris and small rocks shifting and falling. [Play "Earthbending 1" MP3] [Play "Earthbending 2" MP3]
Avatar boasts some well-known voice actors, Mark Hamill, Jason Isaacs, Clancy Brown to name a few. Do vocal performances affect your jobs at all?
BW: The voice that affects us most directly would probably be Dee Bradley Baker, who does the voices for Appa and Momo, as well as lots of other animals that need personalities. He's amazing! On occasion I'll get his voice session to process if it needs to sound deeper or more intense. It's great starting with such good material. It makes my job easier. All the voice actors do a great job. Jack DeSena (Sokka) continually cracks me up.
Do each of you have a favorite episode? Favorite sound?
BW: I love the season two finale. It's got a lot of cool abstract moments, and the story is amazing. It's one of those episodes that I can show to people that have never seen the show. They're usually hooked after that!
JZ: I honestly can't pick one. Today I'd say it's a toss up between The Siege of the North Part Two, Appa's Lost Days or The Guru. Tomorrow my answer might be different…
Thoughts on a soundtrack release for the score?
JZ: There's been a pretty significant outcry for this. It's a possibility. I tell people if they want this they need to let the decision makers know. Contact Nickelodeon!
BW: Yes, I think it could be great. It'd be really fun if we had the opportunity to do it up.
Do you have any other current projects?
BW: We are working on the third Avatar Video game (we did the second but not the first), as well as various commercials that we do throughout the year. We're currently working on a Mercedes video.
Why "The Track Team"?
BW: Often when working on songs people refer to them as “tracks” (as in tracks on a CD), so we thought this name was perfect for a group (or team). I think it's pretty catchy as well. I first heard the name from a friend of mine back in Wisconsin, who was using it for his hip-hop crew. I always loved it. When it was time to start a business it kept popping back up in my mind, so I contacted him and ask him how he felt about us using the name. He graciously said “go for it.”
What would you like to move on to after Avatar?
JZ: We're hoping to get into more film scoring and to pursue our own music. Hopefully we'll continue to work on other Avatar related projects as well. It'd be nice to land another tv series… No other kind of project allows that level of development.
BW: Ditto. We're hoping to continue to do cool inspired projects in any medium - film, TV, dance, records, games – hopefully all of it.
What music inspired you to work in film scores?
JZ: To be honest my original plan wasn't to be a film composer. I wasn't exposed to that world much. As a teen I was a metal head. I'll always have a place in my heart for that stuff. Later I got into electronic music, 'new' orchestral music and computer music. Stuff that the late composer James Tenney would refer to as 'unpopular music'. However Toru Takemitsu, one of my favorite composers, has been able to exist in the fine art music world as well as the film scoring arena. He's a real inspiration to me. Other composers whose work gets me going are Berio, Xenakis, Gorecki, Penderecki, Trevor Wishart - unpopular music…
BW: The film music that continues to inspire me now are scores like Cliff Martinez's Solaris, the new Underworld/John Murphy score for Sunshine, and the elegant simplicity of Clint Mansell's Darran Aranofsky movies.
There are rumors of an M. Night Shyamalan live-action version of Avatar in the next few years. Have you heard anything about this and any potential involvement?
JZ: It's not a rumor! Lets just say there's an interview on one of the Avatar box sets with M. Night Shyamalan, Bryan and Mike discussing Avatar. We're extremely excited and proud for them.
Special thanks to Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn for taking the time to answer our questions.
"Nickelodeon Avatar: The Last Airbender" and related audio and visual content is property of Viacom International. Not for distribution."