In the Studio: Mark Isham
Mark Isham is a film composer and pioneer in modern electronic and jazz music, obsessed with analog synths and Martin trumpets alike.

Film composer and pioneer in modern electronic and jazz music, Mark Isham crafts a world of sound for extraordinary productions like Crash, Once Upon a Time, Judas and the Black Messiah, and Varsity Blues. In gear heaven at his full-fledged home studio, Isham delves into his creative process inspired by modern technology and his life-long obsession with wall-to-wall analog synths and collection of Martin trumpets.

Mark Isham was immediately met with critical acclaim when he began his career as a solo musician on the Windham Hill label in the 1980s. The popular label released William Ackerman, Liz Story, and George Winston among others. 

As he grew musically he started composing for film and TV, notably the Oscar-nominated Judas and the Black Messiah, the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, and even a haunting episode of Black Mirror. “I’ll try to find the scene that defines the story,” Isham explains from his spacious home studio. “Let’s find out what that emotion is and how the music is going to help express that emotion. If I can get that, chances are it’s going to inform how the rest of the story needs to be told.”

Humble beginnings

Isham’s musical story humbly began as a teen when he worked at his local music shop and devised a shrewd way to score a synthesizer he was eyeing…at a discount. 

“I used to clean trumpets for a band instrument store when I was young and I talked the band instrument guy into putting an ARP in his window,” he says, referring to the groundbreaking electronic musical synth company, founded by Alan Robert Pearlman. “When nobody was interested in it, I talked him into selling it to me for a hundred dollars a month, which he took out of my salary. That’s how I afforded my very first synthesizer years and years ago,” says Isham, spotlighting his lifelong obsession with analog synths. 

As expected, Isham has a plethora of instruments in his studio including an Oberheim and a very special Moog. “I met a guy who used to work at Moog,” he remembers. Not only did the gentleman sell it to him, but it was built in the very garage where the iconic synthesizers were born. “In fact, this has original Bob Moog test modules,” Isham says proudly.

Classic meets modern

Isham, a New York City native, earned an Oscar nomination for his score of the Robert Redford helmed fly fishing film, A River Runs Through It, which starred Brad Pitt. Pitt’s character prized trout, Isham, however, collects horns. 

“I own a lot of Martin trumpets. This is the first one I ever bought. I still think of it as the best,” he says.

“I don’t like music to be too cluttered,” he continues. “I’m not quite sure what the secret of simplicity is. It’s why do I love Miles Davis? Because Miles would play three notes and another trumpet player might play seven notes, but Miles played the right three notes. It’s always the challenge of if I’m just going to write three notes, it has to be the right three notes that do a better job than the seven notes.”

“The demo is king. And modern technology allows us to make demos that are almost as good as a final.”

Isham embraces not just the vintage synths and trumpets of his youth, but modern advancements as well. They’re all tools that help him tell the stories. “My process is based on technology,” he says. “We have in technology today the ability to pretty much create any sound you can possibly imagine. I will look at a story. I will look at the imagery of a show and say, ‘What is the sound of this show?’ And sometimes I’ll just hit two notes of a violin or two notes of a stranger sound I’ve never heard and just watch it against the picture. Does that sound make sense in this world?”

The composer reverts to keeping it simple when he is asked to do larger pieces. In some cases, he’ll leave his studio, head to the grand piano in the living room, and get to work. 

“If I have a score that needs a real theme, like a traditional 16-bar theme, oh my God. Like an A-section then a B-section, which is rarer and rarer these days,” he admits. “If that’s actually what’s needed, I go to the house, grab a piece of paper, a pencil, and I’ll go and sit at the piano for four days or a week. I will write in the old-fashioned way.”

Testing it out

For Isham, “The demo is king. And modern technology allows us to make demos that are almost as good as a final.” To make those demos, like many others, Isham uses Pro Tools sessions. “They go to the orchestrator,” he explains, adding that he cleans up all the electronic instruments and gets each one printed into Pro Tools. “The Pro Tools session keeps growing and growing as we add things.”

But what about effects? Isham said he loves Output’s REV and SIGNAL, as well as UAD plugins. 

Once he has things fairly set, he invites the filmmakers to his home and dims the lights. “We turn the chairs around, look at the big screen, and I play what I like to think is a very close approximation of what they will actually get at the end of the day,” Isham says.

“The room started off originally just as a family screening room, not a bad place for a family movie night,” he says of his home mixing space. “My wife and I thought, well, what if we put a computer system in there? What if you could mix on that computer? And it eventually ended up into a full-fledged mixing room. If we’re not at Warner Brothers, we’re here. Certainly, all the television is done here. All the smaller, independent films are done here.”

Fending off the negative thoughts 

“There’s a part of you that can just spit out ideas, but the problem is there’s some other part of you that’s sitting right here and saying, ‘That’s a piece of crap,’” Isham says. He calls that negative voice The Editor. 

“The Editor is important. It’s part of what your personal taste is, right? It decides if you really think it’s good or not, and that’s an important part of the process,” he says. “But if The Editor is in a bad mood, he doesn’t think anything is good. Then that’s [when you get] writer’s block.”

The solution: go back to keeping things simple. 

“I used to do this thing in the old days — of course you can still do it here — I just turn off all the sound and push record and just bang on the keys,” he says. Then he plays it back to hear if there’s anything interesting.

“Of course, 99 percent of it is terrible, but there might be three notes where you think, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s actually something and that’s not bad!’” he says. “I think that the best advice. If you’re a composer, compose. You don’t talk about composing. You don’t study composing. You don’t think about composing. You compose.”

Ready to take the high dive into modulars? Check out our modular kit starter guide as a good starting point.

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