In the Studio: Ryan Elder
The composer behind Rick and Morty discusses his approach to scoring and shows us how he builds fantastical music worlds with Output instruments.

Ryan Elder is the talented composer behind the wildly popular cartoon TV show Rick and Morty. His credits also include Boss Baby Back in Business and Wizards of Waverly Place. Here, the composer reveals his scoring secrets. Learn how he makes signature sounds using tools like Arcade and SIGNAL.

Elder got his break with Rick and Morty before it even started. His wife told him about Los Angeles media collective Channel101 which was created by Dan Harmon, who had yet to make it really big. Harmon co-created Rick and Morty with animator, writer, and producer Justin Roiland. When Harmon and Roiland landed the show on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, Elder was hired to score it, in part because he had done so many smaller shorts with the two in the past.

Scoring an alien battle of the bands 

“In ‘Get Schwifty’ there’s an alien band that’s competing against Earth,” Elder says about the less-than-talented Arbolian Mentirososians. “All I saw was this rough drawing of these aliens playing what appeared to be alien instruments. What does that mean? How is that supposed to sound?”

“I just took stuff from all different areas of the world and threw it in a pot together and put a weird, goofy synth part on top,” he says, adding that the show lets him be as creative as he wants to be.

The Rick and Morty theme song originally was for the dogs

Nowadays the Rick and Morty theme is instantly recognizable to millions of fans, but it was originally created for a previous show that was equally as strange.

“Justin came up with this animated show called Dogworld. It’s an alternate-universe Earth where dogs are people and they have humans as pets,” Elder says. “He wanted an epic, sci-fi score and he sent me some references like the Farscape theme song, and of course, Dr. Who.” 

That show didn’t go anywhere so while they were starting to work on Rick and Morty, they had an aha moment. “I said to Justin, I know you loved that Dogworld theme song, why don’t we put that on here for now?” Elder recalls. 

As time went on it stuck. “I barely changed it from one to the other.” 

Scoring sometimes involves “overscoring” via Exhale

The process for scoring an animated show is different from live-action. Elder usually gets what’s called an animatic which is like a storyboard in a slide-show presentation. For Rick and Morty there’s no music on the animatic “so I get to decide where the music goes,” Elder explains with a smile. 

Elder likes to over-score so he has lots of music in his back pocket if things deviate from the plan. While pre-scoring an episode, he will do things like use EXHALE to add analog strings to a simple piano line. He’ll then add ear candy like a “cool vocal sound [with] a Sigur Rós kind of vibe,” he says, referencing the dreamy Icelandic post-rock group. 

“So I have EXHALE up here, of course,” he notes. “That doubles the piano and gives it a nice texture.” 

When Elder wants to add some interesting sounds that include percussion, he dials up SIGNAL. “There’s a synth sound in here that I kinda like,” he reveals.

Elder’s pet episode is a doozy

“My favorite episode to work on is also my favorite episode of the show, which is the parasites episode,” he says, describing the second season’s memorable “Total Rickall” where “the family isn’t sure if all the kooky characters are parasites or not.” 

Elder called it “the most genius half-hour of television” he’s ever seen. But his fun challenge, musically, was switching between two different emotions. “So I’m going from this heinous, bloody killing, to these memories that are happy,” he says. Needless to say, he enjoyed the degree of difficulty.

When Elder was searching for some percussion he went to Arcade’s After Hours Sampler. Was it there? Of course. Then he went into Particles which he loves because “it has these crazy-cool textures. These are not ‘take center stage’-type sounds but you need this sort of fairy dust to make a track really pop sometimes.”

His favorite song in Rick and Morty was inspired by David Bowie

If you guessed that Elder’s favorite song was the title track for “Get Schwifty,” you’d be wrong. It was “Goodbye Moonman” sung by Jemaine Clement. 

Getting to work with Clement, who also appeared in What We Do in the Shadows and Flight of the Conchords, was a dream come true for Elder because he is a big fan. Clement is “an awesome guy and he nailed it on the first take,” he gushes.

For a totally different feel for a new musical piece, Elder used The Crate in Arcade to get an operatic Bowie-like sound. He deftly feathered in a beat to the voice. In the video above, watch what he does with the low-pass and the mod wheel to adjust on the fly. Perhaps this will give you some ideas for your creative work.

For more beautiful weirdness, check out this studio tour with Mark Mothersbaugh.

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