Rick and Morty’s composer reveals his scoring secrets by using ARCADE, EXHALE, SUBSTANCE, and SIGNAL

Ryan Elder is the talented composer behind the wildly popular “Rick and Morty,” whose credits also include “Boss Baby Back in Business” and “Wizards of Waverly Place.” 

He got his break with “Rick and Morty” before it even started. His wife told him about Channel101.com which was created by Dan Harmon, who had yet to make it really big. When Harmon and Justin Roiland landed “Rick and Morty” on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, Elder was hired to score the show, in part, because he had done so many smaller shorts with them in the past.

Scoring an Alien Battle of the Bands 

“In ‘Get Schwifty’ there’s an alien band that’s competing against Earth,” Harmon said 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?” he asked himself. 

“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 said, 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 said. “He wanted an epic, sci-fi score and he sent me some references. 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 were looking for a theme song. “I said to Justin, I know you loved that ‘Dogworld’ theme song, why don’t we put that on here for now?” he recalled. 

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.  He 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, he said. “So I get to decide where the music goes,” Elder explained with a smile. 

He likes to overscore it so he has lots of music in his back pocket if things deviate from the plan. 

While pre-scoring an episode, Elder will do things like use Exhale to add analog strings to a simple piano line. He’ll then add a “cool vocal sound that had a Sigur Rós kind of vibe,” he said 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 Ryan 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 revealed.

 Ryan’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 said, 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 from two different emotions. “So I’m going from this heinous, bloody killing, to these memories that are happy.” Needless to say, he enjoyed the degree of difficulty.

When Elder was searching for some percussion he went to Arcade’s After Hours kit. 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.”

Ryan’s 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 “Goodby 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, “an awesome guy and he nailed it on the first take.” 

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