'Create something special' Emmy-winning Mr. Robot composer Mac Quayle on his TV music journey so far
Mac Quayle is a Primetime Emmy-winning composer for a string of hit TV shows including Mr. Robot, American Crime Story and 9-1-1. He was also Grammy-nominated for his work on Donna Summer's record "I Will Go with You (Con te partirò)". Here he tells Mandy News how he got started in the industry, how he makes music for TV and advice for aspiring TV composers.
Mac, please introduce yourself and tell us how you became involved in music and film?
My name is Mac Quayle and I started in music when my parents put me in the church choir I was six. I was a choir boy so I was taught some music, mostly how to read it, and I sang. From there it was just a progression of things: I took piano lessons, was in the high school orchestra and then in rock bands.
I ended up at New York University and that lead me to an internship at a recording studio in New York City which then turned into a career in the music business. I was working as a musician, keyboard player, producer, programmer, remixer and I did a lot of dance music. After many years in New York, doing that type of work, the industry started showing its first signs of trouble. It was the early 2000s, sales were going down and it seemed like a sign for me to do something else.
I got the idea to move across the country to Los Angeles with a vague thought of getting into scoring. In 2004, I moved to LA and started looking around. It took a minute but by 2006 I landed my first real job working as an additional composer for Michael Vee, on a TV show called Cold Case.
It really was a great start for me because I got to get in the trenches and work on the show every week, without having all the pressure on my shoulders. I was just the additional composer. Michael introduced me to Cliff Martinez, a fantastic film composer, and I started working with him and ended up doing twelve films over an eight year period.
After a lot of work as an additional composer, I finally got this wonderful opportunity to work with Ryan Murphy. That launched my own career in television as a composer.
It was a pretty long journey that brought me to this point of meeting Ryan and working on American Horror Story. From there I got the job for Mr. Robot and then a number of other shows that Ryan created because he keeps creating shows. In the last three and a half years, I've done six shows total.
What was your approach to Mr. Robot and the world the show exists in?
The creator Sam Esmail knew from the beginning that he wanted a really electronic score that had a somewhat retro feel but was also futuristic. In my first meeting with him, we watched the pilot episode and discussed the sound. We decided the music should be electronic and quite dark and that it would underscore this world that was happening inside the main character’s head. It would be tense and paranoid.
So I started making music. Once we scored the pilot, we had a really good blueprint for what would come after and the sound of the show was created.
What kind of equipment and instrumentation did you use for Mr. Robot?
It’s pretty much all done on the computer. I use Logic as my main workstation and I use a whole suite of virtual instruments, synthesizer plug-ins and sample libraries. Pretty much all the sound for that first season was created in the box, emulating sounds that would be created by hardware synths but doing it all with software.
What’s the turnaround time for each episode?
It really varies. Typically, at the beginning of the season, for the first episode, there is more time. There may be several weeks from when I get the first cut until when it’s due. As we get into the season, that time becomes much shorter and I usually get a week.
I will receive the episode and we still sit down and do a spotting session, where we go through and look at where the music should start and stop, and what it should be doing in the scene. With that information, I will start making music.
Once I have music ready to hear, I will present it to Sam and he will give me his feedback. The best case scenario is he loves the music straight out of the gate. Next, is he has a few notes that I will use to revise it and then, sometimes, the tune doesn’t work at all and I will rewrite it from scratch.
We go through this process until everything is right or until we run out of time.
Where do you make the music for the show?
I have my own studio and I work there. I do have an assistant. Post production is not too far from me and so I go there once a week to meet with them, play music and do the spotting sessions. The rest of it takes place in my own studio.
You recently started working on a new show, 9-1-1. Can you tell us a little bit about it and how it differs from scoring Mr. Robot?
They are very different types of shows. Mr. Robot is a long story that unfolds over seasons, and each episode of 9-1-1 is somewhat self-contained. 9-1-1 is faster paced and definitely more of a mainstream show, so the music is functioning in pretty direct ways to help tell the story; action in this section, tension in this section or emotional in others.
It’s been a fun change of pace to work on something like that. On 9-1-1, I have a co-composer working with me for the first time, and it’s been a great experience. He’s a good friend named Todd Haberman. We have been doing the show together and it’s been great collaborating with him.
In the UK, there are some live performances of soundtracks, artists like DJ Yoda work with Stranger Things. Is that something you have thought about doing before?
I have dabbled in performing the music from Mr. Robot live. I've done a few shows here in LA and performed in Spain last summer. I’m certainly looking to do more. Given the nature of the music from Mr. Robot, I like to think of it more as going to a Chemical Brothers show than a film music concert.
The music for any show or film is created for that projects and is there to serve a purpose and tell a story. Often the music is released as a soundtrack and sometimes the music is changed soundtrack because the version from the show might not play as well for the listener at home. It’s the same with live performance, you have to consider what’s going to work and how it will be performed.
I look at all the music and start picking out pieces that I think will be entertaining and fun to play. Once I have a list of pieces, I go through them and start doing new arrangements, making them longer or shorter, whatever I think is going to make a good experience for the audience.
In theory, I could go up there with some synths and a computer and play it but I feel that could be a little boring so I wanted to do it with a band. I added a drummer, another keyboard player and a guitar player.
The drummer really adds another element to it. There are some drums on the soundtrack already but having an actual musician playing some of these electrical and acoustic drums really takes it to another level. It really excites me for what is possible in the future.
Amazing. You also worked on Drive, correct?
I was as an additional composer, the same kind of role I had on Cold Case.
In that role, the main composer is the captain of the ship. He’s interfacing with the director and the studio. He comes up with the musical ideas he wants to express. He might write a theme, hand it to me and say “here is a theme that needs to work in this particular scene.” I would take it and embellish what he has done and turn it into a cue, give it to him for review, he’d give me notes and I would revise it until he thought it was where it needs to be. Then he turned it into the director and would possibly get notes back.
It was a great project to work on. We knew that the film was special while we were doing it, but had no idea how much attention the music was going to get.
What’s coming up next for you?
I worked on The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story which is currently airing on BBC. That's been a great project to work on. As I said, Ryan just keeps creating shows. His next one is Pose, which takes place in New York City in the ’80s and I just started working on that.
I’ll continue writing music for the upcoming seasons of the existing shows. American Horror Story returns late summer and Mr. Robot in fall or winter. There will be another season of Feud. It’s been busy and looks to continue that way.
What advice do you have for any up and coming composers wanting to get involved in TV and film?
My path was being an additional composer and from my own experience that’s what I would advise. Becoming someone’s assistant and then moving up is a well-known path into this business. Find somebody you admire, can relate to their music and you think you would make a good part of their team.
The other thing is to simply create music. Create something special. That's what happens to some people, they create some great music and are discovered that way.
The third way is to become a rockstar then transition. For example, Trent Reznor started with a bang and won an Oscar his first time around.Tags: