When Columbus, Ohio based composer, Matt Morton, found out he’d be scoring the epic, archival-footage documentary Apollo 11, he set himself the challenge of only using instruments from the momentous year that the titular rocket made its journey to the moon.
“I really took the time to research the music of the time of Apollo 11,” Morton says. “What was going on with Stockhausen, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Delia Derbyshire and everything else.”
The wildly successful documentary is a very unique one, not just because it consists solely of archival footage (much of which had never been seen before of the space trip), but also because there is no narration, interviews or ‘talking heads’ in the film.
The heroic crew of Buzz Aldrin, Neal Armstrong etc do heavily feature, and Sheffield-based film archival producer had the painstaking job of matching up huge amounts of audio and footage – particularly relying on lip-syncing when it came to the astronauts and crew talking.
Morton grew up with director Todd Douglas Miller in Columbus, “which may answer one of your questions about how I landed the gig. [laughs] He was the singer in my high school band, so we’ve been collaborating for a long time! I don’t know if working on something like this was ever premeditated for us – there definitely wasn’t a string orchestra playing while we discussed our hopes and dreams. We’ve just always been buddies, and shared similar tastes in music and films. It started just with the convenience of us knowing each other and he wanted to get into film, and he knew I was into music.”
Not that Morton was being granted any kind of favour by being named composer for Apollo 11 — he had already built up a strong CV with scores for Scaring The Fish, Dinosaur 13, and work with brands such as ESPN and Abercrombie and Fitch.
In terms of the self-imposed limitation Morton opted for, it was a case of wanting viewers to be able to watch that and know that anything they were hearing could have been made at the time of the mission, and marry everything up.
“Immerse yourself in the feeling of July 1969. A real fly on the wall experience. And while some of my musical idioms and styles were much more modern, all of the instruments and effects existed at that time. So I used period synthesizers, but with a modern approach.”
Besides exploiting his full joy of using vintage synthesizers, Morton threw in an even more human element to the score.
“I decided to use a sample of my niece’s heartbeat before she was born,” Morton explains. “I snuck her sonogram in. She wasn’t born until a few months after the film was out. I’m very much someone who loves to use unique sounds – we all have access to all these midi and sample libraries that everyone uses, whereas I’ve been looking more and more into sampling my own sounds and instruments. If I hear, I don’t know, a boat being winched up, I’ll pull my phone out and record it. If I like the sound of my shopping cart at the grocery store, I’ll record that!
“I heard the sonogram, and I’d already seen a few clips of the film where the public affairs staff are relaying to the millions of people watching the heart rates of the astronauts. I noticed the audiences for the film laughed when they heard that Neal Armstrong’s heart rate was through the roof, but Buzz Aldrin was just chillin’. But what I feel is that with the moon landing, we all stood together as a species, and looked at our accomplishments, this amazing sense of unity.
“And hearing my niece’s heartbeat, I realised she’s the next generation. Currently, the world seems to be struggling with unity – you guys (in the UK) are experiencing it with Brexit, and we are with our Trump administration. So I put the heartbeat in there to represent the future; that we did this once, and we can do it again.”
He says that an interesting aspect of this score is that “all of the synthesized parts are from real, vintage synthesizers that I recorded in” – but points out that all of the orchestral parts are fake.
Morton is referring to using a lot of orchestral libraries from Spitfire Audio, which do sound ridiculously realistic.
“I got an amazing, pulsing energy from the cellos in the very first cue. I used the Symphonic Strings and the Chamber Strings, with the accompanying brass and woodwinds. I’ve used almost all of Spitfire’s libraries.”
Morton’s digital soundcard is an RME Fireface 800.
“That thing is great. I got it over 10 years ago. It’s the central hub of the studio. RME were very pioneering with their ability to rout any input to any output, and to have different mixes and sub-mixes within the interface. For instance, I would record the Moog synth into some Neve preamps, into the RME interface. But would also send that sound through the interface into a reamp box!”
And while Morton is clearly an analogue gear-head, he is still a big fan of Soundtoys plugins.
“I have the EchoBoy, the Decapitator, the Little Plate Reverb, the Radiator, the Tremlator; I gravitate towards plugins with great vintage feelings as the Soundtoys ones do so well. Very impressive.”
Morton then tells me he has some exciting, long term projects with Todd Douglas Miller following on the success of this project, but it has also seen a big increase of film pitches to him – so there’s little doubt that Apollo 11 will be one giant leap for his career – once he comes back down to Earth.