Audio: The CW's 'Superhero' Sound
Issue: October 1, 2016

Audio: The CW's 'Superhero' Sound

Composer Blake Neely has been working with producer/director/writer Greg Berlanti for well over a decade. In 2012, they again entered into a collaboration in which Neely helped establish the musical identity for Arrow, the bow & arrow-armed vigilante Oliver Queen. The series helped launch another superhero-themed show with The Flash in 2014, and their collaboration continued with last year’s addition of Supergirl and D.C.'s Legends of Tomorrow. 

Currently, Neely and his team are creating nearly three hours of original music each week for the four shows, all of which can be seen on The CW Television Network. Here, he takes some time out to speak exclusively with Post about his work in the genre, his equipment set-up, and the process of scoring to picture while meeting the deadlines of multiple weekly series.

How did you get involved in all of these superhero-themed shows?

“I've been working with Greg Berlanti since his first new show ever in 2002, and I think is was 2012 — we'd done so many shows by that point — he gave me a script for Arrow and said, ‘I'm going to really try to change superheroes on TV.’ So we did the pilot for Arrow and when it premiered, it was like the biggest ratings the CW ever had, and it continues to be very strong of a show. They decided to do a spinoff of The Flash — introducing him in Season 2 of Arrow instead of having his own pilot. Then we launched The Flash. It started from there. The very next year was Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow…and here we now. All four are on the same network.”

There’s lots of crossover between the shows and their characters too?

“Oh yeah. It's not just four shows. All of these characters are coming in now. I just got to write Superman a new theme because he's going to appear on Supergirl. We had Hawkman and Hawkgirl in Legends of Tomorrow. In Flash we had Kid Flash. There's so much coming out.” 

Are you creating the sound of a show or are you creating the sound of characters? 

“[During] the initial show, they weren't discussing spinoffs or anything like that. The original show Arrow, I was just trying to create a world for Oliver Queen and the characters that would be on that show. Then when we launched Flash, since he debuted in Arrow, he was going to have his own sounds because we knew he was going to go on and become his own thing. Where Arrow is not supernatural powers, on Flash there are. My approach was to establish another sound world for Flash. It was, ‘How do we fit it in and fit it in the whole DC television sound universe?’” 

How much music does any one show require? Has it changed over time?

“It hasn't progressed. Greg has a mantra about these shows, which is: It's got to have heart and it's got to have spectacle. They've always been big. They're always moving. Greg said to me, ‘Never forget, we are making a comic book.’ To that end, there's lots of music in all of these. I usually count on it being about 35 minutes of music in each of these shows. Sometimes it's 40 minutes. The episodes are 42 minutes long. Sometimes we literally don't stop to take a breath.”

Did you create a library that can now be re-used?

“You have to. Every single scene is hand crafted, but sometimes you are handcrafting it from something in the library…I think Arrow now has 60 hours of music in the library? Sixty hours after four years. Supergirl — we just did one season and there's already 14 hours, so I do rely on that. Forty minutes across four shows a week? Don't scare me, but how many hours of music is that a week? A library helps a lot, and so does a team of fantastic composers.”

How far in advance are you working on the weekly episodes?

“Right now, because we haven't launched the season yet, I'm ahead. I have about two weeks on episodes. Once the season starts, we usually spot a show 10 days before it airs. That's when I have the locked cut. We have to mix it a week from that, and deliver it a day before. I get a week from the locked delivery to mixing it. There are ways to stretch that a little bit…but basically, if we are not turning around a show a week, we'll fall behind.”

Are you writing to picture or just viewing it for inspiration?

“I am always working with the visuals because all these shows, they are so timed out, you have to be hitting it. There are so many beats to hit in the storytelling. One of the first things in the process is to watch it without music because that tells you where you need music. Now we know the shows so well that I can watch it with the temp music in and kind of go through and decide what I want to do with it. For me, the double edge sword is that the temp is me! For The Flash, they have two seasons worth of music. While its nice to not have to copy someone else in the temp, it gets a little difficult to listen to yourself and go, ‘I have to do that again, but better this time.’”

What is the state of the cut you are provided with?

“I don't have finished visual effects. I'm working on the music at the same time [VFX] is working on a show. Sometimes there is just a card that says ‘explosion here.’ Sometimes it's a very rough animation that's been laid in.”

Do you have other composers helping you?

“I have four additional composers: Nathaniel Blume, Sherri Chung, René G. Boscio and Daniel Chan. We all write on these shows together. I couldn't do it without them. It's not humanly possible to turn out three hours of music a week by yourself.”

Tell us about your Cow on the Wall Studio?

“It’s in North Hollywood. My set up is a three-computer system. I have a main computer, which is a Mac, and it runs Logic for my sequencing. I also use Ableton Live as a rewire application behind that, and within that, I use tons and tons of plug-ins and sample libraries and custom patches and synths — anything I can get my hands on.

“Then the second computer is another Mac running Pro Tools. And in Pro Tools I run video, and it's also where I record my mixes and stems, because I do send the dub stage stems. It's sitting to my left. It's a tape recorder, but it's an awesome tape recorder. 

“My third computer is actually a PC and what it's running is a program called Vienna Ensemble Pro, which is basically a sample holder. You can go load all types of plug-ins and instruments. It connects over Ethernet to my sequencer, and that's where I hold all of my standard sounds that I always come back to again and again. I think there are over 500 or close to a thousand instruments loaded in it, so that takes all of the processing power off of my main computer. I can just say, 'I want oboe,' and it's sitting there waiting, and it sounds like the oboe with the right reverb and the right panning. It's a time saver and it's also a RAM saver.”

Could you talk the superheroes’ sound profiles?

“I think of Arrow as being very dark, very tragic, because that's the character, but heavy instrumentation because he's a powerful guy. When I think about The Flash, it's much lighter. In his non-superhero character — Barry Allen — he's kind of klutzy. He's kind of goofy. It's much lighter, but there's always sort of a momentum and a scientific thing about it. I don't know how ‘scientific’ translates to music, but I always think, ‘Does this sound scientific, because he is a scientist?’

“Supergirl is a little bit easier because it has the feeling of flying. It's hard to translate, but if I keep that in my head, it will give me the parameters of how to score that show. Supergirl is very much light and comedic, like The Flash. Arrow rarely has its funny moments, although it is a really fun show. It's just not 'ha ha' funny.”