Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004 and is now regarded as one of the greatest films of the 2000s. A memorable aspect of the film is Jon Brion’s soundtrack that combines lush strings, lo-fi nylon string guitars and melancholy piano.
Brion’s work on the soundtrack led to him working with Kanye West on the 2005 album ‘Late Registration’, where he providing the strings and brass arrangement, as well as co-producing and helping with the creative direction of the album. Additionally the soundtrack has had a big influence on indie and dream-pop bands as well as hip-hop artists, being directly sampled in several songs:
This is the main song I’m going to look at, it is constructed around a layered guitar part with lush strings playing over the top. We hear it at the end of this scene:
“There’s a scene [in Eternal Sunshine] when Jim Carrey’s character has just met [Kate Winslet’s] Clementine, and she’s invited him up for drinks, it was the first time you saw him excited, and you could tell it was going to be a pivotal point in his life. But the music you heard — do-do-do-do-do-do-do — didn’t make you feel so good. It created such a good contrast. I just wanted to do something that felt like that.”
The guitar part of ‘Phone Call’ features 2 layered tracks playing different arpeggiated chords over each other. This song is in the key of Db and Guitar 1 plays a Db arpeggio while Guitar 2 plays Gb to Ab arpeggios. This is how it is played:
We can program this to play back by MIDI and choose our own instrument sound, here I’ve chosen a pretty simple piano patch, I’ve also played the two parts on guitar into a loop pedal set to loop each part together. Both have been run through SoundToys Echoboy to add a lo-fi wobbly sound.
Phone Call MIDI Audio:
Phone Call Guitar Loop Audio:
While these densely layered chord movements sound pretty gorgeous already, to really get the ‘Eternal Sunshine’ vibe we need to explore where the grainy lo-fi guitar sound on the record came from originally, so we need to look at a bunch of old keyboards.
The Optigan & the Chilton TalentMaker
Short for Optical Organ, the Optigan was released in 1971 and plays back prerecorded backing samples from optical discs made of clear plastic. A backing track could be produced by pressing the buttons on the left and melodies / improvisation could be played over this backing on the keyboard. Although sophisticated for it’s time, the Optigan suffered from poor tonal quality due to limitations in the technology, and dust and dirt on the discs would create a crackly sound similar to worn phonograph records.
There were several instruments related to the Optigan, such as the Vako Orchestron and the Chilton TalentMaker. The latter was meant to improve on the sound quality of the Optigan and includes extra chord buttons that the Optigan had been missing.
The main optical discs that I’ll be using are ‘Classic Guitar’ for the Optigan and ‘Guitar in 4/4’ for the TalentMaker. Note that I’m using samples of these discs. Here’s where to get samples:
- GForce M-Tron Pro / Optitron Expansion: really exhaustive selection of Optigan samples but missing TalentMaker samples. M-Tron Pro comes with the Classic Guitar samples and Optitron has some other great stuff.
- Optigan.com: An extensive selection of raw samples. Seem pricy but there’s some really rare stuff, including the elusive TalentMaker samples.
- IK Multimedia SampleTron: Avoid this, it’s missing a lot of stuff and has a terrible interface.
“It’s funny because you were talking about my grandfather inventing that keyboard, Jon has some old keyboards. My father, who is the son-in-law of my grandfather, took over his keyboard shop and he started to sell electronic synthesizers and organs and he had this very weird synthesizer called The Talentmaker. And I hadn’t heard or seen one in 30 years. And when I went to see Jon he had this. So when you hear this very sad guitar that we use a lot [in the film] that’s [The Talentmaker]. So you had the nostalgia of my grandfather’s shop. So it was great to collaborate with him.”
– Michel Gondry (director of Eternal Sunshine)
Phone Call (cont.)
Now I’ll show how the TalentMaker and Optigan samples were used to create ‘Phone Call’, note that the song uses the TalentMaker samples but I’ll also show how to use the Optigan samples from GForce M-Tron Pro too, as these are a little easier to get hold of. Firstly the TalentMaker ‘Guitar in 4/4’ samples:
TalentMaker Gtr1 Audio:
TalentMaker Gtr2 Audio:
For the the Optigan, the samples need to be sped up from their original tempo of 110bpm to ‘Phone Call’s tempo of 126bpm. Listen and notice that these samples are a lot bassier / muddier, and require a little bit of volume balance and EQ to sit right. Also to my ears the Optigan classic guitar samples sound a little like they’re ‘rushing’ to my ears. Here are the Optigan ‘Classic Guitar’ samples:
Optigan Gtr1 Audio:
Optigan Gtr2 Audio:
Incidentally, here is the full sheet music for ‘Phone Call’, including the strings.
This song also features the same TalentMaker classical guitar loops as ‘Phone Call’, this time without the layering. The guitar follows a harmonically unusual Fm – E – Bbm – F – Fdim – Gm – Cm – F chord sequence.
Unfortunately I’m missing some of the TalentMaker samples for this one, so I’ve recreated it with Optigan samples. It sounds fine apart from the Fdim chord, which sounds a little weak here.
Collecting Things Optigan Audio:
Bookstore features the exact same guitar part from ‘Phone Call’ but with an interesting reverse effect to make it same more surreal and dreamlike. Here’s the song in the movie:
If we flip this song backwards we can hear how the guitar part is simply the ‘Phone Call’ guitar sped up and played in reverse:
Bookstore Reverse Audio:
This is a really easy effect to do, simply take your sample (or bounce a MIDI part to an audio file) then reverse the audio in your DAW. In Ableton Live simply use the ‘Rev’ button in the sample options. Logic Pro X users want to enable ‘Advanced Audio Tools’ and find Reverse in the Function menu of the audio editor.
Here’s the ‘Phone Call’ TalentMaker sampler from earlier flipped backwards. I’ve also sped it up using Live’s pitch-shifting algorithm that raises the pitch in relation to speed. I raised the tempo until the sample reached the pitch of E Major (3 semitones up from Db) which is the key the strings are playing in.
Full sheet music for ‘Bookstore’ can be found here.
This is an interesting piece, it features the same guitar arpeggio theme found in the above songs but this time actually recorded on guitar rather than sampled from the TalentMaker. This is a complex, layered piece with up to 3 guitars at a time; I did attempt to transcribe it at once point but the layered nature of the piece makes it really difficult to work out exactly what each guitar is playing. Some of the guitar patterns are starting offbeat which gives it the swirling feeling.
I hope you’ve learnt something about the process behind these pieces, and maybe gained some insight into how Jon Brion created this soundtrack. He used sampling in a way not usually considered, and utilised old, obscure instruments in a new, fresh way. Try to incorporate these methods in your own compositions and see what you come up with!