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Modulate This! Interview with Composer Reinhold Heil on His Work on The Helix TV Series on SyFy


I’m a HUGE fan of the television show Helix and especially love the score which is composed by Golden Globe-nominated composer Reinhold Heil. Here is a brief bio from Reinhold’s official web site.

A multi-instrumentalist with a broad musical range, he first came to prominence as the keyboarder of the legendary German punk band, the Nina Hagen Band, and as a producer of international pop stars. His film and television credits include Run Lola Run, One Hour Photo, The International, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Deadwood, Without a Trace, and the epic adventure-drama Cloud Atlas. He is currently scoring Helix for Syfy. He lives and works in downtown Los Angeles.

I googled around a bit and found no interviews on Reinhold’s work on Helix so I reached out to him with some questions about his work on the show. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions and offer a fascinating behind-the-scenes look into his work on the show. Note, one of his answers contains spoilers and I wrapped the answer with with **** Begin Spoiler Alert ****   and *** End Spoiler Alert ***.

Mark Mosher: How did you get involved with Helix?

Reinhold Heil: My agent asked me to submit a demo and I did. I put a lot of effort in that because I love the genre and really wanted to show what I have to offer. Apparently they liked the demo and gave me the job without an interview. They must have been swamped with the shoot that had just started in Montreal, so most of them weren’t even in town. As it turned out they were all wonderful to work with and I had a lot of fun doing the series.

Watch Season 1 Trailer

Mark Mosher:  When Did you Start Working on the Show?

Reinhold Heil: On Helix I [started] developing material in August 2013, while they were assembling the first episode. So there was definitely an early involvement, but it was already inspired by the look of the show and the characters.

Mark Mosher:  There are some very happy – dare I say - “elevator music” style and old Wurlitzer organ/drum machine styling’s in the show. Do you use vintage gear (and if so what gear) for these cues, or are you using virtual instruments or libraries?

Reinhold Heil: Funnily most people don’t understand that I have mostly nothing to do with the elevator music. It becomes very obvious when they are using classics like “Road to San José” or “Fever”, but the only easy-listening pieces I actually contributed to Helix are the main and the end-title. And I did the adaptations of the two pieces from Tchaikovski’s Nutcracker that happen in episode 6.

I’m not involved in the selection but check out the two transitions into “Fever”. They are pretty smooth and I did work hard on those. I did try to have the score segue seamlessly into the source pieces as often as I could. Some of them are exceptionally well chosen and used to great effect, but the guys in the writers room and show runner Steve Maeda as well as Producer Stephen Welke are the people to give credit for that.

Mark Mosher:  These twisted “happy” cues are so great and act as an emotional signal to viewers that very bad things are just about to happen. It’s such a clever idea and it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck when I hear any happy music in the show - lol. How did this idea for using happy and lounge sounding orchestrations come about and evolve?


Reinhold Heil: When we had a rough cut with a music layout for the first episode, executive producer Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica), who was really busy with another show at the same time, came to the editing room and shook things up a little. That’s when he had the idea to use Dionne Warwick’s “Road to San José” for the gruesome opening and the very end of the episode. And that’s where the main title got its direction from. Then the other producers embraced the idea and ran with it.

 Mark Mosher:  The show has a lot of contrasting visual themes including stark white walls, dark outside night white-out scenes, and white hazmat suits against black ooze. Within each episode, the score also has huge emotional contrasts. How much of your work on these pieces was influenced by the visuals?

Reinhold Heil: I knew I wanted mostly a cold and technical sounding score that had some little-heard electronic approaches that I have been developing for the last 15 years. Stuff that a lot of film makers don’t really go for, and I don’t blame them. A lot of that material is made in a painting program that allows for visual manipulation of sound files. I have developed a certain style using this program and I rarely get the opportunity to show off these unusual sounds. It was lucky for me to have Steve Maeda as the show runner of Helix because he embraced the weirdness. But the show is also about interpersonal relationships and the fate of humanity, so there needed to be a completely different layer of emotional music. So - when you also count the easy-listening aspects - I was able to show quite some range.

Mark Mosher:  How much time do you have to create all the cues for an episode?

Reinhold Heil: There was a period of searching while the first three episodes were edited. A few main themes and an overall palette of sounds and ideas were developed during that phase. But once we came close to airing the show it became hairy, especially since Syfy threw us a curveball by airing the first two episodes on the same day. So we lost an entire week of post-production! From January on we were working on three episodes simultaneously, one in the layout phase, one addressing notes from the producers and one in the final mixing stage with all the finishing touches. Obviously not every minute of music needs to be whipped up from scratch, since themes need to be repeated and consistently applied to help the viewer navigate the narrative. But every cue was worked specifically to the scene it was used for, so  there was no way I could have done this all by myself. I have two very young, and until recently quite inexperienced assistants who went through an intense training period and came out on the other side being ready for anything that people might throw me. Their names are Steven Gernes and Juan Carlos Enriquez.

Mark Mosher:  Sound effects and music are so tightly interwoven in most of the scenes in Helix. Do you build these into your cues or collaborate with sound designers?

Reinhold Heil:  I wish there was more collaboration. But editorial is in Los Angeles and audio post production in Montreal. So the editors developed their own little sound library and generously applied it. The idea was that Arctic Biosystems, the massive research facility built on the ice of the Arctic Circle, had a life of its own and created all these humming, droning and AC noises that in itself were adding to the tension and horror. That’s what I had to work with (or against) and it never came to the point where I actually received the final sound design work from Canada. So we worked around something that was then replaced and sometimes we needed to re-work cues or make tough decisions on the mixing stage where it was either the music or the sound design.

Let’s hope the next Helix location is sonically less challenging! You might be surprised how many more layers of the music you can explore.

Mark Mosher:  There are some fantastic classic synth sounds in Helix. Menacing bass lines, warm drones and pads, and what sounds like expressive ribbon controller work within the cues. It all sounds fresh with a nod to classic science-fiction films. Are you using vintage gear for this, modern hardware, or virtual instruments for these sounds?

Reinhold Heil: I was using my old CS-80 and it does have that unique ribbon controller. But that was just the icing on the cake of a bunch of virtual instruments. My own sound creations are mostly in Apple’s EXS sampler or Native Instruments Kontakt. The virtual synth I use the most is U-He Zebra (see Modulate This! posts on Zebra). It’s a true modular monster that could never be replaced by an analog machine. I prefer the fact that my sound designs can be stored for reuse and that I find all this power extremely well organized in menus rather than walls and walls of patch-cord labyrinths. I have owned modular analog systems and loved them back in the Eighties. I know it doesn’t appear hip to admit to the use of virtual instruments, but trust me: a lot of the people you see posing with their modulars don’t really use them all that much. There is just no time and the results are fleeting. I prefer building sound libraries that I can recall in an instant and modify for the situation at hand. It’s the only way to produce a TV series as musically demanding as Helix.


Mark Mosher:  Many of the characters are quite complex and it’s difficult to tell who’s side someone is on from episode to episode. Plus there are mind-blowing reveals which shake up the context of the show completely changing how viewers see a character. All this being said, there are definite thematic undertones for characters and situations. Do you get early insight into – pardon the pun – the vector or arc of a character, or are you working episode to episode attempting to tie the themes and motifs to each character as you go?

**** Begin Spoiler Alert **** 

Reinhold Heil: The writers don’t really reveal very much, but the fact that immortality was the core story (as opposed to aliens, terrorists or the like) was revealed fairly early. But if you take Balleseros as an example: he is doing appalling things but you can see that he has a conscience and isn’t comfortable doing them a lot of the time. You don’t see a sociopathic monster. The music cue that plays at the end of episode 4, right before he kills Doreen, is indicative of that. It comes back only one more time: when he tells Anana that he is a murderer and liar.   

 *** End Spoiler Alert ***


 Mark Mosher:  What was the most challenging episode to score so far?

Reinhold Heil: Episode 1, as always. If you listen to the finished product the music is hardly audible. But it’s actually a pretty cool score. Everybody was still clamoring for the look and sound of the show and except for the easy-listening parts the music was pretty drowned out.

Mark Mosher:  What are your go to tools for scoring Helix?

Reinhold Heil: Apple’s Logic is the DAW. I have tons of plugins but I’m trying to rather be an expert and go really deep with just a few of them. Zebra is the main synth. Kontakt is the main sampler and there are some purchased libraries like East West and 8DIO, but mostly it’s my custom library that you hear.

Mark Mosher:  What’s your desert island instrument or synthesizer?

Reinhold Heil: I have a Bechstein C grand piano that I love. How that would survive on an island is anybody’s guess.

Mark Mosher:  Do you have any words of advice you can give to Modulate This! readers who might want to pursue a career in film or TV scoring?

Reinhold Heil: Be as versatile as possible. Embrace everything in music that you are attracted to. Find your own voice. There are too many people out there re-scoring big movies and showing the standard approaches they can do. I see people rising up who distinguish themselves.

Mark Mosher:  Do you have any upcoming projects you want to mention outside of Helix?

Reinhold Heil: Yes. I’m beginning to work on LEGENDS for TNT and starring Sean Bean and Ali Larter. Exec Producer is Howard Gordon (Homeland, 24). It will be quite different from Helix but I see very cool things happening with this show.

Mark Mosher:  Thanks so much for taking the time to talk about your work on Helix! Your music is such a big part of what makes the show so great! I know that many of us fans are REALLY hoping for many more seasons. How can readers help the show get renewed for another season? [Note: I sent interview questions to Reinhold two weeks before it was announced Season 2 was renewed].

Reinhold Heil: You guys already made it happen! Thanks a lot for that!



mark-mosher-fear-cannot-save-us-cover-final (550x550)Mark Mosher
Electronic Musician Boulder, CO
www.FearCannotSaveUs <<< New Cinematic Electronica Albums