How Mr. Robot Season 3 Will Sound More “Organic”

We spoke with Mr. Robot composer Mac Quayle about what it’s like to develop the sound for one of TV’s trippiest, most cerebral shows.

When composer Mac Quayle sat down with Mr. Robot creator and showrunner Sam Esmail, Esmail had a very particular vision about how he wanted the music for the stylish, techno-dystopian show to sound.

“He wanted it to have a little bit of a retro feel to it but also sound current and perhaps even futuristic,” Quayle said.

Oh that’s it? Just capture the entire concepts of past, present, and future via sound?

Somehow, impossibly Quayle made it work, turning in an electronic and synth heavy score that does indeed sound retro, current and futuristic all at once.

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Long-time musician Quayle moved to Los Angeles from New York at the turn of the millennium with the goal of scoring TV shows and movies. By the end of the decade, Quayle went on to become a trusted musical collaborator to TV auteurs like Esmail and American Horror Story/Feud’s Ryan Murphy.

We spoke with the Emmy-winner about his work on Mr. Robot, what he’s most excited for in season three, and how the show’s sound has evolved.

Den of Geek: I hear Sam (Esmail) and company are still working on locking down episodes. Have you finished this season yet or is there more work to do?

Mac Quayle: There’s still quite a bit more to do. I’m pretty much finished with four of the 10 episodes. Not quite halfway yet.

How do you like the season so far?

I think it’s fantastic!

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I’m so used to watching finished products in films and television. What’s it like to watch TV without score before you create it? Is it jarring? Particularly with Mr. Robot and it’s kind of off-kilter, dream-like visuals.

There’s a couple of ways it happens. Sometimes they’ll send me something without any score and we’ll talk about it and come up with a few ideas that I can work on. Other times they’ll put in what they call a temporary score – some music that they’ve chose to illustrate what their idea might might be. That begins a conversation about what might be working in the temporary score and what might not be working. It’s a good place to start for me.

Do you remember what your first impression of Mr. Robot was when you first saw it?

I thought it was pretty unique. I really liked the way it looked. I liked the characters and the acting was really phenomenal. I was just intrigued from that very first episode in season one. It asks a lot of questions and doesn’t give any answers.

What were some of your inspirations when coming up with the sound of the show. To my un-trained ear, it sounds very ’80s and synth.

It all came out of conversations with Sam. He believed and I agreed that it would be served best by a very electronic score. Certainly in season one it was almost exclusively electronic sounds. It expanded a little bit in the next two seasons but electronic is the core of the sound.

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In what ways has that sound evolved?

There’s been the addition of a few more organic sounds. Season 2 found us using the sound of strings – like violins and cellos. Piano was used somewhat in season 1 but we use more of it in season 2. Season 3 so far we’re following in similar footsteps. The sound is mostly electronic but we’re adding organic instruments as well.

Is there any particular new instrument this season that excited you?

The strings have been fun. As has the piano. There’s still six episodes to go so we’ll see what happens. We haven’t really added any other instruments. We’re just having fun now.

Mr. Robot has quite a few twists and turns. Does that inform how you compose for the show? Does it make it more challenging?

Well, we definitely don’t try to give away any of the secrets with the music. At least not with the score. We just play it completely straight even if what’s happening onscreen isn’t what it seems. That helps with a sense of realism for something that might not be real.

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Do you have a favorite piece of music you’ve composed for Mr. Robot?

There’s so many. I’m not sure that there’s one that’s my ultimate favorite. Each season so far has had several that I’ve been quite fond of. So far in season 3 there’s a piece that will appear in episode 1 that may be one of my favorites so far. I think it’s a little more than halfway through the episode. It’s kind of a long montage sequence with Elliot walking around New York City and narrating. I don’t think I’m giving too much away with that one.

You’re releasing a pretty nifty-looking soundtrack for the second season of Mr. Robot. What’s that process been like?

It’s quite fortunate that they were interested in releasing it. I am very involved. I get to pick all my favorite pieces of music from the season and occasionally do a little bit of additional work for them. The piece as it appears in a particular episode might be too short, might be too long and it needs a bit of remixing. I come up with the final list that will then get turned into the release.

You’ve done quite a bit of TV work now and it’s encompassed a lot of different genres. When you compose for genres that are so fundamentally different – is there a different mindset you have to get into?

Each project does have its own mindset that’s required to create the sound. At the heart all of the music in all of the shows is doing the same thing. It’s there to tell the story. It helps to emphasize emotions. It’s functioning in a very similar way in all the shows I work on. In each one I try to have a distinct sound that’s different from the others. With Mr. Robot now in season 3, the story is…it’s a long story. It’s going to go maybe four or five seasons. The music is expanding from season to season but we’re still using some of the same motifs from season to season. With something like American Horror Story – every season is a completely different story. A whole new set of characters, maybe a different time period. I’m just about to finish my fourth season of American Horror Story. This is the fourth time I’ve started from scratch.

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What’s it like collaborating with creators and showrunners to come up with ideas?

They’re the captain of the ship. They create the path that we’re all going to follow. Those initial discussions about music that happen at the beginning of the show or season, their ideas are in there. That’s the case for all the departments they’re dealing with and all aspects of the show. They’re hugely influential. To a varying degree as we’re going through writing the music for each episode, I’ll get notes from them about what they’re liking and maybe what I need to make revisions to. They’re there every step of the way.

What was the initial process with Sam in particular like?

He wanted an electronic score definitely. He wanted it to have a little bit of a retro feel to it but also sound current and perhaps futuristic. It would be quite dark, tense. A lot of it would be kind of describing going inside Elliot’s mind, which has lots of paranoia and fear. All of those adjectives were thrown into the hat when I first started working on music. I would write some, send it in and then Sam and I would talk about it. I’d make some changes based on his suggestions and that’s our starting point. We pretty much followed it for the rest of the season.

What are some of your influences and inspirations music-wise?

It’s kind of hard to say. I listen to so many things. I’m quite fond of electronic music obviously. I love orchestral music. Stuff that’s current? The past is filled with such classics like Bernard Herrmann, and Henry Mancini. There’s just an abundance of amazing music out there to be inspired by.

When did the stars align for you and you saw that his is a viable and perfect career path and what you wanted to do?

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I had a career previously in the music business, working as a musician, a producer and a dance remixer. I lived in New York and I did that for many years in New York City. In the early 2000s, the music industry was starting to show some signs of difficulty. It seemed like a good time to make a transition. I moved to Lost Angeles with the big idea of getting into scoring. I had a skillset. I knew my way around music production. I knew how to compose certain types of music. I hadn’t really composed for film or television. I landed in Los Angeles and in 2006 I got my first real job for the show Cold Case. The composer that hired me (Michael Levine) saw that there was something there and I would be able to help him. I ddi that for a little while and realized this could be something.

What else are you working on now? What’s coming up?

This year I took some steps into an area I’ve been wanting to which is to perform the music I’ve written live. I did a couple of smaller shows here in Los Angeles in the early part of the summer. Then I went to Spain and played part of a film festival of Mr. Robot music. That’s been a really exciting new area to expand into. I have a show booked here on December 5 at the Roxy.