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'Mr. Robot' gets its dark mood from random sounds and escalating musical intensity

'Mr. Robot' gets its dark mood from random sounds and escalating musical intensity
Emmy-nominated composer Mac Quayle (JennKL Photography)

When techno-thriller "Mr. Robot" dropped last summer, Emmy-nominated composer Mac Quayle's hypnotic synth score gave sonic dimension to the brute capitalism and internal demons navigated by hacker Elliot (Rami Malek) in his campaign to take down prime-time's most self-explanatory conglomerate, Evil Corp.

To convey Elliot's roiling essence, Quayle created a gurgling sequence of notes that quickly became a signature motif for the series. "Elliot's theme is unsettling because it goes back and forth between major and minor, light and dark," Quayle says. "He has this drive to do good so I wanted to represent that, but Elliot's also plagued by all this stuff happening inside his head. Clearly, he has issues, so I felt like there needed to be darkness."

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The D-word gets tossed around frequently whenever Quayle checks in with "Mr. Robot" creator Sam Esmail to go over music cues. " 'Dark,' and 'tension'  and 'suspenseful' are words that come up a lot," says Quayle. Over the course of the show's first season, the composer created a library of some 150 bleeps, pings, blips, swooshes and low-end rumbles custom-designed to conjure a sense of computer-literate dread.

Quayle's expertise at constructing dense soundscapes grows out of his deep roots in pop music. A Virginia native, Quayle studied piano as a kid, performed in high school rock bands, then moved to New York. After dropping out of NYU he fell in love with electronic dance music. "I was already fond of Depeche Mode and rock bands with synthesizers like New Order and the Cure, but until I got to New York I didn't really listen much to dance music. It opened up a whole new world to me," he says.

Starting out as a recording studio intern, Quayle quickly learned the art of the "remi," re-mixing radio tracks by Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Madonna, Beyonce, Whitney Houston and other pop divas into dance club hits. That was all before he saw Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic," featuring music by Cliff Martinez. "I'd never heard a score like that," Quayle says. "Ever."

So he moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and apprenticed with Martinez as associate composer on 12 films. "It's a pretty unique thing that Cliff does, often having to do with texture and mood rather than big melodies," Quayle says. "I learned a lot from him about scoring and creating special sounds."

Soon after, Ryan Murphy enlisted him to write the score for his "American Horror Story: Freak Show," which earned Quayle a 2015 Emmy nomination and an introduction to Esmail. "When we had our very first conversation in L.A., Sam said he wanted 'Mr. Robot' to be rooted in a retro-synthesizer sound. I'm very comfortable in that space musically so for me it was a great opportunity to let this synth pulse be completely, unashamedly electronic. It's not going to be a melody, but it would be strong enough to carry the scenes."

Quayle draws on his EDM background, constructing tracks that escalate with unforgiving intensity. "Doing re-mixes, I'd create huge build-ups which end up with the beat crashing back in," he says. "That kind of build up has been a staple of dance music for a long time and I use similar techniques for 'Mr. Robot.'"

Pushing his tracks to surreal depths with the PaulStretch program that slows down audio 800%, Quayle amplifies Elliot's who-do-you-trust rants with random eruptions of carefully curated noise. "Depending on the needs of the scene, I like to create a collage of music and sound design, tonal and atonal, that reaches a fever pitch crescendo," Quayle says. "Sometimes it goes way past over the top."

calendar@latimes.com

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