At an early age, multi-instrumentalist composer/songwriter, Joseph Stephens began experimenting and creating music with 4-track tape machines, delay pedals, guitars, radios, and anything else he could get his hands on. While attending college in North Carolina, he began writing songs and scoring student films for friends which led to a working relationship with up-and-coming filmmakers. A frequent collaborator with Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green, Stephens’ past work includes scores for the HBO series Vice Principals and Eastbound and Down, as well as features, Under The Eiffel Tower from The Orchard, Observe and Report, Flower, The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter, and Arizona among others. He’s also written songs for films All The Real Girls, Undertow, Cobra Kai, and Halloween.
Stephens’ most recent work includes the HBO comedy series The Righteous Gemstones starring Danny McBride and John Goodman; Mindy Kaling’s Netflix comedy series Never Have I Ever; and Greg Daniel’s Amazon Studios sci-fi series Upload. Upcoming is The Righteous Gemstones Season 2, Upload Season 2, Never Have I Ever Season 2, and the drama thriller feature Don’t Tell A Soul which premiered at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival.
We chatted with Joseph on how he uses Sequential instruments in his music:
What made you choose Sequential?
The Prophet-6 was the first serious synth I acquired. I was looking for sounds when I began work for the HBO series Vice Principals. Scores from John Carpenter/John Howarth (Christine, Assault on Precinct 13, etc) were early inspirations along with artists like Kitaro and Vangelis among others. Digital instruments were not getting me where I needed to be. VIs were a good resource because I could “test drive” certain synth reproductions (or hard-to-find instruments) but the commonality of sounds between each user became a deterring factor for me. They also started to lose a degree of punch and humanity to my ears. Soft synths certainly have a place in my workflow but for character of sound and richness, hardware synths are definitely the way to go. I needed to feel the instrument’s controls and have more tactile influence over the sounds. I purchased the Prophet-6 and everything changed. I subsequently grabbed the OB-6 as soon as it was released.
How are you using them?
I primarily use these instruments for film/television instrumental score work. Big pads, arpeggio plucks, unusual percussive elements, abstract noises, emotive tones, bass lines, interesting organs/keyboards; I reach for the Prophet-6 and/or OB-6 for all of these expressions on most of my projects.
What is one of your favorite things about them?
These synths pair really well with other instrumentation. There’s a lot of definition and detail to the sounds. Tones cut through without overpowering but can also stand huge with minimal accompaniment. Whether the synth takes the lead in the mix or supports a string section or holds down a driving drum section, it’s never at a loss for placement. It can be the glue holding a mix together or the cherry on top.
What do they give you that other synths might not?
There’s certainly a character to these synths that is unmatched and there’s a reason that character has been so influential over the decades. These instruments sound really good. They are unique and allow for deep experimentation. Soft synths can approximate to a degree but there is no substitute for the real thing.
Any interesting tricks or techniques you would like to share?
I have both the Prophet-6 and OB-6 connected to my main DAW via midi hub with stereo audio out from each synth sent to dedicated preamps inputs. I also have a notebook with my own annotations and descriptions of presets and saved sounds. Using these notes, I find a starting point on the synth then start augmenting. I often record MIDI sequences into my DAW then playback on a loop while tweaking the synth hardware and record all the audio in playlist loop settings. So much can change with the slightest filter or envelope adjustment. To lose a spontaneous moment can be frustrating so I record everything. Plus, the overall mix will go through changes that could benefit from auditioning various previous takes. The track from Vice Principals called “Gamby Down” features a ton of abstract sounds that were the result of take after take with me pushing the Prophet-6 to extremes; at times sounding like an electric chair and others like an atonal wall of horns and brass. By constantly experimenting, I was able to find the desired balance between music and chaos. I could not have done it without the Prophet.
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