The Terminator

What, no help from Skynet? How retro-tech limitations actually helped shape that futuristic Terminator sound

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Aug 22, 2018, 9:22 AM EDT

One big reason the original Terminator movies retain their futuristic feel, regardless of how they age, is that the elusive future from which the machines themselves hail is mostly unseen. When they come to pay the present a visit, instead of dragging audiences forward in time for an up-close tour of what the future looks like, the canvas on which new generations of fans can paint their imaginations remains blissfully blank.

Leaving the finer points of the machines’ world unsharpened also placed extra heft on the shoulders of Brad Fiedel’s now-iconic score, which helped evoke the cold-steel feel of an artificial future that was alluded to, far more than seen, in the first two Terminator films. 

Alex Ball on YouTube

Ironically, as Fiedel explains in this in-depth video, the score’s distinctive synth sound owes a great debt not to the sort of whiz-bang tech commensurate with anyone’s idea of advanced machines, but rather to the technical limitations of the late-1980s and early-1990s synthesizer industry, which forced him to get creative.

“Part of the nature of the score is me trying to get control of the machines,” Fiedel joked in an excerpt. “While the machines are trying to get control of people in the movie, I’m sitting here desperately trying to get control of these machines!”

Created by Terminator fan and synthesizer aficionado Alex Bell, the video also revisits the films’ score from a present-day point of view, by reverse-engineering it both on modern equipment as well as revered synth relics like the Fairlight CMI digital synthesizer Fiedel used for Terminator 2 — one of the first machines on the market that came loaded with a library of orchestral samples.

Unless you’re a synth nut who has a vivid memory of emergent 1980s and 1990s tech, a lot of the video may seem like inside baseball for musicians. But it’s still really cool to watch as Bell lowers an electric violin sample down three octaves to produce T2’s ominous, slow deep tones —  just as Fiedel originally did, without the luxury of today’s high-end music workstations.