How the Synclavier helped to shape the sound of ‘The Princess Bride’

One instrument practically defined the sound of pop music in the ’80s — the synthesizer.

Korg, Roland and Yahama were popular brands, but among the most influential models was the Synclavier, an early digital synthesizer manufactured by New England Digital Corp. of Norwich, Vermont, from the late ’70s until 1993. Many pop and rock stars used the Synclavier on some of their biggest hits, such as Depeche Mode on “People Are People,” Duran Duran on “The Reflex,” Genesis on “Invisible Touch,” Michael Jackson on “Beat It” and Dire Straits on “So Far Away.”

Mark Knopfler, guitarist and frontman of Dire Straits, added the Synclavier to his artistic arsenal, and made it an integral part of his score for “The Princess Bride,” which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform in live-to-picture concerts Nov. 25-27, under Richard Kaufman. 

Here are five facts to ponder ahead of the CSO at the Movies presentation.

A sultan of Synclavier swing: Except for guitar solos, the movie score was recorded almost entirely with a Synclavier. Director Rob Reiner, who wanted a traditional, swashbuckling-style score with a full orchestra, was originally skeptical about the idea. Using a Synclavier was a compromise. “Ultimately Knopfler wasn’t used to or comfortable with that [writing an orchestral score],” Reiner said in an interview last year with Variety. “The Synclavier was a way that Mark could go in and experiment and feel comfortable. So I went with him. At first I thought: ‘Oh, no, a Synclavier — I don’t know if that’s going to work.’ But it works.”

You've made me so very happy: Producer Bobby Colomby, the original drummer of the rock group Blood, Sweat & Tears, including on the band's biggest ’60s hits “Spinning Wheel” and “You've Made Me So Very Happy,” recommended Knopfler to Reiner. After his multi-platinum success with Dire Straits, Knopfler added film scoring to his portfolio with “Local Hero” (1983) and “Cal” (1984). “I had heard his score on ‘Local Hero,’ and I thought that was really interesting,” Reiner said. “He certainly he captured the film. It wasn’t like he was trying to impose Dire Straits-type riffs on it; he had his own feel for it. And then Bobby told me, ‘This guy is really good. He’s really smart, and he really knows how to do this.’ ”

Brothers in arms: Knopfler wrote the score with keyboardist Guy Fletcher, who joined Dire Straits for the band’s “Brothers in Arms” (1985). As a tech whiz, Fletcher had helped Knopfler with the scoring of “Local Hero” and “Cal” and did the same for “The Princess Bride.” Fletcher recalled in the Variety feature that that Knopfler would sit in the studio and react to the film, coming up with harmonies, rhythms and “orchestration” for the Synclavier. The process “basically entailed Mark having a million ideas in the space of five minutes, and me having to catch up,” Fletcher said. “It was a massive learning curve for us.” 

A storybook discovery: Knopfler, however, did not write the film’s romantic theme, “Storybook Love,” which plays over the end credits and pops up throughout the soundtrack. While scoring the movie, he also was producing and playing on singer-songwriter Willy DeVille’s album, “Miracle” (1987). When he heard DeVille’s “Storybook Love,” with lyrics about a romance that took place “once upon a time,” he rushed to call Reiner. “He was in London at the time, and he said, ‘You’ve got to hear this song.’ He held the phone up to a speaker and played the thing for me,” Reiner recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, my God. It’s like written for the film.’ So we used that, and he took strains of that and incorporated it in the score.”

5. Nobody puts Baby’s song in the corner: Though it received an Oscar nomination for the best song, “Storybook Love” lost to “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from “Dirty Dancing.” Inconceivable! The song’s gentle melody formed the emotional core of Knopfler’s score, while still allowing him to put his personal stamp — and some human warmth — on the soundtrack. “His guitar playing is completely distinctive,” Reiner said. “It’s very clear. There’s no fuzz to it. There’s no sliding up to notes that don’t need to be slid up to. It’s just clear as a bell. Mark plays that way.”