The popular series Cobra Kai — effectively a sequel to The Karate Kid films — just debuted its third season (and first on Netflix). Ahead of Madison Gate Records’ release tomorrow of Zach Robinson’s and Leo Birenberg’s Season 3 score, Vehlinggo is giving you an exclusive sneak peek at the captivating track “Challenger,” in addition to an enlightening Q&A with the musicians.
Longtime Vehlinggo readers will be familiar with Robinson and Birenberg, who were the subjects of a deep-dive interview into the Cobra Kai score when the series first premiered on YouTube in 2018. (Robinson is also known in the synthwave community for his influential D/A/D project.) Before you travel down those paths, though, take a listen to this entrancing crescendo of 80s-inflected cinematic bliss:
You can pre-order the digital Cobra Kai 3 soundtrack right now, ahead of tomorrow’s release.
How They Made “Challenger” and Other Cobra Kai Revelations
Vehlinggo: Shed some light on the underlying scene “Challenger” scores and what inspired your compositional approach. (The guitar part reminds me of Doug Boyle’s work on Robert Plant’s 1988 solo album Now and Zen, for example. Whereas the crescendo to the orchestra gives way to a classic 1980s action film cue.)
Zach Robinson: “Challenger” is the final score cue you hear in season 3, so we knew it had to have some feeling of culmination. In the scene, Kreese challenges Johnny and Daniel to a tournament, and there was something about the setting — a rainy, dark, back-lit shopping mall — that got us in the ‘80s mood. We took some inspiration from some of those mid-’80s action thrillers with early Hans Zimmer scores, like “Black Rain,” but you also definitely get that classic sound with the orchestra at the end which takes us out in Vietnam. It’s very “Rambo” or “Commando”-esque. Obviously there are some synthwave elements in there too with the 8th note pulsing synth bass and repeating synth string ostinato — definitely a Mitch Murder influence in there. We also knew we wanted to use our theme from “Awake the Snake,” which was one of the very first pieces of music we wrote for the show, since it feels like there is a whole new meaning to what snake is being awoken.
That’s cool you hear Doug Boyle. We were thinking more along the David Gilmour lines, but Boyle is definitely a vibe, too. Andrew Synoweic, our guitar player on this, absolutely crushed it. It could have even been on take one.
Who among the two of you wrote what parts for “Challenger” and the score as a whole?
Robinson: It was almost a year ago at this point. I don’t quite remember, haha. I may have started it and Leo topped it off. That’s generally how a lot of our writing process goes: one of us has an idea and we flush it out as much as we can or want to, and then we pass it on to the other, if necessary.
Leo Birenberg: Everything is so collaborative. After every spotting meeting, we usually have a debrief where each of us says, “Oh, I have an idea for this spot!” about a few moments, and then we start sketching and trading them. This was definitely one of those spots for Zach — he sent me a .gif of a vaguely anime-stylized dark and stormy street in the rain and I immediately knew where his head was at, hahaha.
Were there any notable challenges when coming up with the cue?
Robinson: Surprisingly, I don’t think so. It came really natural to us, and at the time we had our hands quite full with the rest of the insanity that is the season finale. We did spend some extra time on this cue preparing an album version, which is what you are premiering, but the version in the show is much shorter. We knew we wanted it to be a long build, with an almost meditative-like sense of repetition. We’re both thrilled with the final product. It’s probably in my top three favorites on the album.
Birenberg: We did spend a lot of time nailing down the absolute perfect individual sounds for the rhythm section. We probably auditioned 30 different pianos and tracked three of them before deciding which to go with in the mix. Same with the kick drum. Because the first half of this track is so minimal and constant, it was important that those sounds were perfect.
How do you honor Bill Conti’s classic The Karate Kid score while creating a new one that’s unique to Cobra Kai? (While tying together the ’80s and our contemporary era, just like the show itself does?)
Birenberg: I think a lot of it is the intent of how we use music to contribute to the storytelling. Our palette is so unique to the show — I can’t think of any other score that blends synthwave, hair metal, and a full orchestra. But the way we score the drama is very cinematic and always interacting with the story development — lots of melodies associated with characters, places, or ideas and not being afraid to really lay on the dramatic weight (and occasionally unfiltered cheese factor).
The ’80s were such a heyday for this type of film music. Think ET, think The Empire Strikes Back — those scores make you feel such an emotional connection to the material not because the music is amazing (which of course it is), but because of how it interacts on-screen with the growth of the characters and their emotions as they move through the story. The ’80s had John Williams, James Horner, Bill Conti, Jerry Goldsmith, et al, all at the height of their powers, which gave that era such a specific sound. I think sometimes people think that using exclusively an orchestra is how you recapture that feeling, but I think it’s more of what you are doing with what you have. What keeps Cobra Kai sounding so classic is that we take the same ’80s approach to how we score the drama and emotion. We just do it with a more badass group of instruments.
What did you do differently for Season 3’s music compared to the previous seasons? (And what did you learn about scoring for the show along the way?)
Robinson: We’re constantly inspired by how much the showrunners push their own boundaries for what’s possible in the show, so we always want to try and one-up ourselves as well. Season 3 has a LOT of really cinematic moments — it’s a whole different ball game than our season 1 score. We have Daniel going back to Okinawa, so we knew we wanted to have a new theme there and feature some new instruments and orchestra styles. I got a sanshin, which is a three-stringed Japanese banjo-like instrument from Okinawa, and we used that a lot. There’s also just so many more set pieces in season 3. The episodes are longer and the stakes are higher. But the nice thing is that we work with incredibly collaborative people and we have a whole set of themes we’ve been working with the past couple of seasons, which makes everything a lot easier.
Birenberg: One thing we are always looking out for is opportunities to move thematic ideas between different parts of our palette — taking a melody that was originally on guitar and translating it to orchestra, or vice versa. With the expanded look at The Karate Kid universe that season 3 provides, we had a LOT of new opportunities for this kind of creativity. As Zach said, this season is so cinematic that I think we were drawn to any opportunities to really lean in to the symphonic part of the score.
Pre-order the Cobra Kai season three score now. You can also stream the series over Netflix right now. Don’t wait.
Cobra Kai is the creation of Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, and is based on Robert Mark Kamen’s The Karate Kid franchise.