The history of kung fu spans centuries and includes countless depictions in popular culture in recent decades. From Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon to Jackie Chan’s more comedic Rush Hour films, to Jet Li’s work, and through video games like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, this long tradition continues to evolve like a many-petaled flower from the Warring States period of Chinese history when martial arts first developed.
Today, we’ll be sitting down for an interview with the composers Zach Robinson and Leo Birenberg, the duo behind the soundtrack of the popular kung fu series Cobra Kai on Netflix. Cobra Kai is based on the iconic film series The Karate Kid, expanding the story-world into the present day of Daniel LaRusso with rival dojos, love triangles, and, of course, captivating martial arts.
In our interview below, Zach and Leo discuss, jointly, in a mash-up interview, their work scoring Cobra Kai, genre blending, musical atmosphere, and more. Their past work includes titles such as Die Hart, Impractical Jokers, Edge of Tomorrow, Herman, and The Peanuts Movie (Zach); and Kung Fu Panda: The Paws of Destiny, Adam Ruins Everything, Frozen, and In Search of Greatness (Leo).
Cobra Kai began as a Youtube series in 2018 and picks up on Netflix for its 3rd season in January 2021. This past October, GameMill Entertainment released the show’s video game counterpoint, Cobra Kai: The Karate Kid Saga Continues. Made in collaboration with the series show-runners, the game delivers an original two-fold story from dueling perspectives complete with character-driven cutscenes and a classic 80’s inspired score from Birenberg and Robinson.
Andrew Cheek: What was some of the inspiration behind the music of Cobra Kai (for the video game and show)? Did you feel you were composing at all within a certain tradition?
Zach & Leo: On top of some of the more obvious influences of the Cobra Kai score like 1980’s hair metal, synthwave, and Bill Conti-style orchestra, video game music actually played a huge role in our initial design for the show’s sound. We grew up playing Capcom fighting games on SNES and games like Super Smash Bros on N64.
A lot of people have picked up on these influences specifically with tracks like “Strike First” which is the scene where Johnny beats up the teens in the parking lot, or “Hallway Hellscape” which scores the giant school brawl at the end of season 2. They’re supposed to sound like boss battles in a way. So when we were approached to work on the score for the game, it was a no brainer. It always felt like a video game was the most natural place for the sound of Cobra Kai to exist.
In terms of scoring within a tradition, we definitely keep Bill Conti’s score to the original films in the back of our minds, but the wonderful thing about Cobra Kai (and probably one of the keys to its success) is the constant evolution of The Karate Kid story, rather than just a total throwback. Like the rest of the crew within their respective fields, we always find ways to explore new ideas unique to Cobra Kai while throwing back to the original in specific spots.
AC: In what ways do you try to incorporate parts of the story you’re working with into the musical score? (A detail about a character, a color, etc...)
Z & L: In the game, we use certain instruments and colors to represent the different dojos: electric guitars for Cobra Kai, and an assortment of Japanese-inspired sounds like flutes, bells, and stringed instruments for Miyagi-Do (which isn’t too dissimilar to how we do it on the show).
One of the cool features of the game is that depending on which dojo you choose to fight as, you’ll hear a variation on the soundtrack which features instruments that represent your dojo. So a Cobra Kai fighter will hear a version of the track with a guitar solo whereas a Miyagi-Do student might hear a version with a synth bell/flute pattern.
AC: Could you describe the balance in writing a score that can stand alone as listenable music while also fitting into the story world of the video game, still being a distinct part of that gaming experience?
Z & L: There’s almost an expectation with video game music (especially with side-scrollers) that the soundtrack should really feel like a standalone track: one that you would enjoy listening to on repeat because, well, you’re going to listen to it on repeat for over 20 minutes anyways!
And then of course, the music needs to provide drive and energy that supports the action on the screen. That applies for both the game and the show.
AC: How do you create atmosphere? What do you like doing to tap into that space?
Z & L: At the beginning stages of a project, we like to put playlists together, either on Spotify or YouTube, that help inform our potential musical palette. For the game, we compiled a bunch of tracks from retro games we used to play, side-scrollers like Final Fight, Streets of Rage, Double Dragon, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game, to name a few, and we tried to identify what are the elements that make these games sound and feel like an arcade game.
Of course there are certain synths that reek of video game sounds, but more importantly there’s an almost indescribable ethos of retro game music which I suppose we subconsciously have in the back of our heads just from playing so many games in our life. It meets in the middle of aggressive and fun, and it’s always pretty self aware and doesn’t take itself too seriously. That’s the tone we were striving for.
The next part of the creative battle is deciding the types of sounds we want in the game. We went with different synths than we used on the show because we knew we needed the game to be its own “planet” within the Cobra Kai extended “universe,” if you will. Once you have the inspiration and the sonics down, then it just comes down to writing music, which can either be smooth sailing or rocky waters.
AC: What are some differences you’ve noticed between scoring a video game versus a show or film?
Z & L: Scoring a game is really interesting because you’re composing almost in tandem to the rest of the production, whereas with film or TV, composing is one of the final stages of the process. For the game, we were really only given a little bit of key art and the level list to get us going. Luckily, we had a pretty good idea of what the developers were asking for in regards to music and we hit the ground running pretty fast.
Also, scoring a side-scroller is a bit different than scoring an open-world game. It’s more conventional and linear. You’re basically writing full songs that loop, rather than layers that change depending on the situational environment your character is in.
AC: What advice would you give to aspiring musicians or composers?
Z & L: If you’re just getting started, don’t be afraid to put your head down and grind it out for a bit. It’ll benefit you career-wise but will also force you to keep your creative muscles working. Also, try to work with the resources you have and don’t always think you need to reinvent the wheel. It’s easy to get bogged down with fancy toys or expensive plugins, but good composers are able to write exceptional work with whatever resources on whatever budget they have.
AC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Z & L: Everyone should play the game! It’s insanely fun, and there might even be some season 3 hints in there…