Composer Ken Brahmstedt, who's partnered with sound designer
Carl White in BWN in Minneapolis and Los Angeles, remembers when licensing popular
tracks "became king in 2002-2003. Requests for custom scores took a dip, and we
wondered, 'Will there be business for us in a few years?'"
While Brahmstedt believes there's a role for licensing — "it
serves its purpose best when you're leveraging a piece of music which, like set
dressing, really adds to the production" — he's glad that "most clients have
come back to their senses and custom soundtracks are back on the rise."
THE SOUND OF FANTASY
BWN (www.bwnoise.com) crafted a "highly customized" score
and sound design for a Web-only spot from CPB/Boulder, CO, for Coke Zero. The
3D animated piece, with ties to NFL Fantasy Football, was created by animation
studio and Minneapolis neighbor Gasket, which made close collaboration a
"We needed to match Gasket's visuals that follow the POV of
a camera flying over the top of a monolithic-looking Coke can, which we see is
the crest of a football stadium. There are fireworks over the can and jets
overhead; a helicopter flies in and drops the Fantasy Football logo,"
Brahmstedt explains. "The agency didn't want some little ditty with a cool
rhythm behind it; they wanted something huge and grand."
Early on, BWN got test timings of the animation from Gasket,
which gave Brahmstedt an idea of how big the sound and pictures would be. "They
didn't have the detail needed for sound design, but they provided plenty of
information for scoring purposes," he notes. "It was enough for me to start and
finish the music track." He envisioned strings playing a minor role so he
sampled them in crescendo for the move over the top of the can. "Then the brass
kicks in and takes over," says Brahmstedt. "It's traditional big, brassy
football music — not heavy-metal football."
Brahmstedt recorded live trombones, trumpets and French
horns in one of BWN's three studios and added sampled timpani. He composed and
recorded in Apple Logic and split stems for Carl White's final mix in
Digidesign Pro Tools. "We mixed in surround and did a stereo fold-down for the
Web using the SRS Circle Sound encoding system that a lot of broadcast
television uses for stereo/surround compatibility," says Brahmstedt. "If Coke
wants to put the spot on a DVD later or, needs surround for some other purpose,
we can pop it in and, in the case where somebody is advanced enough to have
surround playback out of their Web browser, it will pop into surround."
White's sound design was largely literal — "anything that
flew or blew up," Brahmstedt laughs. "But it was very complex, layered and
detailed, and everything was moving so there was a constantly-changing sonic
Brahmstedt believes interactive "is the most exciting
emerging field right now," and he and White are eager to discover how they can
"play a role" in the growing market. "At what point will interactive media
become large?" he asks. "I've reduced my cable viewing and prefer to get as
much as I can on-demand and online: I watch Netflix, see The Office online and
The Daily Show on iTunes. Eventually small interactive projects are going to
grow in stature, and it's our philosophy to get in on the ground floor."
When Eric Johnson, executive producer at Blazing Music +
Sound (www.blazingmusicsound.com) in Raleigh, NC, talks to clients about the
value of custom scoring, he emphasizes its ability to reflect specific emotions
and successfully tell the story at hand, whether it's a commercial, film or TV
program. Otherwise, clients might find themselves "tailoring their story to fit
a piece of pre-existing music," a shoe-horning exercise they would do well to
Blazing composed the custom score for The Great Inca
Rebellion, a co-production of National Geographic and Nova, which aired on
PBS's acclaimed Nova series last June. Freelance editor Bonnie Cutler was
offlining the documentary at Blazing's sister facility Serious Robots (they are
both part of Trailblazer Studios) when the music house was asked to provide a
temp track from its custom library for Cutler to cut to.
Director Graham Townsley had to return to Peru to shoot some
new material impacting the documentary's already tight editorial schedule. The
Nova/National Geographic producers were happy with Blazing's temp track, sound
design and some custom music it crafted for the show open, so when it came time
to score the show, they awarded the gig to Blazing.
"We had maybe three weeks to complete the score, sound
design and surround mix," Johnson recalls, "but it was a dream come true to do
such a high-profile piece. We really wanted to create a soundtrack worthy of a
feature film and that put additional pressure on us." The proximity of Cutler
and Townsley, who were finishing the edit at Serious Robots, allowed them to
offer immediate input, which helped ensure that primary composer Aaron Keane
and sound designer/mixer Willie Elias would meet the deadline.
Instead of relying on loops that repeat throughout the show,
Keane collaborated with Townsley to rework themes and provide fresh takes for
the doc's stunning visuals, which depict how crime-lab science, archaeology and
history have uncovered surprising new evidence of what happened during the
fierce 16th Century battle between Inca warriors and Spanish invaders.
"There were quite a few cues and so many special moments
that needed to be hit that there was no way a library track or a loop-based
program would be able to do it," Johnson reports.
Keane found appropriate Andean music samples in the Native
Instruments and Propeller Head Reason collections and also recorded, via FTP
posting, a veteran wind player based in New York, as well as local Peruvian
musicians playing authentic flutes, guitar and percussion, plus a small string
section to enhance sampled strings. Keane worked almost exclusively within Pro
Tools|HD3 Accel with a ProControl surface. Elias performed the final surround
mix on an HD2 Accel.
The project ultimately "went together seamlessly" thanks to
the talents of the creatives involved and the easy and effective communication
among the director, editor, composer and sound designer, Johnson points out.
"We're very proud of the show. National Geographic and Nova are at the top of
the documentary world and we're so pleased that, at a critical stage in post
production, they entrusted the score to an unknown in Raleigh that they'd never
worked with before."
COMPUTERS & SKATEBOARDS
Mark Mothersbaugh, Devo co-founder and president/CEO of West
Hollywood's Mutato Muzika (www.mutato.com), believes the value of custom music
is its ability to create "a universe, a world to exist in" for a particular
entity, whether it's a commercial, videogame, TV show or feature film — all of
which fall under Mutato's domain. The company composes original music for about
100 spots annually and is currently working on a Steven Spielberg project with
gamemaker EA. Mothersbaugh has scored 40 features, including the first four Wes
Anderson films, and has created theme songs and/or underscores for 65 TV shows,
including Rugrats and Big Love.
Sometimes original can mean retro, as Mothersbaugh and Devo
co-founder Jerry Casale can attest. Casale, a commercial director associated
with Form in Los Angeles, got a call from ex-Fallon creatives Paul Malmstrom
and Linus Karlsson, who are now partners at the hip, new ad agency Mother in
The Mother partners considered having Casale direct a Dell
spot featuring women — "they look like something out of a Robert Palmer video,"
Mothersbaugh quips — who are working on some stylized machines. The camera
pulls back to reveal that they are tiny characters building a new engine for
One of the Dell clients was a Devo fan, and he wanted to
license an existing Devo tune for the retro-themed commercial. "But Mother
thought it would be cool if we had a new song," says Casale. "We had four or
five song sketches that weren't totally developed. I played them for Mother and
the agency said to put some lyrics on three of them and get Mark to sing."
Mother felt Mothersbaugh and Casale had a hit in "Watch Us
Work It" and pitched the tune to Dell. By the time the shoot was scheduled it
conflicted with Devo's European tour and Casale wasn't available (Swedish
director Jonas Ackerland ended up helming the spot). Mothersbaugh and Casale
had enough time to record the song but not to produce it.
Mother and Casale thought the logical choice to produce the
song was the Swedish group The Teddy Bears because they're fans of their work
and The Teddy Bears like Devo. "We loved the way it turned out — we heard the
touches they put on it while we were backstage on our tour," Casale recalls.
"It came out great — it sounded like old Devo," Mothersbaugh agrees. "It's got
'80s energy but updated. We didn't have to write custom lyrics specifically for
Dell; Mother didn't want us to tell the story more than the 'Watch Us Work It'
lyrics already did."
The song maintains the classic sound Mothersbaugh and Casale
favor with analog mini Moogs, guitars and drum samples Mothersbaugh recorded 25
years ago. "There's a fascination with the '80s now," Casale reports. "A whole
generation missed it and is intrigued by The Cars, Talking Heads, Blondie.
They've discovered that '80s songs can be energetic, fun and sound cool."
Mothersbaugh also scored the new documentary feature Nothing
But The Truth from Nike's Skateboarding division; it premiered in October at
the Kodak Theater in LA. He previously composed music for Nike spots, and Devo
has played Nike marathons; he also scored the feature Lords of Dogtown, along
with some radical snowboarding films.
It was Mothersbaugh's brief to craft an underscore for the
feature, consisting of "pretty raw skating music," and to write a number of
original songs for the skateboarders starring in the documentary. "They came by
the studio and contributed — some wrote additional lyrics to our songs and one
picked up a banjitar and played along with his track," he recalls. "I sang on
one song and played the guitar on another.
"A couple of skaters wanted classic rock tracks instead of
original songs, and I think if you watch the film you see what you gain and
lose by using a piece of music that's familiar to everyone and not created for
the visuals. At a certain point the music drifts apart from the picture, and it
never really connects again."
Mothersbaugh composed with Logic and recorded live guitar,
drums, bass and keyboards into Pro Tools|HD; he also sampled urban tracks and
recorded vocalists over them.
Something he particularly liked was the way the production
audio combined with his score in the final mix. "I liked how the music was
interrupted by the really loud sounds of the skaters on the street. It made it
very real and brought a lot of excitement to it," he reports.
AUGMENTING A SONIC BRAND
For Stephen Arnold, founder and president of Stephen Arnold
Music (www. stephenarnoldmusic.com) in Dallas, the value of a custom score is
how it "augments the 'sonic brand,' the musical brand a client develops for the
first time or has equity in. Having a sonic brand, especially if it's used
frequently, increases the possibility of getting the message heard and
Arnold points out that the music "often lingers after the
commercial, promo and even the product is gone — you can't get that ditty out
of your head. And music can go cross-platform and still resonate. Visuals may
not work on different-size screens, but that's not the case with the music."
Already known for creating original music, tones and sound
effects for networks, TV stations, ad agencies and film companies worldwide,
Arnold launched his Earwig Game audio division in September after delivering
original music packages to Barking Lizards for THQ's Zoey 101: Field Trip
Fiasco and Bratz 4 Real games for the Nintendo DS platform.
"Musically, the two games — both based on Nickelodeon shows
— were quite different," says Arnold. "Zoey has a more alternate rock/indie
sound with live drums, bass and guitar, and Bratz is more urban and hip-hop
with samples and drum loops."
Earwig crafted a title track and three different moods for
Zoey. "We never saw a storyboard," he says. "We were given descriptions of what
they needed and spent time pulling up different styles of tracks and making
sure they were the direction they wanted to go in," Arnold reports. "They were
all basically the same style and instrumentation in varying tempos, but
stylistically they were cut from the same cloth. We deliberately developed more
of a stylistic brand than a specific melody hook so as to not distract from the
play action; they're underscores that keep the energy going without competing
with what's going on."
The title track itself had to suggest the sound of the TV
show the game is based on without infringing on its musical copyright. "That's
always a little tough," says Arnold. "It's called 'writing sideways.'"
Arnold composed with MOTU's Digital Performer and, in his
main studio in Dallas, recorded a drummer, bass and guitar players into iZ
Technology's RADAR V 48-track recorder. He used Steinberg's Nuendo to change
delay and echo, mixed down to the proper file size with DSP-Quattro mastering
software and tapped Nuendo to master and convert files. Bratz was done
simultaneously in a similar fashion, but featured mostly electronic
instruments. Arnold composed the main themes for both games and sketched ideas
for the rest of the music, then "passed the baton" to staff and freelance
composers. Chad Cook served as creative director with Clay Lorance handling
Arnold doesn't find composing for games different from other
projects. "Music is music, although in the back of your mind you know [the game
music] is likely to be heard on a small system. Game companies realize music
plays an essential role, adding a lot of emotional value to the product."
Although library or production music has improved greatly in
recent years, there's nothing like an original score — whether it's grand or
minimalist in style — that fits a project like a custom-tailored suit.
"When an editor cuts a commercial there are certain emotions
and points they want to make," explains Dave Hodge, creative director/partner
with John Murrell in LA- and London-based Finger Music (www.fingermusic.tv).
"Production music often plays right through those key moments, but a custom
score balances and enhances the emotions you see on the screen. Custom music
really locks in with the picture. It supports the visuals, tailoring it exactly
to the editor's cut and to the precise emotion the client needs."
The music house, which primarily creates tracks for
commercials, crafted music for a three-spot Dell campaign from DDB/Chicago
promoting the computer maker's partnership with Google, Boeing and Chrysler.
With narration playing over the spots, Hodge had to "be
mindful of the VO and careful not to tread all over it," he recalls. "The
client wanted consistency in the music for all three spots but didn't want it
to sound like the same spot over and over."
Hodge developed a guitar-based indie rock-style track that
had "a bit of accessibility to it: the music sounds familiar but cool, and has
some mystique — it's not fluffy. It starts a bit dark, and as it grows it gets
brighter, supporting the story being told."
Hodge had cuts of the spots to score, which were key in
assuring that the music played a supportive role. "It had to complement the VO
and not overshadow it," he emphasizes. "The narrative tells a story here, and
the music behind it needs to build as well as support the brand stylistically.
We have an abrupt stop in the music when the tagline, 'Dell designs solutions
with one company in mind...Yours,' is read, then the logo comes up and the
music starts again. That big drop makes the word 'Yours' pop out and acts as a
nice hook." Hodge worked exclusively in Logic for programming, sequencing and
A comic spot for Axe Body Spray from BBH/NY promoting the
notion of boosting one's Extra Sexual Perception required a custom track to
complement the mad race of an ice cream vendor who dashes off with his cart
when he gets a vision of a beautiful woman in a bikini who needs some lotion
urgently applied to her back.
"We ended up doing a very minimalist score," Hodge recalls.
"We let the quirky visuals — with flashes of his vision — ride and the sound
design of honking cars and the bike-driven cart play. The music is a subtle,
rolling sci-fi track with little stops as he gets his visions. The music is
simple but odd enough to enhance the frantic but mysterious hysteria in his
head. There is absolutely no library track that could have worked with this
Working in Logic, Hodge chose all synthesized instruments
for the track, including some guitar textural effects for a "simple sine
wave-type sound with a bit of portamento on it" with dropouts, which he used
"to interrupt the flow" when the vendor got his visions.
Finger Music is as passionate about the environment as it is
about music. The company partners with Native Energy, which builds wind farms
and supplies green power to the grid, making donations to reduce carbon
emissions by 20 tons per job on behalf of their clients. Finger Music is also a
carbon neutral company.