Christine Bunish
Issue: November 1, 2007


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."


BWN ( 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 breeze.

"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 palette."

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 ( 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 avoid.

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."


Mark Mothersbaugh, Devo co-founder and president/CEO of West Hollywood's Mutato Muzika (, 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 New York.

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 Dell computers.

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.


For Stephen Arnold, founder and president of Stephen Arnold Music (www. 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 remembered."

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 audio post.

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 ( "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 tracking.

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 one!"

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.