Anthony Baldino is a sound designer and composer who has provided music for a bevy of famous movie trailers, including some of the biggest blockbusters of recent times, from Star Trek and Zero Dark Thirty, to The Avengers and Prometheus. Also, his work has been featured in everything from video games to Superbowl campaigns. Not bad for someone who doesn’t frequent Beatport charts or chase record labels for attention.
A lot of trailer music tends to strong electronic influences, yet it somehow seems to have been overlooked in the greater discussion of what I love about today’s electronic music, just like video game soundtracks. So I reached out to Mr Baldino, and asked him to take us through his music-making process and explain what his job entails. I hope that it shines some light on other ways to apply your musicianship, other than aiming for the top of the charts.
Before I delve into the production questions, tell me a bit about your music and personal background, and how you got into the business of making music for trailers.
Well, at the foundation of my trailer/cinematic music is sound design. I like to try and find a lot of thematic information in mangled sounds or try to put a twist on standard instruments. Going all the way back, I started off playing saxophone, but being an angsty high school kid, I thought playing bass in punk bands would be way cooler. Eventually I realized that bands were way too dramatic for me, and right around that time, two friends of mine started showing me some electronic and industrial music. I was instantly taken by it and knew what I had to do. I got into a lot of IDM and ambient music, which I think was a natural bridge into trailer music.
Getting into working on trailers was actually kind of an accident. I had recently moved to LA and was trying really hard to get into writing music for film. To help pay the bills I was doing any job that had literally anything to do with music whether it was arranging, mixing, programming, sound design etc. One day this company looking to buy some original cinematic sound design responded to an email and asked for an example of my work. I had just finished a really glitchy track so I figured “why not“? When I played it again for the owner of the company, he asked to hear another track and said, “Oh, you could write trailer music!” This was news to me, so I dove in and the rest is history as they say.
For those who are interested in getting into your line of work, tell me about the means you’ve used to getting contracted for your gigs. Is it something that you have to go out and seek, or do people come to you? What’s been the ratio of luck to hustling in that process?
Well, I’m kind of the oddball when it comes to this one because most of the best gigs I’ve got I found through Craigslist, or at least the basis started there. But no matter what you’re chasing in the industry I think you’re definitely going to have to hustle for it. There are definitely those Cinderella stories out there, but whether it’s trailer music, editing or engineering, I think you really have to be painfully persistent until someone gives you a shot.
For contracted gigs I work closely with a trailer company, so most of the custom requests that come across my desk are via that company.
Now that I’ve learned a bit about you, let’s dive into the music side of things. Can you tell us about the DAW you use for your work, and why you settled on this? Had you worked with others prior to that?
I work primarily in Logic. For me, it just lends itself to composition and creativity a little better. I’ll occasionally jump over to Ableton when I’m exploring sounds, just so I’m in a different environment and might think of something differently, or even if I’m just looking for a different time stretching algorithm for flavor.
I do really enjoy Pro Tools, but more so for editing and mixing.
When you start making your music, are there any starting points that you’ve found yourself returning to over and over? Or is it always something random that sets things in motion?
Depending on the project, I usually approach writing in two different ways. I’ll either start with sound design and go out and record a whole bunch of stuff.Then I’ll mangle it and see if that leads to something that might be the foundation of a new piece. If I’m not doing, that I’ll sit down with an instrument, whether it’s the piano, my modular or the guitar. Once I find something harmonically interesting, I”ll record it and start editing and embellishing that. If I find I’m running into walls, I’ll just forget about writing music for the day, and focus on making sounds instead, so when the idea does come along, I have a few folders of stuff I can pull from without having to shift gears back and forth between sound design and composition.
Given the eerie and/or aggressive nature of trailers that are made for action/thriller movies, I'm guessing that reverb plays a big part in what your work. Can you tell me about how you process your reverb to get the desired sense of eerie build up or tenseness that your music has?
Reverb definitely plays a huge roll in trailer music. I always EQ my reverbs because another common element in trailer music is bass. Between huge orchestral drums, impacts, orchestra and synths, controlling your low end frequencies is really important and reverbs can often be the culprit if you’re not paying attention to them.
On the aesthetic side of processing reverbs, one of my favorite tricks, especially with pianos, is bouncing just the wet reverb signal and then pitch shifting that or making a rhythmic element out of it to support the line.
I also think that absence of sound can be just as jarring as abrupt stabs, so automating the volume on my reverb busses plays a huge roll in my music. I love the moments when there’s a huge build, and right as it’s about to climax, it just cuts to absolute silence and leaves you leaning over a cliff.
Do you find that the differences between algorithmic reverb and convolution reverb lend themselves to different purposes, or have you been able to find a one-size-fits all reverb?
Oh definitely! Depending on how and what you apply it to, each can make a huge difference. I tend to use more convolution reverbs with abstract IRs for big hits and sound design. Sometimes it almost makes the designed elements feel completely natural to the ear because they’re in an actual space. The listener may not know the exact space but they may be able to recognize that it sounds like a space they’re been in before or something similar to that. And vice versa with instruments.
I really like algorithmic reverbs especially for pianos or darker plucked instruments as it creates a more ethereal space for it than the typical church or studio IRs the ear is used to hearing.
What kinds of reverb plugins do you recommend? Do you think the stock reverb that come with DAWs are suitable for trailer music?
For algorithmic reverb I think EOS by Audio Damage is a great plug-in and really easy on the wallet. As for convolution reverbs, Altiverb is such a great tool. I got to work with East West’s convolution reverb, Spaces, a few times and I was really impressed. I also find myself using Space Designer in Logic a lot; there are few gems in there.
As far as stock reverbs go I think they can be great. But like all things, whether they’re phenomenal sounding or just mediocre, it’s all a matter of what you do with it. Maybe that stock reverb just sounds ok, but if you pitch shift it you might find some really cool artifacts that adds a really cool element to your track.
Another big part of your music is cinematic percussion. Are these typically taken from sample libraries, or do you make these yourself? Any tips on where people can turn to for this?
For me it’s a mixture of both. There are a lot of great drum libraries out there, but sometimes they sound too perfect or the samples are printed with a ton of reverb. I’ll usually make my own drums and then embellish those with samples. This way I’ve got some grit to my drums, as well as having a completely dry transient in case I don’t want the drums to sound as far away as the sample might sound. Some great drum libraries are the Drums of War collections by Cinesamples and the Soundiron stuff is great as well.
What kind of processing do you use for your drums? Do they need a lot in order to fit into the mix of what you’re creating?
With the more “epic” orchestral drums, I often lean on some multi-band compression to control the low end so my drums as well as the mix overall doesn’t get too murky. They definitely take a bit of finessing to fit into a dense mix. Also, I’ll sometimes apply a volume envelope and shorten the decay of the sample and rely a bit more on reverb for the sustained sound of the drums or I’ll use the transient generator in iZotope Alloy 2 in multiband mode and drop the sustain all the way down on the first band so I still get a heavy thud from the drums but don’t have as much low rumble in my sustain. This works really well for keeping a mix clean without sacrificing the size and impact of your drums.
Bass sounds are also central to a lot of your music. Do you have any synths that you’ve been regularly turning to for that?
When it comes to bass I always use my ARP 2600. It’s so rich and does a great job of cutting through a dense mix. It’s also great support to low orchestral parts. I could go on for way too long about that synth, so I’ll just leave it at that.
As a sound designer, what have been some of your most creative ways of creating bass sounds?
Hmmm good question. I think the most recent patch that I’ve made that I really enjoyed making and using was in iZotope’s IRIS. I did this great dried ice recording session. Usually, you think of metallic squelches and squeels when you put dried ice on metal, but you can get some really awesome bass tones as well. If you tune those, they make for really cool bass layers. I also really love processing animal sounds and if you can get your hands on elephant growls you’ll find yourself making all sorts of cool bass sounds.
With regards to the more tense build-ups in your music, how do you go about making that? Is that a combination of FX risers and automation?
Rises are definitely a key element but the root of it, the two things that build tension are bass and adding some dissonance to your sounds. When you feel that really low bass rumble in theaters, it’s an instant tension that you can physically feel. But tonally, whether you’re working with orchestra or just using noisy synths, adding dissonance or anything that makes it feel really uncomfortable helps. I’ll often double parts and pitch shift one a half step or tri-tone to make for a very harmonically abrasive sound.
Do you make your own risers and FX, or are sample packs your main source for those?
I make all of my own rises. For me, it’s as important as making a good bass sound. It also really helps with timing. In the track that was used for the Zero Dark Thirty campaign, “The Killing Noise“, there’s this really thin, disonant rise that goes for about a 40 seconds and the way it evolves really helps the pacing and the slow painful build of tension.
What’s your approach to making live recordings to use in your music? Foley and such. Have you ever done that?
For sound design elements I record all of my own stuff. I use a variety of mics including some hydrophones and induction coil mics. I also carry a Zoom H4N wherever I go because you just never know when you’re going to find something cool.
I know that you’re an advocate of iZotope’s plugins. Can you tell me about some creative ways that you’ve used their stuff to make your music?
I really can’t say enough good things about iZotope. I denoise all of my samples and recordings with RX, so that when I start to mangle them I don’t get any unwanted artifacts from background noise. Aside from cleaning and repairing recordings, I do a lot of sound design in RX. It puts me in a different headspace and will make me approch sound design differently. I especially love how versatile their time stretching and pitch shifting algorithm is. Also, I’m a huge believer in taking tools that are used to fix things and using them to destroy audio. Sometimes it brings about some really cool results.
I really love IRIS for making pulses and ambiences as well as bass sounds. I like to take samples from my modular and combine them with field recordings to make interesting synths. I think IRIS lends itself to tons of “happy accidents”. There’s a track I collaberated on with Mike Zarin, and the “theme sound” started as squealing pig but after a few minutes it turned into this gritty, aggressive rolling bass sound. I just find a lot of stuff with IRIS that I wouldn’t have thought of and it’s typically really musical.
I’ve also fallen in love with Trash 2. It’s such a flexible tool and the new layout is really great. The additional filters on the distortion module really help shape the sound and even if you don’t want to use the distortion, the modulatable EQs are so incredibly useful.
I could go on for a really long time, but to wrap up Alloy 2 tends to find it’s way onto just about everything for various uses. Such a useful tool.
For the club-oriented producers, things like kick-bass relationship and sidechaining are some of the things that they put a lot of effort into perfecting. When you approach the mix-down for your trailer music, what are some of the most important things that you have to address?
I think a lot of those same techniques are really important in trailer music. Using sidechaining as an effect is great on long swells. It helps animate your builds a little bit more. But the “kick-bass” relationship that you mentioned is not only important between your kick and synth bass, but I also find it really important when mixing big orchestral percussion. If I have sub hits, or if a certain track requires a kick drum, I’ll use the multi-band compressor in Alloy 2 and just have the first band active in sidechain mode so I still get all the attack and impact of my orchestral drums, but allow some room for that really clean low sub you get from the kick.
Another thing that has to be addressed is reverb. I usually have several of them, so making sure that the 3-second reverb for my piano, along with the 9-second reverb for my ambiences don’t start to make the track real soupy is always something I’m keeping my eye on.
One of the most striking aspects of trailer music is that its ability to be quiet, and yet very forceful, which only becomes more pronounced as things build-up and actually do become aggressive. What’s the key to attaining that quiet forcefulness, particularly in the music’s opening minute and breakdowns?
Oh man, there are so many ways of achieving that. I think making your drones interesting is really impotant. Doing something that gives a twist to the drone, so the listener can’t identify exactly what the sound source is but subconsciously may be familiar with it can help almost distract the ear.
With that being said, I think starting a piece with a huge gap in your frequency range can feel very uncomfortable. If you have a low, subby sound and the only things accompanying it are really high, brittle drones or violins playing in their upper registers, the results can be very distressing. Also like I had mentioned before, just silence can be really uncomfortable.
Given that trailer music is much shorter than the 5-8 minute tracks that many electronic music artists are used to making, could you give some advice on how you’re able to pack so much action and dynamic change into such a short period of music time?
Well, coming from an electronic background, I think the two are very similar. Sometimes writing a 5-minute trailer cue helps me get all the ideas out. Also, relieving yourself of a time limit can bring out some of your better ideas that you wouldn’t find when constrained by form. Then once you have your full composition, you can kind of make a “radio edit” and pick all the best parts and shrink it down into the shorter version. Eventually you do it so many times that you naturally start to write more in the shorter form, but there’s no wrong or right way to approach it.
What are some skills that you think are important for producers to master if they have their eyes set on getting into making trailer music?
That’s a really good question. Everybody brings something different to the table, but probably one of the most important things that one could work on would be pacing of the music. Allowing time for the music to breathe and creating space for dialogue is really important. You can have the coolest sounds in the world or the most heart wrenching, lush melody, but if it’s not paced properly it can’t support anything else.
Wrapping up, any general pieces of advice you can offer about navigating the music industry to the aspiring producers out there?
Oh definitely. I think one of the main things to do when you’re chasing gigs is even if you’re not working, always keep writing your own music or creating new sounds. When the phone call comes, it feels way better to let your current works convince people rather than something you wrote years ago and promising that you can do the job. Constantly writing also helps keep you sharp, and knowing what tools to reach for is really important because in trailer music, the turn-around time is ridiculously fast. Also, you never know what gig is going to pop up on the Internet, so keep checking Craigslist, Mandy.com and Entertainmentcareers.net. And lastly, be persistent.