Anthony Baldino is a sound designer and composer who’s provided music for a bevy of famous movie trailers, including some of the biggest blockbusters of recent times, from Star Trek: Into Darkness and Zero Dark Thirty to The Avengers and Prometheus. His work has also been featured in video games and Super Bowl campaigns. I reached out to Anthony and asked him to take me through his music-making process and explain what his job entails, and he was kind enough to oblige.
– Hi Anthony. Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you got into music for trailers?
Sure. I started off playing saxophone, but being an angsty teenager I thought playing bass in punk bands would be cooler. I eventually realized that bands were too dramatic for me, and around that time was introduced to electronic and industrial music by my friends. I was instantly taken by it and got into IDM and ambient music, which was a natural bridge into trailer music.
Getting into trailer work was kind of an accident – I had recently moved to LA and was trying hard to get into film music. To help pay the bills, I did any music-related job, whether arranging, mixing, programming or sound design. One day, a company looking to buy cinematic sound design responded to one of my emails and asked for examples of my work. I’d just finished a really glitchy track that decided to played the owner of the company, and he asked to hear another one, after which he said, “You could write trailer music!”. This was news to me, so I dove in and the rest is history.
– How do get contracted for your gigs? Is it something that you have to search for or do people come to you?
I’m kind of the oddball when it comes to finding work because my best gigs came through Craigslist. There’s definitely Cinderella stories out there, but whether it’s trailer music, editing or engineering, I think you have to be painfully persistent until someone gives you a shot.
For contracted gigs, I work closely with a trailer company, so most of my custom requests are sent to me from them.
– an you tell me about the DAW you use for your work? 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 or looking for a different time-stretching algorithm, and I do 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?
Depending on the project, I approach writing in two different ways: I’ll either start with sound design by recording stuff from my environment to mangle, or I’ll sit down with an instrument like a piano, my modular synth or guitar. Once I find something musically interesting, I’ll record it and start editing. If I find myself running into walls, I’ll just forget about writing music for the day and focus on making sounds instead. That way 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.
– I’m guessing that reverb plays a big part in what your work. How do you process your reverb to get the desired sense of eerie build-up that can be heard in your trailers?
I always EQ my reverbs because a common element in trailer music is bass. Between huge orchestral drums, impacts, orchestras and synths, controlling your low-end frequencies is really important and reverbs can become a problem if you’re not attentive. One of my favorite tricks, especially with pianos, is bouncing just the wet reverb signal and either pitch-shifting or making a rhythmic element out of it to support the dry signal. Additionally, an 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. Right as it’s about to climax, I can cut to absolute silence and leave the listener leaning over a cliff.
– Do you find that algorithmic reverb and convolution reverb lend themselves to different purposes?
Definitely. Depending on how you apply it, each can make a huge difference. I tend to use convolution reverbs with abstract IRs for big hits and sound design. It sometimes makes things feel natural to the ear because they’re in an actual space. I prefer algorithmic reverbs for pianos or darker plucked instruments as it creates a more ethereal space than the typical church or studio IR.
– What kinds of reverb plugins do you recommend?
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, and I was really impressed. I also find myself using Space Designer in Logic a lot.
As far as stock reverbs go, I think they can be great, but like all things it’s a matter of what you do with it. A stock reverb might sound average, but if you pitch-shift it you might find some artifacts that add 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?
It’s a mixture of both. There are a lot of great drum libraries out there, but they sometimes sound too perfect or are printed with tons of reverb, so I’ll make my own drums and then embellish those with samples. This way I’ve got some grit to my drums as well as a completely dry transient in case I don’t want the drums to sound as far away. 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?
With the more epic orchestral drums, I often lean on multi-band compression to control the low end; they can take a bit of finessing to fit into a dense mix. Also, I’ll sometimes apply a volume envelope, shorten the decay of the sample and rely a bit more on reverb for the sustained sound of the drums. Alternatively, I’ll use iZotope Alloy 2‘s transient generator in multi-band mode and drop the sustain all the way down on the first band. That way 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 regularly turn to for that?
I always use my ARP 2600 when it comes to bass. It does a great job of cutting through a dense mix and also serves as 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?
The most recent patch that I really enjoyed making was in iZotope’s Iris. I’d done a dried ice recording session prior. People typically think of metallic squelches and squeals when putting dried ice on metal, but you can get some really awesome bass tones as well, which make for good layering sounds. I also 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 Iris.
– With regards to the more tense build-ups in your music, how do you go about making that?
Rises are definitely a key element, but not 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-builder. But whether working with orchestra or just using noisy synths, adding dissonance helps. I’ll often double parts and pitch shift one of them a half-step or tri-tone to an 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 a thin, dissonant rise that goes for about 40 seconds and the way it evolves really helps the pacing and building tension.
– What’s your approach to making foley recordings to use in your music?
I record all of my own foley for sound design. I use a variety of mics including some hydrophones and induction coil mics. I also carry a Zoom H4N wherever I go because you never know when you’re going to find something cool.
– I know 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 de-noise all of my recordings with RX so I don’t get unwanted artifacts from background noise when I’m mangling them. Aside from cleaning and repairing recordings, I do a lot of sound design in RX. 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 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 synth and combine them with field recordings to make interesting sounds. Iris lends itself to tons of happy accidents – there’s a track I collaborated on with Mike Zarin, and the theme sound started as a squealing pig but after a few minutes it turned into a gritty, aggressive bass sound. I just find a lot of stuff with Iris that I wouldn’t have thought of, and it’s 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 EQs are incredibly useful when you modulate them.
Alloy 2 tends to find it’s way onto just about everything for various uses. It’s such a useful tool.
– When you approach the mix-down for your trailer music, what are some of the most important things that you have to address?
Using side-chaining as an effect is great on long swells; it helps animate your builds a little bit more. 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 have the first band active in sidechain mode so I still get all the attack and impact of my orchestral drums, but allow room for the low sub you get from the kick.
Another thing that has to be addressed is reverb. I usually have several of them, so I have to make sure the three-second reverb for my piano and the nine-second reverb for my ambiences don’t make the track soupy.
– One of the most striking aspects of trailer music is its ability to be quiet, and yet very forceful, which only becomes more pronounced as things build-up. What’s the key to attaining that quiet forcefulness?
I think making your drones interesting is really important. Giving a twist to the drone so the listener can’t exactly identify what the sound source is can help. 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 in their upper registers, the results can be very distressing. Like I had mentioned before, silence can also be very uncomfortable.
– Given that trailer music tends to only be one or two minutes long, how are you able to pack so much dynamic change into such a short period of time?
Sometimes writing a five-minute trailer cue helps me get all the ideas out. Then once you have your full composition, you can kind of make a “radio edit” and pick all the best parts to 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 want to get into trailer music?
That’s a really good question. 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 create space for dialogue is really important. You can have the coolest sounds in the world or the most heart-wrenching, lush melody, but it can’t support anything else if it’s not paced properly.
– Thanks for talking to me Anthony. Wrapping up, is there any general pieces of advice you can offer about navigating the music industry?
I think one of the main things to do when you’re chasing gigs is to stay 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. Constantly writing also helps keep you sharp, and knowing what tools to reach for is really important because the turn-around time in trailer music 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.