I have been working with aspiring trailer composers for over two years now. As a result, I have come to learn what it is that most of them do ‘wrong’ in their trailer cues.
These mistakes, annoyingly for them, are incredibly easy to make (I still make one of the regularly). But, they are also very easy to resolve.
If you are an aspiring trailer composer or even a pro who is now just curious then give the show a listen.
I’d love to hear what you think and whether you agree or not. Also, let me know which mistakes you make too.
The main reason for me doing this is obvs for me to help you get better. So listen with an open mind and tell your ego to bog off. Mistakes are there to help you improve and that’s what this episode will hopefully do too.
Hey guys, welcome to session number four of the Trailer Music Composer’s Podcast. Let’s dive in.
One, one microphone and a worrying session with string risers. Welcome to the Trailer Music composer’s Podcast.
Ok today in this session I wanted to cover common mistakes of aspiring trailer music composers. So I obviously encounter quite a lot of aspiring composers through my trailer music school and through my online courses. So I feel like I’m getting to know the common mistakes that they make and I start to hear it when people submit demos to me as well you know. And the reason I’m bringing this up now in here is because I want to give you guys a heads up to make sure that you’re not making those same mistakes. You know and I’m not saying that I am free from mistakes, I’m by no means free from mistakes and I even make these same mistakes myself. So maybe it’s even a courteous reminder to myself to deliver my music in the best way possible.
So I’ve managed to kind of break it down to five common mistakes, because I feel like I see these five so many times. And I myself did some of these mistakes a great deal, and I still do, but I feel like having now experienced hearing so many other composers work, I feel like I’m starting to get to grips with these mistakes.
Now some of these are mistakes you make just because you’re excited about the music that you’ve written, and also because a lot of us, you know I’m speaking for myself here, but I also know that a lot of my students come from a music background, or a pop music background, when I say pop, I mean popular, I don’t mean pop as in like the genre pop. So within that genre we, although genres I should say, we get used to a certain way of delivering ideas and we try and take that way of delivering ideas and put it onto trailer music and it doesn’t work in the same way. And I will get into that when I get into each point.
So five common mistakes. Now I’m going to work backwards here and love the most common mistake until last, because it’s my favorite one as well, because I feel like the last one is often hiding a certain insecurity or fear. Anyway, so let’s get started.
Number five on the common mistakes list is too many drop downs in the cue. Now the effect that has on your trailer music cue is that it loses pace. Now those composers who are veterans of the industry will understand how much of a killer toyour track losing pace is. And I don’t mean that it feels, your track has to be pacy for it to lose pace in your track you have to be careful that your dropdowns do not stop that from flowing. And if you do stop it from flowing it’s amazing how quickly the listener loses interest, and that listener is a potential buyer of your cue, editor, supervisor, director whatever. If it loses pace they go oh ok, lost it, done, switch over to the next one.
So you have to be really careful about the way you use your dropdowns. And if you’re using a dropdown you sit and listen to it and you think to yourself am I just playing a drop down here because I want the editor to have a placed edit, or am I putting a drop down here because it had a musical purpose. So you know, you often have a drop down at the end of act one, or the end of act two, or the end of act three because it has a musical purpose of paragraph, of the end of the paragraph, it’s the end of the act. Drop down, take a breath into the next act. Drop down, take a breath, into the next act.
But when you do those dropdowns you will notice that the master of the dropdown will not lose pace, they will have reverse sound effects coming in, perhaps even maintaining some percussive or driven element within the drop down, but they will be something that if it does stip the pace it gives you an idea that the pce is going to return and thats what the reverse sound effects, the switch hits they do, they kind of say hey, something’s coming. Pay attention. And that’s part of our job as trailer composers is to indicate what is to come in our music and that’s why we all love rise as well, specifically me, I absolutely love a riser because it can take a mediocre sounding idea and just all of a sudden you’re like oh yes this is a trailer cue, this is the cue at the best. And it’s great.
So I would say limit your dropdowns to three at the most, limit them to three, if you have a musical reason for doing more than three, by all means chuck them in there, but don’t just put them in there for the sake of it. You don’t have to have a drop down at the end of act one, act two and act three. You can just slide straight into the next act seamlessly and the editor will cut to that drop in the stems. Ok, so just be wary of that, am I using a dropdown just for the sake of it. Or does it serve a musical purpose.
Right now, number four is using drag and drop samples too often. Now what I’m talking about drag and drop samples I’m talking about keep forest style trailer music instrument style drag and drop samples where you can take a blam, just lay it on your track, which is great, and I love it, I love the fact that there’s this whole sort of niche trailer musician sample library thing growing, and growing and growing. And it’s great for us because it means that there’s more awareness of the role, but also it means we’ve got more toys to play with.
Now the problem comes when you use those drag and drop samples, i.e. a single sample throughout the entire track. Now thats, that isn’t that much of a problem if you say you created it yourself, or if you manipulated it throughout the track so that evolved. But quite often people would take the sample and just plop it on their track and you know 16 bar intervals. So right from the get go you hit this huge baum, which you’re like yes that’s epic. But then after that the 32nd time you heard it, you’re like ok, I’m a bit bored of that. And it’s not like that amazing design thing that was recorded in the first Alien trailer, it’s the sound that you’ve heard before because obviously it a sound that other people have bought and other people are using, you know it’s like when you hear those Omnisphere patches on TV, and a couple of the Omnisphere patches I use, when I’m watching TV shows I’m like ha,. Ha that guys got Ominsphere, or girl. The composer has Ominsphere.
Anyway the problem is the track then loses impact and feels repetitive, so the impact of that massive baum that you’ve paid for when you sign up to those sample library companies and get those great libraries is reduced because you use it at its full capacity right from the get go. So you know it opens with ‘baaaaam’ you know full spectrum, down from bowel busting below 20 up to ear piercing 20,000 K, and it’s the whole spectrum, and you think oh my goodness, I’ve just pooped myself. That was immense. This trailer cue is going to be epic and then you hear it again, and again, and again, and it takes the focus away from the rest of the cue. Because all you can hear is this single sound, obviously the same sound over and over again.
Now my remedy for that is that you either a, don’t use the same sample right from the get go, maybe introduce the sample piecemeal. So you don’t open the track with it, you plop it on the beginning of act 2, wow this is amazing act 2, da, da, da, and then maybe half way through act two and then in act three it’s more regular. Or say something you use like a simple trick if you have it in the same way you have it just every 16 bars right from the get go. Cool. but you put something on it like even a high pass filter, and you gradually automate the frequency, so that it starts off as like a tinny thing, or starts off as like a rumble. However you want to start it. But then it gradually opens up and you can feel this sound getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Like a filter sweep in dance music. It gives the sample a journey. And that’s why you’re trying to do, you’re telling a story with your tracks and if you can’t, if your story is just this same old big farty baum, it’s going to be a bit of a boring story.
I am a huge fan of repetition, huge fan of repetition, but you have to be clever with it, so when you’re using those drag and drop samples, when I say drag and drop I mean they’re like different baums mapped out on a keyboard. Just be careful the way you use them, either use them sparingly or use them intelligently.
Right number three, the third most common mistake is making act three the same as act two. And I don’t mean they’ve done it on purpose, they’ve fallen into the trap of act two and act three basically being the same. And that usually stems from two things, either they’ve made their second act too massive so that they don’t really have anywhere to move in act three, or when it comes to act three they don’t know how to make it feel bigger. And the result is ok you get to act three and you go ok I’m a bit bored now this feels looped. And it does, the effect is the feeling of loops. And we’re all using loops, don’t lie about it, we’re all using loops, we’re all thinking in four and eight bar progressions.
You know maybe some intelligence will be thinking in a different way, maybe I’m dealing with four part harmony, counterpoint rigid, well done, good for you, there will still be loops it’s just the loops are different lengths. Anyway I’m digressing, aren’t I.
Anyway, remedies. So say your act two is too big, strip it back, you know you can have an act two that doesn’t feel massive, act two just has to bring some pace, something new to the table. And remember in a film, act two is when the proverbial hits the fan, you know when the problem starts in the narrative. So it has to feel like it brings tension. And actually the easiest way to bring tension is to give it a pace, because pace gives you this kind of like tension that you need to be moving, because it’s feeling like it’s moving, and that’s an easy way to add tension, to represent that change in act two. So it doesn’t have to be massive in act two. Or the way you do that, rather than stripping instruments out if you look at your orchestration, can I drop some instruments down an octave or lose some elements of the harmony, like do I need that perfect fit, it’s not really doing anything for the harmony. Can I maybe just go for the seventh or the third if I’m working seventh chords, or even just the third and the fourth, whatever it is. Think about that and so you can progress your harmony and progress your orchestration so that when it does hit act three that’s when the real size is experienced.
Now the other thing is the worry. I have to be perfectly honest with you, this was my issue when I started writing trailer music, act one, yes, act two, yes, act three, what do I do. There aren’t many manuals that tell you how to produce epic sounding tracks using sort of 60 to 100 channels and trying to make it big sounding without muddying the waters. And that’s one of the things, usually it’s just a case of knowing how to use your instruments. So for instance I would always use brass in a kind of chorla way, in act three, which was totally wrong, the brass needs to feel kind of like a huge power cord strum in the third act, it needs to have this sort of massive impact, you know those kind of like classic scenes where someone has got like a huge wall of Marshall stacks behind them, and they plug their guitar in and its like ooooh, co coom, and people;s skin gets melted off their face and their socks are flying off all over the shop. That’s the type of thing that brass wants to do.
And when I’m talking about that I’m talking about the baums really, you can still write in a choral way because your brass, but it needs to have a different approach to it as well, you then need to start thinking about your horns taking the top line. Well obviously, when I’m talking about this I’m talking about epic music rather than trailer music in general because trailer music in general, it’s just a case from genre to genre you’re approach to the third act will differ. But the most important thing is impact. Impact can come from lots of different things, it doesn’t have to come from a huge wall of sound, it can come from a tempo change, it can come from an orchestration change, it can come from a dip into a completely lower level of dynamic. So you just need to think about your cue, about the genre you’re working on and about how you can make act three the same. If you really don’t know how to make act three bigger, make act two smaller. Job done.
Right now act two, I’ve too many acts here, common mistake number two, is using your full drum rhythm too early, now this is something that I learned from Steve Reich. I’ve always said Reich, I’ll say Reich. He would have a drum pattern in his mind and he would strip out the parts so that the drum part starts with one hit. And then as the drum progresses he adds another hit. So it becomes two hits within the pattern, and then you progress to get to your full drum pattern.
Now what a lot of aspiring composers do when they submit a demo is they want to give act two impact, so they load it with everything. And it’s great because it does have impact. But then again it’s the same problem, I get bored. Ok, I’ve heard this same drum rhythm with all the same iterations already and I’m only half way through act two. So by the time we get to act three and it’s the same drum rhythm again, I’m not interested. I’ve lost interest. The same thing applies as the previous mistake. If you feel like you’ve got your biggest sounding drum loop, drum pattern, I’ll say pattern, then put that at the back end of act three and then work backwards from there. You know I know some people mix their trailer cues like this, they mix from act three, and work backwards. Because once you’ve got act three, you know the scope of your cue. Both its size, its weight, its impact, its drum beats, its emotion, you know everything from act three because that’s essentially all you’re doing, you’re building up to that point.
So you have your full thing there and you work backwards. And what I would do if I were you, if you’re not sure what I mean is I would take your brum pattern and loop it backwards right to the start. And at each reiteration of the pattern take a note out. So by the first reiteration you lose a note, second reiteration you lose two notes, third reiteration lose three notes, etc. And when I say notes that can take the form of literally a note within the rhythm if its a single drum or it can maybe even a drum that is playing. So you know actually I’ll lose the snares, I won’t have the snares until the end. Oh actually here I’ll lose the tikos and here I will lose the ticking clock. And then you will see that your rhythm is progressing and You’re giving your idea breath simply by spreading the love.
Now this first one I am extremely passionate about introductions, extremely passionate about them. Introductions set the scene. They are you know, they are the things that capture you. When I sit down to watch a trailer and I have to say I have very little patience with a lot of trailers because I sit down and go ah this again, even when it’s my music, ah this again Rich, doing your chello plucks again. But what you’re doing with your introduction is you’re grabbing their attention, you are the hook into the trailer, you are the hook into the world, you are the hook into the soundscape. So what you do in your introduction gives them an idea of what is to come.
Now the mistake that everyone makes is over complicating the introduction. And I know why because I have done it too, and it’s the fear that a single note in an introduction isn’t enough. I know I can’t have that single piano note, that doesn’t, no they won’t like that, let’s put some drones in,, let’s put a cinematic boom, let’s layer up at least six different instruments playing the same note so that I have this wonderful layer which admittedly can sound very nice, but what happens is you start to add more layers, add more things and before you realise you have thrown all of your interesting elements into the introduction, so again you have nowhere to go with your patterns and nowhere to go with your dynamics. If you start with a single note, you have everywhere to go, you give yourself scope to move. It’s kind of like if you imagine your introduction being a wall, being, let’s rephrase that, your introduction being some bricks, you can choose to make steps so that your listener can walk up those steps, or you can choose to make a wall so that they have nowhere to go. And what you want to do is tease them with little steps, little things one by one that gradually tease them into act two, tease them into act three, tease them into then going to see the film, because that trailer was effing amazing. That’s the thing. Don’t over complicate your intro. A drone when done well can do the job.
Think how many trailers start with violin harmonics, think how many trailers start with a single ding, or a single Oooh, because those single sounds have been thought about and placed well they create a visual landscape and a sonic landscape immediately. That kind of like ding with a really lovely long reverb tail, and immediately you’re in a different world. You hear that harmonic nice violin harmonic, doubled in the octaves and you think oh yes immediately I’m in the films, I’m in a film, and it’s great, it just teases you in. and then once you’re into the landscape, you’re into that soundscape tha5ts when you bring in more elements. You Are gradually revealing elements for your cue to them. You know your cue could essentially be a four bar loop, but you have written it so cleverly that they don’t hear that full four bar loop until right at the very end. And at that point they’re like this track is amazing. Yes. Do you get me? So don’t over complicate your intro. So next time you sit down try and do something simple, like try and refrain from adding like more than two things, more than one thing perhaps. You will be surprised as to how to then affects the rest of the cue, it gives you more room to develop, what you will find is your act two will then develop more naturally and your act three will then feel bigger because you’ve started smaller.
Now remember with dynamics, both in visual mediums and sonic mediums dynamics come from a spectrum, if everything is forking loud, you’re not going to hear it as forking loud, you’re going to hear it as just loud, just one level. If most of your cue is quiet but then it comes in with this huge sound, that hge sound is going to seem like a tidal wave of noise. It’s really important. The same with drawing, if your draweing be sure that if you’re doing dark shadows make those shadows as dark as possible and that will then by contrast make the highlights stand out, and that’s what you’re doing with this.
And a lot of these mistakes are very, very similar. You know the same sample often, act two and act three feeling the same, full drum loops and patterns too early, overcomplicating the intro. The four mistakes are all essentially the same thing, you’re blowing your load too early, you’re revealing your cards when you don’t need to. Approach your music with confidence, you know what you’re doing, because you’re writing music that you like to write, no one else can do what you do, that’s the thing about, you know what you’re doing, now slowly reveal your ideas, believe me it will help your writing no end.
Now I just want to say thank you so much for taking the time to listen to this, I really do appreciate it, if you enjoyed the podcast please subscribe, please review, and if you want to learn more about great trailer music head on over to the Trailer Music School and you can check out my YouTube channel as well. That’s Richard Schrieber, thank you so much guys, you are awesome.