David Das and Michael Elsner are the composers behind SonicTremor, and the Darklight trailer music series. Their debut album, Symphonic Rock Trailers, was released in January, and I had the opportunity to meet David and Michael to learn a little more about the release. Darklight: Symphonic Rock Trailers blends the edginess of guitars with the drama of an orchestra to create a set of tracks perfect for movie trailers. Check out our short video interview from David Das’ studio, featuring music from the release.
Trailer Music News: Tell us a little about yourselves. How did you get your start in music?
David Das: I am a composer and a music producer. I got my start in Nashville after I graduated college. My college degree is in classical piano and conducting, but I grew up with pop, rock and jazz in the fingers, and I’ve done tons of arranging and writing in those styles. So I’m equally comfortable in both arenas. I toured for a while, and I started finding more work as a music producer. Then, after I moved into Los Angeles 6 or 7 years ago, I found work as a film composer, in commercials, TV, trailers and stuff like that. That’s what I love to do. As long as I’m making music and I’m being creative, I’m fulfilled.
Michael Elsner: Like David, my career started in Nashville back in 1998. That’s actually where we met initially. My background is mainly in the pop/rock world as a guitar player and a writer. As with David, my career started gearing itself more towards producing. When I came into Los Angeles, I fell into the world of writing for various television shows. It was mainly pop/rock stuff, but that slowly evolved into a lot of other genres. Once David made his way out here, we started working together.
TMN: How did you both start working together?
David: We both had a lot of independent projects of our own that we would occasionally call each other on. “Hey, can you play keys on this? Can you play guitar on that? Can you help me mix this?” That kind of stuff. So we bounced stuff back and forth a lot. And then both of us independently were getting a lot of material licensed, and we were creating music that was specifically for TV, commercials, or films. So we’ve kind of been on this journey together over time.
Michael: Yeah, and I think that’s just the nature of being in Los Angeles. There’s just so much work in that world if you’re heading that way. When I arrived here I was really focused on a lot of artist-driven stuff like going out and playing. Then we both started getting into the TV thing. And then it just morphed into writing together. We ended up working together on a number of shows over the few couple years together. It’s one of those things where stylistically what we do complements each other well. Coming from a rock guitar background and adding the classical, orchestral stuff that he knows how to do – that’s a nice marriage.
TMN: How did you make your way into trailers?
David: I had started scoring trailers 4 or 5 years ago through established trailer companies and got my feet wet there and saw a lot of success in that. It’s a really fun genre to write for because there’s so much animation to it, and so many different stylistic elements. From the epic rock stuff, to the orchestral side of it, and lot’s of moody textures…. It’s just so much fun because there’s this very colorful palette.
TMN: So it covers a lot of different styles.
David: Yeah, for sure.
Michael: I think also, the styles are compressed into a very quick amount of time. When you write a pop song, you have 30 seconds of one thing, followed by 30 seconds of a chorus, etc. But with a lot of trailer stuff it’s 4 bars of ‘this’ and a big swoosh into 7 seconds of ‘that,’ and it constantly moves.
David: About 10 years ago, I was called to work on a project of just radio ID’s. They’re really short things: sometimes 3, 4, or 5 seconds. They’re all this ‘whizz bang.. 94.9 woosh’ and all that kind of stuff. The amount of time and attention that it took me to focus on 3-5 seconds of audio was actually roughly equivalent to how long it might take me to produce a 3 or 4 minute run-of-the-mill pop song. The pop song is simpler and you can work longways, letting a song unfold over time, but with those radio IDs you had to cram so many ideas in to make it interesting and captivate the listener. I learned a lot through that project, and now it’s really applying well to the trailer stuff because it’s similar. Keep the listener interested, work the “arcs” of the material, and craft the emotional journey.
Michael: You have to get a lot of ideas out in a short amount of time. It’s fun!
TMN: How did Sonic Tremor start?
Michael: Well, the official start of Sonic Tremor was actually giving what we do together a name. We just decided ‘we’re doing a lot of music for other companies; it’s time to start our own.’ So Sonic Tremor was born out of that, but you could say it’s gone on for a long time. We released Darklight, which is the trailer series that we’re doing, at the end of 2011. Now that’s released, and the second Darklight is coming out in spring 2012. It’s mostly done already. Now it’s just a matter of fine tuning.
TMN: What does Darklight focus on?
Michael: We’re trying to stay cohesive with each release. This first one is Epic Symphonic Rock Trailers, and geared towards thrillers, dramas- it’s obviously not romantic comedy music. It’s high action, dark, suspenseful stuff.
David: Action, thriller, horror, suspense…
Michael: I think one of the things we’re trying to do to separate Darklight from a lot of other releases, is how we’re packaging it for editors. So when you get Darklight, you get the 16 full trailer pieces, as well as a number of alternate mixes. And then we break down folders of individual hits, swooshes, risers, and drones from each piece. Every individual element separated from the trailer that an editor could possibly need. That way an editor can use a hit that’s sonically and level-wise the same as in the piece. So it will be cohesive, easy, and fast for them to make edits with.
TMN: That sounds like it will be really helpful.
Michael: I think a lot of that comes from working with other artists over the years; whether it be producing other artists, or mixing some of their projects, and getting files and ProTools sessions that are just a mess. To the point where it becomes more laborious for us to finish something than we initially expected. So our mindset is, let’s just try to make it as easy as possible for other people, because when other people give us projects I like to be able to load up and just go. We offer the full library – trailers, alt mixes, stems, elements – as a download to editors and trailer houses, fully tag it in SoundMiner, and offer it in all the major audio formats.
TMN: Was there a lot of collaboration with this album?
David: Yes, the actual process of creation was a lot of bouncing things back and forth. One of us would usually come up with a skeleton for the piece – a tempo map and some rough sonic ideas: ‘we’re going to have a stop here and three measures of 3/4 here, and then change to this tempo here.’ All the trailers are in the 2-minute range, but they have a lot of starts, stops and changes in momentum, so one of us would typically come up with that skeleton and maybe a guide track. When I write guide tracks I often do them on piano because that’s my main instrument, while Michael’s main instrument is guitar. So I would just dropbox Michael some files and say “alright, here’s the tempo map, here’s a guide track: let me hear what you’re going to put on it”. Because he’s a tremendously creative musician, I knew he would come up with stuff that I would never have thought of. It’s a lot like tennis – we’re just bouncing these back and forth all the time. It turned out to be a very creative way of working, because if I’m here in my studio alone, I don’t really inspire myself. I know what I sound like. I sit down at the keyboard, put my hands down- I know what that sounds like. But to have the input of someone else just constantly throwing new ideas in, is so much fun. So we would just keep bouncing the tracks back and forth until we felt – ok this is pretty complete now – and then we went to mix.
Michael: We’ve done this for a while, and the cool thing is, while David’s a piano player, he also plays guitar and bass. I’m a guitar player, but I also play keyboards, and have a lot of virtual instruments in my rig. So maybe I’ll throw in some weird drone on a keyboard. Then he’ll get some ideas and throw in a high e-bow guitar thing. He’ll add in elements that are guitar and bass oriented, and I’ll add in elements that are keyboard oriented. So it isn’t just “I play guitar and he plays piano”.
David: There’s a lot of overlap.
Michael: It is nice to have the knowledge of the other instruments, and the palette to work sonically from. It’s nice because he’ll come up with orchestral ideas that there’s no way I would ever come up with.
David: I’d also say on a purely personal level, the collaboration process brings something out of each of us that neither of us could have done by themselves. I’ve done plenty of trailers by myself before, but these feel completely different and at a whole new level because I’ve actually had someone to share ideas with. There’s a lot of satisfaction in doing that.
Michael: And it’s fun. It gets boring just to sit by yourself and write music after while. It’s fun to have input. We frequently have multiple trailers bouncing back and forth between each other.
TMN: So every time you get a file from David…
Michael:It’s a surprise! It’s like Christmas! You open up a present and go “wow, that was pretty cool.” But then it’s also inspiring. He does a lot of choral stuff. I’ll get it back with a choral part on it and think, ‘this is awesome’, and that makes me think of a totally different style of guitar riff. I might go back and completely replace what I laid down before. Maybe I laid down something very boring, and then he adds this fire on top of it. So I’ll go back and really make the thing shine in that section. It’s a lot of back and forth, but it’s fun.
David: Some of our alternate mixes take that into consideration too, because we did choir-less mixes, or drum-less mixes. A lot of those elements can come out in the alternate mixes, even though the main mixes are the primary we hear them. We know that a drum-less mix can have a lot of pent-up suspense that the full mix doesn’t, so we’re putting it all out there and giving editors a ton of material to work with.
TMN: Thanks guys!