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Creating Trailer Music & Sound Design With Composer Steven Phillips

Every editor knows that music and sound design are the lifeblood of any good trailer — but have you ever seen exactly how it’s made?

Today we’re going behind-the-scenes with music composer and sound design artist, Steven Phillips. Steven is the founder and owner of Sonic Intuition, a custom music production studio that focuses on creating handcrafted music, atmospheres and sounds for motion pictures, television and visual media.

How to Compose a Trailer Music Cue: The Creative Process

Steven was generous enough to create a video lesson where you’ll get an inside look at his exact process for creating a professional trailer drum cue from the ground up.

Here is the final version of the cue he’ll be composing. Have a listen.



Pretty cool stuff huh? Lots of sonic variety and a well-defined beat — perfect for an aggressive trailer cut.

Now, let’s head into Steven’s production studio and have a look over his shoulder as he creates this cue from scratch.


If you are interested in the duty free cues Steven references at the beginning of his tutorial, click here.


You can learn more about trailer music and sound design editing techniques in this free 3-part video training series.

Now, let’s get to know the composer a bit.

Meet Steven

FEP: Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background? How’d you get into music and sound composition?

SP: I live in Atlanta with my wife Julie, 2 year old son Samuel and a brand new baby boy named Hank! I have been playing music and tinkering with sound for as long as I can remember. I was even creating overdub recordings and other audio manipulations on my dual cassette boom box at the age of ten.

My professional career started in the early nineties playing bass for Tony Cook (legendary James Brown Drummer.) He taught me the basics of analog recording. From there I started engineering and programming for Ichiban Records in their Hip Hop division, Wrap Records.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1999 and continued to freelance produce music for various artists. I scored my first trailer The Covenant for Sony and I was immediately hooked. I found that working to picture was very inspiring. I quickly made friends in the film advertising industry and began growing my business.

FEP: Tell us a bit about your company. What do you specialize in? What types of projects have you been a part of?

SP: I started cataloging my sound design hits and soon had enough to start sending the collection to various trailer houses and begin licensing them. I was extremely excited to have my sound design featured on a Terminator Salvation TV Spot. Also during this period I contributed to a number of worldwide music libraries most notably APM who has placed my work in many feature films, television shows and advertisements.

FEP: Let’s dive into the craft of music and sound design creation. What’s your basic process for creating a new music cue. What software do you use? How do you begin planning and creating the piece?

SP: My creative process begins by listening to as much music as I can. I watch tons of trailers and I always pay close attention to music in films and on television. I listen for new ideas and directions. Usually this will inspire me to start working on a new composition. My favorite sequencer is Cubase. I generally always stay updated to the latest version of that. I also use Pro Tools of course; mostly for recording. I LOVE Native Instruments, everything they do is amazing!

Much of my sound design these days is composed in SLAYER which is an instrument in REAKTOR by Native Instruments. I find it is the best tool for creating unusual sounds that you might not even think of off the top of your head. Very inspiring!

When I start to create a piece of music I decide what type of instrumentation I will use first. For example if I want to do a piece that incorporates a great deal of orchestral elements, my first step is to open Action Strings (by Native Instruments). Action Strings makes it easy to quickly flesh out a framework or basic structure of a piece. After that I’ll open some french horns in Cinebrass and start composing the melody. Once this is done the piece will tell me what it needs.

I add and take away elements continuously until I feel good about it. Then I’ll rest from it, preferably overnight. Any obvious problems will usually show themselves the following morning.

FEP: How is this process different for sound design?

SP: My process for sound design usually begins with going out with my field recording equipment and capturing as much source material as I can. I might record an ambulance siren screaming by, or bang on hydro towers. You just never know what’s going to yield interesting and unusual results. Once I have a good deal of material I’ll take it into SLAYER or Cubase and start manipulating it, adding reverb or other effects such as pitch stretching, time stretching etc. From there it can go in many different directions. Once you start hearing something interesting the next step is to keep going but hopefully not too far. Thank God for unlimited undos!

FEP: What characteristics and elements do you think a music cue should contain to be a good candidate for use in an trailer or tv spot?

SP: In general; music for trailers needs to be very epic and cinematic. It needs to have a lot of low end to shake the theater. The elements need to be very rich in color and character. Of course there are exceptions to every rule and trends that dominate for a period. Dubstep was all the rage a couple of years ago and has since gone out of style (for trailers anyway). Who knows where it will go next. That’s why it’s always key to have good relationships with music supervisors.

TV spots are totally different. Catchy hooks and pop elements are more prevalent. This helps to reach a broader audience in the same manner that a pop song does. Of course every TV spot is different. If the ad is more on the sarcastic side then the music can be more over the top. A silly Little Caesars ad might use triumphant superhero music for instance. Most of the ad agencies have finally burned out on solo ukulele. Hopefully that won’t be back for a while!

FEP: What are some tricks and techniques you use to create sonic variety in a cue? (Particularly in a section that could become repetitive such as a long build towards a climax…)

SP: You can always use a rising element such as a synthesizer or even violins. Any instrument with the capability of portamento verses individual notes. I find however that this can get you into trouble sometimes. I would always have an alternate version on hand in case editors don’t want the rise or are using another one that they like better. I find it much more interesting and challenging to use percussion and rhythmic variations to create this effect. As a novice video editor myself, I know that percussion seems to be an easier foundation for building clever edits. Also, the gradual addition of reverb or some other signal effect can be interesting and create sonic variety as well.

FEP: Do you have any suggestions for editors when it comes to approaching sound design? Any things you’ve noticed that can really help or hurt a cut?

SP: I think a good rule of thumb is to choose and place sound design that helps tell the story best without overshadowing the drama. A sound can evoke feeling just like an image does. Close your eyes and listen to the sound and see what image appears when you hear it. If it matches similarly in emotion to the shot, then you’re in the right ball park for sure. Of course this is going to be an exaggerated example but…you wouldn’t place a sound that provokes violent, grisly imagery over a shot that provokes longing or deep thought. Use your ears, that’s what they’re there for.

A sound can evoke feeling just like an image does. Close your eyes and listen to the sound and see what image appears when you hear it. If it matches similarly in emotion to the shot, then you’re in the right ball park for sure.

FEP: Any other tips or thoughts for editors looking to effectively use music and sound in a trailer or promo?

SP: I hate to use this cliche but “Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.” Juxtaposition between image and music often times works really well. A somber emotive piece of music can make an energetic sequence seem all the more energetic. Don’t try to talk yourself out of it. Just try it. If it doesn’t work; command Z. That doesn’t mean go out and constantly try to reinvent the wheel. The tried and true methods are tried and true for a reason. They work. Just something to think about when you are having difficulty with a stale sequence.

FEP: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. Where can people learn more about your company?

SP: It’s my pleasure. You can find me on my website Sonic Intuition or Facebook page!

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