In this interview, Alessandro Mastroianni interviews Joshua Fielstra, a Composer & Sound Designer who composes and designs sound for film trailers.
Joshua shares his experience of getting started in the sound design industry… and provides fantastic insight into music, sound design and trailer composition. He also talks about how he uses Krotos Reformer Pro and Weaponiser for everything from spotting an initial project through to complex, hard-to-record Foley.
Read the interview and watch the highlights below, or watch the full interview here.
Alessandro Mastroianni: Hi Josh – could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you get started in sound?
Joshua Fielstra: I started in a purely technical background. I took a computer programming course when I was 13 and later I started taking computer science classes, but all the time I was always very interested in music.
I became a software developer because I just thought there was no way I could do anything sound related. So I worked as a developer for about twelve years. I was living in Chicago when I met this guy named Jonathan and then he ended up working for Native Instruments and he offered me a job there. From there I was introduced to Jez Colin at HiFinesse Music & Sound. He was trying to replicate a particular sound and a friend of mine suggested he talk to me. So I figured it out and I sent him that sound and he said “well, can you do some more sounds like this?”
So I left my job at Native Instruments and started doing more sounds there, and then eventually music for trailers. So it went from pure-technical to pure-creative on a long progression!
AM: With the line as blurred as ever between music and sound design, when you do sound design for trailers, do you still do more musical sound design, or do you also do augmented Foley?
JF: I do hard effects – doors opening, fist punching. I also do the designed stuff – long wind-ups, big whooses. And then also I do music, which is part sound effects, like the horror stuff. Horror is very much on the line between sound design and music.
AM: Most people know that the composer for the film doesn’t do the music for the trailer. That’s kind of a given. There is a logistical problem that the music is not ready yet – could you explain a little bit how it works?
JF: It’s kind of weird to other industries. It’s not only that the music for the film isn’t done. But the picture too. When a composer & sound designer gets involved, that’s post post – that’s when you have something filmed and edited so it’s very late in the game. But with trailers, you’re trying to do the exact opposite. You’re trying to get people interested before any of the assets are done.
So there are a number of ways to do it, and I do kind of three different things.
One is I create a lot of assets that go into a library which goes to various ad agencies and studios. By working with them, you understand their tastes. You try to create things that match their tastes so that they can pull it off the shelf.
Then there’s the other option, where the movie studios will work with ad agencies to help make their trailers more impactful. Sometimes the studio or the ad agency will have a concept and they’ll ask me to create a piece of music for them to cut to (often having seen no footage from the film whatsoever!) Then there’s a middle ground where we have some raw assets and some pre-existing stuff – it becomes kind of this custom collage job. In all cases, I don’t talk to the filmmaker. It’s mostly ad agencies or the marketing arm of the studio. So you’re trying to create something before the movie has even started. That’s why trailers get so heavy and impactful – you’re trying to create something that can stand on its own because the film is not ready.
AM: With trailer music, I notice very specific trends – from the dubstep period several years ago, to the trailers of pop song remixes that seems to be very recent and still going. What do you feel is the new trend in trailer music?
JF: Yeah, there’s definitely a trend of taking a single idea – maybe repeating elements such as a piano note or a mild horror effect or a violin glissando – and having it slowly build into a multi-layered piece that then evolves into this full-on wall of sound. Those requests are coming in like crazy.
JF: Yeah, that is a perfect example of something that’s both sound design and music. starting out with a single sound design motif which then becomes a rhythmic musical element that builds again. It’s all blurry. It’s all over the place. Which is good, I think.
AM: It sounds like it’s a really cool job because of the variety. If you’re a film composer, it’s typically very long projects. Here it sounds like you do something different every day. So that must be cool.
JF: Yeah. It’s always different. if you’re doing a film or TV it’s like, well, our production is this state to that date. And then there’s this in-between break. I mean, this is definitely more – it doesn’t stop!
AM: Let’s jump into Workflow. if you work in this industry, you need to be very efficient and write very fast. Considering that Krotos is all about finding new ways to perform sound. I’d be interested to know how you use the software?
JF: Reformer Pro, for example, solves a problem that we have when creating sound design. If you’re working with a picture, something happens at a certain point on the timeline. Say I need a design to consist of four or five different sounds – What do you do? Well, you drag a sound in on the timeline where you think it should go, and then you drag another one. Then you back your play bar up and then you hit play and think, “Well, that’s okay, but it’s not quite it. And that’s a little bit off”… that is one discrete sound, and I’ve got to do 100 of these! Do you know what I mean?
JF: So the reason that I initially got involved with Krotos was Reformer Pro and Weaponiser, because they solve very specific problems – getting things to happen in time, getting them to happen with variations and getting them to happen in a way that doesn’t involve me putting them on the timeline.
Like, in the case of Reformer, you can use your voice – it’s almost kind of going back to the old Foley way of doing things, where someone’s got shoes on their hands. Which, incidentally, is more creative and human!
AM: Right? It’s a performance.
JF: It’s a performance. It’s the reason that we do music and sound in the first place. And that’s the thing that I’m always trying to get and I’m always trying to do. And that’s why I set up all this remote control stuff so that I keep my brain in a very human, spontaneous performance place. I saw one of the early reformer videos where the guy is talking into the microphone and I’m like, wait a minute… this is pretty Rad!
And Weaponiser – it solves the problem of variation. I’m not using it for weapons – I rarely do weapons ever! I’m using it for discrete hits. If I need eight or nine variations, I can drag in the things that I know I’m likely to use, and then I can use the synth to sweeten things and add detail. I can turn the drunk knob, and every time I push fire, it’ll be a slightly different thing.
If I didn’t do that, I’d have to copy the whole thing, move it, change the positions manually – that kind of stuff. I mean, So if you give me that on one button?! that’s where we want to be.
With Reformer, it solves this tremendous problem. If I need this wall of, say, metal clanking sounds, like a piece of junk is rolling down a hill. When we record things with a microphone, we’ll have discrete hits. How many of those assets are you going to have to come up with? You can’t record that in nature. You can’t just push something down a hill and run after it with a microphone!
So I take a lot of discrete elements. analyse them in Reformer, take the ones I know I want to use, and then load them all in. Then I can just hit a key on the MIDI keyboard and move around the XY and I have just this massive wall of metal sounds or texture sounds or whatever that otherwise… I don’t even know what that would require on a timeline.
This kind of stuff – that’s where we want to be, and especially where we want to be going forward in the future. This kind of stuff is more forward-thinking. It’s more human. I’m focusing on the performance.
AM: Reformer and Weaponiser are very useful for spotting to picture. It kind of allows you to draw in MIDI, or use your voice or spot where you actually need sound. And you do that, and then you do all the layering in the platform. So you can focus on getting creative and finding variation.
JF: Absolutely. Because it’s an instrument. They’re both more instruments than they are plugins, so to speak. And with the way it is analysed, like the lower keys on the keyword will play the lower sound sources… Why would I do anything else?
And also in Weaponiser, the MIDI can trigger all of the individual hits together, the C sharp will trigger just the attack, D will trigger the middle thump part of the sound. that’s great for spotting. We just kind of watch things happen and go. Right. And then you got your sketch. Yeah, that’s a big deal.
AM: You’re in a unique position of being a composer, and experienced in the music tech industry. Part of getting rid of the barriers in the creative process that is being mentioned regularly is AI. What do you think of it?
JF: Yeah, I’m actively involved in this topic. We did some surveys of things and the areas that musicians want AI to help them is doing the tasks that they don’t want to do. But people consistently say, I want to have as much AI as possible, as long as I’m in control and I’m doing the writing, I’m doing the creative side.
I’m in music for the human connection. And even if AI music was awesome, I feel like I’m not making a connection with the person who made it. And so it has no value to me. And I think that’s the way, if you ask people, most of them will say this in the future, it’s going to be we’re going to stay as creative as possible. The AI is going to do the technical stuff, and I can’t wait for that to happen because my studio is a mess!
AM: I just want to close with the classic question about the location. Is it still necessary to be in LA or London to work in sound?
JF: For me, I didn’t start doing creative work until I was in my 40s, and it was after I moved to LA. But the thing that I would impress upon people is that even though that happened for me, the common thread is still proximity to creative people. And more and more that proximity is going to be more virtual than anything else. For example, we’re having labour shortages. And one of the main causes of the labour shortage is that COVID has made people realise they don’t have to be in an office and do things this way.
And I think that will continue. But going back to the proximity, I didn’t go through any of the traditional roads becoming a composer’s assistant or entering into a sound design internship or getting an agent or doing it. It was just because of being around other creative people and doing creative things.
Take as many creative jobs as you can, even if they’re not industry jobs, do things like do tech for someone’s wedding, or help with someone’s student film. That stuff teaches you things, and it builds relationships – you have no idea where that’s going to lead.
And I think that that’s the most important thing. Composers or sound designers think that the music just needs to be really good. It’s time to share the bad news.
AM: Yeah, I’ve heard both versions: don’t worry about going out there, Just focus on writing amazing music and you will have success. And at the same time, I’ve also heard the opposite. Probably they’re both wrong!
JF: I mean, look. the reality is that every day there are 500 people who hop off a plane who are far more “talented” than Hans Zimmer. It’s more about proximity to creative people, building good relationships, having productive human experiences with sincere people, and having your tech chops up.
If it were just purely the best music, then they would just hold contests and whoever wins the best music contest would score the film. It’s much more complicated than that.
Can you sit in a meeting? Can you take a brief? Can you turn things in on time? Can you respond to creative input? Do we like you as a human being? Those are extremely important things for navigating this world. And as I said, proximity is getting more virtual. That’s my opinion as someone who didn’t come up directly into this industry in the traditional way. I’m kind of looking at it from hopefully a slightly more third-person perspective than the average person.
Alessandro Mastroianni: Thank you so much, Josh. This was very helpful. And A lot of fun.
Joshua Fielstra: Absolutely! Thank you very much.
Joshua Fielstra is an experienced composer for trailers, TV spots and television, having created trailer music for Game of Thrones, The Mauritanian, The Maze Runner and Deadpool, among many more. For more on Joshua Fielstra and his work, visit www.fielstramusic.com where you can find his details and portfolio.
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