Veteran Sound Designer Kevin Teasley chats about scoring for movie trailers, sound engineering for Jennifer Lopez and Chris Brown, and making it in Hollywood.
In the fevered rush to sign up for fall courses—possibly the unsexiest academic chore since orientation, if not the most stomach-churning—few things will cause a nerd boner to bust concrete with truly exultant lust for the Knowledge of the Ancients like securing a spot in one’s first filmmaking elective course.
As a once-adolescent cineaste among like-minded peers, I can unequivocally attest that all of us wanted a chance to direct—or at least be able to work the camera.
Cameras are sexy. The modern prosumer ENG or digital cine camcorder is, to paraphrase Doc Brown, a studio in miniature. They are powerful, expensive and intimidating devices which produce the very images that fuel our dreams; at once indispensable to the art of filmmaking, and in themselves symbolic of the soul of filmmaking.
A smaller, but not insignificant number of us fall in love with the task of arranging those images into a proper story. The editing bench is where your film is actually ‘born’, and where I personally found myself bitten by the bug. Okay, where am I going with this?
Well, going back to my group of junior cineastes, I can’t think of any of my close friends whose dreams were moistened by the thought of being the person with the boom mic and field recorder, or working the mixing board and Logic Pro, sweating over the details of where to apply the necessary compression, expansion, notch filters, loops, walla-walla, borborygmi or otherwise.
Indeed, none of our highschool or early college productions had such personnel, or potential volunteers—and thus, our projects felt like they were missing something quite substantial. Inevitably, in post-graduate guerrilla mode, all of these tasks fell to one or two people who would much rather have just been holding the camera or using the NLE, and the results sounded at best, better than nothing—at worst, as if their degrees were worth their weight in fishbait. Often still better than nothing, but lightyears away from the likes of Skip Livesay or Ben Burtt.
Dedicated sound designers and engineers are—particularly now in the post-Star Wars-era of the talkie, and post-Pink Floyd-era of live and recorded music—so essential to the perceived quality of a finished film or album, that it’s fair to say that more than half of the job of transporting the consciousness of the audience into the world of the story, or affecting your mood on a moment-to-moment basis, is shouldered by the sound department. The potential several-thousands of watts on tap in a modern theater aren’t just sound and fury signifying nothing, but in the hands of a tasteful engineer are a massive organ with manipulative powers the likes of which Hitchcock could only imagine.
Even within the limited timeframe of a movie trailer, in which an editor may have only a few minutes to ramp up his NLE from Sunday morning jog to Defcon-Cuisinart Level-2 in order to sell the audience on a thrillride, it’s the happy union of that editing Weltschmerz with the sound engineer’s thankless toil that serve to produce an experience that really wraps around and chafes the viewer.
There’s a lot going on underneath the visual timeline, and it’s every bit as important. But I dare the non-student or non-geek to name any notable sound designers or engineers, even from your favorite films. (I ran out of names after Livesay and Burtt. F-Minus, Ed.)
Then I guess I can assume with confidence that you’ve likely not heard the name of veteran sound designer, producer, composer, and music director Kevin Teasley, of Tonic Music & Creative, Distortion Music & Sound Design, The Unit, and Soundcheck Samples—all companies he founded and runs, and which serve to provide sound effects and samples packages, custom scoring for television, and sound design and cues for movie trailers.
If you’ve been watching TV or planted yourself in a theater seat often in the past fifteen years, you’ve likely heard Kevin’s work. His trailer licenses include, but are so not limited to: Iron Man 2, The Town, Battle for Los Angeles, Despicable Me, Salt, Knight and Day, and Toy Story 3. Kevin is also the Pro Tools programmer/engineer for R&B singer Chris Brown and Jennifer Lopez.
MW: I’ve been waiting for this interview for some time, because I’m an audiophile and home theater enthusiast.
KT: That's wonderful, I am as well! I've been looking forward to this also! I'm very excited to speak with you and Polyphony Magazine.
MW: But I’m embarrassed that I can’t name any sound designers off the top of my head.
KT: Please don’t be embarrassed. This is one of those jobs where it’s kind of like the man behind the green curtain in ‘The Wizard of Oz’.
MW: How did you get into this occupation? What interested you?
KT: I studied Jazz Piano at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia. I’ve always idolized Herbie Hancock, and just wanted to be a jazz piano player. But I always had an interest in Film Scoring.
I was lucky enough in college to work with Stu Gardner, who composed the music for The Cosby Show and Living Single. And really, what I loved about the discipline of scoring music for picture, whether it’s for commercials or movie trailers or TV shows, is that one day they might want a classical score, next day they might want a jazz score, a rock score—so I get to do all these types of music. As well I thought it was very cool to have my music complementing the emotions of the actors and the storyline.
On top of that, the job seemed to be a nexus for everything it is that I like to do, which is the engineering side of music, the composing side of it, the conducting side, and the software side.
MW: So you wear quite a lot of hats; you’re a composer, sound designer, you’ve worked on a hell of a lot of trailers, and you engineer software. And you do live concert work. What do you spend most of your time doing, with regards to designing sound for trailers, or for live performers?
KT: It’s very cyclical, or should I say seasonal. In the summertime I’m touring more, because most of the concerts, whether it’s Chris Brown or Jennifer Lopez; most artists tour in the summer. In the winter months it gets slower—then in the spring, a lot of trailers and television work.
MW: What are the artistic and practical objectives of designing sound for trailers?
KT: Wonderful question to ask. For me, and I’m sure everybody has their own workflow—Monday is my "trailer day." And I go on Apple Trailers and a few other trailer sites, and just watch every trailer, regardless of genre. I’ll take notes on what I really like, what I don’t like, make note of trends that I feel are fading and trends that are starting to happen—I always like to be ahead of the curve as best I can. And then I’ll look at the slate that the movie studios put out, and I’ll see for instance that four scary movies are lined up for spring release, ten superhero movies for the summer, whatever it may be. And then I’ll put all of my notes down, and then in my own way—if you could envision me surrounded by all of these notes like the descending green text in The Matrix—start to forge a path to see where things are going, where I should focus my creative energies.
It’s like any sport or skill, whether you play football, basketball, or run track: you watch tapes and film of people whom you respect, whose craft you admire. So I watch—in a friendly competitive way—what other people are doing, and balance that with what my clients at trailer houses are saying, when I ask them, “What do you like,” or “What don’t you like, what are you tired of hearing?”
Remember at one point, every trailer that came out had that same trombone riff (that “BWAAAAH” noise) from Hans Zimmer’s score from Inception. So for about three to four years, all of us in the industry were working to come up with ways to put our own spin on that, because we knew it would be around for a while.
MW: I’m sure Hans Zimmer himself is tired of hearing that, too.
KT: They say imitation is the best form of flattery, but I’m sure he’d look at this stuff day to day going, “Oh my God…” I’m pretty sure if you talk to twenty different men and women who do this, half would probably do some things that are the same, but with their own methods. But what I think everybody would say is that you really, really have to absorb and study it.
People, mainly younger people, or people new to this discipline who are trying to get into the industry…they make these really cool sounds and cues, but in my opinion they’re really not understanding the function of them quite yet. They make them too busy, where they’re overriding the dialogue. So it’s not just being a fan of sound design, or trailer music… you have to be a fan of trailers. Just like if you want to play basketball, you have to be a basketball addict. If you want to be a jazz pianist, you have to be a jazz piano addict. You have to really listen and absorb. And don’t be a hater. If you hear something that’s awesome that makes you go, “Wow, I wish I came up with that,” learn from it and put it into your palette. You really just have to listen and watch.
On surviving La-La Land (not the movie)
MW: You mention a lot of people are trying to get into the industry; how competitive is the sound engineering field?
KT: Oh, very competitive. I moved out to LA about fifteen years ago; it’s the city where the film industry is, where the music industry is. It just seemed like the natural choice, and luckily for me it was not only the natural choice, it was the right choice. I think I’m very fortunate and blessed to be able to do all of this stuff—granted, it’s a lot of hard work.
It truly is, for one thing, when people ask me, “Kevin, how do I make it? How do I get to the next level?” I can’t say I know the surefire answer to that, but I know what you can’t do, and that’s quit. A lot of people get into it, and after two years, if they aren’t as successful as they envisioned for themselves, they’ll quit. But that’ll just pave the way for the next person who didn’t quit. It’s just like a sport, just like going to the gym—you can’t go to the gym once a week and expect to lose 40 pounds in a month. You have to really be diligent about it, I can’t stress it enough. And especially with today’s technology, any talented person with a laptop and a few hundred dollars worth of software can make something pretty competitive.
You also have to create "your sound"; something that is unique and undeniably your creative and musical voice.
Next, you have to be on top of the business aspect of this craft as well. You have to develop a client base, and part of that client base development is trust. They have to trust that you’re not only good at what you do, but if they say they need a music cue from you at 9AM on Monday, and you turn it in at 9AM on time. They should never have to call you at 9:15 from the Warner Brothers lot saying “Where’s our music cue?” You’re not always going to hit the bullseye, they may say “Ah, this isn’t quite what we’re looking for,” but if it’s always quality work, they may come back. But you can’t be late.
And we are in a “yes” business—but that’s not without caveats. Whenever my client asks me to do something, and they ask, “Kevin, can you put a 40-piece choir on this,” and the answer is of course yes. But then you hang up the phone and think to yourself, “How am I going to pull this off?” They don’t want to hear all these excuses. Sometimes you just have to put that red ’S’ and your cape on, buy a six-pack of Red Bull and just work through the night. And that’s what I mean about doing the inconvenient thing. It can always be on your terms, or be convenient, but if you’re really looking to be successful, you may find yourself having to pull some rabbits out of your hat many times.
MW: A couple more questions; what’s involved in designing sound for live performance?
KT: It’s very similar to doing for trailers, TV or film, but it’s just a live concert experience. You really have to study the artist’s sensibilities, their style of music. I’ll ask an artist, the creative director or music director what movies they like, what other concerts or performances they like, or if their concert was a movie, what would it be like? What kind of emotions are you trying to get across to the audience?
What I try to do is listen to every album they’ve ever done, and go to YouTube and watch every video that they’ve ever done. That really gives me a good sense of how they perceive themselves visually. And then what I’ll try to do is translate that to the live stage.
There are different departments; there’s a content department that works with the video wall. Then there’s the laser department, the lights department, and the pyro department (which handles flares, explosions, smoke, etc.)
And I’ll talk with them and see what they want to accomplish; we'll often hold production meetings with their management, and we’ll try to work within their budget (remember, Budget is king!)
Here’s an extreme example: I’m not trying to give you ‘Transformers’-style effects if you’re portraying a romantic comedy. With Jennifer Lopez, she’s the hotspot, she’s larger than life. And what I try to do for her is larger than life, classy and epic. Chris Brown on the other hand, is also epic. But he’s more urban, so the production for him is more "street"; not as glamorous, but very stylized and and produced for his performance and personality. So I approach them very differently, but I try to give them the best to achieve their live performance vision. Whether it’s a new artist or a big veteran artist, I try to give them the best of the best that I can, of what they want to achieve.
MW: Are you of liberty to talk about anything you’ve been working on most recently?
KT: Of course the biggest thing I’ve been working on this year, as far as concert work, has been the Jennifer Lopez Las Vegas residency that we’re doing.
And I say this with a smile, with pride…is that I think I have a couple more gray hairs—that’s not a diss at all, in any way, it’s a positive. It has been one of the most challenging projects I’ve worked on to date. Truly one of the biggest stage performances I’ve ever worked on, and it really did combine everything we’ve mentioned so far, with video, lights, lasers. Building arrangements, orchestrations, segues…—it was such a big show that I’m very proud of it, and of course Jennifer and Benny Medina are proud of it.
That took up alot of this year’s efforts, and because of that, I really didn’t get into much custom trailer work this year. (The way trailers work is that they license cues. So some of the music wasn’t custom, it was from my existing back catalog that I can service trailer clients with.)
So I had a ton of great licenses for some huge films this year, and some new ones that just got licensed. There are some cues licensed for the Star Wars: Rogue One trailer. But that J.Lo show was something that I’m really proud of. You know how if you work on something and you go, “After this, I can take on anything!”