You Might Be Tone Deaf, But Film Isn't

A boy walks down a road, looking at something we, the audience, can't see. A heartbeat begins, corresponding with every step. The low whine of a string instrument intertwines with the percussive sound of his organ. He picks up the pace, glancing behind as the tempo and amplitude grow. Then suddenly, silence. He stops, looks up. He’s at the end of the road.

A boy walks down a road, looking at something we, the audience, can't see. He picks up the pace, glancing behind. He stops, looks up. He’s at the end of the road.

Can you hear the difference?

Okay, so I'm not a composer, but I do understand the value of sound. The scenario above illustrates how much can be lost in a scene without music or sound to provide context. For something so essential to our films, why don’t we put more towards it? As an independent filmmaker I'll answer; it's because we're broke.

Starting off, any monetary resources we may have go towards talent, equipment, or just keeping our crew fed. Which is understandable, but for being such an important aspect, sound tends to be the most overlooked. Acting, directing, writing, they're all subjective, but with sound there's no way to get around it. If it's bad, so is your film. As Matt Raetzel flawlessly put it;

"The wrong score can ruin an otherwise great film. Contrarily, a great score can turn a serviceable film into a great one. Music is a powerful motivator, and when paired to visuals, it must translate every emotion correctly, or the film suffers. The same applies to sound in general. You can watch a beautifully shot film, but if the audio is recorded and edited insufficently, it takes the viewer right out of the story."

If you're not ready to hire a music composer at this exact second, that's okay. The point of this article isn't to sell, it's to educate. Growth is the most important experience anyone in this industry can have. By always aiming to create something better than your last piece, you're doing yourself a great service. By exploring Matt Raetzel's world of sound, my hope is that you take away something that turns your project into the next 'Pulp Fiction' or 'Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song.' For all the sound people reading this, I hope you're reminded how essential and appreciated your work is. 

Who Is Matthew Raetzal?


First things first, who exactly is Matt Raetzel? Well you may have heard his work before and not even realized it. With projects including, ‘Shelfie,' 'People, Places, and Things,’ and Nicole Wallace's upcoming feature, 'Ring of Silence,'  the award-winning sound and music composer has had work appear internationally; from Cannes film festival, to National Geographic, and even Amazon Prime. The self taught Metro-Detroiter has composed sound in over 40 projects including film, video games, advertising and more.

What Exactly Does a Film Composer Do?

Again, I'm not a composer, so I'll let the expert explain it best;

"As a film composer, my job is to take a project and translate visual emotions into audible ones.” Raetzel explains, “Whether it be a film or a video game, this process is done by creating a cohesive soundtrack consisting of music, sound effects, dialogue, and ambience.”

Most soundtracks tend to be original pieces, created from scratch by the composer. These authentic pieces are meant to enhance emotions in addition to the narrative being told during the storytelling process. Scores usually lack lyrics and according to Raetzel there's a reason for this.

“A great score should be interesting enough to be enjoyed when listened to independently, but more importantly, should not distract the viewer when placed in context with the film," the composer express. "The sole purpose of a score is to service the film, not distract the audience from it."

Not only does music and sound amplify the movie experience, but it serves as a way to inform audiences to a number of things about the film, such as what genre they're watching or interpersonal relationships between characters. Soap operas, for example, tend to use a distinct sound. You know what I'm talking about; that slow crescendo that explodes the moment someone witnesses their love-interest having an affair. It's dramatic, but that's the point. The music helps us understand the plot and characters before dialogue or action get the chance to. By setting tone, theme, and relationship, a composer serves as a tool to help the audience better interpret a piece for what it's meant to be.

The Process of Composing Music

Now that we understand what a composer can do, it's important to know how they do their job. 

"Designing sound and music to a picture is always a little different with each project," Raetzel assures. "Every producer or director I work with has a different process so my job as a composer is to create a work environment my employers are comfortable with."

No matter the project, Raetzel utilizes professional standards with his own unique practices.  Starting with what he coins 'procrastination week,' Raetzel watches clips of the project several times to get acquainted to it. He also studies other existing films and music with similar tones. Almost identical to how an actor prepares for an upcoming role, Raetzel uses this time to get into the right mood for creation by looking for motifs and themes. 

"The first week is about allowing the subconscious mind to soak in the project, without any restrictions or doubt," the Royal Oak native explains, "by the end of it I'm able to get a clear sense of what the film is really about. This way I can begin constructing the best style or tone by improvising on different instruments and recording the session."

Raetzel hard at work in an audio lab.

Raetzel hard at work in an audio lab.

"After making a decision on the musical direction, spotting begins, which is basically watching the film with the producers and directors in order to decide where the music needs to be placed." Raetzel continues, "Someone in the group usually creates a cue sheet that consists of a description of each cue that needs to be written and where exactly it needs to be placed."

Once spotting is over, the composer is set free to perform their magic. For Raetzel, this chapter in the process tends to happen in isolation.

"I prefer it that way because it keeps me focused and free from distractions," he expresses, "but I love bringing my clients and friends into the studio to see the progress so occasionally they'll pop in to see how it's going."

This stage of composition writing is referred to as a 'mockup' and takes place on the computer. As Raetzel explains, "Mockups are rough recordings of music created through recording software and virtual instruments." This rough draft initiates a tennis match between Raetzel and his employers, the composer being on the receiving end of revisions and suggestions. 

Once the music has been approved, the group decides on whether to record digitally or authentically, Raetzal being an advocate for the latter. 

"If the budget allows it, I prefer to record live musicians. Many indie filmmakers don't understand their value," Raetzel, the inherent musician himself, explains. "Collaborating with actual musicians breathes new life into a score that can't be done with technology. Technology allows for some amazingly realistic sounds, but it will never be able to replace the humanism and expression of a real performance. The difference is truly night and day, not only for the music, but for the film itself."

Advice For Anyone Pursuing Film Composition

I always found music to be the most fascinating art form because it doesn't come naturally to our  senses. A script, put simply, is the intricate weaving of the words we hear. A painting is an illustration of the objects we see. A song is....what exactly? You could argue it's the accumulation of sound, but it's pretty difficult to hear the same thing in a truck's horn and a piano's key. 

Because I find music to be so intricate, I also find it the most difficult. In case there are any music or sound people feeling the same way, this section is for you.

Good Ideas Come From Bad Ones

Like mentioned in my last article, inspiration is a luxury. Deadlines damper creativity, but as working artists, it's something we have to push through. According to Raetzel, "The stage for music is often shorter than it should be. Since editing can go on for so long, filmmakers often forget the amount of time needed to create a soundtrack. Through the late nights and endless amounts of coffee, it can be tough to stay inspired."

Luckily, the composer has found a way around that. "Waiting for inspiration is a creative myth and an excuse for laziness. When you're pressured to create in a short amount of time, start with the wrong idea first." He advices, "The minute you write something down, even the wrong idea, the hardest part is done. Then you tweak it and every time you make even the tiniest revision, you move yourself one step closer to the answer. Keep that up until the wrong idea becomes the right one."

Experimentation Shapes Your Work

Before music became a profession for Raetzel, it was a hobby. Graduated from Baker College with a degree in graphic design and advertising, the composer spent his early years as an art director. "Everything I know about music, audio production, and scoring has been a 20-year, arduous process of experimentation, self-education, and research."

Raetzel started drumming in bands and taking guitar lessons. It wasn't until he was 24-years old, he picked up the piano and adopted it as his weapon of choice.  

"Learning a new instrument can have a great deal of influence on a composer's sound. Even if not masterfully, it can have great benefits to creating new tones and colors in your work," the pianist says. "Switching to primarily piano has made my work more minimal, but in a good way. I've learned to tell musical stories by stripping the music itself down to its core, which frees the listener from being distracted by unnecessary details. Playing with new instruments helps you learn a lot about musical pacing and what drives a listener to stay interested in the journey. Had I stuck with guitar as a primary instrument, I don't think my work would have taken this direction."

Patience Is a Virtue - Literally

Raetzel found many challenges early in his career by graduating with a degree other than film composition. However, instead of using the time to think about all the things he could have done differently, he focused on the ways he could learn and grow his talent into an actual profession. 

"Most jobs have a clear path that leads to success, but in creative fields, you have to pave your own, so it can be very challenging and draining. It was a journey, the years spent studying orchestra, scoring techniques, and how to translate feelings into music," the autodidact expresses, "for the first 10 years forget about making money. Focus on building trustworthy relationships with success-driven people and get as much experience as you can. If you're like me and didn't go to music school, your biggest asset is your experience. Even when time feels like your enemy, remember it's meant to better you and make you grow. Embrace it and keep on pushing."

What's Matt Up To Now?

Raetzal reviewing a musical piece.

Raetzal reviewing a musical piece.

Raetzel's a busy guy. He's constantly pushing out new content and picking up new projects in addition to being the sole proprietor of Matthew Raetzel Media, a Metro-Detroit production company that offers anything sound related including; licensing, editing, and production services. The company prides itself on its dedication to clients. As Raetzel explains it;

"You're hiring someone who is a perfectionist. I don't finish a project until it's right for everyone. Not only do I want you to be proud of the work, I want to be proud of it as well. Because of that, I put my all into every project and I won't stop until it's exactly what it's supposed to be." 

When Raetzel isn't working, the composer spends a significant amount of his free time as a hobbyist woodworker, building furniture and other carpentry projects. You can check this out and more on Facebook, Instagram, Soundcloud, or Youtube.

You can also purchase his work on Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby, Bandcamp, and Google Play.

Article and Interview By Monjoa Likine



Monjoa Likine