Composing Excellence: Sonic Stories with Dan Rosen
Published November 14, 2023
We're turning up the volume with another installment of Sonic Stories! Tune in for an invigorating conversation where the one-and-only Dan Rosen gives us a unique look into the ins and outs of composing music for trailers.
Sonic Stories With Dan Rosen
What is your creative process like?
It depends on the project. Given that I've been stuck in renovation hell for three years, I'll use a construction metaphor. Think of it like building a house: there's the structure, which includes the beams, joists, and framing (equivalent to the basic structure of the piece, including melody and progressions). Then there's the interior work, such as walls and appliances (interesting sound design, rhythms, harmonies, etc.). Finally, there are all the finishing touches like painting and tiling to make it look like a complete house (equivalent to tightening everything up, mixing, and mastering).
The most efficient approach would be to complete the structure of the piece first and then go back to refine and add details before finishing with mixing and mastering, although this doesn't always happen! What usually occurs, though, is that I'll start building the first floor and then think, 'Oh, this would be a good spot for a bathroom! Ooh, this wallpaper would be nice. Actually, the kitchen should go here. Oh, that gives me an idea for upstairs!' Then I end up with a finished first floor and a third floor suspended in mid-air, and I have to figure out how to connect the two. Additionally, sometimes I'll create some cool sound design, get inspired, and keep adding elements until it becomes a finished cue.
What are you known for when it comes to your compositions with SAS?
I don’t know what I’m "known for," per se, but the stuff of mine that gets licensed the most broadly falls into two categories: A big epic sci-fi trailer with a softer/whimsical edge and pulsing string-based ad music. In the more nitty-gritty specifics, if you get a Dan Rosen track there’s a high likelihood of bendy synths, strings, and sparkly arpeggios. I try to avoid piano pings but sometimes they’re a necessary evil.
Are there any new trends or techniques that you are loving right now?
This gets me into trouble but I think, definitionally, I don’t really like trends. I spend a larger portion of my waking hours than the average person writing trailer music and watching trailers. As soon as something becomes ubiquitous enough to be called a trend I’m already bored with it. That’s not to knock the trendy things. They work! I just crave the unexpected and I can’t write the same thing over and over. I used to work at a guitar store and eventually saw so many guitars per day that I only gravitated to weird one-offs. A sunburst Strat is a classic for a reason, but I’d rather have a heavy relic shell pink over shoreline gold Tele with P90s. I love any trailer that has an atypical structure or sound. If the music doesn't follow the typical formula of a sparse first act, a building second act, and an epic third act, or if it doesn't involve an epic cover or overlay of a preexisting pop/rock/rap track, I am fully on board and inspired. For example, the teasers for The Killer and Ferrari do very cool and unexpected things with their music and structure while remaining effective, and I'm really into those.
How did you discover SAS?
I was watching the first season of Chef’s Table and saw they were the music supervisors. At the time, I was primarily focused on documentary scoring, so I thought it might be a good fit. I sent in some samples, got accepted, and now, here we are, 8 (?!) years later.
What are your top three spots that you did for Score a Score that you are most proud of?
- The FYC trailer for Nope was a definite highlight. I love Jordan Peele and it’s one of the rare trailers I’ve done where the whole spot start to finish was my cue, basically unedited. Also, it was nominated for a Golden Trailer, which is neat.
- Avengers: Endgame was only a 15-second TV spot, but when people ask “Where might I have seen your work?” I say this and they go “Oh I’ve heard of that!” I was giving a talk at my old high school about careers in music, and the students weren't paying much attention until the teacher asked, 'Can you name some things they might have seen?' As I listed my projects, their interest suddenly peaked when I mentioned this one.
- I’m very proud of Devotion. It’s one of the rare movies where I ended up doing the music for almost the entire theatrical campaign. It started with a custom total re-work of one of my tracks for the teaser, which finished. Then they used a completely different track of mine for trailer one, which was also customized, and finished. They then re-cut it themselves for the final trailer and some TV spots. It’s just so rare to 1) have two custom spots finish that close to each other and 2) have multiple different tracks in the same campaign; so I’m taking that one as a big win.
What have you learned about yourself as a composer since creating music with Score a Score?
I don’t like to repeat myself musically, which is a problem since most of this business is based on finding something that works and continuing to do that forever. So, I’ve definitely had to learn how to sublimate my ego a bit and find interesting ways to do the same things, but differently.
What's the first piece of music you ever composed, and how do you feel about it now?
It’s not the first piece of music I composed, but I think it’s the first piece of music I recorded. It was a project for my electronic music class in college years ago. It’s very different from what I write currently and is basically a weird ripoff of Ratatat. However, there are some moments of interest, compositionally. I didn’t know the first thing about actual recording or mixing, so, from a production and mix standpoint, the whole thing sounds quite rough.
What lesson took you the longest to learn in your career?
How to organize. I am not, by nature, an organized person, but I eventually learned the hard way that I needed to be. The nature of this type of composing is that clients will need customizations on super quick timelines, often for tracks that were written over 2-3 years ago. So you need to be able to pull it up, know where the instruments are, what your plugin settings are, be able to recall any outboard gear, and deliver everything quickly with stems. A couple of years ago, I made a template for both writing and mixing. It took almost two weeks off and on to do, but it has saved me so much time in both the writing and recall stages. Every time I bring up an older track pre-template I cringe at how hard I made it for myself.
If you could talk to your younger self when you first started composing, what would you say?
Just write. It doesn’t matter if you don’t think people will listen or like it or if it doesn’t have a “home.” If you have an idea, put it down. You’ll never know when it’ll be useful or inspire you later.
When was the last time you surprised yourself both personally and professionally?
I have a 2 and 4-year-old and I’m genuinely shocked at how I’m still able to function at all on such little sleep, let alone produce nothing but bangers.*
If your life were a movie, what genre would it be and who would compose its soundtrack?
I wish it was something cool, but it’s probably one of those movies where a male comedian wants to prove he has dramatic chops so he grows a big beard and has a sad face even though his life is objectively pretty good. Ideally, a soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat or Nicholas Britell, but we can’t afford them.
Cue the Outro!
As the final chord fades into silence, we extend a heartfelt 'thank you' to Dan Rosen once more. You can stay in the loop on his latest and greatest work by following him on Instagram. Until next time!