Translating Emotion: Sound design for advertising with Joseph Fraioli
Step inside the process and experiences of sound designing ads for some of the world’s biggest companies.
Joseph Fraioli is a sound designer and PSE Master Library user working on some of the most interesting advertising projects out there, with clients ranging from Ogilvy to Google. He works out of his own studio, Jafbox Sound, also home to his electronic music alias, Datach’i, and a restricted area for his cats Cheetah and Pony Boy.
I sat down with him for an in-depth and incredibly honest interview about how an ad project unfolds, his transition into the feature film world, favorite tools, and why you shouldn’t knock on George Lucas’ door.
How did you find yourself doing sound design for advertising?
When I was younger, I was releasing albums, and I was always really influenced by sound design in movies for making my music. It was a natural progression. Friends of mine wound up working in advertising, which is a major industry here in New York, and they would call me when they needed some kind of crazy sound design. Those same friends would work at other agencies and you just meet more people and it sort of expands from there. When I first started out I was lucky enough that a couple different music houses gave me the opportunity to freelance there. I did that for a while before I branched out and did my own thing.
What’s a typical scenario like for a 60 seconds ad in terms of process and collaboration?
Most of the time I get a call to see if I’m available and if the budget works for me. Then I’ll receive relevant info such as scripts and director’s treatment. When there’s a cut, I’ll get an AAF and QuickTime of the picture if it’s locked or close to locked. I generally like to do a call at that point to get an idea of what they had in mind or anything specific I couldn’t tell just by looking at the picture.
Then I go for it and do a pass. It’s different every single time. You could go in and have meetings, and the picture could not be locked for a while – in which case it’s good to drop by the edit to see if their direction is shifting. A lot of the time it’s a pretty quick turnaround once I receive a cut. Then there are other times where I have clients involve me very early on as part of the overall process of building the concept. Just having the time to think of the sonic possibilities and concept back and forth helps get into the creative world, and I find that typically leads to better work.
How quick is the turnaround?
It can be as quick as three to four days for a first pass. It depends on whether or not the agency wants to have my sound in their initial presentation for their client. If that’s the case, then you have to work faster just to temp some stuff in and make it sound a little bit more polished for their presentation, which I think is always a good idea. Then it’s on average three to five days. If it’s a lot of action, or a car commercial, you’ll get a little bit more time usually.
“Sound is one of the hardest things to communicate…it really boils down to: How do you want things to feel?”
You did some beautiful work on the Google Chrome ad. Was that a longer process?
Thanks! That one was a little bit longer and a really fun, in-depth process. The executive creative director from the agency was way into sound, and, from that project, we’ve been friends now for seven years. It was the second commercial Google had ever made so they were much more creatively open to collaborating and different ideas. I can’t really remember how many days, but that enabled me to record everything and have original source material.
Google Chrome “Speed Tests” / Director: Aaron Duffy / Agency: BBH NY
On an average project how much would you rely on libraries versus recorded or synthesized sounds?
It’s all time-dependent. Also, there’s a lot of overlap, meaning if I did a commercial three years ago where I recorded a bunch of trains, then I have the stuff I didn’t use in that first spot if I’m doing another train spot. If not, I always try to do as much original material as possible for each of the jobs. It’s just fun for me. There are certain things you’re not going to have access to on the fly, like explosions or a particular type of World War II airplane, so it’s good to have it in the library.
How has the Pro Sound Effects Master Library helped your workflow?
The PSE Master Library is great to have on hand because it’s vast in its content and there’s a lot of variation of general FX. There are so many great specific libraries these days, but it’s also really helpful to have a large collection of general FX so you have more potential solutions for the sound needs of a project.
“I always love those little interesting edits and making things textural…It’s an understanding of composition as a whole, keeping the audience interested, and changing the beats with sound.”
What do directors expect when they hire you, and how do you convince them into something that they might have not thought of in the first place?
Sound is one of the hardest things to communicate. I think non-sound people can get shy about describing what they think things should sound like because they don’t have that vocabulary. The funny thing is, nobody does. There’s no perfect way to describe it so it really boils down to: How do you want things to feel? Everyone knows music a lot better so describing things in that context can sometimes be helpful. 50% of this job or more is communicating and translating someone’s ideas in support of the film or whatever you’re doing. That’s the highest priority.
If I want to try something I have a vision for that’s separate from their ideas, I always do it in addition to what they had specifically asked for. There have been plenty of times where that went through. There’s even been a case where they were going to throw out an idea for a commercial but then loved my idea so much that they wound up doing the spot when they were just totally going to throw it away.
IBM “Coping With Humans” / Director: Joe Pytka / Agency: Ogilvy
When you start on a project do you usually first build a skeleton to see if that’s the direction they want? Or do you just go at it all the way?
I go full on. What I deliver has to be as close to finished as possible. I’ve found that sending anything to a client half-finished with a note explaining that it’s not there yet is very likely to get your idea rejected. It has to be as clear as possible. You know, I’m super-lucky. Some of the people I work with are basically sound designers without the ability to use Pro Tools. But other people have no idea. They’re just like, “Make noises for things that move,” so you have to make your idea very clear.
High-profile projects are usually done by big post facilities, whereas you get to work for major clients while retaining a one-man operation. Do you make it clear when you speak to a client that you can do sound design but not things that require additional staff or a larger facility?
It’s interesting – I guess I just followed my passion. I wanted to just do sound design. That’s it. I wanted to bring an entertainment aspect, and bigger, better, more emotive sound into commercials and focus on helping these agencies and brands with their storytelling and ultimately support what they’re trying to do. It was sort of an organic thing. People know that’s what I specialize in. That’s all I do. When they have something that’s all sound-driven they typically don’t go somewhere that does everything. They go to someone like myself who just specializes in this one thing. It took a while to establish myself. You have opportunities like the Google thing and you’re able to pull it off. People remember that and hopefully hire you for more stuff.
“What I deliver has to be as close to finished as possible. I’ve found that sending anything to a client half-finished with a note explaining that it’s not there yet is very likely to get your idea rejected. It has to be as clear as possible.”
How do you look for new clients?
Word-of-mouth. If I work really hard and do good work, I hope it’ll spread organically. To be honest I have clients all over the world, Asia, Europe, because people move around. I could be working with someone in New York, it goes really well, they move to Italy or London, and then you wind up working from there. Then you work with their friends, and it’s just sort of an organic process.
Do you often deal with difficult clients?
Oh yeah, all the time. I’m pretty lucky that most of my main ones are amazing. Trust is a huge thing. I think proving yourself to get to that level where they know you’ll do a good job in a crisis deadline scenario is a huge part of it. If you have a new client, and they aren’t sure of you, and it’s a big job, then they’re going to want you to be present as much as possible, because they don’t want you to screw it up. That’s totally legit. I’ve been super lucky that people trust me with their work. Some of the bigger commercials, like the ones for the Super Bowl and the Oscars, are very high pressure for them. It all comes together very quickly.
Squarespace “Details” / Director: Malcolm Venville
Do you even have the time to get creatively stuck? How do you overcome that?
If somebody gave me a month to do a project, that’s when I would get stuck. Great stuff happens when you’re just sitting around noodling, but I feel like pressure is really good for you because then you have no choice. I actually think some of my best stuff has been under pressure.
What do you do when sound isn’t really working to its full potential because the picture is flawed by bad writing, directing, or editing?
That actually can be a big part of the job – fixing scenes and shots the director or client isn’t happy with by playing up the drama with sound to sort of mask something they felt was lacking.
“I try to preemptively think of what a client may say and what kind of feedback they may have so I have a backup ready to go. It’s always important to think ahead in those situations.”
Everything about your work is super clear and minimalistic but without ever feeling empty. Your Delta spot is a great example of that. Do you usually start minimal and build, or go bigger and then trim in the editorial phase?
I always like really bold sounds. That one sound that sort of pops out. It’s hard to say. I don’t do it purposefully, that’s just the way that I work. I guess I do everything by feel. Each individual sound that you’re putting in there, that’s the one question: Does this feel right? Is this adding the right amount of drama? Is this adding to this picture in a way that feels right?
On top of that, I come from making weird, experimental electronic music that was very detail-oriented. I always love those little interesting edits and making things textural. I think that sort of editing style has bled over into my sound editing style for picture. It’s an understanding of composition as a whole, keeping the audience interested, and changing the beats with sound.
Delta Airlines “Take Off” / Director: Adam Berg / Agency: Wieden+Kennedy
Since you focus on creative sound design, how do you deliver your work to the mixer?
I send sessions with printed plugins, and if there’s reverb I’ll just put them on a separate track. If I know a spot is completely approved when it’s going to mix, maybe I’ll do stems, but it rarely ever is. If they want to change stuff, or maybe there’s a picture change, not having that flexibility of a session with handles could really leave the mixer in a tight situation. I like everyone to have an efficient workflow. I do all the sound design and sound editing. Then, when the mixer gets it, it’s all laid out for them so that they can mix very efficiently.
You also need to be super clean about organizing your session, because you’re handing it over to a person who only has a few hours to mix it.
Definitely. There are only a couple different ways to go about it. There’s the “food group” style where you have your backgrounds, your Foley, your hard effects, and your sound design all separated out. It depends what it’s for, because a lot of these commercials will have a 60, 30, and 10 seconds cuts, so you want to cascade it so they can visually see each scene for how it lays out in the session.
“It’s important to constantly be learning new stuff, new tricks, and things that appeal to you so you can develop your sound.”
What can you tell us about Kin, the feature you are currently working on, and your role on the project?
It’s the feature version of a short film called Bag Man by directors Jon and Josh Baker who I’ve been working with for years on commercials and short films. We would do these shorts on the side just to get creatively inspired, and this one turned into a feature film. It’s going to be a big release at some point soon (featuring editor Mark Day from Ex Machina and producers Dan Levine and Shawn Levy from Arrival). I worked on it for about a year as the sound designer and supervisor.
How did you transition from ads to features? Was it also organically through word-of-mouth and clients you had worked with before?
Absolutely. It’s been totally organic. Through that process you hope you meet more people. It’s always a better position to be in when you can prove yourself to someone and have it happen organically rather than being in a position where you have to ask. Especially in the film world. A reliable source needs to be like, “This guy should do your movie.” “Oh, okay, I’ll check him out.” If you’re knocking on somebody’s door, it seems it never happens. That’s the way I feel. Just work hard, do good work, be nice and then hopefully you get to where you need to be and especially working with people that you like to work with.
Do you still have the time to do independent projects? And does it help in building relationships with small filmmakers who might eventually lead to a feature like you’re doing right now?
Absolutely. That’s the best thing. I stay small and independent. That was a decision I made early on because I have the flexibility to do whatever I want at any given time. You see various other creative people you want to support with their films or their installations, and that always leads to other cool things if you follow your nose and stick to stuff that you like to do. Once you start getting bigger as a company and have a lot of employees, you’ve got to focus in on what’s making you money so you can keep the boat afloat. I have to do a bit of that as well, but I’ve also been able to stay flexible, which is awesome. That’s really paid off. It’s been great.
What’s your studio setup looking like?
I set up my studio so that everything is live into Pro Tools HDX1 with an Avid HD I/O Analog 16 interface. I have my modular synthesizer going through a bunch of hardware processors with its own Neve 5059 mixer directly into Pro Tools. Then I have my Symbolic Sound Kyma Pacarana, Eventide H8000, and GML 2032 preamp + EQ which I use for Foley.
It’s all very fast and ready to go at all times so I’m able to do as much original work and variations as possible. Then I have templates for all different types of stuff like film or advertising. And tons of Foley props [pulls out props]. All the small props are so much fun.
What are your favorite plug-ins or pieces of gear?
There are so many – that’s always a hard question. Unfiltered Audio recently sent me this amazing new plug-in called Spec Ops. I’m also using Zynaptiq Morph and Wormhole – they are really cool plugins. I have all the Waves and the Soundtoys stuff – that’s always good. I love the Fabfilter Pro-Q 2 EQ. I love my Eurorack modular synth for generating electronic source material. I love the Neve 5059 mixer. It’s got a great sound to it. It’s really clear. Also the Pultec EQP-500S, the 500 series version of it is so good. Then the Sound Devices 722, Neumann RSM 191 and KMR 81.
Do you still mix mostly in the box for ease of recallability?
Yeah, most of it. I do have a lot of outboard gear, and I like to warm things up sometimes even if it’s a recording that may just need a little bit of weight or warmth. Running it through an actual tube processor, or even just various vintage EQs like the Pultecs, just adds a little weight and harmonics to it if the recording is lacking. I’ll print them on the way in so that I have both: the original and the hardware version.
Do you have specific production tricks you want to share?
It’s so built into the way that I work that it’s hard to answer that question. I pretty much always have efficiency in mind. Working within a palette of sounds, and making sure that you expand that palette as far possible so it can be used within that project or others, is always really important so you have a lot of options. I try to preemptively think of what a client may say and what kind of feedback they may have so I have a backup ready to go. It’s always important to think ahead in those situations.
You’re also a musician. You recently released a new album as Datach’i after a long pause. Are you working on new material right now?
Surprisingly, yeah. It was just an organic thing to do. I’d gotten into the Eurorack stuff, buying a small system for sound design for creating HUD and telemetry sounds. Then I got inspired to make music with it. You’re using similar processes and developing new techniques while clearing your head. By doing that I think you’re being productive for both projects.
This makes me think of a Mark Mangini interview where he said that when he gets creatively stuck and needs to clear his head, he listens to something that makes him cry to get in touch with his emotional side, and then ideas will follow.
That’s totally it. When you’re getting frustrated or you’re doing something too long, you lose the emotion. That’s a very good way of putting it.
What would your advice be for people wanting to get into your profession?
It’s important to constantly be learning new stuff, new tricks, and things that appeal to you so you can develop your sound. Also, I think it’s really important to befriend a lot of directors and editors and people of your age group that are going to be the next generation working in your field. Once you form a bond with them, you’ll probably be doing all their work as long as you don’t screw it up.
Basically don’t knock on Quentin Tarantino’s door.
I think a lot of people think that, like, “Oh, I’m going to work with George Lucas.” You realize George Lucas is like 70 years old and he’s been working with Ben Burtt for forty years? He’s probably not going to work with you. You’ve got to find the new George Lucas who’s probably your friend making films. The most exciting thing is to be part of the voice of your generation. It is a really long-term thing. It’s a career.
Thanks to Andreas Russo for conducting this interview, and to Joseph Fraioli for participating!