Michael Paquette is the fierce lead composer of Trailer Park, one of the premiere content and entertainment marketing agencies on the planet. After completing a psychology degree at University of New Hampshire, Michael came to Los Angeles to pursue his musical aspirations. Since joining the Trailer Park team in 2010, Michael has been an instrumental force behind trailers, promos, and teasers for blockbuster films, such as The Hunger Games, Crimson Peak, Power Rangers, and Jurassic World, as well as the global television phenomenon, Stranger Things. Fresh off his shared win with Bobby Gumm at The Guild of Music Supervisors Awards, Michael reveals his arsenal of musical weapons for scoring epic trailers and sheds light on the competitive nature of his business.
You attended University of New Hampshire and later became certified in audio engineering at Musician's Institute. Can you tell us a bit about your introduction to the entertainment industry and share the story of how you came to be a music supervisor?
Well, I started at Trailer Park in 2010. I had graduated from college in 2008 in the middle of the recession. I was unemployed for about a year, so at that point, I thought, "You know what! I have nothing to lose. I'm just going to drive to California and see if I can make it." A friend of mine, who had moved out here, let me sleep on her couch and then she told me about Musicians Institute, which was down the street. I got accepted to their Recording Technology program and I studied there for about nine months. I'm from New Hampshire and we don't have the same caliber of artists, or even recording facilities, so I wanted to come out and see how the pros do it. Then, through MI, I got the job at Trailer Park as a music coordinator. In fact, the job offer went to my junk email folder and I didn't even see it. I was sitting there for two weeks really, starving, looking for anything. When I happened to look through my junk folder and saw the offer from Trailer Park, I almost lost my mind! During the first two years, I worked under Bobby Gumm and I tried to learn as much as I could from him, because even at that point, he was like one of the godfathers and everyone was talking about him.
You recently took home the Guild of Music Supervisors Award for Best Music Supervision in Television Promo for Strangers Things Season 2 alongside Bobby Gumm, head of music at Trailer Park. The second season of Stranger Things was highly anticipated and this promo was the very first look. Can you tell us about what ideas were explored in the process of creating this promo? What did you initially hope to achieve?
Well, funny enough, we had worked on all the promos for season one. So, Stranger Things has been a part of our lives for the past 2 or 3 years. We were allowed to be risky and bold with the ideas on season one just because there weren’t any expectations and then when season two came out, it was such a huge show and people were so excited for it, that it became more of a situation where we didn’t want to let people down. Since the piece was coming out around Halloween Netflix had the brilliant suggestion to use Thriller, but they didn't want to just use the original Thriller track. That's where I came in. The moment we heard the direction, we hit the ground running. I think I had the cue ready in two days. The process went very smoothly, the trailer was cut quickly, and everyone fell in love with it instantly. Unfortunately, we couldn't get the cue cleared. It became eight months of trying everything we could, to replace it with other songs, other cues, and just nothing matched it. The producers never gave up and just kept pushing. Eventually, somehow a miracle occurred and they were able to get this song cleared. It's been probably my favorite thing I've ever worked on.
Can you tell us about your working relationship with Bobby Gumm? What have you learned from each other over the years?
He's basically taught me everything I know about the business. It was through him that I learned how to supervise and learned what to look for in the trailer world for things that will work and things that won't. Today, we kind of work separately as I don't do much supervision anymore. He does all the supervision and then I do the internal composition. If there's something very specific or very top secret that we can't have leave the building, then I will work on those things.
Can you walk us through the duties you assume on a daily basis as a creative director and lead composer of Trailer Park?
Honestly, every day is very different. I never know quite what I'm walking into, but essentially, I start my day at 10 am with a few emails, giving me an idea of what work I need to do. I compose in my office/studio, and I either will walk to an editor’s bay if they need me to come take a look at something or watch something in order to do a musical piece. Most of the time, they’ll just send me the cut and I'll watch it, then add an arrangement or rework the song. There could be anywhere from three to five to eight different projects a day.
I've had a relatively long history here at Trailer Park. I was originally supervising, but I could also compose. When there were instances where we didn't have time to reach out to someone else, I said, "I'll just do it". As I kept doing stuff like that, they saw that I was more of an asset doing specific composition as opposed to just supervising. So, I transitioned out of supervision into a more of straight composing role.
How has your background in communications and psychology served you in the workplace?
It served me a lot of student loan bills! Honestly, psychology and communication is at the backbone of what we do. A lot of marketing is comprised of psychology and communication. My college degree wasn't a huge factor in what brought me here. I think it was worth having and it's hard to say if I would be at the level I am today if I didn't have the degree. At this point, it's mostly been all my various experiences that got me here. I've been playing in bands since I was 13 or so, mostly it's been my musical backgrounds.
What are your primary instruments for composition?
Today, I pretty much try to play anything. My first instrument was bass guitar. I was in a pop punk band when I was 13, played bass and sang. Later on, I wanted to be a little bit more expressive, so then I started to pick up guitar, and from there, I picked up drums, and then took up piano. That formed the basis of my rock instruments. Soon, I just got bored with those things, so I started playing with composition - arranging strings and orchestral things. Lately, I've been a crazy synth nerd! I'd never really been into synths until now. I’ve become obsessed with them. It was a big part of the Stranger Things piece. It’s a lot of fun to always have something new to play with.
Can you tell us about your go-to hardware synths? Do you feel like software synths can be noticeably different within the context of trailer music?
My favorite synth right now is a Moog Sub 37, which is sitting right next to me. It's amazing. It’s a mono synth that came after the Sub Phatty. The released a newer version called the Subsequent 37, but I've got the OG Sub 37. I love it. I also have an array of two Moog Mother-32's connected to the new Moog DFAM, which is a variation of the Mother-32, more as a drum machine, and that has been just the most fun I've ever had. I'll just sit there and play on that thing for hours on end just by itself.
On their own, I would say yes. Absolutely! By the end of a cue when you've got 500 tracks in it and it's all compressed and mixed, it's probably less easy to tell, but if you A/B an analog and a soft synth next to each other, you can definitely tell. The analog synths are so warm and thick regardless of where you are on the keyboard. A lot of times with the soft synths, you'll hear aliasing as you go further up or down. You can start to hear artifacts and stuff like that, even though it's not something that most people would necessarily notice. But for people that are obsessed with sound and sound quality, you can absolutely tell the difference.
When producing original music or adding in embellishments on the job, what is the essential gear you use for composition and sound design?
I almost always use Damage by Heavyocity. It's a drum VST and the best drums I've ever heard. Whenever I'm doing drums, I usually layer lots and lots of different drums, but I always have Damage as the backbone. I'm a big fan of LA Scoring Strings for their short and fast string patches. They have a very realistic engine. It was actually a tip I got from a friend of mine John Hanson from Confidential Music.
While speaking with another composer who specializes in trailer music, it was explained that sub bass is a key ingredient. Is that true?
Sub is the spice of trailer. It is so integral to the sound of everything. The word you always hear when you're talking about trailer music is that it needs to be big and it needs to sound “BIG”. That bigness really comes from having that perfect amount of low end that's full and deep. It's crazy how much the sub really affects the overall size of the cue. This is especially true when you're doing trailers that are playing in movie theaters, where there are massive sub-woofers. The audience is so used to feeling it with everything else. If you don't give it to them for the trailer cue, they'll surely feel the lack of it.
You could be the greatest composer in the world, but if you don't know how to make your music sound big on a TV or in a theater, then it won’t matter. There's been so many amazing composers that I've met that just don't know how to make it sound 2018 or theatrical. That's where the engineering comes in.
In your opinion, what are the necessary components of an effective and enticing trailer or promo?
For me, it's flow and it's tone. I kind of approach trailers the same way I do music. I like intros, middles, and endings. I like it to all feel like one cohesive, seamless unit. The standard rule for trailer is they just need to get bigger, bigger, bigger, and then when you think it's as big as it can be, it needs to be even bigger!
Many trailers feature snippets of a range of different material as opposed to using one composition from start to finish with or without overlaid sound design. Does this make your job more or less complicated?
It's about the same either way. I've had trailers where I have scored the entire thing and there has been just a single piece of music. If anything, that's more difficult because there's a lot more moving parts. Typically, when it's multiple pieces of music, it might just be the back end or just the intro that I'll need to focus on. That is much easier to focus on as opposed to three chapters. Part of the trailer doctrine is trailers have three acts - a start, middle, and a back end when we're pulling for music. That’s the way that we approach it.
As we know, the entire world of digital marketing is music driven. What are the most prominent trends you identify in the trailers and promos of today? What would you like to see more of?
A trend that I like that I see happening more and more, especially if I look at trailers over the past 10 years, is that they're becoming more musical and they have a very cohesive start to finish tone, like a very stylized look. The Suicide Squad (I Started a Joke) piece is a good example of being thematic. I just like pieces that let the character of the movie shine as much as they can. They don't tell you the entire movie in two and a half minutes. Instead, it is more intriguing, telling you what you're going to feel when you see the movie.
Many people do not realize that the creation of trailer music is a highly competitive racket. Often times, other trailer houses are simultaneously making music for the exact purpose. Does the client eventually choose what they want? Can you explain how this process works for those who don’t know?
Yes, most of the time. There are a few times where clients will go specifically to someone, but a lot of time, we're competing against many other trailer houses. So, it's a very competitive field. There's been so much amazing work that hasn't seen the light of day. If it makes it through the gauntlet, to me, that's a success!
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Editing | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Michael Paquette and Trailer Park.