Sonic the Synth-hog

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New York music and sound design company Baron & Baron knows how to screw with a song just right. The eight-year-old studio has a habit of putting tired musical clichés through the sonic wringer, giving them just enough juice to make them seem spanking new.

Take their recent work on the Thermasilk "Heat is Beautiful" TV campaign from J. Walter Thompson/New York. The vibe of the three spots is a seeming contradiction: modern-looking and archaic at once, owing to stunning special effects that make the likes of a dragon and a fair maiden seem very much of our times. The visuals are slick, but B&B's sophisticated music and sound design really round out the package.

In another Thermasilk spot, "Party," a raw tango heats up the sultry dance between a fire warrior and a Medusa babe whose serpentine tresses miraculously repel the flames that engulf her partner's body. The mission behind the music was to create a rhythm that was "recognizably tango, but contemporary and provocative," says Darcey Cherubini, executive producer at JWT.

David Baron, the studio's co-founder and musical director, was pretty tickled by the project. Baron has a classical background (he graduated from Oberlin College Conservatory), as well as a deep fondness for old-school electronic music. For the Thermasilk work, he recorded a full orchestra and mixed in electronic sound. "That was cool, because I got to write a tango for strings and weird electronic stuff that's got a Moog bass and really screwed-up percussion - crazy sounds, crunchy, yucky, icky sounds, sounds that aren't out of the box," he enthuses. "A lot of the drums are run through crackly old garbagey synthesizers, but it's with live strings. I'm really into doing that, because I love the organic and rich nature of real instruments married with the raw, unpredictable qualities of older stuff."

The sound that results is far from "yucky." It's actually downright elegant. The modernized takes are unobtrusive and poetic, not cacophonously overpowering. The studio's two other composers, David Wilson and Lindsey Jehan, both took a similar collage approach when scoring the campaign's "Firefly" and "Dragon" spots. On the former, Wilson takes the classical nocturne for a spin with harps and ethereal female voices. Jehan's soundwork for "Dragon" mixes hard guitar with Celtic themes and Chilean pan-pipes.

The work can be nerve-wracking at times. A 1999 Singapore Airlines spot called for a track that was completely choral, no instruments. Jehan composed tunes on the piano. David Baron then conducted a choir of New York session singers to perform the track, bringing in their voices as he would violins and cellos. Of all his gigs, Jehan says, "This was probably the most difficult, the most white-knuckled project because until we spent an absolute fortune paying singers to sing it, no one really knew what it was going to sound like. Anyone can do a demo of any other style of music - orchestral to Latin to heavy metal. Doing a demo for vocal track, with no instruments, is virtually impossible. It was very brave, and I think because of the bravery of it, it actually works much better."

Co-founder David Baron's conservatory training complements his experience working with his father, Aaron Baron, a Grammy- and Emmy-winning audio engineer who recorded musical gods like Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis and B.B. King, and who worked extensively in the broadcast industry. Father and son founded Baron & Baron together in 1992. Australian Lyndsey Jehan is a former bass player with Aussie groups like the Eurogliders; he helped found the U.S. studio of the U.K.'s Amber Music. In Australia, he had worked with B&B composer David Wilson, a keyboardist and former partner at Australian soundhouse Song Zu.

The Baron & Baron studios are equipped with the right toys for the job, including lots of vintage analog gear. David Baron is the resident synthophile, and has a (continued on page 50)_room packed solid with old Moogs, Arps and Emus. "I always try to create as many of the songs as possible from scratch," he explains, "with live musicians, taking modular synthesizers and programming my own sounds, creating these complicated patches. You get sounds that no one else is going to have. If you're a competitive person like I am, you want to create something that no one else can steal or copy." The young Baron is working on an upcoming CD with 80-year-old Moog innovator Gershon Kingsley, with whom he cut a new version of "Popcorn" for Beastie Boys label Grand Royal.

Baron's fetish for old-school synths has proved helpful to the company's work for clients with campy images. He continues to compose tunes for Old Navy, for instance; the broadcast client list includes Nick at Night and TV Land. Baron & Baron is now collaborating on a complete image makeover for the latter with design house Trollbäck. "We've been trying to take things that are evocative of television and broadcasting, but we strive to put a new spin on it, like a big sort of gumbo," explains Baron. "Here's a '50s cop thing, here's a really modern way of doing drums and here's some Beatles-era psychedelic strings and baroque trumpets. It's going to be really rich."

Currently, the company is busy turning a most recognizable broadcast classic on its head, pitching for a 21st century update of the 20th Century Fox studio fanfare. When Creativity stopped by, Jehan was busy tooling around with a thrash-metal version of the familiar melody.

So how does the company keep itself so fresh? "They really have a passion about what they do," figures JWT's Cherubini, who was inundated with killer demos for the Thermasilk pitch. "I just hope not everybody discovers them," she adds, only half-jokingly.

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