Mood Ring

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Earlier this summer, at a wee-hour showing of Star Wars Episode II at New York's Ziegfeld theater, troops of die-hard fans clad in Storm Trooper armor and Jedi cloaks burst into applause shortly after midnight. Strangely enough, the opening credits hadn't even begun to roll. The moviegoers had just taken a wild visual and acoustic ride on a teaser for DLP, the Texas Instruments technology that was bringing The Phantom Menace to them in all-out digital glory. Accompanying an ominously soundless black display, a guttural rumble billows into a thunderous multiphonic roar, engaging the audience in a stunning spectrum of dynamic range as a rainbow-colored mushroom cloud fills the screen.

As thrilling as it was for the viewers, for the folks at Santa Monica-based music/sound house Stimmung, creating the trailer was a sound designer's wet dream. "I had a towel dripping water in the Foley room and mixed that with cars passing," recounts Stimmung founder Reinhard Denke about the project, which played on a massive eight-channel mix. "Then I ran that through a guitar filter, and ran that through a guitar amplifier. I also had these Florentine bells I recorded overseas in Italy and played backwards and put through another filter. It was just stuff I'd never done before." And that was just Denke's contribution. The project was actually a rare collaboration between the shop's lead sound designers Denke, Gus Koven and Claude Letessier. "The experience was awesome," raves Koven. "Everyone contributed sounds, we bounced ideas off each other and merged everything into a whole. Once the idea was formulated, the coolest part was going to the giant mixing stage and hearing it all really, really loud. At that point you're talking about sound that really just literally moves you, it's just so big and loud."

In less than two years, Stimmung has made considerable strides to live up to its name, which is German for "mood," with work on major campaigns for Nissan, Motorola, Sony and Toyota. "We create the atmosphere with music and sound design," says Denke. "Ultimately, 50 percent of what you see on the screen owes its power to sound and music." Adds Koven, "Sound design is almost like speaking a language through a simple rhythm or frequency, a certain pitch. Whatever it is, it can signify something else that's lying beneath."

German-born Denke moved to Texas at the age of 7 and eventually ended up in L.A., where he attended the USC film school. He entered advertising as an assistant editor at Wystrach, where he went on to create the sound on the infamous Reebok Pump bungee-dive spot. After a stint at Machine Head, he co-founded Primal Scream only to depart in 1999 for a year-long sabbatical during which he got married and fulfilled his Angeleno duty by writing a few screenplays. He returned to the business with the opening of Stimmung in March 2000.

At his new haunt Denke takes a no-rules approach to his sound design, thanks to "a lot of new equipment" and, no doubt, the formidable roster of sound design vets he's assembled, including Koven, the analog aficionado behind numerous spots for Nissan, including Xterra "Foghorn" and the recent online anime Master of the Sixth Speed. He was also recently seen roaming Toronto collecting ambient noises for a huge branding campaign for Sony Playstation. Denke also just signed Frenchman Claude Letessier, a film sound design veteran and a self-dubbed "freak of sound" who has a Ph.D. in psychoacoustics and is prone to spout at length on the connections between sound and perception. His experience on movies like The Thin Red Line, Michel Gondry's Human Nature and the Mark Pellington-directed The Mothman Prophecies translates into his spots. "I love to have a cinematic approach to sound," he notes. "Make it broad, meaningful, interactive, coherent. The sounds from one sequence interact and call for the sounds in the next sequence." Such was evident in his work on this year's Lion-winning "Magma" spot for Airbus, which features a stream of chaotic but seamlessly segueing noises accompanying scenes that pan up from the worm-infested layers of the Earth to frenzied scenes from the workplace. The spot finally opens onto an immaculate expanse of blue sky, made utterly breathtaking by stark silence. His other ad jobs include Wong Kar Wai's "The Follow" from BMW Films (out of Primal Scream) along with spots for Nissan and Jaguar.

A company cannot live on sound design alone, so Denke has also worked to round out Stimmung's roster with other key hires. Composer Jason Johnson fronts the shop's musical offerings, frequently working in tandem with the sound designers. Also hailing from both Machine Head and Primal Scream, he's most known for his off-kilter approach to traditional orchestral scores, as in the eerie "Carmina Burana"-like tracks for the Clio-winning "Something Wicked" campaign for Lexus (out of Primal). Recently Johnson's music was paired with Koven and Denke's sounds on the Nissan Altima campaign, as well as on spots for Ford Expedition and JWT/Detroit, for which he composed a percussive symphony that was performed on car hoods and garbage cans. On the opposite coast, the company just hired a composer known simply as Bix to launch a new outpost in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The Icelandic native's layered, electronic sounds have been featured on spots for Earthlink, Xbox, and Infiniti.

On top of the original sounds, Denke notably has taken on Liza Richardson as music supervisor. The L.A.-based DJ (who happens to appear in the new Apple real-people testimonial campaign) plays regularly on the club circuit and hosts her own show at Santa Monica radio station KCRW. Her cache of new-music knowledge was behind the soundtracks Y Tu Mama Tambien and The Mothman Prophecies, and at Stimmung she's supervised musical selections for the Motorola "Moto" campaign from Ogilvy/N.Y. Prior freelance jobs include spots for Acura and overseeing the licensing of Madonna's "Ray of Light" for the Microsoft XP campaign (out of Ten Music).

As for expanding into the licensing area, which has long been viewed as a threat by the industry's music creatives, Denke is unabashedly enthusiastic. "It's a trend and I don't think it's going away," he explains. "Today you can't just be a sound design company. You've got to be full-service and do everything from original music and sound design to licensed music. Whether the music is composed here or it's something that we find, to me the fun part is that it works really well. If it does, I want to be a part of it."

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