Inside the Music and Sound Design of Top Grammys Ads and the Google Assistant Ride at CES

Our Q&A with Barking Owl creative director Kelly Bayett

The Ride @ CES 2019

Eight Super Bowl spots. Two of the most high-profile Grammy Awards ads. Google's wild experiential ride at CES. Barking Owl, the Los Angeles-based music and sound design company, has been involved in a slew of interesting projects already this year, and we're not even out of February. 

The 10-year-old company, which does original music, music licensing, sound design, mixing and other audio post, is led by the husband-and-wife team of Justin and Kelly Bayett. He's the business manager, she's the creative director. Muse caught up with Kelly—who was on the Use of Music jury for the 2018 Clio Music Awards—to talk about Barking Owl's recent work, as well as her general approach to music and sound. 

You worked on two Grammys spots this year: the Google Pixel 3 spot with Childish Gambino, and The Recording Academy's four-part video with Ella Mai. Tell us about those. 
You have two artists who are exceptional, who are up for awards. For the Google piece, we did sound design and mix on it. [Donald Glover] did have an opinion on how he wanted things to sound, which was great. It feels more like a collaboration with an artist when you're working that way, rather than just throwing a couple of sounds on it and hoping he likes it. It's nice to have him actively involved. He wasn't in the building, but he was commenting and we were revising and I was dying and fangirling inside in the biggest way.

Google Pixel 3 | Childish Gambino Playmoji

For the Ella Mai piece, the first version [out of the four videos] had to feel clean and warm and beautiful and simple. And then you had to take that feeling and make it evolve throughout the other three pieces. Her producer supplied the elements, but when we got to the fourth chapter, it was just so obvious the horns were fake—but you see a real marching band, and it took some of that beauty and excitement out of it. You can't fake horns. That's one of the things that MIDI just can't get right. There's a human imperfection, and there's a power with the wind through the instrument that sounds so incredible. So we brought in three more musicians. We recorded it all in two hours. We sent it back to her producer. He mixed the live horns in, and the whole thing changed. It just felt like that last chapter became so alive. 

The GRAMMYs | The Evolving Music Video, starring Ella Mai V.1
The GRAMMYs | The Evolving Music Video, starring Ella Mai V.4

We did minimal sound design, but it's treated more like a music video—and they don't really use a ton of sound design. They kind of give an open and a middle and an end with sound design, but it's typically about putting the song in the best light.

You also worked on quite a few Super Bowl ads this year. Any favorites? 
We did the Kia piece that I loved for the Telluride. Because it was a new car and we don't get a lot of access, our team got to go to that Georgia/Alabama border and record the car in all of those environments. They helped facilitate a lot of the interviews for the behind-the-scenes video—we provided the sound design for that. And then for the featurettes and the teasers, we did the music and the sound design. We were able to create a soundscape that worked for everything, and that was a really nice piece to be a part of. That was with director John Hillcoat. 

2020 Kia Telluride | Give It Everything

We also did Expensify with JohnXHannes, which was really fun and wild. Each time you saw a new piece of their content, you would be like, "How on earth did you sell this to anybody?" I don't know how they do it, but they're magicians. 

Expensify | 2 Chainz X Adam Scott: Expensify This

What other recent projects are you proud of?
There was a job we did for Macy's called "Lighthouse." It's really beautiful. There's something about a woman singing and one instrument—and it's done all the time! In this case, we found the song to rearrange—a Black Keys song called "Everlasting Light." And the woman who sang it, Sarah Rayne, she was in a very vulnerable place in her life at the time. And when you listen to her sing that song, her voice sounds like it's breaking. She's emotional. It sounds like, at any second, she's going to break down and start crying. It has this real truthful vulnerability to it. 

Macy's | Lighthouse

I started getting tons of emails from people trying to get a copy of it, because they wanted to walk down the aisle to it. They wanted to have their first dance with their father with it. It wasn't released anywhere. [The spot] actually only played on The Voice one time, and then it was online. And there weren't a lot of credits for it, so the amount of work people had to do to even find me, or find the song, is pretty exceptional. Anytime you do something and it touches people in a way where they want it to be part of their most important day, it feels you've done something right. 

How did you find Sarah?
Our composer, Brian Canning, has a long-standing relationship with her. He's produced some bands that she's in. She was very safe with him. They have a very intimate kind of relationship, so it was a place where she felt OK that she could do that. That's why we let our composers choose their own singers, for the most part, because they really understand them, and they have a different understanding emotionally together. Better stuff comes out of that.

How about another piece you did lately? 
The other one is a whole job I'm so proud of—the Corazón piece that we did last year with JohnXHannes for Montefiore. 

Ah, yeah. I love that one.
It's one of my favorite things I've ever done. John Hillcoat has a long-standing relationship with Atticus Ross, and so he really wanted Atticus to score it. Atticus said he would do it, but only if [Barking Owl] did the sound design and the mix as well. So we were able to put together a full soundtrack and we did some music licensing and we did all the sound design. 

Montefiore | Corazón Trailer

We had to recreate the entire Dominican [scenes], because none of the sound from there was usable. It was all recorded in mono. We had to do the 5.1 mix. It was a really interesting and complicated project, but so rewarding and just so beautiful. I cried every single time we got to that visa scene.

It won so many awards—several Grand Clios, actually. 
Yeah, and it doesn't feel like branded content. That's what I love, too. It feels like a film that you're watching. You'd never know it's for a hospital. 

That must have been a big project. The film is also almost an hour long, right?
It was compressed for us. We had three weeks to do all the sound, from start to finish. So it moved fast. 

You also worked on the Google Assisant Ride at CES. That sounded pretty fascinating.
It was so fascinating. It was something we hadn't done before, but it was also something Google hadn't done before. So we were all in it together, which really helped. And the director was really in it together, too. At the end, we just really wanted great creative. 

We have a mixer named Mike Franklin—he's our lead mixer. He's incredibly technical. So, even though we've never been in an environment before where there's six different scenes, and they're giving us a layout as to how the ride goes, and where we want the speakers, and what goes into those speakers, we were able to really figure that out. You had music coming from the cars on the ride. That was a song that narrated the entire experience. And then we created each environment. Each one really had to feel different. You do as good of a job as you can mixing everything together and sound-designing it here [in L.A.]. But then we all had to go to Vegas and kind of remix in the rooms. We brought all of our gear so we could add sounds that were missing. 

The Ride @ CES 2019 - Nexus Studios & Google

When you have an experience where there's seven cars on the ride, that first person's experience is completely different from that last person's. The first person is in the storm, but the last person hasn't even hit the scene before the storm. So I would write it from that last car, and then go through and figure out what easter eggs we could give that last person so that they're also having a good experience within the piece. It was a lot of just being nimble and being able to fix things on the spot and make it work. And Nexus [Studios] and Google were unbelievable to work with. 

The three-dimensional nature of that just changes everything. 
Everything. And when you add people to the cars, and the people are talking, now what does it sound like? Is the song loud enough? Are we loud enough in the space? Are we too loud in the space? There was a bakery, so the bakery had to come alive once you came in there. There's a surprise party, and that has to feel alive. Every single thing you do has to feel different, and it has to feel like you're really in that environment. 

How important are sound and music in commercials and marketing experiences generally?
It's incredibly important. When you go to YouTube or anywhere there's comments on an ad or a piece of branding, all anybody's asking is, What's the song? How do you get the song? It's the thing they can feel. People have visceral reactions to it. They'll love it or hate it, but at least they feel something from it, if it's being done right. There's a lot of things people can't understand. They can't really understand what a DP does, a lot of the time. But they can understand music, and they can understand sound, and how it makes them feel. It's a very emotional piece of the puzzle at all times. It's either bringing energy, or sometimes it's brought in to save a spot that maybe it didn't turn out as well as everybody thought it would. And the thing about sound design is, if it's done really well, you don't even notice it at all. But if it's done poorly, it really stands out and it becomes a problem. 

Everyone has an opinion about soundtracks. 
Yeah. And everyone's right, is the other thing. I can't tell you your music taste is wrong compared to mine. Storytelling has a really nice rhythm to it, but I think what you do within telling those stories is what people will respond to. 

What's your approach to music or sound design, or your philosophy behind the work you do? 
I love commercials; I love branding; I love music and sound. And I really look at it from a very authentic, emotional place. So, for me, I don't really like to do rips. I don't like to rip off other artists. It's not interesting for the artist. Everybody knows that you're ripping something off. So we really try to look at it from a very original point of view all the time. We bring in a lot of composers that don't work with other companies, or they come from different backgrounds.

Let's talk about artists and trends. Whenever a commercial uses a track from a band like Imagine Dragons, there's some groaning—because it's been done so much. Is there a danger of getting in a rut with certain types of music? 
I think why people groan, and why people feel a little frustrated by it, is because if something works one time, it becomes an easy answer for everybody. The originality is sucked out of it because people feel, "Oh, that formula works and we're going to stick with it." I don't even know if it's as much about trends as it is about laziness. There are trends. There was the whole Mumford & Sons alt-folk thing that happened for a while, and then when that's over, it's over. Everybody's departed from it because everything feels of a certain time.

Formulas are formulas for a reason, but they can get stale pretty fast.
And it's also not even formulas. It's like, "Oh, we're going to get a different song from this band because it works for Jeep, or whoever. And now we're going to put it in this trailer. And now we're going to use it for something else." There an Ennio Marricone song like that, too, that people always want to put in everything—or they want you to rip it, and it doesn't sound like anything else. Modelo's using it right now, and Nike's used it before. But as soon as you hear it, you think of so many different things, and so you don't really get that attachment to one brand.

The industry's changed a lot in the 10 years you've been in business. It seems like there's much broader recognition about how important the music is to marketing. 
For a long time, it was the last thing people really thought about. They didn't have any time or money for it, until they realized, "Oh, we need a really great music track." I think a lot of people have been really afraid of this trend of licensing. But I think licensing has always happened. There's a time where licensing is appropriate, and there's a time when composing and storytelling is important and you need a score. I think a lot of that is helping people figure out what the answer is within their own storytelling. People put a lot of time into it now. 

The one thing that I will say is different—in a not-great way—is that there is a generation that has never paid for music. They don't understand the value of it or what it's worth. On the other side of that, people used to come in with a brief and say, "Hey, we want an up-and-coming band that we can get for cheap." But if it's an up-and-coming band that's any good, they know their worth now. You're not really getting a piece of music for $10,000 anymore. They know their value is much higher, and they know that the brand also benefits. Everybody's gotten savvier. It's actually harder to license those pieces, because you come in with a certain amount of money and they don't accept it. Even if they have nothing, they feel like their value is higher.

What next for Barking Owl? 
We're working on a lot of things I love right now. I can't really talk about much of it, but we do have more experiential work that is totally new and exciting for us. And we have a lot of really incredible pieces for social justice. I'm especially touched when we're able to be a part of projects like that.

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of Clio Awards.