Create a Suspenseful Trailer Soundtrack in 6 Quick Steps

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Looking to create a hair-raising, taut and suspenseful trailer soundtrack? We take Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’ as our canvas and show you how to create some tension. Hungry for more? Make sure to read our massive feature on writing Music for Picture

music for picture

1. This time, we’re using Arrival as an example template trailer with a more suspenseful twist, rather than complete action. Again, though, this one opens with a scene-setting intro which has very little music, and a fair bit of dialogue to set the trailer up. Often in these types of trailers, we have little aural ‘glimmers’ or perhaps single-note piano that marries up with each reveal.

suspenseful trailer

2. We’ve copied the piano theme using a simple chord progression with a fairly sad feel about it to cycle around. We can also add the occasional pad shimmer just to give it some interest. For the piano, we’ve
used the excellent Pianoteq 6, which offers some piano sounds with a great edge to them.

suspenseful trailer

3. The first half of this trailer then sets up the whole plot and the soundtrack is really there to provide suspense. This is where your own sounds come in and you can let loose trying out your own atmospheres and textures. The inevitable ‘mid point’ comes, though, where the film opening time is announced and the tension simply has to start building.

suspenseful trailer

4. In this case, rather than an electronic arpeggiation, we’re in the land of proper orchestration. You don’t have an orchestra? No, but thankfully you may have access to Kontakt or a decent sampler and can provide your own strings that way. We’re using NI’s Session Strings, which can make you sound like you know your way around any string instrument.

suspenseful trailer

5. Programming a simple arpeggiated riff for the strings will give you some tension – but can also sound, frankly, like a piece of technology trying to emulate an orchestra. One trick to use here is to double the string sound but use a slightly different sound to give more exact orchestra layering, which also helps build tension.

suspenseful trailer

6. You guessed it: as plot line after plot line is revealed, so you unleash more tracks of music to build yet more tension and – you know it – you’re going to drop the whole thing away just before the end credits/show times are revealed. This time, though, no fast-paced percussion, just more orchestration (or Kontakt – no, not that kind of contact).

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About Author

Andy Jones

Andy Jones has an MA in Music Technology and has been writing about it for 25 years. He has launched and edited several magazines on the subject and was editor of MusicTech for the last four years. Naturally, he has far too many synthesisers...